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A proof of Atheism?

I'm an agnostic, and if there's one argument which keeps me from believing in God it's the well-known argument from evil, which is given here by philosopher Quentin Smith :

The famous British philosopher John Mackie said that if there's any miracle in the world, it's that so many people actually believe God exists. One of the reasons Mackie thought that this is the case is that Mackie found it obvious that if there's evil in the world, no all-powerful and perfectly good being could have created the world. Consider, for example, the Spanish influenza. In World War I (1914-1918), ten million people died. But in three months, from September to November of 1919, twenty million people died -- just as many as in the plague in the fourteenth century -- from Spanish influenza. Then suddenly, this virus that caused this deadly flu disappeared, and no one has seen it again. So how could this possibly have occurred if God exists? Is God not powerful enough to kill this virus or prevent it from growing? If so, then He's not all-powerful and is not really the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He's just a sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. He's just more powerful than us by degrees, just as we are more powerful than ants by degrees. But that is no god; that is a finite being. You would no more worship this being than you would worship ET.

Suppose God is all-powerful and is capable of killing the Spanish influenza virus before it killed off twenty million people. Why didn't He? Is it because He's not perfectly good? Because He does not care enough about human beings? That is no god. Sounds like more an evil being governs our universe. So that's just one example of many gratuitous evils in the universe.

So how do theists respond to arguments like this? They say there is a reason for evil, but it is a mystery. Well, let me tell you this: I'm actually one hundred feet tall even though I only appear to be six feet tall. You ask me for proof of this. I have a simply answer: it's a mystery. Just accept my word for it on faith. And that's just the logic theists use in their discussions of evil.

In fact, there's a strict disproof of theism that uses the ordinary logic of induction we employ in our everyday lives. If we have evidence that something exists, we say it probably exists. If we see dark clouds approaching, we say it will probably rain. But if we no evidence for something, we admit that it's merely possible that it exists, even though it probably does not exist.

If God exists, a being who is all-powerful and perfectly good, then this being must somehow ensure our world is perfectly good. The only way He can do this is to make all of the apparent evils we see in the world into means to a greater good. For example, the pain of a vaccination is in itself bad, but is a means to a greater good. Thus, if God exists, we must have evidence that all of the evils we see are means to a greater good. But even theists admit there is no evidence. That is why they must resort to talking about the mysterious ways in which God works. There's no evidence at all, for example, that twenty million people dying from Spanish influenza is for a greater good. The conclusion follows that God probably does not exist.

Now the theist might respond that there may be some greater good we don't know about. But notice the theist says, "there may be some greater good we don't know about." Well sure there may be some greater good we don't know about. Anything is possible. It is possible there is an elephant stomping through my house. It is possible that Elvis Presley is alive and is doing the twist on the dark side of the moon. But the fact that something is possible does not show it is the least bit probable. So the fact that it is possible that God exists does not show it is the least bit probable that there is a God who created these unknown greater goods. So if someone asks me to accept on faith that there is all these greater goods which explains all evil in the world and therefore that God exists, I respond that I'll accept that on faith if you accept on faith that Elvis Presley is now swiveling his hips on the moon.

I'd love to be able to refute this argument, but I really can't find any convincing way of doing so.

Re: A proof of Atheism?

Hi Joe.

There is no doubt this argument is a very strong one, and cannot be readily refuted. But it is still, logically, not a definitive disproof of God. It is a very high inductive probability, but not a deductive certainty. There still remains, as the writer admits, a faint, remote possibility of belief in God.

In the Jewish world, after every senseless pogrom, and particularly after the Holocaust in WW2, this painful question was asked and never was any convincing answer ever found. Yet believing Jews continued to hold onto their faith in God - not only in His existence, but in his omniscience, omnipotence and perfect goodness. Perhaps the only explanation for that is our felt psychological and social need for God. Belief in God can have (though it does not always or necessarily have) a beneficial effect on the human psyche, on human behavior, on social cohesion, and so forth.

My personal position is that this issue of theism versus atheism cannot be resolved by science or philosophy, by observation or logic. This does not imply that agnosticism is the right course. The reason is that what we choose to believe or to not believe has an impact on one's thoughts and actions. There is no escape from this consequence of belief. The fence-sitting of agnosticism cannot escape the practical issues. Choices must be made in thought and action.

Again personally, like many others, I advocate that belief in God is not a matter of empirical and logical certainty, but requires Faith. It is, as we say now, faith-based. I think such belief in God is good for me and can be good for others. It is not always good - some religious beliefs, tenets, behavior patterns, are certainly horrible; some stupid and useless; and so forth. But many are good and do good. What is the standard of value here? Life. What is beneficial for one's physical and spiritual life, and the life of others too, is good; what is somewhat bad is proportionately bad.

Returning to the above atheistic argument. A fact that I find more impressive is how minuscule we are in relation to the immense universe we are in. We humans are tiny in space and in time in comparison to the planet Earth that we inhabit. But our planet is tiny in our solar system, and our solar system is a mere speck of dust in our galaxy, and our galaxy is a mere speck of dust in our universe. And maybe moreover, our known universe is a mere speck of dust in a larger multiverse of which we have no evidence but which we consider quite possible.

Where is God in this immensity, I ask myself? Of what possible interest can our tiny fates be to Him if He exists as the creator of and therefore greater than all that immensity? The answer I give myself is the following. The apparent immensity and tininess are PHYSICAL aspects of existence. The physical is the realm of science as we know it today. But our life experience has a mental, more precisely SPIRITUAL, aspect which is also undeniable, yet not taken into account by current physical scientists.

We have consciousness, volition, values - we have souls. It is as souls that we have these powers which are inexplicable by any physics or chemistry formula. The physical cannot explain or erase the spiritual. The spiritual must be taken into consideration at its full significance - and this the scientific community has on the whole failed to do until now. Within this larger perspective, we and our fates may indeed be unimportant in the space-time physical domain - but in the spiritual domain we may collectively be very important indeed.

Returning to God and the argument above - our physical existences may well seem filled with meaningless suffering; but our tragedies could well be the mere backdrop of much higher, grander and very beautiful spiritual events. The latter must be taken into account when judging the former. This is hypothetical, to be sure - it requires faith. But one thing this hypothesis does, which the opposite hypothesis you have quoted does not, is to at least take into account the spiritual dimension of humankind, and indeed all life on Earth, and not exclusively focus on the physical dimension.

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Re: A proof of Atheism?

Hi Avi,

Thanks for sharing your perspective. Your third paragraph struck a particular chord with me because I really need to get off the fence and take a stand one way or the other; I've been wrestling with the issue for some time - no doubt it's been exacerbated by the covid pandemic - too much time with my own thoughts!

I do find many of the classical arguments for God quite compelling, particularly the Aristotelian "unmoved mover" argument and similar ones from Aquinas. What's impressive about these types of argument is that they start from very basis premises which no-one can reasonably doubt, such as the fact of change, potentiality and the existence of certain causal series, and from those modest metaphysical assumptions then deduce the traditional attributes of God such as perfect goodness, omniscience, omnipotence, etc. They can't tell you which of the organized religions have the truth, but it's at least a start.

The fact of evil, though, is the sticking point. But you're right; logical arguments can help but in the end it's a matter of faith.