Monday, June 13, 2005

An Atheist's Problem with the Problem of Evil

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too - for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist - in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality - namely my idea of justice - was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning."
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The following online exchange began with Mark (not his real name) claiming that even if the Genesis account were true, it would have been wrong for God to penalize Adam for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil since prior to that time he would have had no moral understanding.
KP: You realize your objection is based on certain ethical assumptions which are also at odds with your atheistic faith. You're reasoning that one shouldn't be blamed for what he doesn't know is wrong. But as an atheist, what is the foundation for your making such moral claims?

Mark: Adam had the intelligence of an infant or maybe an animal until he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, no? How is he to be blamed for disobeying God? He was simply not capable of differing right from wrong yet. And my raising this objection is not a problem when we're discussing the internal consistency of the Christian story. Then the ethical norms in question are the Christian ones

KP: It doesn't follow that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil meant that prior to that Adam had no knowledge of what is right. If you pay attention to the context and the literary cues, it's clear that eating from the tree was tantamount to Adam and Eve deciding for themselves what was good and evil as opposed to submitting to God. This is why, for example, the formula "And God saw that it was good..." is repeated in the first chapter and then in Chapter 3 the transgression is preceded by the words "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food...." Prior to this God alone saw what was good but the nature of the transgression was that man autonomously determined what was good for himself. That's the nature of sin.
[Many thanks to John Sailhamer, a former professor, for alerting me to this. In his The Pentateuch as Narrative, he notes: "Thus the temptation is not presented as a general rebellion from God's authority. Rather, it is portrayed as a quest for wisdom and "the good" apart from God's provision."]

Mark: Why does God impose it as a law that his creation should obey him like a dictator?

KP: Do you find that morally objectionable? And if so, on what basis?

Mark: KP, yes very much so. God creates us without asking our permission then plays dictator on us. He has no right to do that

KP: No right? What moral authority are you basing that judgment on? If all that exists are matter, motion, time, and chance, then there are no objective moral rules are there?

Mark: God's own moral norms. Oppression is not good

KP: You assume that God's law binds him in exactly the same manner that it does humans but this is not in keeping with biblical teaching. For example, God commands us not to steal but how is it possible for God to steal when all that he has made belongs to him?

Mark: OK, stealing example is nice but it doesn't fit to the problem of oppression.

KP: Biblically speaking it is not oppressive for God to demand obedience of those created for his purposes. So again, no internal contradiction. You just find it oppressive because you don't like it but that's hardly an argument against it.

Mark: That's true I don't like it. It sounds like oppression to me and I think it is. He is going to burn half human kind in hell. If that is not oppression then what is?

KP: What's wrong with oppression of any kind? Let's not just limit it to the question of God. If evolution is true, as you have said it is, then isn't oppression natural and amoral? Survival of the fittest, you know.

Mark: Oppression is wrong because you violate another person's rights.
KP: What is a right? Is it a physical entity? Is a right capable of being scientifically verified? When you refer to these things called "rights" how exactly do they cohere with a materialistic philosophy?

Mark: Rights are something that exist within a state

KP: Oh, so rights are conferred by the state?

Mark: Yes.

KP: Are you pro-choice?

Mark: Yes.

KP: If the state were to pass anti-abortion laws, would you still argue that a woman has the right to choose?

Mark: Uhm, yes.

KP: But if rights are conferred by the state, then women wouldn't have that right, would they? So you'd be arguing that women have a right that is not granted by the state.

Mark: OK, you have a point.

KP: So you don't really believe that all rights are conferred by the government, do you?

Mark: I guess not.

KP: You really believe that people have inherent rights. Would that be fair?

Mark: We have to believe that.

KP: But this poses another problem for your atheistic philosophy. For, given your view of things, there are no such things as rights. There is only the natural world but no transcendent origin of rights. So again I ask you, what do you mean when you refer to rights and how do they cohere in an atheistic framework?

Mark: You are right there. We have to accept rights without asking of an account of their origin.

KP: No, I don't. You do. So, you live as though such things as intrinsic rights exist even though you know they have no rational basis. Another dissonance that leads me to reject atheism.

Mark: There must be another way other than accepting theism

KP: Wishful thinking. Why MUST there be another way?

Mark: Because theism just doesn't make sense

KP: So far it has made a whole lot more sense than atheism. It has provided the necessary presuppositions for such things as ethics, science, rationality, etc.

Mark: I think if theism were true atheism wouldn't exist at all because theism's truth would be obvious to all

KP: Again, you overlook the effects of a little word called sin.

(At this point, someone else asked Mark if he felt the same way about atheism. In other words, if atheism was so obvious, why would there be theists.)

Mark: No, atheism's truth is not that obvious

KP: But you said it was obvious that there is no God. That's how this conversation started. You said it was obvious that god-belief was made up.

Mark: When you consider the problem of evil and the biblical stories that sound like myths, then yes.

KP: Now you say atheism isn't that obvious? We've dealt with the problem of evil and you've conceded that there is no necessary logical inconsistency.

Mark: Right

KP: The pendulum is swinging. Atheism is obvious and not obvious at the same time.

Mark: But still some things don't sound right to me. A good God wouldn't let innocent people suffer even if the Fall happened. God would forgive that sin of Adam's. What was God doing before he created the universe anyway? I can't imagine a God sitting in eternity without doing anything then suddenly deciding to create a universe to play with.

KP: Some of the most ardent atheistic philosophers have acknowledged that the so-called logical problem of evil is no longer a problem with the addition of another proposition: "God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil he allows." Now, unless you can demonstrate that God has no such morally sufficient reason, then your objections are pointless.

KP: Is your inability to conceive of something evidence that it is not or cannot be true?

Mark: OK, then I step back on the problem of evil.

KP: Good move


Franklin Mason said...

A good little exchange.

But I have a worry about the way in which the moral law binds us. (The worry derives from Kant.) It seems that the moral law does not bind us simply b/c we are commanded by another to follow it. Rather, it binds us b/c it is right. Compare. I sometimes wish my children to do as I say simply b/c I say it. This is important, I think, to keep them safe. They sometimes do not understand the danger they will be in if they do a certain thing, and indeed might not yet be able to understand that danger. In cases such as that, I want them to do as they are told and not then worry about the reason why. But of course I wish my children to come to the point at which they will recognize the right as such and do it b/c it is right. I think that a God would wish the same of us. He does not wish us to do the right simply b/c He commands it. Rather, he wishes us to the right b/c we recognize that it is right.

This leaves us with the question of the relation of God to the right. I have no very good answer to that.

A small note: it seems to me that the argument from C. S. Lewis is fallacious. Here's why. (i) Perhaps Lewis is right that one cannot consistently hold that an objective standard of right and wrong exists and yet deny God's existence. But it seems to me perfectly consistent to hold both that God does not exist and that there is no objective standard of right and wrong. Indeed it seems that the second entails the first. (ii) That I think the world meaningless does not imply that I thereby presuppose a meaningful world. Rather all that I presuppose is that I have some idea of what a meaningful world would look it, for to deny that the world has any meaning is simply to deny that that idea is applicable to our world. But I see no reason to assume that God must be the source of this idea of meaningfulness. (Perhaps I should be more circumspect and say that I see no reason to assume this that an atheist would find persuasive.) Thus I don't think that believing the world meaningless drives one towards belief in God's existence.

EyeMan said...

Franklin...I am not sure if your objections to Lewis' arguments are actually disagreeing with what he is saying.

"But it seems to me perfectly consistent to hold both that God does not exist and that there is no objective standard of right and wrong. Indeed it seems that the second entails the first."

I agree with you...if God does not exist, then there is no objective standard for right and wrong...but very few atheists live this way. Honestly, I respect the ones that do live this way, though, as they are the only ones willing to take their faith to a full and consistent level. I think Lewis would agree with the point you made, but would say that since there is objective right and wrong, and we can identify it, your point is just speculation.

"That I think the world meaningless does not imply that I thereby presuppose a meaningful world"

I think that Lewis' point is that if the universe was truly meaningless, then you and I would have no idea that it was, as we would have no comprehension of meaning or purpose. I agree that you don't have to presuppose a meaningful world, but the point is that we wouldn't know what meaning was.

Interesting conversation, Keith...thought you brought up some very good points.

Tom Gilson said...


I think I see a false dichotomy here:

"I think that a God would wish the same of us. He does not wish us to do the right simply b/c He commands it. Rather, he wishes us to the right b/c we recognize that it is right."

God's relationship to the right is that it is a facet, a descriptor of his very essence. He is not subject to what is just or right; it does not stand outside or above him. He is the definition and perfect expression of what is right and just. It is accurate to say that justice and righteousness are part of the definition of God, and that God is part of the definition of justice and righteousness. What is your relationship to your thoughts? God's relationship to these things is much tighter than that, for he is always consistent, never "beside himself" as we sometimes are.


He wishes us to do the right because it is an expression of his character. He wishes us to do the right because by so doing, we participate in his character and thus draw more close to him. He commands us to do what is right because he can only will what is consistent with his own character. He wishes us to do what is right because we recognize that it is right, for the reason that our recognition of the right shows that we understand his character.

These are all different ways of saying one thing. It's all about God. He is good, and wishes us to express and to share in his goodness.

Franklin Mason said...


I fully agree that God and the good are one.

But there is a danger here for those who do not believe this. For they might think that God is like a ruler who dispenses favor upon his people for obedience. Thus they might seek to obey God in the hope of that favor but with little or no regard for the moraly quality of what they do.

I'm curious what folks not familiar with that theological tradition which identifies God and the good think is their motive for right action. If they think that they must do as God commands simply b/c it is what He commands and take no heed of the relation of God's commands to the good, this seems to me like moral error, or at least moral immaturity.