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December 29, 2005

The Problem of Evil

As I stroll through the history of atheism in this book, I hope to peek in on all the major arguments against belief in gods. One of them -- the problem of evil -- recently received an energetic workout on the Web courtesy of Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith.

It's an old argument. Cicero makes much of the existence of evil in his seminal dialogue, The Nature of the Gods -- asking how, "if God has made all things for the benefit of mankind," it is possible to explain "mice or cockroaches or snakes." Cicero then provides a dozen examples of virtuous men whom the fates treated unkindly.

Harris, writing two thousand years later, turns for one of his examples of inexplicable evil to "those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters" of Hurricane Katrina "for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there."

Both Cicero and Harris apply a little logical analysis to the situation: "Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot," is how the Roman puts it, "or he can do so and is unwilling." Harris suggests that "God, therefore, is either impotent or evil." Cicero quotes a poet: "If gods did care, the good would prosper, and the bad/Would suffer; that's not the way of things."

Theistic responses to this argument usually boil down to "it's humans not gods who have mucked things up" or "gods work in mysterious ways."

Cicero seems to back down at the end of his powerful dialogue -- saying he endorses the religious position. Harris does not. "Only the atheist," he writes, "has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people [who prayed to God in New Orleans then died] spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend."

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 29, 2005 12:13 AM


While I love to share in the atheistic banter which I rarely knew before discovering blogs (The Raving Atheist and UTI in were my firsts!), I don't generally consider myself an evangelicist of atheism. It simply describes my lack of belief is irreverantly enjoyable to discuss.

But that last line from Harris still gives me shivers. (good ones!)

Posted by: MBains at December 31, 2005 2:05 PM

Justify the notion of evil objectively from an atheistic framework, then you can call it a problem.

Posted by: scott at January 6, 2006 12:39 PM

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