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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@Ed, first of all, I truly respect the fact that your desire to live a moral/good life led you to seek out a moral system that fit your intuitions. Atheists I meet pretty consistently have a much higher moral view than I think they can actually justify on a theoretical level.

Reading your comment, it seems like you gave two reasons why we should be good: 

As evolved social animals we have a genetic predisposition to cooperate with, support, and respect our fellow man.

What I'm still not seeing is why this fact about our genetic predisposition should carry any moral weight. Even if I'm on the verge of murdering someone and suddenly have the feeling that I ought not do it, why should that feeling put any obligation on me? By your definition, it seems to have evolved because it gave a survival benefit, not because it was true, so why treat it as true by following it if I'd rather not? 

It is in our best interests. 

I'm separating this out because it seems like a different point. What may have been in our best interests at some point in an evolutionary past may not be in our best interests now (e.g. wisdom teeth), so saying morality evolved is different from saying it is in our interests today. 

If the reason to be moral is because it is in our best interests, does that mean that whatever is in our interests is moral? If I can get a great deal of money by killing someone, and if I can do it in a way that ensures no one will ever know, should I do it? 

David - "Atheists I meet pretty consistently have a much higher moral view than I think they can actually justify on a theoretical level."

How so? Please elaborate.

"What I'm still not seeing is why this fact about our genetic predisposition should carry any moral weight. Even if I'm on the verge of murdering someone and suddenly have the feeling that I ought not do it, why should that feeling put any obligation on me?"

I am not speaking about individuals who represent a small fraction of our society. There will always be those who are going to disregard any notions of wrongdoing and go ahead with their crime/offense. But I consider them flawed and not representational of a healthy caring community where we respect one another and realize cooperation is key.

Perhaps one reason we seem to have an innate sense of morality, and this has been demonstrated in 6 month old infants, is that we recognize the importance of cooperation in a social environment.

"If the reason to be moral is because it is in our best interests, does that mean that whatever is in our interests is moral? If I can get a great deal of money by killing someone, and if I can do it in a way that ensures no one will ever know, should I do it? "

That dog won't hunt. That's an extreme perversion and I think you realize that. You keep making references to abnormal behavior. Why?

@Ed,

David: Atheists I meet pretty consistently have a much higher moral view than I think they can actually justify on a theoretical level.

Ed: How so? Please elaborate.

Morality in an atheistic universe seems like it can only be grounded in either personal preference (bad things hurt me in some way, such as troubling my conscience) or brute fact (moral instincts evolved). The responses I've seen here seem to boil down to one or the other. The one is selfish and the other explains how we feel but makes it an evolutionary accident. However, when you are outraged and sickened by a story about ISIS selling naked Yazidi women as sex-slaves in the market, I'm quite certain that you aren't angry primary because hearing about it bothers you, nor because ISIS is doing something which evolutionary pressures made maladaptive, but which would be totally fine if they happened to have evolved in the environment which produced elephant seals. 

That dog won't hunt. That's an extreme perversion and I think you realize that. 

Of course it's an extreme perversion, but how do you know? Looking at your post above, here are the justifications I can see: 

1. People who commit offenses are "flawed" and not representative of a "healthy caring community." 

2. We have an innate sense of morality. 

I assume that your judgment in (1) is based on your sense of morality in (2)? So that innate sense of morality is key; which just seems very odd to me. Everyone here seems dismissive of the idea of drawing moral principles from a 2,000-year-old book, but you seem entirely okay with drawing moral principles from your own inexplicable instincts. You feel something is wrong, so you judge it to be wrong on the authority of a gut feeling?

Serious question: Am I missing something? I don't want to put words in your mouth here, but based on what you've said I can't see anything more weighty than what's ultimately a gut feeling as the foundation of an atheistic moral system.

If I can get a great deal of money by killing someone, and if I can do it in a way that ensures no one will ever know, should I do it?

Hmm, so you think atheists are more likely to act like that than theists? 

@Pope Beanie,

No, I don't. However, I think atheists cannot consistently explain why they don't act like that. 

I meant consistently with belief in an atheistic reality, not with one another. Apologies for the ambiguity. 

Atheists I meet pretty consistently have a much higher moral view than I think they can actually justify on a theoretical level.

So the reality doesn't fit your theory? Time to discard it and look for something that works.

If I can get a great deal of money by killing someone, and if I can do it in a way that ensures no one will ever know, should I do it? 

I would have to live with myself doing something unforgivable. A Christian has access to absolution and sublime and final forgiveness. Now, tell me who is more likely to commit the crime?

It seems remarkable that  knowledge the tree delivered...was virtually the same as the cultural constructs of the barbaric bronze age nomadic dessert dwellers who wrote the book. Does that mean that God force fed them only the knowledge that man at that time could understand? No...because there were many more advanced civilizations at the time that could have understood far more advanced knowledge (and even more primitive civilizations who would have understood less). God chose a pretty insane group of people who never tired of squandering their extremely small treasury of resources on war, ruthless female domination, sexual obsession and murdering entire towns of innocent bystanders. God thought it best to leave his message with them...and not say...the Chinese (technologically and philosophically superior) or the Indians (intellectually and philosophically superior). It's just a total coincidence that "knowledge" of the tree...is pretty much identical to the "knowledge" of the primitive dessert dwellers who wrote down the first books of the bible...precisely as God delivered it to them...with absolutely no changes...at all...I'm serious.

Yes, this is what you must believe if you are a Christian. Why did He not appear to the much more advanced Chinese civilization?

Well...the chinese are a soy based culture and the Indians are a yogurt based culture where as we (the west and middle east) are a milk based culture. What choice did God have? This makes as much sense as just about any other explanation...doesn't it?

Ah, Davis, I see you are referencing that old lactose intolerance argument :-)

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