An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 14

Chapter 14, by John M. DePoe, is on the Problem of Evil. I did a post on this topic fairly recently, and when I went through the chapter I was looking to see if any of the responses offered would speak to my own argument. They did not. So I once again will not be going point-by-point through this chapter; I simply don't think it's necessary. Instead, I'm going to summarize my own argument from my recent post, and highlight why I think this response falls short.

Chapter 14: The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses

In the first half of the chapter, DePoe argues that God has two morally sufficient reasons to allow for evil – one, that it's necessary for moral development; and two, that it's necessary for free will.

I essentially agree that evil, as in acts of human volition, are a necessary contingency of free will (not to get into a debate about free will). In my most recent post on the problem of evil, I elaborated:

The problem of suffering is often conflated with the 'problem of evil', but they're different arguments. I've never liked the term 'evil' anyway; it's just too loaded and too vaguely defined. When discussing human behavior, I like to use the terms 'kind' and 'cruel' instead of 'good' or 'evil'; and when talking about the 'problem of suffering', I'm specifically talking about natural suffering rather than acts of cruelty of humans against each other. That's because I can accept the theistic argument that a consequence of God creating us with volition (I'm avoiding the loaded term 'free will') is that we may choose to act maliciously against each other. However, natural suffering is a different issue that encompasses the suffering inflicted upon conscious creatures by exposure, predation, famine, disease, disasters, etc.
So really, I don't have an objection to the first two points, although I might be inclined to argued that God could achieve "character development" without evil. But it's beside the point – I'm primarily concerned with natural evil, which is why I tend to describe the problem as "the problem of suffering". DePoe acknowledges this distinction, and focuses the latter part of his chapter on 'natural evil'. And that's where he stumbles.

This is from my post on the subject – it's my summary of why it's really a serious problem for theism (at least, theism that ascribes benevolence and omnipotence):
We only view suffering as justified when inflicting suffering of lesser weight is deemed necessary to prevent suffering of greater weight. [...] However, if we could achieve the same end with a means that entailed no suffering, then that is always the preferable path to take. [...] And this is why the notion that God could have morally justifiable reasons to permit suffering is invalid. God, if he is omnipotent, would be capable of achieving his end (his 'divine plan' for humanity, as many call it) without allowing suffering.
So my question, when reading the latter half of this chapter, was this: does anything DePoe argue address my fundamental argument? The answer is a resounding "no".

DePoe takes a rather unusual, and frankly a bit absurd, course of arguing that natural evil is itself tied to volition:
Contrary to initial appearances, a closer inspection of natural evils shows that we cannot rule out the possibility that they are intimately connected with free agency. There are two reasons for this.
First, natural evils are a consequence of stable natural laws, which constitute a necessary condition for moral agency. Second, natural evil occurs as a consequence of exercising free agency. If either of these two reasons are right, then it follows that natural evil is justified on the same grounds as moral evil— it is necessary to preserve free will.
I can't help but feel DePoe is totally missing the side of the barn here. I can't see any reason why, if God is omnipotent, the world couldn't still be mechanistic and be governed by reliable laws of nature without having things like famine, natural disasters, cancer, disease, predation, exposure, etc. etc. God did not have to make the world this way (or allow it to become that way, if you're going to bust out the old "fallen world" canard). DePoe seems to be asserting that you can't have one without the other, but he just asserts it; he doesn't present a coherent argument as to why. And how could he? If God is omnipotent, he can make the world any way he wants – and that includes allowing free agency without tossing in earthquakes, droughts, or the bubonic plague. And while it's true that human volition can influence these factors to an extent (such as human-caused climate change causing more violent weather), the things that cause human suffering occur with or without human intervention.

Perhaps a bigger issue, which DePoe doesn't even address, is that such natural suffering is completely indiscriminate. There's a great quote from Richard Dawkins to this effect:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
DePoe seems to view the issue as resolved, and moves on to his final argument, rebutting the idea that this much evil is what makes it bad. I don't consider that a particularly good argument anyway, so once again I've little quarrel with DePoe's counter. However, this line in particular deserves a beat-down:
It is also important to keep in mind that the amount of suffering that can exist is limited to the maximum amount of suffering a single person can bear.
That's the oldest canard out there, and it's meaningless. What about people who suffer needlessly, then die? A child who wastes away from cancer before dying a vegetable has clearly suffered more than she could bear – she's dead. This just seems to be one of those silly non-arguments that you can always retroactively tack on, because the criteria for what "a single person can bear" is undefined and completely arbitrary. Sometimes people die from whatever causes their suffering. Sometimes people kill themselves over extreme despair. Sometimes they have nervous or mental breakdowns. Sometimes they become physically ill from prolonged emotional distress. All of that seems to indicate that if there's a God, he doesn't give a crap about what you can "bear". 

This chapter failed to provide a sound answer to the problem of suffering. It provides some decent answers to some weak arguments, but that's about as much as can be said in its favor. The problem of suffering remains a serious conundrum for Christianity.


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