I’ve been reading a book by the distinguished philosopher, Stephen Law, entitled “Believing Bullshit.” In this book, Law goes through a series of argumentative strategies people use to evade objections to their farfetched belief systems. Law often accuses religious people of employing such illicit argumentative strategies. Law refers to one major problem religious believers, particularly those who believe in a perfectly benevolent deity, face as the “evidential problem of evil.” This problem is one that might drive a religious believer to use a ploy or a ruse to avoid what Law thinks are obvious implications of the problem of evidential evil: namely, that it makes no sense, given the amount of evil in the world, to believe in a benevolent and all-powerful God.
Before I explain why I disagree with this position, I want to articulate as clearly as possible the evidential problem of evil as Law understands it. The evidential problem of evil is supposed to be more devastating to religious belief than the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of evil relies on the tension between the clear existence of evil in the world, and belief that God is perfectly good. If there is a perfectly good God, then it makes sense to think that such a God would not allow evil. But there is evil, and so it seems unlikely that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. There are plenty of responses available to the theist at this point. One is that the evil in the world is necessary to achieve a level of perfection unattainable were it not for the presence of evil.
The evidential problem of evil nullifies this argumentative strategy. The evidential problem responds by noting that there is not just some evil in the world. Even a small amount of evil in the world would create a logical problem for the theist. If God is perfectly benevolent, why doesn’t he eradicate even the small amount of evil? But, the evidential problem points to the immense amount of evil in the world. There is so much evil in the world, the evidential problem of evil goes, that it is highly unlikely a perfectly good God would allow it—there is no way in which it could be justified.
You may be nodding your head in agreement with this position. But, I reject it. It is true that Law is modest in his claims. He says that the immense amount of evil makes it highly unlikely that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. He does not say that the immense amount of evil in the world rules out the possibility that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. Still, I don’t think even his more modest conclusion follows.
Let me begin on a more familiar level. I think there is a flaw in the following argument: If a man does a series of evil things, he is a bad person. A man has done a series of evil things. Therefore, he is a bad person. This argument is valid, since its conclusion follows from the premises if the premises are true. But, I do not think it is sound, in that the first premise, the conditional statement, is implausible. I think there is a way in which a person can do a series of evil things and still not be a bad person.
Let me bring in an example from a TV series I was watching recently called Homeland. One of the main characters in the show is a Marine who is held prisoner in Iraq by Al-Qaeda, who tortures him. This Marine, whose name is Nicholas Brody, starts to buy into the ideology of his captors and eventually attempts a terrorist plot of his own once he is free and back in America.
Now, the character in the TV series, Nicholas Brody, does not actually set off the bomb he wears on a vest hidden underneath his shirt. His daughter dissuades him. However, let us say he did set off the bomb. Let us say also that he was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks before setting off the bomb. Is this Brody necessarily a bad person?
The character Brody in the series, Homeland, is clearly not a bad person. He is a flawed person, terribly misguided, but he is not a bad person. He remains sympathetic throughout the series. He was under enormous psychological pressure while imprisoned in Iraq and we learn throughout the course of the show that his rage at the U.S. government is justified, as it was conducting lethal drone strikes while at the same time lying about them. So, to say that Brody is a bad person because he was about to set off a bomb is an oversimplification. I think it is also an oversimplification even if Brody did set off the bomb. There is plenty of basis for empathy in the character of Brody.
I offer this example by way of showing how even the presence of enormous evil in the world does not imply, or even strongly suggest, that there is no benevolent God. Again, my target is the conditional, if the world is full of evil, there could be no benevolent God. I think that, even if there were more evil than there is now, it is still not the case, as Law thinks, that it is highly unlikely that there is a perfectly benevolent deity.
I am going to identify three reasons for this view. First, the notion of cumulative evil is deceptive. C.S Lewis makes this point in his book, The Problem of Pain. Cumulative evil, in a way, is a sort of pseudo-entity because no one actually experiences cumulative evil. Each individual suffers only the evil that in particular afflicts him or her. For instance, I do not suffer the hunger of someone in Africa, nor do I suffer from the depression burdening someone in a psychiatric hospital at this moment. So, talk of all the evil in the world masks the fact that only a small portion of it is experienced by each individual. The case for God looks a lot better when we realize this. So, even though there may be 50,000 deaths from starvation each month in the world, no individual experiences all of this starvation.
The second reason involves the observation that Law’s judgment about the proper amount of evil in the world is presumptuous. It is presumptuous because it involves the kind of macro-level planning for which no human intellect is fit. Who is anyone to say that, if we look at the whole course of history, there is an incorrect amount of evil? The claim is too ambitious for a human intellect.
The third reason is related to the second. The claim that there is too much evil in the world is presumptuous also because we lack knowledge of the afterlife. Perhaps there is too much evil in the world if we focus only on this life. But, perhaps the evil that each individual experiences is justified in light of what it makes possible not only in this life, but in the next. The evil each individual experiences in this life is necessarily temporary. If the temporary evil an individual suffers is somehow necessary for some eternal glory, then perhaps it is worth enduring. Since we do not what is beyond death, we cannot make a proper judgment about how much evil is proper for the world.