Is There a Problem of Evil for Atheism?

In response to various arguments from evil for atheism, some theists attempt to turn the tables on atheists and argue that evil is at least as much of a problem for atheism as it is for theism. I’ve argued repeatedly that this response completely misses the point that the problem of evil can be understood as a reductio against theism (see, for example, here). And what has the response of those theists been? Silence. Or, at the very least, if they have responded, I’m unaware of it. (Please feel free to correct me in the combox if I’ve missed it.)

In order to show why the theistic attempt to use the problem of evil against atheism fails, consider the following imperfect analogy. You are a child living in an orphanage and trying to figure out if you have a “Father.” By “Father,” I mean a biological father (lower-case ‘f’) who is alive, capable of having a relationship with you, aware that you exist, and loves you.

As luck would have it, two of the other kids in the orphanage are studying philosophy. They start debating the problem of absentee Fathers.

One of the other kids in the orphanage is a “Fatherist,” someone who believes that your Father does exist. Another kid in the orphanage is an “a-Fatherist.” He argues that you do not have a Father because you’ve never heard from him. Either he’s dead; alive and unaware that you exist; or alive, aware that you exist, and somehow unable to forge a relationship with you (perhaps he got stranded on an uninhabited island in the south Pacific).

In response to the a-Fatherist, the Fatherist tries to turn the tables on the a-Fatherist. He says, “But if a-Fatherism is true, you can’t have a relationship with your Father anyway. Fatherism provides the only solution to the problem of absentee Fathers. So it seems to me that absentee Fathers are at least as much of a problem for a-Fatherism as they are for Fatherism.”

Now in this debate, the Fatherist is clearly right when he points that if a-Fatherism is true, you can’t have a relationship with your Father. But such a response is utterly irrelevant to the question at hand, namely, whether an absentee Father is good evidence for a-Fatherism.  After all, the fact that a-Fatherism means you can’t have a relationship with your Father tells us precisely nothing about whether an absentee Father is good evidence against Fatherism. It could be the case both “a-Fatherism entails you can’t have a relationship with your Father” and “absentee Fathers are good evidence against Fatherism.” So you rightly conclude that, if this is the best response Fatherists can come up with, the a-Fatherist is right: absentee Fathers are evidence for a-Fatherism.

Now I said this analogy is imperfect. Here’s one reason why. In the Father analogy, it seems almost certain that if a-Fatherism is true, a relationship with your Father is impossible. But in the case of atheism and the problem of evil, there is no such certainty. In other words, it is far from certain that if atheism is true, then there are no objective moral values or duties. That is hotly contested by both theists and atheists alike.

But it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. Even if it were the case that atheism entailed the non-existence of objective moral values or duties, it would still be the case that arguments from evil challenge the internal coherence of a theistic worldview. We’re still left with a family of arguments that various facts (“evils”) — such as their apparent pointlessness, the biological role of pain and pleasure, flourishing and languishing, virtue and vice, triumph and tragedy, and so forth — are evidence favoring naturalism over theism.  If it were also the case that various other facts — such as the objectivity of moral values and duties — are evidence favoring theism over naturalism, then so be it. All I have argued is that the latter don’t make the former go away.

If I’m correct about that, the notion that atheism has its own “problem of evil” is misleading. There is no mystery why, if there is no God, various things happen to people that we would not expect if God did exist. When theists talk about atheism’s “problem of evil,” what they should really be calling it is atheism’s (alleged) “problem of morality.” I disagree that atheism has such a problem, but at least the label would be much more accurate than atheism’s (alleged) “problem of evil.”

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