The Problem of Evil

( Freethought Today - June-July 2003 )

(adapted from Gazette column - February 23, 2003)

By James A. Haught

I live in the edge of the woods, in a two-house compound with a son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren. Around my porch, I stock feeders with sunflower seed, ears of corn and wild bird seed. The grandkids and I delight in watching a half-dozen squirrels frolic up and down trees, munching food, spilling seeds that attract fluttering birds.

The other day, something hideous happened. A large brown hawk swooped down, seized a shrieking squirrel, killed it with terrible talons, and flew away with the body. I was stunned and sickened. I'm thankful that the children didn't see it.

I felt rage at the vicious hawk. But I simmered down, realizing that hawks must live by eating smaller animals. They can't eat berries. They have no choice but to be killers.

This set me to brooding: Why is nature so cruel - with sharks ripping seals apart, spiders paralyzing insects, cheetahs slaughtering baby antelopes, cobras killing Indian children, foxes killing rabbits, gulls swallowing baby turtles, anacondas strangling piglets, etc.?

If all of nature was designed by a loving, compassionate, merciful Father, something is out of whack. Surely such a Creator wouldn't make ruthless predators like the hawk that killed my half-tame squirrel.

And the problem involves many other horrors besides killer animals. Why would a beneficent Creator design breast cancer to kill women, leukemia to kill children, parasites to ravage Africans, etc.? Why would a loving Creator craft tornados to kill defenseless mobile home residents, earthquakes to kill thousands in India, hurricane floods to drown multitudes of Hondurans, volcanos to exterminate islanders, and famines to starve skeletal Sudanese children?

If there's "intelligent design," as Creation advocates contend, what does all this say about the designer? No human would design such horrible tortures. With all our faults, people are kinder than that.

In philosophy, this dilemma is called "the problem of evil." It has been debated ever since Ancient Greece -- and nobody has found a credible answer. Epicurus asked how a kindly Deity could do nothing about rampant suffering. Voltaire cited a ghastly Lisbon earthquake as an example of sheer cruelty. Thinkers have pondered variations of this puzzle through the centuries.

Mark Twain discussed one aspect in "Letters from the Earth":
"The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider, and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the -- well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill. They are all murderers."

Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed another aspect in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." The book ponders the baffling puzzle: Why did God let the rabbi's son die of a horrible disease, despite all prayers?

Most intelligent clergymen discreetly stay silent on this maddening question. But a few shallow thinkers offer answers. Charles Colson, the Watergate crook who underwent a fundamentalist conversion, wrote a 1999 book titled "The Problem of Evil." In it, he contends that the all-loving God created a pure paradise in Eden, where people never got sick, animals didn't eat each other (lions ate grass, presumably), and natural tragedies didn't occur. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they brought evil into the world: Lions began eating antelopes, people got cancer, earthquakes and tornados ravaged the planet, etc.

I'm amazed that a former White House lawyer has such a childish concept of reality. He missed an obvious point: If disease, death, disasters and devastation came to the world as punishment for fruit-biting, it's inescapable that the merciful God either sent or allowed the horrors. Thus they're attributable to him.

For thinking people, there's only one possible answer to the age-old problem of evil: The all-loving Father proclaimed by many faiths cannot exist. Simple logic makes this conclusion unavoidable. Logic doesn't preclude a sadistic Creator - but it rules out a compassionate one. I wonder why this obvious bit of reason never penetrates the world of theology?

(Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette, has written a book on the history of religious doubt, "2000 Years of Disbelief." He can be reached by e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com or postal mail at The Charleston Gazette, 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301.)