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Why the Problem of Evil Makes God Unlikely


Editor's Note: There has been rising interest in the "problem of evil" in our comment boxes, and many atheist commenters requested a stronger engagement with the so-called "evidential" version of that argument. So today, atheist commenter Brian Green Adams offers a defense of that version. On Friday, Catholic writer Trent Horn will offer a critique.


Among the most popular reasons cited for atheism is the “Problem of Evil”. Like most positive atheist arguments it is not a complete argument for believing there are no gods. Rather, it is an argument against the essential attributes of some definition of a god. The problem of evil argues that there are inherent contradictions between the attributes of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and the evil and or suffering we seem to observe. Christians typically believe God possesses these attributes, so if he could not, then the God they believe in could not exist. Another kind of god might, but it could not be all-good AND all-powerful.

In its basic, strong and logical form it goes like this:

1) if a god exists, it would be all-good, and would want to stop any unnecessary suffering or evil he could

2) if a god exists he would be powerful enough to stop all unnecessary evil and suffering

3) there is unnecessary evil and suffering

5) therefore no such God exists

There are only a few counters to this argument, the strongest being the skeptical theist response that all the suffering and evil observed is necessary in some way. In others words, god has perfectly good reasons for not stopping evil and suffering from occurring.

For example, a theist might argue that much evil and suffering are due to our own immoral and sinful conduct- wars, crimes, torture, and so on. That allowing humans the freedom to act this way and for the consequences to really manifest, is a greater good than preventing the evil, since it allows for a sensible moral creation with humans having to make meaningful moral choices. I don’t agree with this, but let us grant it for the sake of argument.

This is only a partial response , since not all human suffering is due to human actions. Disease and natural disaster are responsible for a great part, if not the majority of human suffering. Our free will is irrelevant to whether these events occur. So what reason could a god have for not intervening to prevent this suffering? Why do the prayers of most of the parents with children dying of disease go unheeded? I cannot imagine any legitimate reason.

The best reason for theists to propose is “I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean the reasons aren’t there.” This may be true, but it seems out of keeping with the idea that we are born equipped, even partially equipped, to understand and apply objective morality. It would seem to mean that we are ignorant of many important moral facts about the cosmos, in fact we would be ignorant as to why or how some of the worst and seemingly gratuitous suffering is not stopped by one who can stop it, and does not want us to suffer. We should be able to speculate somehow as to why god might not intervene, if indeed there are perfectly good and intelligible reasons not to. This might even result in moral paralysis. Should we intervene to prevent or alleviate suffering? How could we know if doing so prevents this mysterious greater good?

After this analysis the argument survives quite well in its weaker form:

1) if god exists he would be powerful enough to eliminate all evil and suffering.

2) if god exists he would eliminate all evil and suffering unless there were moral reasons not to. Or, if god exists the would be no gratuitous suffering or evil.

3) much suffering and evil appears gratuitous. We can not imagine any reason why god would not intervene to eliminate it.

4) so much suffering and evil seems gratuitous because at least some of it is. If we are created by God with a divinely instituted moral sensibility, we should be able to come up with reasons why God would not intervene even if we can’t verify them.

5) therefore it is unlikely that god exists.

There are a few other, less persuasive counters, such as the speculation that all suffering, even disease and natural disasters, are caused by human sin. This seems to be an incredibly unfair and torturous cosmos, where young children are somehow responsible for their cancer, or worse, they suffer and die because of the wrongs of their ancestors.

Another weak response, in my view, is that the reason god doesn’t intervene is that he doesn’t want to deprive us of the opportunity to do good works of charity and healing in the face of disease and disaster. I don’t think the opportunity for good here outweighs the harm caused by natural disasters like the Haitian earthquake, or the Indonesian Tsunami. Even so, there are plenty of wars and human caused disasters for us to rally together and express these good intentions of relief and healing. We don’t need Altzheimer’s disease to have the opportunity to be good.
(Image credit: Skeptical OB)

Brian Green Adams

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Brian Green Adams (pseudonym), is a labour and human rights lawyer living in Toronto. Brian has a Bachelors of Fine Arts in theatre from York University and is the author of three plays. He has a Bachelor of Law from the University of Ottawa and has been an active litigator for the last ten years. Brian blogs about freedom of religion and religious apologetics, and co-hosts the atheist podcast "A Salmon of Doubt." He is co-founder of the Atheist Community of Toronto. Brian enjoys gardening, woodworking and listening to records, in addition to discussing and debating life, the universe, and everything.

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