Christians aren’t the only ones with a “problem of evil.” Atheists have one of their own, and it’s a tough one: They don’t have good grounds for calling an act evil. Or even wrong. They don’t have grounds for calling anything right or good, either.
That’s a strong claim, I know, and the first thing we have to do is to make sure it’s clear what I’m not claiming:
- I’m not saying atheists don’t know right from wrong. All humans do, to greater or lesser degrees; even the Bible affirms that, in Romans 2.
- I’m not saying they don’t ever call something good or bad, right or wrong; obviously they do.
- And I’m certainly not saying atheists don’t do good things.
We’re all made in God’s image, which includes the knowledge of right and wrong, and the ability to choose between them. The Fall (Genesis 3) has limited our ability to do the right thing consistently, and without Christ we certainly can’t obey even the crucial first few of the Ten Commandments. But we all have the ability to choose nonetheless.
So that’s what I’m not saying. What I am saying is that they don’t have good grounds for calling an act right or wrong. Their view of reality doesn’t have space in it for that.
Materialist Atheism and Reality
Atheists love saying “atheism isn’t a belief, it’s a lack of belief.” That gets them out of a lot of debates, or so they think, since they don’t have to defend any beliefs that way. That’s debatable, but whether it’s true or not, the great majority of atheists you’ll run into (in person or online) are “materialists.” We’ll encounter that word again in Session 4. It’s almost exactly synonymous with another term you’ll hear sometimes, “naturalists.”
The materialist or naturalist believes that all of reality is nature. Nothing exists, in their view, except matter and energy interacting according to natural law. There is no transcendent side to reality, no spiritual side, no human “soul,” no angels, and of course no God. This isn’t the only version of atheism in the world, but it’s by far the most common one in America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand — and probably in other areas besides.
This view of reality poses a problem. Obviously there’s nothing good or evil, right or wrong, about matter, energy, or natural laws. Matter just is; it’s not responsible for any moral choices. Energy has no moral mind to choose with, and nothing about it to declare, “This is good, this isn’t.” The same goes for natural law. It has no mind; it has no choice.
But the atheist believes that’s all there is. The complexity we see, including human life and behavior, is (yes) complex, but it’s still just matter and energy acting perfectly in line with natural law. So where did good and evil come from?
Atheists offer four kinds of answers, typically. None of them work, though.
First, many of them will answer, “It’s adaptive. Evolution gave us the ability to cooperate so our species would survive.” Okay, maybe it helps us produce offspring that produce offspring (that’s all natural selection is), but what makes that good? Is it good for any species to survive? Does that include the coronavirus? (Not exactly a living species, in most biologists’ view, but close enough to illustrate it.) Does it include the harmful forms of e. coli? Simple survival isn’t necessarily either good or evil.
Second, we want to survive as a species, and especially as communities, families, and then individuals. Doesn’t that make it good to cooperate and to do “good”? Not really. It’s a want, a preference, a desire. Wanting something doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it good. It certainly doesn’t overcome the materialist atheist’s problem of explaining how matter, energy, and/or natural law could interact to produce right and wrong.
Third, we have social standards. Society tells us what’s right and wrong where we are. This leads to all kinds of problems, though. “Society” in North Carolina in 1855 said slavery and slave-trading were right. Were they? “Society” — at least the dominant population — in 1955 said racism was right. Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong for disagreeing? There’s nothing solid here, no real basis for right and wrong after all.
Fourth, we have individual choices. “I decide what’s right and wrong for me!” That’s no help, either. The terms “right” and “wrong” imply some kind of obligation. That’s what sets them apart from “like” and “don’t like.” Their purpose in language is to tell us what we should do, whether we want to do it or not. Choosing your own moral standards is just a fancy way of attaching moral language to your personal preferences. It’s still just personal preference, no matter what label you stick on it.
Still the Atheist Knows It’s Real
Still the atheist knows that right and wrong are real. It isn’t just personal preference, either. Remind them of the world 30 years ago, when gays, lesbians, and trans people were looked down upon, and generally discriminated against. Ask them whether that was really wrong then, or if it was just evolution, social custom, or preferences in action. Ask them whether it’s really right now to oppose human trafficking. Or, if that doesn’t work, ask whether it’s really wrong to torture babies for the fun of it.
If they say any of those is really wrong or really right, then they’re saying morality has a reality to it beyond human preference or evolutionary output. And if they’re saying that, then you can point out what that means. Matter, energy, and natural law don’t have the ability to make anything really right or really wrong. It takes something else — something like God, who has a moral character as one aspect of his being.
Atheists know right and wrong exist, and they can do right as well as anybody, other than fulfilling for the first of the Ten Commandments, or the First Great Commandment, obviously. What they can’t do is explain where right and wrong come from, based on a materialist worldview. They have no grounds for calling anything right or wrong.
When they use terms like right and wrong, they’re speaking from the same reality we all share, even though they deny it: the reality that God is a good God with a moral nature, and he created us in his image.
Moving forward into conversation
The reading so far gives you a short introduction into God and the problem of evil. Now, how do you use this information in actual conversations? >>>