The Problem of Evil Is a Problem for Everyone
The most oft-discussed objection against theism is the problem of evil, and it runs basically as follows:
- If an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God exists, then he obviously wouldn't allow an evil unless he had a sufficiently good reason for doing so.
- Cite numerous examples of apparently gratuitous evils (i.e., evils for which there does not seem to be any sufficiently good reason for God to allow).
- Conclude that the examples cited in (2) count as evidence against the existence of God as defined in (1).
What is seldom recognized, however, is that atheists have a problem here too. In fact, the problem confronting the atheist is, arguably, at least as serious as that confronting the theist. The problem for the atheist can be posed in the form of a trilemma:
- Either (a) the atheist affirms that there is objective evil or (b) he affirms that there is none or (3) he remains agnostic on the matter.
- If (a) then the atheist is committed to an objective standard of goodness, but whence does this standard of goodness come from?
- If (b), then the atheist flies in the face of moral commonsense and gives up any objective basis for moral complaint.
- If (c), then the atheist has the burden of explaining how it is possible that there be objective evil and also flies in the face of moral commonsense, which takes it as obvious that some things (e.g., torturing a baby for fun) are wrong.
And if the atheist, as many do, denies that there is any objective morality, then he bites a rather large bullet. On the face of it, it just seems obvious, even an a priori truth, that torturing babies, rape, murder, the Holocaust, etc. are just plain evil. If the atheist is going to say that such thing are not really evil, then he's saying something that is prima facie highly implausible. And it's hard to see how this admission is any less implausible on its face than is the typical theistic response to cases of apparently gratuitous evil, namely, the suggestion that God may have reasons for allowing it that are inscrutable to us. (Indeed, it is arguable that the theist gets the better end of this exchange.)
My conclusion, then, is that the problem of evil is a serious problem for everyone, theist and atheist alike. Consequently, examples of apparently gratuitous evil have little tendency to support atheism over against theism.