This page in brief ….
This is the first and I believe strongest reason to doubt the existence of God – the evil and suffering in the world. Why does God (if he or she exists) allow it?
A simple argument
It isn’t hard to see things in the world that cause people anguish and pain. Murder, genocide, pedophilia, war, fatal accidents, disease, natural disasters …. and more.
It is hard to escape the feeling that if we had made the world, it wouldn’t be this bad. Surely God could have done better, much better? Why can’t this world be peaceful, without hurts and pain, without the evil that some people do to others?
So, the argument goes, either there’s no God behind this world, this universe, or else that God isn’t worthy of the name, but is uncaring.
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Or is it? Let’s look a little deeper.
Believers believe and philosophers argue
Despite this apparent logic, more than 80% of the world still believes in a religion and/or a God or gods. And philosophers still argue over “The Problem of evil”. So why hasn’t this argument swayed them?
I can think of six possible reasons.
1. It’s not all bad!
It is easy to focus on the evil and forget the good. The world, and most people’s lives, are a mixture of both good and evil, beauty and ugliness.
In considering this question of evil and suffering, we will notice that evil and good are often mixed together. It may be that we cannot have one without the other.
2. People make bad choices
Much of the evil in the world arises through selfish, greedy and forceful choices by people in positions of power over others, whether that be an abusive husband, a rapacious dictator or a compromised religious leader. Can we blame God for all this evil?
God has given humans the ability to make choices, and it is these choices that cause many of these evils. Choice is one of the things that make us human. Take away that freedom and we are robots. And choice makes it possible for people to be altruistic, heroicially loving and compassionate, as well as evil.
It is tempting to think that God should have given us freedom to do good, but not evil. But imagining this quickly becomes farcical. Imagine I am freely talking with a friend when I begin to say something rude to him. But somehow I can’t speak, my mouth won’t move, until I choose to say something nice again. Does anyone really want a world where God is actively watching over everything we do and think and say, and stepping in like a cosmic cop to stop anything he doesn’t approve of?
We might say that perhaps God should just interfere when something really evil is about to happen. But what if he is already doing that? Or what if his standard of “really evil” is different to ours?
I think we have to say that there are only two realistic options – either God doesn’t create humans but robots, or else he allows us the dignity and freedom to make genuine choices. So this may explain why there’s so much evil in the world, but also so much good.
3. Natural disasters
Human evil is only part (maybe the major part) of evils in the world. Natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods and wildfires also cause great suffering. Why does God allow these?
This one is harder to explain, but it seems these problems are all part of living in a physical world. There are physical laws and these lead to certain outcomes, and some of these outcomes kill.
And this isn’t all bad. The physical world can be very beautiful, and the dangers can often be challenging and exciting, at least to some people.
Many of the natural evils result from human choices, for example being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes natural evils are made worse by human evil, perhaps being forced to live or work in unsafe locations because unjust structures in human society leave no alternative.
So it seems that a physical world will inevitably cause hurts and harm, but it is hard not to think that maybe God could have created a slightly different universe where the consequences weren’t quite so hurtful or fatal.
4. Why go on living?
Despite the pain and anguish of this life, most people hang on to life and cherish it. Surveys show that about three quarters of people in the world are happy.
So most of us enjoy life, and hold onto it as long as we can. And when someone is unable to do so, and dies through tragic accident or suicide, we can feel devastated, for what we have lost and for what they have lost.
So it seems our choices show that life is not, at heart, bad. Despite all the evil we see and experience, most of us still think that life is better than non-life. This lends support to the view that God has given us something of great value, even if it is a mixed blessing.
5. So is the world’s pain really evil?
Many people suffer pain, indignity, oppression and even being killed, but how do we know that pain is evil? That may seem like a strange question. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that suffering is evil?
But how do we know something is evil? There are two views on this.
We can say there is an objective ethical code by which we can judge that certain behaviours are evil (a view known as moral realism), but what is the basis for such a belief? In a totally materialistic world where humans have evolved from “lower” forms of life, it is difficult to see how there can be any objectively true ethical statements (see How do we know right and wrong?). Most atheist philosophers are not moral realists. It seems that we can only say the world is truly evil if there is a God, which undercuts the whole argument from evil.
The alternative view is that ethics are only subjective, based on what each of us feels is right (a view known as moral relativism). But that means we can no longer say that the world is truly evil, only that we feel it is evil. So the argument from evil ceases to be based on God being evil and becomes merely a statement that God doesn’t make me feel good. Which isn’t nearly so compelling.
So it appears that we have to assume God exists to say that the world is evil, in which case the argument from evil would be contradictory. But non-theists can argue that they are not saying the world is truly evil, just pointing out that the amount of evil in the world is incompatible with belief in a good God.
But it seems to me that the statement “There is truly and objectively evil in the world.” is at odds with both theism and atheism – theism because it seems contrary to God’s goodness, and atheism because atheism cannot explain moral realism. So both beliefs are challenged by evil – which still means that the argument is not as strong as we might first think.
6. Making it through hard times
This week (at the time of writing), a christian family in Sydney has experienced the horrendous evil of having three of their six children, plus a cousin, killed when they were hit by a drunken drive who ran off the road onto the footpath where the children were walking. Australia marvelled as the grief-stricken mother went through the worst week anyone could imagine with dignity and faith. Despite the strain she was clearly under, she publicly forgave the offender and mourned with hope and composure.
She and her family, and her wider christian community, looked to God for comfort, hope and endurance. Without faith in God, who knows how they would all have reacted? When terrible evil comes, so many people find God is close to them and sustaining them.
It is hard to square this apparent reality with the view espoused by the argument from evil. For people like this family, God is present in the evil to comfort, not to be blamed.
So, do suffering and evil prove there’s no God?
It is hard to escape the feeling that something is wrong with the world, and to blame God or disbelieve in a god because of that. But, equally, it is hard to maintain the rage against God without a strong basis for believing the world is evil, and in a world where we clearly gain such pleasure and joy.
So there are two sides to this question. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that the obvious suffering and evil in the world make it more difficult to believe in a good and loving God. The argument has some force.
One step among many
This argument is one step along the path to disbelief. But it needs to be considered among other arguments that take us in steps in the opposite direction, towards belief in God. I have found 12 reasons to believe in God, which more than balance this one argument against belief.
We need to continue to examine other arguments against the existence of God to see if they have sufficient merit to cause us to doubt the conclusions of Why I believe in God.
Stay tuned for that.
Photos: Atmic bomb clouds from the bombing of the Japanese cites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2 (Wikipedia)