Sep 12

Atheism and Evil: Part 1

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]

Similar Posts:


2 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. Ryan

    Besides all of that, we can change the question from “Why does evil exist?” to “Why do murder and rape and torture and Hell exist?” It doesn’t really matter what evil is in general if we can agree that these specific things should not exist if this God does. And if not murder, rape, and torture, then what would evil be? Evil has to be defined at some point if we’re going to talk about it at all, otherwise the entire discussion is irrelevant or we encounter fallacies like moving the goalposts.

    I’m also sick of hearing that atheists can’t talk about good and evil. Why is that? Because there is no universal standard among us? The same applies to Christians or any other religious group, otherwise there would be no differences in opinion among them. Because we cannot appeal to objectivity? Neither can theists. If their God tells them what is good or bad, then the principle is subjective.

    This nonsense, along with such fundamentalism as “Constitutional originalism,” paralyzes discussion and ethical development. It is difficult to make any progress when a large group of people resists the very questioning of its assorted moral codes and attempts to impose this same unfounded rigidity on everyone else. We should not still be arguing over what a verse in the Bible has to say about homosexuality or abortion or slavery or animal cruelty. The very fact that we can have arguments about Biblical interpretation shows that the whole system is itself subjective, so we might as well get down to using reason–not an ancient text–to decide what is best for our society. It is past time that they understood that acknowledging subjectivity in ethics does not prevent us from judging one system to be better than another.

  2. Randy Everist

    Hi Mike. Primarily, what is meant is that the atheist has no objective grounds for objective morality, so that they cannot say something actually is objectively evil. At best, as you note, they can discuss internal consistency. But if, as the vast majority of people intuit, there are objective moral values, then they should examine what that ontological foundation actually is. I agree, though, that Christianity could be false even if there is an objective moral being as a foundation for objective moral values and duties.

    Next, several of the posts addressed many more issues than that my friend (mine included)! My own spoke of the need for consequences with respect to moral actions, Matt Flannegan’s was a defense of the divine command theory of ethics, another promoted a greater good theodicy while still another was a critique of it. There were far-reaching posts and quality, timely topics, and I don’t think it’s fair to label all, or even most of them, as primarily dealing with this topic.

  3. Mike

    Hi, Randy. I did read yours and I don’t consider you part of the problem. That’s why I chose to link to your page over others. I think if there’s a discussion to be had, I’d rather have it with you. As I admitted, I didn’t read them all. I was frustrated after the few I did read and didn’t continue. That the consistency argument can still be made seems uncontroversial.

    As to whether we can have objective morality, that will be my next post. In short…it depends on what we mean. I’ll provide some definitions and ways to view the issue where objective morality can be had.

  4. Ryan

    In my experience, “objective morality” almost always means “This is good/bad because I know it is, regardless of what you think.” I’d rather limit the concept of objectivity to logic and math (and, to a lesser degree, science) than bicker over whose principles satisfy some unverifiable metaphysical duty. There’s almost nothing productive about an ethical debate between an atheist who wants to construct morality around consciousness and a Christian who believes morality is pre-constructed by the Bible according to God’s instruction. We can begin to make progress only when we agree on the standards and goals for ethics. And until some religion provides a very good reason to accept its underlying supernatural claims, I cannot take religious ethics seriously.

  5. Randy Everist

    Hi Ryan. I would like to point out your main complaint seems to be against moral epistemology, not ontology. We can be open to many ways of discovering moral truth, but why should we think that these things are not actually morally true or false, that is, good or evil?

    You even seem to admit there is an ontological good, as you refer to “making progress.” Progressing toward what? What is implied is an objective moral standard to which we are approaching. Finally, the post simply glosses over most of the professional publications in ethics done by religious scholars.

    @Mike, I see what you’re saying. I look forward to the next post. 🙂

  6. Ryan


    Here’s the full context for my usage of “progress”: “We can begin to make progress only when we agree on the standards and goals for ethics.”

    Regardless of one’s definition of progress, it can only be achieved when people “agree on the standards and goals for ethics.” So no, I am not implying that there is an objective moral standard, though I do have my own preferences.

    I don’t understand your first paragraph. By what standard do you judge a moral principle or statement to be true/false, good/evil? You can judge it by your own standard or another’s, but how can you appeal to an objective moral standard without proving its existence in the first place?

  7. Randy Everist

    Hi Ryan, thanks for your continued and polite discussion! So if I understand you correctly, you’re not describing moral progress at all, but rather using the end goal (that is, that which we’re supposed to be progressing to) as “society [whether in general or completely, I don’t know which you intend] agrees on standards and goals for ethics.” Which means progress towards that goal comes with each new agreed-upon standard or goal, am I correct? If this is true,. it is not objective morality, but rather subjective–which is fine, but this is a might-makes-right system of ethics.

    My first paragraph was just pointing out the conflation of moral epistemology with moral ontology. One deals with the values of good and evil, while the other deals the content making up those values. The point is that mere disagreement about what constitutes “good” or “evil” is in the category of epistemology, not ontology, and thus the criticism against ontology from a differing opinion is not grounds for thinking there is no such ontology. Rather, at best, it would show that we may not be competent judges of that content (I’m not even sure that follows, but given certain other implications of the premise one may make this argument). In any case, I don’t think your criticism is warranted.

  8. Ryan


    Just for the sake of clarity, I’ll put the point in more specific terms. An atheist who constructs ethics around, say, the capacity for a being to feel pain will not be able to agree on the matter of abortion with a Christian who believes that the Bible forbids it, perhaps as a matter of protecting life. The fundamental difference in the two systems prevents their society from making “progress” on either front, from establishing a rule and moving on to new moral issues. The atheist in this scenario may want to legalize abortion, whereas the Christian may want to ban it. Obviously, only one of these two possibilities can be actualized at any given time.

    Given that we do have such differences, how is it that our society does have rules and sometimes changes them? Is it because we occasionally grasp some new moral truth? No. In the United States, at least, it is because a majority, the legislature, or the courts have made their will law. The rules are then enforced by the police, the FBI, the military, etc. Our very rights as human beings only “exist” in any meaningful sense because other people acknowledge them and because they are protected by the government. Might does indeed make right. Of course, in this context, that simply means that only the dominant ideology is enforced, not that alternative systems are inherently false or evil.

    I happen to use a different standard than the Bible or mere power. Secular standards in general are the best suited for humanity because they are based on and deal with the world as we all (or very nearly all of us) experience it. It is not enough to assert that an action is good or evil simply because an ancient text says so or because “that’s just how it is”; one must justify it in some way. We might argue, for example, that an action is evil because it causes great pain to an individual or group that did not desire the pain. Or we could argue that it violates some principle that may not seem to matter right now, but benefits us in the long run by providing social stability.

    But I don’t claim that the standards we reach through Rawlsian or rule-utilitarian justifications are objectively good. I might instead say that they are the best suited to our existence as biological, mortal, (somewhat) rational, self-interested, evolved animals. What does religion provide? Rules we do not understand but must nevertheless follow? Or can the rules be understood and justified in the material world, in which case the religious component of the ethics is irrelevant? Either way, I see no benefit.

    I don’t think I’ve conflated moral epistemology with moral ontology; they are simply intertwined in this case. Perhaps when I speak of objectivity, my meaning is different from yours. For me, an objective moral principle would have the same truth value as 2+2=4. I dismiss the very possibility that a moral principle could have such a value because I see no method for us to establish this. The idea seems ridiculous. So as not to muddy the waters of philosophical discussion, I prefer, as I said before, to limit usage of the term “objective” to math, logic, and, to a lesser extent, science. If that means that I am missing some philosophical nuance, let me know.

  9. Randy Everist

    Hi Ryan, within the context then of your original complaint, it simply functions as question-begging (or else the complaint made is irrelevant to the argument as a whole). As to might makes right, despite being disturbing (in that it means slavery was OK), it would entail the bizarre consequence of making such acts not only permissible, but morally obligatory. But in any case, you reject that even this is truly good or evil, so that won’t apply to you. But I think it’s obvious that many laws are in place precisely because people think it to be good or to be preventing some evil. Even seemingly innocuous laws, like taxes, are in place because they believe it is good to support the government (or some further end goal), and this is how you achieve such. That’s why politics is so heated; everyone thinks all of their opponents are Hitler. 😉

    However, you claim that objective moral values are impossible because there is no method of establishing this. First, that is a non-sequitur. Think of a math problem which has two sides, one of which is necessarily true and the other necessarily false, but we have no way of knowing which one. Does it then follow neither of them are true, of necessity? Of course not. Epistemology is separate from ontology and I think this is easily demonstrated, as seen above. To equate them then is an instance of conflation.

    Second, what governs logical or metaphysical possibility is internal consistency and being clear of violating any necessary truths. So far, you have not shown why objective moral values are self-defeating, nor have you shown which, if any, necessary truths they would be violating were they to be instantiated. As such, I see objective moral values as at least metaphysically possible, and hence, by the S5 axiom, actually true.

    Finally, unless you are using “logic” as a synonym for “reason,” the claim made about objectivity belonging only to statements of math, logic and science cannot justify itself. For it is not itself a statement of math, or logic, or science. Now if you did in fact mean to include reason, then why is it the case that morality would not apply? There are statements of coherent reasoning concerning morality in books and philosophical journals around the world. It would be incumbent upon any objector as to why morality could not be spoken of that way.

  10. Ryan

    Randy, I’m not sure what we’re arguing here. The problem seems simple to me: if you cannot establish that a given moral rule is objectively true, then I have no reason to believe that it is objectively true. If this were an empirical issue, I would compare it to Russell’s teapot. Since this is not an empirical issue, I have to wonder: to what do you appeal to establish objective morality? It cannot simply be logic, nor can it simply be human sensibilities; the former is amoral while the latter is unrelated to objectivity.

    I (seem to) take the matter a step further when I say that objective moral statements are impossible. I say this because the very idea seems nonsensical. What does it mean for a moral statement to be objectively true or good? I do not understand. Until you can make it coherent for me, I will maintain the position. To make it coherent, I suspect you will have to directly or indirectly reveal your method for establishing objective morality, which is the central problem I have here. Without a method, there is no reason to think that “Murder is bad” is better or more truthful than “Murder is good.” I hope you can see how epistemology and ontology are connected here. If not, then forget the terminology; simply address the problem I raise.

    As for using “logic” instead of “reason,” I was just a little wary of the latter term because it carries different meanings. But I don’t see how morality applies if we switch the terms. We can reason that one action is better than another, but only when the actions are put into a context in which we have a pre-established goal (to establish justice, to spread wealth, to avoid punishment or guilt, etc.) or method/standard. With that in mind, surely you can see a difference between morality and math/logic. You say that it is “incumbent upon any objector as to why morality could not be spoken of that way,” but I have yet to hear from you how it could.

    I left your first paragraph for the end because I’m not sure if you’re attempting to argue a point with me. You said, “But I think it’s obvious that many laws are in place precisely because people think it to be good or to be preventing some evil.” What people believe about good and evil is only one element of the reality of law and does not explain why they have particular moral beliefs. Again, some people believe that abortion is a terrible crime/sin, yet it remains legal in the United States. Presumably, slaves weren’t all that happy with their place in society, yet that alone did not stop slavery. And we even find ways to justify murder, particularly through dehumanization. None of this has much to say about objective morality.

  11. Ryan


    In case my last post gets us nowhere, I can frame the problem differently.

    In your first reply to Mike, you said, “Primarily, what is meant is that the atheist has no objective grounds for objective morality, so that they cannot say something actually is objectively evil.” You seem to suggest that, unlike the atheist, the theist does have “objective grounds for objective morality.” Could you explain what those grounds are? I assume they relate to God, otherwise the theist would have the same problem as the atheist. But I’m not sure that including God actually allows even the theist to have objective morality.

    In other words: if you already agree with me that I, an atheist, cannot say something is objectively evil, I think the argument here should be centered around how God enables you, a theist, to do so. Of course, if your recognition of objective morality is rooted in religion, then the last line of my second post here is appropriate: “And until some religion provides a very good reason to accept its underlying supernatural claims, I cannot take religious ethics seriously.”

  12. Randy Everist

    Hi Ryan, this is all in the context of your original claim, which I still maintain is confused. You have argued that: a) divine command theory is subjective, which we have seen no evidence for, b) that objective morality is logically impossible, which we have not seen any evidence for, c) that how one comes to know the good establishes whether there is any, which we have not seen any evidence for, and d) that morality cannot be spoken of reasonably, which we have not seen any evidence for.

    This just-so account doesn’t defeat any of the theist’s claims, ignores wide swaths of professional philosophical literature, and is question-begging. As far as I can tell, unless you are prepared to argue any of your above four assertions, I have no reason to believe them. Thanks for the discussion!

  13. Mike

    If I may interject, Randy is wanting to defend a conditional, as Craig did in his debate with Sam Harris. That conditional is “If God exists, then an objective ground for morality exists.” Or this could be framed to say that this is in fact the only way to ground it.

    (I think objective here would be more properly defined as subjective, but necessary. This is kind of a unique case where those two things can go together. That’s probably close enough to capture what people mean.)

    So, since it’s a conditional being defended it’s true that it does not matter whether God exists or whether we can know God’s commands. It’s relevant and up for debate in general, but it doesn’t affect the conditional being defended.

    It’s kind of like saying “If I were to jump out this window, I would fall to my death.” The truth is not rooted in what I actually do, but in whether the if really entails the then.

  14. Ryan


    A) We hadn’t really gotten into that yet, but I was hoping the discussion would get there once you explained specifically how God’s existence allows for objective morality.

    B) You have not provided any evidence that objective morality is real or even possible despite my requests. If you provide no evidence, I have no reason to give the idea further thought. I’m not sure that “logically impossible” is the right phrase here; I simply prefer to say that it has no meaning. How can you say that an action is good without defining good?

    C.) I want to know how YOU establish the good’s existence so that I can respond. If you cannot explain how you establish the good’s existence, then I have to wonder why you think it exists in the first place. I have been waiting to see if you have more of an argument than “the Bible says so.” If that is all you can offer, then we can’t go any further than this, but I direct you again to: “And until some religion provides a very good reason to accept its underlying supernatural claims, I cannot take religious ethics seriously.”

    D.) I don’t know what you mean by “morality cannot be spoken of reasonably.” I’m claiming that we can speak of it reasonably only when it is put into the context of pre-established goals and standards. In other words, “X is good” must be accompanied by why X is good, otherwise–again–there is little reason to take it seriously.

    Perhaps this will all clear up if you simply answer my questions rather than ignore them in favor of dismissing just about everything I claim.

    Mike (and Randy),

    I am waiting for him to establish that conditional. I do not accept, without argument, that God’s existence alone is enough to provide objective morality. If that makes me ignorant of “wide swaths of professional philosophical literature,” as Randy says, then so be it; I still await the argument.

    You say we might define objective here as “subjective, but necessary.” Necessary in what sense? One of my biggest problems with the concept of objective morality is the implications of the terminology. As a result, I think “Murder is objectively bad” is a nonsensical statement. It does not correspond to any empirical data, does not follow from any logical argument that I have heard (so far), and cannot be assumed from human sensibilities. What is left to suggest that objective morality makes any sense? That is what I am waiting to hear. On the other hand, “Murder is bad” is just fine as long as we recognize that “bad” is a heavily loaded word that must be unpacked before we can TRULY understand what “murder is bad” actually means.

  15. Randy Everist

    Mike, the above comments by Ryan are why atheists are starting to be viewed as anti-intellectual. “It’s impossible!” “It’s not true!” “It has no meaning!” etc., followed by “prove me wrong.” It just doesn’t work that way. 🙂

  16. Mike

    I’ve had conversations with Ryan and I don’t think it’s fair to categorize him as anti intellectual. On the contrary, I’d say he strives to take an intellectual approach. I think we can better characterize things like this as misunderstandings and people trying to work from different definitions. I think Ryan actually agrees with half of your argument–that he and I can’t rightly have objective morality–he just disagrees with the other half.

  17. Mike

    Also, I wonder how much of this translates to style. I think of people like Dawkins as continental in style where people like Plantinga are certainly analytic. There was a time when I was an avid defender of existentialism and I loved Sartre and Camus, but I came to appreciate the analytic style more. I understand the appeal of the continental style, though, and do not specifically view it as anti intellectual. It has a different set of concerns and standards.

  18. Ryan


    By continuing to not answer any of my questions (particularly how God enables objective morality), you have ground the discussion to a halt. As Mike explains, I agree with half of your argument but disagree with the other half–the half I am waiting for you to justify.

    Your characterization of my arguments as “just so” is also unfair. Consider what I said to Mike: “As a result, I think “Murder is objectively bad” is a nonsensical statement. It does not correspond to any empirical data, does not follow from any logical argument that I have heard (so far), and cannot be assumed from human sensibilities.” In fact, it is your argument that I would characterize as “just so”; you have yet to explain how morality can be objective, yet you insist upon it. Without empirical data or logic, how would you do it?

    I even suggested that we might have a misunderstanding that could be cleared up if you answered my questions. But still you write that I am an anti-intellectual question beggar who does not show his work. Your last two posts have had no value whatsoever, so I find your characterization amusing. I do not know enough about you to characterize you as an anti- or non-intellectual, but I am growing suspicious as you continue to ignore me.

    I will continue this discussion if you do. Otherwise, I am happy to drop it. It has clearly not been worth anyone’s time so far.

  19. Ryan

    For the sake of future readers and my own closure for this argument, which has been on my mind frequently:

    I define morality as inherently subjective. It is not begging the question; it is simply part of the definition of the term for me.

    However, theists who subscribe to Divine Command Theory conflate morality with God’s commands, which allows for objectivity insofar as God does command.

    Now, we could agree that we have separate definitions and thus go our separate ways, but I would rather see if objectivity is in fact a possible property of morality, all other aspects of the two definitions being equal.

    One typical criticism of Divine Command Theory is that it is simply a disguise for subjectivity. The question becomes: is there really a meaningful difference between my command and God’s? Or: why is it that what God commands is objective, yet what I command is not? Typically, the theist argues that God is in the unique position to decide what is objectively good either because it is Creator or because God is omnibenevolent. And the argument with the atheist continues.

    Without getting into any details here (essays and probably entire books have been written on the subject), I hold that the atheist ultimately wins the argument. Since I already agree that objective morality is impossible for the atheist, I am forced to conclude that in fact objective morality is impossible in general. I suppose we could bicker about whether my definition of morality or my conclusion came first, but that’s not terribly important.

    All of this was in the back of my head as I wrote the above posts. If it was an intellectual crime to not lay it all out in analytic style, then I am a repeat offender, as I rarely take the time to clarify every single claim I make–especially on a blog.

  20. Mike

    For anyone following these comments and interested in the next post trying to establish a secular foundation for morality, it’s now posted: http://foxholeatheism.com/atheism-and-evil-part-2/

  21. Ryan

    It occurred to me out of the blue to clarify a point of contention, though this probably won’t even be noticed.

    I emphasized our inability to determine objective moral principles as a supporting argument against objective morality. It is true that something may exist even if we cannot know it, but the argument is uniquely problematic to concepts like morality in that the ability to know here is directly related to importance. How is a moral principle relevant if we cannot know or cannot be expected to know it? In an atheistic worldview, there would certainly be no consequences. In a theistic worldview, there could be consequences, but there shouldn’t be. It would not be just for God to punish us for what we do not know.

    Objective morality, then, can only be relevant if we can know it, much as we can know that 2+2=4 or that modus tollens is a valid argument. This amounts to intuition. And yet, despite the vast number of people who grasp math and logic intuitively, we all seem to disagree on what qualifies as right or wrong and why. It seems to be on the theist to explain this problem, since the atheist expects and understands it as part of his worldview. The theist has some options:

    1.) “Many people are in denial.” This usually accompanies the ridiculous claim that atheists choose atheism because they want the freedom to do whatever they want, including things they know are wrong. The strength of this argument is in the impossibility to disprove it: I can never prove to anyone else that I did not know some action I took was wrong, nor can I ever discount the possibility that I am so greatly in denial as to not even know. But this unfalsifiability is also a weakness, and the claim can even be used just as effectively against the theist.

    2.) “Many people suffer from demonic influence or a mental handicap.” This just adds a new burden of proof for the theist to carry. Fortunately, it also means that I am still not responsible for my transgressions, since I do not understand them because of some factor beyond my control.

    Perhaps there are more, but I can’t imagine that any is satisfying. It really just seems simpler to regard morality as inherently subjective because it is based on desires (I don’t want to kill Joe because I respect or love him; because I would be punished by the law; because everyone would hate me; because it would contribute to social decay; because I was raised to not do so and thus would feel guilt; etc.) and circumstances.

  22. Ryan

    This sums it up nicely:


  1. Atheism and Evil: Part 1 | Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

    […] Article FROM http://foxholeatheism.com/atheism-and-evil-part-1/ Sponsor- Bible Island at BibleIslands.com is your home for Kids Bible Stories told through the […]

  2. Atheism and Evil: Part 2 | Foxhole Atheism

    […] Part 1, you hopefully saw that atheism does not need to entail objective morality in order to coherently […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.