Evil, Suffering, And
Behavioral Determinism
Ali

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Monday, January 29, 2001 9:48 PM

It's still going on. Check out the latest. I even gave it an alternate title, like the old-timey days: "Is There Evil In The World? (or, Why Did Humpty Dumpty Fall Off The Wall?)"

Mike has pestered us before, as documented in that monumental farce known as "Atheism: A Position of Convenience?" Mike eventually admitted that he does this just for kicks and giggles, and I have shown him to prefer that lowest form of argument called the "Knee-Jerk Reaction," wherein your antagonist reflexively denies what you assert and asserts what you deny. If I were less honest than Nature appears to have intended, I'd be tempted to tell him that gods exist just to see if he'd take the atheistic position. That's what I suspect we may be dealing with, here!

I eventually banned him from writing here, but we've changed servers three times since then, and I've changed computers twice, and all the filters are long gone. So I went ahead and decided to indulge him as long as he behaves himself. Check out "Convenience": it's a real hoot! Those were the days when I had more time, before we started getting several dozen letters per day, before our monthly upload reached a point where I feel obligated to keep on top of the website, particularly the Letters section.

This is why my responses to him now sometimes wait several days, so I can catch up on my work. I am willing to display this style of thinking, in the interest of the atheistic communities gaining a broader understanding of the attitudes that prompt this behavior, but I have only so much time, and lately I've not only been swamped with letters, but I also must take at least a day out of my schedule to print up missing back-issues that I have promised several people, and I also must put together the February issue and write the February column. It is the print edition that pays the bills, you know, so it can no longer take the back seat I've had to give it since the computer crash of December 4.
 

The Argument from Evil is, I think, one of the most formidable enemies of the concept of a deity who is both all-powerful and good. A companion argument is the Argument from Nonbelief, which weighs heavily against the particularly Christian concept of an all-powerful god who wants humans to know him, who commands humans to love him. If this is God's desire, why are there so few True Believers? Neither argument holds much sway against such doctrines as Deism, because the god of the Deists allegedly does not care what goes on here on Earth. And the Argument from Nonbelief is not as formidable against the concept of the god of Judaism, who cares only for the Hebrew race.

The best treatment of these arguments, particularly as companion arguments, is the book Nonbelief and Evil by Theodore M. Drange. This book is a somewhat tedious read, but is, I think, worth the effort if you wish to become familiar with the primary and secondary counter-arguments commonly invoked against these objections. These include the Free-Will Defense, wherein God has given us free will to choose between good and evil, thus explaining the existence of evil. But the atheist counters that God could have made us altruists without hampering our free will. The atheist also points out that this defense does not explain natural catastrophes, which are not the result of any human free will. The theist then counters that these natural catastrophes are here to educate us as to the nature of evil, so that we can a "genuine choice" between good and evil. Eleanore Stump provides a most vivid response to this one:

"If God had not allowed rabies in the world -- or earthquakes or hurricanes or congenital malformations of infants, and so on -- there would be no point in having knowledge of such things. If you conceal traps in my front yard, then my repeated attempts to get from my front door to my car parked at the curb will produce in me knowledge about the consequences of my movements. And this knowledge will be useful to me, if I live long enough to acquire it, because it will enable me to avoid traps in the future. So this knowledge is good, it is gained from experience of the evil which you have introduced into my yard, and without this knowledge I could not avoid the evils of the traps. But you are not morally justified in setting traps in my front yard -- no matter how good or useful the knowledge about the consequences of my actions may be and no matter how dependent that knowledge is on my experiencing the jaws of the trap?"
     -- Eleanore Stump, "Knowledge, Freedom, and the Problem of Evil" (1983), in Michael L. Peterson, ed., The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings (1992)

Drange continues with even more detail than this, examining each argument and counter-argument, and even rating the force of each argument and counter-argument -- all the while refusing to fall into the trap of claiming that just because an argument is strong, therefore the argument irrefutably proves its point. No. All we can say is that it's a strong, forceful argument, and we do well to push it no further than this, says Drange. What I like most about this book is that it keeps Liberal Scientific Method in mind, applying those principles to the arguments for and against the existence of various gods. However, Drange shows how some religions, particularly the Christian religion, make claims that commit their apologists to certain specific points, such as the claim that God is simultaneously good and all-powerful. The existence of evil weighs heavily against this particular combination, though it says nothing against Deism or Pantheism. We must always keep in mind which claims are being made for a particular god, because an atheist's efforts at invoking the Argument from Design would be wasted, for when discussing certain ideas about the existence of the god of pantheism, for example.

In other chapters, Drange shows how the Free-Will Defense can be applied against the Argument from Nonbelief, because, they say, God wants us to believe freely, and for God's existence to be as evident as that of the sun would involve no choice. But this involves the question of whether people, after seeing something, voluntarily assent to the evidence, or whether there are other things involved. Unlike our buddy Mike Boston, the sophisticated theologians are less likely to contradict what we know through science. So, the further you get from the biblical fundamentalist position, the less detail you use to describe God, then the less problematic the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Nonbelief become. This is why I insist that a theist describe for me what the sound "God" means when she or he utters it: we cannot let them assume that we know what they're talking about; likewise, we have a much easier time arguing about descriptions than we do discussing sounds which may or may not have meaning. If the theist cannot provide such a description, if they resort go an "unknowable god," then my question remains, "How am I supposed to agree with you, if you don't even know what you're talking about?"

Drange further covers objections such as "God is testing us," whereby the atheist responds that an omniscient god would already know the outcome of such tests, or that such tests are unfair, favoring those with strong religious training, or that many are retarded or die too young for such testing to be valid. The theist then claims that God is punishing us, invoking the so-called Fall of Man. But the atheist first dismisses the historicity of the Garden of Eden story (where this idea has its basis), and then questions the fairness of such punishment, its being inequitably applied, and finally asks why a loving god would act this way in the first place. Theists also counter the Argument from Evil with explanations involving revenge or justice in an afterlife, which the atheist claims could not rectify certain horrors endured by humans here, also pointing out that only the "saved" receive this justice -- Jews, slaughtered in the Holocaust or during the Catholic Inquisitions and Protestant persecutions, cannot avail them of any such justice.

Theists say that we don't yet know God's purpose for allowing evil, but eventually these things and more will be revealed. The atheist asks, "How do you know that a god is allowing evil to begin with? What does a god have to do with any of this? If you admit you don't know why God acts this way, then what reasons have we for even assuming that God acts this way?"

I hope I sparked your interest in studying the classic (and new) arguments concerning the Problem of Evil. It is, as you suspect, a most formidable objection to most god concepts.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, January 30, 2001 9:03 PM

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and certain related discoveries, prevent physics from being entirely determined. Hopefully this prevents this mess from being just a big movie. If not, at least nature has granted that we may hallucinate that it's not really a big movie!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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