In Christian theology, a classical definition of evil is found in the work of Augustine of Hippo. He states that the evil is not a thing itself, and therefore is not brought into being by God. Instead, evil is the privation of right order. Or, to put it more simply, evil is the state of affairs when things are the way they ought not to be. So, if a mugger mugs you and steals your money, that was evil, because humans ought not to do that. And if a tsunami leaves thousands of people homeless, that’s evil, because the world ought not to be like that. (Let’s bracket why God might allow natural evil, such as the latter example, for another post).
The point is that when you talk about evil and suffering, it pre-supposes that the world is not the way it ought to be. But that means that the world ought to be some way. If the world “ought to be” any way other than it is, then that pre-supposes a designer, who had a purpose for the world, i.e. – a way the world ought to be.
But that’s not my point today. My point today is that atheists cannot use the apparently gratuitous evil in the world as a disproof that there is a God until they define what they mean by evil.
It seems to me that there are 2 choices for what evil could be on atheism. What is NOT open to atheists is the solution above, namely, that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be. Because the universe is an accident on atheism – it is purposeless – there is no way the universe ought to be. We are accidents on atheism. There is no way we ought to be.
So evil must mean one of two things on atheism:
- Evil means something that the atheist finds personally distasteful. It is a subjective preference that each person decides for themselves. Just as some people don’t like broccoli – some people don’t like murder or tsunamis. It’s up to each person. But that cannot be used as an argument against God, because who says that God’s moral purposes ought to be connected to the personal moral preferences of atheists? It won’t work.
- Evil is what society says is counter to the social conventions of a particular time and place. If we decide that murder is against our society’s conventions today, then for that time and place, murder is “evil”. But then, not signaling when you turn right at a stop sign is also “evil”. It’s all just made-up conventions. And again, it is difficult to see why God should be bound by a society’s conception of good and evil, they are just conventions of accidental people, on an accidental planet, in an accidental universe. (Again, we will bracket the problem of deciding what a society is for this discussion).
So, now I am going to ask you atheists. When you say that there is gratuitous evil in the world, (i.e. – a state of affairs that is apparently pointless, apparently without morally sufficient justification for God to permit it), what do you mean by evil? Does not the invocation of a standard of right and wrong that applies to God himself imply an objective morality? (a moral standard that is independent of personal or cultural preferences) And if there is an objective moral standard like this, where does it come from, on your atheistic worldview?
It seems to me that pressing the problem of evil is inconsistent on atheism. There is no moral standard to hold God accountable to in an accidental universe. You have to pre-suppose an objective moral standard, and a designer of the universe who makes that standard and makes it applicable, before you can proceed to hold God accountable to that standard. But then, you have already assumed God in order to argue against him.
Here is a short paper that contains a summary of everything I know about the problem of evil, (deductive/ logical, as well as inductive/ probabilistic). If you can only read one short paper on the problem of evil/ suffering, this is what you need to read. Do not pass this paper up – it is pure wisdom and will make you effective on this issue in the public square better than anything else out there.
Also, to see these arguments in action, check out the debate here, with William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen. If you want a book, here is one between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, published by Oxford University Press, 2004, (audio of one of their debates here). One of my favorite scholars on this topic is Doug Geivett. If you can listen to the audio from his lecture on evil, that is pure wisdom. It’s up on the Academy of Christian Apologetics, (audio). I love the use of “noseeums” in his examples.
I was over on triablogue.com, and they were commenting on a post over at Victor Reppert’s blog C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea, on the topic of morality on atheism. Also, there this debate between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens is fantastic for understanding why morality is irrational on an atheistic worldview.