An Inept Attempt to Defang the Problem of Evil

The pale figure of Death rides a pale horse and holds a scytheIn an article titled “Turn an Atheist Objection to an Opportunity,” apologist Greg Kokul attempts to turn the Problem of Evil, often admitted by Christians as their biggest challenge, into a selling point for Christianity.

The Problem of Evil is this: how can a good and loving God allow all the bad that happens in the world?  The simplistic answers fail to explain the woman who dies leaving young children motherless, the child that dies a lingering death from leukemia, or the Holocaust.

Kokul begins by saying that he’s found a debating technique that turns this problem into a benefit.  Instead of being solely a problem for the Christian, he turns the tables on the atheist.

Evidence of egregious evil abounds.  How do I account for such depravity?

But, I am quick to add—and here is the strategic move—I am not alone.  As a theist, I am not the only one saddled with this challenge.  Evil is a problem for everyone.  Every person, regardless of religion or worldview, must answer this objection.

Even the atheist.

Of course evil is a problem for everyone, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Kokul made clear that we’re talking about the Problem of Evil.  We’re talking about how a good and loving God can allow all the bad that happens in the world.

What if someone is assaulted by personal tragedy, distressed by world events, victimized by religious corruption or abuse, and then responds by rejecting God and becoming an atheist (as many have done)?  Notice that he has not solved the problem of evil.

The atheist hasn’t solved the Problem of Evil; he’s eliminated it.  A God who loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves and who stands idly by as rapists or murderers do their work is no dilemma for the atheist.  But, of course, the problem still remains for the apologist.  Kokul can’t simply redefine the problem away.

The atheist cannot raise the issue, turn on his heel, and smugly walk away.  His objection is that evil actually exists, objectively, as a real feature of the world.

Where did objective morality come from??  That’s certainly not something that I would argue for.  Are some moral truths objectively right or wrong?  If so, show us.

The atheist still has to answer the question, “How do I explain evil now, as an atheist?  How do I answer the problem of evil from a materialistic worldview?”

Why—is this difficult?

Richard Dawkins observed, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”  The atheist embraces the obvious explanation for evil, that in a natural world bad stuff happens.  It’s just that the Christian doesn’t always like that explanation.

There is only one solution for him.  The atheist must play the relativism card.  Morality is either the product of a social contract or a trick of evolution.  That is the best materialism can do.  His own answer to the problem of evil, then, is that there is no problem of evil.  Morality is an illusion.  Whatever is, is right.

Ah, it’s our old straw man friend, moral relativism.  This is the idea that (1) you decide what’s moral for you and I decide what’s moral for me and (2) I have no right to object to your morals.  I’ve never met anyone who accepts point 2, which means that I’ve never met such a moral relativist.

One explanation for morality is that there are absolute or transcendental or supernaturally grounded morals.  This kind of grounding is what Kokul claims.

But take away divinely grounded morality, and you still have morals that come from humans’ shared moral instinct and the moral customs of each culture.  Kokul imagines that this is an illusion?

Here’s some homework, Greg: look up the word morality in the dictionary and show us where it says that morality must be grounded in something absolute, transcendental, or supernatural.

The great 20th century atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk of God when kneeling at the bed of a dying child.  His challenge has powerful rhetorical force.  How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

Okay—this is an example of the injustice that prompts the Problem of Evil.

Then Christian philosopher William Lane Craig offered this response: “What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say when kneeling at the bed of a dying child?  ‘Too bad’?  ‘Tough luck’?  ‘That’s the way it goes’?”  No happy ending?  No silver lining?  Nothing but devastating, senseless evil?

Whaaa … ?  “No happy ending”??  The child is dying!  No, there’s no happy ending, you insensitive idiot!

And you imagine the atheist has nothing to say?  Maybe you mean that the atheist has no happy but groundless stories to weave.  That’s true.  Atheists won’t tell as true the afterlife stories from the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Greek myth of Hades or the Hindu idea of reincarnation.  Atheists won’t tell the afterlife story of whatever religion happens to be dominant in their culture.

But anyone in this situation with any rudimentary compassion would offer sympathy and try to make the child feel better.  They’d read books or tell jokes or weave stories or sing songs or reminisce about happier times or play games with the child.  Isn’t that what you’d do, Greg?

They cannot speak of the patience and mercy of God.  They cannot mention the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ.  They cannot offer the comfort that a redemptive God is working to cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  They have no “good news” of hope for a broken world.  Their worldview denies them these luxuries.

Yeah, let’s think about that.  Christians could say, “You’re going to heaven,” but is that grounded on anything more substantial than that it’s the predominant myth in our culture?  Or do you recommend just lying to make people feel better?

They could say, “Your death is part of God’s plan,” but what kind of comfort is this?  And what kind of SOB deity would kill a child, especially an omniscient deity who could surely find a workaround?  What kind of savage religion must you invent to support this platitude?

Atheists don’t speak of “the patience and mercy of God” just like they don’t speak of the patience and mercy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Atheists usually prefer the truth, and they tend to believe only things well-grounded in evidence.  And this approach has benefits.  As George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  People seeing things for what they really are gave us the medical and technological progress we see in society today.

Which brings me to the most important question to ask of the problem of evil: Which worldview has the best resources to make sense of this challenge?

Do we take the approach that Ricky Gervais’s character did in the film The Invention of Lying?  We just tell people stuff that will make them feel better?

Notice that Kokul has made no attempt to argue that the Christian view (including any rationalization to explain the Problem of Evil) should be accepted because it’s true.  I don’t want to mischaracterize his conclusion, but it appears like he argues that it’s preferable simply because it’s nicer.  How can any thoughtful, rational adult promote this route to truth?

Let’s recap and see how Kokul did in turning the Problem of Evil into a tool against the atheist:

  • Kokul claimed that objective morality exists, but he provided no evidence.
  • He imagines that without objective morality there is no morality, despite what the dictionary says to the contrary.
  • He imagines that explaining the existence of evil is impossible for the atheist (apparently meaning that it’s impossible to explain in a pleasing way).  In fact, atheists do just fine at explaining reality, and whether it’s pleasant or not isn’t the issue.
  • He advocates telling the nice story rather than the accurate story.
  • And he tried, unsuccessfully, to slide away from the Problem of Evil by redefining it.

The Problem of Evil stands.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

20 thoughts on “An Inept Attempt to Defang the Problem of Evil

  1. Pingback: An Inept Attempt to Defang the Problem of Evil | Galileo Unchained | Secularity (under construction)

  2. Great column… it seems as science progresses and disproves most of their rational arguments, all they are left with is that it just makes them feel better to think there is something better than this life after they die. Unfortunately because of this position, they tend to miss out on the real beauty in living. They spend so much time trying to convince others of this belief and so much effort judging others for not going along with it that they miss the whole point of life. The point of life is to live and enjoy it as much as you can while you’re around. Pass on your genes if you want some part of you to continue after you die. We all borrow energy from the universe to exist for short while; hopefully we make the most of it before it’s time to give it back. Did we impact people in a positive way or did we cause turmoil? Did we appreciate the planet and its resources to allow future generations to enjoy them or did we exploit them for personal gain? Did we help advance and promote cosmic understanding of our species or did we hinder progress because of baseless superstition?

    People can be evil to each other (and as a society, it is our duty to curb as much of it as we can for the long-term survival of the species), but the universe is indifferent to “evil”, to pain, to despair. It’s all a matter of perspective. To have had the chance to live at all, given the odds we now know in the cosmos, and to be self-aware of our fragile position in this life is something we should celebrate and cherish while we can. The religious have been trained to have such huge egos, believing that they are the reason for the universe and that there is infinite beauty and serenity waiting for them after they die. This perspective kills any appreciation for the world we actually live in because it cannot compare to their own imaginations.

  3. I should probably read your blog again, for several reasons, before I comment, but will comment anyway. I will probably miss the point, or just restate what you have blogged about here, but anyway I will comment about evil.

    It seems evil is being defined as a sense of morality, if I understand it right. From very young, I have never bought the demon, or evil notions. I more readily bought the heaven, and good spirit, angel stuff because it made me feel better, or comforted me. Of course, I don’t buy any of it today for many reasons. The way I think of evil, or how I would define evil is some bad spirit has gotten inside someone causing them to do “bad”. Even before we get to the concept of morality, I will not grant the assumption that demons, or some bad spirit is what causes people to do “bad”, or “good”. Why? Because Bob is right, there is no evidence of evil spirits, or demons. You can’t have B (people doing bad) if A (evil) didn’t come before it. I just cringe when I hear the word evil. Furthermore, it is not logical, or rational, to think evil is what causes humans to do “bad”. I think it is reasonable to conclude that humans do “bad” things because it some how benefits them. Being new to Apologetics, or not well read, I am not familiar with what theists think the “atheist world view” is, so I will have to Google it. I will also go look up the definition of evil and morality. I didn’t even know what Apologetics was until Bob started his blog.

    I would like to thank Bob, too, for sharing his atheist perspective. So thanks Bob!

    • Thanks for the positive feedback!

      I’ll note also that “good” and “bad” are relative. When the fox catches the rabbit, it’s bad from the rabbit’s standpoint but good from the fox’s. And vice versa if the rabbit gets away. It’s easy to say it’s good when the rabbit gets away, but the fox has young it needs to feed. No rabbits and they starve.

      Christians like to imagine objective right and wrong, but I’ve seen no evidence of such a thing.

  4. After looking evil up in the dictionary, it looks as though I am confusing the adjective form of evil with the noun form, but it still seems that evil is thought to have come from somewhere, and seems religion thinks it comes from Satan or the devil, and their bad spirits get inside humans, or some how influence humans, and therefore, humans do evil.

  5. After reading a little on the so called “atheist world view” it seems hard to believe that there is one unified atheist world view. My first thought, when I heard someone claim there was an atheist world view was no there isn’t, and I still see no evidence that there is one. Yes, atheist believe there is no god or gods, but it that a world view? It doesn’t seem like there is one. I have never really thought about a world view. I guess my world view is that the earth belongs to all of us.

    • Strictly speaking, “I don’t have a god belief” is like “I don’t have a unicorn belief.” It doesn’t tell you a lot about that person.

      That’s why humanism and other freethought-friendly moral positions are helpful. Someone might say, “I’m an atheist and a humanist,” for example.

  6. maybe someone ought to point out to this guy that his bible says that his god is the source RESPONSIBLE for evil, not merely someone who lets it happen. Christianity CANNOT dismiss the problem of evil because of that.
    Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6, Lamentations 3:38, Jeremiah 18:11, Ezekiel 20:25, 26
    this means god is responsible for EVERYTHING (for evil as well as good). a future of prophecies already set in stone also undermines any notion of freewill. Christians have nothing to stand on, and cannot ever fix the problem

  7. and, if morality depends on a the ability to choose (where choice is a variable in the causal chain), then no choice means no morality (obviously). the fact that we are conscious puppets begging for mercy in no way entails that we have any morality at all. So, to me, it’s not so much as absolute verse relativism with the problem of evil and its connection to morality, it’s more about the liberty to claim my own choices as my own, with the propensity of bettering myself (through progression which isn’t even possible if I don’t have autonomy). Not only is the problem of evil a problem in christianity, but it undermines any virtue based on the ability to choose (obviously, to be courageous, one must choose to stand while filled with fear. I cannot find anything virtuous in submission).

  8. I think you forgot to point out that religion is the creator of all evil and sin. These are religious concepts so in a way the religious guy is correct atheists cant explain evil because it isn’t apart of there world view.

    • A great point, thanks. In the same way that blasphemy is no crime when there is no god, evil and sin also vanish when there is no god.

      Often evil can be defined as “bad stuff,” but when it has a transcendental quality (bad as judged by a supernatural being, for example), that serves no purpose in an atheist worldview.

  9. If you can’t explain or defend the Christian view of the problem of evil, then attack the opposing view. Problem is, the attacks are no better grounded than the defense of God.

  10. This is one of your better ones! And since yours are always great, it was hard to rate this one above the others. Thanks for the excellent points; I’ll try to use some of them in future debates.

  11. Excellent article, as usual, Bob. A question about this one, though. It seems you drew the wrong conclusion from the G.B Shaw quote, where you said, “People seeing things for what they really are gave us the medical and technological progress we see in society today.” While I would agree with that thought, it doesn’t seem to follow from the quote. Did I read it incorrectly?

    • Shaw is dividing people into those who are satisfied with things (and don’t make change) and those who are dissatisfied (and who make the change). You raise a good point that Shaw really isn’t talking about seeing things incorrectly vs. correctly, which is where I was coming from. I guess that was a bit of a stretch.

Leave a Reply to David Redmond Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s