Apr05 2010

Can Atheism Make Sense of the Problem of Evil?

British philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and atheist Bertrand Russell once commented, “No one can believe in a good God if they’ve sat at the bedside of a dying child.”  Without a doubt, the image that Russell paints with that statement is one that grips all of us emotionally.  It is, of course, one thing to suggest that Christianity cannot adequately explain the problem of evil (which it can, by the way).  It’s quite another thing to offer a better, more plausible explanation based on atheism.  This is a very important point because most people these days act as if Christians are the only ones who have an obligation to respond to the question of evil, but that is not the case at all.  Every one of us has a worldview, and every worldview is equally obligated to address the problem of evil.  Atheism, as a worldview, shares the same responsibility to answer this question or to explain it from their perspective.  In doing so, atheism must be prepared to not only define evil and to explain the origin of evil, but they must also respond to the problem of evil in a way that is consistent with their worldview.

A few years ago, as I was working with some of our high school students, a young lady came up and asked me if there was any scientific evidence that pointed to God’s existence.  As I was responding to her question, another girl disrupted our conversation by coming up to us and saying, “There is no God!  He doesn’t exist!  I believe in science!  I believe in evolution!  I believe in things that I can see and prove!  I don’t believe in some imaginary being called ‘God’!”  She stopped her salvo of comments for a moment, and we just stood there looking at each other in silence.  After a while, she broke her silence by saying something that spoke volumes about why she had come to such a conclusion.  She continued, “A few years ago, my father was sick and I begged God to heal him, but he died anyway.  A couple of years later, my sister was involved in a horrible accident and, once again, I pleaded with God not to let her die, but she died anyway.  That’s when I knew that God was a myth-  He doesn’t exist.  That’s why I believe in evolution instead.”

As I responded to her, I said something that must have shocked her because it was really harsh, but it was intentional because I wanted to make sure that I had her attention-  and I did.  I said to her, “Look, I don’t know why you’re telling me all of this stuff about losing your father and your sister.  I mean, you act as if it’s some big deal or that there’s something actually wrong with what happened to them.  But if what you’re telling me is true- if there is no God, and if evolution is our ‘creator’- it certainly sounds to me as if natural selection did exactly what it’s supposed to do.  After all, isn’t that nature’s job?  Weren’t you about to tell me that natural selection is supposed to ‘weed out’ that which is unfit in order to make room for that which is more fit to survive?  Apparently, neither your father or your sister were fit enough to survive, so nature simply  ‘weeded them out’.”

I waited for a moment to let my words sink in (and prepared to duck, just in case she took a swing at me!)  I then said to her, “To be perfectly honest, I’m actually very, very sorry – deeply sorry- that you lost your father and your sister.  I lost my mother in ‘93 and my father in ‘04 and I still haven’t gotten over it.  I just wanted to make sure that you clearly understood that you cannot have it both ways.  If you’re going to say that there is no God, you cannot say that what happened to your loved ones is ‘bad’, or that it’s ‘wrong’.  You can’t say that it’s ‘tragic’ or that it’s ‘not right’, or ‘unfair’, or ‘unjust’, or that it’s ‘not supposed to happen’, because in a godless universe where evolution is the ultimate reality, that IS what’s supposed to happen.  Death is a good thing- a beneficial thing- because it eliminates the weak, making room for that which is more fit, mentally and physically.  So, in an evolutionary world, there can be so such thing as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ events-  it’s just ‘stuff that happens’.”

That really is the point to all of this.  Given an atheistic worldview, not only is there no objective standard of right or wrong, good or bad, and just or unjust,  it is also devoid of any objective foundation on which to build the idea consistently that life has any real purpose, meaning, or value.  Given that starting point, there can be no significant difference between a natural disaster that wipes out thousands of people, and a guy using heavy equipment to remove an acreage of trees in order to make room for something that is coming along at a later time.  By the way, it’s important to keep in mind that I am NOT claiming that all atheists feel this way.  I’m simply pointing out that, given their atheistic worldview, it would be both hypocritical and inconsistent for them to disagree with my illustration or to object to it.

Atheists such as Bertrand Russell may claim that Christians have nothing worthwhile to say to a dying child.  But then, what would Russell have said to that child under the same circumstances-  Tough luck, kid?  Hey kid, isn’t natural selection great? Too bad for you? That’s just the way it goes?  Life stinks and then you die?  Such answers will never do.  But, like it or not, that is precisely where atheism leads us.

3 Responses to “Can Atheism Make Sense of the Problem of Evil?”

  1. Jen says:

    Mr Clapp, you have set 3 challenges for atheists – to define evil, explain its origins and to offer a response to evil. You have not done any of these from a Christian perspective, which is understandable, as I have read extensively on the subject and know that many others who have gone before you have already attempted to do so. I could dwell on the flaws in these attempts, but instead I wanted to give my opinion on your criticisms of atheism as a worldview.
    These are my views, based on extensive reading and much critical thought. I was raised a Christian, attended a Christian school and have attended Church to try and convert myself. To try and convert myself? Indeed. It failed dismally. The issue is, I have a very analytical mind, and as much as I would love to feel the soothing properties of blind faith, I cannot bring myself to believe in a view with so many intrinsic moral flaws.
    On a completely different note – I have sat at the bed of a dying child. My beloved young cousin. I rubbed her feet, held her hand and spoken to her about death. So I will address your last point first. I found plenty things of comfort to say to her – we spoke about pain and loss, but chiefly about love and hope. I did not feel the need to minimise and undermine her suffering by telling her to be happy because she was destined for paradise. Instead of being so hurtful and fake, I listened to her fears, and empathised. I held her and hugged her and we spoke about the beauty of life, and the unknown that lies in death. She was not afraid, as many are. She donated her body to medical research – instead of wanting to have a religious funeral and be put in a box. At this point she was 13, and I 18.
    I however, understand your concern. If I couldn’t comfort her with tales of heaven, what could I tell her? The problem with this objection of yours is that if it is valid it provides a reason for wanting to believe in God, not for actually believing. It shows how desperately we would love to be able to tell the dying child beautiful lies. It shows how much we could wish God and heaven existed, but it doesn’t make it true. Do you see that? Just because a worldview may not be as comforting as the Christian one doesn’t mean it’s false, although we may wish it were.

  2. Jen says:

    An atheist, like a Christian, believes that suffering is an unfortunate part of life. Unlike a Christian, she does not believe that it is controlled by God. Please note my use of ‘suffering’ as opposed to evil. “Evil” implies a force of immorality which needs to have come from somewhere, hence your challenge to explain the ‘root’ of evil. “Evil” is a very religious term though, so I shall call it suffering. I talk here not of immoral human deeds but of suffering caused by accidents, natural disasters, illness etc – suffering independent of human action. Atheists do not believe that suffering is an unseen mystical force with an origin – suffering is defined instead by its consequences, its effect.
    Suffering is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that the world is not perfect! I’ll say it again – atheists believe that the world is not perfect. Hence ‘evil’ does not have a separate origin from ‘good’ for many things, tools and actions have the power to do good or evil. Good and evil are instead human concepts – our way to separate things for our own understanding and to interpret our flawed world. They are necessary and helpful human concepts, and a method of sticking to morality, but they are man-made nonetheless.
    Atheists may regret suffering more than Christians, who believe there are God-determined reasons for misery. The beauty of atheism is that one can accept that the world is imperfect and still find beauty within it -in human relationships – love, compassion, kindness – and in nature and natural beauty. We are satisfied with trying to find the best in the earth that we live on. This concept is opposed to religion, which constantly seeks a form of denial, to cling to the hope of a better world, and a higher power.
    You speak of natural selection. I have something very important to say here. You told a girl that the death of her family could not be labelled bad because in nature, death is used for natural selection. Therefore if she believed in natural selection she is not permitted to mourn the death of her family members. However – nobody said natural selection was pleasant. Nobody said they wanted to experience it. All they said is that it is true.
    You say it is not acceptable to think, “Life sucks and then you die.” So why can’t you say that? Because it’s harsh? Because it’s sad? Because it’s scary? Well guess what – life is harsh and sad and scary. Thinking that there are hard aspects to life is the reality of the atheistic worldview. But life is also beautiful, fulfilling and wondrous. So just because events are just “stuff that happens” as you say, it doesn’t mean they cannot be good or bad.
    Individuals decide whether things are good or bad in their opinion! Even Christian individuals do not have an ‘objective standard’ for whether things are good or bad? I know that you will immediately disagree and say that The Holy Bible provides us with this standard. But as I’m sure you have noticed, different individuals interpret the Bible differently. Even religious teachers pick certain parts to interpret literally and certain parts figuratively. In other words, each individual uses their own subjective view of morality to decide where in the Bible they find the most value. This is true of everyone except fanatics who take every word literally – although even they will find contradictions and have to choose between options from the Scripture.
    So each individual decides what purpose life has for them. And usually, the Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jewish (etc) individual will choose similar values for themselves. An atheist would, most likely, differentiate between your example of a natural disaster and a man clearing trees but the amount of suffering caused – just as a Christian most probably would. The only difference is that the atheist would not believe that the tsunami was sent by God.
    Just as I, an 18-year-old with a terminal illness, do not believe –as your religion would have it – that I need to be sick for my own good. I believe that it is a horrific circumstance, and I search for the love and goodness and learning I can find within the journey – but I do not believe that the “personal growth” I may or may not experience in any way justifies my suffering. Instead I believe that life just isn’t fair. And, believe it or not, I am ok with that.

  3. Jen says:

    I apologise for the grammar error in the 2nd last paragraph – I meant to say 'by the amount of suffering caused' not 'but the amount…'

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