Problem of Good: Further Discussions with Atheists

Problem of Good: Further Discussions with Atheists April 5, 2021

This is a follow-up to my article, Problem of Good: More Difficult than Problem of Evil? (4-3-21). The discussions took place in a long thread (currently 895 comments) on atheist Jonathan MS Pearce’s blog, A Tippling Philosopher. Words of my four dialogue opponents will be in various colors.

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Geoff BensonI’ve read your article but it takes me back to my early days discussing the philosophy of religion, and addresses issues we’ve covered so many times. I’m not trying to be ‘anti Dave Armstrong’, but I really am not convinced by anything in this article.

Essentially it boils down to the idea that atheists may actually be good and decent people but that, ultimately, there’s no underlying foundation as to why they should be this way, whilst believers (and I concede that you are careful not to confine it to Christianity) have the ultimate foundation in god. Atheism gave rise to Hitler and Stalin, with regimes that we all agree were horrific beyond description. Under Dave’s belief system both of these genocidal dictators get to suffer, whilst atheism accepts they simply die, end of story. Without god atheists can’t really be sure what is meant by good, and so find it difficult to discuss evil in a meaningful way.

Where does one begin? Well for starters, the fact that Hitler and Stalin escape eternal punishment is simply a fact, if atheism is valid. Wishing it were otherwise (and this point alone is capable of lengthy analysis) doesn’t make it so. Life, the universe, and everything need not be fair under nature. In any event, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators don’t demonstrate the dangers of atheism, they demonstrate the dangers of totalitarianism, combined with other incendiary features. Many of the worst genocidal dictators have been devoutly religious, Franco actually carrying out many of his policies in the name of his beloved Catholic Church, whilst the African genocides that are still being perpetrated for some reason go under the radar, and religious superstition is a major factor in these atrocities.

No heed is paid to the reality of what it means to have morality based on god. Where does this morality come from? Is it put into human natures, such that everybody has it? This doesn’t explain why it varies so much between people, seemingly absent in many, and also means that it would be imbued in atheists, which this article implies doesn’t happen. So it must actually be delivered by some sort of divine instruction, and the bible appears to be the only text which might be considered relevant in this respect (with all due lack of respect to Mormons). The problem is with any form of divine instruction that it must be clear, and it’s incredibly not clear! There are many hundreds of commandments littered throughout, especially the OT, and they are either obvious (thou shalt not kill, really!), or particular to the time they were written, or just plain silly. More especially, however, and I think this is the gotcha point, the recipient must make a conscious decision to accept the instruction, and that is subjective. Suppose god had said it’s actually okay to kill people, would it then be okay? Of course not. So everyone, you included, must make the, albeit unconscious, decision that a particular type of behaviour is consistent with your own standards of morality, but you then attribute it to god.

Morality is something that is slowly learned over time by cultures that exist in different circumstances, with different rules and religions, yet all seem to acquire similar principles. The argument that if atheism is valid then people are free to rape and murder as they please is so much nonsense, on every level. As Matt Dillahunty says, “I do rape and murder all I want, and that’s exactly nil”. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues convincingly that morality has improved throughout western society as religious belief has waned and secularism has become the norm. That’s my position. Religion is an obstacle to morality.

Finally, and on the same theme, your comment “The atheist is simply living off the cultural (and internal spiritual) “capital” of Christianity, whether he or she realizes it or not.” Oh no you don’t Dave, quite the reverse. To quote Jerry Coyne “Secular values brought about morality, and religion tried to take the credit”.

You make an interesting reply, and I appreciate it (as I do your usual amiability), but somehow you never got to my topic: the Problem of Good. Instead, it’s the same old tired atheist tactic of switching the topic over to Christianity. The Problem of Good is not about Christianity. It’s about atheism. It’s your problem, just as the Problem of Evil is ours to grapple with and explain. You have done exactly nothing to ameliorate it, because you haven’t discussed it. You’re certainly more than capable of it. You have a head on your shoulders. But you chose diversion.

Your task is to explain how a binding, objective moral system, applying to all (which is presupposed by all laws and justice systems, which enforce laws by punishing offenders), is constructed under atheist premises. And you need to explain how and why evil systems which expressly claim to be atheist or at least non-religious, such as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, do not fall under “atheist consequences”; i.e., on what basis are they “out of the fold”?

I think I do address the point, though I did overlook your assertion that god instils goodness in everyone which helps offset any tendency to evil. Your article actually finds itself constantly constrained to talk about evil, whilst ostensibly stressing that it’s the existence of good that sinks the atheist argument. I thought I’d addressed every point in your final paragraph, but if there’s something on which I wasn’t clear then tell me.

It depends on what one thinks dialogue is. I think (if one is really serious and has the time and desire) it deals point-by-point with the opponent’s argument. It’s about actual interaction: not just “person A makes argument X” followed by “person B makes conflicting argument Y as opposed to a direct counter-reply to X.”

My challenge to you and all atheists here is to make a reply to the Problem of Good objection without ever mentioning Christianity or God and not resorting to the “your dad’s uglier than mine” topic-diverting mentality.

The reply concerning every difficulty in atheism raised by theists and Christians is not “But Christianity . . . ” or “But God . . . ” or “But the Bible . . . ”

You guys come off constantly looking like you’re obsessed with us and about a God you don’t even believe exists, rather than confident in your own position and ready to defend it against all critiques.

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Carstonio: Ridiculous to try to prove the existence of a being through logical argument instead of consideration of evidence. There’s no way to know if any deities exist, and presupposing a deity creates the problem of evil, not the other way around. Better to take the concept of deity off the table entirely and address good and evil on their own.

And that’s what my present argument does. When I mentioned God and Christianity it was only as “diversions” in reply to my atheist debate opponents. They are not required to make the critique, since it’s a critique of the internal incoherence and arbitrariness of atheism with regard to ethics and morality.

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im-skeptical: Well, I took a quick look at it. His argument assumes up-front that God is what creates goodness and meaning. He makes no allowance for human-derived conceptions of those things. Without the assumption of God, the whole thing has no basis. This is the kind of circular reasoning that typifies so many theistic arguments.

That’s my Christian assumption, yes, but it has no direct relation to my critique of the atheist problem of good. The two things are conceptually and logically distinct. If you took more than a “quick look” at my post you would realize that (whether you admitted it here in front of your echo chamber buddies or not).

The critique can be made with no reference to the Christian position at all. But in a very long dialogue, I did mention (as a separate sub-discussion) the Christian view as a superior and more plausible one, when confronted by my dialogue opponent. It doesn’t mean that I base my critique on that; let alone that I engaged in circular reasoning. I absolutely did not.

Christians take the problem of evil seriously. Atheists (as you did here) very often try to pretend that you have no similar problem according to your own presuppositions. This won’t do. It’s not serious thinking. We grapple with serious objections (that all belief-systems contain). You guys mostly ignore serious objections to your own outlook. And that doesn’t give anyone on the fence confidence that you have a more plausible or appealing case, or more truth than we do.

The only reason you suppose atheists have a “problem of good” is you think there is no way to explain it without resorting to God. A naturalist has no problem explaining human behavior as a product of evolution. And if you think there’s a problem with that, it’s only because you don’t understand how evolution could bring this about. It is your presuppositions, not mine, that prevent you from understanding.

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Anri: With a possible difference being that atheists attribute their belief systems, irrational or not, to fallible humans rather than a perfect god.

Presumably, symmetrical issues should not be a problem when one side is being backed by the most powerful being possible. The explanation “Well, you have problem, too!” get kind of weak when one considers the presumed sources of the solutions – or lack thereof.

I’m not saying it’s not serious. I’m saying limited being should expect serious issues with what their moral systems. All-powerful beings, not so much. I’m not dismissing the issue, I’m pointing out the issues inherent with assuming symmetry.

It’s symmetrical only in the following sense:

1) The atheist assumes a good, all-powerful Christian God for the sake of argument and then proceeds to raise what are regarded as extreme or even fatal difficulties for Christians, that come about because of the existence (and ultimate basis or grounding) of evil.

2) The theist assumes the absence of a good, all-powerful Christian God for the sake of argument and then proceeds to raise what are regarded as extreme or even fatal difficulties for atheists, that come about because of the existence (and ultimate basis or grounding) of good.

In other words, the symmetry and analogy is between evil in relation to a posited God, and good in relation to a posited non-existence of God and therefore the necessity of human beings as the basis of good and determination of necessary ethical absolutes; rather than God vs. no God.

It’s a very serious and troubling internal difficulty in your position, just as you argue that the problem of evil is a very serious and troubling internal difficulty in ours. Both arguments have to do with morality and ethics and how we build such systems to be able to live in a (hopefully) good world. Both arguments presuppose that there is such a thing as “good” and it’s opposite: evil or (if one prefers) the lack of good, and that “good” is exponentially more preferable and desirable.

One argument assumes we can, and indeed, must, define good for ourselves, whereas the other presumes good is a quality handed down perfectly by a perfect being, who only fails at the hurdle of making it intelligible to us.

As an atheist, I don’t have to assume some Platonic ideal of good – a universal code of good goodness that supersedes all possible questioning and argument. I could, and some do, but it’s not needed.

I am willing to accept a flawed, entirely imperfect, in-process, in-progress, probably-never-to-be-perfected concept of good – so long as the premise of the argument does not require one. This concept only gains force when someone insists on it as a premise of their argument.

I’m entirely willing to abandon the concept of a perfect good to explain imperfect good in the world.

Are you?

If not, the premises of our arguments are not the same, so different results are only to be expected.

You assume that there is some semblance or actuality of absolute good (and the lack of it: “evil” or “bad” or “immoral” or “unethical”) in order to make the problem of evil in the first place (one of my arguments in my post).

You can believe whatever you wish. But if you deny any sense of an objective good, it seems to me that it follows that you can make no “problem of evil” argument against God and theism, because you have to presuppose it for the argument to get off the ground.

Thus, atheists presuppose in their endless problem of evil soliloquies that the Holocaust and child molestation and rape and murder and economic exploitation and slavery and racism and sexism and on and on, are objective evils that God is supposedly accountable for. If they weren’t, then the argument would instantly collapse.

As a Christian, I can’t not accept a perfect good, since in our view, that notion is grounded in God and His character and nature and essence. To do so would be to instantly cease being a Christian.

I was under the impression most Christians consider god to be the source of, and an example of, perfect good. If you think this is not, or should not be the case, I’ll be happy to refer any Christian saying such a thing to you for correction.

In making a ‘problem of evil’ argument, I am just accepting the Christian premise that god exists, and is perfectly good. Again, if you think this is a bad premise for Christians to accept, I’ll make sure to let everyone know if they ever go so.

If your argument is that the Christian god sanctioned the Holocaust due to him not having a basis for considering it evil, I’ll be sure to let folks know about that, too. Is that your argument? I don’t want to mischaracterize you.

How can good be “grounded in God and His character and nature and essence” [my words] and yet God is somehow NOT the source and example of it? What am I missing? Yeah, “[G]od exists, and is perfectly good.” What in the world would give you the notion that I would deny that? It’s hopelessly confused.

The last paragraph is so outrageous and absurd that it deserves no reply.

If you want to deal with my argument, then address it itself. These “meta” discussions (talking about things and “skating along the edges” rather than discussing the thing itself) get old very quick.

As it is, here we are (as always) discussing God and the Christian view, when my critique is of the atheist view. It’s the oldest atheist game in the book to always switch the conversation over to Christianity, so that they never have to have their own views scrutinized. It just makes you guys look intellectually lightweight.

So, if we accept that one side of the argument presupposes a universal perfect grounding for a universal good, and the other does not… good and evil are going to play out very differently in these worldviews, and thus they should not be presumed to be mirror images of one another.

But if you deny any sense of an objective good, it seems to me that it follows that you can make no “problem of evil” argument against God and theism, because you have to presuppose it for the argument to get off the ground.

But in arguments about the problem of evil, an accepted premise of the argument is that god exists, and is the source of perfect good. That’s why arguments along these lines are an issue for Christians – who (presumably) accept this premise, but not for atheists, who need not.

The atheist difficulty is that good exists at all. You have at least as much of a problem in defining and establishing that as we do in establishing the existence of God.

As I explicitly said, I am willing to accept the concept of good as something people agree upon, rather than something foisted upon us externally. In that respect, there’s no more of an issue for an atheist saying good exists than there is saying blue exists.

What I don’t require is that there is a single, all-encompassing, eternal, perfect code of good that humans must cleave to to correctly use the term.

I’m not saying objective, universal good is impossible – and there are atheists who argue for it – but I do not have to accept that it exists, or that we have or will ever have access to it if it does exist to use the term.

Do I have a rigorous definition of “good”? No, I don’t. I don’t know that one exists. But a broad, flawed, imperfect, lots-of-grey-area-type agreement can be made on at least some aspects of it.

And that’s exactly the same situation with religion. The difference being, an atheist doesn’t have to explain away a perfect god mucking up the delivery of it so terribly badly.

If you don’t have a definition of good, then you don’t have a problem, do you? You have made the problem vanish (or so you think) by your refusal to define. And you will be unable to condemn many evils concerning which virtually everyone agrees, if you have no definition of good.

If you don’t have a definition of good…

And this is the biggest issue with my own worldview. I don’t so much lack a definition of good (I would tentatively define it as a hypothetical balance point between respecting the greater good and respecting individual rights of self and freedom – all of which are themselves fraught terms, of course…) it’s that the definition isn’t exact or rigorous.

This is a problem, at least philosophically. One I don’t have a ready answer to.

And, yes, there is no way to identify things which are accepted as moral now which might be demonstrated as immoral at some future point.

The advantage (if it is one) is that I understand this – I am certain, entirely certain, that there are things I consider moral which will be viewed as immoral by a more enlightened future society, possibly even by a more enlightened, future me. And I don’t know what these are.

But my overall point is that unless theists can make an airtight case for god’s existence, and his essential goodness, they are in the same boat morally, except that they don’t admit it. They have the same problems of following a human-given set of laws, but they believe that these have come from somewhere else, somewhere better. If the specific god they believe in doesn’t exist, or isn’t as they imagined… they haven’t.

And the fact that the religious have participated in horrors and immorality – as often as not in the name of their god’s morality – leads me to believe that none of us have even partial access to some perfect moral source.

That’s why I think the comparison is not apt – one side claims a perfect source as a premise of the argument, the other does not.

I’m very impressed that you (alone in this forum so far) admit that this is a “problem” and an “issue” in your worldview. Likewise, we Christians acknowledge the problem of evil as our biggest difficulty. Obviously, neither of us consider these problems fatal to our views or we wouldn’t still hold them.

You have to determine what “enlightened” means, and who determines what is “enlightened” and what isn’t.

I think we need to distinguish between epistemology and internal coherence and consistency. The two problems are suggested as difficulties within particular systems. Our system includes many things that yours does not: God, revelation, the supernatural, faith; as well as things we hold in common (love of reason and science and philosophy).

Part of our system is the knowledge of what Jesus, the God-Man did for us. He chose to die one of the most horrible deaths imaginable for our sake. That shows us how much God loves us, and also (importantly) that He is also willing to suffer (as an incarnate man; God the Father actually can’t suffer). He didn’t separate Himself from all our sufferings. And so we believe He is loving based on that and how He revealed Himself in the Bible, and many of our experiences as Christians (of joy, peace, strength, and so forth).

That’s why we believe He is good, even though there are many things in this life very difficult to understand. And His Resurrection, that we will celebrate today, shows us that He is omnipotent and that He has conquered death. It’s one basis for believing in an afterlife: which itself makes sense, per the arguments I have already made about “cosmic justice.” There is much more than just this life. We all will live eternally: not just 70-80-odd years and then nothing whatsoever . . .

Why we believe all these things is, of course, a much more involved and complex discussion. I’m simply describing how the system works and is, we believe, coherent, with regard to this difficulty of evil: no matter how much we may not understand. That’s part of belief in God, too: there is a Supreme Being, of infinite intelligence and knowledge, Who understands things that we never could understand, without His help. That’s our system: believe it or not.

The main defense against the problem of evil objection is the free will defense: to which atheists respond by denying free will. So that’s another big discussion (but, alas, one that bores me). I see human free will and free choices as self-evidently true. If everything we do is determined, then it’s senseless to even have these conversations.

These are my thoughts for now. Thanks again for your openness and transparency and willingness to engage. I admire that.

I wanted to make a quick reply – nothing novel, of course – to a few things you said. If this thread is becoming cumbersome or tiresome, we can just use these two posts as kind of ‘policy positions’ and not get into point-by-point if you’d prefer.

A quick-and-dirty definition of ‘enlightened’ might be “more knowledgeable and understanding about the world”.

See, for myself, I assume a system in which someone has to suffer – when the person setting the rules can set literally any rules, including the rule “no-one has to suffer” already has missed a major point of ‘good’. I am in no way suggesting god is obligated to remove suffering, just that a system with less suffering is superior to a system that involves suffering, when there are no restrictions on the way the system is built.

The problem, for me, with merely invoking god’s mystery as an explanation for why human understanding falls short is that there’s no reason not to apply that to any aspect of god – that any and all attempts to understand any part of god’s will, or message, or anything, is essentially wrong-headed. Otherwise, you’re claiming at least a partial understanding of god.

If god is beyond human comprehension, than any statement attributing any coherence of god’s actions is automatically suspect. This includes what god ‘says’ directly through scripture – honestly might very well mean something very different to god than it does to us.

If the answer to this, in turn, is that that’s was faith is for, then the issue becomes that all faith positions about god become equally valid, as there’s no intelligible way to determine between them.

As far as free will goes, some atheists deny free will, some do not (you’ll find many argument to that effect on this blog, all between atheists). Personally, I believe in free will, but I suspect that’s an irrational belief. I comfort myself with the notion that if I am right, I’m right, and if I’m wrong, I lack the free will to change my mind.

But if free will exists in heaven, evil and sin and suffering can be entirely separated from it and thus it does not offer a way out of the problem of evil. And if free will does not exist in heaven, god does not respect it as much as many seem to say he does.

This got quite long, and I apologize for that. There’s a lot to unpack in what you said, and as I don’t use philosophical shorthand jargon – as I don’t know it – I often take quite a while explaining what I am trying to say using more common language. Hence my verbosity.

Most of this is about the problem of evil, which is off-topic. So is the nature of Christian faith, mysteries about God, and free will. I appreciate your comment, but I’m very strict about staying right on-topic.

I am developing my case further in the combox of my related article on my own blog, by suggesting a test case, with a prerogative to ask many more necessary socratic questions, which will clarify my case and also make clear my objections to the atheist position(s) on morality and right and wrong.

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Photo credit: Tumisu (12-2-17) [PixabayPixabay License]

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Summary: The problem of good, which is a Christian “turning the tables” counter-reply to the problem of evil, is discussed in-depth with four atheists: one of whom admitted it was a problem.

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