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The Problem of Evil for Unbelievers
Posted: 26 June 2008 04:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]  
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Hi ...

clayforHim648 - 25 June 2008 09:02 PM

I thought that since the problem of evil is being continuously brought up in other threads that I might start a new thread devoted to this discussion.  More specifically, I want to point out that the problem of evil is really not a problem for the believer, but for the unbeliever.  This topic has been covered many times, I know, but I still think it’s important for us to revisit it regularly.

What is the problem of evil?  I will define with a quote from David Hume:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Whence then is evil?”

I would argue that because Christianity has placed a mediator between the problem of evil and its solution, we have David Hume’s questions.  They arise during the time of Rump Parliament which executed Charles I. Christianity’s fatal flaw is its placing hope in Christ as the satisfaction of the justice of God (Anselm). 

The divine justice as viewed by the prophets is not satisfied by sacrifice (i.e. Isaiah 1:11ff) alone.  The evil is there because of human violation of a divine covenant and it is removed by human action based on covenant.  In the deuteronomic view, God is hobbled because human beings refuse to reflect his mercy in the world: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”  The god of the covenant, then, “gave them over to shameful lusts” (Romans 1:26 cf Judges 2:14 en loc).

From my vantage point, the success of David Hume’s materialism is directly related to the failure of Christian theology to reflect the theology of Christ.  It is amazing that at the very time when the Westminster Catechism is being forged, David Hume and Thomas Hobbes are taking root in the thinking of the humanist.  If the catechism was any use in addressing the problem of evil, surely Hobbes and Hume would have had little complaint or given their complaint, little hearing of it.

[ Edited: 26 June 2008 04:24 PM by John Brand]
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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]  
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These are all excellent posts. Great topic Clay. I just want to reiterate a point that has already been made because it has not been adequately addressed as far as I can tell. Christians do not appear to agree on what evil is.

From a nontheistic viewpoint, the word “evil” does not have a specific enough meaning to be of any practical use (although I do like Salt Creek’s definition.) Therefore, I agree with Bruce’s statement that, “With respect to morality, you can come up with a moral system based upon an agreed standard, but the term “moral” is not required. It’s just what people have agreed upon as a standard of acceptability, whether socially or legally.”

So, for me, there is no “problem of evil”. I only really use the word to argue the subsequent inconsistencies that “evil” creates for the Hebrew god.

[ Edited: 26 June 2008 06:17 PM by Beam]
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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]  
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I still argue that evil is directly and unavoidably linked to free will (not that free will is evil, but it brings with it the potential, so must have a great upside).  I’ll claim that there is no “evil” in nature.  If a meteor were to obliterate New York, that would not be evil.  It would come under the heading of “shit happens,” or as the insurance companies would say, “an act of God.”  It takes a human being to bring evil into the world and I suggest that when this happens it has to do with a basic disrespect for and denial of the humanity of others. (John, you can identify this with negation of love if you will, and so a rejection of divinity.)

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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]  
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burt - 26 June 2008 10:20 PM

I suggest that when this happens it has to do with a basic disrespect for and denial of the humanity of others.

And when you define “respect” other than tautologically (or solipsistically), we will be able to make some progress. Until then STFU. Unless you care to define “respect” as tolerance for a person to shoot his mouth off at any time. That includes tolerance for me.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]  
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clayforHim648 - 26 June 2008 06:46 PM

There is no problem of evil for atheists that don’t use the problem of evil as an argument against theism.

No, it’s used as an argument against a particular set of theistic assumptions. One could make different assumptions that are equally (in)valid, such as evil existing because the creator god was well-meaning but inept.

clayforHim648 - 26 June 2008 06:46 PM

My post really is directed towards those anti-theists who say that theodicy is a problem for the believer…but they could only say that if they really took evil seriously and had a logical definition for evil.

Again, you haven’t offered your own definition.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]  
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These are all excellent posts. Great topic Clay. I just want to reiterate a point that has already been made because it has not been adequately addressed as far as I can tell. Christians do not appear to agree on what evil is.

From a nontheistic viewpoint, the word “evil” does not have a specific enough meaning to be of any practical use (although I do like Salt Creek’s definition.) Therefore, I agree with Bruce’s statement that, “With respect to morality, you can come up with a moral system based upon an agreed standard, but the term “moral” is not required. It’s just what people have agreed upon as a standard of acceptability, whether socially or legally.”

So, for me, there is no “problem of evil”. I only really use the word to argue the subsequent inconsistencies that “evil” creates for the Hebrew god.

This seems to be a pretty common response.  I would just say two things. 

1.  The inability for the atheist to define “evil” proves my point that the criticism of the Christian worldview using “the problem of evil” or theodicy is thrown out.  If the atheist cannot give a meaningful definition for evil, or simply throws evil out altogether, then the problem of evil cannot be used as an argument to show logical inconsistency when it comes to God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence. 

2.  However, I think this dodging of the word “evil” is simply semantics.  Regardless of whether you call something evil, or wrong, or rotten, the atheist seems conflicted logically when it comes to holding a relativistic viewpoint but acting as if objective morality really exists.  As Bruce summed up in his last post, without God, there is no such thing as wrong/right, evil/good, there’s just a (seemingly) endless series of events…just stuff that happens.  Speaking of what ought to be, or what should be, makes no sense from the atheists perspective.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]  
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burt - 26 June 2008 10:20 PM

I’ll claim that there is no “evil” in nature.  If a meteor were to obliterate New York, that would not be evil.  It would come under the heading of “shit happens,” or as the insurance companies would say, “an act of God.” It takes a human being to bring evil into the world and I suggest that when this happens it has to do with a basic disrespect for and denial of the humanity of others.

Whether the obliteration was caused by a meteor or an atomic bomb is irrelevant to the fact that both would cause massive suffering. You maybe right that only the human-caused event deserved the evil label. But withholding the label from the natural event would seem to belittle the suffering involved, even though that is not the intention behind the labeling, and to belittle the suffering of others is one way of disrespecting them and denying their humanity.

It’s fairly obvious that the insurance companies use “act of god” as a metaphor to delineate these from human-caused actions. (I remember the Far Side installment with a bearded, white-haired God performing a stage act.) But if one actually believes in literal acts of gods, then such gods would be equally culpable as humans in bringing evil into the world, because agency is agency.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 07:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]  
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clayforHim648 - 26 June 2008 10:59 PM

1.  The inability for the atheist to define “evil” proves my point that the criticism of the Christian worldview using “the problem of evil” or theodicy is thrown out.  If the atheist cannot give a meaningful definition for evil, or simply throws evil out altogether, then the problem of evil cannot be used as an argument to show logical inconsistency when it comes to God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

However one defines evil, if free will means that humans are responsible for both good acts and evil acts, then plugging a god into the equation accomplishes nothing because the god hypothesis doesn’t explain anything. The omnipotence/omnibenevolence issue may or may not apply to evil, but it does certainly apply to suffering that is not caused by human action.

My proposed definition of evil? Suffering caused by humans through malice or neglect. This would exclude suffering caused with the intention of avoiding or alleviating much greater suffering.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 09:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]  
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Salt Creek - 26 June 2008 10:29 PM
burt - 26 June 2008 10:20 PM

I suggest that when this happens it has to do with a basic disrespect for and denial of the humanity of others.

And when you define “respect” other than tautologically (or solipsistically), we will be able to make some progress. Until then STFU. Unless you care to define “respect” as tolerance for a person to shoot his mouth off at any time. That includes tolerance for me.

You gotta have the experience.  Just because you recognize another person as an equal human being doesn’t mean you have to tolerate anything they do, it just means you can respond without rancor or (to use a word that seems to be coming into play now days, bitterness).  What do you want, egg in your beer?

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Posted: 26 June 2008 09:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]  
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Carstonio - 26 June 2008 10:59 PM
burt - 26 June 2008 10:20 PM

I’ll claim that there is no “evil” in nature.  If a meteor were to obliterate New York, that would not be evil.  It would come under the heading of “shit happens,” or as the insurance companies would say, “an act of God.” It takes a human being to bring evil into the world and I suggest that when this happens it has to do with a basic disrespect for and denial of the humanity of others.

Whether the obliteration was caused by a meteor or an atomic bomb is irrelevant to the fact that both would cause massive suffering. You maybe right that only the human-caused event deserved the evil label. But withholding the label from the natural event would seem to belittle the suffering involved, even though that is not the intention behind the labeling, and to belittle the suffering of others is one way of disrespecting them and denying their humanity.

It’s fairly obvious that the insurance companies use “act of god” as a metaphor to delineate these from human-caused actions. (I remember the Far Side installment with a bearded, white-haired God performing a stage act.) But if one actually believes in literal acts of gods, then such gods would be equally culpable as humans in bringing evil into the world, because agency is agency.

I don’t see withholding the label “evil” from random happenings of nature that cause massive suffering as belittling the suffering—if anything, it charges it with compassion.  With something evil, like a serial killer, we are horrified and feel sympathy for the victims, but at the same time we see their suffering as caused by an agent rather than resulting from something random.  In part, it’s that agentless randomness that leads to projection of agency onto nature, or the universe, or whatever, allowing us something to blame, hate, or worship, anything to avoid the feeling of utter helplessness.

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Posted: 26 June 2008 09:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]  
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clayforHim648 - 26 June 2008 07:02 PM

I wish I had time now Reasonist to give a more full response.  But for a brief response, I think the competitive and cooperative argument is TOO simple.

Occam’s Razor.

We can certainly look back at events (like Hitler’s escapades) and support a broad competitive and cooperative morality.  What I think this argument fails to do, though, is give an explanation for the individual making moral choices.

It does explain it, and it explains it precisely.  Hitler did not take into consideration the cooperative aspect of social morals, and this is plainly evident in his endless painting of Jews as less than human and responsible for all the world’s woes.  Furthermore, Hitler thought he was doing god’s work, which is very possible given the god of the OT. 

But where Hitler is of a diminished character is in not understanding that he could only succeed briefly with his worldview.  He did not consider the cooperative, and the rest of the world recognized him for the threat he was.

We don’t consciously think, “Well I’m leaning more towards the competitive side, rather than the cooperative side with this decision.”

As a matter of fact, that is exactly what happens with criminals who behave criminally and then cover their tracks.  They know they’ve done wrong, or evil, because they know how the rest of humanity is going to view their acts.  Hitler knew this as well, which is why he committed suicide and tried to implement a scorched earth policy to completely hide his genocidal behavior. (And numerous records exist where he and the top Nazi brass were known to have said the rest of the world would never understand what they did and why).

Clearly Hitler knew his acts would not be looked upon kindly, and while he may not have said exactly the words, “Well Eva, I think I’ll make more competitive than cooperative decisions today, so look after my dog Blondi while I’m gone”, he did weigh his actions and decided, consciously, that his race was superior at the cost of another race’s existence. 

This is plastered all over everything the man did.

I think people really assign a value to decisions and the people involved in those decisions…its not just a mixture of competition and cooperation.

Competition and cooperation is the formula by which life survives (I’m certain I said just that).  In social dynamics there can be a lot of complexities, but in the end, our value system is based on our interests towards one of the other.  Remember, one can make an altruistic choice with ultimate self-interest at heart.

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Posted: 27 June 2008 07:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]  
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burt - 27 June 2008 01:18 AM

I don’t see withholding the label “evil” from random happenings of nature that cause massive suffering as belittling the suffering—if anything, it charges it with compassion.

I would hope so.

burt - 27 June 2008 01:18 AM

In part, it’s that agentless randomness that leads to projection of agency onto nature, or the universe, or whatever, allowing us something to blame, hate, or worship, anything to avoid the feeling of utter helplessness.

With the provision that the acts have causality instead of randomness, I certainly agree. Assuming or desiring agency for such events is a form of denial. We must accept our helplessness and come to terms with it.

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Posted: 27 June 2008 07:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]  
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Jefe - 27 June 2008 10:58 AM

Atheism does not, in and of itself, contain any ethical instruction set.  Instead it is simply a reasoned position that treats all divine figures with the same demand for evidence (and/or credulity) that contemporary religious folks treat odin, osiris, quetzlcoatl, mars and hera.

The ethical instructions that atheists work with do not come from their atheism, but rather from the roots of their childhood upbringing, reasoned decision making and cultural influences.

Exactly. It’s a mistake to build an ethical system around assumptions about divine figures or any “supernatural” existence.

Jefe - 27 June 2008 10:58 AM

What matters is that innocent people do not suffer needlessly, that society and culture protect the innocent as much as possible from unnecessary suffering and violence, and that those who break these cultural contracts are punished and/or separated from perspective future victims effectively - and given the chance to reform and re-enter society at some level of demonstrated contrition for their crimes.  It would be a really nice bonus if we all tried to be kind to each other, and respect each other too.

Excellent.

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Posted: 27 June 2008 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]  
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Carstonio - 27 June 2008 11:37 AM

We must accept our helplessness and come to terms with it.

Whether or not you come to terms with it, you will remain helpless (e.g., to stop an earthquake). What you can come to terms with is that you will never come to terms with it.

There are wholesale bushels of infinite regress to be harvested from mere contemplation of one’s navel. This is how “consciousness studies” has come to be the busy marketplace of nonsense that it is.

Harvesting a bushel of infinite regress is not tautology or infinite regress, but merely a paradox.

[ Edited: 27 June 2008 08:12 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 27 June 2008 10:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]  
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Salt Creek - 27 June 2008 11:52 AM

Whether or not you come to terms with it, you will remain helpless (e.g., to stop an earthquake). What you can come to terms with is that you will never come to terms with it.

I was using “come to terms with” as a metaphor for moving through the stages of the grieving process. Appropriate because we are grieving for the loss of our false feeling of power. I was proposing that religious belief is the first stage.

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