The Problem of Evil for Atheists

… is much more problematic than for theists. Which is not saying much: evil is no sort of problem for theists, once the nature of actuality is understood. What is actual must act – it’s right there in the term “actual” – so that if creatures are not able to err and so do evil, they cannot act, and so are not actual. Which is just to say that they are not, period full stop. There are actual creatures, who err, ergo etc. Thus if God was going to create *anything whatsoever,* he had no option in logic but to open the way to error, evil, sin, and death.

So, theists have no Problem with Evil, at least in respect to their theism.

Atheists are not so lucky.

If there is no God, then there is no such thing as evil. There may be things that this or that being does not *like,* but that’s it. The antelope might not *like* being devoured by the lion, but there’s nothing wrong with what the lion is doing in devouring him. Likewise, the Jew – or the Christian – might not *like* being picked out for immolation in some holocaust, but there is nothing really wrong with such persecutions. The persecutions are just stuff happening. No problem.

I’ve had atheists go on and on about the horrors of creaturely life – not at all inaccurately – but, on atheism, none of that horror is *really* horrible. It’s just stuff happening, and there can be no problem with it really. It is a problem only apparently – only, i.e., delusionally.

On atheism, there can be no such thing as evil, or therefore problems. There can be only “problems.” On atheism, there is no Problem of Evil, because there is no evil. Thus there is nothing whatever to which an atheist might object, on grounds transcendent to or therefore more suasive than those of his own private and nowise privileged preferences.

There is of course evil. Everyone knows this is true. That is why atheists throw evil at theism, as a problem to be solved; it is why they treat it as a problem, rather than a “problem.” Indeed, it is why theists take that problem seriously to begin with.

There is evil. Of course. Nobody who wants to be taken seriously could deny it with a straight face. To do so would be to insist that there could be no real problem with the rape and murder of his own little children, however badly he might feel about such a thing.

  1. ¬ God → ¬ evil.
  2. ∃ evil.
  3. ¬ ¬ God.

QED.

+++++

I wrote that “atheists are not so lucky.” But luck has really nothing to do with it, no? The atheists *choose* their misfortune. That’s what happens when you put God to the test. Luke 4:12. Wager on anything but God, and you win death. Romans 6:23.

25 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil for Atheists

  1. Only thing left is might makes right. Whoever gets to terrify others with their brutality sets the rules. Just like the Cartel ruled sections of Latin America.

    • Indeed, yes. In the absence of any notion of absolute evil that all beings ought by nature to reject, all that remains is a mad dash toward the bottom. But there is for actual beings no possibly achievable bottom, but rather only an asymptotic approach to absolute nothingness and immobility. Hell is fathomless, and so endless, because its completion in utter nonbeing cannot be achieved by any being. Chasing that doom, the deluded damned cannot ever stop the process of their damnation. Their chase gyres ever inward, downward, hellward. They themselves remain; so then does their Hell.

      So, yeah: in their world, the worst is best.

  2. The harder part of the problem is not the evil that men do, the possibility of which is theologically necessary, but the arbitrary suffering of the innocent (e.g. the two-year-old girl writhing in agony from bone cancer).

    • Yes. My own young blameless son suffered thus, horribly. That’s when I got seriously interested in the POE. The theist can – just barely, if he is so blessed – construe that sort of suffering of his own infant as crucial to a far greater Providential Plan of Salvation, in which his child shall be rescued, and all made again well, despite everything – and, indeed, thanks to that everything. So in his agony may he rest ultimately in peace, and in confidence.

      The atheist, on the other hand, is not even quite able to reckon the suffering of his child as evil. That horror can be to him in the final analysis just meaningless stuff happening, for no ultimate reason and to no ultimate purpose. For the atheist, evil is a null category; and, so, therefore, likewise is comfort.

  3. One man asked Richard Dawkins if he could explain from his atheistic cosmovision why nazism is immoral. Dawkins replied “well, that is a good question”.

    • On the metaphysics of such as Dawkins, moral questions – and, for that matter, aesthetic questions – must arise from a category error; like asking, “what color is heaviness?” But men such as Dawkins do not usually recognize this fact.

  4. I’ve had atheists go on and on about the horrors of creaturely life – not at all inaccurately – but, on atheism, none of that horror is *really* horrible. It’s just stuff happening, and there can be no problem with it really. It is a problem only apparently – only, i.e., delusionally.

    Something struck me about this graf. The cognitive dissonance between the horror of creaturely life and the absence of transcendent meaning is where the rubber of a human soul meets the road of human living. They profess to believe–and do their best to behave–as if there is no God and their actions are mere noise on the baseline of life. Yet–as humans, created and beloved by God, they are endowed by their creator with a soul, and a sense of natural law. Creaturely life is horrible to them because there is a spirit inside them which seeks for justice and Truth. The atheist of course doesn’t recognize this because they view it as natural, they can’t see the matrix. It’s only when you acknowledge the transcendent that suffering and even joy start to make sense.

    I am more confused as to why Joy is not an equal and opposite problem for Atheists. In a meaningless reality, why would there be happiness? What purpose does it serve? The crests of joy only throw the troughs of despair into stark relief–you would think that a mind would evolutionarily select for acceptance of its circumstances. No fishes despair that they are in water, why do our minds despair (or rejoice) at the depth of feeling we have for our fellow man?

    • Just so. Evil is a big problem for atheism, but so a fortiori is good. On atheism, there is no such thing really as good, just as there is no such thing really as evil. There are, rather, only relative and purely private preferences of this or that being, that can have no true moral or aesthetic meaning – that cannot, i.e., refer to or denote or invoke or intend anything real.

      It is obvious that good is in no way a problem for theism, even apparently (as evil appears to be such a problem). But for atheism, *every sort of evaluation of experience whatsoever is delusory.*

      This does not stop with purely moral and aesthetic evaluations. It extends also to evaluations of physical properties such as mass. This is usually missed by atheists, who want to be able to rely upon such measurements as media of knowledge about reals, that can buttress the scientific theories they rightly find so satisfactory. But no, sorry: to read off the measurement, one must discern aesthetic differentiae among different regions and modes of sensation. One must, e.g., discern the differences between the red of the gnomon, the white of the dial, and the black of the hash marks and numbers. These sensory evaluations are all fundamentally aesthetic: they reduce at bottom to *feelings* – to aestheses.

      Again likewise, the problem extends to our evaluation of scientific models. On atheism, we can like one such model more than another, but that preference – and, thus, the models – cannot consistently be said to refer, denote, invoke, or intend any reals.

      Consider the various criteria of our preference for some theories over others: parsimony, elegance, power, depth, range, consistency, coherence, and so forth. We can define many of them formally – such formal specifiability being itself one of the criteria of our theoretical preference – but our attraction to these properties is in the final analysis aesthetic – which is to say, *moral.* We say of a coherent, powerful and parsimonious theory that it is *good.* But on atheism, there is no such thing really as a good theory, or a bad. There are rather only different ways that people like to think about things, that have no real meaning; that are, i.e., delusory.

      But NB: to say that there are no good theories is to say that there are no true theories. On atheism, then, theism is not true, for to think that it might be is no more than a category error.

      But the same goes for atheism! On atheism, there are no true theories … so there are no true thoughts … which proposition is itself neither true nor false.

      We see then that atheism is autophagous. It is in fact omniphagous: it entails the impossibility of knowledge per se. This is one property of bad theories!

      Theism, of course, is not autophagous. This is one property of good theories!

    • “…as to why Joy is not an equal and opposite problem for Atheists. In a meaningless reality, why would there be happiness? What purpose does it serve?”

      You’re on to something big here.

      There is no joyfulness in what is passed off now in the West as music, theater, film, poetry; certainly not nearly to the plentiful extent of the 1930s-50s. This is because the current crop of materially focused creators of artsy dross since ’68 can not themselves reach it in consciousness. I don’t think the producers of The Office (as I wrote about in that essay I shared earlier) or of Orange Man Bad or of Heavy Metal music or Hamilton have ever experienced that joyfulness, if there “creative work” is any indication. The catastrophe of the modern West is the wholesale failure of the creative imagination to envision joyfulness.

      But joy is not functional in a material sense, although reaching it in consciousness works its wondrous way into our lives. It is, rather, an is-ness, an immanent divine inspiration. It is outside the material world, outside of evolution, and within us all nonetheless.

      • Amen. Not only is joy a rare thing for moderns, but as modernity gyres ever more inward upon itself, even comedy is dying out.

        Disagree though about The Office. I take it as a massive, penetrating and devastating comedic critique of modernity, and thus as essentially reactionary in spirit. Its lampoon of modern culture has a profoundly tragic aspect, as the crazed logic of that culture again and again crushes the spirits of the protagonists and ruins their hopes. Only Pam and Jim manage to puzzle their way through the maze to find familiar happiness together – as man and wife, NB – and the satisfaction of life’s deep impulse toward fecundity. Everyone else ends disappointed, perplexed, lost, and fundamentally alone

      • If you don’t understand and cannot hear the pastoral European roots of heavy metal, you don’t understand serious music. You just think the banalities you listened to growing up are better, but it’s because you were a child back then.

        Pop music is what it is. We all “like” the music of our youth even if it was terrible, e.g. old American standards are objectively bad to mediocre music.

        People who think everything is a one way trajectory – the newer the worse, are no more musically sophisticated than any random teenage girl.

        Iron Maiden are musically superior to most 1930-1950 pop music.

      • Heavy metal is not music. It bears none of the hallmarks of music. It is arranged noise. Loud, distorted, repetitive, harmful to the ears and detrimental to the soul. The standards are harmonious, lyrical and memorable, and they took real talent to create and expertise to deliver.

      • I grew up listening to Purcell, Byrd, Tallis, Ockeghem, Power, Gesualdo, & alii. I have sung their music – as in, I have studied their performance with world famous musicians, and people have paid me to hear me sing it. I understand serious music.

        I also grew up listening to and performing Britten, Tavener, Vaughn Williams, & alii. Again, people have paid me to sing their music. I have nothing against the new, provided it is good. Pärt is one of my favorite composers.

        People have also paid to hear me sing traditional European popular music: drinking songs, carols, rounds, madrigals, chansons, and the like. I understand European folk music. While I have not performed American Country, Bluegrass, or Blues, I love it.

        Jazz and Rock I can take or leave. But then, I feel the same way about almost all Romantic music. With all three of those genres, I have to force myself to the work of mining their positive beauties.

        But, never mind all that. Mr. Kuslan was not saying that latter day music is *bad,* but rather that it is *joyless* (NB: he did not refer to popular music in particular). I cannot but share in that impression. Indeed, my impression is that almost all of what purports to be art – both popular and serious – produced since WWII is quite intentionally disturbing in its cynicism and nihilism, if not downright and purposely ugly. I apprehend in it the influence of the demonic, and indeed in many cases an invocation thereof.

        When you call upon the demons, they do come.

  5. Kristor, you wrote:

    “The theist can – just barely, if he is so blessed – construe that sort of suffering of his own infant as crucial to a far greater Providential Plan of Salvation, in which his child shall be rescued, and all made again well, despite everything – and, indeed, thanks to that everything. So in his agony may he rest ultimately in peace, and in confidence.”

    Yes, even for the theist, that one is “just barely, if he is so blessed”. For the atheist, it’s simple (I know, because for much of my life I was one myself): the universe is simply indifferent and uncaring. The theist’s answer just seems like wishful thinking.

    To the atheist, whether “evil” has any ontological bedrock isn’t really the point. There are things that simply seem objectionable on purely subjective grounds – and so subjective experience is promoted to the highest ordering principle. This means that the atheist, try as he might, can mount no persuasive answer to the most basic moral question, namely “Why not be cruel?”. The deepest response he can give (as you note in your post) is to say “well, because it feels wrong, and it makes others suffer”, and at this point his spade is turned.

    So: for the atheist, the trick is simply to leave it at that. In a meaningless universe there is no ultimate reason not to make others suffer, and all you can do is come up with Darwinian accounts of why we have evolved, as social creatures, to feel pangs of remorse for our cruelty. But all of that, though, is mere adaptation, and any value we ascribe to such feelings is just more of the same: it’s all just subjective experience, rooted in nothing, with no higher meaning or purpose. Atheists simply have to learn to content themselves with this – and most, in fact, do so quite well, to the extent that they examine it at all (or, like Sam Harris et al., they try to construct free-floating “oughts” with no ultimate foundation at all). I know it was good enough for me for many, many years, until by some working of Grace I was able to begin to question my axioms (see the linked series of posts I wrote about this change of heart, beginning here).

    Even for the theist, the POE is a tremendous challenge. For the atheist, it is simply unanswerable without either just shutting down the question, or rejecting all of our deepest intuitions and climbing on the buttered slide to nihilism.

    • Atheists simply have to learn to content themselves with this – and most, in fact, do so quite well, to the extent that they examine it at all …

      One can get along quite nicely, and avoid noticing the cognitive dissonances, by means of pervasive unprincipled exceptions.

      In practice, almost everyone handles almost all cognitive difficulties and lacunae in this manner.

      The other tactic is deferral: “I’ll solve that puzzle later …”

      But, come to think of it, deferral too is a sort of unprincipled exception; for, it takes usually the form, “I’ll solve the problem of conscious free agency (e.g.) later; in the meantime, I’ll pretend my precious physicalist metaphysical commitments don’t rule it out altogether, so that they are false to fact – that way, I’ll be able to get along in life as though I am in fact a conscious free agent.”

    • No worries. Even if you had been trying to say exactly what I was trying to say, you would have done it differently, and that would have revealed different aspects of the topic, to the benefit of all readers.

  6. This article and the comments are wonderful. Thanks to all concerned. I always learn so much here.

    I don’t watch television and know nothing of the Office, but I was impressed by that courageous stand made recently by Ricky Gervais and his standing by his comments was even more commendable.

  7. An awareness (not a belief) that evil exists was part of my turning to faith. It isn’t quite theodicy. There are two questions I ask when people declare themselves atheists – Does love exist? Does evil exist? (Not “Do you believe love exists?” or “Do you believe evil exists?”) They are unanswerable if you are an atheist. This isn’t sanctimonious showboating. If evil exists, then good exists; and if good exists, love exists. These are real forces in our lives that can have wonderful or catastrophic effects.
    It’s impossible (and ridiculous) for a person to declare that we’re a collection of atoms with no other purpose than to breed, and then decry acts of evil. If that is true, why would it matter if your wife and children were tortured and murdered? These are moral categories of which only human beings are aware.
    Evil is a category studiously avoided in psychiatry for reasons that are clear.

    • Spot on re psychiatry, at least when practiced by atheists (as seems usually to be the case). The irony is that psychiatry itself presupposes that health is “better” than illness, and bends all its efforts at healing. On a consistent and thoroughgoing atheism, the whole project of psychiatry is foolish – is an artifact of a delusion – because under its terms there is no reason, and thus no possible motivation, to prefer life and health over sickness and death.

      The profession of psychiatry then is an artifact of a massive category error.

      The same goes for medicine in general.

      Indeed, all action is founded upon a nisus toward some good. If there is no God, so that there is no such thing as either good to seek or evil to avoid, why then there is no reason or motive to any act, and so there can be no explanation or understanding of biological phenomena – such as breeding.

      No good or evil → no basis for action, of any sort.

      It gets far, far worse. For, the homeostatic nisus manifest in all life is but a department of the same homeostatic urge manifest in physical nature more generally. Everything seeks its proper end, from the completion of the outmost electron shell to the achievement of terminal velocity.

      “Urge” is the second syllable of “energy.” Also “synergy.” All urges are toward and intend some final telos that is better. Thus physical processes are all moral. Mass is stored goodness.

  8. Pingback: the problem of evil | Random thoughts

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