Atheism and the argument from evil


Letter to the editor of Philosophy Now (sent under one of my pseudonyms)

26 July 2015

Published in Issue 110

Dear Editor

Part way through his criticism of the stance of atheists (Issue 109), Stephen Anderson says: “This makes the famous ‘Argument from Evil’ so beloved by New Atheists simply off topic: the existence of evil or injustice does not count as evidence against gods of every possible kind, and leaves harsh, judgemental or indifferent gods as possible.”. Well of course such deities are theoretically possible, although not seriously proposed by any theists I have heard from recently.  But for my part I would still want the assertion of the existence of a nasty or indifferent god to pass a threshold test such as would persuade me to spend the time looking at whether this made any sense.  The more so bearing in mind that we now have perfectly good non-supernatural explanations for the world's ills.  The temptation to apply Occam's razor at a very early stage would be very strong.

But Mr Anderson goes on to say: “Though maybe it can even be answered with some explanation that allows for a benevolent God, such as the argument from free human will”.  Oh dear.  Let's leave the debate about what free-will means, if anything, to one side and get to the main point.  Theists keep saying that there is a benevolent god and that war and famine could all be solved by the better exercise of our free-will.  They quite deliberately fail to notice, however, that the evidence for a lack of god's benevolence is all around us.  We see it in volcanoes and earthquakes, tsunamis, pathogenic microbes and defects in the genetic code of new-born babies, not to mention the merciless process of evolution.  And none of those are down to our actions, whether free or not.  We are simply left to pick up the pieces out of our common humanity.

John Michaels,

Pont d'Ouilly, Normandy

And another one sent in on the same topic (under a different name), but not published -

Dear Editor

It seems to me that Stephen Anderson is simply missing the point in his critique of atheism (Issue 109). In the legal profession we follow the maxim ascribed to Immanuel Kant – Affirmanti incumbit probatio – “He who alleges must prove”. Mr Anderson points to no hard evidence that any sort of god exists, but then criticises atheists for saying that they don't believe the assertions of theists.  All that the atheists are saying, however, is that no sufficient proof has been produced to get to first base in convincing them of the existence of a god.  In its absence, they can quite rationally say that they simply don't accept the assertion made by those who have convinced themselves that there is one. They don't have to prove the contrary as Mr Anderson implies.

Mr Anderson's main point is, of course, his argument that it is impossible to exclude the logical possibility of the existence of a god of some sort. Well, duh! to use the vernacular. That arch-atheist Richard Dawkins puts it slightly differently: he makes the obvious point that we cannot incontrovertibly demonstrate the non-existence of anything. Which means of course that it is also impossible to exclude the logical possibility of the existence of centaurs, elves or the Cookie monster. But it is quite rational in real life to ignore such theoretical possibilities on a balance of probabilities.

Mr Anderson then compounds his difficulty in, rightly, accepting that there is a very wide range of possible gods on offer.  Indeed, between them they cover the full gamut of human emotions and ideas of power. But it seems that those who propose their existence cannot even agree amongst themselves as to which is the right description; what the rest of us should look out for.  All we have are various relics from bygone ages of the sort of god required to be imagined into existence in order to deal with the exigencies of whatever was important at the time. No wonder we just shake our heads and think about something more productive.

It seems to me that we have quite enough to do in dealing with what manifestly does exist in the world without trying to cope with the infinite number of things which could logically exist, but for which we have no significant supporting evidence.

Thomas Jeffries

(a retired solicitor still in full possession of his maxims)

Coleshill, Warwickshire

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