The Atheist and the Problem of Evil

A couple of months ago, I was reading a section of Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I was reading the book at the recommendation of a friend and there is much to like.  This particular section, however, was not pleasant reading.  One of the main characters, Ivan, an atheist, is relating a series of disturbing stories to challenge his believing brother, Alyosha.  The basic gist was  that even if your God does exist, his world isn’t worth living in.  brotherskaramazov

The most disturbing story, supposedly based on a true news report, was about a eight-year-old boy who accidentally injured a general’s favorite hunting hound.  The next morning the general called together all the hunters with their hounds and stripped the boy naked in front of all.  He then commanded the boy to run.  He did and they released their hounds and then tore the boy to pieces in front of his mother.

It pains me to even write that paragraph.  Even though this allegedly true story happened a couple hundred years ago, I felt burning anger.  I also was incredulous that other men would stand by and allow this atrocity to happen.  I don’t consider myself a violent person, but if I could ever be violent, it would be in defense of children.  It would be better to die defending such a child then passively allow one to be so abused.

Ivan’s point was well taken.  Didn’t God stand aside and allow this diabolical act of evil to unfold right before his capable hands?  Unfortunately, the short answer is yes.  And it is foolish to pretend that this scenario is not a problem for believers like Alyosha, like me, and probably like you.

I do believe in God’s justice, and that man, whom someone erroneously honored as a general, has met his justice.  That boy is now safe with God where no one can ever hurt him again.  Believing in God’s eventual justice helps some, but it doesn’t completely remove the stinging question as to why God would allow such evil to happen in the first place.

A difficult question for believers, but the words good and evil suggest more than an atheist may want to admit.

A difficult question for believers, but the words good and evil suggest more than an atheist may want to admit.

Theologians have been at answering that question for centuries.  That is not my aim in this post.  I do believe trying to take such questions seriously is a worthy theological endeavor, but I would rather focus on another important point.  The problem of evil is a problem for the worldview of the Ivans of the world too.

What inside of me felt such repulsion at the report of such heinous evil?  Could Ivan explain it?  He would agree that it is there and he would feel it too, but an atheist can have no satisfactory answer for its existence.  What is evil, if not a severe rebellion against that which is good.  We cannot have evil without good.  It’s a strange paradox that we can have good without evil, but evil is defined by its departure from good.  If there is no good, there can be no evil.  Evil, then paradoxically, proves the existence of good.

A visiting professor once told our graduate class that theists have the problem of evil, but atheists have the problem of the good.  If there is no God, then good and evil both are merely sophisticated  contrivances.  Neither are real, because they require the existence of something or someone that an atheistic worldview cannot provide.  If God does not exist and we are merely the product of chance and nature, then a boy eaten by dogs is just another random event in a world without meaning.  That the atheist and theist both recoil at such an event is existential evidence that good and evil are real, and consequently so is God.

If you don’t believe an atheistic worldview rules out good and evil (morality), hear it from an atheist himself.  I’ll link the entire blog here, but here are a few interesting excerpts:

“While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. ”

“Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population…But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.”

Dostoevsky’s Ivan couldn’t have said it better himself.  You’ll have to read the book to find out where this philosophy led Ivan.  We are seeing the same philosophy played out in real life with increasing frequency.  The problem of evil is a huge problem for believers.  But just remember the next time your heart wretches and breaks at the news of another school shooting, the problem of child slavery, etc., that someone endowed you with that sense of revulsion at the news of such wanton evil.  That “someone” was most definitely not evolution.

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About dgkeheflin

I blog about theology, church, culture, etc.
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2 Responses to The Atheist and the Problem of Evil

  1. No, there is no problem for an atheist. Good, Evil, etc. are simply human concepts, something that we feel (because we evolved that way, because we were taught that way, etc.). The boy getting eaten by dog has no meaning for the universe, but it can have meaning for us – because we give it meaning. That’s enough.

    And, for the guy… Well, there a Christian sociopaths as well as atheistic sociopaths. So what? All atheists I know personally are good people (by the typical standards), for various reasons, but the most simple one is: They want to be. The chose to be. They are not afraid of god or even the law.

    And “most definitely not evolution”? Another claim without any evidence to support it? Personally, as an amateur, I think it WAS evolution, biologically and culturally. .

  2. dgkeheflin says:

    I appreciate you stopping by and commenting “Atomic Mutant.” Though you seem to take offense at the atheist “guy” I quoted from, you essentially agree with him. You admit that good, evil, morality, etc., are inventions and not real things in themselves. You mention another concept–choice–that is also illusion in atheistic worldview. Choice cannot be real when we are but products of our genes and environment. We do what we are programmed to do. So, the idea that your atheist friends “chose” to be “good” is also an illusion, if you are an atheist.

    Obviously, I believe choice, good, and evil, etc. are real entities (if that’s the right word). My point about “most definitely not evolution” is not that it proves anything. But if we have such abject horror over something like the Holocaust, we have to decide if that impulse is simply an evolutionary reaction to something that is ultimately not even real (evil) or if that impulse is in reaction to evil as something real. If the latter, then evolution cannot explain the existence of evil nor our impulse to recoil at it.

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