Saturday, July 24, 2010

Does belief in evil imply belief in god?

You might find this hard to believe, but I spend a fair amount of time listening to Christian radio. Sometimes I find it enlightening, if only in the sense that it helps me understand what they think. Most of the time, though, I find it infuriating. If ever you should wonder why certain atheists speak so vocally against religion, a few hours listening to American Family Radio can be insightful.

As I tuned in one day, the apologist Ravi Zacharias was recounting a tale concerning his defeat of the Problem of Evil. As he tells it, a naive student stood up during one of his speaking engagements and question Zacharias about the PoE. Ravi responded by questioning the student about his presuppositions until the young man  tacitly admitted he believed in god and sat back down, thoroughly confused.

Though his audience found the anecdote amusing, I was incensed. Zacharias hadn't answer the question at all, he had simply tricked the student into submission. To trumpet this as a victory was dishonesty of the worst kind.

Did Zacharias have a point? Does belief in evil presuppose the existence of God? This is a common response to the problem of evil, so I must ask if it sufficient. Obviously, I do not think that is the case.

The assertion that believing in evil implies the existence of god hinges on the acceptance of the Argument from Morality.  As I have said before, I do not believe there is any merit to this argument. The existence of objective morality is questionable at best, buttressed only by our subjective desire for our moral views to be universally right.

Qualifying certain acts or states of being as good/evil does not rely on the existence of some transcendent moral pronouncer. Much more natural explanations for the development of morals abound. They may not be as satisfying for someone who longs to be unquestionably right, but that does not make them any less legitimate.

None of this, however, is particularly relevant to the Problem of Evil. The assertion that belief in evil presupposes God does nothing to answer why the two contradict. Claiming that by saying evil exist I am acknowledging God, besides being untrue, is irrelevant. The PoE is such a problem because it flows from what certain theists, particularly Christians, believe. There is an inconsistency there that needs to be addressed;  changing the subject doesn't fix that.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Evil pt 2: Is there method in the madness?

Everything happens for a reason. I hear that phrase quite often, though it rarely gets directed at me anymore. The curious thing is that I never seem to hear it after some fortuitous occurrence. No one ever win the lottery and proclaims "Well, everything happens for a reason. Maybe tomorrow I'll  lose my health insurance and be diagnosed with cancer." No, everything happening for a reason always seems to proceed from life taking a turn for the worse.

Last post, I discussed the free will defense to the Problem of Evil. Like free will, the assertion that things happen for a reason is an attempt to justify the existence of some evil, and it crops up frequently in various defenses against the PoE. This time, I'm going to examine a few of the reasons put forth and see how they hold up.

The creation of some good.

The most often cited reason for the existence of evil is that it is required for the production of some type of good. Compassion, bravery, and self-sacrifice are typical examples of goods that require evil in order to be effected.

While this seems like a decent answer on the surface, it turns out to be much like free will in its failure. Really, we must ask ourselves why we think these goods that the evil produced are valuable.  Compassion, for example, relates to caring for a person in a time of suffering. Caring for another can certainly occur when there is no suffering. In this case then, it seems that evil introduces no new good, it simply modifies our evaluation of a pre-existing good.

Self-sacrifice can be viewed in much the same light. In all but the extreme cases, in fact, self-sacrifice is just the material expression of compassion. In the more dramatic instances, one might argue that self-sacrifice is something more than compassion.

 I do not believe that this is correct. There is, at least in the opinion of most, nothing particularly good about destroying oneself. Many religions in fact label such an act as penultimately bad.  It must be then some motive behind the act that frames it as a good one; it must be the compassion that is expressed by such an act. Self-sacrifice, then is an expression of care for another required by evil. It is not a new good introduced by evil, it is an unnecessary extreme forced upon us by evil.

Most, if not all of the example goods can be resolved in a similar manner. It is not so much that evil allows new good but that it affects how we value that good.

I'd like to address an obvious contention that is sure to come up over that last statement. Could evil be here to increase the value of certain goods?  This idea, I think, is an admission of defeat. It implies that initially we undervalued those good.  If that is the case, then isn't that a deficiency in the original design?  How does an omniscient, omnipotent creator let that sort of thing slip past him? Furthermore, having discovered the cosmic error, why does he employ such a Rube Goldberg scheme to fix it rather than correcting the value directly?

Before we leave the creation of good defense, I'd like to point out that certain of these alleged new goods rely not just on evil, but also on some deficiency of character. Bravery requires fear, perseverance requires the possibility of failure, and so on. But how can an omnipotent god be afraid or possibly fail? Because certain goods rely on those things for their creation, it would seem then, that God lacks them. If this is the case, God is apparently not all-good. As with free will, this defense has hindered God more than it has helped him.

The greater good

Often, the creation of good defense is taken a step further.  When there is no manifest good that is being created by evil or when the amount of evil is so overwhelming in light of the meager good it creates, things are simply pushed back a step. Evil does create good, it is said, at some higher level that we cannot currently grasp. An analogy once presented to me captures the idea quite nicely

"As a parent, there are times when you must do things for your children that may seem evil to them but are for their own good. Though they do not understand now why you do these 'bad' things, some day they will realize you did it because you love them."

While this is an appealing idea, it is also terribly flawed. There are times when I must do things that my children don't like, but I always endeavor to explain why I am doing them.  Sometimes I am unsuccessful, but then again, I'm not omnipotent. I do not have the resources and powers that God could marshal to make his children understand. With omnipotence at his disposal, there is little reason why God could not make his children understand precisely why the perceived evil was an eventual good. Failing to do that is an evil in itself.

Who are you to question God?

This is the really the endgame of all for a reason defenses. God has a reason for evil and he doesn't need to explain it. Who am I, one of his lowly creations, to question his motives?

Why anyone thinks this is a good defense is beyond me. I suppose it does get many people to stop talking, but it does not resolve the issue. If we are to believe the tales, God is the source of our moral inclinations. The reason that we declare something evil is, if you believe the theology, because God also finds it evil. When we question the existence of evil, we are merely echoing God on the point.

(It could be the case, as I have been told, that our moral judgment has been corrupted, but these merely shifts the issue to the evil of our corruption and why it exists)

One final thought before I sign off: If we cannot question why evil exists in the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god, by what rights do we call him good?