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Is the Existence of an Omnipotent Benevolent God
Incompatible with Natural Evil in the World?

Nature is a horrible horrible thing.

Ronald de Sousa (U of T philosophy professor)

[The two experiences below, which could be multiplied a million times over, represent that portion of reality wherein life takes on a nightmarish quality. The first experience concerns the Rudraprayag leopard, which was probably the most publicized man-eater of all time. Operating over a five hundred square mile area encompassing scores of villages, this animal imposed an eight-year-long state of terror on the 50,000 inhabitants of Garhwal, and the 60,000 pilgrims who annually passed through the area on their way to visit the shrines of Kedarnath and Badrinath. The terror intensified when, five years into its career, the leopard hit on the idea of trying to break into people’s houses—and sometimes succeeding—rather than just lurking about villages after dark and waiting with a leopard’s patience for some brave soul to break the rigidly observed dusk to dawn curfew. (Man-eating leopards only hunt at night.) Several hundred people were killed and eaten, and many more wounded, often fatally, by the time the famous Anglo-Indian hunter, Jim Corbett, avenged these victims in 1926. But even from Corbett the man-eater exacted a price. Physical and emotional exhaustion required him to abandon his long campaign (spanning 1925 and ’26) for over three months, a decision he knew would attract public criticism. He also knew that during this period of rest and recuperation the leopard would continue to claim men, women and children at the rate of about one every ten days. The second experience was visited on the physicist Niels Bohr and came to him at the height of his fame. Tragedy is no respecter of persons.]

On many moonlit nights, when sitting in an uncomfortable position physical endurance had reached its limit, and when sitting where it would have been easy for the leopard to have got at me I had no longer been able to keep my eyes open. I had for hours walked the roads which were alone open to me and to the leopard, trying every trick I knew of to outwit my adversary, and the man-eater had, with luck beyond his deserts or with devilish cunning, avoided the bullet that a press of my finger would have sent into him, for on retracing my steps in the morning after these night excursions I had found from the pug-marks on the road that I was right in assuming I had been closely followed. To know that one is being followed at night—no matter how bright the moon may be—by a man-eater intent on securing a victim, gives one an inferiority complex that is very unnerving, and that is not mitigated by repetition.

Tired out in mind and in body, my longer stay at Rudraprayag would not have profited the people of Garhwal, and it might have cost me my own life. Knowing that the temporary abandonment of my self-imposed task would be severely criticized by the press, but that what I was now doing was right, I plodded on towards my distant home, having assured the people of Garhwal that I would return to help them as soon as it was possible for me to do so.

Jim Corbett (from The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, 1947)

In 1932 the Danish Academy offered Niels Bohr lifetime free occupancy of the Danish House of Honour, a palatial estate in Pompeiian style built originally for the founder of Carlsberg Breweries and subsequently reserved for Denmark’s most distinguished citizen (Knud Rasmussen, the polar explorer, was it previous occupant). Bohr and his wife, with their five handsome sons, moved to the mansion beside the brewery, the best address in Denmark after the King’s. Two years later an accident took the Bohr’s eldest son, Christian, nineteen years old. Father, son and two friends were sailing on the Íresund, the sea passage between Denmark and Sweden, when a squall blew up. Christian “was drowned by falling over[board] in a very rough sea from a sloop,” Robert Oppenheimer reports, “and Bohr circled as long as there was light, looking for him.” But the Íresund is cold. For a time Bohr retreated into grief. Exhausting as it was, the refugee turmoil helped him. [Bohr played a critical role in saving more than 7000 Danish Jews from the Nazis.]

Richard Rhodes (from The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1986)

There’s nothing more outrageous than the pain of losing a child . . . you want to rip your heart out when you lose a child.

Margaret Trudeau

Thoughts about the Problem of Evil in Nature

People are often shocked when somebody says, “Well, maybe rape is just a successful evolutionary strategy, and that’s why men are tempted to rape.” Now that’s only shocking if you assume there is something lovely about nature. But nature is a horrible horrible thing. And indeed that’s why people invented religion, to try and placate those horrible horrible gods that were doing all these awful things to us, to try to pretend to think they’re nice. That is my very very amateurish explanation for monotheism and the idea that god is good. God is obviously bad if god exists. When you have a really nasty boss you kind of suck up. That seems to me to be all there is to the long and the short of this complicated story.

Ronald de Sousa (from his 2011 debate with Jordan Peterson)

Do we live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good? Christians think we do. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering. If God is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much of it—and he would have done so if he were all good. . . The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world was not created by any god at all. If, however, we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the God who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler.

Peter Singer (from his 2008 article The God of Suffering)

Stephen Unwin [the author of The Probability of God] thinks the existence of evil, especially natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis, counts strongly against the likelihood that God exists. Here, Unwin’s judgement is opposite to mine but goes along with many uncomfortable theologians. ‘Theodicy’ (the vindication of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) keeps theologians awake at night. The authoritative Oxford Companion to Philosophy gives the problem of evil as ‘the most powerful objection to traditional theism.’

Richard Dawkins (from The God Delusion, 2006)

[From what Dawkins says below, he seems to agree with Stephen Unwin that natural evil is an argument against the existence of God. Does he not?]

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

In a universe of....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.

Richard Dawkins (from “God’s Utility Function,” 1995)

If one is to base one’s decision exclusively on the biological facts, then it would be wildly irrational to believe in God. However, there are other considerations: cosmological considerations, religious experience, and so on. Perhaps the existence of God could be justified by one of these. I’m not persuaded by any of them. Then there is negative evidence to consider: the problem of evil. I find this one extremely powerful. It’s probably the main reason why I’m an atheist.

Prof. James Robert Brown

[On the March 27, 2007 edition of The Agenda, evolutionary biologist and naturalist, Jerry Coyne, told host Steve Paikin that, “We don’t know how life started and it’s a really thorny problem.” Despite that persistent mystery, U of T philosophy professor James Robert Brown makes it sound as if the biological facts alone disprove God’s existence. But if there were no evil in the natural world, which Brown concedes is ‘probably the main reason why I’m an atheist,’ would his claim that it would be ‘wildly irrational to believe in God’ be plausible, given the mind boggling complexity of the simplest cell? The passage above is from an email Prof. Brown sent to me in connection with Darwinian evolution.]

[Russell] thought that the existence of [a deity] is highly improbable, and moreover, that if there were such a thing—especially if it were anything like the God of Christian orthodoxy—the moral repugnance of the universe would be even greater than it is, because then we would have to accept either that an omnipotent being allows, or that it wills, the existence of natural and moral evil in the world (‘natural evil’ denotes disease, catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and the like). On Russell’s view, a visit to the wards of any children’s hospital should be enough to make one feel either that there cannot be a deity, or that if there is one, it is a monster.

A. C. Grayling (from Russell: A Very Short Introduction, 2002)

[On May 4th 2010, a Markham mother ran over her two-year-old son while backing out of her driveway, killing him. About a week later a two-year-old Hamilton girl died after she was accidentally run over in the family’s driveway by a van driven by her aunt, who was babysitting. The ten line article that reported this story ended by saying, ‘Tragically such incidents are not uncommon, striking two to three times a day across the continent, according to studies.’ Famous philosophers have been known to make hugely important inferences from tragedies of this kind. For example, in his book Russell: A Very Short Introduction, A. C. Grayling writes, ‘On Russell’s view, a visit to the wards of any children’s hospital should be enough to make one feel either that there cannot be a deity, or that if there is one, it is a monster.’ However, Russell and many others not only ‘feel’ that there is no personal benevolent God because of such evils, but definitely conclude it. But is such a conclusion a triumph of reason over emotion, or the reverse? Suppose that a visiting extraterrestrial, observing that two to three children were killed by their parents’ cars every day of the year, concluded that the human race must be a monster species because it caused this kind of unspeakable tragedy by inventing cars, and then allowed it to continue by refusing to abandon them. Would you accept that conclusion, and if not, what arguments would you counter with? Does the passage below from C. S. Lewis make you more hesitant to blame God for creating a world in which the potential for tragedy is inherent, and in which tragedy occurs with the incidence that we observe?]

As long as one is a Naturalist, “Nature” is only a word for “everything.” And Everything is not a subject about which anything very interesting can be said or (save by illusion) felt. One aspect of things strikes us and we talk of the “peace” of Nature; another strikes us and we talk of her cruelty. And then, because we falsely take her for the ultimate and self-existent Fact and cannot quite repress our high instinct to worship the Self-existent, we are all at sea and our moods fluctuate and Nature means to us whatever we please as the moods select and slur. But everything becomes different when we recognize that Nature is a creature, a created thing, with its own particular tang or flavour. There is no need any longer to select and slur. It is not in her, but in Something far beyond her, that all lines meet and all contrasts are explained. It is no more baffling that the creature called Nature should be both fair and cruel than that the first man you meet in the train should be a dishonest grocer and a kind husband. For she is not the Absolute: she is one of the creatures, with her good points and her bad points and her own unmistakable flavour running through them all.

C. S. Lewis (from Miracles, 1947)

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