Answering an Atheist (2 points I want help with)

In a discussion yesterday with an atheist friend, I mentioned that one cannot logically deny God’s existence merely because there is evil in the world, because one would first have to presume that, with God, man has no free will and it doesn’t follow that, just because God exists, that man will necessarily only do good.

I went further, paraphrasing something I heard from Trent Horn, that the presence of “evil” implies that there is a “way things SHOULD be” ( “good” ), which further implies a PLAN for the way things should be, which implies a planner.

While friend did not respond to that, a friend of his did, and I want some help fleshing this out. I have bolded the parts that seem most important to me, but am including his full response because I am probably missing something:

MC: “Gotta say that the logic of “if there are bad things in the world, God is implied” is completely illogical, and is a HUGE leap of faith. The concept of evil is more easily defined as the things we don’t want done to us, or others. The worse the indiscretion, the more evil we perceive it to be. **Those ideas can and do exist without God. To say that I need God in order to know that killing, stealing, etc, is bad is to give away your common sense to a man in the sky. We know it’s bad because we can see the effects it has on people everyday. **They’re tangible. They effect us. **To accept that there is a “way things are supposed to be” is incredibly naïve. People shouldn’t hurt each other because people know what it feels like to be hurt. **That’s logic. Anything else is just arbitrary reasoning for things you don’t, or can’t understand.”

For the record, I didn’t say that bad things implied God. I said “evil” implies a way things should be, which implies a plan for that, which implies a planner. I asked him if it was such a huge leap of faith to recognize this, and said that I believe it’s simple logic.

He then replied: “You consider your beliefs, of which you have NO proof, more logical than to just believe that conscience, or lack of conscience dictates behavior?”

I’ve considered mentioning that, if there isn’t a “way things are supposed to be”, then we have no basis to complain about evil in the first place…no more than we can complain about the sun rising too late in winter. If there isn’t a way things should be, then evil is just as natural a part of our world as the sunrise.

In other words, in terms of logic, you say “x implies y” and he says “x implies not-y”. (I’m wondering what “not-x” would imply… :wink: )

The concept of evil is more easily defined as the things we don’t want done to us, or others. The worse the indiscretion, the more evil we perceive it to be.

This is his major thesis, and to be quite honest, it stinks. He’s defining evil on a subjective basis; this is where to respond.

It implies that if there’s something that “I don’t want done to me”, it’s evil; but, if you do want that exact same thing done to you, it implies it’s not evil! In other words, his argument is a non-starter from the beginning: if we cannot agree on what is evil, then it cannot be defined as evil! (So, maybe we cannot decide that adultery is evil, since one among us is an adulterer: not evil. Maybe we cannot decide that kidnapping is evil, since one of us suffers from Stockholm Syndrome: so, not evil.)

Then again, maybe he means that it has something to do with society and its collective ‘conscience’? Nope, still not good: Mayans among us would respond “human sacrifice? Not an evil.”

Those ideas can and do exist without God. To say that I need God in order to know that killing, stealing, etc, is bad is to give away your common sense to a man in the sky.

First of all: refute the ‘man in the sky’ reference. He’s using it flippantly, of course, but if his problem with God is that he’s a “man” or that he lives “in the sky” damages his logic beyond hope. If he wants to disprove a God you don’t believe in, then let him have at it – but, if he wants to enter into a logical discussion and confront what people really believe, then it’s time for him to put away his straw men and start being a big boy. :wink:

To his argument, though: he’s moved the goal-posts, and it’s easy to see why. He’s reduced morality to an individually-held feeling, and that’s not at all the argument you’re trying to make. In a warped way, he’s right: if morality (and the question of evil) is purely a personally held construct, then allowing a third-party – regardless of who that third-party is (God, the State, your Mom)! – entails a certain surrender of one’s autonomy.

(If you want to really tick him off, remind him that he already has “given away his common sense”! The government, in its laws, enshrines a given morality – a given secular, civil definition of what’s ‘evil’ – and if he lives according to its dictates, he’s already “given away” what he’s afraid of giving away!)

The reason that his argument fails is that morality (and the definition of evil) aren’t personal constructs. If they were, then there would be no definition of evil – its definition would change from era to era, from community to community, from person to person. That presents a particular problem for him, and I don’t know if he realizes it…

We know it’s bad because we can see the effects it has on people everyday.

And here’s his problem: does he realize that he’s just created a chicken-and-egg problem for himself? His definition of evil requires that we recognize something as evil before it becomes evil. Kill somebody? Rob a bank? Not evil – until a third-party recognizes the effects.

Notice that this means that a person does not do evil who commits an act whose effects are unknown. Know what I mean? In the Cain and Abel story, the fratricide is not evil, since we’d never seen murder before; therefore, he gets off scot-free! Moreover, how could we possibly know an act is an evil act, since it had never occurred previously?

(p.s., by his definition, abortion is definitely evil, since many of us recognize the bad effects it has. :wink: )

Worse yet – if the definition of evil requires me to see the bad effects, then all I need to do is avoid seeing them, and (by his definition) it’s not evil for me! I can rob all the banks and beat up all the people I want – and, as long as I don’t see the negative effects, I cannot conclude it’s evil!

Now… who’s on the wrong side of logic here?

**To accept that there is a “way things are supposed to be” is incredibly naïve. People shouldn’t hurt each other because people know what it feels like to be hurt. **That’s logic.

Again, chicken-and-egg. If “we don’t know what it feels like to be hurt”, then it’s not evil? Therefore, each kind of evil never exists until each of us feels the hurt of each evil act? Nonsense.

To accept an objective morality isn’t naive, it’s logical: any other construct that requires subjectivity is naive, since it “doesn’t or can’t understand” that subjectivity destroys any notion of ‘morality’ (or, as he’s calling it, ‘a definition of evil’).

He then replied: “You consider your beliefs, of which you have NO proof, more logical than to just believe that conscience, or lack of conscience dictates behavior?”

He’s just moved the goalposts again, hasn’t he?

Maybe not – maybe he just doesn’t realize that he’s conflating individual ‘conscience’ with the notion of ‘the definition of evil’. Maybe he really thinks that they’re all the same thing. This is a good vector on which to challenge him, though. If individual conscience is the same as morality and the definition of evil, then yet again, you can demonstrate that there is (by his definition) no such thing as evil, since there is no necessary agreement between the consciences of individuals (and as a result, no agreement on what is evil).

Wow, that was VERY educational! Thanks, Gorgias! Yes, I noticed him move the goalposts, I just didn’t know how to address it. I really like the point about “evil” having no true definition if it’s based on subjectivity. I’ll probably hammer that one pretty hard.

[quote=ahs]He then replied: “You consider your beliefs, of which you have NO proof, more logical than to just believe that conscience, or lack of conscience dictates behavior?”

Conscience (the compelling inner voice of God) is one of John Henry Newman’s favorite PROOFS for the existence of God! All humanity shares in this moral arbiter.

And what he is calling “common sense” is actually the natural law, which by analogy implies a moral law. See Butler’s Analogy of Religion for a very profound reasoning from natural law to moral law to revealed religion. :slight_smile:

Not much more I can add, but just want to say that Catholics don’t see the existence of a creator as somethin gthat is taken on faith alone, but is the rational conclusion.

There’s a tendency nowadays to treat empiricism as if it’s the only way to gain knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, empiricism is absolutely wonderful, but when he says “no proof” he’s referring just empiricism. The proof is all around us, and the scholastics have fleshed out philosophical proofs of God’s existence. It may not be the only philosophy out there, but it starts from a few non-religious questions about how we experience the world and moves from there. Maybe suggest that he read Aquinas by Edward Feser. Modern A-T philosophy has addressed/refuted a lot of the objections brought up in the years following the Summa.

Maybe it’s not the only philosophy (other philosophies may start with different assumptions about how we experience the world), but belief in a creator is rational, and is a truth that can be known, not just believed.

I would not concede the “no proof” assertion. It may be good to pick up the book yourself, too.

There is a further observation that may be added to Gerogias’ fairly well reasoned response. The difficulty of morality (or management of evil) for the atheist actually breaks down more with small things than with large. For the atheist is well seasoned in pointing out the obvious crimes and how they would be repulsive due to their infringement upon empathy, common consideration, etc. Yet where the atheist might have a stronger difficulty is in parsing small acts of seemingly innocuous evil.

The scenario in which a large, multi-national conglomerate might have a sale table set up unobserved in its parking lot might invite the atheist to rationalize if a large, multi-national conglomerate might truly be considered a person or a thing. If not a person, how might the loss of one of its small trinkets truly matter in the scheme of its billion-a-year profits?

Now, perhaps the atheist might resist on principle, but the casual onlooker must certainly be curious as to why. Further, would the atheist’s resistance be considered to be greater or lesser should he/she discover that the large corporation had a discriminatory policy against a given group or environmental feature that he/she would find extremely offensive?

For the Christian, the rationalization does not enter the picture. For the Christian, stealing is a sin. It does not require any complex considerations.

For the atheist is often caught in the difficulty of ascertaining if a given act might cause injury to another party…rather than if a given act might be evil even if it might not harm a single living individual…for the atheist often fails to realize that one of the ones that might be injured should he/she consign him/herself to such an act is potentially him/herself…

Finally, I have often had reason to note that the best remedy against graft is a fear of Hell.

So the difference between a rational morality and one that might be considered more innate is somewhat less than trifling…

That is perfectly true. I do not wish to be crucified to emulate Christ’s passion, but many people (especially in the Philippines) do. They explicitly ask to be crucified. What is “evil” about fulfilling their desires?

To define “evil” is childishly simple: “to volitionally and knowingly cause harm to someone or something (animals), who do NOT want it to be done to them”. Simply respect other people’s wishes and integrity. Now the usual Christian definition of evil is different: “evil is the privation of good”. But that IS nonsense. The tsunami is not “evil” even though it causes a lot of harm. The lack of rain the good for a cactus, but it is “bad” for the flower impatient. Yet the lack of rain is not “evil”.

Not nonsense at all. A cat does not know that the mouse feels pain when it “plays” with the mouse. A child, who has no idea that his acts hurt others - is NOT evil.

A cat is not a moral agent, neither is a child below the age of reason. By your reasoning, a psychopath, who by definition lacks the ability to empathise with the pain of others, is therefore not guilty of evil when they murder someone.

We do not talk about empathy. but knowledge. The psychopath definitely knows that he is doing harm. A mentally retarded person is not considered a moral agent.

I would have to partially disagree…while a psychopath may typically suspect he is doing wrong, he does not always know such a thing to be true…

What objective standard of morality, if any, do people appeal to when they’re deciding which moral standard to follow?

Some might say that they’re appealing to the natural law written on their hearts. I would tend to agree, but wouldn’t such a natural law, by its very nature, be subjective and not objective?

Up front I want to clarify that I am responding as though you agree with my interlocutor who denies that there is “a way things should be”. If you don’t follow that thinking, please let me know.

Then you would agree that natural things are not evil (lack of rain, severe storm), right?
And, in your definition of “evil”, you would agree that your definition is based on how things “should be”: how things “should be” is that we don’t cause harm to someone/something, right?

But if you do not agree that there is a way things “should be”, then on what basis could you complain against evil? Afterall, if things “shouldn’t be” a certain way, that means evil is just another natural occurrence, like a tsunami or lack of rain.

That is perfectly true. I do not wish to be crucified to emulate Christ’s passion, but many people (especially in the Philippines) do. They explicitly ask to be crucified. What is “evil” about fulfilling their desires?

If there is not a way things “should be” (an absence of harm to one another, for example), then what is wrong with crucifying someone unwillingly? If things don’t have a way they “should be”, then harm is no less a part of nature than the sunrise.

Correct. They can be very bad - meaning they cause a lot of unnecessary harm, but there is no ill intent behind them.

Yes, of course. What you call “should be” is simply: “the lack of unnecessary harm”. We are biological creatures with a certain nervous system. We have all sorts of nerve endings in our body, and when they are excited, we feel pain. Other nerve endings send signals to the brain which fine pleasurable. Nothing magical about this.

As such this “should be” is the direct corollary of our biological nature. If we would be intelligent “trees”, for example, then there would be no “pain”. If someone would tear off a branch from our body, we could simply regrow the lost limb. If we would have the same regenerative ability like the lowly planaria, we could survive even if cut in half, both halves would regenerate into a “whole”.

Let’s make it easy: an action and its severity are proportional to the reversibility. If the act can be “undone”, it is much less severe compared to the act, which cannot be undone. If technology would enable us to resurrect a corpse then murder would be less “severe”.

WHERE does conscience come from? Is it just man getting better and better? ARE WE BETTER? No. Then it can’t come from that. It’s called secular utopianism. I’d go so far as to say that man, naturally, has no conscience!! And what exactly forms our conscience anyway? It’s the natural law Ambrose brings up which MUST COME FROM SOMEWHERE, and it’s our conforming our conscience to a higher power that created it in the first place. You don’t just automatically have a conscience when you’re born - you are taught it.

And the “things should be better” as you call it is mans seach for perfection. If we are searching for perfection, then perfection must exist. You can’t think of, or search for, something that doesn’t exist. Man yearns for perfection and seeks it in everything he does. Only God is perfect - this is a hidden search for God.

It’s really almost impossible to make these assertions with atheists. They can’t SEE the proofs, which are all around us. How about how math works?? Of course our beliefs are based on reason. This is the first thing you learn in theology class. One reason is that the proof is all around us, another is that we can trust the apostles in telling us the truth. But he doesn’t beleive in the apostles. And therein lies the problem in speaking to atheists. Everything sounds dumb to them because the things of God are spiritual and cannot be discerned by the material man. (can’t look up the scripture right now).

And if you want to move the goalposts really a lot, let’s go back to the very beginning. I want to know how everything started. And I want proof. There is no proof? Well, isn’t that sweet, but I should still believe a scientist who changes his mind ivery 20 years and can’t go back further than that second before everything began. Interesting. We can go back to the BEGINNING.

Oh. But what created God? Interesting question. Your friend sounds like a smart guy. He must know that everything has a cause. God is the FIRST CAUSE. Nothing created Him, He always existed. It’s a hard pill to swallow for we finite creatures.

And the whole evil question is very interesting to me. He sees evil and believes it. He sees that it has an effect in every day life. If evil exists then good must exist. If it didn’t and only evil existed, think what this world would be like! (hell?) What is good? What is evil? Where do they come from? One cannot exist without the other. I mean, if evil exists then God must also exist. It’s the opposite of how he reasons it.

These are the questions he needs to answer. Is he willing to bet eternity that he is right?

Did you inow that Einstein said that there must be a higher power than man before he died even though he was an atheist all his life.

The Man in the Sky. God. Okay. How do you argue against an entity you don’t even believe exists??? I don’t believe trolls live under bridges. I’m not going to get into an argument about it with you. Somewhere deep inside I believe all would like to believe in God but the material world is holding them back or they can’t fathom that someone is greater than they are, or they’re afraid they’re going to have to give something up or many other reasons.

Tell him we are spirits in a material world. Then when he’s a little receptive ask him who he thinks Jesus was. A crazy man?

These conversations take a long time. Good luck!

God bless

Many people think of and search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Therefore the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow exists. Also many people think of and search for the Loch Ness monster. Therefore the Loch Ness monster exists… and so on. I would suggest to change your starting premise.

Until the age of enlightenment in the 1800’s the standard of morality was God.

The natural law only proves that there is something higher than we are who “put it in our hearts”. Every man knows there is a natural law, even if he doesn’t want to admit it.

Like the psycopath someone mentioned. He has no conscience, he doesn’t care about the natural law, but it still exists.

The natural law cannot be subjective or it wouldn’t be a law. You can’t change a law. Think of laws of physics - they cannot be changed.

One of the problems things are so out of hand today is because man is no longer following objective moral standards but subjective moral standards. Which we call “relativism”. All is relative to what** I **believe. If **I **believe it, it must be so. It all depends on what **I **want to do and is convenient for me. Do you see the terrible consequences of this way of thinking? How could we know who is right, as you bring up, because no one is right and everyone is right! So it cannot work in society.

So right now we’re KIND OF using the 10 commandments. But I see that slipping away and that is the standard people should be adhereing to.

God bless you

Male lions will typically kill the cubs sired by another male lion. We do not ascribe “evil” to these actions. There is no such thing as “good” or “evil” in the animal world. Atheists deny that there is something special about man. In the atheist view, we are all just electrified bags of meat. So if that’s all mankind is, then there is no such thing as objective morality. All that is left is subjective morality.

And once you get them to admit there is no objective morality, then their entire view falls apart. Anything is permissible in subjective morality because it relies upon the fleeting whims of opinion and nothing more.

As others noted, he may respond with the argument that man is a moral agent, which sets him apart from the animals, but this again falters when there is no objective morality. A man operates as a moral agent based upon a subjective morality is simply someone acting according to his own opinion. That’s it.

That’s not “evil”.

Evil is something that is wrong, all the time. Evil is not good, and never becomes good depending on who performs the evil. To have “evil”, you must have an objective standard to measure it against to determine if it is “evil”.

[quote=Pallas Athene]To define “evil” is childishly simple: “to volitionally and knowingly cause harm to someone or something (animals), who do NOT want it to be done to them”.

Therefore giving a child an innoculation is evil.
Abortion is certainly evil if you consider the unborn child to be a person (or animal)
Chemo-therapy for seniors and young children might be evil
Disciplining children is evil
Capital Punishment is evil

IOW, it ALL becomes RELATIVE to what you BELIEVE is for your (or their) good. But now you are on slippery moral ground.

But there is always the natural law. That is what the Church tries to uphold as well as the revealed law.

There are plenty of ways to conceive of normativity (good/evil, right/wrong, good/bad) that does not rely on God or theology. Normativity might imply a Creator, but, it certainly doesn’t have to entail a creator. There are perfectly consistent and coherent theories of normativity that do not rely on the divine.

For what it’s worth, when it comes to hard atheist, I think a better bet is to argue that your beliefs are logically possible, rather than logically necessary. You may believe the former, but the latter will be easier to argue for and it opens up the door for what you believe. Will your interlocutor admit that what you say is POSSIBLE? If so, you’ve got a footing.

That’s a very good point. I’ll keep that in mind as I draft my article on this. [He declined further dialog, so I’m going to write about it instead.]

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit