There’s a recent interview that’s making its rounds. In it actor and atheist Stephen Fry responded to the question “What if you’re wrong? What if you get up to the pearly gates, and you’re wrong? What will you do?” Mr. Fry goes on at some length…but he doesn’t actually answer the question. I’ll examine his main critique in this post, then I’ll address an underlying problem with his statements in my next post.
His main complaint is that God has created an evil world. His example is bone cancer in children (he also mentions some very unpleasant insects). This argument is called the experiential problem of evil, and when it comes up with my students I often call it the tummy-ache argument against God’s existence. Here’s one way we might express it:
If God is all-good and all-powerful, he would not allow X.
X is allowed.
Therefore God does not exist. (either that or he isn’t all-good, all-powerful)
Here’s why I think it fails. Let’s make X = bone cancer in children. If God was all-good/powerful, he wouldn’t allow bone cancer in children. Okay. Let’s say hypothetically that God eradicates all traces of bone cancer in children. It doesn’t exist. It never existed. It never will exist. What then would Fry say? His argument would remain, because X is something along the lines of “the worst thing in the world.” No bone cancer in children? Okay, what about the nasty insects that he mentions. Those are still bad. Okay, so God eradicates them. But X remains. No matter what God eliminates, there is always something unpleasant that will take it’s place. If God eliminated everything we would consider evil, then things we consider insignificant annoyances would rise to the level of evil. Since there would be no murder/rape/cancer/etc in the world, a stubbed toe could legitimately be one of the worst things in the world. And so could a tummy-ache. It’s the same with Epicurus’ argument. Evil is a fluid term. No matter what God eliminates, there’s always something to call evil unless he eradicates every unpleasant thing ever. God would have to be our servant, making us perpetually happy. Thus, this argument is basically, “If God really existed, I would never have so much as a tummy-ache. No one would. Since I had one yesterday we can know that he doesn’t exist. And if he does, he’s a horrible deity (not all-good, all-powerful) for letting my tummy hurt.”
Sure, what Fry says doesn’t sound that absurd. What he says sounds reasonable…at first. But they are the same argument. And, as they say in the south, that dog won’t hunt. That argument doesn’t work. But in spite of the volumes of works on the topic that clearly display the failures of the problem of evil (both the logical* and experiential variants), Fry is confident that it (and he) is right. He’s so confident that he can’t for a minute consider what it would be like to be wrong. And it is to that attitude that we will turn in our next post.
What I find most perplexing about the problem of evil, in all it’s forms, is that evil is an argument for God existence. Words like evil, good, bad, etc have no real meaning without some objective grounding. Think about it for a second. On what basis can I say that you are obligated to share my definition of good? If good is just my preference, why should my preference matter to anyone else? And yet one of the most common objections to God’s existence is that the world is full of evil. Well…if He exists it is full of evil. If he doesn’t, if Fry is right…it’s full of stuff. And that stuff is morally neutral. Mass murder and humanitarian work are on the same footing. But somehow this distinction is lost on many. Consider the following meme put out by Richard Dawkins:
One wonders on what grounds Dawkins is allowed to force his morality on others? What objective standard allows him to 1) determine what is wrong, and 2) insist that others conform to his perception of morality? As an atheist, I’m sure he thinks it’s immoral to raise children in a religious household. But why should his opinion matter to anyone else? But if morality is grounded in the character of God, then it is objective. His character doesn’t change. So morality is consistent. Right and wrong are meaningful terms. The fact that we see evil in the world reminds us that God exists. It reminds us that we are created in his image and that evil is not his intention for the world. It reminds us that we all need a redeemer. It reminds us that we all make mistakes.
How wonderful is our God, that he uses even our mistakes to testify to his existence?
*For probably the best treatment of the Logical Problem of Evil, read God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga. It’s not the easiest read, but it’s spot on. Here’s a taste from pages 10-11: “The fact that the theist doesn’t know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God…To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian [Plantinga’s term for atheist-theologian] cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more–he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil.”