There’s been a lot of buzz in both theistic and atheistic camps regarding Stephen Law’s evil-god argument, and many think it poses a serious challenge to the theism. Edward Feser sums up the essence of the argument nicely when he writes:

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.”[1]

Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t think the evil-God “argument” is actually an argument against God’s existence at all, yet alone a good argument. Consider the following three points:

(1) The evil-god “argument” is merely an undercutting defeater to the theist’s undercutting defeater to the atheist’s argument that evil makes God’s existence unlikely/impossible. In other words, it’s a counter-objection to an objection to an argument, not an argument itself. It is parasitic on both the argument from evil and a particular theistic response to that argument. The exchange goes as follows:

The atheist argues: “The existence/amount of evil in the world makes the existence of God impossible/unlikely because a good God would not want/allow (so many) things to occur in the world contrary to His nature.”

The theist retorts: “But God may have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil (contra the logical problem of evil), and we are not in an epistemic position to know those reasons to be able to say there is too much evil for a good God to exist (contra the probabilistic problem of evil).”

To this the atheist responds with the evil-god objection: “The same could be said of an evil God—He could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting good. Your response no more proves that God is actually good than the opposite response would prove that God is evil. If we have as much reason to think God is evil as we have for thinking He is good, and we recognize that belief in an evil God is ridiculous, then we should also recognize that the existence of a good God is equally ridiculous. And if both a good God and an evil God are equally ridiculous, then there is no God.”

(2) There are several problems with this line of argumentation. First, it’s not at all clear that the existence of an evil God is ridiculous. While most people do not think God is evil, one could make a decent inductive argument for the existence of an evil God.

Secondly, theists do not accept the atheist’s assertion that we lack good reason to think God is good rather than evil. The classical arguments for God’s existence, and the metaphysics that undergird that conception require that if God exists, He must be goodness itself.

Thirdly, even if the theist did not have good reason to think God is good, I fail to see why the notion of a good God is just as ridiculous as the notion of an evil God. The atheist has to do more than merely assert that both are equally ridiculous.

Fourthly, it is guilty of a false dichotomy. It assumes that God must be either good or evil, and since the notion of a good God and an evil God are both ridiculous, the notion of God is ridiculous. But there is a third option. Perhaps God is an amoral being, in which case moral categories do not apply to Him. In that case, the atheist’s arguments against either a good or evil God are impervious to the showing that God does not exist. The conclusion is non sequitar.

Fifthly, the evil-god objection is an attempt to show that the theist is not justified in thinking God is good. This is a red herring since the issue at hand is not our epistemic justification for thinking God is good, but whether or not the existence of (so much) evil in the world is compatible with the existence of a good God. The evil-god objection does nothing to show that a good God cannot co-exist with a world filled with evil. It only shows that perhaps God is evil, and it is good—rather than evil—that God permits for some morally sufficient reason. And thus the evil-god objection does nothing to bolster the argument against God from evil in the face of the theist’s defeater, yet alone offer an independent argument against God’s existence.

It’s worth pointing out that in the context of the debate, it is not the theist who is assuming that God is good, but the atheist. The argument against God from evil could not be made unless one first assumes that God is good (the existence of evil surely would not disprove an evil god).The theist is merely responding to the argument as it is presented to him. It is not his burden to show that God is good, but only to show that the atheist’s argument against a good God on the basis of evil in the world is not sound. And he does so by showing that God may have a morally sufficient reason for permitting the evil that, due to our epistemic limitations, we are not privy to.

Sixthly, even if we agreed with the atheist that we are assuming without sufficient justification that God is good, this would not demonstrate that God does not exist. Neither would it demonstrate that the theist’s defeater is not successful. At best it demonstrates that we can’t know whether God is good or evil, and thus we could not know whether God is permitting good or permitting evil. But whether God is good or evil, and whether God permits good or evil, the principle of the theist’s defeater still undercuts the argument from evil because it demonstrates that we cannot argue from the mere observation that evil or good exists, to the idea that there is no God. Any God—whether good or evil—could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing things to occur in the world that are contrary to His nature, and thus the existence of such things in the world does not prove that God does not exist, or make His existence unlikely.

(3) Ironically, rather than arguing that the theist’s response to the problem of evil fails in its attempt to provide a good explanation for how God could exist and yet things occur in the world that are opposed to His nature, the atheist cedes the force of the theist’s defeater in principle by adopting its form and just changing the particulars. He responds to the theist’s defeater by pointing out that the same theodicy could be used in reverse to explain why an evil god permits (so much) good in the world, and thus for all the theist knows, God’s nature could be evil, and it is good – not evil – that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting. But the atheist needs to prove that God (probably) does not exist—not that we can’t know whether the God who exists is good or evil! And yet this is all the evil-god objection gets you. It would be a strange form of atheism that admits the existence of a God, but is merely agnostic concerning His moral nature!

If the theist’s defeater was logically fallacious, or failed to adequately explain how the existence of a good God is compatible with the presence of (so much) evil in the world, surely the atheist would point out the flaw in the defeater rather than employ it in reverse to argue that have just as much reason to believe in an evil God as a good God. By changing the subject from the compatibility of God and evil to the theist’s lack of epistemic justification for thinking God is good, the atheist fails to rebut or undercut the theist’s defeater, and implicitly acknowledges that the theist’s defeater does succeed in undercutting the atheist’s argument against God from evil.


[1]Edward Feser, “‘Broken Law’ (Updated)”; available from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/broken-law.html; Internet; accessed 15 November 2011.

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