The Problem of Evil

by | November 26, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

I live in the edge of the woods, in a two-house compound with a son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren. Around my porch, I stock feeders with sunflower seed, ears of corn and wild bird seed. The grandkids and I delight in watching a half-dozen squirrels frolic up and down trees, munching food, spilling seeds that attract fluttering birds.

One day, something hideous happened. A large brown hawk swooped down, seized a shrieking squirrel, killed it with terrible talons, and flew away with the body. I was stunned and sickened. I’m thankful that the children didn’t see it.

I felt rage at the vicious hawk. But I simmered down, realizing that hawks must live by eating smaller animals. They can’t eat berries. They have no choice but to be killers.

This set me to brooding: Why is nature so cruel – with sharks ripping seals apart, spiders paralyzing insects, cheetahs slaughtering baby antelopes, cobras killing Indian children, foxes killing rabbits, gulls swallowing baby turtles, anacondas strangling piglets, etc.?

If all of nature was designed by a loving, compassionate, merciful Father, something is out of whack. Surely such a Creator wouldn’t make ruthless predators like the hawk that killed my half-tame squirrel.

And the problem involves many other horrors besides killer animals. Why would a beneficent Creator design breast cancer to kill women, leukemia to kill children, parasites to ravage Africans, etc.? Why would a loving Creator craft tornados to kill defenseless mobile home residents, earthquakes to kill thousands in India, hurricane floods to drown multitudes of Hondurans, volcanos to exterminate islanders, and famines to starve skeletal Sudanese children?

If there’s “intelligent design,” as Creation advocates contend, what does all this say about the designer? No human would design such horrible tortures. With all our faults, people are kinder than that.

In philosophy, this dilemma is called “the problem of evil.” It has been debated ever since Ancient Greece — and nobody has found a credible answer.  Epicurus asked how a kindly Deity could do nothing about rampant suffering.  Voltaire cited a ghastly Lisbon earthquake as an example of sheer cruelty.  Thinkers have pondered variations of this puzzle through the centuries.

Mark Twain discussed one aspect in Letters from the Earth:

“The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider, and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill. They are all murderers.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed another aspect in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book ponders the baffling puzzle: Why did God let the rabbi’s son die of a horrible disease, despite all prayers?

Most intelligent clergymen discreetly stay silent on this maddening question.  But a few shallow thinkers offer answers.  Charles Colson, the Watergate crook who underwent a fundamentalist conversion, wrote a 1999 book titled The Problem of Evil. In it, he contends that the all-loving God created a pure paradise in Eden, where people never got sick, animals didn’t eat each other (lions ate grass, presumably), and natural tragedies didn’t occur.  But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they brought evil into the world:  Lions began eating antelopes, people got cancer, earthquakes and tornados ravaged the planet, etc.

I’m amazed that a former White House lawyer has such a childish concept of reality.  He missed an obvious point:  If disease, death, disasters and devastation came to the world as punishment for fruit-biting, it’s inescapable that the merciful God either sent or allowed the horrors.  Thus they’re attributable to him.

For thinking people, there’s only one possible answer to the age-old problem of evil: The all-loving Father proclaimed by many faiths cannot exist.  Simple logic makes this conclusion unavoidable.  Logic doesn’t preclude a sadistic Creator – but it rules out a compassionate one.  I wonder why this obvious bit of reason never penetrates the world of theology?

This essay appeared in Freethought Today, June-July 2003.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: James Haught.

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