It is often posited that one cannot ‘prove a negative’. To the contrary, in the case of a theistic god’s existence, this is not entirely correct. Atheists can indeed point out logical inconsistencies between theism and the universe itself. The most well-known of these arguments is the Problem of Evil, whether it is the logical argument or the evidential argument:
- God is said to exist
- God is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
- A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
- An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
- An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
- A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
- If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
- Evil exists (logical contradiction)
C: Therefore, God does not exist (?)
The conclusion may, on the surface, seem reasonable. Nevertheless – as one always can with an unfalsifiable claim – theists have come up with a few objections to this argument. These are usually called theodicies. (Clearly, one could object to premise 2, but a classical monotheist would not do this).
The best known — and the most used — objection to the Problem of Evil is the Free Will Argument. It states that evil is the price that we have to pay for our free will, and that humans can be evil as a result of our free will. However, this does not account for natural evils, such as natural disasters – it only accounts for moral evils. Therefore, proponents of the free will argument can either invoke a supremely evil entity, such as Satan, or argue that natural evil (as well as moral evil) brings out good human virtues such as compassion.
An invocation of Satan seems unnecessary and flawed: if God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he stop Satan from inflicting evil on the world? Combining the Satan-hypothesis with the ‘greater good’ hypothesis may seem reasonable, but why would God need Satan to inflict evil on the world if the question of evil has already been answered with a combination of free will and a ‘greater good’? Therefore, it seems unreasonable to suggest that it is the work of Satan.
Thus, we are at a point where the best theistic explanation for any kind of evil and suffering is free will and greater good combined.
Firstly, I will contest the concept that we have ultimate free will in the first place. That God is unable to intervene as a result of our free will necessarily follows, and I will be alluding to this idea. Just to illustrate this idea, god cannot stop a car knocking somebody over because the person in the car has the same amount of free will as the victim. So, do we really have free will? Here are some reasons to think that we do not:
1. Human beings cannot violate the laws of physics. God, described as the creator, must have created these laws of physics. If I wanted to violate the laws of physics, I simply could not do so. Therefore, one could argue either that free will does not exist, or that God has given us limited free will, which I shall be mentioning a bit later.
2. This is again due to the laws of nature, but we cannot choose whether we sleep or not, for in the end, we will fall unconscious.
3. In all of the monotheistic texts, did God not intervene on numerous occasions? Take the Bible, where God, without consulting almost every single living thing on the planet, unleashes a flood which wipes them off the face of the Earth. Moreover, has Jesus not already redeemed us all of our sins, before we even committed them? Did I ask for that? No, it seems that from what I’ve read of the Bible, if I do not accept it, I’ll face eternal punishment in everlasting fire. God has been said to intervene, and this is surely a violation of our free will. Why does he not intervene now when terrible suffering occurs? In any case, I find it amazing that theists continually neglect the teachings of their scriptures when in debate.
4. This follows from (3), but knowledge of God’s supposed existence, as billions on this planet claim to have, will surely influence their decisions. Do we really have free will, or guided will?
With regard to the first objection of the Free Will Argument, that we seem to have limited free will, why did God not place further limits on our free will? Why allow somebody like Hitler to come to power, who caused misery not just in his own country but in the whole world. He can be said to be the direct cause of World War 2, a war which killed millions of people. Did any greater good come from this? I think more evil than good came from it. What happened afterwards? The Cold War. It wasn’t, as they said after World War 1, ‘the war to end all wars’. Evil, suffering and murder still continued on.
William L. Rowe had a similar thought, when he came up with this:
- There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
- An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
- (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
He also gave this example which should remind us that other animals suffer and this goes largely unnoticed by human beings:
“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.”
Considering all of these objections to the Free Will Argument, I contend that a lack of belief in a god due to the Problem of Evil is certainly reasonable. There are, of course, other objections to the Problem of Evil, but these (such as original sin and Satan) have been dealt with many times. There is a reason that most theists resort to the Free Will Argument these days.
There are many different approaches that one can take to the Problem of Evil, this is just my take on it. The philosopher Stephen Law outlines an extremely thoughtful argument stating that the objections to the Problem of Evil can equally be applied to an evil-god, not just a good-god, and so there is not any more reason to believe in a theistic god than an evil-god.
I believe that positive atheism as justified by the Problem of Evil is just as potent as atheism justified by more scientific arguments. In fact, scientific arguments – which I’m generally more a fan of – merely say that it is unlikely that a god exists, whereas this argument – a more philosophical one – seems to demonstrate that a monotheistic god does not exist.