After posting this essay about skeptical theism last week, Michael Egnor showed up in the comments to heckle me. Egnor, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a blogger for the Discovery Institute, which does not bode well for the merits of his comment. He opened his remarks sensibly enough by conceding both that evil poses a great problem for Christians and also that he had no solution to offer. But then he went off the rails by claiming that atheists have no right to assert the problem of evil since, having rejected the existence of God, we lack an objective standard of morality from which to judge what is evil and what is not.
It’s a silly argument. There are things that happen in the world that seem inconsistent with God’s love and omnipotence. Since Egnor concedes this–and how could he not?–then I fail to see why an atheist no less than a theist can make the point. You don’t need an objective, transcendent standard of morality to think that the holocaust, say, is not the sort of thing a just and loving God would permit. If Egnor wants to retort that my atheism has left me morally confused, and that the holocaust was actually a splendid thing that God was delighted to allow, then I invite him to make his case.
Of course, I certainly do not concede that atheists lack a firm basis for morality, nor do I concede that theists possess one. But that’s a different post.
At any rate, I contented myself with a brief reply comment in which I noted that his point, even if it were true, would be utterly irrelevant to my argument. I thought that was the end of it, but then I noticed that Barry Arrington, over at Uncommon Descent, had weighed in. In a post modestly titled, “Most Forms of the Argument From Evil Are Incoherent,” he tries to put some meat on the bones of Egnor’s argument. Alas, while he contributes a fair amount of arrogance and pseudointellectualism, he does nothing to support the grandiose claim in his title.
In a comment to another post StephenB noted that atheists often argue as follows: “evil exists; therefore God does not exist.” That is true. Yet, the incoherence of the argument should be immediately obvious. Let’s see why.
The argument to which Stephen alluded is an abbreviation of a more formal argument that goes like this:
Major Premise: If an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being (i.e., God) existed, he would not allow evil to exist.
Minor Premise: Evil exists
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.
The problem with the argument is in the word “evil.” What does it mean? If metaphysical naturalism is true – if particles in motion are the only things that exist – then the word “evil” must necessarily have no “objective” meaning. In other words, if there is no transcendent moral lawgiver, there is no transcendent moral law. It follows that all moral choices are inherently subjective, choices that we choose because evolution has conditioned us to do so. Therefore, for the atheist, the word “evil” means “that which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it.”
Now, let’s reexamine the argument, but instead of using the word “evil” let us amplify it by using the definition.
Major Premise: If an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being (i.e., God) existed, he would not allow that which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it to exist.
Minor Premise: That which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it exists.
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.
The argument in this form is plainly blithering nonsense.
That’s a charming little soliloquy, but it’s hard to see how it has any relevance at all to the problem of evil. You see, when we note that great evil and suffering pose a challenge to theism, we are not usually arguing in the abstract. We do not begin with some armchair definition of evil. Instead we point to specific events and occurrences which, for those of us possessing some empathy and consideration for our fellow creatures, are hard to reconcile with the existence of a just and loving God. We wonder why God would allow the holocaust, or violent natural disasters, or the massive cruelty and suffering in nature, or other things of that nature.
Anyone hearing our argument is free to retort that we are being capricious and arbitrary. They can disregard the argument on the grounds that, when we claim that mass murder motivated by race hatred is a great evil, we are merely expressing a personal opinion. Of course, no one actually does answer the argument in that way. In actual discourse no one ever asks us to explain our conviction that the mass suffering caused by typhoons and tsunamis is of a sort to challenge our notions of God’s love. That’s because everyone, regardless of the source we choose for our moral beliefs, shares those convictions. And if anyone ever did seriously challenge us on such grounds, no one would come away thinking it was the atheist who was morally depraved.
It is hard to imagine how Egnor and Arrington expect the dialogue to go:
ATHEIST: The holocaust was a great evil. It’s hard to understand why a just and loving God would allow it.
PREENING RELIGIOUS APOLOGIST (PRA): It’s just your personal opinion that the holocaust was evil!
ATHEIST: Perhaps it is. Do you think I’m wrong to hold that opinion?
PRA: Of course not!
ATHEIST: So can we get on with the discussion now?
The coherence of the argument from evil in no way depends on morality being objective. In principle its force could be diminished by noting the subjectivity of moral assertions, but since the moral intuitions on which the argument is based are all but universally shared the argument’s critics will need to do better.
There are serious counters to the argument from evil. I do not find them effective, but they offer some food for thought. Egnor and Arrington, alas, are not serious people. And that is why they have opted for silliness over substance.