By Sam Rhee '21
“Please, please tell me what kind of a God can let six million of His devoted followers—of His
creations—be put to work, tortured, and executed, simply because they were of a certain
denomination.” -Theo Baker
Like many of you, I enjoyed the recent article in the Exchanged titled Against Religion.
Like many of you, I enjoyed the comment section as well. Before it devolved into a freshman
group chat and witnessed Jesus’s second and third and fourth comings, a few people attempted
to address the author’s argument directly. One of the key points of contention was the problem
of evil, namely the question of how an omniscient, all-benevolent, and omnipotent God can
coexist with widespread suffering (a problem most notable for the Abrahamic faiths, not all forms
of theism). Philosophers and theologians throughout history have proposed a number of logical
solutions (theodicies) to this conundrum. Below, I’ll try to outline a few of the most popular ones,
as well why I believe none of them fully succeed.
One qualification that theists often make is that the coexistence of God and evil, though
seemingly improbable, is not logically impossible. Humans simply can’t comprehend God’s
actions (WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I CREATED LEVIATHAN?). I will accept that God may
work in “mysterious ways” that necessitate plague and genocide, but this answer is lazy and
incomplete. The theist, however, may use other arguments to assert the probable existence of
God and render the problem of evil moot.
You can sidestep the problem of evil by arguing that, because objective morality can’t
exist without God, atheists have no basis for claiming evil exists. If morality is the byproduct of
evolution, it isn’t inherently good on an individual basis. However, it’s perfectly reasonable to
assume that morality can exist as a natural law (is, perhaps, god itself) without invoking a
personal God; or that moral norms may exist as a coherent and useful system in the same way
that mathematics does; or to adhere to a secular moral theory (as most philosophers do), such
as utilitarianism- which, despite its other faults, has a clear correspondence to physical reality in
the pain-pleasure dichotomy. Non-theists can even argue that the existence of God is
problematic for morality as we understand it: if good depends on God, God could make any act
moral (see: Plato’s Euthyphro). Throughout the Old Testament, God condones plenty of murder
and pillaging that defies our moral intuitions.
A popular argument is that good can’t exist without evil. Even if this is true, it doesn’t
explain the scope of evil permitted (would our understanding of good be deficient without the
Holocaust?). A converse of sorts is that the good in the world justifies the existence of evil. To
be precise, if the good in a world outweighs the bad, the question of better worlds is irrelevant.
This is believable only if you don’t believe that God can be faulted for wrongdoing by omission
(unlikely if He is all powerful). An interesting formulation is that, if multiverse theory is true, God
may have already created all possible better worlds- though I’m not convinced that this is a
different situation ethically.
The last and most significant theodicy is that free will is morally necessary. I don’t have
room to outline the issue of free will, but I think Against Religion did a good job of addressing
the fact that free will is heavily constrained (claims that the author is a complete determinist
came from a misreading of the article). Free will is the ability to choose from possibilities,
constrained by the limits of your own mental circuitry and environment. While you could
theoretically go get a lighter and set yourself on fire right now, it is implausible that you would
make this decision- you are technically free, but de facto limited. Sociopaths also have free will,
but are much more inclined towards evil (through no fault of their own), to the point where they
often can’t choose good for “moral reasons”- it simply doesn’t occur to them as a possibility. It
seems logical to reason that most people have different propensities for good or evil based on
genetic factors and childhood environment, which will undeniably shape their decisions in a
profound and unconscious manner (and you make many decisions before you have any
conscious control over them according to modern neuroscience) . Given this definition of free
will, it seems that God could have changed human propensity towards good without violating
autonomy. In fact, if people in heaven are autonomous and perfectly righteous, evil is not a
necessary consequence of free will. To take it one step further, if God is autonomous and
perfectly righteous, creating creatures that had the capacity for evil was a major oversight.
Finally, the free will theodicy doesn’t adequately explain natural evil: it could be that God
punished Eve with childbearing and gays with HIV/AIDS, but these consequences require divine
intervention and, thus, defer evil back to God. However, if you believe in largely unrestricted free
will, most philosophers still consider this theodicy to have significant weight.