An experience is good which heightens the appreciation of beauty, augments the moral will, enhances the discernment of truth, enlarges the capacity to love and serve one’s fellows, exalts the spiritual ideals, and unifies the supreme human motives of time with the eternal plans of the indwelling spirit, all of which lead to an increased desire…to find God and be more like God.
The possibility of evil is necessary to moral choosing, but not the actuality thereof. A shadow is only relatively real. Actual evil is not necessary as a personal experience. Potential evil acts equally well as a decision making stimulus in the realms of moral progress and spiritual development. Evil becomes a reality of personal experience only when a moral mind makes evil its choice.
~ The Urantia Book
Let us talk for a moment about evil, let us talk about it so that we may understand it.
Let us talk about the nature of evil, about its ontology, its “being” or lack of it (as some philosophers and Doctors of the Church would have us believe).
Let us talk about the role of evil in the universe as conceptualized by different groups of people, in different times, in different places, in their many different ways.
Let us talk about its relativity and its objectivity.
Let us set aside for a moment the notion that we understand what evil is, or that our understanding of evil coheres to our view of the universe as a whole.
The primary definition for evil, according to Webster:
Evil a) morally bad or wrong; wicked; depraved; b) resulting from or based on conduct that is regarded as immoral.
Webster’s secondary definition: causing pain or trouble; harmful; injurious.
In light of these definitions, which represent the most common understanding of the nature of evil in the western world, the questions that I am forced to consider are: which definition of evil is appealed to when the existence of evil is used as an evidentiary claim against the existence of God, the creator of the universe?
Christian philosophers and theologians have stumbled for centuries over these questions, employing grand distortions of logic, and oblique attacks on common sense to “litigate” the issue, while at the same time failing to convince those who are not already “true believers,” that they grasp the nature of the problem.
Many of the problems associated with the classical understanding of evil have to do with the meaning ascribed to the term.
Different cultures around the world give many different explanations for the existence of evil. They give to evil a great variety of roles in the framework of their cosmogonic and teleological mythologies.
Within the ontological structure of evil, different cultures posit a wide variety of powers and liabilities, in a range of categories for which there are both significant areas of agreement and disagreement.
Atheists from ostensibly Christian cultures, frequently make the claim that the existence of evil counts against the existence of God, as if the existence of one precludes the existence of the other, as if they were co-equal powers playing a zero sum game, and while this is a commonly held view regarding the nature of reality, it is out of synch with the basic philosophical commitments of the Christian faith.
Atheistic arguments of this sort often appeal to the definitions provided by Webster as evidence in support of their claims. Though it should be noted that their arguments depend just as much on what their understanding of who and what God is, as it does their understanding of the nature of evil.
What is evil, and who is God in relation to evil, within these questions lies the fundamental disjunction this essay is concerned with.
What is evil? This is the question I wish to address first.
If the atheist is to cite the existence of evil as a claim against the existence of God, then atheist must begin by establishing a criterion for the evaluation of evil, and what evil entails in a universe that is not the product of a creator God, a divine agent in whom the following qualities are said to exist:
- perfect goodness
- eternal existence
- perfect knowledge concerning the sum of all persons, things, and events in time and space (omniscience/omnipresence)
- the perfect ability to accomplish the divine will (omnipotence)
If the atheist is unable to provide example of genuine evil, either natural evil, or moral evil without first positing the existence of a divinity, then we must assume that what we think of as evil does not in fact exist (which would then remove evil as an impediment toward a rational belief in God), either that or we must posit a universe in which God and evil exist simultaneously, and that their mutual existence does not represent a cosmological conflict.
If we take the position of the atheist and assume that there is no God, no divine agent behind the created order, then we assume that the origin of the universe was a totally random occurrence, and that the existence of the universe and everything in it, that the entirety of time and space is completely arbitrary and utterly unnecessary.
According to the dictates of the atheist, we must assume that the universe is unplanned, and that it can most adequately be described as a cosmic accident. If we believe that this is so, and if we accept the law of cause and effect, which states that one thing is necessarily caused by another, then we must hold the deterministic view which states that all events are nothing more than the perfectly natural results of perfectly ordinary processes.
Having established these conditions, let us return to the beginning, to our working definition of evil:
- An event may be characterized as evil if it causes harm to a person.
- An individual action may be regarded as evil if it is willfully intended, and if it is contrary to the morality of the society that it occurs in.
- Finally, an action is evil if the action is genuinely immoral according to an absolute standard.
Now. Imagine for a moment that a tornado has blown through your city.
The tornado destroys the home, and it kills most of the family living there, leaving the survivors grieving and injured. They have experienced great pain caused by the tornado, therefore it could be considered evil.
Given these circumstances the atheist can provide the following explanatory rationale for why the existence of the tornado counts against the existence of God, by saying that God, because God is omniscient and omnipotent, should have been able to create a universe in which people do not experience injury or harm from natural events, such as the tornado.
This argument is predicated upon the idea that God, the creator of the universe, being omniscient, had foreknowledge of the event and that because of this foreknowledge, the inaction of God indicates that God allowed the tornado to occur, intending for the event to destroy the home, killing and injuring members of the family living there.
This would be evil, according to the atheist.
Such an argument counts against multiple theistic claim (in the Christian context), it may provide the groundwork for establishing a claim against God’s omniscience, or God’s omnipotence, both of which are central components of a Christian conception of God, but they are not necessary components of theism per se. While this argument establishes the groundwork against claims as to God’s omniscience and omnipotence, it does not settle the argument, not without further deliberation. What these arguments mainly do is count against the claim that God is perfectly good, by suggesting that a being who allows evil (who could have prevented it) intends the evil that was allowed, and therefore that being must in fact be evil.
The claim is this; if evil then not good, if not good then not God.
This claim would hold in a Christian context, if it were true.
However, the atheist makes this claim not realizing the fundamental error in their logic, which is this:
Without positing the existence of a God then any natural event which causes harm is merely a random event and therefore not evil at all.
If a traumatic event, no matter how much pain and suffering it causes is not evil when there is not God, the event in itself, the experience of trauma in itself cannot be considered evil if there is a god.
This is the paradox of the atheistic position.
There must be intention behind the pain and suffering for the pain and suffering to be considered evil. There must be divine agency behind the structure of the natural world in order for natural events to be considered evil.
The atheist must concede, there is no such thing as natural evil.
There is only moral evil
The secondary definition of evil, according to Webster, must be discarded.
Let us consider the concerns of the atheist regarding the reality of pain and the nature of evil:
The atheist will argue that a god, or divine agent, one who allows people to suffer pain, even caused by natural events, could not be considered to be good.
This argument is predicated on the assumption that the experience of pain per se is analogous to the experience of evil. However, there are many events common to the experience of every person, events in which pain plays an essential role in forming experiences that we do not consider to be evil.
I contend that the capacity to experience pain is not evil. Creatures having been formed with these capacities cannot be hold this against the notion of God’s goodness, or the goodness of the natural world.
For instance, if I stub my toe, or smash my thumb with a hammer, I do not claim that God is evil!
That would be absurd.
The experience of pain is not evil, it is merely painful! Like evil, pain has both a beginning and end in time. It is temporary, and has no eternal value.
When I was a child, I burned my hand on the stove. I did not conclude that my mother was evil for cooking a pot of beans, the heated element of which was the primary instrument of my pain.
Though it was my mother’s activity, cooking beans, that created the possibility for my being burned, it was my action to touch the hot metal that led to my experience of pain.
Even though I had no prior knowledge concerning the conductivity of heat through metal, my decision to touch the metal was the decision that initiated the contact and so the responsibility for the incident was mine alone.
There is no one else to blame for this.
Set aside for a moment that the experience of pain is not intrinsically evil. One being cannot be held responsible for the pain another being experiences, simply because they established the conditions for that experience.
My mother established the conditions for the burn I endured, but she is not responsible for the fact that I touched the pot on the stove, not the first time I did it, nor the second.
My mother gave birth to me, without her I would not exist, regardless of that fact she is not responsible for any of the feelings that I endure, for which she is not herself the direct agent.
What is true in regards to the relationship between the agency of a parent and the agency of their offspring is true in regard to the agency of God, the creator of the universe and the creature.
The universe we live in was created in such a way that it produces planets teeming with organic life.
The theist will say that God is the creator of the universe.
The type of life our planet possesses can only be brought about in a very narrow range of circumstances.
For instance: without heat being generated in the core of our planet, and without the immense dispersion of molten rock from our volcanoes, life on Earth would not have evolved.
It is our planet’s molten core, and the heat trapped deep within that are responsible for earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, but without which we would not exist at all.
Animals are dependent on oxygen for their existence. The type of atmosphere that is capable of trapping oxygen also produces violent and magnificent storms.
People build their homes in places that are struck by natural disasters, the potential for these disasters are necessary conditions for the existence of life on Earth. It is not God that destroys the homes that are in the paths of tornadoes, nor is it God’s will made manifest in the area-of-effect of an earthquake.
These natural forces are the result of inevitable natural process, they are not the result of divine intention, neither are they the result of divine neglect.
The creator of the universe is in some sense responsible for establishing such conditions for the possibility of life. City planners, zoning commissions, and homebuilders bear a similar responsibility for where communities are developed.
The decisions that individual people make concerning where to live and how, are at work in a universe with many complex, chaotic and random systems, such as; weather, plate tectonics, bacterial biology, organic life, and even such institutions as economics, to name a few.
The creator of the universe cannot be held accountable for the decisions that free creatures make within these random systems, even if those decisions result in the experience of pain and suffering.
Forty-five years after the incident I endured with the pot on the stove, I no longer consciously remember the sensation of pain associated with that event
The pain is gone, and the experience led to my having an awareness of my environment whenever I am near sources of heat.
The experience of pain is not intrinsically evil.
Pain as a neurological process has many positive features for a biological creature.
The experience of pain programs our behavior, it teaches us to avoid potentially life-threatening situations, lending itself to our survivability, both as individuals and as a species.
Even if the experience of pain is so traumatic for the individual that it leaves that person permanently damaged. There are remedies available, responses to mitigate that pain. Oftentimes the wounds that are associated with extreme or prolonged exposure to pain can be healed through religious devotion, faith, psychotherapy, chemotherapy, and hypnosis.
The accounts of personal and cultural pain that have been transmitted by individual people throughout history, whether the pain they experienced was physical, emotional or spiritual, have produced experiences that been invaluable tools for interpersonal and intercultural dialogue.
We understand that the experience of grief and sorrow may be an essential component in the development of the moral consciousness, because of the way in which the recognition of pain in others develops empathy and compassion, while at the same time fostering an environment of caring.
Communities, societies, cultures that develop with the virtue of compassion at their center, communities that promote caring and mutual responsibility, are communities that have come to the understanding that people are not objects, but are in fact other persons, co-equal sharers of the lived experience. Without this basic understanding there is no foundation for moral choosing.
While the experience of pain, of trauma, of suffering is terrible, and while the intentional infliction of pain by one free agent onto another may be immoral (and possibly evil), it is impossible for us to conclude that the experience of pain in itself, is intrinsically evil.
If the experience of pain is not intrinsically evil, merely allowing for the possibility of the experience of pain cannot be considered to be intrinsically evil either.
We struggle with a deep cultural bias concerning the nature of pain, resulting in a significant misconception concerning its relative value, allowing for the common conflation of pain with evil. This arises from a structural bias in our language, a linguistic bias that associates discomfort and misfortune with what is “bad,” and “evil.”
This bias is at the root of the ideational difficulty that we are now faced with, it is hyperbolic, and not rooted in reality.
Many cultures (including our own) have conflicting, paradoxical, and even diametrically opposing views on the subject of pain.
Some cultures, including the Christian culture, will proclaim that the experience of pain is evil, that our ability to experience pain is evidence of our fallen nature, and that our experience of pain is a manifestation of divine justice.
Christian philosophers and theologians will make those proclamations from one side of their mouths, unequivocally, while from the other side of their mouths they will blithely state that the experience of pain is at times Holy, especially the experience of pain on another’s behalf.
The concept that a person must endure some kind of agony in order to achieve a divine blessing has its origins in the very earliest human religious traditions. Even though most modern religious traditions no longer advocate self-inflicted pain as a valid practice, some ecstatic and mystic traditions still do, the veneration of people who have endured great agony with patience, courage and strength persists in well recognized and deeply reverenced currents in our society.
A more ordinary example of the way in which our culture assimilates the experience of pain can be understood simply by being cognizant of certain facts, such as the fact that, before the turn of the twentieth century, one out of three Americans died from a dental related disease. Dental pain was common to everyone. They simply endured it, as billions of people living in the developed world do today, they endure. It does not prevent them from being happy, or from experiencing joy.
People have an enormous capacity to put off the ill effects of pain. Individual people have the capacity to undergo excruciating agony, and a day later be relatively unaffected and trouble free. Which is to say that cultural and personal biases have absolute priority concerning the way in which we evaluate and internalize the pain we experience.
The value of pain is relative to cultural conditioning and individual perception. Therefore, it cannot be given an absolute or universal value.
Pain is a condition of living, from birth to death all animals experience it.
Having dealt with the notion that there is a “necessary” equivalence between the experience of pain and the experience of evil, and having dispensed with it, we are left with the understanding that evil exists in only one sphere of our lives, in the dimension of morality.
Morality is a cognitive dimension, requiring free agents and choice, knowledge and understanding regarding the choices they are considering and make.
The process by which the discernment of morality is developed, and moral values are promulgated varies greatly from culture to culture. While the interpretation of moral values within a given culture, varies greatly from individual to individual.
People commonly confuse their personal, individual, cultural values (mores), for universal moral norms. We must be mindful of this at all times.
Let me assert my bias from the outset: the atheistic argument against the existence of God, from the existence of moral evil is weak. The weakness of this argument lies in the fact that it is bound by secular and utilitarian principles.
Theories of utility and the distribution of happiness, which are at the root of this argument have more to do with economics than with the interpersonal dynamics of human activity, which makes up the moral dimension of our lives.
Demonstrating that one cultural definition of God does not meet the standard of another culture’s definition of a moral being, does not prove that God does not exist, it merely demonstrates a conflict in the presupposition of who and what God is, in relation to other presuppositions about the nature of good and evil.
Let us also establish this bar: atheism must do more than challenge our particular notion of God, it must also establish a coherent understanding of the nature of reality in which there is no God.
Let us begins with the assumption that there is no God.
I assert: if God does not exist, then no absolute moral standard exists.
If there is no law giver, there is no law.
If no absolute moral standard exists, then all moral values are determined by individuals (individual people, individual communities, individual cultures), and all such moral standards are relative.
If the atheist intends to posit an absolute moral standard that exists independent of God, the atheist must explain how it holds together, what its force of governance is, how did it come to hold sway over the universe, what brought it about, and what its dependent conditions are.
The atheist must explain how individuals are able to come to know the law, and how they are compelled to follow it, finally they must define what classes of beings are governed by the law, and what classes of beings are not.
As it is the case that no such moral theory has ever been elucidated, we may conclude that it does such a theory does not exist.
In a universe without God, adherence to moral standards are a matter of choice, and there is no good or evil apart from the relative evaluations of individuals.
Whether we are speaking about morality from a theistic perspective or an atheistic perspective, what defines moral activity is this:
A free agent makes a choice to perform a specific action, the action must involve at least one other person, either directly or indirectly. There must be cognizance that there is a right and wrong dimension to the intended action.
The existence of morality is dependent upon the existence of free agents. If there is no freedom, there is no moral agency.
An absolute moral standard is dependent on the existence of an absolute, unvarying, perfect and universal agent; God. If there is no God, there is no moral law.
Let me reiterate, in a universe that does not posit the existence of God people would rely on their personal experience, on their individual cultural moral positions as the framework for their moral awareness.
It is impossible for human beings to determine whose cultural values are preeminent. Both individual people, and social organism have an inherent preference for their own moral outlook.
As such, all evaluations of morality in a system without an absolute standard are relative to the experience and biases of individuals.
If God does not exist, moral evil does not exist, neither does the good.
The argument that I am making asserts a claim about evil that appears to be unorthodox. It contradicts a long-standing set of assumptions in Western thought.
My argument suggests that the existence of moral evil, our ability to discern moral evil counts toward the existence of God, not against it.
The existence of evil, evidenced by our ability to discern it, may challenge our notion of who god is and how we relate to the divine, but it proves rather than disproves the existence of an absolute, universal standard, which could not exist without a sovereign standard bearer; God.
The fact that we are inclined to think of actions in terms of good and evil is evidence of the divine-will asserting its influence on us, calling us to responsible behavior, to morally good activity, and benevolent decision making.
In a universe without God there is no true evil, there is only a universe that does not care about us, a universe that is blind to our existence, and does not bear witness to our pain.
Such a universe would only contain people who lead their lives according to individual preferences, according to some distributive theory of economics, or some standard of utility.
It would be a relativistic universe where goodness is a matter of public opinion, and privation is going against the fashion of the times.