The No-Problemo of Evil

Question from Adam:
I was recently debating the problem of evil and I am stuck trying to answer this question. Solutions to the problem of evil are most often found in the form of theodicies, arguing solutions for the problem to reconcile it with religion. What exactly are the atheists’ solution to the problem of evil? Is it simply only a problem for the theist?

Answer by SmartLX:
Exactly right. Evil can of course be a problem for anyone on the receiving end of an evil act, but the existence of evil in the world is only a philosophical problem for theists.

If you believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing and loving God who cares for every one of us, the fact that horrible things happen to people all the time requires an explanation. Of course there are explanations aplenty, such as that we’re being tested, or that it’s a necessary effect of free will, or that Satan is at work. There’s no consensus on which if any is the right one, though, which means no one really has a reliable answer.

If on the other hand you don’t believe that any such being is supervising the world, then it’s only to be expected that among the countless happenings in this great wide world, some of them will be awful, and therefore the world is just as we would expect. The essential conflict is between the existence of evil and the existence of an agent who’s willing and able to prevent evil, so dismissing the idea of the latter agent solves it nicely. Deists are free of this particular conflict as well, because the gods they believe in do not intervene in human affairs.

There’s a separate philosophical discussion about whether there’s really such a thing as evil, but there are certainly acts and events that are harmful enough that we’ll happily call them evil regardless. More importantly they’re evil according to theistic moral systems, hence the conflict with theistic religions and their need for theodicy.

Christian Talking Points: a laundry list

Question from Chris:
I am just curious, if you dont believe in God, then what is the whole point of your life, and how did we all get here, we just suddenly appeared, I have never been brainwashed as to some people on this forum are saying, but your forum actually proves that there is a God just by the simple fact that an Atheist exists, the bible clearly says that there will be people who say there is no God, and will deny His Existence, One day weather you believe in God or not you will stand before God and if you believe in Him you will bow down in reverence and if you dont you will bow in fear, God loves you and wants you to love Him Back.

Answer by SmartLX:
Chris, you’ve managed to re-ask more questions we’ve already answered in a single post than anyone who’s ever written in. My answer will therefore read more like an index.

On the subject of purpose and meaning in life: see this list of pieces with the keyword “purpose”. We all decide the “point” of our own lives, whether we throw in with the demands of a religion or we strike out on our own.

On the subject of how we all came to be here, see these pieces on “origins” and these on “evolution” (over several pages). The idea that humans “suddenly appeared” is as far from the truth as you can get.

On the subject of possible brainwashing, see the pieces on “indoctrination”. There are many ways to bring people to belief, and though many (such as childhood indoctrination) are in some sense forcible, not all of them are. I wouldn’t dare to guess at your particular circumstances.

On the subject of Biblical prophecy, see my main piece on prophecies. The prediction that not everyone in the whole world would agree that there’s a God falls into the first category, High Probability of Success. Anyone could have guessed that at the time the Bible was written, or at any other time. It’s hardly a clear-cut case of divine foreknowledge.

On the subject of trying to frighten non-believers with the idea that they might be wrong (and that your specific beliefs might also be right, which is equally crucial), see the pieces which touch on “Pascal’s Wager”. You can’t scare someone with something they don’t think is there and, despite popular evangelical opinion, every atheist isn’t really a theist in denial.

Finally, I haven’t done a piece on God’s love yet, likely because it’s a theological topic which is moot until the existence of God is established. I’ll just say that if God exists and regularly sends people he loves to Hell, His love is worthless anyway.

The search field in the top right corner of the site is very useful for determining whether someone has already asked the questions you have in mind, so remember that for next time.

The God Delusion and The Shack

“If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.”

Question from Brian:
I keep arguing with this christian in one of my classes, and as part of an agreement, I’m going to be reading a book called “the shack.” However, I only agreed to this if he would read a piece of atheist literature. Specifically, the God Delusion. However, I don’t own a copy. Is there somewhere I could download it from without signing up for something?

Answer by SmartLX:
The New York Times has (most of) the first chapter, but I’m not sure where you could legally download the whole thing for free even if you did sign up for something. You could of course illegally download it by torrent or whatever, if you can justify doing so to yourself.

TGD is four years old now, and the paperback’s been through several editions, so you should be able to get it quite cheaply if you find the right bookshop. (I saw this for myself when I bought a second copy while my first was circulating among my friends.) If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.

FYI: The Shack is a work of fiction wherein God personally lays out his own theodicy, i.e. explains in general why bad things happen, to a victim of tragedy. As an apologetic tool it’s most useful when a potential convert to Christianity is specifically struggling with the Problem of Evil. I don’t know whether that applies to you. In any case, even among Christians the book has its advocates and its opponents. Just in the link to Amazon above, you can see people separately trying to defend the book (Finding God in The Shack) and attack it (Burning Down The Shack).

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, and your friend’s thoughts on TGD, if you want to comment when you’re done.

What was a question that made you question your faith?

“For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.”

Question from A:
What was the question that made you say, “that doesn’t sound right?” For me it was when someone told me that I wasn’t going to heaven on my being a good person. When I asked why they told me I had to believe in Jesus and if I didn’t nothing else mattered, it didn’t matter that I was naturally giving and compassionate. The thing that would send me to hell was the fact that I didn’t believe. I thought, “well that sucks!”

For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.

Of course there are lots of answers to that question: God’s testing us, Satan is responsible for the bad stuff, it’s a necessary consequence of free will, it’s our own fault things have been crap since the Fall, we only perceive things as evil when in fact they’re all part of God’s plan…and so on, or combinations of that lot.

If my inherited Catholic faith had supplied just one answer, I’d probably have accepted it and carried on, but it coughed up this whole mess of answers, some compatible, some contradictory. It really drove home that even the priests and bishops didn’t really know what’s going on, and if they didn’t, nobody did. Thus came the first desire not to simply accept what the supposed religious authorities told us kids.

Not long after that I was an agnostic, and my slow journey to atheism had begun.


Why Does/Doesn’t God…

“The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically.”

Sample questions:
Why does God allow/cause bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God heal amputees?

Beats me. The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically. I brought up these questions because I think they and others like them are useless in certain situations, but they’re being used anyway. has been around for a while now. Apologists get a lot of mileage from actually being able to answer the questions it poses, including the main one.

The answers they give stand on scriptural authority, and cannot be debunked from any other angle. If someone says God allows evil as part of free will, and/or that amputations are an effect of the wages of sin (to evangelicals, there is only pain and disease because of the Fall), there’s no way to categorically deny it. Like so many religious answers, they may not be right but the fact that answers exist can be enough to boost the faith of the already-faithful.

I worry that holding these questions aloft as unanswerable by the faithful is too similar to the apologist/creationist technique of repeatedly asking questions atheists and “Darwinists” supposedly can’t answer, e.g. “Why are there no transitional fossils?” or “If there’s no God, why is it wrong to kill?” Of course there are answers to these (if you don’t know them, ask) and atheists and others take confidence from having these answers, and the answers are actually likely to be correct, but the few seconds immediately after the questions are posed are all some believers need to get a warm, smug feeling of superiority. After that, they’re free to stop listening or reading.

I’m not saying that questions like this about gods are entirely useless. They can be devastating to an individual’s faith. I know Christians who struggle daily with the problem of evil. They’re still Christians, but on an intellectual and emotional level they just can’t reconcile the perfection of God with the tragedies they see on the nightly news. They can go and find answers, but they’re likely to find several answers to the same question coming from the same religion, which erodes its authority on the matter somewhat. In this fashion, I went from Christian to agnostic a long time ago. (Atheism took longer.)

I’m just saying that questions with answers, any answers at all, make bad rhetorical questions. In the larger debate we imagine, with all the big arguments for each religious or irreligious position fighting an ethereal battle in the air above us, questions that don’t keep the top apologists stumped are counter-productive when posed to anybody as stumpers. Just let people mull over them, arbitrary answers and all.