Reason Freely

The Problem of Evil

Posted in essay by reasonfreely on February 16, 2010

The Problem of Evil is one of the main challenges of theism.  It does not necessarily disprove the existence of a god, so this is not an atheism post per se (but enough so that it gets the atheism tag).  I contend that the problem of evil must be addressed by secular thinkers as well as by theists.   But the problem of evil is much easier for the secular, because we can admit that evil exists without shaming an omnipotent being.  I offer secular definitions and resolution to the question of evil.

The problem of evil for theists has not been resolved.  The evils done by men may be unstoppable due to the proposition that the benefit of free will is greater than any intervention God could make to protect people from evil men (C. S. Lewis’ apology; and a weak one at that — there’s a reason we have prisons, man!).  But Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti Earthquake?  Either God meant them (and is not benevolent) or God did not mean them (and is not omnipotent) or no evil happened (everyone who suffered deserved it).  And what about the natural circumstances that lead to human evil — honest misunderstandings that cause suffering, evictions, murders or wars; such as an innocent man sent to the electric chair based on an honest mistake.   Or worse — what is God’s responsibility for murky holy scriptures that seem to mean that men should do evil on earth?

If God is omnipotent and omniscient, and evil exists, then God is not benevolent.  For most Christians, this is not a palatable proposition.  For others, it seems to be their fervent belief.  They believe that the world is tainted by sin and has turned away from God (and so God has turned away from it).  If God is benevolent and omniscient, and evil exists, then God cannot do anything about it  — e.g. the Cathar Heresy, Manachaeism, Adoptionism (see Misquoting Jesus), and many others.  If God is benevolent and omnipotent, he must not be omniscient (though how could you be omnipotent and not also omniscient?).  It is the most foolish to believe that God shoots hurricanes and earthquakes around and doesn’t even know we’re in the way.

If God is all three, then Evil is resolved in the afterlife:  Those good people that died unjustly (murder victims, disaster casualties) are rewarded all the more for it, and those evil people that caused pain are punished.  The afterlife, then, is the only world that matters.  This implies that this world is trivial, and things like the holocaust are trivial and already taken care of.  I can’t countenance how this minimizes the suffering of innocents and still fails to address why God sends pain and suffering into the world (mysterious ways doesn’t cut it; and “to test our faith” is a crock — prayer doesn’t stop wars or hurricanes, and certainly never heals amputees).

The Problem of Evil for Freethinkers

Theologically, the problem of evil seems to resolve to impotence or apathy.

Either God can’t do anything about evil (he made the world then died, disappeared, or went to sleep; he merely had the power to set the big bang in motion and not the supernatural ability to intervene in our lives; he is not the only God or the devil is his equal in power)…

…or God won’t do anything about evil (his is an ineffable, alien mind that doesn’t concern itself with mere mortals; he believes free will and bad luck are necessary for us for some insane or alien reason, and has decided not to interfere, no matter how much disaster strikes; we have sinned and he has turned his back on us; or he is a wrathful and angry deity that sends a lot of punishment at us)…

…or God doesn’t exist.

The problem of evil for a freethinker is the problem of passivity.  We cannot simply accept that some final judgment will come and all wrongs will be righted.  So instead of living with evil — e.g. “he’ll get his just desserts!” or “she’s in a better place now.” — we have a responsibility on Earth to stop evil, mitigate natural disaster, do good, and promulgate and continue humanist works.

1) Oppose evil and help in times of tragedy. I cannot take the attitude that tragedy and evil acts will be compensated for in the final judgment until someone comes down from heaven and puts it in my Outlook.  When I see evil and tragedy, I do what I can to oppose it or remedy it.  Because I am not perfect, I’m not sure how much good my actions do, and I know I should do more.

Tragedy is easy to define.  But evil is not — not without a divine list of sins, anyway.  I think most people would find these two criteria pretty much common sense:  To cause intentional harm to others or allow harm to come to pass when we could prevent it without suffering harm ourselves is evil, unless it is done in order to prevent greater harm.  To use others for one’s own ends without fair recompense for the suffering they endure in so doing is also evil.

2) Do good and spread the good works of others. Now we need to define good, which can be done by contrast to evil (aiding vs. harming; supporting instead of using; causing joy instead of pain).

You might think that profit is bad, but that depends.  If you use others for your profit, taking from them to enrich yourself, then you are doing evil.  If you produce something that betters others, and share it in exchange for fair market value given an unmanipulated market (or better – somewhere between cost and fair market value, like if you also pay taxes on your profit at fair market value, or donate some of your earnings to charity), then you have created a net contribution to the happiness of the world or a net reduction in suffering.  This sounds like an Ayn Rand speech, but it’s not:  For one, I hope it’s better-written.  And also, I just said taxes and selling below fair market value are good deeds (though far from prescribed), which would probably make her vomit.

Having defined good and evil in pretty common sense terms, I may have just (as Laplace is said to have told Napoleon) made God an unnecessary hypothesis.  The problem of evil is resolved by saying that natural disasters and accidents happen because of chance, evil acts are the deeds of  men with free will, and God is not necessary to combat them because we can.


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