Why Russell was Wrong VI: Sin Disproves God?

sinappleIn the last section, I praised Russell for avoiding the trap I’ve seen other atheists fall into: the idea that dealing with Paley’s “Watchmaker” argument for God is the central or only argument for theism.

If he succeeds there, however, he falls into another trap that is common to the New Atheists (most notably, Christopher Hitchens): The idea that a divine creator would have done a better job of designing the universe. Russell writes:

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

First, I’m left wondering why Russell seems to assume that God is concerned with efficiency. Without limitation in time or resources, why should he be concerned to develop life faster than he has?

But, to take his more visceral comment, the quip about hate groups is far from alien to New Atheist writings, and one wonders what they mean. Is the fact that people are often evil evidence against God? The Biblical authors seemed well aware of what they called “the sinfulness of mankind”, and hardly took it as a reason to doubt God’s existence. Rather, theists have always taken it as a reason to believe in free will–and our poor use of it.

I hear these kinds of remarks often, and they undoubtedly cross the line from an awareness of evil to blunt cynicism–seeing only the evils of the world as if that is the totality, or at least the essence, of life.

Surely, Russell does not literally mean to suggest that there is nothing in this world better than the Nazis. But, if not, why does he speak as if they are the standard by which all creation should be judged? How does Russell know that God wouldn’t allow these groups the same freedom of will he allows the rest of us?

And, perhaps more to the point, what standard is he using for the goodness of all creation, if not God? As many have shown, it is difficult to even say that a thing is evil unless there exists a transcendent source of goodness (i.e. God). Evil, then, comes closer to proving God’s existence than disproving it.

A more robust theory of life will acknowledge the good as well as the bad. And it should be noted that Christian theism has done exactly that. It seems completely incredible that so many can criticize “religion” (by which they seem to mean “Christianity as its opponents understand it”) for failing to see the problems in this thing called “life”, while simultaneously complaining about the negativity of the doctrine of the falleness of creation.

And this seems to be exactly what Russell is doing: citing hate groups (sin) as evidence against Christianity while (elsewhere) maintaining that people can be good without God. This is trying to have it both ways; people can’t simultaneously be too good to need God and too evil for the atonement to redeem creation, which is what would have to be true for Russell’s attack on Christianity to have validity.

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16 responses to “Why Russell was Wrong VI: Sin Disproves God?

  • Pascal's Bookie

    This all rests on the view that the free-will defense is an adequate solution to the problem of evil.

    It’s quite clear God can interfere in free will to stop bad things happening, he can achieve this without “breaking” free-will. So, it’s not metaphysically impossible that he intervenes. We have the example of Pharaoh for instance. You could make the argument Pharaoh was free in making his choice, God just prevented the outcome. It is still the same problem though.

    If it was not metaphysically impossible to stop Pharaoh slaughtering several hundreds of thousands of Jews and indeed, God did stop it, where was he in Auschwitz?

    Million more Jews died under Hitler than did under Pharaoh to out knowledge. I don’t think we contend the lives of people or Jews were worth so much more a mere few thousand years ago than the lives of people today.

    I realise if God was constantly intervening, free will would effectively not operate (but it would still exist in the sense it wasn’t removed). Perhaps it would hinder free will far too much if God were to stop every single murder, rape or theft. However, Gratuitous evil (like the Holocaust), seems to pose a problem, especially in light of the story of Pharaoh.

    • Debilis

      Mostly, thank you for the kindness of your response.

      I’d agree completely that there’s no way to know whether or not God would have some way of reducing the evils we see that wouldn’t result in equal or greater evils. That’s why I’m inclined to think, as personally important as this issue is, it doesn’t really seem to be a logical objection. That is, it often feels to me that there must be an inconsistency, but I can’t yet point to an actual logical inconsistency between a good God and the existence of evil.

      The only other thing I could add is that it is easy to conflate evil and suffering. A good God would get rid of evil as much as possible, but may be willing to tolerate, or even create, suffering if it helps to create good/reduce evil.

      I do seem to have misspoken, however. I didn’t mean to say that those who don’t believe in God deny that evil exists, but that those who don’t (particularly if they use the argument of evil) need to give some basis for a standard of evil, and defend that as an accurate standard. (Which would bring us back to the moral argument.)

      This is due to the fact that the standard of evil from a Christian perspective is separation from God. It exists, then because God allows people to separate themselves from him. Under this definition, the argument from evil is the argument that God would allow us to separate from him in some ways, but not others, which carries much less force.

      Lastly, and most importantly, the thoughtfulness and courtesy of your writing is greatly appreciated. I hope it is clear that, in critiquing the New Atheists as I have, I intend no implication that they represent all (or even most) atheists.

    • Argus

      Are we missing a point here? Obviously God didn’t like Jews all that much.

      It must be a fairly recent thing with Him because in the past He did; they’ve offended Him since.

      • Debilis

        The Bible goes to great lengths to point out that, in Judeo-Christian theology, how free of pain one’s life is does not correlate to how much God does or doesn’t like you.

        The prime example of this would be Jesus himself. Loved by God, but brutally executed.

        As such, I don’t see how this applies to Judaism or Christianity.

        • Argus

          I never understood why Jesus had to go down the same old path as so many other previously executed and suffering gods (born of virgins too, some of them).

          And of course bad things happen to good people—how else will a priest get off the hook when confronted? Even the ancient Chinese knew enough to leave a trapped enemy army a way out.

          I have no idea if you are a parent or not—but if you saw your beloved infant son or daughter about to poke a wire coat hanger into an electrical socket—you’d do nothing? That would be divine of you, but I lack the sanctity myself, I’d act.

          And yes, it does apply. In droves. (Either that or we redefine ‘love’.)

      • Debilis

        I don’t yet see how your comments on Jesus here apply.

        As to the issue of priests, I completely agree that there have long been issues of corruption–but that is a different matter.

        The issue with the child is definitely relevant, however. I’d certainly stop an infant from doing such a thing, but, I’d have three responses:

        1. Most of us aren’t infants. Good parents often allow their adult children to make horrible mistakes.

        2. If God exists, he definitely has more information and insight than I do. Parents often put their children through things that, to them, seem like pointless suffering. How do we know this isn’t what is happening with God?

        3. Similarly, how do we know that there is a world that could actually be made, have as much good in it as this one, without people God cares about having to suffer?

  • Debilis

    I definitely understand your points; they are thoughtful, and I’ll admit to having some of the same questions.

    But, to write a response, I can’t claim to have a simple answer for the complex discussion over free will. I will say, however, that I doubt it is metaphysically possible for God to rid us of gratuitous evils, in that what we tend to define as “gratuitous” is based on what God allows. The worst things that God allows, in any possible world, will be considered evidence that God doesn’t exist by some.

    But, “gratuitous” actually means “without purpose”, and I don’t think we can claim to know whether or not there was a good purpose in allowing the Holocaust/Shoah to happen. The evil act is itself destructive, but this does not mean that there is no good reason for allowing the event to occur. We simply can’t presume to know what God should or should not be doing.

    I agree that human life has not diminished in value, but I don’t think simply counting numbers for comparison makes much sense. The simple fact that X number of people died was going to be true anyway (we all die). This is not to say that it isn’t deeply tragic that such things have happened, but that knowing what God should have done isn’t so simple as adding up deaths.

    Last, and most importantly, I don’t think we can get out from under the problem of evil simply by not believing in God. To declare that life is random makes us less, not more, able to explain evil. This means denying that evil really exists at all–that it is simply a matter of personal perception. As such, the person who takes this approach has lost the ability to speak of evil in any sense that should constrain God’s actions.

    And that is where we are left, either believing that an omniscient being would have purposes of which we are unaware, or that there is no such thing as good and evil. Though I definitely understand why people struggle with the question, I’m ultimately inclined to see the former as the more rational view.

    • Pascal's Bookie

      Hi Debilis, thanks for taking the time to reply.

      I never expect you or anyone to defend their beliefs simply on my challenge, it is certainly neither nice nor productive, it was merely comment. None the less, i thank you for replying.

      I have heard the objection in your first paragraph before. Compared to what God has prevented, the things evil we have is nothing. It is an interesting point but i think it’s rather hard to prove either way. I do not think i could conclusively disprove it nor do i think you could conclusively prove it. Therefore, we will leave it with a question mark.

      This is not my objection but my professor, i won’t take credit. An all-good being eliminates evil as much as it can. Therefore, it makes sense God would only allow such evil that is necessary for some purpose, a defensible purpose. Is it true for every single case of evil in the world that it brought about some state of affairs that God *could not* have otherwise brought about unless it happened through evil?

      For example, say a rape brings about something good in the end. Is it really so, in the case of rape, that it brought good that was impossible for God to bring about without the rape occurring? As you can see, this plays into omnipotence.

      As i mention in the paragraph two above this one, the evil must have a purpose otherwise it would be gratuitous, a point on which we seem to agree. What exactly would this purpose be though? I often argue on both sides of the aisle, I’m not really one of those antagonistic new atheists.

      I have tried to defend the same thing you are doing before. I often raise the objection that some evils are needed to prevent an even worse evil. Pretend a baby runs out on the streets and gets trampled by a horse or murdered. It seems bad. Pretend that baby would grow up to be Hitler. To prevent the evil of baby Hitler’s murder would allow an even worse evil to take place.

      I think it is a reasonable objection but it certainly does not seem to hold for every case of evil. We need another purpose for the rest of the evil, one that i struggle to find.

      As for your second last paragraph, the problem of evil is not so much to show why we should believe in no God, it just highlights the logical inconsistency between an all good God and evil. There could very well be a God but for some reason he is unwilling or unable to act on the evil. On my own blog, I am working on a post defending God against the problem of evil on the second basis (i try to show both sides).

      I don’t really see how it leads to denying evil exists. I certainly don’t deny evil exists. If non-believers did, it wouldn’t be a problem for them and yet, a recent survey showed its the strongest argument against a God. I do not think all these people are lying or mistaken.

      All the best, Pascal.

  • Argus

    I’ve often wondered how the perfect artificer could create an imperfect product. Or, given His fore knowledge—why.

    The answer, unpalatable as it may be to some, is that the Perfect Artificer is a sadist.

    • Debilis

      I think this is a bit of a leap in logic.

      In fact, even atheist philosophers have given up this line of argument (properly called “the logical version of the problem of evil”).

      What it can’t ever seem to deal with is the possibility that free will removes even the logical possibility of a perfect world.

      • Argus

        The Holocaust, evil?

        To some, I suppose, but to others it provided a (albeit unpleasant) fast-track to Paradise. No? Gotta be some good in that … no?

      • Argus

        Oops, my replies not going where intended. Apologies, mea culpa.

        “A leap in logic”? No—more a simple following on from given facts—

        Fact 1 God is perfect

        Fact 2 God is infinitely compassionate

        Fact 3 God allows (creates*) suffering

        —and no amount of educated apologia from Abrahamic priesthoods can alter a whit of it. It may well be old ground but for me it hasn’t been resolved: “The perfect Artificer created an imperfect product”. The only reason my limited mind can come up with, again, is sadism. Amusement. God likes to see suffering.

        Apologists sometimes argue that He is testing us. Testing? What need has an omniscient for a test? Again, sadist.

        “Iron only becomes steel when it’s been through a fire” … the Perfect Artificer lacks the nous to make steel in the first place? Ergo: not omnipotent. Or sadist on a colossal scale.

        Let’s face it: the Abrahamic God is nasty.

        * Wholesale slaughter of innocents if the Old Testament is to be accepted as Gospel; or the holy stoning/flogging of people for attempting to satisfy God-given desires

      • Argus

        “What it can’t ever seem to deal with is the possibility that free will removes even the logical possibility of a perfect world.”

        If the world were created perfect in the first instance, what difference would FW make?

        If the purpose of FW is to enable us to strive for perfection, as so many religions dogmatically insist—what’s the point?

        Did God—with all His capabilities—miss the bus, or did He deliberately make an imperfect system? Again I state that if so He is a sadist delighting in the perfectly avoidable misery He created—

        First Cause = Ultimate Responsibility

        —and all the rest is window-dressing.

        Of course, once it is up and running “free will removes even the logical possibility of a perfect world” — so before He kicked it off God couldn’t see what He was doing to hundreds of millions of innocents? Sadist! (Or blind, and therefore not omniscient.)

    • Debilis

      Okay, last of this run.

      Here we go:

      I can definitely understand why people tend to think this on the subject, but it still strikes me as missing some key points.

      The reason why free will is important is that it is logically impossible to make someone freely love. As love is God’s purpose, then he’s going to need to allow free will.

      Really, it seems incredibly one-sided to look at life and think that the source of it all (if it is conscious) must be sadistic. This is to focus only on the evil in life, while ignoring the good.

      It is completely true that nature can’t be explained in terms of a God that wants nothing more than for us to be happy. But it can be explained in terms of a God who wants us to grow up–who wants us to learn how to love and lose the hate.

      I’m not saying that this is obviously the case. I don’t think there’s much we can tell about how good or bad God is just from looking at nature. I’m merely saying that this isn’t a proof that God is evil.

  • Argus

    Bugger … I’ll get the hang of these silly italics yet …

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