William Paley, (1743-1805) wrote one of the earliest books presenting a developed natural theology. Natural Theology, which is different from Revelation Theology, comes to conclusions of God, not from special revelation (some holy text, whether it be the Koran or the Bible) but comes to conclusion of some designer, or intender, based on general revelation and reasons from an effect (Creation or conscience) to a cause (God).
We see, in apologetics, that there are arguments from natural theology, such as the argument from design and the moral argument. The moral argument reasons from a ubiquitous moral experience, shared by humans to a moral lawgiver, and in a similar fashion the design, or teleological, argument, taken from William Paley’s Natural Theology, the Watchmaker analogy, goes something like this:
If one is walking on a beach, which is littered with objects, shells rocks, logs and so forth, which have no specified function, and if one stumbles upon a watch (Not a battery operated one, one with gears) one would presume it had a specified complexity, apart from the other objects, or functions to some end. If something is for something, one might be within their rights to say it has an intender, or a designer, even if they had no idea what a watch was.
There are problems which apologists face when using this type of argumentation.
1. Design may be attributed where there is no design. Apparent design is not actual design, and it can be easy to say, as after the fact observers that something was put here for us when it just so happens to be the case. It might be easy to say a rock was intended to function as a hammer after using it as a hammer, but this ignores the millions of other rocks which serve no use as a hammer.
2. Design arguments tend to be selective in their data and one arguing from design might even be guilty of committing special pleading by only viewing the niceties which we say are good for us, while ignoring the nasty things, or the rocks which do not function as hammers. It is easy to give thanks to God for puppies, but not for screw flies, or to be grateful to an omnibenevolent God during times of feasting, but not during times of famine. We are grateful for our hearts which pump blood to our organs, but what of our appendix, which is seemingly useless and can rupture if infected and kill its host?
Point 1 is an argument from ignorance to design, while point two is an argument from evil against design. 1 says, “I don’t know what this universe is for, and its constituent parts, so I will attribute meaning and design to it because some of it serves my purposes.”
2 says, “I like features of this universe, or things seem to be going well for me here, on my side of the world, so the world must be designed,” to which the objector might, rightly say, “tell that to starving children dying of plagues in poorer countries! The only design you have to be thankful for is the development of western civilization!”
We, as theists, do tend to overstretch, or misuse, our arguments in favour of God’s existence and this misuse lands us in hot water and we set ourselves up for the above objections and if we aren’t ready, they’ll humble us as much as I hope they did here. I would say if an apologist cannot argue adequately against these points, they are arguing for the existence of God from their intellectual or societal position of luxury and that their arguments would be weakened if faced with the evil in the world.
Why is the problem of evil a problem for the theist, with respects to design, rather than the atheist? Theists are committed to a view of God, being a maximally great being, which supplies them with a certain set of initial conditions, namely the nature of God, and these conditions provide us with a certain expectation as to what the world might look like if God existed, but the world does not match our prior expectations. So what now? Should we abandon our belief in God? Some might say deism is in order, given cosmological arguments for the existence of a first cause, but that does not mean god is actively involved in human affairs.
Christians may weaken their view of the nature of God, saying that He is either malevolent, to some degree, or they may say He cannot stop the present evil. Both of these choices weaken the omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, or maximal greatness, of God, that God is somehow in conflict with His own nature or that He is in conflict with nature itself. Atheists, I admit, have little problem with the arguments against design from evil, since their worldview is not informed by the presence of maximally great entity. They can say that the world is just functioning as it supposed to, earthquakes, hurricanes and Bundy’s all included, since atheism does not logically entail that we should expect any kind of actual goodness or function in the world.
Many Calvinists have plugged their noses and conceded to a form of accepting God’s malevolence, that God employs instruments of evil, but that God’s nature is not imputed based on this because God can never, by simple virtue of being God, be evil. This is a view called compatibilism. I will reject this because under this view, if God is to be seen as good, but acts He decrees can arbitrarily be said to be good or bad by some unknown measure, then what is good or bad is based on whatever God’s mood happened to be that day in declaring it to be so, and there is no way to determine the moral value of an act until after the fact, not before. Furthermore, this leaves us with zero ability to know God’s goodness from creation and we are left in the same type of Skepticism as Descartes who wondered if, perhaps, a malevolent being were tricking him into thinking truth was a lie, and vice versa. His reasoning can be summarized, thus:
P1: I know a proposition only if I can rule out the possibility of it being false.
P2: If I am being deceived by an evil demon then all propositions I believe are false.
C1: Therefore, in order to know a proposition I need to rule out the evil demon possibility.
P3: I cannot rule out the evil deceiver possibility.
2: Therefore, I lack knowledge.
This is a position that one would, initially, want to reject. But upon further examination of the world, can we?
One might take another alternative which is weakening the view of evil, and saying it is part of design.
One classical argument is to simply say that you cannot have good without evil, since evil makes the good fully realized. Good and evil are like mountains and valleys and one cannot have one without the other.
Now, I will grant the mountains and valleys point, since the two terms are polar opposites and they are defined in relation to each other, one needs low spots in order to have high spots, but are good and evil polar opposites!? I will reject this position, since one can imagine a world of total evil without any good in it to make us appreciate the evil in it.
If we are to reason from the created order to a designer, we must either infer the character of the designer resembles the faulty nature of the world we live in, if, and only if we are to consider this divine entity an object worthy of our worship. If our own moral standard, as mentioned in the moral argument, is superior to any deity that might exist, it cannot be said that an appropriate response to a designer would be reverence, even if said designer were all powerful. At best, an appropriate response would be fear, but this would be an entity to be avoided, not sought after, and if this deity is omnibenevolent, but can do nothing to stop the evil, then this deity can be considered loving but not all-powerful.
As said before, if there is no god, there is no evil, because there is no design from which the departure from is called “evil” and the atheist happily accepts this.
Now, there are two categories of evil, natural and moral evil. Natural evils can, possibly, be said to have a purpose, such as with earthquakes. Earthquakes are necessary in bringing minerals from the earth to the surface in order to grow crops. We only call them evil when we build our houses and power plants on fault lines. Some natural evils like this seem easy to dismiss because it is we who put ourselves in harms way by putting our head in the lion’s mouth, so to speak. These are not simply done away with by saying “don’t build your house there” because what about other problems, like hurricanes and disease?
In order for these natural evils to be demonstrated as logically incompatible with the aforementioned idea of God, it must be demonstrated they are gratuitous or serve no function or purpose. Like the so-called junk DNA in the human anatomy, which seems superfluous if an intelligent designer created us, it must be demonstrated there is “junk evil” in the universe. Such events, or junk DNA can be accounted for under a purely evolutionary paradigm, and one would expect there to be the detritus of the past in our DNA given the truth of a process which unintentionally gave rise to human life, but can theism account for such events while maintaining consistency with the nature of God?
There are also moral evils, which require agency, there are no natural laws behind them, nor can we say, “They should not have built their house there!” There is little in the way we can do to predict these evils. At least when we see a storm building in certain parts of the world, we can anticipate tornadoes and seek shelter, but who could have predicted the heinous acts of Ted Bundy, or the school shootings we have seen? Under atheism it is easy to dismiss even moral evil as being part in parcel with the world order, and even to lump it in with natural evil, but the theist has an ontological commitment to both the existence of evil and objective morality, neither of which a committed atheist is obliged to defend or to respond to, at least not in my estimation.
Again, the theist must defend the nature of God in accordance with what He is allowing to go on in the moral realm, and this is a difficult task. Is God unwilling or unable to stop the Charles Mansons of this world? Either way, God appears to be conspicuous by His absence.
Responding to the moral problem of evil by positing “free will” seems insufficient. Open Theists, those who say God has no knowledge of future events, respond by saying whatever happens is not on God’s hands because He just does not know it and cannot be held accountable. However, this theodicy seems insufficient, because an all powerful entity who knows that free moral agents will commit atrocities, in principle, but allows them to carry on, refusing to take on knowledge of their future actions, is still much like a police officer who lets an impaired driver go free to drive, simply on account that they haven’t had an accident “yet.”
A second problem with Open Theism is that, while God may be shut off from knowledge of free moral agents, surely God must know what acts of nature He preloaded to go off at set times, such as earthquakes and tornadoes. So, while God may not know who the next Ted Bundy will be, He does know where the next landslide will be that will kill a village. So, murders and mudslides, under this view, would be moral evils of a different kind.
It seems Open Theism fails as an adequate theodicy, in reconciling a good God with a bad world.
Again, the Calvinists simply say God foreordained, or predetermined moral evils should take place, as much as a landslide, in order to fulfill a greater purpose, as Calvin asserts in his institutes,
“God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”
Again, both of these views seem to be unsatisfactory, and this issue must be responded to more responsibly than flippantly dismissing God’s absolute knowledge or reducing Him to the immediate cause of all events, good or bad.
At this point, is atheism the only tenable option? Until now, I have written as though they are in a privileged position in this discussion, to not have to respond. However, I would proffer that the worldview of viewing moral and natural evil as part of the way things just are, with somewhat of an indifference, in incompatible with the sense of oughtness one has about the way things at least should be. One may deny there is function in the world, but even an examination of the life sciences from a Darwinian point of view does not escape functionality, that there is a way things should work. Furthermore, one pay pay lip service to the idea that there are no objective morals in the universe, but atheists and theists, alike, all certainly live as though there are objective morals in the universe. So, to be indifferent toward moral evil, that is until it comes close to home, seems more irresponsible than the aforementioned theodicies. The theist sees the universe as an arena of intention, while the atheist bucks against what the theist sees as intuitive, and sees there being no function for the universe to be void of. I will, therefore, consider atheism as a “theodicy” that should be rejected, alongside Calvinism and Open Theism. These are cheap answers that tell us very little about the nature of a transcendent being, and the universe we inhabit.
One may also adopt the position that so long as there are good reasons to believe in the existence of God, via cosmological arguments, the resurrection of Jesus and so on, that one has the epistemic right to follow through with solving the problem of evil, and not considering it an intrinsic defeater to theism. In other words, one may see the problem, as outlined, as insurmountable, but still be within their rights to believe in the existence of God for other, independent reasons and to solve this problem on the side.
William Dembski, in “The End of Christianity” answers the problem of natural evil by proposing a retroactive theodicy. He suggests that, after the fall, the mandate to be caretakers of the earth was never rescinded, and that mankind’s estrangement to our creator is reflected in nature. Dembski proposes that since their was death and natural evil prior to the fall that our sin also had retro causal effects and acted across time, just as Christ’s atonement acted across time and provided forgiveness for those who would have believed in Him but never had the opportunity and that natural evil shows us our fallen nature and that it would be a greater travesty to not live in a world where sin has consequences only to remain estranged from our maker.
Dembski certainly presents a viable model for reconciling the nature of God with the nature of creation.
Hugh Ross, at Reasons to Believe, argues similarly in that the evil in this world is to serve a higher purpose, one for which we are ultimately called. He develops this idea in his important work, “Why The Universe Is The Way It Is.” He has compared the evils in this world to a test preparing one for a career, and if one were inadequately prepared for their career they would consider their tutors as having failed them, and in this case we are being prepared for a life with God for eternity. Ross notes that there is not so much evil that it frustrates our efforts completely. We do, after all, still work in our gardens, as weeds do not immediately overtake them, and we build infrastructures, given that they do not immediately crumble, but our efforts here do require upkeep. It does seem evident, that even in the most impoverished parts of the world that no one considers the moral and natural evil to be so great that people stop producing children and raising them to adulthood. Parents take the risk of parenthood knowing their child will face said adversity.
In conclusion, it would seem that, while no explanations exist which fully reconcile a good God with a fallen world, doing away with God provides no adequate solution either. We see in our sciences, such as biology and behavioural psychology, that there is a great deal of function presupposed in order to say there is a malfunction. I realize the practitioners of these disciplines are speaking in terms of etiology, or statistical averages, but this does not do away with that these disciplines function best when they are aimed at something, or are working under valid assumptions, namely functionality.
It is also not the case that there is so much evil in the world that society has considered mass suicide the only logical solution. Theism does provide many answers, and even gives a meaning to the temporary evil we experience. If the evil were never ending, and mankind did not have a hope beyond the grave, even if a God existed, it would make little sense to endure the evil we currently endure, to the end of there being no ultimate resolution.
A FINAL NOTE
Although this piece presumes to speak broadly for all atheists, regarding their position on morality, I find the official position difficult to nail down given they have no official manifesto on the position, except for The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, perhaps, although many atheists do not stand by this work. In this piece I speak from what I have gathered what the atheist community may be ontologically committed to regarding objective morality and if any atheists read this who have found a way to ground morals in objectivity, I apologize for representing the some of you who may be reading this.
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