Do Proponents of the Argument from Evil Try to Have it Both Ways? A Reply to David Wood

According to David Wood (see here), atheists who appeal to the argument from evil are logically inconsistent. Why? Wood offers the following explanation:

For instance, atheists seem to be arguing (1) that human beings are so good that God shouldn’t allow us to suffer, and (2) that human beings are so bad that God shouldn’t have created us (or given us free will, etc.). That is, atheists are simply shocked that a good God would allow human beings to experience all sorts of pain and injustice. “Why doesn’t God intervene?” “Why doesn’t God come down here and protect us?” The point of this criticism is that God should save us from harm (i.e. God is morally obligated to protect us). Therefore, we are worth saving from harm.

Notice that (1) and (2) are not explicitly contradictory, but this is easily fixed. Presumably, Wood has something like this in mind.

(1′) Human beings are so good that God should have created us and shouldn’t have allowed us to suffer.

While (1′) contradicts (2), a major problem remains. The problem is that proponents of the argument from evil need not affirm (1′) or (2). Consider, for example, Paul Draper’s evidential argument from evil based on the biological role of pain and pleasure. Rather than copy the entire argument here, I simply invite the reader to read my summary of Draper’s argument. Notice that neither (1′) nor (2) above follow from any of the premises in Draper’s evidential argument from evil. This is also true of the arguments from evil formulated by Michael Tooley, Bruce Russell, William Rowe, Michael Martin, and Quentin Smith.

Another worry I have about (1) is that it seems to imply that God, if He exists, has moral obligations to human beings only if they achieve some minimum level of goodness. But this seems false, even on the assumption that God, if He exists, has any moral obligations at all. On the assumption that there are any moral obligations at all, a sentient being can be the beneficiary of a moral obligation, regardless of whether that being is generally moral, generally immoral, or somewhere in between.

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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Mark Vuletic

    I think Wood's argument is a little bit different. He wrote a bit clumsily, so it does seem at first that the part following "That is," is meant to be a restatement of his entire argument. In fact, however, he seems only to be clarifying (1). He goes on in the next paragraph to try to clarify and support (2). His basic argument is, in fact, that (1) and (2) contradict one another:

    "In piling up countless examples to illustrate how awful human behavior can be, atheists thereby forfeit the right to say that God is morally obligated to protect us.

    "In order to be consistent (and, as I said recently in a comment, proponents of the Argument from Evil seem to have no concern for consistency), atheists need to choose. If humans are so awful to one another that God shouldn’t have given us the opportunity to carry out our horrendous exploits, fine. Stick with this as an argument. But don’t turn around and immediately claim that God should protect us, because your argument, if correct, shows that human beings are very, very bad." (Forgive the formatting: Blogger commenting doesn't accept the blockquote tag.)

    As you point out, (1) and (2) are not strictly contradictory. Perhaps, for instance, a skilled thief who goes out of his way never to physically harm his victims is bad enough a person that he ought not exist, and yet good enough that he does not deserve to suffer.

    I suspect Wood would respond to this by modifying (2) in one of two ways: he would either (a) say that atheists clearly think that people are so bad that they ought to suffer, or (b) that, regardless of what atheists think, they ought to recognize, on the basis of the human atrocities they describe, that people are so bad that they ought to suffer to the degree they do. Still, both of these are problematic: nothing Wood quotes supports (a), and even if it is intuitive (which it is not to everyone) that some people are so bad that they ought to suffer, it hardly follows from, say, Hitler's worthiness of suffering that his victims got what they deserved, which is what he would require for (b).

  • Peter White

    What Wood is really saying is that god's hands were tied when he created humanity. God had no choice but to make us in a way that permitted us to be evil and therefore deserving of pain and injustice.

  • Francois Tremblay

    Seems to me that he's just committing the standard fallacy that people commit when they try to argue against antinatalism, that is to say, to confuse between "starting a life" and "continuing a life." As long as humans exist, it is worth it to preserve them from harm, but human lives are not worth starting (by God or anyone else). So there is a big distinction there that he just misses completely.

    Either way, the evil-god hypothesis makes a lot more sense…

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