The Problem of Evil and Suffering for Atheism

The most powerful argument against belief in God is the problem of evil and suffering. Its basic form goes like this:

  • If God is all-powerful He could prevent evil and suffering.
  • If God is all-good He would prevent evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist.
  • Therefore an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

In a previous post I explained that while the existence of evil and suffering poses a puzzle for believers (one that my wife and I are dealing with as she faces Stage 4 cancer), this puzzle does not disprove God’s existence.  In this post I want to flip the argument around as a problem for atheists by focusing on the third premise: “But evil and suffering exist.”

Last week I looked at the implications of atheism set forth by atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg believes that all that exists is the material world – particles of matter. Of course this means that there is no God, but as Rosenberg explains, it means much more than that. It also means that certain features of our existence that seem to be true, such as free will or consciousness or introspection, do not exist, either. That’s why his book is subtitled Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Free will and consciousness are merely illusions. All that really exists is the brain, and what we take to be experiences of consciousness are actually nothing more than the physical processes of the brain that are completely determined by the laws of physics.

Rosenberg freely acknowledges that this also means that good and evil do not exist.

We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations. Many enlightened people, including many scientists, think that reasonable people can eventually find the right answers to such questions. Alas, it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like. The same goes for those who disagree with them. Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none (p. 96).

If this is so, then there is a major problem with the premise, “But evil and suffering exist.” If Rosenberg is right, evil does not exist. Not even the Holocaust – the premier exhibit of the problem of evil – can be described as evil. Rosenberg concedes that his view of morality – nihilism (the belief that morality, meaning, and purpose do not exist) – “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,” or anyone else (p. 98). The best Rosenberg can say is that fortunately, most people share a core morality that leads them to be nice, and that the real problem with the Nazis was “their wildly false factual beliefs about Jews” (p. 106, his emphasis).

This doesn’t really help Rosenberg, however, because four pages later he acknowledges that “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs” (p. 110). In fact, his view is that according to evolution “racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted” by Mother Nature (p. 111). This means that:

If the environment had been very different, another moral core would have been selected for, perhaps even the dog-eat-dog morality…(p. 113).

This point was brought home to me recently while watching the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. In the alternate history of the series, the Axis powers won World War II, and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the east and west coasts of America. In the first episode, one of the main characters blows out a tire in Nazi-controlled America. A Nazi police officer pulls off to help, and while they are talking, white flakes begin to fall from the sky. It isn’t snow – its ashes from the local hospital, where the terminally ill have been put to death and incinerated.

As a Christian, I believe that this is immoral and would be so in all possible worlds. But according to Rosenberg, this isn’t really evil, and in fact, if the evolutionary process had taken a different route, incinerating the weak and infirm might have been the “moral” belief that was chosen by natural selection. And so,

We have to accept that core morality was selected for, but we have to give up the idea that core morality is true in any sense (p. 113).

This means that an atheist cannot make the argument that “evil exists,” at least not in any meaningful sense.

But there is another aspect to the problem of evil – the problem of suffering. It isn’t just that women are raped, or children are murdered, or babies die from disease – it is that those who experience such evils also consciously suffer. As much as Kristi and I wrestle with the challenges of her illness, what breaks our heart is to see little children who are afflicted with this horrible disease. The suffering of little children is intolerable.

And yet, according to the radical materialism of Rosenberg, experiences like “colors, sounds, pains, smells, touches” do not really exist (p. 234). These are features of consciousness, but conscious experiences are only an illusion. Why? Because all that exists is matter (what he called “clumps of stuff”), and clumps of stuff aren’t conscious of anything.

“When consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong” (p. 179, his emphasis).

In this light, it makes no sense for anyone to believe they are consciously suffering. We do not have thoughts about anything – including how much pain we are in. The most that we could say – as another materialist philosopher put it – is that “My C-fibers are firing.”

A couple of years ago I went to see an orthopedist about my knees. His assistant took some x-rays, then led me into the exam room. After a few minutes the doctor came in, looked at my X-rays, mumbled to himself while shaking his head, then turned to me and said (in an ominous voice), “You have many reasons to feel pain.” He sounded like a James Bond villain!

But of course, according to the perspective of Rosenberg, I do not consciously experience pain – that is impossible in principle. What the doctor should have said is, “Your C-fibers should be firing.” There can be physical processes, but not any kind of conscious suffering. And it would never make sense for the doctor or nurses to ask how much pain I am in – personal consciousness of pain is merely an illusion.

So then, consider once more this premise: But evil and suffering exist.

What Rosenberg says in his book is that neither assertion is true. “Evil” doesn’t exist because morality doesn’t exist. And “suffering” doesn’t exist because consciousness doesn’t exist. Since this is the key premise in the argument against belief in God, and since this premise is incoherent on Rosenberg’s account of evil and suffering, the argument fails.

It seems to me that atheists face three choices here:

  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and concede that the argument fails.
  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and change the premise to: “But according to Christians, evil and suffering exist.”
  • Disagree with Rosenberg’s contention that evil and suffering do not exist.

I suspect that most atheists would prefer the third option. I have met very few unbelievers who deny the reality of evil and suffering. But I am curious how “evil” and “suffering” can be coherently defined given the implications of pure materialism. That is the problem of evil and suffering for atheism.

1 Comment

  1. Loved this post….thanks! From Winchester, KY, huh? We lived and worked for several years near Jackson Kentucky at the Kentucky Mountain Bible College and Mount Carmel High School. In Winchester many, many times. Have dear friends there, most notably a former Constable Roy Bates, Korean War Vet and Godly man. I’m familiar with a strong Revival they tell me about that happened in Winchester perhaps in the fifties or sixties always.Good to connect with folks from there.

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