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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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? 

Depends upon what you mean by "not useful." If I did that to a member of another group (family, tribe, village, whatever), I might be risking revenge or a vendetta. I'm not sure "useful" is the right word.

@Gallup,

David: But why should I care about other people's harm and wellbeing?

Gallup: Loaded question.

Why should I feel pain when I cut my finger?

It's not that I should or should not. It's that I do. Concern for others is an evolved behavior.

But if I want to disregard that concern and go ahead and harm others, is there some reason I should not? What if I can do it without anyone knowing, so I can be quite sure of avoiding any negative consequences? 

Kin selection and kin altruism as features of social behavior explain our innate sense of fairness. Natural selection favors the altruistic in social groups. 

I understand that this could explain why we instinctively feel that certain things are wrong. I do not understand why this should make us care that we feel that way, or act accordingly. I've asked this question a few times and I see others have responded elsewhere, so I will refrain from repeating myself here. But that's my problem with this explanation and I look forward to reading the responses from you or others in the other parts of the thread where I've raised this question. 

"But if I want to disregard that concern and go ahead and harm others, is there some reason I should not? What if I can do it without anyone knowing, so I can be quite sure of avoiding any negative consequences?"

If you have a conscience you suffer negative consequences from doing harm to others. Is fear of punishment the only reason you don't harm others?

If you don't have a "conscience" then I suppose you are 99.999% free of the consequences of committing negative acts. One way we can attempt an explanation of "natural" morality is to compare the cultural norms of a typical person with that of a sociopath/psychopath to whom the only consequences that count are their freedom (not being jailed). For he or she...there is no reason they should stop and society cannot offer them any motivation other than to offer them help or to put them in prison when they are caught.

However, even for them there is still a 0.01% negative consequence: the drive to do more evil more often.

If you really want to explore evil David...I highly recommend reading a secular view of evil. Here is a short bibliography of two philosophers who have written very well on the topic:

  • Dews, P. The Idea of Evil Oxford:Blackwell, 2008
  • Garrard, E, 1998, “The Nature of Evil,” Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action, 1 (1): 43–60.
  • Garrard, E, 2002, “Evil as an Explanatory Concept,” The Monist, 85 (2): 320–336.
  • Card, C, 2010, Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dews is probably the best of them but Garrard and Card have written extensively on evil...so if you can get your hands on any of their works (university libraries) you'd benefit from reading them. I could also send you a pdf of one or two of the articles they wrote if you are seriously interested.

But if I want to disregard that concern and go ahead and harm others, is there some reason I should not?

Because you're going against your nature. Akin to eating. You are naturally hungry. Sure, you can choose to not eat, but, if you do, there are risks.

If you don't have a "conscience" then I suppose you are 99.999% free of the consequences of committing negative acts.

??

No one can ever be SURE they won't get caught. There are many negative consequences: a) revenge by the victim; b) fear of revenge by the victim; c) castigation by associates and by society in general; d) fear of this; e) apprehension by law enforcement; f) fear of this.; g) more...

None of these depend upon either conscience or God. All are good, socially determined (not divinely determined) deterrents,.

Well my knowledge of sociopaths/psychopaths are limited to a dozen books or so written by three people who have studied psychology and/or philosophy. The books mostly show the difference between those with a conscience and those without and how that relates to the problem of evil. The best response I have to what you've said is this:

All of these consequences involve getting caught and thus losing their chance to achieve their goals. A sociopath/psychopath is only worried about social castigation to the point that it would impede them achieving their goals which can be but a minor set back. Incarceration on the other hand is as big of a set back as you can get. 

If you ask the psychopath/sociopath afterwards if what they did was wrong...an honest answer is yes...it was the wrong move at the wrong time...very miscalculated. Their view on whether murdering someone being right or wrong hasn't changed (even with social castigation and incarceration) and that won't change them much in how they act in the future. For non-psychopaths/sociopaths castigation may be devastating for us and can cause a life long trauma whereas some sociopaths/psychopaths can over come by adapting to their environment or moving to a new one. For everyone else, our conscience can also alter our future behaviour (a deterrence) from doing it again. Repeating the crime again and again will eventually destroy most non-psychopaths/sociopaths.

Sociopaths/psychopaths are often skilled at reading people, charming people and manipulating people and good and weighing the risks of achieving their goals vs getting caught. Once they have achieved their goals a few times they become less skilled at weighing these balances and more determined to achieve increasingly bold goals. Their lack of conscience means they will not re-evaluate whether what they are doing is/was wrong. Getting caught is what mostly matters. A non-sociopath/psychopath however may be held back by their conscience (regardless if they got caught or not)...as there are far worse consequences for us than ending in jail.

If there's something wrong with this analysis...please tell me. It is an extremely interesting topic (especially considering I grew up with a sociopath/sociopath in my enviroment).

If you don't have a "conscience" then I suppose you are 99.999% free of the consequences of committing negative acts.

I think everyone thinks they are acting conscientiously (according to their conscience) according to their ethical preconceptions. If your preconception is that, for example, homosexuality is a threat to the country's moral fiber and to traditional family life (marriage, heterosexual childrearing, etc.), then you have a conscientious duty to quash homosexuality.

@Davis, 

Thank you for the reading recommendations. I've added the Dews book to "books to find" list. I'd also be grateful for any articles you could send. What would I need to do to get them from you? 

@Erock68la, 

If you have a conscience you suffer negative consequences from doing harm to others.

If I feel the urge to kidnap and torture someone, is the only reason I shouldn't do it because I'll feel bad afterward? Or would it be wrong in a deeper sense? If so, where does that deeper wrong come from which creates those pangs of conscience? 

It's true @David, there's nothing to stop an atheist from doing what they like.  Nothing to stop you either.  Both ways, we have to take the consequences. 

"... without anyone knowing, so I can be quite sure of avoiding any negative consequences?"

What makes you so sure this would leave you with no negative consequences? 

Out of interest, what is the motivation for a Christian not to do just what they feel like? 

@Simon Payton,

What makes you so sure this would leave you with no negative consequences? 

Hypothetical. I assume you would say I should avoid wrongdoing for reasons deeper than possible negative consequences to myself? If so, I wanted to remove that element from the equation and see what your deeper reason actually was. 

Out of interest, what is the motivation for a Christian not to do just what they feel like? 

My Creator and Savior says it is wrong, and he would know, and I owe him obedience. 

David- "But is our subjective discomfort the only reason why people should not hurt other people?"

No. The scenario I offered to illustrate our ability to subjectively discern good from bad was used because most everyone can easily identify with it. Being bothered or made to feel uncomfortable is an innate trait of the human condition whereby we normally possess compassion and empathy for our fellow man. The most important reason why we should not hurt other people is bound up in the so-called Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As evolved social animals we have a genetic predisposition to cooperate with, support, and respect our fellow man. It is in our best interests. 

As an atheist I have been increasingly attracted to the philosophy of humanism. It's concepts are simple but profound.

"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance." -excerpt from Humanist Manifesto III

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