Thanks for getting back to me. I recently listened to one of your audio CDs. It was the disc about atheism in “From Facts to Faith." My question concerns your claim about why the atheist cannot adduce the argument from evil. A premise you seem rely on is that an atheist cannot believe in absolute morality. Some atheists might disagree with you, but I do not. I believe that without God, there is no basis for morality as such, but only for various competing moralities, each without any claim to a superhuman foundation.
As I understand it, your argument basically goes: if there is no absolute morality, there is no “evil.” And if there is no such thing as evil, than how can an atheist object to the existence of God on the basis of something the atheist does not even admit exists? Have I captured it adequately?
I had never heard this argument before, and honestly think it is quit ingenious. I do not believe it works, however, for the following reason. For the argument from evil to work, the atheist need not take any stance at all on the ontological status of morality as such. He need only get the theist to admit that there is evil in the world, and that starts the ball rolling. Consider:
Questioner: When a man kidnaps a small girl, chains her in his basement, repeatedly rapes and tortures her over the course of two years, pours caustic chemicals on her skin, strangles her, chops up her body, and feeds it to his dogs, has he commited an evil act? That is, if he does this, can we say there is evil in the world?
The problem of evil can be seen as a reductio ad absurdum. The atheist does not necessarily base the argument from evil on his own beliefs, but attempts to indicate an internal logical contradiction in the doctrine of the theist. If a theist holds that there is no evil in the world, or perhaps that this is, as Leibniz suggested, the best of all possible worlds, then the argument from evil will have no force with him (along the same lines as your argument). But insofar as he admits there is evil in the world (and monstrous, bestial evil at that) the argument acquires legs and can get up and running.
Of course there are various competing theodicies, and a theodicy is not necessary if the problem of evil never gets off the ground, but that is not the point here. I am focusing on your claim that there is a logical problem concerning the atheist’s ability to bring the argument at all, and I do not believe this claim is tenable, for the reasons I have given. I hope I have expressed all of this clearly, and would be interested to hear what you think.
(Sorry—I guess this question got buried! I'm writing my second reply on the late side, 14 years after your reply.)
Yes, you have understood me correctly (your third paragraph). However, I think we may be talking about different things.
An atheist often denies the existence of God because of the evil in the world—evil which God presumably could have prevented. You are right, of course. The atheist can affirm or deny the existence of evil. So far I haven’t met any atheists who take a middle position, though there must be some of them out there. Of course one may refuse to think about ontology at all, but fuzzy thinking will be clarified during the course of meaningful theist-atheist dialogue.
All I am pointing out is the inconsistency—on the part of true, Nietzschean (consistent) atheists—of blaming God for evil while denying the existence of (absolute) evil.