Questions for Atheists:Why is There Evil? (Part 1)

This post is part of a series responding to Michael Egnor’s Eight Questions for New Atheists.  You can read through all my answers to Egnor’s questions.

I’ve not really even been that bothered by the problem of theodicy, so, unfortunately, I can’t make good use of what I imagine Egnor though would be the most attractive question for atheists.  I think most discussions of evil/theodicy can be split into two separate categories: evil that befalls people and evil that is committed by people, so I’ll tackle this question in two parts.

Evil that happens to people

This category includes harm that befalls people as a result of natural accident (earthquake, illness, etc) and deliberate action by others.  This is the ‘why bad things happen to good people’ question.

For an atheist the answer is easy: there is no mechanism by which we can escape the logical or physical consequences of the actions of others or of nature.  If it begins to rain, we will get wet, regardless of whether we deserve it or how urgent it was to stay dry.  There is no way to negotiate with a hurricane, and, although you may try to reason with an enemy soldier, once she fires her gun, there is no arguing with her bullet.  As long as there is the possibility of naturally occurring harm and/or deliberately engineered harm by others and if we do not have the superhuman foresight and power that would be necessary to be able to avoid these occurrences, undeserved evils will occur.

I think this exact explanation is available to religious people as well.  Even someone who believes in occasional miracles would be hard-pressed to argue for a world of constant intercession to protect us from the consequences of other people’s actions.  You quickly end up undermining the entire principle of causality and with it, the possibility of reasoning about our own actions and making reasonable choices.  (I discuss this in more detail in my answer to Why is there Regularity/Law in Nature).  This line of argument works as well for theists as for atheists; C.S. Lewis makes it very well in Mere Christianity.

There is no reason for anyone, theist or atheist, to be surprised or betrayed by the fact that nature can do us harm.  Given our limited knowledge of the scope of our actions, we should be similarly unsurprised that other people do us unintentional or unwitting harm.  The only possible avenue of objection is to the fact that people do intentional harm to others. We may justifiably ask why that particular evil exists.

Part Two of this answer, addressing Evil Chosen by People is now up!

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    While I'd agree that constant divine intervention to protect us from harm would be theologically bizarre, there's another, more sensible way of getting to the same outcome. Why couldn't an omnipotent deity have arranged the world so that its stable, natural laws were such that harm from natural events was impossible?For example, we human beings could have been disembodied minds, rather than physical beings with fleshly bodies. Natural catastrophes like tidal waves or lava flows would pass harmlessly through us. Or we could have been creatures like the Spirits from Lewis' The Great Divorce, possessing a higher degree of solidity and reality that would make any natural disaster as harmful to us as a light rain.

  • http://joepilot-theeagleisthinking.blogspot.com/ Eagle Driver

    Very interesting post on evil and subsequent comment. Question: Why (assuming a Creator God) would the Divine create disembodied minds over what we are today – physical human beings? What purpose would there be if we were created to be impervious to natural catastrophes and other evil occurrences (I don't know maybe something like living in a split-level condo in that Garden of Eden story)? Is there a purpose in our being created (again assuming a Creator God) for us to learn? Perspective can only be gained over the very long term. Going through the Enlightenment is much different than now looking back at the Enlightenment.I think an answer is maturity (including spiritual maturity), in that we learn to do the right thing no matter what. Why? Because is is so easy to do the wrong thing.Food for Thought, If you are Hungry,Eagle DriverPS – great ideas and great questions, well written Miss (I'm kind of an old school kind of guy with the "Miss" thing) Unequally Yoked!

  • Mitchell Porter

    “There is no reason for anyone, theist or atheist, to be surprised or betrayed by the fact that nature can do us harm.”

    Nature does things that would be transcendentally evil if a human being did them. The first cause cannot be a moral being.


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