Why can’t we all just get along?  Or, in the immortal words of John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too/ Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace…” This poignant longing for peace pervades our culture and time, but where is the peace?  How is it achieved in the real world? There is something wrong with human relationships. Despite humanity’s best efforts there has never been a time or place in which societies have not degraded into conflict and oppression. That something is evil. It is that thing that insists: my will, not yours; my desires, not yours. Whether one is a Christian or not, the fact that humans mistreat each another is inescapable. The problem of evil cries out for a solution. However, in order to propose a solution, it is first necessary to understand the problem. Defining evil is a good place to start. It is my purpose in this paper to explore the notions of evil held by those whose worldview differs from mine and to see how their definition and solutions compare to the Christian definition and solution.

The problem of evil is one of the objections most commonly raised against the existence of God. The problem of evil can be stated in two different forms: the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil.  Both of these aspects can be stumbling blocks for those who take issue with the existence of God as well as for the believer who may be dealing with doubts in the face of their own suffering and are trying to understand and lay hold of the hope that is given to them.

The intellectual problem of evil has two aspects: the logical problem of evil and the probabilistic problem of evil. These are both abstract philosophical concepts. The logical problem of evil states that there is an inherent contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil; and the probabilistic problem of evil states that given the amount of evil in the world, the existence of God is highly unlikely.

The emotional problem of evil on the other hand is more a matter of disgust or outrage over the idea that an all-powerful loving God would allow anyone to experience pain and suffering when he has the power to alleviate it. This is the problem of evil that surfaces when we as humans are faced with the devastation of natural evil like earthquakes and tsunamis, or atrocities like the Holocaust which man commits against other men. Rather than directly address these claims, which has been done often and with much better success than I could achieve in a paper of this length, I have prepared a short list of questions that I have asked a number of people I know who are either atheists or agnostics to gain a better understanding of how they define and solve the problem of evil.

The questions are the following:

  1. Do you think evil exists? Why or why not?
  2. What is evil?
  3. What is the source of evil?
  4. What, if anything, can be done about it?

In order to avoid arguments over the validity of Christianity, I intentionally left out the issue of whether or not God exists from my first interview and simply asked what the interviewees thought about evil itself. The questions were asked in as neutral a way as possible so that my subjects did not feel I was trying to lead them to any particular understanding. It was my hope that through their answers and knowing something about their background, I would be able to gain some insight into how their notion of evil affected their worldview.  But what did my research actually show? I was surprised to find how much there was in common between the Christian worldview and theirs.  For the most part there was a tacit acknowledgement that evil existed, even if only at a personal level, and that something should be done about it.  On the other hand the issue of relativism came up in the view of each person, which complicated and weakened his or her proposed solutions.

First, I would like to examine the perceptions of evil found in the literature written by atheists. The primary idea in this literature is to refute the arguments for the existence of God, therefore the points are laid out in as simple and as logical and abstract a way as possible which literally avoids all the messiness that goes along with actual lived human experience.  This abstraction of the arguments against the existence of God often results in an oversimplification of the issues at hand, which leads to arguments against straw men.  I found in my interviews that often a combination of views about evil was apparent.  Evil was not something that could be placed neatly in a box and examined. Many nuances arose which colored the definition of evil and the solution. In Atheistic literature the concept of evil breaks down into two basic forms: those who acknowledge that evil is real and exists, and those that treat evil as a human construct.

For example, Emma Goldman in her essay The Philosophy of Atheism plainly acknowledges that evil exists as a real thing. She writes: “…injustice among men is ever on the increase; the outrages committed against the masses in this country alone would seem enough to overflow the very heavens. But where are the gods to make an end to all these horrors, these wrongs, this inhumanity to man?”[1] In addition, Elizabeth Anderson in her essay If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? argues for a moral foundation that does not rely on the existence of God, and in so doing she acknowledges that there is such a thing as a moral right and wrong. On page after page of her essay she lists many instances taken from the Old and New Testaments of things that on their face seem to be in her words “heinous acts.”[2] I have to admit that those things are hard to swallow, but defending against those charges is not within the scope of this paper.  What is significant is that Arnold, in her explanation of morals, treats those instances as real evidence of evil.

Percy Bysshe Shelly and Carl Sagan propose that evil is just an illusion, a concept invented by the human mind. In his essay, A Refutation of Deism, Shelly writes:

Populace cities are destroyed by earthquakes, and desolated by pestilence. Ambition is everywhere devoting its millions to incalculable calamity. Superstition, in a thousand shapes, is employed in brutalizing and degrading the human species, and fitting it to endure without a murmur the oppression of its innumerable tyrants. All this is abstractedly neither good nor evil because good and evil are words employed to designate that peculiar state of our own perceptions, resulting from the encounter of any object calculated to produce pleasure or pain. Exclude the idea of relation and the words good and evil are deprived of import.[3]

Evil, for Shelley, is simply a way to define or name things that are an unalterable and uncomfortable part of the cosmos. Shelley implies that those who insert God into this scenario are doing so as only a means to comfort themselves and provide meaning and purpose for the things that are hard to deal with.

Carl Sagan treats the whole issue of good and evil and morals rather cavalierly. In his essay The God Hypothesis Sagan addresses the issue of morality.  He makes a comparison of human morals to instincts of animals and chalks up morality simply to nothing more than a result of natural selection or survival of the fittest. He says: “once humans reach the point of awareness of their surroundings, we can figure things out, and we can see what’s good for our own survival as a community or a nation or a species and take steps to ensure our survival.”[4]  Sagan refutes the existence of God by both emotional and intellectual arguments, in other words, for Sagan, human suffering and injustice make the existence of God a logical contradiction.[5]  This particular argument has largely been put to rest by both Christian and non-Christian philosophers, but it is not my aim to go into that here. [6]

Richard Dawkins, a Darwinian Evolutionist like Sagan, seems to both affirm and deny the reality of morality and evil. In his essay Atheists for Jesus, he remarks: “Natural selection is a deeply nasty process… The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight.”[7]  For Dawkins, natural selection has nothing to do with what is right and wrong. Morality and evil as concepts make no sense when the sole drive can only be survival and passing on of one’s genes.  However, Dawkins cannot help but acknowledge that in humans a quality exists that seems to go against this theory, something he calls “super niceness.”[8] He writes: “human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection.” [9] He has no explanation for this phenomenon, but in a snarky fashion suggests that it should be encouraged through the use of religion because religion is so effective at getting people to believe in irrational things.[10]

It is interesting to note that no matter from which side the argument is being approached, the literature always goes straight for the emotional hook. On the one hand, the atheist’s tactic of trying to refute the existence for God based on the moral argument is to show that the moral argument lacks empirical support and depends solely on the emotions, which are not valid evidence because they are not quantifiable scientifically. On the other hand when the moral argument for the existence of God is taken on from a philosophical angle, in that it points to an actual foundation for the existence of objective moral values, the tactic is to grab at the emotions by pointing to all the atrocities that have happened in the name of religion or to cite the existence of natural evil in the face of an all-powerful God who could stop it if He so chose. When I intentionally left the argument for the existence of God out of the initial interview, appeal to the emotions was almost non-existent.  When I avoided asking their opinion about whether or not God existed, they were able to detach themselves from the emotional hooks and focus on what they believed about evil.

For this paper I interviewed 5 different people, both men and women, who have characterized themselves as either atheist or agnostics.[11]  Although their beliefs about evil were varied and nuanced, they also fell into two camps. There were those that believed that evil existed as a real thing and those that believed that evil was simply a creation of the human mind to describe things that we either do not like or things that make us uncomfortable. Neither group could propose a solid answer to what could be done about evil. However, the group that acknowledged that evil was a real thing was at least able to conceive that a solution was possible. Whereas the group that believed that evil was only a human construct had a much bleaker outlook on mankind’s ultimate prospects.

I will begin with those who acknowledged evil as a real thing.  When I asked Patricio and Eddie if they thought that evil existed, they answered in the affirmative with no hesitation. To them the concept of balance or dualism made sense.  If there is good then there must be evil as its opposite. Patricio said: “if there is good there has to be a knowledge of bad and a concept of bad  in order to compare them to each other.”[12]  Eddie said, “everything has an opposite reaction.”[13] To both Patricio and Eddie the fact that humans can, and do, flourish was obvious and the reciprocal of that flourishing was also obvious.  When asked to define evil, both Eddie and Patricio classified evil as only existing within human relationships. Evil is a result of a decision or choice, and emerges out of human interaction, which implies free will.  When asked whether there was a scenario where evil would not emerge within human relationships, Patricio immediately wanted to affirm that there was.  However, when trying to come up with an example, like a small village where for the most part everyone was happy, he still had to admit that evil always comes out. He realized that humanity wants to live in harmony, but in practice, we don’t.  This idea of harmony was the primary influence of my third interviewee. Rodney’s definition of evil was that which disrupted the harmony of the relationships between people in a social group.[14] When asked what could be done about the disharmony that inevitably emerges, his answer was to lead by example. The Golden Rule is the basis of all morality and ethics. He said: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”[15] When asked how this solution would work on a global scale in terms of what could be done about large scale evil, Rodney said that as a short term solution it was not effective, but that change could happen generationally through the influence of the young coming into adulthood and power.  His example was of a stronger culture taking over a weaker one initially but the weaker culture pushing back by influencing the way of life and changing the culture from the inside.

One thing that was common among this group of interviewees, and indeed with all of the people I interviewed, is that there was a certain degree of relativism in the definition of evil within a culture.  All acknowledged that there were things that one culture found to be evil that another did not. The problem came in determining what should be deemed ultimately evil despite what any given culture might think about it at any given time.  The most common answer was a consensus of the majority. For Eddie, the ideas of justice and intentionality were very important to the definition of ultimate evil. One act could be considered evil, like beating and raping a child for one’s own gratification, while the same degree of violence would be acceptable as an act of retribution or the meeting out of justice.[16] Harkening back to the arguments against God from Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Anderson, where particular events are held up as examples of the evil of Christianity, it is evident that the authors gave no thought to intention or justice in the condemnation of Christianity. It is possible that a more nuanced understanding of those events is called for in terms of understanding their purpose and motivation. In order to judge the morality of any given act within time and place, a universal foundation for good and evil is necessary. Without a universal standard of good and evil everything can be rationalized away based on cultural mores of the time. Without God, the author of universal morality, anything does and has become permissible. This foundation must be more than a mere biological drive for survival as Dawkins so bluntly demonstrated in his explanation of the nastiness of natural selection.

The other common factor that came out with my first group of interviewees was that nature was not evil.   Natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are part of the cause and effect world of physical laws and therefore neutral.  This was notable because for many natural disasters are usually a sticking point when it comes to the existence of God. However, when God is not the center of the conversation, those things become tragedies rather than reasons to deny God. Also notable, the interviewees considered that nature included the animal kingdom.

The first thing that came to Patricio’s mind when I asked him to give me an example of something evil was blackmail. When we explored why that was the first thing that came to his mind, it became clear that he believed that it was evil for one human being to hurt another human being for their own advantage.  However, it was not evil for a tiger to attack and kill his sister. The tiger when it attacks is just hungry and acting out of its nature.  This belief gave him pause though when he thought about those two things together. Why was one act evil and the other not? Both acts are done for the advantage of the one over the other. The difference was that there was something that made a human special. The tiger in satisfying his hunger was not conscious of the value of life. As Patricio said, in order for something to be evil there needs to be consciousness of “the life of the other person and knowing how precious that is, to keep life rather than hurt life.”[17] However, Patricio hunts and eats meat, so it must be something more than just life that is important.

What surprised me was how close Patricio, Eddie and Rodney’s worldview was to that of Christianity. Several very important truths were acknowledged. For one, human beings are unique, different from other sentient beings. Something makes our lives and desires valuable beyond those of animals. They also acknowledged the fact that something is wrong with human nature because evil and disharmony always emerge. For the Christian this is the picture of God’s creation of man in His own image. Man’s ultimate value comes from the fact that he bears the image of God. The Christian worldview explains the human nature problem with the fall of humanity into sin resulting from a misuse of his free will choosing against His Creator, the fountain of Good.   Evil becomes not a thing per say, but the absence of good.  Secondly, even though the idea of relativism caused some problems with the consistency of their views, they all agreed that there were some things that were universally evil despite what any given culture might think.  This idea confirms the Scriptural revelation that God has written His moral law on the hearts of all mankind, giving to everyone an innate sense that some things are right and some things are wrong which transcend time and place. However, without the foundation for the moral law written in the heart and the desire and power to obey that law, it becomes difficult to actually have any kind of hope for resolution of the ultimate problem that evil presents. Without a transcendent foundation, judging evil becomes a personal thing.  In this case the only thing to do is to find like-minded people to be around.  Relativism cannot produce unity, but rather pits one standard or “right” against another “right”.  In this scenario the law of the jungle prevails. How can peace flow from this?

Now let’s turn to the second group that I interviewed; those who did not believe that evil actually existed. Those two differentiated from one another in that one of them believed that the existence of evil only made sense if God existed while the other did not acknowledge that the existence of God was even a possibility.

Amanda is a PhD candidate in Bio-Chemistry and does not believe that God exists. When I asked Amanda about evil, she said: “the concept of evil is entirely born of the sentient mind. From a biological standpoint I am not sure that evil exists.”[18] She believes evil is a concept we have created to describe a person with particular motives and behaviors. In other words, evil is not “real” but it is a useful concept. For Amanda, evil is a relative thing. Everyone has inside of them motivations that can be considered good or evil. But what differentiates those things depends on each individual’s definition.

Good and evil are relegated to the human mind. Amanda, like my previous interviewees, also believes the natural world is not evil.  Similarly as well, Amanda believes that what differentiates humans from other animals is that “humans have the capacity to consider the consequences of their actions and by having that ability we have the ability to choose or not choose to do things that are harmful”[19] However, this creates a conflict within her worldview, because from her perspective as a scientist, who rejects the idea of the existence of God and the supernatural, she believes “we live in a deterministic world, and therefore choice is really an illusion.”[20] However, she feels that she has a choice and that is what is important.  This internal conflict in Amanda’s worldview makes the solution to the problem of evil seem somewhat arbitrary. In her view, although nothing is universally evil, there are some things that the global community has rejected as wrong.  Therefore we as humans should abide by the social contract that binds societies together. Those who go against those rules should be stopped.  This seems to be the way things work when you look at things like international law. However when faced with specific things that she views as wrong, like cruelty to animals, she found no basis to condemn anyone outside of her personal community.

Anne, on the other hand, is not convinced that God does not exist. She is currently in the process of investigating the evidence pointing to God to decide whether or not she can accept it. Anne’s response to the problem or existence of evil was: “evil exists only if God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then sin and evil don’t exist and there is no problem.”[21] Without God, she acknowledged that the concept of evil was entirely relative to the individual. Things that one person might consider evil another might consider good and beneficial.[22] In her moral economy “there is no black and white, only shades of gray.”[23] This sounds very much like the viewpoint of Percy Bysshe Shelly quoted earlier. Since Anne was very hesitant to declare that anything was evil, the questions of the source of evil and its solution were somewhat meaningless. Anne thinks in that case, there is no source and nothing can really be done about what one personally doesn’t like.  One can start a campaign to “raise awareness,” or simply move somewhere else to find people who share your preferences.[24]  When I asked her how something like rape fit into her view of right and wrong, she responded that, in looking at rape, there was an assumption that one person’s will was more valid than another person’s will.[25] Although this sounds coldly detached, Anne expressed a level of intellectual honesty here, which is rare. Anne is one of the few people I have met who has really thought through these issues and realizes the implications of what she believes. She realizes that if evil does not exist, then even personal autonomy cannot be assumed as a human right. Oddly enough, she is not bothered by this. The presence of things that she does not like is something that “just is” like taxes.

Amanda said “ideally one wants one’s concept of the world to be logically consistent with what one believes and emotionally satisfying.”[26] So I asked, “What if one’s position is logically consistent but not emotionally satisfying?  What then? Her response was: “since you can’t change the facts, you must adjust your emotions by re-examining why you find something distasteful.”[27] Ultimately one must buck up and accept those things if one is to boldly face the “truth.”

            To conclude my research for this paper, I returned to my interviewees after they had had a few days to mull over our previous conversation.  My final question to them was: Do your beliefs about evil have any bearing on whether or not you believe in God? With few exceptions each person’s initial response was that it did not have any bearing on their beliefs about the existence of God. For Patricio and Eddie, who come from religious backgrounds but have discarded the faith of their youth, evil did raise thoughts about the devil. However, they considered the idea of a being with horns and a forked tail childish. Their thoughts about evil did not connect with their reasons for doubting the existence of God. For Rodney, Amanda and Anne, their rejection of God came not from what they believed about good and evil but from what they perceived as a lack of evidence.  For Anne in particular, whether or not evil actually existed as a real thing depended on whether or not God existed, and not the other way around.

For the Christian, the solution to the problem of evil rests on the fact that God’s revelation of His character and work of redemption at the cross is the ultimate foundation for defining good and evil. It is those eternal standards which hold the whole world accountable and offer hope of real triumph over evil personally and socially.  The atheist and agnostic solution is problematic in that that they lack a foundation for determining what is ultimately good or evil.  Therefore their solutions have an arbitrariness that limits their strength. The relativism that pervaded all of their views weakened the bonds that they shared with the Christian worldview, but also provided a bridge of dialogue. I discovered that when I approached the issue with non-threatening questions and primarily listened rather than spoke, I had very productive conversations rather than arguments.

[1] Emma Goldman, The Philosophy of Atheism in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 131.

[2] Elizabeth Anderson, If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?, in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 335-339.

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelly, A Refutation of Deism in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 54.

[4] Carl Sagan, The God Hypothesis in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 233.

[5] Ibid., 236.

[6] For more information on the logical problem of evil see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/, and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-problem-of-evil, accessed 11/29/2014.

[7] Richard Dawkins, Atheists for Jesus in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 307-308.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

[12] Interview recorded with Patricio via phone, November 24, 2014.

[13] Interview recorded with Eddie via phone, November 25,2014.

[14] Interview recorded via phone with Rodney November 25, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Interview recorded with Eddie via phone, November 25,2014.

[17] Interview recorded with Patricio via phone, November 24, 2014.

[18] Interview recorded with Amanda, November 24,2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Interview with Anne, November 24, 2014.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Interview recorded with Amanda, November 24, 2014.

[27] Ibid.