George H. Smith's Defense of the Problem of Evil

4 April 2006

George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case against God is considered by many to be a devastating critique of theism in general and Christian theism in particular. I hope to have adequately answered his objections in my detailed critique of his book, but for this brief article I will only concern myself with his arguments pertaining to the Problem of Evil.

To be fair to Smith, I must mention that he admits to be giving a short defense of the Problem of Evil. He states that, “The problem of evil is frequently considered to be the major objection to the Christian concept of God…But the relative importance attached to this problem is exaggerated. While this is a serious difficulty and one which Christians have failed to solve, it is by no means the most important or basic objection to Christian theism…For this reason, we shall not discuss it in as much detail as is customary in a book of this kind.” [80] Smith’s remarkable conclusion here is based on his overestimation of the supposed problems of coherency, which I have dealt with here. In any case, I must disagree with Smith on this account, as I find most other atheistic arguments to be quite weak, whereas the Problem of Evil admittedly carries a bit of force. For those unacquainted, I have addressed the Problem of Evil here. My personal approach advocates a well-developed theodicy with numerous reasons for the existence of evil. I will therefore only respond to critiques of reasons for evil which I find persuasive.

The Free Will Defense

Smith objects that, even if we have free will, then we cannot possibly be conceived of as ‘frustrating’ an omnipotent God, since it is impossible to thwart the desires of such a being. But surely this is a simplistic analysis. First of all, it seems that an omnipotent God could want both that free beings are created and that these beings choose the good. However, it is strictly impossible (unless one wishes to pursue Mackie’s thesis, which I respond to here) for God to create free beings that are guaranteed to choose the good. Thus, it is possible for free agents (such as us humans) to act contrary to God’s will. 1 After all, He is the one who gave us the ability!

Second of all, a universe in which free creatures sometimes disobey the will of God can still be the universe God most desires to create, since He may value the free will of creatures more than He disvalues the occasional, or even frequent, disobedience of these creatures.

Smith next complains that foreknowledge precludes the possibility of free will anyways, for my response to this, see the link above to a refutation of Smith’s first chapter.

“In any case, God created man with full knowledge of the widespread suffering that would ensue, and, given his ability to prevent this situation, we must presume that God desired and willed these immoral atrocities to occur.” [83] Again, this analysis is simplistic. Actually, this isn’t really an objection, in fact it is really just a definition of the free will defense. After all, the Free Will Defense claims that God desires (and perhaps also that we should desire) a world with free will and evil over a world with no free will and no evil. By saying that God ‘wills’ the atrocities to occur, Smith is trying to use polemical language to bring doubt about God’s goodness. However, the supporter of the FWD only need to claim that God values this world, including the immoral atrocities, more than or as much as He would value a world with no free will and no atrocities. Additionally, remember that a theodicy need not depend on only one type of defense- therefore the FWD need not completely explain all forms of evil, or even all forms of moral evil.

However, Smith still thinks that the FWD is unfair; “It is unfair to place the responsibility for immoral actions on man’s free will in general. Individual men commit atrocities…Some men commit blatant injustices, but others do not.” [83] Smith goes on to claim that an all-good God would not permit innocent victims of suffering.

This response is multiply flawed:

1. The existence of innocent victims of suffering is just what the free will defense does answer. Since God has given us freedom, we may choose to help or harm our fellow. Inevitably, some people will choose to harm their fellow. Some of those harmed may indeed be “innocent,” but that is simply the consequence of free will.

2. Smith may be saying that God could interfere with the actions of men when they will inflict harm upon innocent persons. However, as I have maintained from the beginning, the type of free will that is valuable both to human agents and to God is significant free will. God could give us the ‘free will’ to choose what we are going to eat for breakfast, but of course this type of free will is mostly useless and certainly no justification for evil. However, humans all value their ability to significantly affect themselves, their environment, and the future. Thus, significant free will implies necessarily that the consequences of such choices cannot be made to disappear. To the extent to which the consequences are eliminated by God, then to that extent we don’t have significant free will.

3. In my opinion, the distinction between ‘innocent’ men and ‘guilty’ men is blurry. After all, some persons have relatively easy lifestyles in which temptation to perform atrocious acts is minimal. However, are these people really better than the people who harm them? I think that the testimony of history has shown conclusively that people will perform atrocious evils when subjected to temptation with horrible regularity.

Next, Smith claims that the Free Will Defense does not cover instances of natural evil. This observation has little effect on my theodicy, as I specify several reasons why natural evil may result in a greater good. For some reason, Smith thinks that these approaches, “share the premise that man cannot understand the ways of God, but this simply pushes us into agnosticism.” [85] However, at least in my own case, I try to show precisely why it is the case that God may allow certain evils, and generally I back up my claims with examples of theoretical or actual scenarios. However, it would be an unfair burden to suppose that the Christian theist must explain every instance of evil- it is the nature of the case that it is generally impossible for us to precisely know the effects of any particular instance of evil. However, if the Christian theist can show numerous plausible reasons for the existence of evil, then she is justified in claiming that the Problem of Evil is solved or, at least, less than compelling.

John Hick and the Soul-Making Theodicy

Smith argues against John Hick’s famous theodicy; I develop a similar response in section C of my article on the Problem of Evil. Smith, however, complains that “There is virtually nothing which the Christian will accept as evidence of God’s evil.” [86] However, this frustration is merely a result of the fact, as I have said before, that critics and supporters of the Problem of Evil must, at the end of the day, rely on intelligent speculation. There is simply no way for us to know whether or not an evil is justified in the greater spectrum of things. Therefore, those who are analyzing the Problem of Evil must simply judge whether or not the theistic responses to evil are reasonable or not. Smith complains that the theistic responses are desperate and unreasonable. I don’t think they are. If Smith is going to establish the Problem of Evil as a refutation of Christian theism, he should at least attempt to show that the theistic responses are unreasonable for some reason or another. Saying doesn’t make it so.

Conclusion

Smith only objects to the Free Will Defense and the Soul-Making Defense. However, his response to the Free Will Defense is weak and fails to take into account the nature of significant free will. His response to the Soul-Making Defense is even worse, as he doesn’t offer any objections, he simply claims that it is unfalsifiable. As I pointed out, however, that is a problem with all arguments for or against the evidential Problem of Evil. Thus, Smith’s brief defense of the Problem of Evil is less than impressive.

NOTES:

1. Suppose that God, for some reason, desired to create a square circle. It is impossible for Him to do so, even though this does not affect His omnipotence. Thus, if God desired a square circle, He would have a desire ‘frustrated.’ Similarly, although more plausibly, God may desire free creatures who choose the good, but not logically be able to create free beings such that they will always choose the good.




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