Does the Existence of Evil Prove There is No God?

Last week I maintained that the argument from evil to atheism is deeply flawed and arguably incoherent. As long as one defines “evil” at minimum as “something that has gone wrong” we must also admit the existence of an ideal plan from which evil deviates. And “ideal” plans exist only in minds; therefore the argument presupposes the existence of minds, either a divine-like cosmic mind or finite minds such as ours. But robust atheism denies the existence of a divine-like cosmic mind, so atheism must also give up the idea of a cosmic plan for the way things should go. Apart from such a plan no event can count as deviating from the ideal for the way things should go. There is no cosmic evil and hence no argument from cosmic evil.

If atheists give up the argument from cosmic evil to robust atheism, perhaps they can construct an argument from the human experience of evil to robust atheism. Human beings experience some events in the world process as painful, horrifying and repulsive. Measured by human wishes, plans and ideals, events often go horribly wrong. How does the contradiction between human desires and judgments about how things should go in the world and the actual flow of events argue for robust atheism? Clearly the argument would have to be developed along these lines:

  1. A divine-like cosmic mind would conceive and desire the same or nearly the same ideal for the way things go in the cosmic process as the ideal conceived and desired by human beings.
  2. A divine-like cosmic mind would do everything within its power to attain this divine/human ideal.
  3. A divine-like cosmic mind would possess enough power to insure at least a close approximation to this divine/human ideal is realized.
  4. Things do not go according to this divine/human ideal; indeed they deviate from it dramatically.
  5. Therefore no divine-like cosmic mind exists.

Obviously, the first premise is the crux of this argument. Since the argument is made from an atheist perspective, it cannot appeal to divine revelation to establish how the divine mind actually conceives and desires the world to go. It must assert that human ideals would be shared by any actually existing divine being. Apart from this premise the argument goes nowhere. But it seems highly questionable to assume that a map of the values, goals and thoughts of a divine mind that encompasses every event in the cosmos could be extrapolated from the limited experience of finite beings like us. Understandably, we place ourselves at the center of all things and think the entire world process should serve our private ends; but what evidence warrants the conclusion that a divine being must also place us at the center? Perhaps the divine being thinks and judges in ways very different from ours and views us as mere means to an end very different from ours. Indeed, there are many conceptions of a divine-like cosmic mind that are consistent with the human experience of pain, suffering and death. Maybe there are many divine beings that possess conflicting desires or perhaps the divine being is not omnipotent or its understanding of what is good differs dramatically from ours. Hence this five-step argument fails to establish robust atheism.

The failure of the argument just analyzed highlights something about atheist arguments from evil that is rarely noticed much less explored: they do not argue from evil to “robust” atheism. I have never read an argument like the one I outlined above. I employed the unusual term “robust atheism” to designate the view that there is no God or anything like God, no pantheon of gods or divine mind, plan or law. In my view, the only atheism worth considering denies that mind or anything mental is a fundamental eternal reality. And this is what I mean by robust atheism. Modern atheism (from about 1770 to the present) argues from the fact of evil to the incoherence of western theism (a view of God influenced by Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and concludes to the nonexistence of the God of western theism. The Creator God of western theism is omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient. Atheists argue that the factual existence of evil demonstrates that God cannot possess all three attributes. If God really were all-powerful, he could prevent all evil, if God were perfectly good he would want to prevent all evil and if God were omniscient he would know about every instance of evil. But evil exists; therefore the God of western theism does not exist. A variant of this argument contends that perhaps some instances of pain and suffering are consistent with God’s existence but there is so much evil in our world that no good end could ever justify it or make it right.

Clearly this argument does not warrant the conclusion of robust atheism that no God or anything like God exists. At most it points to the problem of reconciling a particular view of the divine cosmic mind (western theism) with the existence of evil. But this problem finds its natural home within a philosophical theology that affirms the existence of a divine mind. Only by a slight of hand can a debate about the nature of the divine and its relation to the flow of events evoked by the experience of evil be transformed into a debate about the very existence of anything like God. If you fall into robust atheism because of the argument from evil you have leapt far beyond the evidence. Some other motivating force must be at work.

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5 thoughts on “Does the Existence of Evil Prove There is No God?

  1. kagmi

    I would argue that the premise that evil must be defined as “something has gone wrong” is flawed.

    The definition of “evil” most commonly used by atheists I know is “suffering.” I actually find the contrast between atheists and theists here to be interesting; many theists seem to have difficulty conceiving of a concept of right and wrong that’s not determined by the edicts of a higher being, but most atheists instinctively determine right and wrong using empathy.

    I actually find this a bit disturbing sometimes, when theists express, for example, that they can see no reason why murder or rape would be wrong if a higher being does not exist. In my mind, if you cannot find a reason why causing suffering is wrong regardless of what a higher being says about it, we have a larger problem!

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Read the previous post and argue with it. Evil and suffering are not the same concepts. If suffering is somehow incompatible with the existence of a good and powerful creator, it must be wrong…otherwise its presence would not count against the existence of God.

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      1. kagmi

        Hmm. I can see your point. Although I think it is semantics. It is true that there is a technical distinction between “evil” and “suffering.” But I think it is quite common for folks of any stripe to think of “suffering” as “evil.”

        It is of course possible to conceive of a schema where the two are not the same thing – where suffering is sometimes good, or where there are things that are evil that do not cause suffering. Many religions seem to use such schemas. Which is one thing that alarms me about them.

        I will also agree that suffering does not rule out the existence of a God. However, I would argue that it does rule out the existence of a certain TYPE of God – specifically, the God which is both infinitely loving and infinitely powerful.

        Many arguments can be made about how suffering MUST exist to allow certain other things to happen – but that technically flies in the face of an infinitely powerful God, who can do anything and is not constrained by a “must.”

        Many arguments can be made about how it may sometimes be just or moral for God to permit suffering – but that technically flies in the face of an infinitely loving God, who does not want to see his creations in pain.

        A God who is not actually omnipotent, or one who is not infinitely loving, can exist in the same schema with evil. So no, evil does not rule out the existence of God. But it does arguably suggest things about God’s nature that are important for us to consider.

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      2. nokareon

        Kagmi, I raised a similar objection to Dr. Highfield in last week’s post, namely “couldn’t the Atheist just scrap the diction of ‘evil’ and run the argument using ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ instead?” Dr. Highfield gave a reply to that on last week’s post, I believe.

        I just wanted to comment on your remarks that “God can do anything and is not is not constrained by a ‘must.'” Often times, Atheists will give an account of God’s omnipotence that is rather uncharitable. Consider this question “Can God create a rock too heavy for Him to lift?” or “Can God create a square circle?” I would answer “no” to both of those, but neither of those infringes on God’s omnipotence. God can do any-*thing*, but it seems to me that square circles are not “things” at all—they are logical impossibilities, meaningless combination of words. It is no fault of God’s omnipotence not to do that which is logically impossible. The usual definition of God’s omnipotence I offer is: “God can perform any action that is not logically impossible nor contrary to His moral character.”

        This has bearing on discussions of the Problem of Evil because there may be states of affairs (which we call “possible worlds”) that God cannot actualize. For instance, consider how so much of the evil in the world is caused by human moral choices. Given that humans are free and able to make moral choices, it is logically impossible that God *make* all people freely choose to do good (to have an action free and coerced is a contradiction in terms like a square circle!). Thus, if we allow for human freedom, then some measure of human-caused moral evil is necessary. But what about natural evil? Well, it seems also to be logically impossible to, for instance, create rocks that are firm enough to serve as a foundation for a castle while not also being hard enough to split your head open if you fall on it.

        Thus, I think that once omnipotence is put in its proper frame, much of the force of the Problem of Evil is alleviated.

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