Monday, January 2, 2012

The Problem with Evil (If You Believe in God)

In the last few posts, I've talked about some of the main reasons theists will give as arguments for the existence of God. However, these arguments have major flaws, and therefore do not prove the existence of God. 

However, we haven't examined any atheist arguments AGAINST the existence of God. Can atheists prove the God of ethical monotheism doesn't exist? 

One of the most powerful arguments against God begins with the observation that the world is full of evil. By evil, I am referring to both natural evil (destructive natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tornados, droughts, as well as disease, natural predator vs. prey relationships, birth defects, etc, etc) as well as human evil (suffering caused by war, rape, genocide, murder, abuse, slavery, torture, etc, etc). Both kinds of evil occur ubiquitously, indiscriminately, and gratuitously in a world supposedly designed by God. 

Now, if we start (as the theist does) with the idea that this world is designed, then the occurrence of evil is a huge problem for God. Why? Well, if the world is designed by a perfect God, then his designs should't have flaws in them. Flawed designs indicate flawed designers. If design flaws exist (and it's impossible to argue they don't), then God is not perfect. An all-perfect God would WANT to avoid introducing design flaws into his creation that would cause us pain, an all-knowing God would KNOW HOW to design a world that did not have such gratuitous suffering in it, and an all-powerful God would BE POWERFUL enough to design it. But, for some reason, there is a vast amount of human suffering and natural evil in the world that, according to theists, God designed. 

And remember from my previous post, that a non-perfect, less than all-knowing, less than all-powerful God does not deserve to be worshiped. Evil in the world appears to be a major flaw in a perfect God's design. Therefore, even if the world WAS designed by something, it does not deserve to be worshiped, and therefore doesn't deserve our concern, obedience, or admiration. Perhaps this designer was a powerful E.T. alien, or a novice God, or a God who was less than all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. Maybe it was an evil God who wants to hurt any sentient life that it creates. But it appears that whatever this designer was, it cannot be the all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God of ethical monotheism worshiped by billions of people. 

If, on the other hand, we take a natural view of life, then the existence of evil (both natural and human) have purely natural explanations. The fact that evil has natural explanations does not excuse the naturalist from trying to ameliorate its effects if possible (and plenty of humanitarian work is done by secular humanists and atheists). However, the implications of evil's existence don't shake the worldview of the humanist, as it does the theists. We don't have to invent dubious explanations about why natural disasters occur, or why humans do bad things to eachother. We just accept the natural explanation, and do all we can to minimize the effects of evil in this world. 

The existence of evil is simply inconsistent with the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all- knowing God who knew such suffering would occur, who could have prevented it if it wanted to, but chose not to.  Therefore, the God of ethical monotheism appears to be severely challenged (to the point of nonexistence) by this argument unless the theist has a good rebuttal.  

These rebuttals, called theodicies, will be evaluated in my next post.  


  1. What is your view on free will? If God gave us free will, then I believe there would be a different wrinkle in this argument. If you believe that he did not, however, then these assertions are completely correct, God created evil. The Bible does say that light can have no communion with darkness, so I believe that, if God did create everything, He gave us free will. Otherwise, there is no God.

  2. Good question. I actually just read a good book on the subject by Sam Harris called "Free Will." It's short and very good.

    In short, I don't believe in it - in a strict sense of the term. All of our desires, wills, neurochemical brain states, and actions are determined by a combination of factors that are beyond our control. For example, they are determined by a combination of genetic influences, environment, where you were born, your parents, etc. We have no control over any of these things. Everything else in the universe operates according to the laws of physics and chemistry. We are no different, even though it feels like we do. We are consciously aware of certain wills, desires, and actions, but when we think about why we have such and such desire, we are at a loss to trace it back very far with any degree of certainty. These desires bubble up to our consciousness, but from whence, nobody can be sure. And since we don't know where our desires originate, we can't say that we have any control over them.

    But giving up the idea of free will is not as nihilistic or fatalistic as some might think. There are huge moral, political, and criminal law implications when you let the idea sink in.

  3. I have read with interest everyone of your blog posts. My Mormon background is pretty much the same as yours. I am in the midst of a crisis of faith which has me questioning everything I have ever believed in. My family on both sides are several generation Mormon pioneers. So I am embedded, parents, my children and now grandchildren TBMs. I understand clearly the vulnerable foundation of faith which has given and gives Mormons, Christians and all religions comfort and confidence in dealing with the adversities and injustice of mortal existence. For now, even though I understand the frailty of our faith, I continue to cling to a belief in a supernatural being as having a role of stewardship in my life. I enjoy the fellowship and community of Mormonism and choose not to give it up - even with its flaws. What I see in many paths of ex-Mormons, is a journey to eventual disbelief in all religion. It makes sense, because we have been taught so well that we have the exclusive truth. So if we don't have it, no one does. Those who take the path to the logical conclusion end up in a non-connected community of people who generally feel intellectually superior because they have been able to logically arrive at a place where they are 99.999% sure there is no God. They gain a freedom from guilt, ritual, tradition and obligation. They may lose a sense of comfort and in the case of Mormons a sense of being special. They also lose the community of common cause. I do believe they can gain a sense of morality that is superior, doing good not just because a God expects it. They are good because it is the right thing to do. I have read Dawkins and other atheists writings. Their smugness almost matches that of extreme religionists. I like your approach in that you admit there is much you do not know. Scientists can explain much, but they can't really explain the evolution of consciousness. The Big Bang theory does't explain what was there before it happened. The whole theory of natural selection as an explanation of our complex life form including the incredible make up as DNA just evolving seems to be based on the premise of time. Given that life has had billions or trillions of years to evolve, that each lower life form somehow through some trigger figured out how to become more complex as each year passed. And eventually figured out how to develop talents and morality. I love a logical argument. This one, however, passes the test no better than the spontaneous generation of a God who then created us. So my point is. All creatures should have a little humility.
    Atheists should lose their smugness in rejecting the supernatural. The fact is - no one knows how the universe started. No one knows if there is a purpose to life. No one knows how DNA of its current complexity developed. Just because a scientist can debunk faith does not mean they have it all figured out. They simply don't. Your blogs have explained the issues as well as any I have seen without the smugness I have seen from the well known atheists of our day. We should appreciate our existence on this planet whatever our beliefs are. We should find a moral compass that respects our fellow inhabitants -plants, animals and humans. And if we find our experience is positive - I believe we should hope that when our mortal existence has finished our consciousness continues in some form into the eternities. Thank you for eloquently sharing your journey and outlining beautifully the issues.

  4. Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I really enjoy reading responses like yours; thou almost persuadest me to become a blogger again. Wish we could meet up for an interesting conversation sometime (maybe a Mormon Stories or Sunstone conference). Anyway, you bring up lots of good points that I wish I had the time to respond to. I'll just say a few things:
    1. Post Mormon people like me leave religion but don't always end up atheist like me. My wife, for example, still maintains a hope in something out there.
    2. Religion creates community very well - perhaps better than any other thing out there. However, post-religious people like me still find very meaningful communities of friends and support. We just have to be a bit more eclectic, exert a bit more effort, and be comfortable with more variety. And there are positive benefits to that. In your response, you seemed to hint that community is something that keeps you in, and that it's something you lose if you left the church. All I'm saying is that community is important, the church does it well, but that good communities still exist after leaving the Mormon version. Sometimes that community can be great; other times it can be toxic. It depends on lots of variables.
    3. I share your angst of "smug atheists" and know-it-all scientists. However, we're not all assholes. In fact, there is a silent majority of really balanced, content, nice, and humble atheists and scientists who are accepting of both scientific mystery and their religious neighbors. We can all get along. The "four horsemen" don't speak for us solely.
    4. Finally, I'm happy with where I've ended up. Leaving your religion is usually extremely difficult. But staying in it can sometimes be even worse. I think everyone has to weigh the pros and cons of each decision and decide for themselves. Best wishes in your own journey!