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Godless Theodicy

Michael Egnor

The Problem of Evil is perhaps the most vexing problem in theology. There are many answers to it, which means that there is no single satisfying answer to it. What I’ve never understood about theodicy is this: why do atheists ponder the Problem of Evil?
Jerry Coyne has a recent post on theodicy. He (finally) admits

…I’m no philosopher…this is amateur philosophizing.

Damn right. For a man who recently sneered at Thomas Aquinas, this is progress.

[I] have never seen a good solution to the problem of evil. Either you say that God wants some innocent people to suffer for reasons that make sense only to intellectual theologians (e.g., some of those people simply badly need to suffer; the Holocaust occurred so that Nazis could exercise free will); or you admit that God is sometimes a nasty deity (ok for the ancient Greeks, not so much for Abrahamics); or, if you’re an intellectually honest theist, you admit that you just don’t understand. But if you believe that God is powerful and good, by what virtue do you know those things for sure but don’t understand the rest?

There are, of course, countless attempts to understand how an infinitely good God can allow evil. I believe that it is because he gives us freedom, and freedom entails the possibility of evil. My dilemma is with natural evil. Why did God not stop the Indian Ocean tsunami? Why does he allow innocent kids to die from accidents or disease? There are theories to account for natural evil. I still don’t know.
But there’s an issue with Coyne’s question. This is it: I believe in God, and as such the question, “Why is there evil?” is a natural question for me.
But what warrant has Coyne to ask that question? Coyne is an atheist, and therefore he believes that there is no transcendent purpose in the world. And Coyne is a Darwinist, so he believes that there is no purpose in the origin of man. And Coyne is a materialist, so he believes that the human mind is, in some way, merely the brain — evolved meat.
Does it make sense for an atheist to ask, “why is there evil?”
Atheism of Coyne’s sort entails materialism and Darwinism, which are the denial of such categories as “good” and “evil.” Atheism merely posits “is”; matter stripped of teleology provides no “ought.” Why would Jerry Coyne, a purposeless amalgam of atoms, lie in bed at night contemplating events that occur to other purposeless amalgams of atoms? Whence the “ought”? It will do no good for Coyne to assert that somehow he and his species has transcended (due to his large brain, no doubt) mere matter. One cannot obtain that which does not exist. If there is no “ought” in existence itself, then our sense of “ought” is merely an illusion.
If Darwinism were true — if man were the product of mere purposeless variation and natural selection — then there would be nothing “evil” about catastrophes that afflicted genetically unrelated competitors. A child in Coyne’s daughter’s class dies of cancer? Bingo: more time the teacher can spend with Coyne’s kid. A Tsunami kills hundreds of thousands in the Indian Ocean? Score! They won’t be competing with Coyne’s kid for jobs in the global economy.
So what is “evil,” in the Darwinist understanding of man? “Evil” is if Coyne’s daughter delays childrearing in order to attend college and start her career, and thereby gives birth to two children in her lifetime, instead of three. Because of her obstinate un-Darwinian desire to get an education, Coyne’s genomic posterity is diminished by a third. Wicked. “Good” and “evil” necessarily take on very different meanings if the Darwinian understanding of man is true.
The Problem of Evil, as described by Coyne, is a theist’s problem. Atheists lack standing to ask it. If the Darwinian understanding of man were true, “evil” wouldn’t be a problem, and evil suffered by others who don’t carry our genes wouldn’t be perceived as a problem. The vast majority of “evil” afflicts others, and such “evil” to others would be of benefit those of us who are unafflicted in the struggle for life.
Coyne asserts:

And, of course, the best answer [to the Problem of Evil]: there isn’t a God, much less one who’s omnipotent and beneficent.

But just the opposite is true. The fact that Coyne is a compassionate man who asks, “Why is there evil?” — and I’m sure feels the angst inherent in that question no less than I do — mitigates powerfully against Coyne’s own belief in atheism and materialism and Darwinism. Why bemoan unfairness if there is no Source of fairness? Why care about the bereaved as long as your own genes are replicating — in fact, flourishing because of another’s loss? Why bemoan evil when man himself is the product of evil — a Hobbesian struggle for survival? If atheism and Darwinism and materialism were true, why would we see “evil” as a problem, rather than as an opportunity?
The problem of evil is a problem for theists. If atheism and Darwinism and materialism are true, there is no “problem of evil.” There is no good and there is no evil. “Good and evil” is merely a trick that our evolved-meat-computer-brains play on us. We just survive, or we don’t survive. Except there’s not really a “we.” “We” are merely selfish genes, sometimes replicated, sometimes not. And “selfish” genes aren’t really selfish. They have no motives.
If atheism and Darwinism and materialism are true, there’s no good, there’s no evil, there’s no point to anything. To paraphrase Chesterton in a slightly different context, if you believe in atheism and Darwinism and materialism, that’s fine, but that’s all you can believe, because if you’re right, there’s nothing more.
Yet the Problem of Evil is a real problem; it is perhaps the root problem of man. Only theists have anything meaningful to say about it. Atheists have no standing to even ask why there is evil; they’ve abdicated on the question, “Why is there anything?” and in doing so they abdicate on any questions about good and evil and meaning in life.
But, of course, atheists do ask about evil, just like we all ask, because the Darwinian understanding of man isn’t true. It isn’t even coherent. And everyone, including Coyne, knows, on some level, that atheism and Darwinism and materialism aren’t true. The Problem of Evil is only a problem if there is a standard of good and evil that transcends us.
Atheism is a feeble ideology. Atheists don’t have answers; they don’t even have their own questions.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.