Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 4

(on morality and the Problem of Evil)

Last week I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma. This week, I want to talk about a similar charge that has been laid against theism’s view of morality. Known as the Problem of Evil, the charge is that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God is contradictory with our world, since this world has so many cases of suffering and pain. The way this problem is framed is, basically, as follows: There is evil in this world. Therefore, God cannot have all of the qualities of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. This is because someone who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving would know about the evil we have on our earth (omniscience), be able to prevent or rectify those problems (omnipotence) and have the desire to do so (omnibenevolence). Thus, since evil exists, the existence of a being with those three qualities is impossible. Epicurus has a famous quote in which he summarizes the logic of the Problem of Evil. Specifically, he talks about God’s ability to get rid of evil and suffering.

“If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” (this can be found in Lactantius’ De Ira Decorum)

On the face of it, this logic seems to work. It doesn’t disprove the existence of a deity, but it does seem to call into question the probability of Christianity’s deity. For the record, I think that arguments from morality are theism’s strongest. However, I do sympathize greatly with the atheist here. I too hate that little children starve in Africa and God appears to do nothing. I too hate that innocents are killed in drive-by shootings, that unspeakable horrors occur on an everyday basis and it doesn’t appear that God is doing much to stop them. So I get it. I do. And I get that this argument is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity’s brand of theism. It is supposed to show that the morality of Christianity specifically is flawed and hugely improbable. I think this is a strawman argument, but I’ll get to that later.

C.S. Lewis claimed that this problem was his main reason for being an atheist (before his conversion, obviously). Read his work Mere Christianity to get a better history of that process if it interests you. Eventually, Lewis realized that this argument has no bearing on the existence of God. In fact, if anything it provides ammo for the theist! His reason for coming to this conclusion is that he saw that his moral problem with the way the world was being run rested on his underlying morality. However, if this morality was subjective (that is, if morality was simply his own personal feelings about the stuff going on) then it appeared that he had lost his argument against God – because why should a supernatural, omnipotent being bend to the will of a finite human? However, if he tried to get around this problem by saying that his charge against the suffering in the world was an appeal to an objective morality, then this seemed to imply a deity. See, moral laws are not like physical laws that describe what is. Moral laws describe what ought to be. Therefore, moral laws require a certain amount of intelligence—a consciousness. We don’t put lions on trial for eating weak or young sheep. This is because we recognize that the lion does not have the cognitive ability to think about his actions and weigh what it is he ought to do. The lion in this example does not have the intelligence required for moral laws to apply to him. So if Lewis’ argument rested on a universal objective morality—a morality that governed the universe and not merely his own personal preferences—well, then this seemed to require an intelligence behind the universe. In other words, a mind is required for a moral law. If that law governs the universe and is “behind” the universe in that sense, then it seems that a mind must be behind that law. Lewis took this dilemma so seriously that it eventually led to his acceptance of Christianity. And I think it shows why the strongest argument for the existence of God is the moral argument. However, let me now jump back and talk about why I think the Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument.

The Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument for two reasons, that I can see. First, it assumes (falsely) that the highest priority of the Christian God is to alleviate suffering. It is not. Upon reading through the Bible, one will see pretty clearly that the God of Christianity is most concerned with His own glory. This is difficult to countenance. I realize that. But at its heart this means that God’s “omnibenevolence” is misunderstood. The God of the Bible, while distressed at sin and evil and suffering, can be seen in numerous instances to allow such atrocities to build up over time until they reach such a point that the judgment of the society in question is deemed to be full (just read the entire old testament and you’ll see more than you can count). At this point, the God of the Bible usually steps in and wipes out entire civilizations “so that they will know I am the Lord.” Notice that. The reason behind it is His own glory (and, subsequently, sins are seen as refutations of God’s glory that need to be punished). People often talk about God as an omnibenevolent being in the sense that God just wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing, but I don’t see that in the Bible. God is incredibly merciful to His people, but He also judges people for sin—and these judgments are often really really devastating and drastic and involve a lot of suffering. So, since the Problem of Evil is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity, I accuse it of making up a false internal logic and refuting that. The argument would be devastating if Christianity’s internal logic worked the way that the argument assumes. But it doesn’t.

The second reason that I think this thing is a strawman is that it does not take into account the Curse. The story of Christianity is that God has cursed the Earth and everything on it so that we all die. Everything dies. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but the Curse is an essential part of the story that sets up the need for Jesus’ atonement. But let’s look at what the Curse entails. Part of it is that we are born into sin, born with a sin nature. This means that we are born with the will to live against the laws of God (which, it is made clear, are good for us to follow). In other words, the way we live can do nothing other than lead to suffering. There is no alternative. Living with no sin would, in the internal logic of Christianity, lead to an absence of suffering. In fact, this is the hope and picture we see in Revelation (a book in which God restores things to their original purposes). Now, all suffering can then be seen to be judgment on original sin. We have diseases because we live in a world that breeds diseases because our forebears sinned and God judged the world and history. Of course, this can lead to other arguments regarding the justice of punishing all of humanity for our forebears’ sins. But my point here is to show that Christianity actually has within it solutions to the charge of the Problem of Evil. And so, taking this point with the previous paragraph, the problem can be seen to be a strawman argument refuting something that isn’t actually Christian theism.

Regardless, I have to hearken back to C.S. Lewis. I don’t think the atheist is in any position to gripe about the existence of evil. In the system of atheism, there can be only three options in regards to morality (at least, these are the options as I see them):

  • 1. Morality does not exist.
  • 2. Morality is relative/subjective.
  • 3. Morality is objective.

Let’s take the first option. Followers of this view would hold that when I say something like “Killing is wrong,” I am uttering nonsense. My sentence has no meaning whatsoever, as if I had uttered “Cheese milk hopping toad” or something else that just combined various words together. I’m not going to spend much time refuting this because it seems entirely ludicrous to me and against our collective human experience. However, I will say that someone who holds this view must hold it as a conclusion to their worldview and not as a reason. This view loses the argument against God (at least in the sense of morality), because the atheist cannot find fault with anything in the world. There are no faults to find. There is no “ought to be.” There is only what is. See, I told you it seems ludicrous.

The second option is that morality is subjective—that it is relative to our culture/society/feelings/etc.  This is, in my opinion, the most valid option the atheist has at her disposal. Or, at least, it is the one most in line with the assumption of atheism. However, there are significant problems with this view apart from Lewis’ problem that we discussed earlier. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that this view leaves no room for argument between differing opinions. Under this view, there are no arguments about morality. After all, when I say “Killing is wrong,” this view holds that what I am actually saying is “I dislike killing.” But when Person X comes up to me and counters by saying “No, killing is not wrong,” this view would have to hold that what he means is “I like killing.” What you should notice is that these two sentences are not at odds with one another. But there is a very distinct sense that both me and Person X have: we believe that we are in a disagreement. According to this view, though, we are not. Which seems nonsensical. Also, this view must necessarily hold that there is no way to judge between moralities. Let’s say that the morality of the USA comes up against the morality of North Korea. In one, freedoms and choice and liberty are all considered good. In the other, obedience and authority is considered good. In a relativistic sense, there is no way to say that one is better than the other. If I try to use anything to show that one is better than the other (let’s say I point out that more people are happy in the USA, or that society flourishes more when individuals are given liberties), then I must point to something outside of both moralities. But by using anything to judge between the two moralities I have to assert that whatever I use (say, happiness or societal progress) is objectively better. So any attempt by a relativist to judge between competing moralities is simply objective morality in a clever disguise. In my example, I would be forced to say that happiness or societal progress are themselves the moral law—that is, I would have to say that the underlying, objective moral law of the universe is to increase those things.

That leaves us with the third option: objective morality. I hold, with C.S. Lewis, that objective morality strongly implies the existence of a deity. For me, being left with this option is a strong reason to believe in theism (though not one specific brand, of course). However, atheists who want to hold that morality exists and is objective (which is, I think, the only option that fits the evidence—as seen in the preceding two paragraphs) must hold that morality is ingrained in the universe. But notice that this does nothing to help the Problem of Evil. The atheist must explain what she means by moral law being ingrained in the universe, since the whole point of the Problem of Evil is that things don’t seem to behave in a moral fashion. If the atheist merely means that the moral law is there but requires consciousness to learn and adhere to, then she must explain how she thinks such a moral law could have arisen without consciousness behind it. Surely something that requires consciousness to understand and only effects conscious beings must have originated with something that was conscious…

In any case, I think the three options that the atheist has are not logical or adequate. There is a tremendous leap of faith that must be taken if one assumes the third option. But the other two options do not make any sense and leave no room for disagreement or judgment between societies. I can’t even say that we’re fortunate to live in a society that favors liberty and kindness, because such a statement has no meaning in that kind of reality. Now, it is obvious that my refutation of the Problem of Evil does not necessarily lead one to a specific theistic system. But I hope that it has shown that the Problem of Evil itself does not refute or even call into question the internal logic of theism, and especially not the internal logic of Christianity. That’s all I have for now, and that might be all I have in this series. Is there anything in particular you guys and gals would like me to write a post on that pertains to the a/theism debate?