Argument From Evil: Toothless and Useless

The modern day atheist movement has only one argument to support atheism – The Argument From Evil.  Anytime an atheist tries to make the case that there is no God, chances are extremely high that some version of the Argument from Evil will be used.  Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it this way:

OK, if that god is described as being all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good, I don’t see evidence for it anywhere in the world. So I remain unconvinced. If that god is all-powerful and all-good, I don’t see that when a tsunami kills a quarter-million or an earthquake kills a quarter-million people. I’d like to think of good as something in the interest of your health or longevity. That’s a pretty simple definition of something that is good for you. That’s not a controversial understanding of the word “good.” So if Earth in two separate events separated by just a couple of years can kill a half-million people, then if the god as you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good. And so therefore I am not convinced.

Essentially what Tyson is saying here is that God cannot co-exist with tsunamis and earthquakes.  That God’s existence is incompatible with tsunamis and earthquakes.  Okay, so let’s imagine God did exist.  According to the atheist’s Argument From Evil, this would mean there would be no tsunamis and earthquakes.  So let’s imagine God magically changes our reality such that there are no tsunamis and earthquakes.  Has the Argument From Evil been neutralized?  Has it been taken off the table?

Not so fast.  Sam Harris tells us “There is No God (And You Know It).”  In fact, it’s “obvious” to him.  What makes it obvious?

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city?

Hurricane Katrina?  How could I forget?  Look, I thought that was supposed to be President Bush’s fault, but we’ll say Harris has a point.  Let’s say that if God did indeed exist, He would have magically stopped hurricane Katrina because God is all-good.  So, suppose He did.  Are we good now?  Of course not, since Harris could have cited countless other hurricanes.  Well then, let’s say God magically changes our reality such that there are no tsunamis, earthquakes, or hurricanes.  Everything okay?  Please.

A world without tsunamis, earthquakes, or hurricanes could still have still have people being killed by lightening, towns being destroyed by tornadoes, floods, droughts, forest fires, etc.  Put simply, the Argument from Evil tells us that if God exists, there should be no natural disasters.  None.  For as long as there is one person killed by one meteorological or geological process,  the Argument from Evil applies.

At this point, we can begin to see what the Argument from Evil is – a blueprint for what the world is supposed to be like if God exists.  According to atheists, that is.

So we must ask if the Argument from Evil still applies if we removed all those deadly natural disasters?  To answer that, we need only consult all the ways atheists have used the Argument from Evil over the ages.  And in doing so, we would find that a world without natural disasters is not good enough.  What about children dying of cancer?  What about parents dying of cancer? What about brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands dying of cancer?  Okay, let’s get rid of cancer.  Then what about heart disease, endocrine diseases, pulmonary diseases?  Let’s get rid of them.  But what about congenital defects and genetic diseases?  And all those nasty infectious diseases, like malaria or gangrene?  They all gotta go.  Look, we could drag this out for pages, for every disease is an Argument from Evil.  So all diseases must go.  According to atheists, if God exists, we would live in a world without any natural disasters and any diseases.

So let’s say that is the case.

But what about all the animal suffering?  Surely that most go also.  As Charles Darwin argued:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Okay, okay, already.  No wasp larva living in caterpillars and no cats playing with mice.  In fact, no more predation or parasitism.  Period.  All gone.  Everything feeds on plants (I guess it’s not evil to kill plants).  Or maybe everything carries out photosynthesis.

Are we in the clear now?  In a world without natural disasters, disease, parasitism, and predation, can the Argument from Evil still apply?

You bet.  What about all the murders?  The rapes?  The kidnappings?  The war?  What about the abuse of children?  The abuse of animals?  The Holocaust?  The list of human evil is endless, as countless expressions of the Arguments from Evil  have drawn from this list.

Clearly, the Argument from Evil entails that no human-caused evil could exist.  In fact, the scalpel would have to cut pretty deep to get rid of this evil, as lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, greed, sexual harassment, etc. are all human evils that cause other humans to suffer.

So what do we have?  The Argument from Evil insists that if God were to exist, we would be living in a world without any natural disasters, any diseases, any parasitism or predation, any murder, rape, theft, abuse, or any other human evil.

But once you have reached this realization, the Argument from Evil becomes toothless.

For the world that we are supposed to be living sounds like a …….. Teletubbie World.

The Argument from Evil boils down to this: If there is a God, we should all be Teletubbie-like creatures living in a Teletubbie-like world.  Since we are not Teletubbie-like creatures living in a Teletubbie-like world, there is no God.

And at this point, the Argument from Evil is exposed as nothing more than subjective opinion.  For no atheist has ever shown it to be true that If there is a God, we should all be Teletubbie-like creatures living in a Teletubbie-like world.  That’s just their opinion and I would not agree.  Would you?  From my perspective, this world, with all its evil, is better than a Teletubbie-like world.

So we are left wondering –  Is the Argument from Evil the atheist’s way of expressing his/her desire to be a Teletubbie?

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8 Responses to Argument From Evil: Toothless and Useless

  1. Glen says:

    Assuming this is natural evil. But what about human-caused suffering? Is that supposed to be done away with also?
    I’ve always thought about the reverse. Assuming atheists say there is no God because of evil (natural or man-made), how do they define evil in a world without God?

  2. nsr says:

    The argument from evil assumes that “benevolent God” = “God obliged to end all human suffering”. Does that logically follow? All atheistic and/or humanistic systems of morality seem to rely on the assumption that human wellbeing and happiness is the foundation of right and wrong, but I have never seen anyone explain why. As someone who is at heart a nihilist, I don’t make that assumption. God isn’t obliged to deliver me from suffering or save me from my sins or raise me from the dead. That he is prepared to do so is entirely based on his own love and mercy, and not on any intrinsic worth that I possess.

  3. Dhay says:

    Glen > Assuming this is natural evil. But what about human-caused suffering? Is that supposed to be done away with also?

    Michael, the blog-owner, has covered that supposition towards the end of the OP, concluding:

    “Clearly, the Argument from Evil entails that no human-caused evil could exist.”

    > I’ve always thought about the reverse. Assuming atheists say there is no God because of evil (natural or man-made), how do they define evil in a world without God?

    I think you would have to pose that question to atheists, who would probably give a variety of replies; here’s one from the prominent vehement atheist, Sam Harris, from the Introduction to The Moral Landscape — the book, not his PhD Thesis:

    The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of vendetta called Kanun: if a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. … Can we say that the Albanians are morally wrong to have structured their society in this way? Is their tradition of blood feud a form of evil? …

    I suspect it’s a rhetorical question; certainly Harris never revisits the question to argue to a conclusion that it isn’t evil, or that it is indeed evil; he never again mentions Kanun or Albania throughout the rest of the book. Harris continues:

    Most people imagine that science cannot pose, much less answer, questions of this sort. How could we ever say, as a matter of scientific fact, that one way of life is better, or more moral, than another? Whose definition of “better” or “moral” would we use? While many scientists now study the evolution of morality, as well as its underlying neurobiology, the purpose of their research is merely to describe how human beings think and behave. No one expects science to tell us how we ought to think and behave. Controversies about human values are controversies about which science officially has no opinion.

    Ah, people merely imagine that science cannot pose, much less answer, questions about “better”, “morality”, or good and evil — says Harris, who claims to know better:

    I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.

    And there you have it: for Harris (if not the the “most people”, and presumably “most atheists” also, who merely imagine otherwise) evil is whatever does not maximise the well-being of conscious creatures.

    Note: it’s not “maximise the well-being of people” — Harris seems to treat

    *

    Harris has a contemptuous view of those atheists who hold to moral relativism; this is from the beginning of Chapter 1:

    I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions (and are, therefore, nonsensical), and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior.

    For all that Harris intends at that point to try to provide a putative ‘scientific’ warrant for “good” and “evil”, it plainly in practice reduces to evil being whatever is “patently abominable behavior”, a notion otherwise expressable as ‘evil is bleedingly obvious, you know it when you see it’.

    And for all the intellectual posturing that ‘evil is simply blindingly obvious’ is Harris’ bottom line, it’s what he uses instead of science: when, just after the book was published, Harris was asked to provide a concrete example of the Harris method of using science to answer a real-life moral dilemma Harris answered not with a “science could, by…” or a “science can”, but with a “science doesn’t even need to”, or a “it’s blindingly obvious without involving science in any way.”

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/neuroscientist-sam-harris/#comment-13899

  4. Dhay says:

    > Note: it’s not “maximise the well-being of people” — Harris seems to treat [unfinished by me, above]

    … treat ants as equal to people; given that they (and termites, etc) vastly outnumber humans, Harris’ conscious-creatures-centred morality becomes in practice an insect-centred morality, a morality in which human well-being plays a small and insignificant part.

  5. FZM says:

    Dhay,

    I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions (and are, therefore, nonsensical), and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior.

    Sam’s whole project of trying to make morality a ‘science’ may only be motivated, basically, by his scientism, i.e. science is our only source of knowledge of the truth. That would entail that if some statements are without scientific truth conditions they are either meaningless or can’t be true or false. (Unless science is defined in a very broad and trivial way, this viewpoint is self-refuting). Minus the scientism, there is no need to try to make morality scientific at all, Philosophy can provide us with this kind of knowledge.

    Then, it doesn’t seem controversial to say that having an objective, impersonal ‘3rd person’ viewpoint based closely on empirical data is a key facet of the ‘scientific’ and a key criteria of demarcation between what is scientific and what isn’t. Sam seems to spend a lot of time defending views like this. In light of that it isn’t surprising that a lot of people say that concepts like well-being and misery are not scientific concepts and reject the idea that statements like: ‘people have a duty to behave in such and such a way to maximise collective well being’ can constitute scientific discoveries.

    One of the weird things about the New Atheist movement was that moral concerns with the ‘evils of theism’ seemed to be a major motivating factor. But the kind of scientism that people like Dawkins and Harris were advocating undercuts moral realism and the idea that moral beliefs can be justifiable, true or false. So you have murkiness around the definition of key concepts like science, evidence etc. developing, to find justification for the moral beliefs inspiring the movement.

  6. RobertM says:

    I think this boils down yet again to positing a straw-man version of God: he’s Santa Claus for the other 364 days, or he’s a magical sky wizard who grants wishes with a wave of his magic wand. He’s sky-daddy, a super-helicopter parent who wouldn’t let his child fall, and if the child does fall he’s there to kiss it and make it better.

    Bad stuff happens in the real world, so we can easily dispense with sky-daddy. So the leap that’s missing, is what if God isn’t simply a magical wizard in the sky? What if my 5-year-old’s conception of God isn’t actually what believers are talking about when they use the term God? I think many people never look past that childish conception of God, or Teletubbie God, (a) because even kids who are raised in a church, at least nominally, may never be presented with anything beyond the 5-year-old level, but also (b) a God who isn’t a helicopter parent may actually require something of you. That’s a lot harder to take than a wish-granting genie in a bottle.

  7. Crude says:

    Off-topic but…

    it’s been a while since you did much with Intelligent Design, I believe. But man, some day you should do a “Where are they now?” article, covering all the prominent ID skeptics of the past and what happened to them since then.

    It’ll go roughly like this: Sex scandal, sex scandal, sex scandal, faded into obscurity, sex scandal, sex scandal.

  8. stcordova says:

    If God is the Great Playwright in the sky, would he write a drama where there was no peril nor villains? The meaning of heaven is made more meaningful by the awfulness of this Earth. The meaning of a “happy ending” is made possible because of the awful things in the early chapters of the story.

    2 Cor 4:17 “this momentary light affliction is building for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”

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