Argument From Evil:
Your Premise Is Flawed
Marianne Trouve

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"The Argument from Evil states that if God existed, we could assume he would be both willing and able to reduce the evil in our world. (Evil, in the strongest form of the argument, means suffering and premature death.) However, premature deaths and suffering prevail on this planet; therefore, no such god exists."

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Marianne Trouve"
Subject: Re: argument from evil
Date: December 15, 2001 8:02 AM
 

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"The Argument from Evil states that if God existed, we could assume he would be both willing and able to reduce the evil in our world. (Evil, in the strongest form of the argument, means suffering and premature death.) However, premature deaths and suffering prevail on this planet; therefore, no such god exists."

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You certainly quoted me accurately, which is more than I can say for a significant number of those who write to this magazine in an attempt to demonstrate to our readers that we have misled them. However the portion of the letter that was written by you shows clearly that you did not read even the section from which this passage was pulled, much less any of the preliminaries, such as the FAQ pieces that tell the reader about the nature, scope, and goals of this project.

Most important to the discussion at hand is the fact that this magazine is published for a target audience consisting of those who already lack a god belief. Thus, we do not pretend to be trying to change anybody's mind regarding the God-question.

At most, we provide information about the various arguments, such as which arguments have been popular, which arguments have what flaws, and even which arguments are and are not properly used in what situations. It is not our goal to change anybody's mind. In fact, we have suggested many times that to try to change another human's most deeply held convictions is, at least in my opinion, tacky.

So, back to responding to your objection (which is, again, not what we do here): You quoted me accurately. In fact, this is a direct quote from my response to a letter that is old enough to be undated: "Questions From A Protestant," with Jeffery Frieden (no date; posted: April, 1999, published: May, 1999).

However, in quoting from this piece and then commenting on the quoted passage, you omit some material that is crucial to understanding the excerpt. Thus, you erroneously identify this passage as something that I "stated." You could have saved us both a lot of time and trouble by identifying this passage as something that I reported. In other words, this passage is nothing more than my description of what somebody else said. For me provide a direct quotation (rather, a collection of quotations, this being a summary of a popular argument) would have been too awkward, and would have distracted from the piece. So I used a very common literary technique which I have been using since about the fourth or fifth grade: I summarized the argument, stating clearly (several different ways) that this is what some people think, and never stating that this is what I think.

But you go so far as to call this my argument when, later in your letter, you tell me that, "one of your premises is flawed." No. None of my premises are flawed, because I make no argument. I have offered no premises throughout the entire section: I merely described for the man an argument that some atheists use to counter the claims that some theists make.

I don't think this is due to any shortcoming on my part.

First, I prefaced the portion you excerpted by saying:

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Your question implies that one can be certain of God's nonexistence.

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I had hoped that by pointing out that his question implies something I thus would convey my nonacceptance of the presuppositions implied in his question. Just to make sure, I continued my preface of the portion you quoted:

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Without discussing the nature of certainty, I will describe two arguments for the nonexistence of God that have made a powerful impact on me.

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Oh, okay! I am describing two arguments without calling them my position! All this after having spent the first three-quarters of the section setting the stage and explaining that I specifically would not answer the question he had asked. After summarizing the arguments for hum, I wind up the section with one further hedge, just so nobody will make the embarrassing mistake of thinking that these are my arguments rather than simply something that I have simply described: I go so far as to provide one of the clearest expressions of my viewpoint (and the editorial position of this magazine) that I have ever penned:

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To summarize my position I simply say that I lack a god belief. I have heard many claims that admittedly defy comprehension; I am a noncognitivist regarding those claims. Whenever I have encountered clear, conceivable claims, I have examined them and have, thus far, found none that hold water. I am an atheist when it comes to these claims.

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So, now that I have first apologized in advance that I would not answer the man's question, and later identified the two paragraphs in question as "two arguments ... that . made a powerful impact on me," and followed them with a clear description of my actual position, this somehow translates to become my opinion? I don't think so.

Thus, I will spell it out clearly, at the risk of sounding pedantic:

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I do not have a god belief.

I do not pretend to argue against the existence of gods.

What I do is live my life. During the course of my so doing, people frequently grab my attention and attempt to convince me that gods and the supernatural exist.

Not one of these people has been able to make even the beginning of a case with me: I remain unconvinced by their arguments, and cannot (and will not) assent to their claims.

I remain as I was before the propagandist entered my field of vision: I remain an atheist.

It's as if I never heard a god-claim at all, because in fact, as far as I can tell, I have yet to hear a god-claim worthy of "sharing" with another person. At least, I would never have taken up somebody else's precious time by trying out on them any of the god-claims I have heard.

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As an atheist I do not assert that no gods exist, I simply lack a god belief. Some atheists have reasons for not granting assent to one or more of the god claims floating around. Many of us (most of us, actually) don't even pay attention to the discussion. I did pay attention during those times when I thought someone might eventually present a valid argument to me. I no longer hold out such a hope.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that I have written off the possibility that someone will eventually present that one case that sways me. In fact, I have studied this question so thoroughly that I doubt that I will hear any god claims in the future that I have not already considered. I'm sure they're out there, but I doubt that I will encounter them, they are that obscure. And being obscure, they cannot be anything worth jumping up and down about! If I haven't encountered it, it's probably not a very strong argument.
 

Your very next move is to begin attacking an argument that I did not make in your quoted excerpt or, for that matter, in this entire piece. But this is beside the point.

But not only that, you respond to an argument that is completely different from the one I presented!

The argument I summarized spoke about premature death, and you respond by talking about death, period. You completely ignore the whole point of that premise of the argument, that there is too much premature death.

Yes, my grandmother had to die. It was her turn.

But why, 40 years earlier, did she have to bury her toddler grandson?

Why did this happen?

So that some wicked person who never should have been born could enjoy the absolute "right" to "free will"?

So that God could prove Himself to be a just god by not stopping someone (who deserved the fate of a tobacco seed in a cigar butt tossed overboard from a luxury liner, destined to spend its existence at the bottom of the sea) from being following his "free will" to brutally murder my brother in cold blood?

No. None of this happened. My brother died as painful a death as toddlers ever experience -- and nobody got to test their "right" to exercise their "free will." I never got to grow up with my brother, but instead still suffer nightmares just thinking about what happened to my brother -- and God did not prove Himself to be a just god by keeping his hands off some predator and allowing that predator to enjoy his "free will" by destroying my brother -- with no "coercion" from God to try to stop him (although any human who could "coerce" such a predator to stop but did not would be prosecuted as a criminal and condemned by every pulpit in the land).

That's not what happened at all.

What happened is that my brother died from one of the most painful and certainly one of the most brutal of childhood diseases.

My brother's only chance -- ever -- to exist at all (or to throw a football or to date the prettiest girl on campus or to raise his own family) never even got to be -- and your god did not get to use it to convince me that He exists. My brother died and your god didn't even drop any hints! In fact, my brother died and the only ones in the extended family that did believe at the time are either so Liberal that they might as well not believe, or they are, like myself and everybody in my immediate family for, now, five generations, atheists. My brother died and, if anything, several dozen people either stopped believing or they don't stand a ghost of a chance of coming to believe -- at least in the god you describe, who both loves me and knows about the hairs on my head.

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What's most embarrassing about your letter is that throughout this work collectively known as Positive Atheism, I have gone to great lengths to call death a good thing. I have even gone so far as to state that without death, we would never have had life.

Since I accept natural selection as the most likely explanation for the origins and development of life as we know it, the only way we could have ever developed to the point where we can ponder our existence is for countless of us to have died, and to have died prematurely, and to have suffered immensely. This is the only way I can see for natural selection to work. So to this extent, I glory in death, because without death I would have no life.

However, this by no means gives me reason to look forward to my own death. I don't want to die, and thus do what I can to remain alive as long as I can. Also, I try to treat others as if this is their only chance to live -- ever -- and I try to treat others as if this is the last day they get to live -- ever. This is not always easy, because I am a strong proponent of justice, as well, and sometimes what is appropriate is not how I want to treat someone.

Nevertheless, I will say that suffering and premature death is what one would expect to find during an examination of a biological system that came about through natural selection. I will admit that suffering and premature death at the intense levels that we find them here are not at all what I would expect to find during an examination of a biological system that was created by deity Who is all-powerful and who also loves the sentient being that He has created.

If I were to examine this world, and then if you asked me if I thought this world had been created by an all-powerful being who loved those beings that I examined, I would laugh straight in your face! So preposterous to me is the idea that a loving deity who had all power would come up with this that I would have trouble accepting that someone who loved life and everything in it, who also enjoyed pondering possibilities (a compassionate thinker) would even think this way. I cannot imagine even believing this scenario, much less it being a description of what we observe on Earth.

But, I don't need to go this far when being told that the Christian system of religion is something worthy of my assent. This system falls flat (for me) long before we even get to this question. I can see why many would reject the Christian claims because of this argument, but I find them wholly inadequate on much simpler grounds.
 

It is good to see someone argue who appears not to hold the Bible in high regard. In it, in numerous places, both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Christian New Testament, the deity described therein does such things as "harden" the "hearts" of certain individuals. Also, the notion that the Bible deity revealing Himself to "the elect" in an irresistible way is so prevalent in the Bible that an entire system of Christian theology, Calvinism, developed from it. In fact, when I studied this question, I found that the incidence of Bible passages which appear to support this notion of "predestination" outnumber those passages which seem to refute it about four-to-one.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to defend the notion of God revealing Himself to the Elect in this manner (or hardening the hearts of, for example, the Pharaoh in the Exodus story) without being forced to defend the accompanying notion that God has therefore predestined "the Elect" unto salvation (being all-knowing, and such). This also means that if God has predestined some people "to be conformed to the image of His Son," He therefore has predestined others unto damnation -- simply by having passively chosen not to reveal Himself to them.

I don't pretend to believe this prattle, I simply report what I have read in the Bible and what I have heard various Christians tell me during the course of their trying to change my most deeply held convictions (some, before they have even learned my name).

The only reason I bring this up is that I think it is refreshing to see someone who does not believe the Bible, or, at least, does not take the Bible at face value.

Where you come up with the idea that "God loves you with an infinite love ... and God cares about what happens to you," and yet would keep me in the dark about this after living (now) 45 years, many of them in almost full-time study of the various god-claims, in what He would immediately recognize as a sincere effort to discover the truth regarding these matters.

If God exists and if God loves me and if he knows how many hairs are on my head (oops! I just plucked one out, better change that figure!), then He is certainly aware that my search for the truth regarding His existence is as sincere as anybody's search has ever been. If He exists and He knows those other things, then He most certainly knows this much about me. One need not be omnipotent, one need only have watched me grow up and live as an adult to see this. I even wear it on my face.

However, I have lived for 45 years without the glory and joy of knowing Him.

He knows how many hairs and certainly knows the sincerity of my search, but nevertheless remains hidden. This speaks very strongly against the likelihood that He even exists.

I would consider it a slap in the face that so many obviously insincere people have had God show Himself to them, but I am kept in the dark.

One piece has been left out of your claim, and thus I am not rejecting your claim. At this point, I can only go so far as to call it inadequate. That element which prevents me from rejecting your claim is that you have not claimed that God is both willing and able to make both his existence and identity known to humans on a wide scale. Had you said this, I would state that your claim is very likely to be false. However, you did not say this, so I merely call your claim inadequate. You have not given me enough to properly assess it.

Hope you enjoyed my end of this little sparring match.

Please remember, though, to be very careful when speaking with someone who practices the modernized, Westernized version of the philosophy of Positive Atheism that you make the utmost attempt to be truthful in all affairs.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Added: December 20, 2001

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