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The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter Five)
One of the oldest conundrums facing those that believe in a God that is both perfectly good and all powerful is the Problem of Evil. A perfect God that is good and all powerful should not even be capable of producing a world with evil and suffering, should it? And yet the world we observe around us sees us and our fellow human beings suffer under both natural and man-made disaster.
If God is not capable of ending the evil and suffering, then why call him powerful? If God is not willing to end the evil and suffering, then why call him good? For centuries this has been one of the strongest objections to the existence of any God that is meant to be both good and powerful.
It is with this problem in his sights that Mark Mittelberg, author of The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers), attempts to offer an Evangelical solution to the Problem of Evil. In previous chapters of the book he has laid the groundwork for what he believes are good reasons to believe in God. He then set his attention to Darwinism raising objections he believed called it into question. After that Mark spent two chapters addressing Biblical issues, one about the general reliability of the Bible as a historical source and the other about the divinity and Resurrection of Jesus. I have attempted, in turn, to offer my rebuttal and have reviewed each chapter from my viewpoint as an atheist and skeptic.
So without further ado let's see what Mark has to say about the Problem of Evil to get the God of the Bible off the hook. As always any excerpts used here are used for critique and criticism under Fair Use and belong to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers.
Mark starts off the chapter by outlining the different ways in which the Problem of Suffering can come up in a discussion by offering an anecdote (as per usual). He offers it only to illustrate the point that many of those who ask “why me?” when bad things happen do so rhetorically and that they don't actually want an answer but instead want empathy and support.
Mark is right, of course, when someone's house burns down and they are living in a shelter somewhere they generally don't actually want to get into some deep philosophical discussion about the nature of reality or God. What they really want is comforting words, help from their communities and reassurance that they will get through their hardships in time.
But Mark also acknowledges that there is another version of this question more potent than those who cry out rhetorically because they want our sympathies. In fact Mark even acknowledges that this problem is one of the biggest reasons why people begin to doubt or even disbelieve.
The Problem of Evil, for Atheists?
Mark goes on to lay out a pretty basic, but serviceable version of the Problem of Evil, being that all the suffering in the world around us would seem to demonstrate that a good and all powerful God simply doesn't exist. Indeed, though Mark doesn't mention this, it seems logically incoherent to say that an all loving, all good and all powerful God even COULD exist. The issue of the Problem of Evil is one of contradiction, how a perfect being that is omnibenevolent and omnipotent even COULD create a world with so much evil and suffering is a direct contradiction.
Before I read this chapter I had some basic idea of what was coming next mostly because at this point I am convinced Mark is never going to make an original argument or say anything remotely convincing or clever. Mark has repeatedly failed to provide anything that I haven't heard from dozens of other apologists throughout the years.
Apologists are beginning to remind me of bad comedians repackaging the same tired jokes so often that they've forgotten the original source it was ripped off from.
Now of course you might argue that I shouldn't paint apologists with so broad a brush. At the start of this review, way back in Chapter One, I was genuinely hopeful that Mark might make some arguments I hadn't heard before or say something clever. I was disappointed then and with each successive chapter I grow more and more disappointed that he has nothing new to say except the same old tired rhetoric, such as this little diddy I knew was coming:
Welcome to the Jungle
I say that because, as has become the standard go to tactic of Christians, Mark almost immediately brings up murderers, rapists and Nazis to claim that, because atheists don't have ABSOLUTE standards, there is no way to condemn people for their crimes. Now this is just plain stupid for so many reasons. But it makes me wonder what Mark might say to some remote tribe in the jungle that never even heard of his God.
Does he believe they have no right to conduct their own justice? To decide on their own morals? If they are isolated from our society with their own superstitions and their own morals and have never even heard of his God how can morals be absolute?
My guess is Mark would say that even those remote tribes have basic morals and that those basic morals, like don't steal or don't murder, are the sort of absolutes he's talking about. What a coincidence, the two most common sense boundaries, that nearly every culture has arrived at independently, are the “absolutes”. There are tribes that eat their own dead, tribes that allow revenge killings, there are all manner of bizarre and barbaric moral codes out there.
If you study anthropology and look into all the different beliefs and morals that have come out of human culture over thousands and thousands of years you will see that morality is man-made and that often the only morals shared in common by isolated peoples are common sense ones that Christianity has no claim on.
I don't know what Mark would say about these tribes, he doesn't mention them, but he does seem to think that things like the ten commandments are evidence that absolute morals regarding things like theft and murder exist. I wonder if he feels this way about the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy or the one that says the sins of the Father pass on to the son for seven generations. Something tells me that Mark would be happy to help Christianity take credit for “absolutes” about stealing and murder but shy away from things like stoning homosexuals and burning a Priest's daughter alive if she engages in Prostitution.
How Do Atheists Explain Good and Evil?
Now I have a whole hub about how atheists do have an answer for the Problem of Evil but I will lay it out here as quickly as I can. Basically it comes down to the difference between the way I as an atheist think about things like truth, knowledge, good and evil and the way a Christian does. For a Christian everything works from a top-down perspective, there is a man-in-charge in Christianity who dictates not only what goodness and evil are but who dictates the very reality around us. Quite literally this God is a dictator, deciding what goes with a stamp of absolute certainty.
For those of us who operate in a reality where there isn't some celestial lawgiver writing on stone tablets or deciding truth with a bang of a cosmic gavel we deal with the gray areas and nuances of the real world. In reality answers are hard to come by and certainty is in short supply. This is why, for thousands of years, morality has fluctuated, rather than been based on some absolute. The ability to change our moral systems, however, also means that we can IMPROVE those moral systems, something that Christians should not be able to boast since their morals are meant to be unchanging.
What do I mean improve? Well Mark seems to view human creations as fleeting and utterly subjective – as mere matters of empty opinion.
Moving on Up
When I say that moral systems can improve within the atheist “worldview” (I should really say humanist worldview since atheism is too limited a position to be a worldview) what I mean is in respect to the objective consequences of those systems and even the individual morals themselves. So let's say we find that a long-standing moral precept is immoral in some way, take for example the long-standing and Biblically justified institution of slavery, in a secular moral world we can realize the error of our ways and correct them. Only in a world where morals are subject to change can moral systems ever improve in any way.
Now I also mentioned the difference between what some Christians think of Good and Evil and what I think. To some Christians good and evil are forces working in the world that are set in stone - what is evil today will be evil for all time and what is good today is good for all time.
To folks like me evil is a label we use for behaviors so repulsive and harmful that we call them evil. Behaviors we find beneficial or helpful or pleasing are generally labeled good. And the thing is that in many cases harm and benefit are completely OBJECTIVE. If you stab someone in the stomach with intent to harm them and you puncture their liver I'd say it's pretty obvious that you've done something wrong/evil. I'd say it's pretty obvious that that person has now been objectively harmed, their very life maybe even threatened.
But, Mark and the apologists argue, why should we value other human lives? Or rather – why DO we value other human lives? This is where evolution comes in. We evolved to live and thrive in groups and that includes a baseline of perfectly natural instinctual EMPATHY. We also evolved to be able to reason and it is these two, reason and empathy - applied with respect to the objective consequences of actions - that form the foundation of secular morality.
Evil is Real You Guys
For Mark and many other apologists evil is some real thing out there in the world, a force, an absolute certainty. For me it is a label attached to certain behaviors and the people that engage in them. But simply because evil is a man-made construct doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Oh sure evil doesn't exist in some bizarre absolute sense as in evil with a capital E floating out there in the cosmos somewhere. But evil exists in the same way other human constructs exist.
Look at it this way, human beings invented farming and agriculture and we decide what counts as farming and agriculture. If you decide to plant a cows head in the ground and think a cow is going to grow you are, quite objectively, not doing agriculture, you are doing farming wrong – by definition. So if you decide to behead someone in the name of Allah, you are, quite objectively, doing something evil – by definition. It does not matter that there is no GOD OF FARMING to decide what absolutely counts as proper farming practices. It does not matter that we are the ones who invented good and evil as labels.
When apologists demand that atheists must have an absolute standard of morality or else things can't really be called genuinely good or genuinely evil they are blowing hot air. Their arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. And ironically there are good atheist answers for both the so-called Problem of Evil for Atheists and the Problem of Good (the CS Lewis version). Human beings are the ones who suffer when evil is done and the ones who benefit when good is accomplished, why on Earth are we not qualified to decide what counts as good and evil?
Christians ALL Judge "absolute" Morality Themselves
Solution 2 - Dark Side and Light Side
So the denial of God's existence was the first so-called solution that Mark wanted to offer a rebuttal to. As you can see above his rebuttal to it is pathetic but it took a good while to unpack all the ways in which he was wrong.
What we see in the real world and the everyday gray areas of our moral systems is that human morality emerges from the bottom up, not from a dictator in the sky. The second and third solution, which I will only briefly touch on, are those that deal with the perspectives of other believers or of those of other faiths.
The second solution is that evil is a part of the divine. This is a sort of Taoist perspective which sees yin and yang as two parts of the nature of the divine or spiritual. Mark's objection to this is literally only a few sentences where he complains about the idea of one day reaching enlightenment and becoming one with everything. Mark doesn't want to become one with the evil and the good but he never offers any reason to reject this solution. Basically his objection reads as if he might as well be saying, “Eww, evil is icky, I don't want to be friends with evil!”
Solution 3 - Our God Is a Not So Awesome God
The third solution is to diminish God's power so that God is only one of the many players struggling against evil rather than someone who could KO evil with a single punch. Needless to say Mark doesn't like this idea. He doesn't like the uncertainty about God's ultimate victory that it brings up and claims that it doesn't jive well with the Bible's depictions of God. This is all well and good but Mark would argue this very differently if he realized how utterly unconvincing his arguments for the reliability of the Bible were. But I suppose most of those arguing that God is not all powerful are probably believers of some stripe.
Solution 4 - Not So Good
Solution four is to strip God of some of his goodness but as Mark points out this raises the problem of where all the good comes from in the world:
In the context that this quote is taken from it actually makes sense. Mark is talking not about unbelievers arguing the Problem of Evil but of those who do believe but who take the goodness for granted the moment something bad crops up in their life. However the Problem of Good kind of misses the point of the general Problem of Evil which is that if a perfectly good all powerful God exists it should be logically impossible for evil and suffering of any kind to exist at all. Even the slightest suffering, even a stubbed toe, are evidence that a perfectly good God who is also all powerful doesn't exist.
The existence of good to counterbalance that evil/suffering may help those who support solutions two and three (particularly solution two) but do nothing to reestablish the likelihood that the sort of God that Mark is arguing for exists.
Living in Tension
So what is Mark's grand solution for the Problem of Evil? He has laid out some of the common ones, from the denial that such a God could exist to reducing the various attributes of God to make room for evil. But Mark's solution isn't to actually put forth a solution at all - his solution is to allow these two contradictory beliefs, that God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent AND there is suffering/evil in the world, to exist simultaneously. In the book he calls this “living in tension” but what it actually is is Cognitive Dissonance, holding two beliefs that do not comport with one another as being equally true.
Often this requires an unhealthy level of compartmentalization. And so what Mark is asking those who doubt to do is essentially just live in a constant state of conflict. Why? Because there are no easy answers. Which is code language for – there are no good answers to this dilemma because it is perfectly valid.
At this point Mark may as well throw up his hands in defeat and become an atheist. Unfortunately given what he's written here something tells me he's become good at compartmentalization and believing things that make no sense for no good reason.
Another Message for Mark
Sometimes we don't have an easy answer that ties everything in a nice bow and makes everyone feel good? Then why do you think “GOD” is a satisfying answer to the origin of the entire Universe? One of the toughest scientific questions that scientists must face, the math involved in physics alone boggles the mind and yet your answer, Mark, is “in the beginning God SAID”. That is the laziest easiest answer imaginable, some being with supernatural powers spoke the world into existence. Mark, you have literally directed us to take the most intellectually lazy path imaginable throughout this entire book.
You've asked us to accept the Bible essentially on faith because impossible sounding stories can sometimes turn out to be true. You've asked us to accept that a man was divine and rose from the dead supernaturally based on an empty tomb (which is missing by the way, no one knows where it is) and the fact that the followers of his cult said they saw him and believed really hard that he had come back to life.
These are the people that followed Jesus, they are his cult members, and you've asked us to treat their writings as if they were objective news reports. Mark most people know that the news today is full of shit, they look on it with skepticism - if you really think the writings of the early Christian cult from 2000 years ago are convincing and objective evidence you are deluded. But of course that isn't your fault, as a cult member, you are just as much a victim as any of them.
You spent an entire chapter arguing that because science hadn't adequately explained the origin of the Universe and the basic building blocks of life that Evolution wasn't acceptable.
A few chapters ago you were telling us not to accept science because there were some things it hadn't explained to your satisfaction. Your arguments amounted to fallacious appeals to incredulity and ignorance. And now you have the gall to sit there and tell people there are no easy answers to the Problem of Evil? Mark, you've fed your audience NOTHING but easy answers and now you throw up your hands and basically tell them to believe irregardless because you find the other solutions too difficult to face?
What kind of argument is that?
Look I know some reading this might think I'm being too harsh again. Normally I would tone it down but I'm not going to do that here. This is absolutely outrageous to me and we still have a long way to go in this chapter.
Seven Points of Light?
Mark does give his Christian audience, who are meant to evangelize to their friends, some points to bring up in discussions. He calls these points Seven Points of Light although as we will see they are more like bad excuses that do nothing to dispel the Problem of Evil. And they are also anything but LIGHT.
Point 1 – The World is as Jesus Predicted: So Jesus predicted the world would be evil. This is supposed to count for something? This counts for nothing because as we saw in Chapter Four Mark has given us absolutely no good reason to think Jesus is divine or even to think that Jesus was a good moral teacher.
Point 2 – Evil was not created or caused by God: There are numerous ways I could argue this against what Mark is saying but basically this is his opportunity to sneak in the famed 'FREE WILL' excuse for suffering in the world by saying this:
Seven Points Continued
Of course this argument, that love requires the ability to do evil, can be turned around and applied to God. One of the problems of Christian theology is the question of whether or not God has free will, that is to say if it is God's choice to love all mankind or whether his very nature forces him to love. Is God good out of choice or does he have no choice? If God has no choice how and why can he be applauded for his goodness? Can God choose to do evil if he wishes?
And of course Mark only makes it worse for God by saying that love must be freely chosen, though perhaps this is why he says 'what it means to be human' implying that the whole Free Will thing is not a problem for God. This makes no sense of course and is just another example of exempting God from the rules of logic for no good reason.
I'd also like to point out here that the Biblical God is responsible for evil and even admits to this in Isaiah 45:7. Of course if God outright admitting to creating evil isn't enough all one need do is read the Bible and see the amount of genocide, death and suffering God creates. Everything from plagues that rot people's faces off while they are still alive to dooming parents to devour the flesh of their own children to a Lake of Fire where he plans to torture people endlessly. The Bible is chocked full of evil created by God.
Point 3 - The Cause of most suffering is humanity: I wasn't sure how this is a point of light until Mark used it to simply accuse atheists of atrocities by quoting Dinesh D'Souza talking about Mao, Stalin and Hitler. Hitler, of course, was a Catholic who later fell into some strange occult beliefs. Hitler makes it clear in his writings that he believed he was doing the will of God, but D'Souza lumps Nazis in with atheists because he is dishonest.
Two can play the Nazi game as I would love to ask D'Souza and Mittelberg what happened to the souls of those millions of Jews who died as non-Christians in Concentration camps. If the Bible is correct they are all burning in Hell or at least will be soon enough. The difference between God and Hitler is that when you go into Hitler's ovens you're probably already dead, whereas God's oven of Hell keeps you alive for eternity, screaming and suffering without end.
Seven Points Continued
What they won't tell you is that any ideology that is corrupted at it's core can be used for violence. Atheism is not an ideology, it is a disbelief in gods. The secular regimes that committed atrocities did so for other reasons central to their ideologies.
Atheism alone is too general a notion to spark any sort of cruelty, in order to do that other elements must be present. In the same way theism is too general to be a catalyst to evil, only when the specifics of an ideology, like a specific religion or holy book, are added is there enough impetus to act. We don't blame theism in general for the atrocities of Muslim terrorists neither should we blame atheism in general for the atrocities of Communist extremists.
Of course the cause of most suffering IS human cruelty or carelessness, they aren't wrong there. However this is what we would expect in a world without a God. Keep in mind that we evolved to survive in small groups, tribes, and human tribalism runs deep. Whenever we view some other group of humans as an enemy we can end up doing horrible things to them. The key is to focus on the better parts of our nature, our natural empathy, and apply it to all peoples.
The history of religion reflects the tribalism of our godless Universe, as the Old Testament shows clearly, with “God” sending out the Israelites to commit genocide demanding that even the children must be slaughtered by the sword. This tribalism and barbarism are a piece of evidence that the Bible was written by primitive ignorant human beings who didn't realize how evil their deeds truly were. But now we know better, our morality has improved, something only possible if moral systems are man-made (even if Mittelberg and other apologists try to take credit for it).
In fact Mark attempts, just before he let's D'Souza lie about atheists and Nazis, to claim credit for goodness by telling us the Ten Commandments are evidence that God warned us against genocide and evil. This, of course, is in Exodus, just after God commits genocidal evil against the first born of Egypt. This is one chapter before he tells the Israelites that they can keep slaves, pass them as property to their children, sell their own daughters into a lifetime of servitude, and beat their slaves. Mark is apparently counting on his readers to have never even read their own Bibles.
I should also mention here that tsunamis and brain tumors in children are not the fault of human beings and are not explained away by human cruelty or free will. But Mark thinks he has an answer for that.
Point Four - We live in a Fallen World
I'm really not comfortable calling these points of light anymore as they tend to deal with poor excuses about the worst parts of human nature. Here we have Mark arguing that God's perfect creation is infected with a disease called natural evil that can be passed from generation to generation. And this serves as Mark's brilliant excuse for why tsunamis can wipe out a quarter of a million people and not bring God's goodness into question.
I talk about this excuse in one of my hubs but I'll briefly go into it here. Basically this is the view that after Adam and Eve sinned their sin infected everything and made all of creation malfunction. This view is not Biblically defensible because the Bible clearly says that God cursed his creation after the Fall. God shows up and angrily declares that women will suffer pain in childbirth, that men will toil in the fields just to get enough food to eat and so on and so forth. It is generally held that from this curse all those things, like mosquitoes with malaria, cancer, AIDS, earthquakes and tsunamis, emerged as realities humanity had to deal with.
The common tactic of apologists like Mark, who is ever more selling himself as a fundamentalist rather than any kind of reasonable person, is to deny that God had anything to do with introducing these devastating elements of our world. Instead the blame is laid on the shoulders of the creation.
This is no different than the sorts of excuses an abusive parent makes when they beat their child, “you brought this on yourself by disobeying”. God, who had the power to forgive the sins of Adam and Eve and prevent the sin nature from ever spreading, chooses to curse his creation in his anger.
But Mark does say something I do agree with when talking about the Christians who blame gays and abortion for Hurricanes:
Seven Points of Darkness Continued
Fifth Point - God will ultimately judge evil
This completely misses the point of the problem of evil. The point isn't that there is tons of evil right now in the immediate present. The point is that evil and suffering exist at all.
Sixth Point - God suffers too
Mark says that Jesus gave up everything to suffer on the cross for us. Again I don't even have to say much here. This is nonsense. Jesus gave up nothing. I've talked at length in numerous hubs about how Christians misunderstand their own scriptures regarding the sacrifice of Jesus by making it out that Jesus SACRIFICED himself – as in gave up his life – for their sins. In order to sacrifice your life you can't immediately be given it back after spending a day and a half dead (Jesus died on Friday, was back by Sunday morning). Jesus was a SACRIFICE in the religious sense, as in a ritual of blood atonement, not in the sense of giving anything up.
God, if he is said to be perfect, cannot suffer any permanent loss and indeed in the story of Jesus God suffers no permanent loss. He goes from being in the body of an impoverished carpenter to sitting on a throne at the right hand of the Father ruling all of time and space for eternity. If you think that's a sacrifice in any sense other than the religious one you are wrong.
Seventh Point – God can make bad things into good things
Irrelevant to the Problem of Evil. Also fails to answer the question of why God is apparently making good things happen to the wicked and bad things happen to the righteous. But to all your Christians who pray real hard and believe real hard and still have your child die of cancer and you can't see ANY good having come from it Mark Mittelberg has some words of wisdom for you.
All About that Fluff, no Substance
Once again Mark doesn't seem to offer us any compelling answers to the question. He even throws up his hands in defeat at one point confessing that the easiest way to deal with it is to just believe it even if it makes no sense. This is his second big call to cognitive dissonance for Christians, asking them to hold contradictory beliefs in “tension” because the real answers aren't “easy”.
Well Mark has shown us no real answer, just seven excuses that do nothing to explain how such horrendous evil can even logically exist when an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God exists. His best answer is to try to blame it all on humans and atheists. Praise the creator for everything good, blame the humans for everything bad, even brain tumors and tsunamis are all our fault.
And of course Mark began the whole thing with the same old tired rhetoric about atheists not being able to explain good and evil. It is true that as an atheist my conception of what is evil is different from that of Mark. Mark seems to think that evil is anything that is in conflict with the absolute standards that God has set. For me evil is anything that is objectively harmful to people and doesn't have any real benefit. My beliefs about evil are based on empathy, reason and a consideration of the objectively real consequences that human behaviors have on other humans.
Is my morality subjective? On some level yes, but all moral codes are. Even the Bible's morality is subjective as the Old Testament's 'eye for an eye' becomes Jesus' 'turn the other cheek'. As the Old Testament's call to stone women who commit adultery becomes Jesus' revelation that all have sinned when he says, 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone'.
The very pages of the Bible reveal that human moral codes change and in fact that they IMPROVE over time not because they chase some supernatural absolute but because our knowledge and understanding of each other and the world around us changes, improves and expands. And so, to, do our communities, to the point where today we place high value on every human life and feel empathy for the suffering of people half a world away.
Morality is hard, it's tedious, it has tons of gray areas. The easy answer of “God commands it” is no longer useful and has no basis in reality as near as we can tell. All of the facts tell us that morality stems from our evolution as a social species. When Christians try to lay claim to morality and goodness they appeal only to common sense moral standards regarding things like theft, murder or general fairness, things any society could conceive of.
Believing that morals must be rooted in the supernatural is superstitious nonsense of a bygone age when we needed such beliefs to cement ourselves into larger communities. Now, with a global community and plurality of faiths and cultures, we no longer need such beliefs.
If you've made it to the end I thank you once again for reading and I hope you will join me next week when I delve into Chapter Six and get to disagree with Mark Mittelberg about abortion.