Is the Problem of Evil a Greater Problem for Atheism than Theism? A Response to David Robertson

A link to an article by David Robertson appeared on my Twitter feed recently, in which it is claimed that “The problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheists than Christians.” You can read the full article here:

Now, let me first acknowledge what the article is not. It’s not written by a professional philosopher. It’s not written for a technical or professional journal, but rather a popular Christian magazine. It makes no pretensions as to providing the final word on the matter. Some people might therefore think I’m choosing a fairly soft target here. However, I don’t wish to write a thorough critique of the piece, nor hold Robertson to the sort of standards I might wish to hold a professional philosopher. However, what he says in the article is – I think – a popular misconception which is worth pointing out, if only to help other apologists from making a similar mistake. Moreover, I couldn’t find a scholarly statement of this argument which seems to make various repeat performances across the world of popular apologetics. (I did come across a version of this argument used by William Lane Craig in his debate some years ago with Frank Zindler, though it wasn’t a scholarly treatment either).

Anyhow, what is the claim, and what is the problem with it?

Robertson claims that many atheists, when asked why they don’t believe in God will point to the amount of evil in the world – because evil exists, God does not exist. Robertson sees a problem here for atheists: “I think all of us have a sense of evil and a sense of good – I don’t think morality is relative. . . There really is such a thing as good and evil. To me this truth actually leads to God, rather than away from God.” How so? Well, according to Robertson atheism has trouble making sense of the concept of evil. If you’re a naturalist, says Robertson, “There is no ultimate foundation for morality. It’s just something that happens, and has evolved.” The problem is exacerbated – so Robertson claims – since on naturalism there is no human free will, no meaning, no life after death, and ultimately no-one to answer to. Thus, he challenges: “The problem with the atheist view of evil is that logically it doesn’t make sense. Either you agree that [evil] exists, or you don’t. If it does exist, then on what metaphysical basis does it exist? It can’t just “be” in a world that is just atoms and molecules.”

Now, it seems to me – a theist who has spent a long time on the problem of evil, and who rejects it as a convincing argument against the existence of God – that Robertson (representative of other popular apologists) is unhelpfully misrepresenting the problem of evil. What he is in fact presenting is a moral argument for the existence of God. He’d have been better simply presenting that rather than trying to tie his argument to the problem of evil. In fact, I have some sympathy with the idea that atheism struggles with the notion of objective good and evil. So, it’s not primarily this aspect of Robertson’s argument that’s the problem, but rather his misconstrual of the problem of evil. (Though in passing I should mention that I rather suspect a sizable chunk of the atheist community would believe in and attempt to defend objective morality in a non-theistic universe. Precisely how successful such efforts are I leave as homework for the reader).

Robertson presents the problem of evil “in a nutshell” roughly along the lines of the so-called logical problem of evil, which runs like so:

1. If God is omnipotent, He will be able to eradicate evil
2. If God is omnibenevolent, He will be willing to eradicate evil
3. Evil exists
4. Therefore an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God does not exist.

I agree with Robertson that such an argument is unsuccessful. In fact, most atheist philosophers would likely agree. However, Robertson ignores the fact that the problem of evil is a much bigger beast than this version suggests. In fact, the problem of evil is really a group of several arguments on a similar theme. The significance of this is that an atheist need not actually agree with the existence of objective evil in order to raise the problem of evil as a case to answer for the theist.

So, for example, William Rowe’s argument from evil is that there are many forms of suffering in our world which do not seem to have any possible justifying goods. He famously gives the example of a fawn caught in a forest fire, suffering for days before finally succumbing to death. Seemingly then, says Rowe, there are gratuitous evils (such as many forms of pain, suffering and distress), and such would not exist if God existed. Now, I don’t think Rowe’s argument is a good one (Stephen Wykstra, Alvin Plantinga and William Alston all provide strong cases against it) but notice that this version of the problem of evil doesn’t rely on any claim about the existence of “objective evil,” in the sense Robertson seems to mean. Or take Paul Draper’s version of the argument (which is, in my view, only marginally better than Rowe’s), which says that the evil we find in the world is more likely on naturalism than on theism; in fact, he reckons, given the facts of our universe it appears most reasonable to think that nothing and no-one has the interests of biological organisms at heart. Draper weighs the hypothesis of theism against an alternative hypothesis, namely: “Neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non-human persons,” using a set of observations – O – comprising “both the observations one has made of humans and animals experiencing pain or pleasure and the testimony one has encountered concerning the observations others have made of sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure.” According to Draper O has a much greater antecedent probability on this other hypothesis than on theism, and thus we have a prima facie case for thinking this alternative hypothesis is more likely to be true than theism. Again, an atheist could make use of this form of argument without bringing the “Robertson Retort” down on his own head. Robertson shows no sign of being familiar with such arguments, and even though he’s only a popular level apologist he really should pay these arguments some attention, for in doing so he mightn’t be so quick to claim that the problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheism than theism.

In any event, I hope it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. The problem of evil isn’t just a problem about morally objective evil. It’s about suffering, pain, and seemingly poor biological design. An atheist who cites the problem of evil as part of his or her case for unbelief is quite likely to have all this in mind, not just the rather restricted version Robertson presents. In my own experience I’ve heard atheists complain about things like the process of evolution and the unimaginable suffering that would have occurred as a result of the process; or the destructive power of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; or the horrendous little beasties that are visible only under the microscope, whose existence causes all manner of pain and trauma to millions of other biological organisms; or the suffering in the animal world caused by predation. Such things, so says the atheist, make it difficult to believe in the God of Classical Theism. I freely admit there are times when the world strikes me as a particularly horrid place, and though I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil I sometimes find doubts rise up in my mind through my own experience of the world’s evils.

Of course, for many reasons way beyond the scope of this short article, I don’t think any of this warrants the rejection of theism. But what it does show is that there are versions of the problem of evil which are not open to the Robertson Retort, and thus the atheist who embraces one or more of these versions of the problem isn’t caught in the contradiction Robertson seems to think he or she is.

Modern versions of the problem of evil are, quite clearly, more of a problem for theism than atheism. There is a case for theism to answer. Robertson and other popular level apologists who use such a line of argument would be better off acknowledging this, and joining the rest of us in honestly trying to make sense of the evils our world contains in light of our theistic worldview.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Problem of Evil

5 responses to “Is the Problem of Evil a Greater Problem for Atheism than Theism? A Response to David Robertson

  1. The Problem of Evil might be better described as the Problem of Pain. As you say, Robertson is by no means the first to have been misled by the philosophical terminology.

  2. “In fact, I have some sympathy with the idea that atheism struggles with the notion of objective good and evil.”

    While I’m sure that you have put a lot of thought into critiques of atheism-compatible moral realism, popular level mischaracterization of this topic bothers me even more than mischaracterization of the problem of evil. Most of the time, I see apologists outright ignoring everything that’s been written by atheist philosophers on metaethics, and just assuming that atheism necessitates relativism or noncognitivism (and also not understanding the difference between realism and universalism). But then again, maybe that’s caused by….

    “Though in passing I should mention that I rather suspect a sizable chunk of the atheist community would believe in and attempt to defend objective morality in a non-theistic universe.”

    Prior to Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, it seemed to me that a large majority of popular-level atheists espoused some form of cultural relativism (at least in theory). And they’re ironically guilty of the same thing the apologists are.

  3. Kvittraren

    “Now, it seems to me – a theist who has spent a long time on the problem of evil, and who rejects it as a convincing argument against the existence of God”.

    I know you explicitly stated in the article that it is a lengthy response, but how would you answer for I instance Draper? I’m curious because I’ve never really heard a response, besides sceptical theism, that gives a credible answer, but then sceptical theism can’t be contained and brings about more problems than it solves, in my humble opinion so I don’t really consider it a successful reply. Would love to hear you’re thoughts on this!

  4. I hope to write an article or series of articles on Rowe and Draper, later this year.


  5. To start, I will label myself as an agnostic and a moral anti-realist. Personally, I hate it when atheists use the Problem of Evil. First, a theist could simply say that their deity was amoral (as omni-malevolent would have a Problem of Good) which would completely take the wind out the argument. Second, the PoE is designed for classical theism which I would argue Christianity is not. Third, atheists overwhelming are moral anti-realists so for them to say that there is gratuitous evil, they would have to defend moral realism. To me, the PoE is a waste of time.

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