The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.


*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion,

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955).

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.



7 thoughts on “The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

    • If the universe just is, and just as it is, there is no inherent good/evil value to it. Perceptions of good/evil are our own. Our values are certainly necessary to us, but they are not given to us from outside the human.


      • To wtquin: no disrespect, but I read your reply and honestly I do not know what you are saying. Perhaps you are conveying meaning to ej in note type fashion, and maybe I misunderstand ej, but I’m not even sure how your reply addresses his. Yours seems very religious. Where ej at least appears more appealing to a kind of common sense. When I write, I try to assume the reader has no further understanding of the arena than what is presented or immediately implied. The topic of good and evil to me does not involve any ideas that anyone should not be privy to upon immediate consideration. I feel like your reply is filled with presuppositions. Can you clearify?


      • Just as the universe just is, so good and evil just is. Moral relationship forces uncreated just are. Nihilistic solipsism language does not negate the existence of good and evil. Evil actions may require karmic payment. In the Buddhist story the Indra on-duty becomes self-enamored, thinking he is “it”. Indra almost forgot that Buddhism is a cosmic chutes and ladders game and that having reached a seeming pinnacle, he too could slide down the chute to become a reincarnated ant (whether God exists or not, universal moral force exists). Atheistic self-congratulatory logic that good and evil does not exist will not prevent occupation in a future Indra remedial training ant-farm. The universe is a compassionate and also a harsh teacher.


  1. Dear ejwinner,

    Thank you for making your private thoughts public. Perhaps that process is cathartic to yourself and random others. I share a similar Catholic (later Protestant) theistic and atheistic experience. I’m integrating the three while striving to avoid ingrate(tion)-ungratefulness.

    My subjective speculative world-view:

    Humanity = 3rd party being outputs in time and space in evolved warrior-cult collectives (nations) destroying what conflicted empathetic/tyrannical leaders construct. 3rd party because (theism claims) The One Invisible Spirit (John 4:24) is involved in private (what was once prehistorically public) sex acts between 2 people. Outputs because if the One designed them, inputs can only = outputs (pre-determinism – nothing happens outside God’s Will). That includes rape and incest and bestiality (sin). The ancient knowledge of same incentivized the later development of apparel industry, pair-bonding, courtship, marriage and fidelity. Early Roman and Trojan marriage ceremonies are based on mock rape-abduction. Many aboriginal cultures are matrilinear marriage and property ownership based (we don’t know who the father is, but we are absolutely certain who the mother is). Angry individuals in modern civilization are constantly verbalizing the social proof of MF’er origin. Throw in the outlier of the marriage of Heaven and Hell, Nephilim and such for more speculative offspring seasoning.

    Prehistoric humanity must kill (Acts 11:7) and eat or be killed and eaten publicaly by predators to temporarily survive an eventual death and consumption by microbial consumers. Tragic (song of the Goat Man) killing and eating performed without benefit of fire and metallurgy = sparagamos and omophagia (Dionysian Tragedy) further evidenced through survival in modern India by the Khokana festival:

    Civilization makes the act of killing private through meat industrialization, moving the majority from purely physical to more logical acts (office workers competing over fiat-money and other symbolic representations of non-things). Transubstantiation is the prehistoric memory of sacrificial acts that if taken literally, represent human cannibalism and in the animal-human sphere of engagement, totemism (animal-human-family identification) We are One with that which we eat.

    All the above is core to identification of primal sin, evil, transgression of the law (outer boundary of good-rules). The Thou Shalt Nots. Good (God) by nature does not think or do these acts (supposedly), and therefore does not live here. Time and space dimension-wise, He has his cake and eats it too (transcendent and immanent Uber-Mensch). Therefore humanity is the punitive output of unlawful carnal knowledge. That was also a Van Halen album. A composite being output that must strive with Herculean labor to pay its Promethian fate invoice and earn its freedom with a little help from its invisible sometimes shape-shifting friends (who are all masquerading play-actors). Heb 13:2.

    No one wants to talk about this generally, because the recollection of it might make one nauseous or worse, release Benjamin Franklin’s no-social restraint tiger upon Thomas Paine’s world. Socially unacceptable topics are taboo. You shall not speak it. Thou shalt be shall be outwardly directed, social, entertainment-seeking oriented only.

    All the above is sin-defined, yet repressed in sub-conscious. You/I/We must remember it, says Plato (anamnesis) in order to complete a heroic/salvific journey of initiation. All the above is also scientific. It is empirically based observable phenomenon. Planet earth travels through space. Earth is populated by a monotheistic believing majority. The atheistic are a minority. To the atheistic nihilistic, this scientific phenomenon may represent absurdity. Somehow I believe (I don’t know), that atheism may be a requirement of theism, an initiation into noble or ignoble becoming. It may not be a 007 license to be licentious. However that involves choice which involves risk.

    Fate is predetermined. Zero is a logical fallacy. We start with what is, not what is not. Destiny is destination-oriented, participant has free-will engagement with creative and destructive forces. The outcome is either known or unknown. If known by the One (if time is not linear), then it’s already happened, and we are reliving it (Nietzschean madness – Love of Fate in the Eternal Return). Matthew 26:34. Doomed to re-living it. Philosophy without a goal of becoming and being may be a self-inflicted Eternal Return labyrinth from which there is no escape without heroic effort. At worst if wrong in its core premises, self-congratulatory mental masturbation about absurd existence assuming without evidence that one will escape into nothingness. The fool has said in his heart there is no Good. The opposite of Good is Evil, even if both are social constructs. I asked the ants if their ant hill is socially constructed. They answered me collectively with silence.

    Atheistic hope (emotionally directed wishful thinking without scientific evidence) in nihilism (nothing) will not save one IF one is wrong about the pain required for gain, and if one wakes up again crying from a human birth canal. There is no evidence for no-thing. Personified Good (God) is a high ideal, however the representations of Monotheistic Gods are violent and immoral from a modern civilized perspective. Some children ask for bread and receive a snake. Or become bald-headed child models in cancer direct-mail fundraising ads.

    The recently deceased Rene Girard attempted to reconcile human tragedy (song of the goat-man) and violence as both an anthropological philosopher and Catholic, while remaining a Catholic. While I’m not a Girardian purist I can learn from everyone eclectically while trying to keep my mind like a parachute-open in order to function properly.

    ejwinner, I thank you again and am grateful for your posts.




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