The problem of evil, naturally.
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?