Answering Sam Harris and Epicurus

The Challenge

Near the end of last semester, I stumbled across the following speech by Sam Harris, noted atheist:

Here is the dilemma proposed by Harris: how can a good God exist in a world like ours? If millions of children are killed or die in agony every year, god must either be unable to help them, or he must not care. Also, how can God condemn people who grow up in other cultures, apart from Christianity, to eternal hell when they are only the victims of their cultures and he has more control than they do over the religions they are exposed to?

This is a complicated question that goes back to Epicurus and his famous paradox:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. 

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. 

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? 

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The Beginning of an Answer

The Christian response is short but complex: Whence cometh Justice?

C.S. Lewis was the first I read to articulate it. How can I complain about an unjust world? From where do I get the idea that children dying is an evil thing?

It’s obviously a bad thing right? No one in the world could imagine it to be a good thing (except in the obviously rare circumstances that you’re thinking of; don’t be a prick.)

But we must not be satisfied with an unexamined assumption. What makes the death of children evil? For that matter, what is evil in the first place?

There are, as I see it, two answers: 1) evil is that which I do not like, meaning evil is my preference for the way the world should be. Or, 2) evil is that which ought not to be, meaning evil is something that is contrary to the inherent nature of the world.

Part 1

If the first, then it is merely personal preference. With what authority do I say that there is evil in the world? With my own, of course. It is obvious to me that there are conditions, actions, events in the world that are not to my liking. I will term these things evil, and they gain strength from the agreement of others. Thus, when one man says that the U.S. government is evil, he can be easily shouted down because there are many that disagree with him, but if a man says that killing small children is evil, then most everyone will agree with him and it is very hard to disagree, but lack of disagreement is not exactly the same thing as truth is it?

So the first option is necessarily weak because it is grounded in an individual’s a priori assumption, and even en masse it only gains strength from the amount of people who think that way and not because of any further clarification of the reason people think that way. Evil is most often identified this way, but we should not be satisfied with this theory without asking ourselves “why should my personal preferences matter?” And we should realize “because they agree with everyone else” is not an acceptable answer—it is mere circular reasoning.

I’m often tempted here to interrupt and say “well it’s not just my personal preference: it’s the idea of justice.” That innocent people should suffer or die is an injustice, and justice is a definite concept that, while complex, is certainly definable and grounded in ideas of fairness and balance; guilt and innocence.

But this is merely semantics. Because when I said before that killing small children was evil, I merely meant unjust. And the reasoning is the same. It is evil because it is unfair, and I feel that unfairness is not right. But why? We cannot be satisfied with “because it’s not fair!” we must press forward and ask “why should the world be fair?”

It is quite obviously not fair. And it is just as obvious that we wish it was. We admire people who are fair and honest and not evil, but with what authority do we take this human virtue—the invention of fairness—and attribute it to the universe as a whole?

Part 2

And this leads to the second idea of evil. If it is more than merely the individual or collective preferences of our species, it must be part of the nature of the universe itself. It must be equivalent to the physical laws: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction and E = MC² and all that. But this can’t be true because, unlike the physical laws and constants, justice is not prevalent, nor constant, nor easily found. We identified physical laws because they are unbreakable and constants because they are always the same. Justice is constantly broken.

So then, if justice is a necessary part of the universe, a platform from which we can point an accusing finger at God himself, it is not because it is imminently observable. It must come from somewhere beyond nature. As such, there are only two possible sources of origin:

1) It comes from mankind, as a distinctly human invention of the highest organism in nature, but this means that its authority ends with man, especially if man himself is merely the incidental product of the universe’s natural processes.

2) It comes from God himself, as part of the divine nature that he has imparted to the universe and to human beings through through creation.

See justice must come from a mind beyond the physical universe because it is not an observable characteristic of that universe. It is a preference for an arrangement of the universe. (It is very difficult, by the way, to talk about justice in this scale—the universe. Maybe we should just say “the world”).

It is tempting to work our way around this idea by saying that maybe the idea of justice is simply the way the world usually is, its majority state, and injustice is how we describe things when that state breaks down. But this is not scientifically accurate. We have discovered that the world is nearly entirely relative. Things derive the characteristics of their existence (their speed, motion, time, and other physical characteristics that are translated to our senses) from their relationship to other things, none of which are stable. To say that justice is merely the natural, unbroken state of things, drags us back into Newtonian physics and a geocentric universe.  There is no stability in the universe, unless we isolate ourselves to one specific time frame and perspective; and this would necessarily lead us back into the same kind of question: “why do I prefer this time frame? This perspective?” And there seems to be no answer except mere preference.

Part 3

So rationally, reasonably speaking, it is a dangerous thing to point our fingers at God and accuse him of injustice (or failing to stop injustice; or being powerless to stop injustice). Because in doing so we either: elevate ourselves above God (if we believe in him) or speak a certain kind of nonsense that assumes that our personal preference is the greatest authority in the universe and stands on that assumption to disprove the existence of a supernatural being greater than ourselves. It is nonsense: complex nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

So, when a jackass like Sam Harris has the nerve to condescendingly come to us—the religious—with his complaints about the injustice of our God, the simple response is “says you!”. One who makes a moral judgment must at least have the wherewithal to define for themselves what morality is, because any scientifically literate person knows that it is impossible to derive morality from materialism (and materialism is the basis for science). An atheist like Sam Harris, then, is really in a laughable situation to offer moral criticism of any religious system. Unless, of course, they criticize it for internal consistency; here again, however, one is confronted with the particular difficulty of religions: it is terribly hard to understand their belief systems without actually holding their beliefs in earnest. Those who adopt a belief system merely to criticize almost always do great harm to their subject.

Now, of course, this is only the beginning of an answer to Harris’s question, but from it all other answers must flow. I intend to continue exploring this idea for the next few posts.


About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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