In thinking about the post yesterday I remembered a particularly bad response to the problem of evil that I often see Christians deploy. The atheist claims that if evil exists, then the God of Christianity cannot. And the Christian responds by saying something like “As an atheist, you can’t even know what evil is, since you need God in order for moral facts to be true. So without God, there’s no evil. And since you do not believe in God, you cannot believe in evil, so you cannot formulate a problem of evil.”
I think that this is a very poor response, because I think it misunderstands what the problem of evil accomplishes. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument.
If this is a new term for you, then I will give you another example of such an argument. Here we will prove that there is no largest integer. We will do this by first assuming that there is such an integer.
- Suppose N is the largest integer
- For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
- Therefore N+1 is larger than N
- Therefore N is not the largest integer
- Therefore there is no largest integer
Now, do I have to believe that there is a largest integer in order to make this argument? Premise 1 says that there is a largest integer, so surely I believe that. But obviously I do not. Similarly, the atheist makes an argument like this:
- Suppose God exists
- Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
- Therefore God does not exist.
Does the atheist have to believe premises 1 and 2 for the argument to work? No, of course not. The argument is essentially the atheist deliberately taking on the Christian assumptions, like God and evil (and they might even take our definition of evil) in order to show that these assumptions are false, just like premise 1 “N is the largest integer” is false.
So even if the atheist doesn’t know what evil is, even if the atheist is a moral antirealist who claims that there is no good and evil, they can still validly use this argument. Now obviously I think the argument fails, for reasons I gave yesterday, but the objection in question here is not a good one.
Some Christians think that this objection is the one given by God in Job. The Christian reads God’s monologue at the end of Job and hears God saying “Who are you to question me, I am the Lord, I know good and evil, I have the right to do whatever I want. You do not sit in judgment over me, I sit in judgement over you.”
And that’s right, that is what God is saying. But the right interpretation is not that we have no conception of evil by which we can argue. The right interpretation is that we are too small to understand God’s reasons for doing what He does. And certainly far too small to claim that God has no such reasons. I think the response given to us by God in Job is not the argument “You can’t talk about evil if you don’t know what God is”, I think it is “You don’t know all the reasons I have for what I do”. So in other words, I think God’s response is best charactarized by the use of higher order goods, which might be mysterious to us, in order to explain lower order evils. God does have reasons.
But there is another problem here I think. I agree that the atheist does not have a full grounding for evil, since as I’ve said before, moral facts (and all other kinds of facts) are grounded in God. And I do agree that the naturalist, materialist, physicalist worldview is less well equipped to ground moral facts than a theistic worldview. But put aside for the moment the fact that the atheist doesn’t need to believe in evil to use the problem of evil. But I think in general, atheists do indeed know what is good and what is evil.
Consider Romans 2: Paul claims that the gentiles, those who do not believe in God, know what is good and evil because their conscience testisifes to them. And Paul uses this as an argument that the gentiles are guilty of sin: their conscience told them what is right and what is wrong, and they knowingly did what is wrong. Atheists are not without a God-given conscience, so we are not unjustified in saying that atheists in general do know what is good and what is evil. Not as well as the believer perhaps, and they might not know why certain things are good or evil. But most of them not only believe that evil exists, they are usually right about what evil is. They don’t have God to ground it, but it’s not clear why grounding is necessary for them to deploy a problem of evil argument.
So while I do think the problem of evil argument fails, I think “The atheist doesn’t know what evil is because they don’t believe in God” is quite a bad objection to it.