I was asked to read a post about how atheists point to evil as a reason to deny the existence of God. The atheist asks: “If there is a God, then why is there so much evil in the world?” The author of the post, believing this is a genuine question, then goes on to dissect the word evil in an attempt to discredit a popular atheist inquiry; eventually concluding that without God there can be no evil– which, as always, means atheists have no way of possessing morality or holding any valid opinion.

First of all, you already know I am not interested in another morality debate. But I am very interested in defining evil, and I thought this was a well-written post. He makes the usual mistake of arguing against an atheist point of view as seen through a filter of Christian belief (which never quite hits the mark, of course). And his entire post discusses both evil and God as if we believe either are anything but figments of the Christian imagination.

 

“But, if anyone were to challenge my belief in God, along with my faith in Jesus Christ, with the argument that the problem of evil constitutes proof God does not exist, then I would possibly respond with arguments based on the following thought: without the existence of God, there should be no evil to be a problem, and that’s the real problem with ‘the Problem of Evil.'”

 

Yes, by the Christian definition of the word evil, we do not believe it exists. It has become a supernatural word we throw around recklessly out of habit. Christians believe there is a devil called Satan who tempts us and lures us into evil traps. If that is true, then evil is everywhere. “Evil” also might include anything the Bible says is unholy or in direct conflict with God; so not believing in God automatically eliminates that definition of evil entirely.

If we are going to discuss whether or not atheists are making the argument that the “problem of evil constitutes proof God does not exist,” we must first fully agree on what we are talking about. For a moment I think the author understands this, because he gets straight to the business of defining what “evil” actually means. But then that Christian filter gets in the way again, and we never get down to the fact that evil is the wrong word entirely. “Suffering” is a more accurate complaint.

 

What Is Evil, Anyway?

People suffer for a wide variety of reasons. Disease, hunger, hate, natural disaster, accidents…. If I do not believe in a God, Satan, or even the “evil” nature of man– can evil ever be the source for suffering? Let’s look at some examples.

If I wander off the road while texting and driving, and someone dies as a result– no evil has occurred. It is simple cause and effect. An accident (whether caused by chance, stupidity, or both) is not intentional. The world may point to the victim and ask “why her?” or “why him?” but that is our grief talking. We know why. I may be accused of not acting morally by breaking the law, but I doubt I would be accused of evil unless I showed no remorse. And even then– only some would accuse me.

Does my interpretation change if there is a supernatural being who knows it will happen and can intervene? I’m not asking for this to be explained as a defense for God. That’s easy. The real question is: Does it matter? Does it make us feel better– or worse? Or nothing at all?

Is cancer evil? The atheist would say it’s just a thing that takes place in nature. Sometimes there are man-made causes which contribute, but overall it appears as if lifestyle and genetics play the biggest role. We suffer from cancer, but there is nothing in that cause which would be defined as evil. A Christian would probably agree, but the Christian must take the extra step of defining where God fits in.

We can no longer deny how cancer works in our bodies. Why do so many cancers exist in God’s design? God answers prayers for some to live while others die– or does he? Do we even know? And how does this specific cause of death serve his plan? It’s easy enough to explain. I could also make a compelling argument on God’s behalf, because that was never a stumbling block for my faith.

Whether cancer comes from nature alone or includes intelligent design—it isn’t evil. But only the latter option would give us a reason to wonder at all. Meanwhile, all of these questions are irrelevant to an atheist who can see how it develops and requires no further explanation.

If a man rapes and murders children…. is he evil, or is he mentally ill? Again, the same rules apply. Whether the source is supernatural or a failure of the brain—it’s still immoral. The real question becomes “which explanation is more satisfying when we seek justice?”

An atheist asks, “How can God allow all this suffering?” But we already know the answer. We are not questioning why suffering exists—we are questioning how a Christian can make sense of God when we know what we know. In a world of suffering we find no purpose for God, Satan, or the “evil” nature of mankind. It only complicates things.

 

Good and Evil Must Balance Out. If Not in This Life, Then in the Next

 

“The reality of evil in the world causes men to cry out for justice; for things to be made right. This is a problem, though, because knowing that a crooked line is not straight hints at the fact that a Line-drawer exists.”

 

There is no part of me that recognizes this hint. I suspect one of the main reasons some Christians lose faith while others do not can be found in how much sense that sentence makes to us. It is the heart of the morality debate. If you are like me, and recognizing life can be unfair has zero impact on how you view morality and justice—that’s one less thing to compel you into belief. We are all wired differently.

If ever there was a man-made concept, it is that justice must prevail. I do not “cry out for justice” with an expectation that it will always become reality. When justice is not granted here on earth in our lifetime, why does anyone conclude it must happen in an afterlife? This is not an universal point of view, and it only holds meaning for the believer in a God who would promise to grant it.

Personally, I believe this is one of the reasons we attempted to define God in the first place. An undefined God, which is overwhelmingly more likely to exist, may offer us nothing at all except an explanation for existence.

 

Is Evil a Problem for Atheists?

The author concludes that evil is only a problem for the non-believer. He goes on to say: “Does it really even matter whether or not God could do anything about evil in the world when the whole question is moot if He didn’t exist?”

Nope. It doesn’t matter. The whole question is moot because he doesn’t exist (and possibly even if he does). Atheists are not asking why God would allow evil because we have unanswered questions about God. We don’t even believe in God. We’re atheists, remember? It’s just another way of telling Christians their worldview makes no sense to us. It’s a reason for Christians to stop believing– and they keep on taking the bait. Explaining it again and again through a filter of belief is never going to address atheism. At least, not to an atheist.

We didn’t wake up one day and discover suffering so profound we knew there was no God. The question of belief is rarely decided on such simple emotion. Even if an atheist words it this way, the truth for us is that we cannot make sense of the world and continue to make room for God. Where suffering is concerned, it is not our confusion, but rather our understanding of suffering which leads us away.

Perhaps for some there is one defining moment when it hits us, but what hits us? When we need to understand a horrible truth in order to live with it, sometimes we have to take time to answer the question to our satisfaction before we can move forward. Will we all come to the same conclusion about what the most satisfying answer is? Of course not.

Without a belief in God, the atheist position on evil should be simple to see. Christians see it, too. They know our physical limitations. They understand how disease works. They can see why there is hunger, hate, natural disasters—just as we do. They possess all the same knowledge and accept it as truth. Just like us.

The difference is Christians must reconcile all knowledge with what they know from the Bible. They must answer the questions which inevitably come up any time we confront two conflicting thoughts which both appear to be true—and they accomplish the task beautifully. Today I have shared with you yet another fine example.

Christians want to answer those questions for atheists, too; because if we only understood the right answers to the questions we might find faith. But we aren’t asking the same questions. For those of us who do not believe in God– the pieces fit for us without any assembly required.

 

(Photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach via Foter.com / CC BY )

 

11 thoughts on “Making Sense of Suffering, No Assembly Required

  1. “Where suffering is concerned, it is not our confusion, but rather our understanding of suffering which leads us away.” YES, this exactly!

    Jenny, I’ve noticed you haven’t commented on that blog post “The Real Problem with the Problem of Evil.” I would LOVE to see your post (which I think is brilliant), linked there! Is that something you’re willing to do, and if you don’t want to, I’d be happy to do it, as long as they let me comment there.

    1. Thanks 🙂 I am always a little hesitant to even write these kinds of posts because I am not looking for a debate over who is right or wrong– I’m just trying to better explain my position. More often than not the response from Christians is to feel attacked, which leads to a point by point effort to prove I am incapable of thinking for myself. Not everything has to be a debate. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to get a little closer to understanding the person we are so interested in debating in the first place.

      1. I do understand what you mean Jenny. I have tho, already left a comment over there, in support of this article. Will see if it makes it past moderation. Hope so.

  2. That, and it’s corresponding question as to why there is so much pain and suffering, are reasons to doubt that there is a God, or especially the Abrahamic God. Yes, I am back to doubting again.

    1. I cannot help but think that everyone– theist, atheist, or agnostic– should always doubt man’s interpretation of God, no matter what that interpretation might be.

  3. First I just want to say how beautifully you write. I love your exploration style of writing and you do it very eloquently. I would say my blog is similar, except that I have far more grammatical errors due to my quick and dirty proofreading attempts! lol

    I agree with everything you say here. I have contemplated myself often what evil really means as an atheist. I don’t think people are evil, but I guess you can say that acts are evil. I see people as being rather sick, or broken, but the result of their actions can be evil. On the post that you initially linked to the author says that evil isn’t just about suffering and I do agree. In fact many evil acts simply involve fear mongering and threats whether those threats exist or not. I personally think telling people they are going to hell is an evil act, because we have a place for which we have no proof exists and we have a very severe punishment that we don’t know has actually ever happened but the constant threat makes people fearful and easier to manipulate. I person who is going to commit violence on another person we might consider evil in both act and intent, but the more important question is why. Why would someone commit such an act? The main difference, I find between many theists and atheists is that many theists feel that the person is an embodiment of evil. They are evil manifest. Evil becomes an entity and I think this is why demon possession is a part of some religions. This belief dehumanizes a person committing an evil act to something less than human. Makes it easier for us to punish them back, shame them, and treat them without compassion. Atheists take a look at that evil act and say, okay what is it about their genetics, their environment, the prescription medication they were on, their upbringing, etc, that might have made them do this act. And then we look for a solution. If a solution is beyond our knowledge then locking them away might be the best solution, but in a lot of cases there are solutions that don’t seek to hurt back and I believe that medical science in time will be able to cure the most deviant in our society. But I think that doesn’t happen until we actually start looking at all people, regardless of the acts they commit, as human. I think any concept or idea that acts to reduce the humanity of somebody is a dangerous one that we have to try and work against. I don’t think we should be treating religious people as brainless bible thumpers either. No moral high ground can be attained when we fail to treat those we disagree with humanely and compassionately. I shall leave you with one of my favorite quotes that sums up how I feel about evil. 🙂

    “But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”

    -Mark Twain

    1. Thank you. It really does matter how we are defining the word “evil” because if two people aren’t agreeing on the definition, it’s terribly difficult to agree on which acts should be thrown in the category. I guess I think of evil as a supernatural thing, so it isn’t real; but that doesn’t mean what you label as “evil” isn’t real to me. It just means I don’t call it by the same name.

      “I think any concept or idea that acts to reduce the humanity of somebody is a dangerous one that we have to try and work against.” I couldn’t agree more. And, as a child I did have trouble with the idea that God was unable to work things out with Satan. I mean, it just never made sense 🙂 Thank you for your thoughts and kind words.

      1. You’ve summed up your & many other’s conundrum right here: “It really does matter how we are defining the word “evil” because if two people aren’t agreeing on the definition, it’s terribly difficult to agree on which acts should be thrown in the category.

        The question is – who gets to define evil?
        You? Me? Someone else? Exactly who??

        Isn’t this what partaking of the fruit of knowing [i.e. eating from the tree of knowledge of] “good & evil” is all about?
        It’s quite unfortunate that such an extremely grave situation doesn’t get the critical analysis it deserves, because we’re too busy playing word games.

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