On Atheism: The Problem of Evil
In today's installment I'd like to talk about a funny little issue: the problem of evil. Many of you are probably already familiar with this but, in case you're not, the "problem of evil" is a sort of standard argument made about certain forms of religious belief. The problem goes something like this (apologies for the crude representation):
(1) God exists
(2) God is all-knowing
(3) God is all-powerful
(4) God is perfectly good
(5) God cares about humans
Bad things happen to good people, pain and suffering occur for no reason.
Therefore, one or more of the following must be true:
(1) God does not exist
(2) God is not all-knowing
(3) God is not all-powerful
(4) God is not perfectly good
(5) God does not care about humans
Since certain religious traditions assert, often vehemently, that the five postulates are all true, they must then produce an explanation for the existence of evil. This practice is known as theodicy and has a long and rich intellectual tradition. Of course, it's important to note that not all religious traditions must justify the existence of evil. The religion of the ancient Greeks, for example, did not assert that any of the gods were all-powerful, all-knowing, were perfectly good or, indeed, really cared that much for humans. Thus, whatever you may think of that theology, it had no real problem with the existence of evil.
Now, it's important to note that various efforts at theodicy have produced a number of "solutions" to the problem of evil. I, of course, place solutions in quotation marks because none of them are completely compelling. Individuals will find them more or less compelling depending on their temperment. So, for example, you may be fully convinced by the notion of god's inscrutability, or that humans are so much less wise than god that we simply cannot understand how his plan actually is perfectly good, and we should not presume to judge him. Thus, this response attacks the observation above that bad things happen "for no reason" and asserts that instead they occur for a reason we cannot discern. If on the other hand you don't find this argument all that convincing, as indeed I do not, don't fret: there are plenty of other flavors for you to try. Theodicy is, after all, essentially a theological Baskin Robbins and if you hang around long enough you can try a sample of everything. There's nothing like a tiny scoop of "free will theodicy" on that little plastic spoon.
It goes without saying, of course, that atheists do not have to grapple with the problem of evil. Since we disbelieve in the existence of god in the first place, the purported properties of that entity and their implications for the world are no more meaningful for us than the purported properties of Leprechauns. Maybe fun to talk about now and then, but certainly nothing to lose sleep over. Nonetheless, there are certain persons who claim that the problem of evil is a very real one for atheists. A classic example of this comes to us from Dr. Ron Rhodes who remarked:
"...it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).
The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of "absolutely good." If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it."
Thus, the effort is made to turn a related problem of evil onto atheists: if you do not believe in god, then how do you judge evil?
There are a number of problems with this effort but I'm going to address some of them by focusing on Rhodes' specifically. The first problem here is that the very question presupposes what I like to think of as "metaphysical evil." What I mean by that is the idea that a category of thing known as "evil" exists independently of human judgment. If this is so, then Rhodes' analogy to the compass needle is somewhat apt: directions and physical location exist regardless of the presence or absence of an observer. The compass is simply an instrument for measuring that underlying property, much as a ruler is an instrument for measuring physical distance. If we take the position that metaphysical evil exists then, indeed, we must ask both where it comes from and how to measure it. That said, however, many atheists, myself included, don't believe in metaphysical evil. Most of us do believe that some things are "good" and others are "bad" but these are concepts that have no meaning apart from human judgment. And if both good and evil are rooted in human judgment, then human judgment is sufficient to distinguish them. Thus, Rhodes' argument is rendered invalid because it makes assumptions that do not hold for many atheists.
If we presuppose, however, that we did believe in metaphysical evil, then Rhodes' argument is still very problematic. He claims that "...it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good." Yet, is this true? Is it impossible to measure a thing unless you have a reference point at the infinite extent of that thing? I think that even a casual reader must concede that no, it is not impossible. Consider physical distance: imagine a line of infinite extent. Having problems? Well of course you are! Infinity is a concept that has abstract meaning, and is useful mathematically, but is almost impossible for an individual to grasp. It is, in essence, utterly useless for judging distance. Similarly, an object of zero length is also very difficult to comprehend. Hell, I have enough trouble just wrapping my brain around the planck length. Consider, as well, temperature: can you imagine "infinitely hot" or "infinitely cold"? I can't and I doubt you can either. As a matter of fact, in order to measure these very real properties of the universe humans didn't spend any time at all trying to find an infinite reference point. With distance the first measures were almost certainly based on body parts and thus we explained distances by saying "thirty feet." Over time our measurements have grown more precise but, at the end of the day, we took something arbitrary and comprehensible and measured relative to it.
Likewise with temperature, the Fahrenheit scale and the Celsius scale were both calibrated relative to the freezing and boiling points of water at sea level. Why water? Why boiling and freezing? Why not? The selection was semi-arbitrary, owing to the significance of these temperatures for humans who are- after all- mostly water. Indeed, we have a third scale, Kelvin, calibrated such that it equals zero only when an object has absolutely no heat at all.*** Yet, none of these scales worry about an "infinite reference point," and, indeed, such a point isn't even meaningful. That is to say, since temperature is a measure of the kinetic energy in particles of matter, we can only speak of temperature increasing until the matter itself is converted to energy. Thus, there are maximum and minimum temperature points that fall far short of infinity. As a consequence, it is simply not the case that we require points of infinite extent to measure a thing and, indeed, such points are entirely useless for such a project. Instead, we require only arbitrarily chosen points against which we can judge other things. For evil we often use things like "murder" or "rape" which are hardly infinite, but quite useful for judging the relative badness of certain acts. And, indeed, I would argue that something like "infinitely good" is just as impossible to grasp as "infinitely long" and, therefore, equally useless for making moral judgment.
Now, to take up the final part of Rhodes' argument: does the lack of an infinite and metaphysical form of good and evil make it impossible to make moral judgments? Oh, no. Atheists have a number of solutions to this problem ranging from consensual definitions of good and bad behavior to something derived from natural law. Many atheists recognize, however, that regardless of how you justify and legitimate moral behavior, at the end of the day individuals must make their own moral choices with the advice of their society. Indeed, many religious people grasp this as well, it's just not talked about. One must always take responsibility for one's judgments of others and atheists by and large do not attempt to side-step this responsibility by hiding behind the murky demands of a hypothetical god.**** How do I judge morality? Maybe someday I'll tell you but not today- I've written enough.
So, in the end, Rhodes' claims simply do not hold water: measuring something that does not exist is hardly a pressing concern, infinite reference points are not useful for measurement, and the non-existence of god does not make judging behavior untenable. And in an ironic point, does this blog post constitute a sort of atheist theodicy?
Maybe so. And as such I invite you to judge it as critically as you would garden variety theodicy.
* Ha ha. Aren't I clever?
*** Just FYI: that's really f-ing cold.
**** I should probably note here that some atheists come up with some fairly stupid bases for their morality and I do not mean to imply that they're all perfect or something. Likewise, I know a considerable number of theists who grapple fully with moral conflicts. I am not attempting to tar them with the same brush as Rhodes but, rather, am trying to respond to his particular stupid argument.