The Problem of Evil

By James A. Haught | June-July 2003
Freethought Today

I live in the edge of the woods, in a two-house compound with a son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren. Around my porch, I stock feeders with sunflower seed, ears of corn and wild bird seed. The grandkids and I delight in watching a half-dozen squirrels frolic up and down trees, munching food, spilling seeds that attract fluttering birds.

The other day, something hideous happened. A large brown hawk swooped down, seized a shrieking squirrel, killed it with terrible talons, and flew away with the body. I was stunned and sickened. I’m thankful that the children didn’t see it.

I felt rage at the vicious hawk. But I simmered down, realizing that hawks must live by eating smaller animals. They can’t eat berries. They have no choice but to be killers.

This set me to brooding: Why is nature so cruel – with sharks ripping seals apart, spiders paralyzing insects, cheetahs slaughtering baby antelopes, cobras killing Indian children, foxes killing rabbits, gulls swallowing baby turtles, anacondas strangling piglets, etc.?

If all of nature was designed by a loving, compassionate, merciful Father, something is out of whack. Surely such a Creator wouldn’t make ruthless predators like the hawk that killed my half-tame squirrel.

And the problem involves many other horrors besides killer animals. Why would a beneficent Creator design breast cancer to kill women, leukemia to kill children, parasites to ravage Africans, etc.? Why would a loving Creator craft tornados to kill defenseless mobile home residents, earthquakes to kill thousands in India, hurricane floods to drown multitudes of Hondurans, volcanos to exterminate islanders, and famines to starve skeletal Sudanese children?

If there’s “intelligent design,” as Creation advocates contend, what does all this say about the designer? No human would design such horrible tortures. With all our faults, people are kinder than that.

In philosophy, this dilemma is called “the problem of evil.” It has been debated ever since Ancient Greece – and nobody has found a credible answer. Epicurus asked how a kindly Deity could do nothing about rampant suffering. Voltaire cited a ghastly Lisbon earthquake as an example of sheer cruelty. Thinkers have pondered variations of this puzzle through the centuries.

Mark Twain discussed one aspect in “Letters from the Earth”:

The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider, and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the – well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill. They are all murderers.

Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed another aspect in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book ponders the baffling puzzle: Why did God let the rabbi’s son die of a horrible disease, despite all prayers?

Most intelligent clergymen discreetly stay silent on this maddening question. But a few shallow thinkers offer answers. Charles Colson, the Watergate crook who underwent a fundamentalist conversion, wrote a 1999 book titled “The Problem of Evil.” In it, he contends that the all-loving God created a pure paradise in Eden, where people never got sick, animals didn’t eat each other (lions ate grass, presumably), and natural tragedies didn’t occur. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they brought evil into the world: Lions began eating antelopes, people got cancer, earthquakes and tornados ravaged the planet, etc.

I’m amazed that a former White House lawyer has such a childish concept of reality. He missed an obvious point: If disease, death, disasters and devastation came to the world as punishment for fruit-biting, it’s inescapable that the merciful God either sent or allowed the horrors. Thus they’re attributable to him.

For thinking people, there’s only one possible answer to the age-old problem of evil: The all-loving Father proclaimed by many faiths cannot exist. Simple logic makes this conclusion unavoidable. Logic doesn’t preclude a sadistic Creator – but it rules out a compassionate one. I wonder why this obvious bit of reason never penetrates the world of theology?

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789
$6.56

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Christians say that Christ suffered horribly as a Man, so that means that God plays by his own rules. Of course if Christ was God and suffered as a man, maybe he was just getting what he deserved for creating and sustaining a malign order of existence anyway…. He is Omniscient, Omniprescient, and Omnipotent, surely he had the knowledge and power about how bad the world would be if it were made, yet he went ahead and made it anyway….. God can be blamed because he could have created nothing, rather than this, and it would have been better for most living things on the earth, especially humanity,
    where suffering and wretchedness is the rule.

    The same argument could be logged against Wiccans as well, for seeing Life itself as benign, which it surely is not. Yosemite National Park in the USA is beautiful, but just twist your ankle in the back-country without a hypothermia blanket and watch the sun set when it goes from 80 degrees to 29 degrees overnight, and by dawn you are a nice dead block of ice.

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