Atheism’s problem of evil.
If there is a God, and God is good, why is there evil? The existence of evil is frequently presented as a problem for theism, but in reality, it is a problem for atheism…and a devastating problem. Evil can only exist as a deviation from good, much as crookedness can only exist as a deviation from straightness. But what is the source of goodness, and who or what determines just what good is? C.S. Lewis points how the need for a source of goodness poses a problem for atheism:
“My argument against God [when I was an atheist] was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Morality cannot be derived from science
On atheism, there is no objective standard of good or evil, because atheism declares that the natural world is all that exists, and the natural world is valueless: There is no such thing as a good or bad bird, or a good or bad tree, etc. Therefore, one cannot use the study of the natural world (science) to determine right and wrong. As Albert Einstein put it:
“You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn around and speak of the scientific foundations of morality.”
Here, Einstein is reflecting the age-old philosophical problem of how an ought can be derived from an is. Science can tell us what there is (in the natural world), but science cannot tell us how we ought to behave. But not so fast Einstein! Morality can have its foundation in science! (At least, so argues popular atheist writer Sam Harris). In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science can give us moral guidance because that which brings about “the well-being of conscious creatures” (as defined in terms of positive states of mind) is morally good. Kwame Anthony Appiah responds in his New York Times book review of The Moral Landscape:
“But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.”
Regarding Appiah’s above comments, one is inclined to wonder: How could science determine the correct definition of morality? With a chemistry experiment involving a bunsen burner and test tubes? With a biology experiment involving a microscope and a petri dish? The belief that science can define morality can only be the result of nonscientific reasoning, and is therefore self-refuting. This is yet another example of how atheists such as Harris confuse and conflate their naturalistic worldview with science.
Cognitive scientist and anthropologist Scott Atran points out how Harris fails to recognize the problems with trying to equate moral good with that which brings about positive mental states in humans:
“Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children. So this leaves us where . . . ?”
Who is the judge of morality? If people, which people?
A necessary implication of atheism is nihilism, which is defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.” With no God to determine moral values, we are left with a meaningless and valueless natural world, in which humans are the only agents available to make moral judgements. But, if humans are the judges of right and wrong, we are left with the question of which humans get to be the judges. If the Nazis had conquered the world, then the Nazis would be the judges of right and wrong. Bo Jinn comments in Illogical Atheism:
“Truthfully, on the logic which follows necessarily from the nihilistic paradox of atheism, if the Nazis had conquered the world, then everything we recognize historically as humanity’s greatest shame would be at once transformed into our greatest triumph. There would be no disputing the marvelous splendor of the Holocaust or the great glory of the many prodigious massacres carried out on behalf of the Aryan descendants to Mother Earth. These immortal goods would be true for all, and therefore true in fact. As [the famous atheist biologist Richard] Dawkins himself said; there is no good and there is no evil, ‘DNA just is and we dance to its music.’ The same holds for the universe at large.”
Without an objective moral standard by which to judge the Nazis, we could only say that the Nazis went against our subjective moral standards in committing the Holocaust. By atheist logic, the Holocaust would merely be out of tune with the cultural preferences of non-Nazi cultures, as opposed to objectively morally wrong. This would be roughly comparable to a person who fails to adapt to local culture when visiting a foreign country. C.S. Lewis explains the need for a higher moral standard (and therefore, higher moral authority) by which one could judge humans such as the Nazis as objectively wrong, rather than merely wrong according to the subjective preferences of certain groups of people:
“Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? ….If ‘being good’ meant simply joining the side you happened to fancy, for no real reason, then good would not deserve to be called good. So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right.”
“But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God.”
Without God, there would be no third power by which to judge the Nazis as wrong, and the allied powers right for opposing the Nazis. The defeat of the Nazis would merely be the triumph of one subjective human opinion over another, a case of might-makes-right.
Atheism is often motivated by the need to be free from moral restraints.
Indeed, a primary psychological motivator of atheism is the need to be free from having to answer to a higher moral power. If there is no God, there is also no right nor wrong, no good nor evil, and we can do whatever we want.* As famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky put it, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” In a stroke of commendable honesty, the English novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley admitted to the psychological motives behind his atheism (and nihilism):
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system, and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”
Prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel is equally commendable for his honesty regarding the psychological motivations behind his atheism:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that… My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.”
Nobody, including atheists, can live without objective moral truths.
But there is a big problem with removing the primary obstacle for doing whatever one wishes (God): Doing so also removes the obstacle other people have for doing whatever they wish. And this creates a state of affairs in which no atheist can live. For example, atheists such as Huxley and Nagel would no doubt agree that they have a basic human right to choose their own beliefs, rather than having beliefs imposed upon them by others (such as with a state-sponsored church). But if there is no higher moral standard to appeal to, how could an atheist declare it morally wrong for Christians or Muslims (etc.) to force their beliefs upon others? And basic human rights such as religious freedom are endowed by exactly who? Which humans get to determine what basic human rights consist of? What would make you or I more qualified to determine these rights than, say….the Nazis?
Maybe Thomas Jefferson was onto something when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights….”
*Atheists reading this are warned to quit pursuing the fulfillment of desires, and to immediately adopt boring and unfulfilling lifestyles of self-denial and conservative politics. (Ok, not really, that was a joke.) In reality, God is opposed to our pursuing of base desires (sex, money, power, etc.) not because doing so causes us to desire too much. Rather, it is because doing so causes us to desire too little. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Please read my essay titled The No-God Delusion as well as Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters to explore this subject further.