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The problem of evil, naturally.

by Findo on January 25th, 2011

I’ve written in the past about the problems of evil and suffering, noting in particular that it’s an emotional problem / argument rather than a logical disproof of God ( see also here and here). I recognise that it is indeed a weighty and troubling question, but in this post I want to point out how ‘the problem of evil’ is not one just for theists, but is also somewhat of a problem, albeit in a different way, for naturalists (of which most Atheists are).

Take what Richard Dawkins has to say:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.  Scientific American (1995)

Professor Dawkins is speaking from a philosophically naturalist view-point, and he points out that in such a view point, there is no objective right and wrong – good and evil don’t actually exist. Immediately we see a disparity with how most of us actually live; we do think there is right and wrong. Some will try to argue that this is merely subjective – social constructs even (inter-subjective) but this fails down at the point of holding anyone or any other culture responsible for their actions. If something is not objectively and inherently wrong – if it is just my, or my society’s subjective opinion, why should that count for more than the other person’s?

The only way to judge another’s actions in a way that they bear responsibility for them is if the standard of right and wrong is objective, which, as Dawkins points out, really can’t be grounded in naturalism.

The irony of judging the Christian God as ‘evil’, as many evangelical Atheists are wont to do, is that in doing so one has to assume some kind of objective morality.

C.S. Lewis once pointed out that if two compare drawings of New York City, the only way it makes sense to say that one is better than the other is if New York City exists as an objective reality that one of the pictures better reflects. So too then, if we say that some moral system is better than another, we implicitly assume the existence of an objective moral reality.

Now this is not to say that one requires belief in God in order to be a moral person  - of course atheists can be good and moral people, and indeed often put theists to shame – the point is about how to ground that moral framework philosophically. Or as Michael Nazir-Ali puts it:

The question is not whether atheists can be moral but from where the moral codes come to which we seek to adhere.

There may well be a way to ground objective morality in naturalism, but I’m yet to see it, and until such time, it remains a problem for naturalists if they are to hold people to account on issues of right and wrong. Naturalism says that there is no justice, no evil,  just dancing to DNA. Yet, who of us actually lives like that?

2 Comments
  1. Well, the way I see it, since there is no god or higher authority, in reality, any we create to add a stamp of approval to our current views on what is right/wrong is our naturalistic way of grounding what is right/wrong.

    But we don't all need to be lied to about there being a god (or what ever stamp you want to attach) that says do it or go to hell. We are adults and we can understand; this is the right thing todo. Not because of heaven or hell, but because it just is. As a population, views on what is or isn't right/wrong will change and effect all people (new laws made/removed etc). But thats nothing new, we have been changing what our view of what is right or wrong for thousands of years. Even at the most religious of times.

    Some people need to understand, just because there isn't an actual authority, doesn't mean people, when they realise, will automatically go crazy and start killing and raping anything that moves (because they are only controlled by DNA). That idea is like a bad hollywood end of days movie where everyone panics and starts rampaging. As we saw on 9/11, humans act far greater then we grive credit to ourselves for in times of need.

    Some people think humans will always default to the worst of mankind. I don't think that is true, and if it was, we wouldn't have made it this far along.

    I was in the Queensland floods, stranded in a servo with a few hundred others who couldn't get home. We all sat around talking, hundreds of strangers, sharing smokes, coffee and a joke. Ladies behind the counter working extra shifts making burgers and chips for everyone. There was a sense of community, a bond. We looked out for each other, shared stories and tried to cheer each other up. That was you call the naturalistic morality in action. No prewritten rules, no religious instructions, just a bunch of people cut off from the world working together. No reason, no rhyme, just evolutionary forces in action (I'm guessing, in times of need, group bonding and team work increases chance of survival for the individual). What ever, but the fact remained we didn't start killing each other because we didn't know what the right/wrong rules are for being stranded in a service station.

    but to answer your question, "The question is not whether atheists can be moral but from where the moral codes come to which we seek to adhere" The answer i'd say is;

    "Atheists get their moral codes from the same place every other human being on the planet gets theirs. From each other."

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