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Meditations on the Existence of God: The Problem of Evil Part One

August 14, 2009

If you have to this blog, you have an interest in the existence of God.  As I’m surrounded by this question on a daily basis, I hear both sides of the question. And one of the things that strikes me is how much logical fallacy and emotionally laden terms are applied to the question from both sides. I’m hoping we can all look the different sides of the question of whether or not God exists. Matt will be weighing on his take on the issue very soon. In doing so, I hope to avoid the half baked, sound bite statements that often happen when this question is discussed.

Before we start talking about the problem in depth, we have to understands what everyone presupposes about the world. On the theist side, we believe that probably God exists. I say probably because there is no way I can prove to anyone through objective, scientific means (if indeed such things exist) that God exists. It can’t be done and any attempt to do so is intellectually dishonest.

But, like it or not, that sword cuts the other way as well. Most atheists would most likely side with Richard Dawkins when he says that while he can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, he is about 98 percent sure about the question (if I got the quote wrong, feel free to correct). I realize that atheists would assert that the proof lies on their side or at least, the weight is entirely on the theists to prove their assertions. I hope in the coming months that I can challenge that statement to some degree, or at least, get atheists to see they bear some weight of proof responsiblity when it comes to the question. Too often, I see atheists confidently assert things in regards to this question when they take very little time to actually prove their assertions. Of course, theists aren’t immune to this by any means.

A great way to demonstrate some of this thinking on both sides when it comes to one of the great objections to God’s existence, the problem of evil.

The problem of evil can be stated in this simple form:

God is omnipotent

God is Good

Evil Exists.

I was recently talking a guy I met at the SSA conference who attends Harvard Divinity School. He told me that everyone has pretty much given up on the problem of evil thinking that it’s a fatal wound in the theist side. I think it would be safe to say this is the position for most atheists. The assertion is that this statement is explicitly contradictory and therefore makes God’s existence highly unlikely.

The problem for the atheist is that the above formulation is too simplistic. Whether they like this objection or not, an omnipotent and good being might allow evil. Indeed, He might have all sorts of reasons for doing so. Plus, the formulation as it stands is not obviously contradictory. What is? It goes like this

If all men are mortal, then PZ Myers is mortal.

ALL men are mortal

Therefore PZ Myers is not mortal.

Using the rules of logic, we can show this statement as contradictory, but the same can’t be said of the above statement about God. For it to be explicitly contradictory, it must be shown to be so. I would assert that it can’t be done as it stands.

So, therefore, the formulation has to be stronger to make it an explicit contradiction. And I’m hoping Matt and the atheists on this site will do so. I actually can make it stronger and will as we continue this discussion.

However, it can’t be denied this makes for some uncomfortable questions for us theists such as how such a God could allow evil. It’s a question that we theists can’t answer for the most part. I wish I knew why God allowed evil. I have some ideas I’ll put forward in the coming weeks. But in the end, I’m forced to admit that I don’t know.

But then, we start getting into the emotional realm, and not the logical one. And thus, getting away from the point. All I want to do here is to show that the above is not an explicit contradiction.

So, the assertion on my part is that the problem of evil is NOT an explicit contradiction and therefore it is in the realm of implicit contradiction the work of atheist must begin. It’s in that realm that the objection to God’s existence based on the problem of evil can be strongly made.

 Of course, all of this is rather bloodless, but that’s the point. Most of the assertions of atheists about this problem usually comes from emotional statements rather than logical ones. That isn’t to say those questions have some intellecutal weight. I think they do. However, I do want to challege people to understand the problem of evil must be discussed in the implicit contradiction realm rather than the explicit.

Once again, this is only the begining of the discussion, but I thought we would get the preleminaries under way.

62 Comments leave one →
  1. erp permalink
    August 15, 2009 12:18 am

    Actually a more basic question might be, “What definition of God is being used?”.

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 12:19 am

    Good point. Expand Erp.

  3. Oliver permalink
    August 15, 2009 12:48 am

    The assertion is that this statement is explicitly contradictory and therefore makes God’s existence highly unlikely.
    Whether they like this objection or not, an omnipotent and good being might allow evil.

    True, but such a being, endowed with the capacity to prevent evil and choosing not to exercise that power, cannot reasonably said to be praiseworthy.

  4. August 15, 2009 1:02 am

    Here’s my complete layperson’s viewpoint.

    I think the debate begins with the very definition of “evil.” I believe theists and atheists define the term differently. For theists, evil is connected with the teachings of a supreme being or god, and is that which goes against those teachings. God (or a god) provides the moral compass. I’m only guessing that this might make the concepts of absolute Good and absolute Evil easier for theists to consider, and perhaps easier to defend.

    Atheists, who do not have their moral code prescribed by a religion, have to figure out for ourselves what defines “evil” and I doubt we all concur. I myself do not have a clear picture of “evil” because I also don’t have a clear picture of “good.” There is, in my world, no absolute and perfect Good (such as a divine being); therefore, there is no absolute and perfect Evil to counter it. Of course I don’t hesitate to label certain acts and people evil, but I think that’s different from the religious label or concept of Evil, even if theists would agree with me on said acts and people.

    This is not a criticism or a nitpick, just something I realized as I was reading your post and trying to consider for myself what was meant by “evil.”

  5. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 1:02 am

    Unless there was a worse evil that would happen if He choose to intervene.

  6. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 1:07 am

    Excellant reflections, Zen. Thanks. I’m really encouraged by the need to ask about definitions of words. THat’s exactly what I hoped would happen.

  7. Johann permalink
    August 15, 2009 1:44 am

    I like the way it was encapsulated by Epicurus:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?

    As erp said, defining “God” is one of the most basic questions in this. People have believed in gods who are limited and malevolent, after all. Heck, even many Christians do, they just call them devils or unify them into a single “the Devil”. 😉

    So how do Christians define him? I’d say the third formulation applies best – he is “both able and willing” to eliminate evil. And not just willing – he abhors evil, would never (in some versions, cannot) do it himself, and would not permit it to happen.

    So, with that definition, the question remains – whence cometh evil?

    Some Christians redefine “evil” in response – sure, it may look like evil, but it’s really just “part of God’s plan” and that makes it good/better. This dovetails neatly with another, more vile redefinition – the one that says that nothing God does can, by definition, be evil because he has no moral obligations to his creation. So when he orders the mass rape and genocide of the Amalekites? That’s perfectly fine. God lets the Devil run wild with Job on a dare? Not a problem. We are his to break in whatever ways he likes.

    And then you have Christians who say that he *could* fix things with a snap of his fingers, but that he deliberately does not interfere to preserve our free will. This has always seemed a particularly specious argument to me – after all, the idea is that absolutely everything that is wrong with the world came about as a result of exercising free will in ways that are not consistent with what God wants. In other words, evil comes from a manufacturing defect. Now, if I were an engineer and I deliberately designed a car with a weak axle, knowing that sooner or later it would break and get people killed, I would probably end up in jail serving consecutive life sentences. However, according to these Christians, when God does it and knows with perfect clarity where it will lead, that’s okay and really the fault of the cars, not of the engineer.

    I must admit I’m baffled that people would try to do away with the problem of evil by holding God to a far lower moral standard than people, but that’s one of the ways people approach this. I’m more sympathetic to the Jews in this regard – wish I remembered where I’d read about a group of Jews who put God on trial when they were in a concentration camp, and found him guilty.

  8. Ray S. permalink
    August 15, 2009 2:31 am

    Thanks, Johann, for quoting Epicurus; You saved me the trouble.

    We do need a definition to start with. I’ve seen many theists begin with something like ‘Everything must have a cause, including the universe, and we call that cause God. Therefore Jesus is my savior.’ Hopefully we can all agree there are some steps missing from that formulation. One of the biggest ones is the creation of a new definition of God.

    Most atheists I’ve communicated with begin with the three primary attributes most Christian theists (not necessarily scholars) ascribe to God: omniscience, omnipotence and omni benevolence. I think Epicurus shows us that God does not have all three of those attributes. God could be powerful and good, but unable to predict exactly what results his actions might have. God could be very powerful, more so than any human, but not omnipotent. God could be mostly good, but might have a nasty streak to him (that would seem somewhat consonant with Old Testament descriptions). In short, God could be limited in one or more ways.

    I have a problem with formulating the idea that what we perceive as evil might actually be the maximally beneficial path due to some aspect of the plan we are not privy to. At that point, the omni benevolence of God is nothing more than tautology: It’s good because God said so. Any horrible event, from Stalin’s purges to the Boxing Day tsunami can then be called part of God’s plan. Be certain that you wish to maintain such events as the best possible way for God to proceed.

    The Old Testament God has no problem with slavery. I find that rather difficult to square with benevolence.

    Let’s take on animal sacrifice for a moment. The Old Testament God demands such sacrifices. Why? Is there no way to show reverence without spilling some blood?

    Some Christians will attempt to wave away any problems with the Old Testament God descriptions promising that Christ brings a new covenant. that covenant however is sealed with yet another blood sacrifice. I’ve asked this before and will continue to ask it until I can get some intelligible answer. Who made the rule that requires a blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin? Could an omnipotent god not alter that rule?

  9. August 15, 2009 2:44 am

    I tend to agree with the folks who bring up the definition issue. Before you can make postulates (i.e., God is good, evil exists, etc.), we need to know what the terms mean. Now personally, the definitions of “good” and “evil” get me, since a lot of what we consider good or evil is neither purely one or the other, and the definition changes depending on point of view.

    A case in point, during World War II a lot of very nasty things were done by the Japanese in the south seas to POW’s. One might go so far as to call those things “evil”, just for their sheer nastiness. However, one of the things that surprised American GI’s when they occupied Japan was how nice everyone was, after having seen that conduct by the soliders. Turns out, Japanese culture was very context-dependent, and what was done by the soliders in the islands was considered acceptable and fair conduct during a time of war, but no longer acceptable during peacetime. So if it was done during peace, it would have been “evil” to them. But during war, the Allies considered it “evil”, but he Japanese did not. There are shades of gray, differences in perspective and so forth.

    The way I see it, this God and Satan of the Christians is an extrapolation of pure good and pure evil. They don’t necessarily exist. I can’t think of anything in the world that is pure either way, even the favourite example, Hitler, was a pretty ordinary guy in a lot of ways who watered his plants and did inoffensive things from time to time. Impure evil, let’s say. Personifying those, even to the extent of caricaturing these traits, seems to me what God/Satan is all about.

    I’m probably getting off track here, so let’s bring it back to definitions. In light of the above, what’s “evil”? Looking at the Bible, there are things considered “evil”, such as say homosexuality, that are simply so because God, who is defined as “good”, doesn’t like them. Therefore they’re evil. And yet God orders things such as genocide (and actually does them himself) that we’d consider “evil” today, yet become “good” simply because God does them. Before you can get to the problem of evil, things like this need to be addressed. You can’t have a postulate “God is good” without first saying “what’s good”, and “is God good in the first place”. Same for evil, and presumably Satan, although he seems a relatively ineffectual evil in the stories I’ve heard.

    Hopefully that makes some small amount of sense, for all its wordiness. Of some relevance, I rather like red wine on the weekend.

  10. Matheus permalink
    August 15, 2009 2:48 am

    Yeah the definition of god here is very important to any further discussion, as well as the definition of good and bad.

    It would be easy to argue that a position like deism or spinoza’s pantheism is consistent with the existence of evil. You could postulate a god that created from very simple ‘laws’. The whole universe then came as a huge emergent effect, and he had no idea where all of this was going.
    Or you could argue that maybe he had an idea that life as we know it would probably emerge at some point, but he does not understand the difference between good and evil. While we see evil as bad because it might destroy us individuals, he sees evil as a good thing because its a necessary component for life. If the world had infinite resources, there would be no competition, natural selection would not be possible, and life would never evolve. Ofcourse then god would not be good in any way humans could appreciate.

    Now these hypotesis are all untestable, and as far as we care we might use occam’s razor and shave him off. Wouldn’t make any practical difference whether we believe him or not.

  11. Johann permalink
    August 15, 2009 3:03 am

    although he seems a relatively ineffectual evil in the stories I’ve heard.

    In the folk version of the Russian flavor of Eastern Orthodoxy, which is heavily shaded by the traces of Russian paganism, there is not so much a single Satan as a multitude of minor demons working semi-competently to trick and beguile humankind. And, you know…having non-archetypal, “impure” heroes or villains makes for more interesting stories. =)

    I remember one about a man who got money from the devil in exchange for his soul – but when the latter comes around to collect, no one’s answering and there’s a sign on the door that says: “Come tomorrow.” So he goes away and comes back tomorrow, and finds the same thing. This goes on until one day the devil just doesn’t bother to come – and when he *does* drop by on the next day, the sign says “Come yesterday”, so he gives up and leaves.

  12. Ray S. permalink
    August 15, 2009 3:12 am

    I get it now. Morals are relative and contextual, not absolute and unchanging. I can work with that. How do you reconcile that with the ten commandments?

    Which reminds me, if there is only one god, what is the meaning of ‘thou shalt have no other gods before me’? Is there just one god, or are (were) there many? Does God have a physical presence (i.e. is he made of matter like the rest of us? For those of you who believe in a god, describe that God so that the rest of us might recognize it.

    Let me apologize once again in advance for my lack of reverence. I know I have lots of impertinent questions, but hopefully one or more of them will spur you to re-evaluate what you think you know or allow you to educate me. Along those lines, for those who have claimed to have seen Jesus’ image or the image of the Virgin Mary, whether on the side of a building, on toast or whatever, how do we know what these people looked like? I know of no drawings, paintings or verbal descriptions of any of these people surviving from the time they supposedly lived.

  13. August 15, 2009 3:57 am

    I hope to avoid the half baked, sound bite statements that often happen when this question is discussed.

    Agreed. I admit that I’m very often guilty of the tit-for-tat, overtly dismissive approach to refuting Christian ideology. I’ve come to see that as a practical approach: i.e. Pastor… say Pastor “T”. waxes poetic about my inevitable internment in Hell: I joke about his premise. You seem to be saying “you guys can expect more from me, and so I expect more from you.” I respect that very much.

    But that doesn’t mean kid gloves, does it? I take exception to a couple of your statements on a purely logical basis:

    Most atheists would most likely side with Richard Dawkins when he says that while he can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, he is about 98 percent sure about the question. I realize that atheists would assert that the proof lies on their side or at least, the weight is entirely on the theists to prove their assertions.

    This is a central point – actually THE central point – and I hope you come to address it more directly. There seem to be a lot of premises in this argument: as a previous commenter pointed out: what is your definition of God? Do you mean the Christian God? Which Christian God? Is Dawkins referring to “God” or to “a god” or to “gods” or to “supreme beings”? It does make a big difference and, while I haven’t researched the context of his statement, I’m 98% sure that he’d be 100% ambiguous about the statement. And that, if he said “god”, it’s 99% certain that the “supreme being” was the his honest intention. It’s very difficult to, with intellectual integrity, shift the burden of proof to atheists on this point.

    God is omnipotent – God is Good – Evil Exists.


    If all men are mortal, then PZ Myers is mortal – ALL men are mortal – Therefore PZ Myers is not mortal.

    You set these concepts up as examples of a) an unprovable premise and a b) obvious fallacy. But, ironically, I suggest that they’re at least equivalent and, in fact, it may be much easier to prove the latter.

    While I’m not in any way an expert on rhetoric, I’ve at least read Aristotle and suggest that a logical substitution equivalents proves the arbitrary nature of this argument:

    Substitution for statement no.1: PZ Myers is intelligent – PZ myers is honest – But Stupid Lies Exist.

    This is a reasonable and direct substitution for you first statement. And it’s not true. It depends on faith in PZ Myers’ absolute qualities. I like him too, but I wouldn’t go so far! This statement is simply not true.

    And substituting for statement no.2: If all gods are mortal, then God is mortal – ALL Gods are mortal – Therefore God is not mortal.

    This is a very direct substitution for your second (originally: the obviously false) statement. And yet it’s historically factual: gods have come and gone like any other cultural fashion. It is, therefore, logically coherent.

    So I suggest that your first statement about God is, in fact, less logically true than your statement about Myers’ mortality. In fact, I think it’s a fair bet to say that PZ will outlive his mortal life by decades based the impact that his role in our cultural and intellectual life will have. This doesn’t make him as immortal as God, but it does put him in direct competition! …unless you can prove that it’s logically false to suggest that:

    God’s mortality depends on the impact that His role in our cultural and intellectual life.

    If so, what differentiates this God from the innumerable gods that have come and gone through history? I’m sure you’re not into the Pastor T “well – this one happens to be the “right god” line; and I doubt you subscribe to the “they’re all different understandings of the same god” approach… so I’m looking forward to learning something new!

  14. erp permalink
    August 15, 2009 4:12 am

    It seems Jonathan has lobbed the ball back into my court.

    Possible definitions of God.

    1. Omniscent, Omnipotent, Creator and Intervener

    2. First Cause who set things going (deist God)

    3. The universe in its entirety (pantheist)

    4. The panentheist God, both immanent in everything and transcendent

    5. The apophatic definition. God is defined by what it is not.

    6. “An external, spiritual and transcendent being, both exterior and superior to nature, who consciously and voluntarily created the universe. He is assumed to be perfect and blessed, omniscent and omnipotent. Infinitely kind and just, the Creator, being his own cause, is himself uncreated. He is he Supreme Being upon whom everything depends and who himself depends on nothing. He is the enactment and the personificaton of the absolute.” Andre Comte-Sponville, “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality”, page 68. He also states this definition is not original with him and is a nominal not a real definition. The book btw is an interesting read and not hefty (200 pages). The author is a French philosopher (the French title was L’Esprit de l’atheisme).

    7. “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Dawkins, “The God Delusion” p. 31.

    As for whether I’m atheistic, it depends on the definition.

    So which nominal definition do people in particular the Christians like or is there a different one?

  15. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 4:48 am

    I love all of your comments. Im trying to think of how to answer everyone.

    And, for those of you who are worried about being disrespectful, I appreciate it. But i wouldn’t worry about it. We need to be tough, honest and fair here. So far, everyone is doing just that.

  16. August 15, 2009 4:53 am

    I might add a variant on #3, erp. One of a number of metaphors for certain groupings of aspects of reality, treated as a personification. It’s similar in a lot of ways, obviously, but it’s (1) broken into parts, pagan style, and (2) recognized as a metaphor, although still treated as a deity. From some things I’d been told (although not researched), there’s reason to believe this isn’t far from the Greek relationship to their gods.

  17. Ash permalink
    August 15, 2009 11:11 am

    Hi Jonathon/Thomas, nice blog.

    “For it to be explicitly contradictory, it must be shown to be so. I would assert that it can’t be done as it stands.”

    You’re right, what you’re missing is the implicit and unstated premises and conclusions;
    God is omnipotent
    (God therefore can control and prevent anything he does not desire)
    God is Good
    (God should therefore abhor evil and wish to prevent it)
    Evil Exists.
    (Therefore an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God cannot exist.)

    I’ve just done an essay on this, and philosophically I found it impossible to justify an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god that co-exists with evil. You can either downgrade the god (cue Epicurus-esque quote – “Then why call him God?”) or claim that a god’s morality is different from ours (which questions why we should call anything ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or how we would then have any claim to ‘know’ anything about such a being), but I’m interested to see where you take this question…

    P.S. your PZ example was terrible (sorry!) and just doesn’t work as a comparison, but if you were going to stick to it it’d have to be reworded more like this;
    All men are mortal
    PZ Myers is a man
    Therefore PZ is mortal
    PZ is not mortal
    Therefore PZ cannot be a man, or premise 1 is wrong.
    I still don’t think it shows what you want it to regarding the initial question tho, TBH…

  18. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 12:08 pm

    OH and as for the PZ Myers statement, I actually found this in a logic book as a statement as a demonstration of something that is not EXPLICITY contradictory, but can shown to be so by the rules of logic. The only thing different I did to the set up was to change from Socrates to PZ Myers. I did that purely out of fun and a weird sense of humor. 🙂

    So, for those of you that don’t like it, not sure what to tell you on that one. I did try to do my research.

  19. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 12:10 pm

    Ash, you example would certainly would work, but it’s an example of an explicit contradiction, not an implicit one. But, you demonstrated that point well.

    Oh and welcome by the way. Glad you are here. I hope you enjoy hanging around. As you can see, we have a great group.

  20. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 12:57 pm

    I’m dubious about this approach.

    I don’t believe that theists believe in god(s) because they were persuaded by any logical syllogism or reasoned argument. I think that theists are motivated by social and emotional forces – wanting to join or remain in good standing in a religious community – and that the “logic” and theology that follows this social act is mere rationalization, and the religious philosophy turns out to be mostly sophistry.

    I don’t think I want to engage theists by addressing the rationalizations. I’ve seen that merry-go-round, and it never stops. Few people are argued out of their gut-level, socially determined positions.

    The problem of evil is a problem for christians. It’s no problem for me, since I don’t claim a god exists. Problem solved.

    I’m more interested in finding an answer to the question, “Why would you want to be a christian? Why would you want to defend a belief in the existence of a god? What’s attractive about your religion?” Because I find christianity and its world view repulsive, and I really sincerely don’t understand why others don’t as well.

    Call it the Problem of Ugly Doctrine.

  21. Ray S. permalink
    August 15, 2009 3:43 pm

    I agree with AdamK that the vast majority of formal and semi-formal logical argument in support of the existence of a god is post hoc rationalization. the belief came earlier.

    The issue with terms is especially a problem here in that with ~38,000 distinct Christian sects, including some who deny the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, ‘Christian’ needs an agreed definition or it’s a meaningless term. William Lane Craig has the same problem wherein he uses his modified first cause argument to ‘prove’ the existence of God (whatever caused the beginning of the universe), but uses the same term later (God) having added all sorts of attributes not evidenced by his original ‘proof’.

    Looking out at reality, I see things that I think could be better. There are horrible deaths and much suffering due to war, pollution, disease, starvation, natural disasters and many others. We’ll call that ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. Less of these things we can call ‘better’ or ‘good’. So theists, here are your choices;

    a) my concept of god says that god doesn’t care about these things

    b) my concept of god says that while god cares, it is unable to prevent these things

    c) my concept of god says that it perceives good and bad completely differently than this

    d) something else

    Pick any one you want – I’ve even given you the choice to make up your own. Yes, this is Epicurus without the concise sound bite quality we’ve learned to distrust, but pick one.

    Here’s the warning. Once you’ve picked, you’re stuck with it. If you pick b, then you cannot later claim your god is omnipotent. If you pick a, then you cannot later claim that god is love (what I call Argument from Ray Stevens). You need to create a coherent, consistent justification for what you believe if you want to convince me. Of course if you don’t want to convince me, then believe anything you want so long as you don’t try to claim that it is rational and evidence based, and good justification for influence on public policy.

    Like AdamK, I don’t have a Problem of Evil; All of the reality I see is consistent with the idea that there’s no god.

  22. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 4:04 pm

    Reading Ray’s post, I’m tempted to add that if you pick (c), you can’t later claim that god is the author of morality.

  23. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 6:37 pm

    Adam K and Rae,

    You said this, “The problem of evil is a problem for christians. It’s no problem for me, since I don’t claim a god exists. Problem solved.”

    You couldn’t be more wrong about this. The problem of evil is a huge problem for you. While the theist problem is that we have to talk about why God allows evil, you have to argue as to why you think something is evil in the first place.
    Please note, I’m NOT saying atheists can’t be moral. I’m not using that bullshit argument and never will. I am throwing the challenge to define why you think something is moral in the first place and how you define it.

    As for both your assertions that for most Christians come to faith first then rationlize it later, I’m quite sure that’s true in many cases. But not in others. So, you have half truth statement about this at best. The same could be said who come to belief there is no god. So, it’s a wash, and threfore not really relevant. We all believe things for logical, social, enviormental/social pressures. It still doesn’t mean that whatever that person believe isn’t true, it just shows they might have chosen it for less than compeling reasons. I know plenty of atheists who are atheists because they are pissed off at the church. Fair enough. But, would you all say that person is well thought out atheist? I would say most likely not.

    Finally, it seems you are all asking to move out of the logical realm and into the emotional. I’m perfectly fine with doing that as long as you are ready to conceed that’s where the problem of evil needs to be discussed, and not whether the argument is illogical.

  24. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 7:06 pm

    “…you have to argue as to why you think something is evil in the first place.”

    Are you saying that christians know what evil is because the bible tells them so? Please tell me you’re not making this claim. Are you saying that god whispers in your ear that murder is bad, and without that little whisper no one would ever have known murder was bad? Please don’t tell me you’re saying that.

    “Evil” is one of those things christians like to pretend they discovered, have a patent on, and everybody else just borrowed.

    I don’t have any farther to go in accounting for my understanding of good and bad than you do. I have a moral sense, a conscience, feelings, the golden rule, millenia of evolved instinct as a social being, and all the other moral equipment that all other humans have.

    You have Euthyphro’s dilemma. Good luck with that one.

    And that’s ON TOP of the Problem of Evil.

    And I certainly don’t claim atheism is arrived at more rationally than religion. As I said, I think it’s mostly socialization. If I convert to some religion, I gain a huge community of sweet, supportive people. If you convert to atheism, you’re out of a job, buddy. Not much of a contest there.

  25. August 15, 2009 8:03 pm

    “While the theist problem is that we have to talk about why God allows evil, you have to argue as to why you think something is evil in the first place.”

    I agree with Adam, really. This statement doesn’t really make much sense. Why do atheists (or different-theists) need to argue that? If evil isn’t a force, but a label, then there’s no need to go any further than say our values and culture oppose a thing, therefore it’s considered evil.

    We can say genocide is evil, and so it is. But the Bible records (or at least claims to record) the similar decimation of peoples, down to the women and children. Clearly in the culture those legends were speaking to, these were not immoral acts. Same for the story about the first born in Egypt dying. Today, we’d have to say those kids were innocent victims and since it was done in order to affect a political change (releasing the Hebrews) it could be considered terrorism. But the people originally recording that story and those reading it would not have thought of it that way, especially given that the order to kill those children was attributed to God himself.

    Evil, to that degree, is tied with the values and culture of the day, and does change from culture to culture. Obviously that gets into the much-hated concept of “moral relativism” that a lot of Christians use as a club on others, but it’s hard to deny that it exists. So if evil is a cultural value rather than a “thing” or “force”, as it traditionally is in Christianity, then why do atheists (and those with similar views on the topic) have any problem describing where it comes from?

  26. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 8:14 pm

    I’m glad we agree on the atheism/religion rationality issue. I think that’s a good starting point then. But, I will confess to making a face at this statement;

    “”You’re out of a job, buddy. Not much of a contest there.”

    I also have to confess to you this kind of thing really pisses me off, so If I came of as an asshole, I’m going to ask you to forgive me. But, it’s an ad hominium arugment that I find especially nettling.

    Why? Because contrary to popular belief, I have lost more money being in this job than earned. So, while I try not to be overly sensitive about the whole “you are in it for the money” argument, I’m not overly fond of these sort of statements. I get where they came from, televangelist etc. But I assure you, most of the ministers I know don’t make very much money. They have a tough life and so do their families. They do what they do because they believe in it. They sacrifice a lot of time, effort and suffering to help people in their worst times, death, divorce, and family suffering. Again, I realize it’s the douchebag televangelists that don’t help us here.

    But still. I sure as heck wouldn’t have gone to the Creation Museum with a bunch of atheists if I was in it for the money. Do you think I win any popularity points for that one?

    I’m sure that’s not what you were trying to say. Hell, if became an atheist, I’m sure I could make quite a decent living going on the atheist speaker circuit, write books on how silly christianity is and slag on christian people. So, once again, this sword cuts both ways. Or maybe I would let the whole argument go to devil and work at a quiet fishing village for the rest of my life. Much more peaceful.

    Ok, taking a deep breath. Calming down. I’m really sorry to be so defensive, but you hit a very sore spot for me. Am I being emotional and not rational here? Most certainly. Again, I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it.

    You are still avoiding my question by trying to turn it around on me, But to put a stop to the relentless volleys, I will answer you for the sake of fairness. I certainly believe that since we are created in God’s image, we are given that moral sense through that image. I’m quite sure you aren’t happy with that answer, but there it is.

    So, back to you, yes, you do have to answer the question. Relying on evolution to give you your moral sense is shaky to say the least. All we can tell from evolution is what helped us survive. We can’t really make moral judgements on it one way or another. If you want to use “the moral sense that all humans have” argument, I would ask you to define that more clearly. Whose morality? What sort of humans? Who gets to make those decisions? You? Me? Do we trust each other enough for that to happen? If so, why? I find it curious that an atheist would rely on the argument, “Oh you know, the stuff we all agree on.” And that stuff would be what?

  27. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 8:33 pm

    I’m sorry to have hit a nerve. I was really just making a lame joke, the point of which was supposed to be that religion is a social construct that is maintained for good social reasons. The price of admission is to accept something irrational – to make a leap of faith – or to at least agree not to contradict that irrational belief.

    I certainly never seriously entertained the idea that you, Jonathan, are in it for the money, or that you are insincere in your belief. If anybody says otherwise, I volunteer to metaphorically punch him in the snoot.

    But the point stands that you are supported, socially. And it is your job. I would never denigrate anybody for the sweat of his brow.

    Whose morality? Mine, shared by my family and a large portion of my society.
    What sort of humans? All sorts. Look around you.
    Who gets to make those decisions? Depends. Pregancy? The pregant woman. The death penalty? Society as a whole. What to get my friend for his birthday? Why, me. That would be my decision.
    You? Yes.
    Me? Yes.
    Do we trust each other enough for that to happen? No. But we do have a society, a constitution, laws, officials, and a decision-making process.
    If so, why? Well, I said no. If yes, because we have a strong and fair enough social contract that it gets the job done well enough.
    And of course I’ll turn the argument around on you, as is my right. Who do we trust? A bunch of dudes who claim they know what an invisible god thinks? “Trust us, gays are second-class citizens. Sure, it’s cruel and unfair, but it’s out of my hands. God told me it had to be that way.” Would I trust people who reason like that? Not on your life. Not for a second. They’re the last people I would consult. They’ve tossed out their consciences and judgment for some authoritarian bullshit. Doing so is, in my view, the hight of immorality.

    Again, I apologize for pushing your buttons. I really feel bad about it and I really didn’t mean anything by it.

  28. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 8:39 pm

    I also apologize for spelling “height” wrong.

    (That was god’s way of telling me I should have said “the depth of immorality.” Maybe.)

  29. SuperCorgi permalink
    August 15, 2009 9:56 pm

    Jonathan – “I know plenty of atheists who are atheists because they are pissed off at the church. Fair enough. But, would you all say that person is well thought out atheist? I would say most likely not.”

    I know this is aside from the main discussion, but really? I don’t know any atheists like that. I know people who are atheists and are ticked off at the church but that’s not why they are atheists. (OK I can think of one person on the JREF forum who may originally have become an atheist because he was so disillusioned with the behavior of people in his church but now has found a sounder, non-emotional basis for his disbelief).

    I also know people who are pissed off at the church who, never the less, are still strongly devout.

  30. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 10:10 pm

    No worries. You really have to forgive ME. It’s been a LONG week with the SSA conference and everything that has come out of it. It truly took me by suprise and I think being tired has just caught up with me. I get cranky when I get tired. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m cranky. 🙂

    I’ll try to answer your post later this weekend/

  31. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 10:12 pm

    Yeah, I’m not saying that’s the majority, but yes, I know a few. They wouldn’t say that of course, but when I ask them why they are an atheist, I don’t get very compelling reasons (and I know there are many) why other than the church is full of hypocrites. Certainly true, but not a reason to make a decision on what is true or not. So, maybe that’s more of an assumption on my part.

  32. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 10:26 pm

    “…when I ask them why they are an atheist, I don’t get very compelling reasons…”

    I, and many other atheists, wouldn’t think a person needs a “reason” to be an atheist. It’s the null hypothesis – the default position. Look around the room. Any faeries? Nope. Boom: an afaerieist. Check for unicorns! Nope? An aunicornist. Etc. The hypocrites in the church are just confirmation.

    (I know I’m oversimplifying. I’m being flip. I know that a lot of existing entities require much, much more than a glance around the room. That’s what science is for. It’s found bosons and spacetime, quasars and viruses and prions, but still no faeries, unicorns, or gods.)

  33. August 15, 2009 10:39 pm

    I suspect that a lot of people leave the church for the reasons you say. I’ve known a number of people who left due to bad experiences (including abuse), witnessing hypocrisy, and all the rest, but that was only why they started their search for their place. I’ve known several who went into Paganism of various sorts, atheism, and Buddhism, but as far as I know none of them went there because of their displeasure at the church. Their displeasure caused them to leave the church, yes, but finding what they were looking for ultimately was why they stayed with what they ended up with. Heck, one even went back to the church but a different denomination.

    I suspect one problem is that some people aren’t very good at articulating that, and simply say why they left Christianity as a sort of shorthand. Gets it out, people know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

    Personally, it was nothing so dramatic. I just realized at an early age that nothing the Bible and the church (Anglican in my area) were telling me was terribly convincing. Decades later, I began to find the sort of things that were more convincing. Pretty mundane, really. I doubt I was anywhere close to unique.

  34. SuperCorgi permalink
    August 15, 2009 10:42 pm

    “Yeah, I’m not saying that’s the majority, but yes, I know a few. They wouldn’t say that of course, but when I ask them why they are an atheist, I don’t get very compelling reasons (and I know there are many) why other than the church is full of hypocrites. Certainly true, but not a reason to make a decision on what is true or not. So, maybe that’s more of an assumption on my part.”

    I asked because the “atheists are just angry at god” is a very old, tired, statement that many religious people trot out repeatedly. And although atheists again and again explain that you can’t be angry at something you don’t believe exists – it still gets repeated. Ken Ham uses this one a lot. In an article about the Creation Museum visit, Ken Ham is quoted as saying about PZ Myers that “This man is obviously very angry at God and relishes in mocking Christianity — spending a lot of his time fighting against someone he doesn’t believe exists!”

    I just get tired of hearing it. Maybe there are people who are angry at god and call themselves atheists, but I would contend that they don’t know what an atheist is. Just a pet peeve of mine.

  35. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 15, 2009 10:59 pm

    Hmmm, good point. Maybe we need another category? I think you are right that some claim to be atheists but are more agnostic. I find the agnostics are usually a bit more feisy then the “hard” atheists.

  36. AdamK permalink
    August 15, 2009 11:54 pm

    I like the category “apatheist” – someone who doesn’t care if there are gods or not, and who can’t be troubled to think about it. I think a lot of people fall into this category. Just unmoved by and indifferent to religion. They might call themselves “atheist” if pressed to give a name to their “belief.”

  37. August 16, 2009 12:43 am

    I am amusingly reminded of the attitude the Buddhists I studied with had on memories of past lives. Maybe you got ’em. Maybe it’s just imagination. Either way, who cares? It’s not important, since you have everything you need in this life. Origins questions were kinda treated the same way. Who cares how the world got here, it’s right in front of you now, so what you gonna do about it?

    That attitude always tickled me in light of the obsession YECers have with origins.

  38. SuperCorgi permalink
    August 16, 2009 1:08 am

    “I like the category “apatheist” – someone who doesn’t care if there are gods or not, and who can’t be troubled to think about it. I think a lot of people fall into this category. Just unmoved by and indifferent to religion. They might call themselves “atheist” if pressed to give a name to their “belief.””

    For a period of my life that’s exactly what I called myself. Religion and the existence/non-existence of a supreme being (I was raised as a Congregationalist and did all that church stuff including singing in the choir every Sunday), just didn’t matter to me anymore. It was a non-issue.

    As I learned more about science and world cultures (majored in Anthropology) I came more and more to see that there just wasn’t any good evidence for a supreme being so now I identify myself as an atheist.

  39. August 16, 2009 2:10 am

    I must admit that I don’t “get” this discussion (maybe it’s just me?). There are lots of contradictions in life. People who believe in God probably have a few more contradictions than others, but I doubt being an atheist removes this problem entirely. So there are contradictions … Deal with it.

    As for the definition of God, I just don’t see any progress to be made there. If God does not exist, then it is a pointless exercise. If God does exist, then the mere idea of defining God seems … contradictory.

    As for evil, this is perhaps off topic, but is anyone familiar with Terror management theory?

    A few other comments:

    Adam and Johnathan: I think it is OK that “buttons get pushed”, what really matters is that you are able to resolve it. Interesting dialogue.

    Johnathan wrote> But still. I sure as heck wouldn’t have gone to the Creation Museum with a bunch of atheists if I was in it for the money. Do you think I win any popularity points for that one?

    Well actually … you did win a bunch of popularity points. Not that you planned that to happen. 😉

  40. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 2:19 am

    I actually DID laugh out loud on that one. I guess I did.

    I honestly thought I would get bad emails from Christians and atheists alike. Neither happend. I’m kinda disappointed. 🙂 I keep waiting for the Ken Hammites and “Pastor” Tom fans to show up here. Really suprised it hasn’t happend.

  41. SuperCorgi permalink
    August 16, 2009 3:48 am

    “I keep waiting for the Ken Hammites and “Pastor” Tom fans to show up here. Really suprised it hasn’t happend.”

    Speaking of Pastor Tom, did he ever take you up on your offer to meet and have a dialog? Frankly, he seems to be frothing at the mouth more than ever. But I was just curious since he dismissed you as a Christian yet I think you’re a far better representative of a Christian than he is.

  42. Ray S. permalink
    August 16, 2009 4:20 am

    Jonathan, the very fact that you’ve had to change your plans for the site and are now participating on an active thread on you own blog is testament to the fact that you did win popularity points.

    So much has happened since I was last able to post.

    You’re wrong, Jonathan, about me having to deal with the Problem of Evil. The thing with that title is a refutation of a particular type of god. Since I don’t purport that such a god exists, I have no issue with the refutation. I thnk you might have jumped the gun with another though that uses similar words. It’s something atheists hear a lot from theists. It goes something like ‘without a god, you have no way to determine right from wrong’. I hope you are not making that claim.

    I will agree that there are some atheists that do follow, at least initially, the thought that ‘if there is no god, then everything is permissible’. Most of us quickly realize that path leads to anarchy and begin the process of re-evaluating our moral values. I think it is telling that most atheists end up concluding that the basic values avowed by moderate Christians, but also the values espoused by reasonable people of almost every culture are sound. There are various formulations of the golden rule, any of which can take you a long way toward reasonable moral values, and some of those arose in civilizations that had nothing resembling the western concept of god. I think you’re too smart to do so, but theists sometimes imply atheism leads to such lack of morals that the majority of the Earth’s population, which is not Christian, must be wallowing in crime. It isn’t. Somehow they figure out for the most part what is right and what is wrong. Atheists do also. It really isn’t that hard.

    I will admit a certain disappointment to your syllogisms in the opening post. Some theists have made it a hobby searching out new gaps for a god to hide in now that we don’t need one to explain stuff like thunder, hurricanes, disease and biological diversity. One of the newest, currently in strong evidence at Pharyngula, is in philosophical arguments. I had the misfortune of encountering this a couple of weeks ago on a blog out of New Zealand. It was a couple, apparently amateur philosophers, who condescendingly disparage anyone not attuned to the subtleties of academic philosophical argument. This seems to be effective for them in that they can endlessly post in academic jargon that I don’t think even they understand. But it looks so convincing. I prefer a little reality and evidence with my arguements, thank you very much.

    And that is why I’m interested in actually having your answer. Is your concept of god limited in some way? Or do you recognize the Problem of Evil for what it is and have no actual answer yet? I do not want to know what you think other Christians might say or what most theists think. I want Jonathan’s answer. Of course other theists on this thread are encouraged to answer for themselves as well. This is how I can grasp your definition of ‘god’. You tell me how your god works or doesn’t work, where it exists or doesn’t, how I can detect its presence. I’ve got lots more questions after those, because I want to understand YOUR position. I already know that Ken Ham and Pastor Tom are five pounds of BS in a three pound bag. I want to know how you differ and how you can rescue your faith from charlatans such as these.

    As to the comment above about how theists and atheists come to their respective positions, I don’t think there is one answer that fits every situation. Short of actual research in this area though, I do think that a greater percentage of atheists (but certainly not all!) have carefully thought out their justification for their position. I attribute this to atheists having a much smaller support network and being at odds with the general public consensus. To put it another way, it seems easier to be an uniformed believer than an uninformed unbeliever. That is speculation on my part though, so I could be completely off base here. I’ll save the details of my path to atheism until it is relevant.

    And finally I’m going to disagree with AdamK on a point. If for some reason you convert to our side, I think you would have great job prospects. Google Michael Dowd. Consider Dan Barker or even Bart Ehrman or John Shelby Spong.

  43. SuperCorgi permalink
    August 16, 2009 4:25 am

    Well I just went to look at “Pastor” Tom’s website and now he requires you to register and will ban you if you’re not up to his muster (which I assume anyone who does not agree with a 6,000 year old earth). It’s a shame really because some good discussion were getting on (though they occurred when he wasn’t there). Some very insightful and curious Christians were posting as well as respectful atheists. It’s a shame when someone has to resort to censorship when their world view is challenged.

    Again, Jonathan, I applaud you for encouraging discussion and exploration of different viewpoints. While I don’t agree with you, I respect you for being open and accepting of people with different opinions. You are an exemplary Christian where as the “Pastor Toms” of the world just look narrow minded, condemning, and insecure.

  44. Andrew permalink
    August 16, 2009 12:34 pm

    I would argue that while it is clearly necessary when talking about the evolution of morals to keep a clear distinction between factual and prescriptive arguments, it is nonetheless necessary to acknowledge the facts.

    As far as we know at the present time, the relevant facts appear to be approximately along these lines:

    1. Humans possess a set of “moral emotions” (guilt, sense of fairness, etc.) and a sense of empathy. These appear to be largely innate rather than learned (though while the _emotions_ may be innate, the association of many actions to the underlying emotions is learned), and many of them are shared with other social primates, or indeed other mammals (e.g. mice).

    2. It is reasonable to conclude that we have these emotions because they have survival value for members of a social species; but it does not of course follow that they all have adaptive value _now_.

    3. Human decision-making is heavily dependent on emotions; for example, damage to areas of the brain responsible for processing of emotions can render the victim pathologically indecisive.

    Going beyond the facts now and into the realm of ethical argument, we can see that many widely-accepted principles found as part of the ethos of many different cultures or religions correspond closely, as one would expect, to the apparently innate moral emotions.

    However, the relative value given to one emotion over another can cause serious problems; if a society starts valuing purity and in-group identification over empathy, for example, we tend to call the result “fascism”.

    Therefore the challenge in making an ethical argument is to come up with some reason for accepting or rejecting an ethical statement that isn’t founded on the ethos of particular cultures or on the moral emotions (since those can lead us astray). However, an ethical system that contradicts _all_ the moral emotions is unlikely to gain much support in practice. (Objectivism is probably the closest example for that.)

    I don’t claim to have the answers myself, but it’s quite possible to construct rational systems of ethics based on a small number of simple principles that are consistent with at least some of the moral emotions (and which do not require a theistic foundation). See for example some of the essays on, or linked from, Ebon Musings (particularly “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick”).

  45. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 12:40 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Andrew. And welcome.

  46. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 12:44 pm

    Ah, “Pastor” Tom. I really don’t understand him. I have had some of my Christians friends read his blog and they can’t believe him.

  47. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 12:54 pm

    Interesting points. I’ll have to give it some thought. I actually had a strategy about the whole problem of evil discussion, ie, give the rational first, then the emotional. Perhaps I should have gone the other way around?

    And, i would still disagree with you that you don’t have to posit reasons for morality. If you don’t, it’s not a very fair discussion if I have to provide reasons, but you all don’t. Does that make sense? I’m perfectly willing to put myself in the firing line and my reasons for believing for open scrutiny. I’m inviting you all to do the same. I’m not backing down on this one. I’m certainly NOT saying that atheists can’t be moral. Not saying that all. I just want to hear reasons for why they are. Matt, who be posting here shortly, believes as a hard atheist, that the most logical position for an atheist is a moral nihilism. He has a well thought out system for why this out so.

    But, you are right, you should get my position and how I defer from Hammites. Excellant point and I hope to do that some time this week.

  48. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 12:56 pm

    No, sadly he is not. I was completely sincere about meeting him. People like “Pastor Tom” aren’t really concerned with truth, they are concerned with power, control and having everyone think what a swell guy he is. I would have been greatly surpised if he would meet with me.

  49. Ray S. permalink
    August 16, 2009 2:25 pm

    Do you know someone named Rae? I’m not that person.

    Jonathan, I did not claim I don’t have to support my reasoning for why some particular act is good or bad. I only claim that ‘The Problem of Evil’ is a different thing. The PoE is, I think, very successful at refuting the proposal of a maximally good, omniscient and omnipotent god. For a god without one or more of those characteristics, it is less successful.

    Everyone has the problem of determining for themselves what is moral, i.e. the difference between right and wrong. For some theists, they only look to their sacred text of choice and they’re done. Other theists supplement those texts with other reasoning. I as an atheist reject any sacred text as a communication from a higher power/creator/god, so I have more work to do to develop my personal moral framework. I can, of course, take on a prepackaged moral framework from any source if I so choose.

    I doubt there is significant difference between your operational morals and mine. You may accept that murder, rape, stealing and lying are wrong, giving as a reason that they are commandments, but I suspect you could justify considering them wrong without the use of a bible. I further suspect that you consider slavery wrong despite its tacit approval in your bible.

    I ask for your opinions and beliefs, and willingly share mine, because in the end that is all we really can do. I cannot speak for all atheists. I cannot ask you to speak for all theists or Christians. Ultimately we only speak for our selves.

  50. Andrew permalink
    August 16, 2009 4:56 pm

    Leaving aside the question of morals, what about the Argument from Natural Evil?

    The only non-vacuous theistic response I’ve seen to that boils down to “God creates the world full of arbitrary natural hazards in order that there will be opportunities for people to display compassion, bravery, and other virtues”. (Not perhaps a very comforting image for those who end up on the “victim” side of the equation.)

    Creating (or allowing to evolve) a parasitic worm (Onchocerca volvulus) just so that thousands of years (and millions of blinded victims; look up “river blindness”) later some scientists can come up with a way to control or (possibly) exterminate it seems inconsistent with most commonly presented views of God.

  51. Ray S. permalink
    August 16, 2009 5:33 pm

    And for what purpose do people need to “display compassion, bravery, and other virtues”? Why must some people die or suffer in order that others get the privilege of showing off?

    It seems to me that it is just post hoc rationaliztion of an emotional need for an invisible friend/father figure.

    This just begs for the question I’ve been waiting to ask: For those of you who believe in a god, a god that can interact with the material world, how can we detect that interaction?

  52. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 16, 2009 5:57 pm

    Sorry, yeah, I do. I always think of his name unconsiously when I look at your name. I meant to reply to you, but may have mistyped. Apologies.

  53. Shannon permalink
    August 17, 2009 1:26 pm

    The trouble with a theistic basis for morality, as best I can express the concept, really isn’t the notion of whether God is the ‘source’ of morality or not. It is, quite simply, that certain common moral ‘structures’ exist regardless of the society in question.

    Japan has, in general, roughly the same views as to what is moral and what is not: marriage is good. Divorce is bad. Murder is bad. Rape is bad. Thievery is bad. Violation of individual liberty is bad. They are by no means a “Christian Nation”. Pick any society you like, and at least some subset of the general moral structure exists – most often a prohibition about murder and thievery and a marriage of some sort.

    Which God is the source of morality? Why are you certain is it yours? Is it not just as logical that perhaps Mithra was, only we humans have largely forgotten him? Or perhaps it was Ra – most logical would be the first Speaker, Enkli, who was the bringer of wisdom to the ancient Sumerians. I would posit that no god at all is, and instead it’s an evolutionary adaptation visible in most primates and expressed grandly in humans, one that’s largely responsible for our success as a species on this planet. We do really well when we get together in groups, and every common moral stricture matches up very nicely with the survival of the group dynamic.

    Even religion (or its lack) which is a way to identify yourself as part of a community, and thus create attachments within a larger society that our minds simply can’t comprehend.

    (It’s a comedy article, but if I may: – the science is pretty darned good, despite the tone.)

    The problem of evil exists simply because if the Christian god exists, with the attributes as attested to in his holy writ, then evil ipso facto should not. Epicurious presents a tremendous problem for basic christian theology, all the way down to Adam and Eve; after all, even in that allegorical piece, wouldn’t it have just made more sense not to put the snake in the garden to begin with?

  54. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 17, 2009 2:28 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Shannon, and welcome.

  55. August 17, 2009 3:36 pm

    That’s an interesting line of thought, Shannon. We’re social creatures by nature, and with the application of a nice, complex brain, social interaction gets magnified by quite a bit. So then you’ve got these humans, who have grown into these evolving social structures which are complex expressions of the social interactions that go back millions of years, coming to the realization that they exist. It’s a big revelation, turning and asking “why do we have laws and hate murder of our friends, anway?” It’s like the first person who realized air was a substance, rather than just…there. So how do you explain that? Well, obviously with the tools at hand, and the tools that fit best are the same ones that explain how thunder works, or why your people seems to have a good amount of food and shelter. And, coincidentally, the one that makes you feel good and special. Religion.

    Honestly, I can easily see religion’s utility as a “sort-of” forerunner to later science. It was an explanatory device that people could reasonably understand, especially when there was no technology to delve much further into it. And so religion surpasses religion, explanations get transferred and inherited without knowing where they originally came from (and sometimes actively discouraged against finding out), these early, rough explanations become tradition and taken as unquestionable givens. So an explanation of morals becomes “Christian morals” without recognizing they aren’t unique to Christianity. Bad things become codified and personified, and pretty soon you have this idea of a persistent force called “evil”. It’s not individual things that are evil, but these individual things are part of a continuity, and eventually a persona. Satan, if you will.

    So along comes science, and there’s push-back. Those original rough explanations, now “ancient wisdom” are taken as THE explanation. Science isn’t allowed to go there, and even philosophy is seen with a wary eye. And, detached from the reality that it grew out of, strange fruit is born. The “atheists don’t have absolute morality” canard is one of those.

    Speculation on my part, I suppose, and more of an unfocused ramble than anything out. But I wanted to get it out and see what people thought.

  56. Kristen permalink
    August 17, 2009 6:08 pm

    Hi guys, I’m new to posting here and am unsure of if I will post again. But I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. I realize that these ideas I’m posting have already been discussed (and I’m not sure if this is quickly becoming a dead topic on this blog yet) but anyway, I thought it might be helpful to re-state the problem of evil like this:

    i.) If the God of the Bible exists, He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
    ii.) If the God of the Bible is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then He knows when unnecessary suffering (i.e., suffering that could be prevented without allowing something equally bad or worse to happen, or that could be prevented without also preventing a greater good from occuring) is occurring, He is able to stop it, and, being wholly good, He desires to stop it.
    iii.) Unnecessary suffering exists.
    iv.) Therefore, the God of the Bible does not exist.

    It seems like the problem is more with unnecessary suffering, not suffering in general. I don’t see any problem with acknowledging that an omniscient being who sees what we don’t see may have reasons for allowing us to suffer in order to achieve a greater good or to prevent a greater evil from occurring. But does unnecessary suffering exist, i.e., suffering that does NOT ultimately bring about a greater good or that does not prevent something equally bad or worse from happening? As a Christian, I don’t think so. I would argue (an idea stolen but reworded from William Rowe) this:

    i.) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
    ii.) Because God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, He allows no instances of unnecessary suffering to occur.
    iii.) Therefore, there are no instances of unnecessary suffering.

    Anyway please forgive me if this post was totally unhelpful; I do realize that the ideas here have for the most part been discussed, but like I said, I thought it might be helpful just to slightly clarify the arguments.

  57. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 17, 2009 7:55 pm

    I hope you stick around, girl. 🙂

  58. Andrew permalink
    August 17, 2009 8:38 pm

    (does blockquote work here? let’s find out:)


    But does unnecessary suffering exist, i.e., suffering that does NOT ultimately bring about a greater good or that does not prevent something equally bad or worse from happening?

    What greater good (or prevention of greater evil) was brought about from thousands of years worth of people suffering and being blinded by a parasitic worm that only infects humans? And that was incurable (and not easily avoidable) until the development of modern medicines and pesticides?

  59. Kristen permalink
    August 17, 2009 10:13 pm

    What greater good is brought about by ANY physical ailments that affect humans? Blindness, loss of limbs, cancer, AIDS, etc. . . The fact that we as humans can’t always see right away (or even at all before death) what greater good is being achieved through our suffering does not by any means mean that therefore a greater good hasn’t been achieved. I should have stated that in my previous post. But perhaps God cares more about us cultivating/acquiring souls with certain moral properties, and even if we can’t understand how, blindness may have been necessary to help achieve some of those characteristics for the people God allowed to be inflicted.

  60. Ash permalink
    August 18, 2009 8:30 am

    Kirsten, how could we possibly know AFTER death that good is being acheived by our suffering? That’s a ridiculous line of argument. Also, if God is perhaps trying to acheive certain moral qualities by allowing/causing suffering, the obvious (and ludicrous) conclusion must be that it is both wrong + sinful to try to interfere with that plan with medical intervention. And that medical advances would then disprove God’s omnipotence…

  61. Andrew permalink
    August 18, 2009 11:10 am

    The idea that medical intervention is sinful has in fact had some supporters in the past; one particular form of it, the idea that the pain of childbirth was a deliberate punishment from God, not to be interfered with, even persisted until relatively recent times.

    The idea that suffering is somehow virtuous is one of the more evil memes spread by Christianity.

  62. Shannon permalink
    August 18, 2009 2:46 pm

    I’d like to address two things quickly – so, of course, that means neither will get the full attention it deserves.

    The first is Kelseigh: I fully agree. The key, I think, is to realize that our social structures evolve along the same basic pragmatic lines as any other group addressed by natural selection; it may be that human evolution (while still continuing on the genetic front, don’t get me wrong) may be most dynamic in our social interaction and philosophies that surround our social interaction.

    Feudalism->limited Republic->Full Republic (as influenced by the Greek democracies) with a split to Communism after limited republic, and Facism after a full republic; you can place a continuum, as messy as any other evolutionary tree, from ‘tribalism’ to the current forms of government and pick up all sorts of twists, turns, dead-ends and refinements. I wish I were a sociologist, sometimes, just to have the background one would need to explore the idea… but it is becoming more and more obvious that social behavior is an inherited trait, and the things we find instinctively abhorrent are intriguingly ‘low level’.


    The second notion is about the idea of suffering reaching for the Greater Good – the problem here is that, frankly, nothing is simple. There is no such thing as an event that does not result in a myriad of consequences, both good and ill (no matter how one chooses to define the terms). But there is, on the other hand, a human ability to synthesize happiness regardless of the event in question.

    Take a peek at – where Dan Gilbert discusses the evolution and synthesis of happiness, including the idea that human imagination is the ultimate evolutionary advantage.

    Understanding why we feel what we do about things that happen is key to understanding the problem of ‘suffering’ – but front-loading the concept with “All part of God’s plan” sets up a perfect rationalization rather than any sort of real understanding. To paraphrase someone else on the subject – imagine your daughter is in a car accident. If you are a theist, there are five distinct basic possibilities (with infinite permutations):

    1 – Your daughter escapes without harm. Praise God, who watched over her!
    2 – Your daughter escapes with minor injuries. Praise God, it could have been worse!
    3 – Your daughter is heavily injured, and goes to the hospital. Praise God, she’s not dead! Pray for her recovery!
    4 – Your daughter is heavily injured, losing her leg. Praise God she’s not dead! The loss of the leg is just a test that will help her and those around her grow spiritually.
    5 – Your daughter dies. Praise God! He has taken her home, and it’s all part of his plan.

    Note that in no situation is God ever the ‘bad guy’. “God, why have the accident in the first place?” is never really in among the rationalizations, or the questions – and those are very easy answers for what is an emotionally devastating event, potentially.

    God is given a pass – with a sort of smugness that makes no sense. He is never challenged, with the only ‘what if’ ever raised apparently ‘what if greater evil would result if this hadn’t happened?’ And I ask – is God omnicient and omnipotent? Why should greater evil result? Why is he, then, limited?

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