The problem of evil
Over Labor Day weekend in September 2019, a young girl who had been swimming in the Brazos River and Lake Whitney, near Waco, Texas was infected by a single cell amoeba which enters the body through the nose, travels to the brain and destroys brain tissue. Naegleria fowleri, as the illness born of this amoeba is called, normally then kills its victims. Indeed of the 145 reported to have been infected with the disease in the United States between 1964 and 2018, only four have survived. (See the CNN report)
The loved ones of individuals who suffer under this or similar illnesses often are plunged into a crisis of their religious faith. The question for the case at hand is simple: How could an all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise being create a brain eating amoeba that would kill people? Or if such a organism were created, why would it not have an instinct to avoid ten-year-old girls or other quite innocent people? We can all imagine our favorite list of more suitable victims of the cruel and horrendous death that it causes. This is just one example of the classic problem of evil. It poses the general question: How could an omnipotent, omniscient, beneficent Deity allow bad things to happen to good people? If He does not prevent the preventable evil, then He must be lacking in power, wisdom, or goodness.
Religious apologists — that is, those who defend religions — will typically go to great lengths to deny that the situations like the one described are truly evils. They will often maintain that what appears evil is only evil from our limited perspective. From some objective, religious perspective we should be able to see the good of the event. In Eastern traditions, people will often maintain that karma is at work. The child in our case, or whoever the victim of a similarly heinous incident is, it will be maintained, must have done some bad actions in a previous life. When pressed for the evidence of karma, of course, little support will be provided. People mostly believe in it because it is part of a package of ideas of the religion that is deemed worthy of support because of some religious experience or religious “intuition.” Proponents of this view rarely see the cruelty of such a response to those who are suffering — a response which denies common sense and reason-based arguments on the basis of rather fuzzy and questionable inner experience.
Theistic responses — whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — typically will admit that such things happen to people who are not personally culpable, but they will often deny that the events are evil. As Thomas Aquinas sees it, it is not evil for God, who gives life, to also take it as He wills. Life is a gift and it is God’s discretion upon whom to bestow it or from whom to take it. While it would be evil for humans to kill the innocent, it is not evil for God to take the gift that He has freely given. In religions, Eastern and Western, there is typically an attempt in any case to learn from the experience. Such experiences are often seen as offering those who still live the opportunity to see that we have to look beyond the material world for satisfaction and that the goods of the soul are the only true goods.
God, in these accounts, does seem to be something like a grand utilitarian wizard, who punishes some for the benefit of others. Perhaps more consistent theists would say that the death shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment or as an evil at all, especially because those suffering will have their reward in the next life. Yet when faced with the prospect of such circumstances most theists do continue to thank God if they have personally been spared these ills. They thank God for their blessings not when their lives are fading before their eyes or their loved ones have passed but precisely when these things have not happened.
The free-will and original sin response
A further response of theists is typically that evil is present in the world because of the free will of individuals. God, who has created the world out of love, is thought to have required free will in order for this love to be reciprocated. If individuals were deprived of free will, so the argument goes, then they would not reciprocate God’s love or love one another. They would merely behave as predetermined. Love requires choice. And in a universe with choice, some individuals will chose not to love. This argument, admittedly, has less salience in a case like that of the amoeba attack. It makes more sense of the fact that one human can hurt or injure another — say, in incidents like increasingly common mass shootings in the U.S. about which we then often hear of the need for thoughts and prayers. If individuals were not allowed to hurt one another, it would show they lack freedom needed for love. But theists still typically thank God for protection from such ills. One must wonder why God protected some but not others. More to our argument, however, how does this free-will argument apply to a natural ill like Naegleria fowleri?
The need for a rationalization in order to secure consistency in the general theistic worldview results in the typical theist move — which is to impute such natural ills to original sin. It is Adam and Eve’s misuse of their free will that is to blame. Had Adam and Even (or early humans who they metaphorically represent) not committed the original sin, we would not be in a position where we have earthquakes, natural disasters, cancer, or brain eating amoebas. But because of original sin, these ills were unleashed.
When pressed for evidence about why we should accept original sin, little is typically forthcoming. Why should we believe there is such a thing? This is merely viewed as a foundational element of faith. And one accepts the faith, again, perhaps because of a religious experience that convinced one there is a God.
One interesting point is that the religious experiences which are often used to justify faith are seldom about any of the particular doctrines of the faith. What kind of inner experience would one need to feel like there was something like evidence for original sin and the related view that an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would unleash such ills upon the earth in response to the defiance of our ancestors?
A criticism of the original sin defense
Thomas Paine was one of many to offer early criticism of the view of original sin. The argument here, like Paine’s, questions it from the point of view of justice.
We might start with a quick reflection of what just punishment consists in. If a person commits a wrong, is it just to punish only him? Or is it just to also punish his family, his loved ones, later generations, the earth itself? Few of us would find that it is just to punish anyone but the person who has done the wrong-doing. Yet the idea of original sin presents us with the view that an omnipotent, omniscient, all-beneficent God would punish not only the person who perpetrated the wrong-doing but all people throughout history, even the earth itself.
It would be hard to imagine what kind of act would justify such a punishment. The literalist interpretation of the bible suggests that the original sin was defying God by eating fruit from a tree, an act God forbade. It should be clear enough that it does not align with any common human sentiment of justice that the rightful punishment for having defied that command would be to curse all of humanity. Can you imagine anyone who would think that if someone took an apple or other piece of fruit from their own tree that they would punish not only the culprit, but his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren — indeed all future generations? Indeed, the punishment imagined by apologists for the faith is extraordinarily extreme: This original sin is thought to have unleashed cancer, pestilences of all sorts, and of course things like the brain eating amoeba. No justice system we can think of would sanction this. I don’t think I know anyone cruel enough to think that is justified punishment. And it hardly aligns with a behavior that we would imagine fitting for an omnipotent, omniscient, all-beneficent God. Assuming that the literalist interpretation is not accurate still doesn’t really solve the problem either. It is impossible to imagine any other transgression that would warrant such a reaction.
The problem of evil presents an extremely serious challenge to the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-beneficent being. The standard responses to it are faith-based and dependent on the acceptance of fundamental tenets of particular religions. The acceptance of those tenets are not generally defended in reference to intuitions of the truth of those particular tenets, but often based in reference to religious experience of God, which for its part, it is maintained should provide grounds for the acceptance of the basic tenets of faith. However, this latter argument is completely implausible.
For more on the problem of evil, see:
More generally on the question of God’s existence, see John Messerly’s assortment of short quotes by free thinkers at Reason and Meaning