I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to people talk about, and talking about, the ‘argument from evil’. To put it in its simplest possible form, it goes like this:
1) If the creator of the world is good and omnipotent, then the world should contain only good things, and a minimum of evil necessary for greater goods.
2) Have you looked at the world recently?
Therefore 3) There is probably no good, omnipotent, creator, i.e. no God.
This initial atheistic part of the argument is pretty simple (everybody accepts that P implies Q, not-Q, therefore not-P is a logically valid structure), so the bulk of the discussion then becomes a matter of theists arguing that actually, the world’s pretty great, the evil things in it are perfectly justified and necessary, and everything is for the best, and atheists trying to resist that.
I could rehearse the arguments here, and why I think the atheistic side is correct. But I suspect they’d be fairly old. Maybe some other time if people are interested. But there’s something else I get in these sorts of discussions sometimes that’s a bit less intellectual. I think I’ve reached the point where ‘defenses of God’ are not just unpersuasive, but hard to stomach.
That is, I feel not so much like I’m in the presence of a position I disagree with, but a mindset which is hostile to humanity as such. And today this reached a sort of beautiful conclusion, when one of my theistic interlocutors summed up the principle underlying it all. But that principle can be seen as growing out of pretty much every theistic strategy employed here.
The worst in some ways are the fiddly arguments, the whole papers devoted to proving ‘that it may be the case, given certain major assumptions, that the best possible universe would have to include at least a little bit of evil.’ As if that’s relevant. As if the impulses behind this sort of atheism is just the tepid observation that ‘hmm, sometimes things aren’t perfect’. If this sort of thing isn’t a joke, it’s evidence of a colossal sort of self-blindfolding, a resolute refusal to consider the scale of the relevant facts.
In short, this isn’t so much an argument, or a position, as a symptom, a socially-acceptable flaunting of a morally deformed mindset.
The same is true of other claims. Sometimes the claim is that evil and suffering exists to help ‘develop us’ morally, to help make us better people. By struggling through adversity and displaying heroic self-sacrifice, we justify both the atrocities and the general hum-drum grinding crappiness of life.
If this were true it would be a strikingly inefficient method for a omnipotent being to employ. Sometimes suffering and injustice improve us; but just as often they worsen us. Arguably, in fact, the real origin of most of the more spectacular forms of human evil we observe is previous frustration and suffering. People repeat the abuse they’ve been taught.
Accepting this argument, in fact, implies something like the following: if we want people to develop personally, we should throw them unprepared into a traumatic environment, somewhere filled with dangers and with only difficult and often illusory goals to pursue, where they don’t know what they’re doing and where the easiest way to get ahead is to turn on the others there with them and build up multiple levels of psychological self-defense to block out all the shit.
It’s not just that I think that’s false. It’s that I think it has some very frightening implications about how to raise children.
Or, half the time, the claim is that every form of human evil is an unavoidable consequence of ‘free will’. This has two implications: firstly, in general, that the situation in which people are placed has a negligible effect on how they will act, and whatever they do is an indication of their own inner nature – in psychology, this recognised and recognisably false cognitive bias is called the ‘fundamental attribution error‘.
Secondly, in particular, it implies that the sort of horrors that are routinely committed around the world are simply expressions of what people really want. If someone chooses to plot the extermination of a whole race, it must because they’re the sort of person who just loves extermination – not because of some pressure, some insufficiency, some confusion, but because their innermost soul just spits forth as its truest desire the utter negation of humanity.
So on the one hand we have a pervasive psychological bias being not just endorsed but turned up to the absolute max., and on the other we have ‘some people just want to be monsters, on a whim’ – or else that’s their innate, fixed-at-birth nature. After all, it can’t be some external cause deforming them, because then it would be God’s responsibility. So the constant pressure is towards: people are evil, fear them, hate them.
Or of course it may just be ‘moves in mysterious ways’ (nowadays apparently this gets called skeptical theism). Supposedly our ability to understand what’s good and bad is just so limited that it makes no sense for us to try and evaluate whether the evil in the world is justified or unjustified.
Or to put it another way: just put aside everything that hurts you. All your grief and desperation and despair, put it aside. It’s not a good guide to reality. Let’s be objective about this: your personal tragedies tell us literally nothing about the world. Nor do the millions of others who can share their personal tragedies.
Of course, one of the consequences of this is then that we are also too cognitively limited to understand what’s right and wrong (not to mention that we are, as said above, evil). No matter: we have holy books, and holy men (that is not the neuter masculine, note) and so forth to tell us what’s right and wrong. No matter that those sources tell us appalling lies (burn pigeons as an atonement for menstruating!). No matter that we need to apply interpretation anyway, which always throws us back onto those darned cognitive faculties of ours.
But then there’s the point where all these somewhat-disguised versions of the underlying principle come out into the open. This is the doctrine that no suffering is unjustified: humans have no right to object to the misery which may characterise their lives, because as creatures of original sin, it is their just punishment.
When this was stated to me today explicitly by a friend, I was at first incredulous. I asked, half-ironically:
“So all human beings deserve to be tortured and killed?”
And the response was: “yes.” An unhesitant, confident, “yes”.
Let’s just lay that out again: “All human beings deserve to be tortured and killed.”
This is not a wacko newfangled idea, this is an idea with plenty of Christian history behind it, plenty of explicit statement in Grand and Respected theologians. But what about babies?
Yep, babies too. And 3 -year-olds, 6-year-olds, and 10-year-olds. Animals, of course, are free of ‘original sin’, but also have no rights whatsoever – their suffering and death is merely unimportant, not actually a positive instance of justice.
But wait, why aren’t you out with your righteousknife? Ah, because human beings don’t have the right to inflict the suffering and death. It would be cool if it came about, of course, but we must restrain ourselves and let God do it.
Of course at this point it all falls into place. The idea that the best way to morally improve people is by psychologically destroying them, the idea that we can’t ever confidently declare any tragedy or atrocity to be genuinely bad (it might work out ok according to the Divine Plan, after all). The idea that people just produce their evil behaviour out of themselves independently of their environment. They’re all just versions, disguised in one way or another, of the basic principle, which is a sort of cosmic victim-blaming and Stockholm syndrome.
And this is hardly surprising. Boiled down, the theistic response to the simple argument I started with is also very simple:
1) Life’s a bitch, and then you die;
2) Whatever happens is God’s will, and is good;
Therefore 3) All human beings deserve to be tortured and killed.
And I can’t think of a more evil principle than that.