Over the past weekend, an alliance of apologetics bloggers decided to tackle the problem of evil and suffering. These were specifically timed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11; you can find a list of these articles here. I had hoped this group would provide something other than the normal amateurish turnabout, which says, “You can’t even say that something is evil because you’re an atheist.” I was wrong. In fairness, I didn’t read all of the articles, but those that I did read focused a considerable portion of their writing on this point.
As an atheist who deals quite a bit with ethical philosophy, statements like these are aggravating. So, I’d like to address two things about this attack on atheism. In my first post, I will show that the point is irrelevant to the problem of evil and suffering. In my second post, I hope to show the point is wrong, and atheists can use moral terms coherently.
The point is irrelevant.
Does the problem of evil require an atheist to actually believe in evil or to have a coherent definition of evil? No, absolutely not. The problem of evil is an argument against the internal coherence of Christian premises. Imagine you are reading a work of fiction. Two of the characters, John and Melissa, are married. On one page, however, there is an apparent typo and it says that Joan and Melissa are married. We don’t have to think that any of the characters or events in the story are real to recognize an inconsistency. The story itself sets up what should be consistent. In fact, if we weren’t using a premise internal to Christianity, the inconsistency argument would no longer work! It would then be an argument about two competing, but separate, claims.
To illustrate, think of the argument against biblical inerrancy that says the bible contradicts itself in the genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke. This is the first type of argument. Now think of the argument against inerrancy that says a virgin birth contradicts the external source of modern science. This is the second type of argument.
Let’s turn now to the problem of evil, which is the first type of argument in most cases. We can construct a short version as follows:
1. Christians define God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.
2. Things that are genuinely considered wrong by this God (like innocent children dying) happen in the world.
3. A God who is all-loving would use its knowledge and power to prevent these things.
If all of the premises are true, then there is an inconsistency. The traditional theistic response from philosophers has been to attack the argument’s premises—particularly the third premise—to dissolve the inconsistency. The response from people who don’t know any better, like the apologetics bloggers mentioned above, is to say that I can’t rightly use terms like “evil” or “wrong” in my arguments. This is patently absurd. The only thing I am bringing to the argument is the third premise, and my definition of evil or wrong is not relevant to that premise.
In conclusion, as far as internal consistency arguments are concerned, atheists have no need of a definition of evil and we don’t even have to believe that evil is real. The argument is independent of those things.
Next time, I’ll tackle the more complex issue of how an atheist can coherently be a moral realist. (Part 2 is now published.)
[Cross posted at An American Atheist]