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Arguing the Problem of Evil with Ordinary Believers

I am relatively certain that there are many religious believers in the world who take the problem of evil seriously. However, I rarely seem to meet any of them. Other atheists who, like me, have engaged in countless conversations about religion might find their experiences consistent with mine. I am not shocked that the believers I interact with doubt the efficacy against theism of the problem of evil argument, but I am shocked that almost all of them really fail to convince me that they take the objection seriously. I would like to investigate this failure and also lay out some helpful ways of effectively communicating the problem of evil to ordinary believers.

Abstracting from my conversations, I find that most Christian believers I talk to defend their faith by taking one of the following paths:

  • They formulate or recite some kind of cosmological argument.
  • They point out the fact that reason-based enterprises such as science can’t fully explain the world, morality, and the human condition in general, and thus, faith is required to fill in the gaps.
  • They maintain that they have had such meaningful religious experiences (answers to prayer, miracles, vivid feelings of love and joy) that they could never doubt the existence of a good and loving God.

I have found it futile to try to object to their physics or to their feelings.

While you cannot argue with their experiences, you can try to point out that the conclusions they draw from their experiences might not be trustworthy. I explain what confirmation bias is and how we naturally look for evidence that only proves what we want to be true. This is the window of opportunity to raise the problem of evil. You cannot argue with their personal experiences, but you can raise the problem of the psychological barriers we all face when trying to make sense of these experiences. Confirmation bias is the fallacy that confirms the success of so many prayers and miraculous turns of events.

One of the ways in which confirmation bias desensitizes believers to the problem of real human suffering is the causal link believers create between moral vice and evil. God is not at fault for allowing human suffering, they think, because the suffering so many people face in life is due to their sinful choices. By selecting examples from a handful of individuals they know who have suffered because of personal failures they can easily avoid considering the evidence to the contrary. Clearly their reasoning completely ignores the inherently unequal distribution of health, wealth, and happiness based mainly on biological, geographical, and political differences, differences which are factual conditions that go far deeper than individual choice.

One of the stories from the Bible that disturbed me as a child was the story in the book of Joshua about a man named Achan. Achan disobeyed God’s will by taking spoils from the battle of Jericho, which had been prohibited. This sin led to a military defeat and his eventual death by stoning. But does the punishment fit the crime? Hardly. Even more disturbing is the fact that his entire household (wife, children, and animals) died with him. I think even my childlike morality was well-enough established to see the wrongness in death being dealt to innocent children for a crime that really had only hurt the pride of the biblical God. Whether or not the story is true is not relevant to the lesson; if retribution is the rationale for suffering, then the suffering of innocent victims is unjustified.

But many believers are in fact comfortable with this situation. They are willing to accept a world in which innocent children suffer and God is not responsible for immediately interfering and helping them. The first argument believers often give is that God is like a parent who cannot always intervene else the child will grow up too dependent and needy. God often needs to show “tough love.” Strangely this seems very inconsistent with the popular religious sentiment that being a person of faith means depending on God for everything. Moreover, this is hardly an analogy that could stand up to criticism.

Suppose a parent allowed their child to run into a busy street leading to the child’s immediate death. The parent could be prosecuted for a crime, that is, held responsible for not acting. If it became clear that while the parent wanted to help they could not due to a physical barrier (tripping and falling down, for example) then the situation would be accidental, not criminal. But if they could have prevented their child’s death–and did not–surely we would deem them cruel and evil. This is the point of Epicurus’ Dilemma. Either God is not powerful enough to help us, or God is cruel and indifferent to human suffering. Would we let the human parent off the hook for saying they didn’t help because they saw the value in tough love? Hardly.

The other underlying problem is the best-of-all-possible-worlds thinking that so many Christian believers maintain. God couldn’t have created a world with less evil without minimizing some good. Which good would we lose? Surely it could not be something trivial like ice cream or sports cars. But free will, they contend, is worth it. Free will is such an important good that it was worth the risk. God knew countless innocent children would suffer because of free will, but because God did not want robots we were created with the freedom to do either good or evil. This is a disturbing way of thinking that Voltaire and Dostoevsky have both illustrated and critiqued in a way more effective way than I ever could (and, strangely, to different conclusions).

Now, I am not going to get into the metaphysical issue of whether or not we even have free will, but let us just suppose that we do. It is more productive to point out that even if we do have freedom there are several limitations we cannot ignore. No matter how hard I try I cannot fly, walk through walls, or disappear. No matter how hard I mentally try I cannot conceive of a square circle or a married bachelor. Has God deprived me of some good by not giving me freedom to do these things? Of course not. So, we do in fact live in a world in which our freedom is somewhat restrained. Surely even the most recalcitrant believer must accept this fact.

What is the point of all this? Well, could we conceive of a world in which we still have free will but lack the ability to harm innocent children? Could we imagine a world without rape, murder, and disease, but still with anger, pride, personal failure, and greed? Yes, we could. Surely a God with infinite resources and mental capacities could have created a world with a more just distribution of suffering to the ones (and only to the ones) who sin and transgress the law. I could gladly give up my freedom to commit heinous acts and I think any morally serious person would as well. What would we lose in return? I do not think we would lose anything of any serious importance.

To use Nietzsche’s language, God could have created a world without good and evil, but with good and bad. Because God did not do this then it seems the believer must rationally justify their faith in God’s transcendent goodness. Or they could take the more simple solution and recognize that believing that a supernatural parent can solve the problem of the existence of evil is as useless as using such a creation as an explanation for the existence of evil in the first place.

I have found that ordinary believers are very interested in defending their faith; they prefer to discuss experience and the meaningfulness of belief over abstract metaphysical problems and dilemmas. The formulations of the problem of evil by analytic philosophers often elude the ordinary Christian, which is why I try to steer the conversation to clear, vivid facts and principles that are undeniable and shared by most people out there. It is one thing to label their reasoning fallacious; it is another thing to walk them out of it step by step. My goal is not to be an evangelist for atheism, but to help those who I think have failed to think through the implications of their worldview.