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The Problem of Evil

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism One particular argument that people sometimes use to try to promote atheism is the Problem of Evil. Why would a good god allow such bad things to happen in the world? In fact, it's such a well-worn topic that there's even a name for the field of apologetics that attempts to answer it, Theodicy. And while this argument may make you question what you learned in Sunday School, I've never considered it a very strong argument for atheism, per se*. It just means that if God exists, he's not particularly nice. I mean, if a god created the entire universe and could have done so in any manner it saw fit, it still created a universe in which cancer in children is a thing that actually happens.

The fallback that some fundamentalists use of Adam and Eve and the Fall doesn't help out at all, at least when you take that story literally and not metaphorically. I mean, God just created these two beings, knowing full well what their characters were, and then put the one object that could doom the entire universe right in the middle of the garden where they were living. And these two innocents (because they didn't know right from wrong until after they ate the fruit of the tree) were punished because they were gullible enough to be tricked by a serpent (which God also created). If God really cared that much about his creation, he could have at least put a fence around the tree, or better yet, not even put it in the garden so it couldn't have caused all that trouble to begin with. It's like he was setting them up for failure.

The other most common defense I've seen by Christians is to bring up free will. If God is going to grant us free will, then some people will abuse that freedom to cause evil. But that doesn't explain natural evils like the example I mentioned above of cancer in children. Why create a universe where that's even a possibility? I mean, if we all have souls that are the real us, why even create the universe to function on a physical level with things like DNA that can go awry and cause so much suffering at random?

But the free will explanation is also pretty weak for human caused suffering. If God really is like he's presented in the OT, and took an active role in human affairs, from the Exodus to aiding the Israelites in their conquest / genocide of the Promised Land to, my personal favorite, the quail episode from Numbers, he could certainly have intervened a bit to stop the Holocaust or Stalin's massacres in the Soviet Union. I mean, it's not like the Bible presents an aloof god who was afraid to step in and do things.

I also wonder what Christians who use free will as an excuse for the problem of evil think about heaven. Do we still have free will in heaven? If so, does that mean the problem of evil still exists in the afterlife, and that we can expect the same type of suffering in heaven as happens in life? Or do they believe it is possible for God to set up a realm with free will and without suffering? And if so, then you're back to the problem of why he created the physical universe so differently.

Granted, there are other reasons to not believe in God, so we don't have to fret about being stuck in a universe created by such a cruel deity. This is really more just a thought experiment to point out the flaws in some apologetic reasoning. We might just as well be wondering why Apollo's chariot doesn't burn up from the heat of the sun.


*I've used examples myself of Yahweh not being good (e.g. God vs. Supervillains). But it's always been to make people question their assumptions about religion, not as evidence itself against gods.

Note: This entry is adapted from a series of comments I left on the CNN article, Penn Jillette: Time for atheists to stand up and be counted.

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