Atheism’s Unanswerable Question

Evolution_tree_of_lifeChristianity and atheism, which of necessity requires belief in evolution, are two contrasting worldviews, not only because they have opposing views about God but also because they have opposing views about humankind. While the focus of discussions and debates often concentrates on the existence of God, it is the view of humankind that leaves atheists with an unanswerable question.

There are two specific ways that Christians and atheists view humankind differently. First, Christians believe that humans are unique from animals because we have an eternal soul. Atheists believe instead in the “common descent” principle:

In evolutionary biology, a group of organisms have common descent if they have a common ancestor. “There is strong quantitative support, by a formal test”[1] for the theory that all living organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor.[2]

Charles Darwin proposed the theory of universal common descent through an evolutionary process in On the Origin of Species, saying, “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one”.[3]

Second, Christians believe humans, though created in God’s image, have a fallen, or sinful, nature passed down through Adam who turned his back on God when he intentionally disobeyed Him. The only way to change society is to point individuals to Jesus Christ who provides a way of escape from sin, guilt, the law, and death.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe humans are morally neutral at worst and might even be considered “good” by virtue of the fact that what exists has survived.

Right and wrong, good and evil, then, are not existent apart from the perception of a group or community. Hence, homosexuality is wrong until the group determines it is right.

Infants come into the world as blank slates or even as good slates and only turn toward evil if they are influenced by societal patterns (racism, for example) or errant views (such as religion). The way to change society is simply to re-educate people.

One atheist puts it this way:

So if we are determined, then how do we define evil? If our minds come from our brains, and our brain circuitry is out of our control, then is anyone responsible for anything – no matter how courageous, no matter how innovative, no matter how good or evil, that the person is? (“An atheist’s view of evil”)

Another atheist discussing evil concludes with this:

For atheists, a better explanation for the presence of evil in the world is that God does not exist. (“Atheism”).

A number of others discuss evil only as an argument against the existence of God. But here’s the question that atheists can’t seem to answer: where did evil come from? If life has a common descent, if we’re born with no natural bent toward evil, what injected evil into the equation?

In reality, the atheist scenario is one that would seem to result in utopia: humans, evolved from a common and not evil descent, growing toward their full potential without any negative force to intercede.

Except for society. Which teaches gender differences and racism and encourages belief in mythical gods which motivate people groups to hate.

But society is nothing more than people interacting with one another. So how and why did humans start acting in hateful ways toward people who were different from them? Why did the strong decide to take from the weak instead of using their strength for the greater good?

In other words, where did evil come from?

This is the atheist’s unanswerable question.

As I mentioned, a number of professing atheists lay evil at the feet of God, then declare that its existence proves He couldn’t possibly exist. That he doesn’t eradicate evil shows either that he’s too weak to do so (and therefore, not God) or too evil himself or too undiscerning to know evil from good (and therefore not God).

The argument, of course, ignores what God Himself has to say about evil and its existence. But more so, it offers no alternative, no explanation for the virulent presence of evil in the world.

In fact, some atheists deny the existence of evil:

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins claim that evil doesn’t actually exist. In his book, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life Dawkins writes: “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.” (David Robinson, “The problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheists than Christians,” Christianity Today)

Of course such a view collapses the argument that evil disproves the existence of God, because something that does not exist cannot itself be used to disprove anything. So either evil exists, or it doesn’t. And if it exists, but there is no God, then where did it come from? How did it come to be included in this mix of materialism?

Actually the atheist I quoted above, was on the right track. Evil comes from the absence of God. He does exist, but He doesn’t force Himself on our lives. Humankind, having chosen to leave God out, now experience the world with the absence-of-God component a reality.

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23 Comments

  1. Wow…what a compelling thought. I couldn’t add to that if I wanted to.

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  2. Great post, Rebecca.

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  3. Just one more example of atheism’s irrational, emotion-driven basis. All their “arguments” are like peripheral vision, impossible to find something to focus on if you start really looking. I’m a believer because God graciously revealed himself but I logically reject atheism because it makes no sense and explains nothing.

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    • “Peripheral vision”—that’s an interesting analogy, Lang, especially in light of what Jesus said:

      Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
      ‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;
      YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE;
      FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL,
      WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR,
      AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES,
      OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES,
      HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,
      AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,
      AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’ (Matt. 13:13-15)

      The passage Jesus quoted is from Isaiah 6:9-19, right after he said to the Lord, Send me.

      Becky

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  4. “But more so, it offers no alternative, no explanation for the virulent presence of evil in the world.”

    Yet your critique of such a view leaves little to no alternative other than “evil”. If anything, that’s a full-on cop-out from understanding the history behind actions which strike at the well-being of others, and from finding that such histories and roots and contributing factors are not so clear-cut.

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    • Harry, I think I understand what you’re saying. When you say,

      such a view leaves little to no alternative other than “evil”.

      I’m understanding you to be saying the view that evil comes from humankind’s sinful nature.

      I do think there are complexities involved with each person’s story. A child molester, for example, often was first the victim of child molestation. Or a person who robs may be trapped in a cycle of poverty.

      My question actually is, how did these cycles, these histories get started? There had to be a point when someone for the first time chose to inflict suffering on someone else. Why would someone do that? What was the cause? the motivation? If people don’t have a bent toward evil, why would that first person do something evil?

      Becky

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  5. “Evil’ is not a thing. It is a label we put on certain actions. It is a human concept, and probably a useful one.

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    • NotAScientist, I understand that atheists would think of evil as a human concept—without God in the mix, how else would you define it?

      But that still doesn’t address the question: where does it come from? Where does the concept that some actions are reprehensible and some are praiseworthy, come from? What prompts some people to engage in reprehensible behavior while the majority of society view those acts as evil? And more to the point, how did this choosing to do what is evil in the eyes of the community get started? Where does evil come from?

      Becky

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      • Here’s a thought experiment:

        Everyone in the world dies except for one person. She survives, but no one else.

        Is there anything she can do, from that point on, that you would define as ‘evil’? What are those things? I’m curious.

        “Where does the concept that some actions are reprehensible and some are praiseworthy, come from?”

        From the experience of pain and sickness and from our evolved sense of empathy, all of which have helped us survive and evolve.

        “What prompts some people to engage in reprehensible behavior while the majority of society view those acts as evil?”

        Depends on the specific example, but for the most part a lack of empathy. Reasons for that lack of empathy can vary. But again, it’s a nuanced issue that can’t be answered with one single catch-all answer.

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      • Understandably because you present as an atheist, you’re leaving out God. I, on the other hand, do not think your hypothetical woman is alone though she is the last human.

        So when you ask, “Is there anything she can do, from that point on, that you would define as ‘evil’? ” the answer is, yes, she can offend God, reject Him, disobey Him.

        You credit an “evolved sense of empathy” as the answer to why we think some things are praiseworthy, and our awareness of pain and sickness as the reason we recognize evil. But that doesn’t answer the question. Evil is knowing the hurt we will inflict and inflicting it anyway—to ourselves, strangers, family, or friends. Where did that come from? It has nothing to do with surviving. It’s harmful, debilitating.

        In fact we as a species seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Instead we just make them again, only bigger. Why? If all this empathy is making us so much better, why the crime rate, corporate greed, welfare fraud, corrupt politicians, child abuse, sex trafficking? There’s an endless list of things that refute this idea that we are so empathetic, and apart from God’s explanation, nothing to explain why we inflict hurt on others.

        Becky

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  6. This is not an unanswerable question, but it is a case where Atheists try and have their cake and eat it too. On the issue of Evil some Christian try the same when discussing whether natural disasters are evil or not. “Nature cannot act evil” and “Man’s sin has made nature act evil.” It’s either one or the other, and I still encounter Christians who advocate both.

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    • Crayton, you may have read more widely on this than I have. I’m not aware of Christians holding the view that “man’s sin has made nature act evil.”

      From Scripture, it’s clear that when sin entered the world, it had a consequence on nature. Paul said creation is enslaved to corruption. I take that to mean the world was not created to produce floods or earthquakes or ice storms—things that make life hard and even dangerous. Because of sin and the resulting curse, these things now exist.

      Is nature evil, though? I’ve never heard that as a Christian position. It would have fit in with the heretical Gnostics view, though. But not Christian.

      Becky

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  7. Rebecca I thought you had an answerable question for us. I am to say the least very disappointed. How is the origin of evil a problem for the atheist? I didn’t see where you made a case where this is shown as a problem.
    I can’t speak for all atheists, but I don’t know any atheist who puts the problem at the feet of god. This reads like the claim by some Americans that Obama is a Muslim and an atheist. It appears to me you don’t understand what the problem of evil as is frequently formulated means or you’d not be making the claims you do here.

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    • Makagutu, the question of evil is answerable to a degree. Evil and good are not compatible. Believing as I do that God is good, even defines what good means, then evil is the absence of Him and His good.

      When I said atheists put the problem of evil at the feet of God, I was speaking of the very common atheist argument that evil proves God, as Christians describe Him, does not exist. I heard this myself in a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig. If there really were a god, the thinking goes, then evil would not exist because a good god would not allow it and a powerful god would eradicate it. Ergo, god must either be, not good, or too weak, or more likely, nonexistent.

      I don’t see that I’m making any claims—just stating a position you can easily find on the Internet by doing a simple search.

      Becky

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      • Becky, if I can call you that, how does saying god is good tell me anything about what good is or what god is?
        It seems you and not I need to listen well to those youtube videos you refer me to. Or better still, link the video of Hitchens and Craig that you listened to

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  8. […] Rebecca thinks there is. Before we get to discussing her posts, I don’t make a pretext to have any answers to any questions. All I am interested in dialogue and I don’t promise to be nice to everyone, but I will try. It appears to me that to most theists there are only two positions, either one is a theist[ Christian] mainly or atheist. Which world do these people live in? Is it really that hard to educate oneself on the variety of religious beliefs or are people just lazy? […]

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  9. There are plenty of questions atheism can’t answer, Rebecca. Atheism only deals with the question of the existence of deities. Your question would be more accurate (and honest) if it were posed: “How does secular morality account for the existence of evil?” At least then you’re in a field that’s trying to make claims about good, bad, evil, and proper actions.

    I’ve got a feeling that you’re just rephrasing the “Problem of Evil” argument to try to justify the existence of God. It’s not a great argument to begin with.

    But let’s suppose we can agree on the existence of evil, and that evil is “something which causes morally undesirable actions.” You’ll still have to prove that it’s a God which is has created or defined that something.

    And this illustrates that atheism can reject your argument for God, but it does not have to make any assertion as to what that something is. An atheist can answer, “I don’t know for sure, except that I don’t believe that it’s God” and still be an atheist.

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    • Sirius, I think you’re quibbling over the term “atheism.” Of course the foundational belief is the nonexistence of God, but that cannot stand alone. It logically requires an answer to, Then how did life and the world and the universe come into existence?

      Part of what exists is evil. While atheists embrace evolution to explain the existence of everything else, clearly evil does not fit into the evolutionary pattern. It defeats and destroys and drags down. There’s no elevation of life to a better, more capable plain. Rather, if evil were part of the evolutionary equation and evil was the strong that survived, then evil would prevail, and there would be no advancement of art or science, no works for the good of humankind.

      On the other hand, if there’s a common decent with good at the heart of it all, or innocence, or amorality, then when and where and how did evil assert itself into the equation?

      Atheists have not, from anything I’ve read, given a reasonable answer. Saying “I don’t know for sure” doesn’t work. Not explaining how evil insinuated itself into the common decent of all life demonstrates that this theory is flawed and not a true explanation of origins.

      Becky

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      • Rebecca,

        How is it a “logical requirement” that atheism must explain phenomena or anything that isn’t disbelief in the divine? What you are doing is expanding the definition to meet your own uses, namely to artificially express an area that atheism doesn’t talk about. To assert that atheism can’t explain evil is to assert that chemistry and physics can’t either. Neither chemistry nor physics is trying to explain this.

        Atheism is not religion. It makes no positive claims about how the world starts, how it functions, or even how toilets work.

        Finally, saying “I don’t know” may not be an explanation that you’d like, but it’s an honest one. This is true because I don’t know how the world got here, or why people behave the way they do.

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        • I don’t think it can get any clearer than this

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      • Makagutu, I didn’t listen to a Hitchens/Craig video. I attended the debate in person. But as I said, the argument is all over the Internet, so it’s easy to find.

        Your other question is very good. If I define good as God, then how can I explain God? If I say X=A and A=X, what have I learned about the two unknows? Only that they define each other.

        But somehow we humans understand good even if we deny God, so the quality must not actually be an unknown. If I say this vitamin is good for you, people will understand I am claiming it has benefit and will promote health and well-being. If I say this investment is good, people will understand that it is beneficial and helpful to my financial goals. If I say, he’s a good son, people will understand that he’s an asset to the family, helpful and obedient, caring, loving, contributing to our well-being.

        These things are understood without explanation, so there has to be something about good that we intrinsically comprehend. Hence, if we say God is good, and then the converse, good is God, the character of God becomes clear, but so does the origin of good.

        Becky

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      • What you are doing is expanding the definition to meet your own uses, namely to artificially express an area that atheism doesn’t talk about.

        Sirius, if this is your position, then there’s nothing to debate. You say, God doesn’t exist. We don’t know how the world came into being or why, but it wasn’t God because the one thing we do know is that he doesn’t exist.

        That’s nothing but an uninformed opinion since it’s clear you yourself are not omniscient and don’t have any idea what might exist in the multiverse that science has yet to identify.

        But then, you’re not relying on science, are you. You’re making no statement of knowledge at all except that God does not exist. You are agnostic when it comes to origins and the flush toilet. I don’t know how it is you have arrived at such assurance about God and about nothing else.

        Of course, this post should then be about atheists’ unanswerable questions.

        Becky

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  10. […] Where did evil come from? This is the question atheists either don’t try to answer or can not answer. It’s part of the weakness of that belief system—there are too many things that can’t be explained. […]

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