A common thread I've run into during my atheistic travels has been the Problem of Evil and the force many non-religious types (of an argumentative persuasion) believe this problem poses. The Problem of Evil (sometimes called the Problem of Evidential Evil, or something similar) can be stated as follows:
- God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent (all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving);
- There exists a preponderance of evil in the world - more than seems necessary.
- If (1) is true, then God would not let excessive evil occur because doing so would be contrary to Its nature.
The gist of the problem is than an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would not allow the magnitude of the evil we see in the world, natural or man-made. As such, it seems unlikely that God is all of these things, which undermines the existence of most monotheistic conceptions of the Deity.
If this is the case, then it seems unlikely God, at least in the form normally understood within the largest religious traditions, exists.
It is a powerful objection, particularly in light of the emphasis many religions place on the loving nature of God. It certainly seems reasonable to expect a 'perfect being' to be able to envision a world devoid of the copious amounts of evil evident in the world. God has the know-how, the power and the will to do so if he is the Omni-Being the world's largest religions normally claim him to be. This seems like a solid blow, and I believe it is, but it is often thrown out there as the end-all argument that it simply cannot be. There are several reasons for this, but before we dive in I need to highlight two different strategies we'll see employed by theists arguing in God's defense.
The first option is to show that the Problem of Evil does not logically preclude the 'tri-omni' being we normally define God to be. This is known as a defense, and it merely aims to show that the existence of God and evil are not logically mutually incompatible. The second option is a positive defense, known as a theodicy, that aims to show that evil actually supports the existence of God, or at least increases the probability that It exists. This is often argued by showing that the existence of evil allows for positive or even necessary benefits that underpin moral and/or spiritual life. The distinction is important because they have different purposes. As defense only attempts to lessen the blow the Problem of Evil poses, a theodicy aims to show the Problem of Evil is actually a form of evidence for the existence of God. Refuting the former is generally not as serious an attack as undermining the latter. Having made this distinction, consider some common lines of attack and defense as laid out below.
I. The Grand Scheme of Things
First, the Problem of Evil only lowers the probability that God exists in the form we are told It does; as it is not a logically conclusive argument, it does not negate the possibility that God exists. While often presented in standard argumentative form (i.e., a valid logical argument), the conclusion is not a decisive one. For our example, there is the possibility that this is the most perfect possible world. We can certainly argue for and against the proposition, but our limited knowledge of the “Grand Scheme” that God may have in store limits the impact of the objection. We can only show the likelihood that things literally could not be any better is a low one based on the evidence of evil in the world.
There is also the chance that all of this is exactly as God wants it to be. We, being lowly Creations, have no right to question things. We may very well be “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, predestined to endure the evils of the world simply because that is how the world is. In short, God's Scheme involves evil and the extent of it within the world is irrelevant. We are meant to suffer - some of us eternally, perhaps - and there is simply nothing wrong with that. God is not capable of being held accountable in the way we would hold another sentient being. Calvinism, amongst other Protestant Christian denominations, has held this tenant for hundreds of years.
Both of these options can be difficult to swallow. The idea that the world could not be even the tiniest bit less evil flies in the face of common sense. Does it really seem possible that suffering in the world could not be lessened by even the smallest amount? Perhaps even tougher is the idea that people are condemned to eternal punishment for crimes they absolutely had to commit. While it is seen as logically consistent with the idea that God is all-knowing and avoids some awkward philosophical moves to get around the problem, it simply seems unjust in the grandest sense possible. I personally feel this way. However, that God might be unjust is not necessarily an issue, as we'll see below.
II. Puppet Master / Free Will
Secondly, there are logically consistent ways to acknowledge the extent of evil but limit God's responsibility for it. A common and ancient defense stems from the notion of free will. If man is to have a significant, loving relationship with God it would seem that man would have to possess free will. If not, we would be little more than puppets pre-programmed to worship our creator. A relationship of this type would be hollow and false, which dictates that man be given the choice to do both good and evil. Thus, in order to have a meaningful relationship with God, God self-imposes limits that prevent It from overriding our potentially evil choices. The Greater Good of a real spiritual relationship effectively trumps the presence of evil.
There is also the idea that God is exempt from normal moral obligations as It is the source of Justice and the definer of Good. The evil that permeates the world might be excessive or unwarranted, but if God is above reproach it is hard to see how we might hold It accountable. Evil might be, from the standpoint of the Deity, something other than we see it to be. Our limitations could preclude us from understanding the true nature of the way the world works; an answer that goes well with the “Grand Scheme” argument pointed out above.
This argument is potentially difficult for the theist insofar as it can fly in the face of common sense in the early examples or be fraught with philosophical difficulties in the case of the free will argument. I personally have a hard time believing that the costs of evil are worth the benefits to the souls of man. I also think that any God who isn't held accountable to the standards of decency that are demanded of us by It is not one worth worshiping. However, I don't wish to get bogged down with each tangent I'm hinting at here (nor, I imagine, would you want to read that article if I did) but I do mean to point out that there can be coherent answers available to the theist in the face of the Problem of Evil.
III. Spiritual Growth
There is an argument centered around the notion of soul-building that has been put forward as far back as the first centuries C.E. The idea behind soul-building states that evil provides us with opportunities to grow spiritually. In doing so, we are pushed forward (and upward, hopefully) on our quest towards God. In other words, to be capable of spiritual growth we must be confronted with evil so as to better ourselves and evolve (though not collectively as a species, of course – how absurd!).
I can understand this point of view. My experience has taught me that true tests of self often occur when presented with obstacles, some of them terrible. The question to ask someone who puts forward this argument is whether it can account for the scope of evil within the world.
I should note that there is a commonly advanced division of the types of evil in the world, usually designated as "natural evil" and "moral evil." Natural evil is that found in the world that is not the work of a moral agent. Examples are a forest fire that kills countless animals, a plague that wipes out a town, and a terrible drought that leads to famine and death. The effects of natural evil can be beyond human measure, but we cannot pin them on a moral agent. Evil of that type is moral evil. Crimes, such as theft, rape and murder, are moral evils insofar as they are the actions undertaken by a moral agent.
Having made this distinction, we can again ask of the soul-builder if all of the evil in the world can be explained away as soul-building in purpose. Surely, we might say, there are animals dying horrible deaths right now that in no way lead to the betterment of a moral agent. Beyond that, does it seem right to say that there literally could not be any less evil to achieve God's purpose? Could not one fewer baby die? One fewer person suffer from depression?
. . .
As I have shown, there are many ways to confront the Problem of Evil. The fact that so much attention has been given to addressing the problem demonstrates its potential power, and I believe that it does undermine many traditional conceptions of God, particularly within the three large monotheistic traditions. Just be careful not to overreach and use it as a knock-out blow when it is not necessarily more than a strong jab. Rather, keep it in your philosophical arsenal, because you never know when a strong jab is all you will need to finish the fight.
Image Credit to Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian/Associated Press.