The “Problem of Good”: Dialogue w Atheist Academic

The “Problem of Good”: Dialogue w Atheist Academic September 11, 2019

J. Craig Bradley is an atheist, with a Master’s degree in philosophy. He is interacting with my paper, The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue With an Atheist (the Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity) + the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism. His words will be in blue. My older words, cited from the above paper, will be in green.


I’m now taking the time to read (and reply to) your lengthy exchange with Mike Hardie, what you call the “Problem of Good” dialogue. I too will attempt to have a respectful dialogue with DA, and hope he returns the favor. So Dave and Mike had a discussion about theism. Let’s see how it went!

It went very well, and is my very favorite dialogue of all the multiple hundreds I’ve been in.

The problem of good is not defined (as far as I can see), but if the POE [problem of evil] is the argument where evil disproves a perfectly loving being, the POG seems to be an argument where good disproves a perfectly evil being. 

No; I would say that it strongly suggests that atheism is a less plausible position than theism, and that the problem of good is at least as big of a problem for atheism, as the problem of evil is for theism (it’s a classic turn-the-tables argument). I think the following statement of mine, near the beginning, serves as a definition of the [atheist] problem of good:

Simply put (but I will defend this at the greatest length once we discuss particular moral questions), atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.

If so, yes, both arguments work: our universe shows there to not be either of those beings, as far as we know.

I deny that your evidential problem of evil works to either disprove God’s existence, or suggest that His nonexistence is probable; and you have misunderstood the nature and purpose of my problem of good (at least in the way I use it).

Nothing about the lack of a perfectly evil being fails to disprove the EPOE [evidential problem of evil], which rightly shows that a perfectly good being probably doesn’t exist.

Again, since you have misunderstood my argument, this is a non sequitur.

DA claims that the EPOE (the only POE worth discussing, since the LPOE [logical problem of evil] is quickly a failure) fails, but he doesn’t (yet) show that to be true. (I’ve yet to see anyone come close to refuting the EPOE, but that’s for another day). The dialogue could have been about that, but DA indicates it will be about the nature of morality.

This particular dialogue was a critique of atheism, in response to the atheist problem of evil critique of Christianity. I was saying, in effect, “you say we have a problem? I say that you have a far more difficult problem to grapple with.”

DA thinks there are worrisome moral implications for atheism. There aren’t, at least not intellectually. That is, nothing about existing morality disproves atheism or proves theism. DA is right that an atheist truth seeker would examine apparent shortcomings to atheism. Are there problems (“shortcomings”) with atheism? That remains to be shown.
DA says that atheists have 5 problems:

“The atheist:

1) Can’t really consistently define “evil” in the first place;
2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;
3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil;
4) Has no belief in a heaven of everlasting bliss;
5) Has to believe in an ultimately absolutely hopeless and meaningless universe.”

The first is false: many atheists can easily define “evil” consistently. Nothing shows that if God doesn’t exist, atheists can’t take the word “evil” and define it consistently. Nothing shows that if atheists don’t or can’t define “evil” consistently then God exists. Typically, by “evil” I am referring to actions that aren’t for the greater good, and by that I mean actions like rape (but there are others).

The essence of my statement #1 is in the word consistently. I show how atheist use is inconsistent throughout my dialogue. It is well  summarized in Dostoevsky’s statement, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?” [see more on this quotation from The Brothers Karamazov (1880)]. To my knowledge, the way I used the argument (back in 2001) was not to assert that it proves God exists. Rather, I think it helps to establish that theism (considered as a whole) is more coherent and plausible than atheism.

The second is also false. Even though there is no god, atheists can hope for mean people to be punishing “in the end”, and for kind people to be rewarded “in the end”. But if the author means, atheists typically don’t have any strong evidence for such justice, that’s true, but so too true for the theist. If the author means atheists never hope that there is such justice, that’s false.

Again, the key here lies in the word eschatological, which is a fancy theological 50-cent word for “last things.” It refers to judgment after death, and specifically the Last Judgment: where the scales will be weighed and divine / cosmic justice will be applied. Evil people will be judged and sent to hell, and those who are saved by God’s grace will be allowed to enter heaven. Atheism obviously has no such scenario, since it denies the existence of God, the afterlife, human immortality, heaven, and hell, so my statement is absolutely true, as to atheism. It has no such thing, and cannot, by definition. And from where we stand, this is a huge problem. It’s central to the problem of good.

The 3rd one is also false, depending on what “objective” means here. If “objective” means something like “godly” or “supernatural” then DA is right. Atheists have no godly basis for condemning evil. But atheists do have a grounds for trying to stop it, condemning it, etc. It typically does harm and is typically unwanted (or as I defined it above: it’s not for the great good: it’s not maximally loving). Nothing shows that an atheist can’t criticize evil, or cheating, etc., if that criticism is to point out that such things are indeed not maximally kind.

“Objective” in this context means a binding, non-arbitrary standard of absolute morals within the framework of atheism. I’m not denying that individual atheists have such moral / ethical standards for themselves. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that they are all ultimately arbitrary and relativistic without a God to ground them in, and that large atheist systems act in accordance with this moral relativism and/or amorality (Mao, Lenin, Stalin et al): and we see what they produced.

Number 4 is true if it means this: “atheists who believe no gods exist don’t believe in a place called Heaven made by a god”. But 4 is false if it means this: “atheists can’t believe in a future state of everlasting bliss/happiness”.

It’s obvious what it means. Its true for all materialistic atheists. There are dualist atheists, but I am unaware of any who believe in human immortality, and a blissful afterlife. Of course, that is no disproof that they exist. So this curious claim will have to be unpacked and elaborated upon.

Regardless, the author is right that for many/most atheists, they believe that there are no (known) gods, no (known) Heaven, no eternal (a billion years from now) happiness that some humans here today will experience. Since the atheist is right about such things, this causes no problem.

It causes a problem for ultimate justice and morality, and ultimate meaningfulness for morality.

Number 5 is basically true: For the typical atheist who listens to science and reason, all the known evidence shows (so far) shows that in a trillion years (“ultimately”) there be no life, and this nothing that “matters” (is “meaningful”) to anyone. Of course, one can still hope for eternal life. But yes, given that there is no god, and no other evidence of eternal life, atheists typically conclude that “ultimately” there is no eternal life (as far as we know). Nothing about this is a problem (intellectually) for the atheist. Those are just facts, truths, likelihoods.

I’m not talking about the end of the universe. I’m talking about meaningful purpose here and now in our human lives. We would claim that any good and noble impulses within atheist consciences are there because they are innate in human beings: put there by God in the first place. If there were no God, they wouldn’t be there and evil would be far, far greater than it is now (and it is a huge and troubling problem now).

DA says that 1 and 3 basically claim “atheists cannot have objective morality”. Oddly, there seems to be no definition of “objective morality”.

An ethical system of moral absolutes (over against moral relativism). This ain’t rocket science.

If it means “actual values”, then it’s false. Atheists do actually value things.

Of course they do, but that has no bearing upon my argument.

If it means something “godly” then yes, atheists don’t have godly/objective morality (and neither does anyone else).

Those who believe in a God in Whom right and wrong and love are grounded, do possess such a system (especially if that God in fact exists!). Atheists ultimately cannot have it, because the next person can always say, “who cares what you think about morality; that’s just you, and your view is no more worthy of belief or assent than the next guy’s . . .”

DA thinks that something here “rules out these non-theistic ethics in one fell swoop” [that was my opponent’s words], but I see no evidence of this. DA says, “according to the atheist’s presuppositions, taken to their ultimate logical (and above all, practical, in concrete, real-world, human terms) consequences, cannot be carried through in a non-arbitrary manner, and will always end up incoherent and morally objectionable. “ What does this mean? It’s not clear from the get-go.

Well, that’s what I unpack in the very lengthy dialogue. The key word is ultimate: it’s a “logical reduction to . . .” argument.

DA says if there is no god, then morality “will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.” Yes, nothing shows this to be true. What is true is that if one continues to ask questions about things we will always get to an arbitrary point (the point in which we don’t have an answer for something). Some of our knowledge is already like that! But DA was wrong to say that it is “completely arbitrary”, unless he meant, “at rock bottom” and was just repeating the point I just made.

Yes, I meant “at rock bottom” or “ultimately.” The Christian “rock bottom” is God. The atheist rock bottom is like peeling an onion: it’s nothing.

So, basically, an atheist morality is ultimately arbitrary (as is any known morality),

I deny that Christian morality is arbitrary at all.

but nothing about that proves God.

I didn’t say it did prove God (let’s not get ahead of ourselves). I argued that it was an internal difficulty of atheism: specifically for atheist morality and ethics.

So far the author hasn’t done anything to show that this atheistic “relativistic” morality leads to any absurdity that falsifies it. Nor has the author shown that an atheistic morality requires Christian ethics (“God”) to be true.

That’s what the dialogue was about. I would have to be shown point-by-point that I supposedly did not succeed in my aim. Overarching statements like this prove nothing. They are not even rational arguments.

God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t show that we permit any and all things, thus it is false to say “if God doesn’t exist, anything is permissible”. A better phrasing would be “if God doesn’t exist, then God doesn’t stop anything”.

Many atheists (at least those in power) did indeed conclude that any evil was possible in a godless universe. If there is no ultimate morality and justice, of course this is true. It comes down to raw power and “might makes right” and reducing human beings to the “red in tooth and claw” state of primal nature and the animal kingdom, where the strong rule, in an amoral state of affairs.

DA wrongly equates the evils done in the name of Christianity with the evils done by Stalin, who was an atheist, but his evils were not done “in the name of” Atheism. 

It’s irrelevant what they were done in the name of (although “orthodox” / classic Communism is by definition atheistic). What’s relevant is what was done and what was the worldview of the person doing it.

Regardless, nothing here is relevant to the issue of whether God exists. 

I agree!

 Assuming Christians did “evil” doesn’t prove or disprove god (except that, technically, Rapes disprove Evil), but assuming Atheists did “evil” wouldn’t prove or disprove God.

Yep. That’s why I wasn’t arguing for those things. I was pointing out the difficulties for atheism, of the problem of good (see the brief definition above).

It may be true that some atheists “feel” themselves to be the measure of all things. But those atheists are wrong.

On what absolute moral basis can you say they are “wrong”?

They aren’t the measure of how long a football field is, the measure of how painful and hurtful rape is, etc.

What is the measure? And how and why would all human beings be bound to it, in a godless ethical system?

But nothing about this proves God/disproves atheism.

Yep. If we can ever get beyond these non sequiturs, maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s probably the major thing overlooked in this discussion: DA wonders how the kind atheist would respond to the unkind atheist. We kind atheists would say, we hope you act kindly! 

On what absolute / objective basis do you define “kindly” and how and why would all human beings be bound to it?

And we probably would throw unkind atheists (like rapists) in jail.

Yes, folks like you would do that, no doubt. It has no bearing on my overall argument. I seems that you have no fully comprehended the latter.

But DA wants to know how atheists can show “why and how the other person should be “bound” to the moral observations”. And there’s the mistake. Atheists can’t show, automatically, that all persons (including the unkind atheists) are “bound” to be kind, other than to say “if you are mean, we will try to throw you in jail!”.

Exactly! Thanks for conforming a major component of my argument.

Here the theist DA imagines that all atheists have to believe in what’s often called an “Objective Moral Law/Duty”, which usually is spelled out as saying “All people, regardless, MUST be kind”. But this is false. All people, regardless, do not have to be kind. Those who desire to be kind must be kind (if they are trying to satisfy that desire).

You certainly believe (or act like you believe) that rape is a thing that is essentially a moral absolute in all times and places. It’s presupposed in your arguments regarding the EPOE. You apply that and assume it to be true. If you didn’t, the force of your EPOE argument against God would be weakened to almost nil. But Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanking (not particularly religiously observant) did not do so, did they?:

In the mere six weeks during which the Japanese perpetrated the Nanking Massacre starting on Dec. 13, 1937, an estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were brutally raped and sexually assaulted by the invading soldiers. They sometimes went door-to-door, dragging out women and even small children and violently gang-raping them. Then, once they’d finished with their victims, they often murdered them. . . .

The invaders, though, didn’t even stop at simply murder. They made these women suffer in the worst ways possible. Pregnant mothers were cut open and rape victims were sodomized with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony.

You don’t think that rape is a moral absolute, and that it is wrong at all times? If you don’t, then you just justified the Rape of Nanking, or at least provided the “ethical” basis for someone else (in power) to justify and rationalize it. In atheist “eschatology there is  no ultimate justice for perpetrators of monstrous crimes such as these. In Christian cosmology there is ultimate justice and hell awaiting those who do such things and who do not repent of them.

I think you would agree with me, on the other hand that the nuclear bombing of Japan was immoral insofar as it killed innocent civilians (the US then became as evil as their enemy). But in an atheist world of morality, there is no compelling reason to explain why it is immoral, and must never be violated.

Of course, it is Catholic (and to a large extent, larger Christian) binding moral teaching on just war that provides that rationale.

And that is the solution that refutes (apparently) all of these theistic attempts to use morality to disprove atheism.

It’s no solution at all. This amounts to saying (to paraphrase your words): “All people do not have to refrain from rape. Those who desire not to rape must not rape (if they are trying to satisfy that desire to not do so).”

DA claims that the atheism will result in something that is “incoherent and morally objectionable”. The truth of that depends on how he is defining those terms.

The same way the logician and the one arguing the problem of evil does. The latter presupposes that there are things that are indisputably wrong, and agreed to be so by all, as virtually self-evident. Otherwise, his indictment against God (which fails, even as is) could not even begin to succeed. In other words, he has to tacitly admit that the problem of good is a problem for atheism, in order to proceed against God and theism; and that is incoherent and self-contradictory. He winds up arguing as much for God as against, by utilizing such weak arguments.

The issue here is whether atheism is false.

It’s one of the issues in the “long run” but not primarily in my mind (if at all) when making the problem of good argument. I’m saying, “these are the consequences on the ground of atheism, taken consistently to its logical extreme.” That argument can be made wholly apart from whether God exists or not.

If there is no God and there are rapes, then we live in a world that is “morally objectionable” if one means by that “frustrating to kind people”.

There you go again presupposing the absolute “rape is wrong.” If you didn’t, you couldn’t say that the world was “morally objectionable”.

But nothing about that disproves atheism.

I don’t think anything absolutely disproves it (if e want to get technical). I think it is thoroughly implausible and not worthy of belief, over against the far superior theistic alternative. But that’s an altogether separate argument (or separate large set of arguments). I’m simply stating my position on that,m since you keep bringing it up, for some odd reason.

Those are again just the facts about the world we live in.

Which is neither here nor there, but it has some remote bearing on the present discussion . . .

DA is right about one thing: “morality” is relative in one sense: people exist, and they often desire/prefer/like/want different things. Thus, for those who prefer pizza, what is wise for them to do (what they “ought to do” prima facie) is eat pizza. For those who prefer hot dogs, prima facie, what is wise for them to do (again what they “ought to do”) is eat hot dogs. There is relativism in what we enjoy. 

Subjective preferences related to taste buds hardly has anything to do with morality . . .

Morality is fundamentally about values, which often differ. Thus moral relativism of the sort described here is true/real/exists. Yes, theists usually here try to say “morality” is not like that. (But it is!) The burden is on the theist to show, even when person A says “I want to be mean (more than anything else)” and person B says “I want to kind (more than anything else)” that one of these people “ought” to do something other than what they want more than anything else. I’ve never seen anyone come close to showing this. What seems to be happening is that (typically) kind people want the mean people to be kind, so they try to trick the mean people by saying odd things like “you just have to be kind! Everyone Ought to be kind!” But there’s no evidence for this. People who want a kind world should be kind. What you “ought” to do (even morally!) depends on what you want. (To be clear, by “ought” I mean something like “is sensible/reasonable for you to do”). What one person has a reason to do often doesn’t apply to a different person with different values/desires. Hence, there is no Objective (necessary, godly, necessarily universal) “ought” (as far as we know).

Thanks for the description! What an utterly terrifying “world” that is . . .

If you then say, but morality (i.e., what we value) is “arbitrary” (we could value lots of different things, and we do!) that’s again just a fact about the world

It’s a fact about the atheist worldview, not the theistic one. What we believe makes a difference in how we act and how we construct moral and ethical systems.

It doesn’t prove God or disprove atheism.

The mantra . . .

Nothing here is “absurd” to the point of falsifying anything I’ve said. And again, nothing here (or elsewhere) requires anything about God or its supposed ethics).

I agree; it’s perfectly logical, according to your [false] premises. And it is perfectly terrifying in its consequences.

Returning to your “immoral atheist” story, you are right about one thing: if the kind atheist says to the immoral atheist, “I don’t like your unkindness!” that might not register/affect the immoral atheist. The kind atheist can try to persuade (I’ll give you donuts if you are kind!), threaten (I’ll thrown you jail if you are mean!”) but you are right: there isn’t anything that guarantees this will work, that, regardless of its meanness, the immoral atheist just “ought” or “has to” be kind. The theists mistake is in thinking that everyone really does have to be kind (and some atheists say this, which doesn’t help), regardless of anything. But that’s false. So, those who are kind live in a difficult world: mean people live here too! So, we can try to persuade or threaten them, or run from them. Or, as most people seem to have done, we can create a false narrative where we trick the mean people by saying “you’ve just GOT to be kind!” (end of story). If one continues this story, there’s nothing that will show that claim to be true.

Of course, this is why societies construct legal systems, which hold that certain behaviors are wrong, and therefore, punishable by law. Law presupposes moral absolutes. And I would say that law in a given country will reflect its religious heritage, because that is what the views of right and wrong, and what should be illegal are ultimately based on: that and natural law.

So, the mistake you made it seems is in thinking that “atheism is incompatible with such reprehensible behavior”. As I’ve shown, atheism is quite compatible with reprehensible behavior (mean people).

Yes, I fully agree (with the second sentence)! But of course, what is “reprehensible” and “mean”? You have to casually assume moral absolutes to discuss morality at all (i.e., if you condemn any particular behaviors).

Whereas of course, the theist hasn’t shown that rapists (mean people) probably are for the greater good (and thus allowed by a perfect in all ways being).

We can get to that in due course. One thing at a time. You have so far concentrated on the problem of good, and I don’t see how you have overthrown it at all.

DA says, “why and how [should] the other person…be “bound” to the moral observations”. I’ve now answered that: they aren’t “bound” in any sense other than worldly, human ways, like jails.

And, as I just argued, jails and judges and laws all presuppose an absolute system of morals and right and wrong. Otherwise, there could be no laws at all, and “everything would be permitted” (legal and moral anarchy). We would be back to Dostoevsky.

DA then says, the reason that all people are bound (“ought”, are required regardless of desires…) to be kind is “because God provides the over-arching “absolute” and principle of right and wrong which allows for coherent ethics and non-arbitrary determination of good and evil.” As I’ve shown, people aren’t all bound. Secondly, if you look closely (at words like “right” and “wrong”), you won’t find anything here that proves “God provides an absolute principle of right and wrong”.

Technically, I likely (without looking at it again) wasn’t trying to prove that God was. I was simply saying, “this is the coherent Christian alternative.”

DA is honest when he says, “Christians believe that God put this inherent sense in all human beings, so that they instinctively have a moral compass, and therefore largely agree on right and wrong in the main”. This is a belief, but it isn’t knowledge: it’s not shown to be probable. 

It can be shown that all societies agree on basic moral principles. C. S. Lewis in fact did this at the end of his book, The Abolition of Man. (what he called the Tao). We would say that is natural law and the human conscience, grounded in God. Commonalities don’t “prove” God’s existence, but this is perfectly consistent with what I wrote above, and what we would fully expect to find if God did exist.

Nothing shows that God exists, or “put” in (ALL of) us a “sense” of “right and wrong” (knowledge? That rape is unkind?). 

I just showed that there is something very tangible that suggests it (existing moral and legal systems all around the world). All societies, for example, have prohibitions of murder, as inherently wrong. They may differ on the parameters of murder (the definition): such as the present immoral and anti-scientific nonsense about abortion not being a species of it, based on human embryos supposedly not being wither human or persons. But they don’t disagree that there is such a thing as murder: that ought not be done, and for which there are strict penalties.

Rather, the evidence shows that we do have inherent biological tendencies (but virtually no awareness knowledge from the get go of conception), most of which are selfish! Newborns don’t even know what rape is. Small kids are typically selfish and want all the toys. We train most kids to be less selfish.

Which, of course, we take as evidence for original sin, or specifically, concupiscence. Thanks!

The point of all this: nothing shows that God exists, and put something in us, in ALL of us, and it was a sense of kindness. Even if that were true (which it isn’t), for those who became mean people (which the author indicated exist), it would be false to say, out of nowhere (automatically, necessarily, regardless of your strongest desires) “you OUGHT to be kind!” This is just a form of intellectual bullying. No evidence shows this (other than that the kind people want you to be kind.

Nothing new here, to respond to.

DA then falsely says “Atheists have this sense (that rape is unkind, the desire to help others?), put there by God, just as believers do, whether they acknowledge it or not”. Nothing shows this to be true.

I thoroughly disagree, as argued. If you really believed this, you couldn’t use rape as your “silver bullet” example to try to condemn God with: in your EPOE arguments.

DA then wrongly says “their behavior proves it.” That is, when atheists say “I like kindness” and say “you ought to be kind!” DA thinks this proves that God exists,

No; I would say, this is supporting evidence for natural law, which in turn suggests (not proves) that God exists, Who is behind it. If I argued more strongly than that in my 2001 dialogue, I must have worded it wrongly, because I know I had pretty much the same views on theistic proofs then as I do now.

and that 2nd claim (“You objective ought to be kind”) is true. It does not. DA is right: without God, values will often differ from person to person. But those are just the facts of our world.

That’s a statement of sociology (my major), not philosophy.

Thanks for the dialogue!


Photo credit: Nanjing Tribunal investigates remains of Nanjing Massacre victims (1946) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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