Admittedly, the philosophical problem of evil was the catalyst for my break from religion. However, as I learned more about the Abrahamic religions, I started to dismiss the problem of evil in favor of more compelling arguments.
However, after listening to Christians attempt to respond to the problem of evil, their responses seem incomplete at best and quite possibly just plain silly. As such, I have gained a new found respect for the problem of evil.
So what exactly is the problem of evil anyway? Well, it was best stated by Epicurus at least 250 years before the alleged birth of Jesus. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Philosophically speaking, let’s define evil in one of two ways. Evil could be defined as the opposite of good or as the absence of good. There is a third definition that I will save for later. Let’s say that evil is the opposite of good and God created evil so that human beings can better understand and/or appreciate the good as many Christians claim. That doesn’t really solve the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, then he wouldn’t need to create evil so that humans could better understand good. He could just snap his all-powerful fingers and humans would understand and appreciate the good without the evil. To do otherwise would be cruel.
Often Christians try to use the parent analogy here to explain why God would cause suffering (or not prevent suffering) and still be considered moral. This analogy breaks down pretty easily because God is alleged to be all-powerful and parents are not. God can change the laws of physics.
We have to understand that the character of God is alleged to be supernatural and therefore not bound by the limits of reason and logic. In the world we currently live in, an ‘up’ implies a ‘down’ and vice versa, but an all-powerful deity could have created a universe in which that was not the case. He didn’t. God could make it so that you could eat whatever you want and never exercise and still lose weight. A parent on the other hand can’t do that, so a parent has to teach a child about good nutrition and tiring exercise.
Likewise, if evil is the absence of good we still have the same problem. Evil doesn’t have to be the absence of good. We could be living in a universe where that was not the case. In fact, I would argue that we already do live in such a universe. While evil can be the absence of good, it isn’t just the absence of good.
The question of theodicy (as the Problem of Evil is called) is a question about suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people or to all people indiscriminately? Hurricanes for example are not merely the absence of clear skies. It is a complex weather system in and of itself. Why would God allow a hurricane or an earthquake like the one that happened recently in Haiti happen and cause suffering? Is God willing to prevent these things, but is not able? Is God able to prevent them, but not willing? If he is both willing and able, then why do hurricanes and earthquakes occur and why do they kill people young and old, believer and non-believer equally?
That third definition of evil that I alluded to earlier addresses this issue. I talk about it more in depth in here. But to make a long story short, good and evil are human constructs. When we are talking about evil in this context we are not talking about some supernatural force. We are not talking about the character of Satan or his plans. Good and evil are not actual forces in the world acting on human beings. These are concepts create by people to help us interact with each other and the world around us. There are no all-powerful gods who are willing or able to stop suffering. We as human beings must stop suffering on our own.
The fact is that most people don’t need the lure of eternal paradise or the threat of eternal torture to motivate them to help those who are suffering. We help those who are suffering because we can help those who are suffering. Human compassion is the atheist solution to the problem of evil.
This article is also part of the ‘On Faith’ Series of the Washington Post addressing the issue: Does God allow Haiti to suffer?
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On Faith Series:
On Faith: Media biased against Christians?
On Faith: Free speech vs. God
On Faith: Religion’s Impact 2009
On Faith: Climate change a moral issue?
On Faith: Good News — Oral Roberts is dead
On Faith: Just war or holy war in Afghanistan?
On Faith: A crèche in the White House?
On Faith: Swiss ban on Islamic minarets
On Faith: holidays or holy days?
Atheism 101 Articles:
Atheism 101: What is the difference between atheism and agnosticism?
Atheism 101: Is there moral grounding without God?
Atheism 101: The Purpose of Life
Atheism 101: The Nature of Good and Evil
Atheism 101: Is the Bible the inspired word of God?
Atheism 101: The anti-intellectualism of religion
Atheism 101: Why has Christianity demonized nudity, sex and sexuality?
Atheism 101: How to respond to the lord, liar, lunatic argument?
Atheism 101: Does it take more faith to be an atheist?
Atheism 101: What came before the Universe?
Atheism 101: How to respond to the ex-atheist