I'm new here, but I'm going to take the plunge and start a discussion. In the I'm confused about morality thread, a few commenters raised the problem of evil, i.e. why is there evil in a world created (according to the Bible) by a good God? I think that is one of the toughest questions for theism, and it's the primary objection I hear when I talk with atheists, so I would like to hash it out with any of you who are interested in responding. I'll start by quoting an exchange with Gallup's Mirror from the other thread. In response to his initial objection, I wrote a very brief and inadequate summary of how evil fits into Christian theology: 

1. The concept of an afterlife makes a big difference when it comes to suffering. Just like a painful operation may be justified by the health it brings, the prospect of eternal life in heaven changes the calculus when it comes to suffering in this life.

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering. Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will. In a nutshell, Christian theology would say human free will = sin = suffering. (This does not mean that particular people suffer as a direct effect of their particular sins, but that a world full of sinful people will necessarily include suffering.)

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

Gallup responded (my replies in green text below his/her comments): 

David Vogel: Is there any conceivable situation in which a good parent would allow his child to suffer?

Gallup: Today in Africa 5,500 children under age 5 willdie of starvation. This is a slow, miserable death. Indevoutly religious Africa, be assured that the parents of these dying children cry out to God to save them. The children die anyway. That's over 2 million children every year.

David: I agree that the problem of evil is probably the toughest challenge to Christian faith.

Whoa, there. Back up.

You asked if there is any conceivable situation in which a good parent [Yahweh] would allow his child to suffer.

The answer to your question is yes. According to your theology, Yahweh is making millions of innocents suffer. Even if Yahweh gives them magical lollipops in some unproven afterlife, the answer is still yes.

Yes, I do agree that Yahweh is allowing (not making--key distinction) millions of innocents to suffer. My point is that allowing someone else to suffer is not necessarily evil. For example, a parent may allow a painful operation for her child because it is in his best interest. And again, part of Christian theology is the claim that Jesus himself suffered and died so that "death is swallowed up in victory," though that victory is not yet fully displayed. 

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering.

That is one of the most vile dogmas in Christianity. Either the toddlers who die by the millions brought it on themselves, or they are suffering because an ancestor disobeyed Yahweh. In this they have no say.

Why is it vile to say that someone suffers because of a decision someone else made? If that is actually what is happening, isn't it best to recognize it? Would it be vile if I said that the baby of a drug addict is suffering because of decisions her mother made? If that is true, it seems like saying so would be a first step toward helping that child and others in her condition. 

Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will.

If your Yahweh creates each person and every quality that person has, knowing in advance everything that person will do, how is that free will?

Yahweh makes puppets and writes the script they must follow, including the evil they do and the suffering they endure. In this, the puppets have no say.   

Well, I could turn this around and ask how one can have free will if the world is nothing but material cause and effect. Free will is hard for the naturalist to explain either. (Or maybe you don't believe in free will? I don't want to assume.) But, anyway, the same Bible which says God/Yahweh exists also says people have free will, so if you have reason to believe the first then the second comes along as a package deal. I know you don't believe the first, but if you did I imagine you'd find free will fairly easy to believe in too, especially since it corresponds to our own lived experience.  

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

If Yahweh is observing the suffering of millions and doing nothing to stop it, he's a bystander. But that's not the case. He created the suffering and allows it to continue unabated.

It doesn't seem fair to argue that Christian beliefs can't explain the problem of evil and then ignore what Christians actually believe. We do not hold that God allows evil to "continue unabated." He came and suffered and died and rose again to bring an ultimate end to evil. The question of whether Jesus actually, historically came as a sacrifice for sin is a separate debate, but the problem of evil accuses Christian beliefs of having an internal contradiction and asks whether we have a good answer for why God would allow evil in the world. From the perspective of Christianity's coherence and ability to address the problem of evil, wouldn't it make a difference if, theoretically, "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life"? I'm not asking you to believe it; just to consider if that element of Christian belief is relevant to how we explain the present reality of suffering. 

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The fact that we intuitively know that real "oughts" exist seems to fit better with Christianity (or really just theism in general, on this point) than with atheistic naturalism.

This response is kind of a repeatedly made point (by me), but stated differently to fit your question. I'm sure you have it backwards. Christianity (along with other religions, and tell me if you disagree) was originally created to try to fit to whatever morality the writers wanted to exist at the time.

@Pope Beanie, You are suggesting that Christianity was "wrapped around" our moral instincts, so to speak? Even if that was the case (I don't think it was), wouldn't that still leave us with the question of where those moral intuitions come from? 

...wouldn't that still leave us with the question of where those moral intuitions come from?

Yeah, mostly.

But hey, imagine, people of different faiths who start listening to each other instead of coveting only their own legacies.

@Pope Beanie,

But hey, imagine, people of different faiths who start listening to each other instead of coveting only their own legacies.

If religions are man's best attempts to be good, then absolutely, the world would be a much better place if we all started taking the best from each. On the other hand, if God did actually tell us how we can be right with him, then that religion would be the one which everyone needs to know. It's all a question of whether religious authority comes from man or God, and that's such a broad debate that I'll refrain from starting it here. Just wanted to respond to your comment. (That's my "short version" response to your comments below, too.) 

I started to rebut each phrase but I ended up just shaking my head in disbelief. 

There is no god. Therefore ALL religious writings which purport to come from god are nothing but ancient, irrelevant blatherings.

There IS no universal morality. Most people do mostly good things (as defined by their local societies) because they have a NATURALLY-acquired tendency to do so. Those who do bad things (as defined by their local societies) are those who, for a variety of reasons, do not have these naturally-acquired aversion to evil or have decided to transgress these natural tendencies.

We're in a bit of a rut here. This has all been explained in a variety of different ways in this thread. But you continue to mimic a 5-year-old with your "but why" loop.

Human behavior is, perhaps, the fuzziest of all disciplines. To attempt to introduce absolutes here is the height of silliness.

(word games aside)

But don't you see that you are explaining why we have moral instincts, not why we should follow them?

I'm with you in that these are difficult questions to answer. Where we differ is that I refuse to act as if one specific faith makes more inherent sense than any other faith. Human cultures have evolved in competition with each other, where the winner gets to dictate the vanquished's culture and faith. Look at how South America become Christian, or African slaves. Look at ISIS's desire for world domination. One's default faith and belief in specific moral dogma depends on the traditions of the most dominant invaders. That's exactly when the "why we should follow dogma X" gains credibility that can no longer be called foreign or arbitrary. You should follow what we follow, because we dominate.

Skip to modern times, with new forces that globalize us. The strategy of successful global peace becomes tolerance, humility, and setting the most appealing examples of group and individual behavior for others to see. Even if moral foundations derive from somewhat innate drives, we must now understand these drives better, and overcome some of them.

That doesn't answer the ultimate question of "why we should follow them", but in fact explains default beliefs as arbitrary, and calls on us to stop claiming that one dogma is inherently better than another... unless perhaps it calls for humility, and empathy for foreign traditions and imposed circumstances. No more winner takes all!

Is the only reason that I should not kill, rape, or eat another person because our species happened to evolve in a context where such behavior was not useful?

Bluntly, yes! Nothing magical. Nothing esoteric. No word games. You have a natural aversion to these actions. Societal norms also factor. In some societies, eating the vanquished was lauded. In others killing someone because of their beliefs warrants a reward.

Nature. Nurture. It's all fuzzy. Welcome to modern humanity - please leave your gods and other absolutes at the door.

@MikeLong, thanks for the blunt and clear answer. I'm curious how far you would take the logic of your response, so do you mind a follow-up question? You mentioned societies in which eating the vanquished or killing people for their beliefs was lauded. Would those societies be morally better if they did not do those things? If so, why? 

Some morality is based on evolutionary and neurological development. Simple, most fundamental example: The development of empathy at around 1 year old in humans is universal and can be traced directly to development of certain structures and patterns in the brain.  Apparently, the sense of "I" is closely linked to the discovery that there is an "I" inside another.  But empathy doesn't develop due to moral training (although it can be amplified by such training); it's simply hard-wired into human brain development.  And empathy - or the Golden Rule - is fundamental to most moral systems.

So human morality is not a free-for-all; we are limited and directed by the structure and function of our brains, which in turn evolved due to natural forces.

Any parent knows that the presence of empathy in a child has its limits. Children want empathy more than they dish it out. Pat is using a toy that Dale wants, too, usually requires the intervention of The Parent. 

how far you would take the logic of your response

All the way? ("Logic" is not a good word for my responses. They're more like pouring soup - including the occasional, unintended bone.)

Would those societies be morally better if they did not do those things?.

No! In the absence of a universal morality, all that remains are "local" moralities. People who live in these "foreign" societies do NOT consider these actions to be wrong. Quite the opposite.They believe (mostly for reasons of religion and other neurological dysfunctions) that they are protecting their own local groups. IIIiii would find these actions repugnant, but then I wasn't socialized in the same way. Some societies systematically strip away the aversion to violence we were all born with.

Well stated, Mike! 


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