For many centuries, the problem of evil has been regarded as one of the most prominent challenges to theistic belief. Recently, however, some religious apologists have tried to turn this history on its head by suggesting that evil actually constitutes an argument for God’s existence rather than against it. Frank Turek is one such apologist who has made this claim.1 He argues that evil is the privation of good, which means it cannot be understood apart from good. Turek believes theists have a better account of goodness in God than atheists can have, and so he takes this as an argument for theism instead of against it.
Does the atheist need an account of goodness – specifically an objective one, as Turek thinks – in order to rebut this argument? I will argue she does not, that this is a red herring given what the argument from evil really entails. First, though, we will turn our attention to the privative view of evil. While this theory has traction among a number of Thomistic theologians and philosophers, the vast majority of philosophers and ethicists do not accept it, whether they are theists or not.
One common objection to this position is to accuse the theist holding it of denying the reality of evil. This would seem to be a mistake when what is actually being said is not that evil does not exist but that it does not exist apart from good. Aquinas and others have only sought to dispute the idea that evil has some nature of its own, arguing instead that it depends on the nature of something else which it exists in. This shows that it’s not the mere absence of good that makes something evil, but the absence of good from a thing where it would otherwise be present.
Understanding this helps point us to one of the strongest criticisms of the privation view. If there are evils that exist and yet do not fit this description, this poses a problem for the theory. One example would be physical pain. There is something about such pain that tells us it’s more than a mere absence of something good. In his paper, “Evil and Privation”, G. Stanley Kane writes:
There is a marked difference between a limb which merely lacks feeling – is numb or paralyzed or anesthetized – and one which is racked with pain. In the former case it is quite plausible to say that there is merely a privation of something, namely normal feeling, that under usual circumstances would belong to the limb. But it is clearly inadequate to describe a limb aching with pain as suffering merely a privation of good health or normal feeling. When pain occurs in the body, there is something new and different in a person’s experience which is not present when the body has simply lost feeling.2
The theist favoring privation theory could suggest there is a relevant distinction here between pain as an evil and pain as an experienced quality. The trouble here is that this implies there is something to an experienced pain, something positive, that distinguishes it from a mere privation, like the limb that has lost feeling. But this would then make experienced pain a good on the privation theory. Likewise, arguing that there is some larger thing missing in the case of the limb aching with pain is unlikely to be of benefit. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of an idea as to what this could be, when there is no basis for assigning a greater or lesser sense of well-being to either limb in the example.
Kane also points out that moral evil is poorly accounted for by this theory, as it eliminates the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Both sins are made equal, and there is the strongly counter-intuitive depiction of heinous evils like murder or rape as being evil in no way except that they are privations of love or right action. These are just some of the reasons why this view is widely rejected, and I think they are compelling reasons.
Now, if the privation theory is false, the line of argument claiming that evil is evidence for God goes out with it. Demanding the atheist provide an account for good, or for evil, won’t suffice to show anything like this claim to be true in the absence of a cogent argument. But we can push things further than this, too. In fact, there is good reason for thinking that the argument offered by Turek and other apologists is wholly inadequate at addressing the problem of evil, before we even consider privation theory.
A theory on the nature of evil is not the same thing as a theodicy. One tries to tell us what evil is while the other puts forward an explanation for why an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god allows some evils. A theodicy is notably not an argument for God’s existence. The privative view of evil doesn’t even begin to address the question of why certain evils exist, and as we’ve seen, it is not committed to denying that evil exists, so this is a question the privation theorist still needs to answer.
Early advocates of privation theory, like Augustine and Aquinas, put forward a theodicy in addition to their view on the nature of evil. Both men took seriously the idea that God must have a morally sufficient reason for allowing an evil to exist. For example, Augustine’s theodicy focuses a lot on free will. These facts throw a substantial wrench into the argument we’ve been looking at here because a theodicy, by its nature, accepts that there are facts about evil in the world that are in need of explanation on a theistic worldview. If evil were actually an argument for God, there would be no need for theodicy. Augustine and Aquinas seemed to recognize that evil, even defined as a privation of good, makes no case for the existence of God.
Many modern day theistic philosophers recognize this, too. John Hick explains in his book, Evil and the God of Love, that the task of theodicy acknowledges that evil, by itself, counts against theistic belief.3 Most religious believers, he says, understand their belief in God as one which could conceivably be mistaken, and the existence of evil is one challenge to that belief. Richard Swinburne has articulated the epistemic principle he calls the Principle of Credulity, which states that, “other things being equal, it is rational to believe that things are as they seem to be.”4 This must be our starting point because if all our beliefs had to be justified by other beliefs before they could be believed with any justification, then none of our beliefs could ever be justified. Theodicy, Swinburne sees, strives for the goal of showing why the evils that seem initially to be pointless are not really pointless.
This helps to expose another big problem behind the argument we have been considering. Arguments from evil proceed on an epistemic claim about the facts of evil, so they don’t require a commitment to any particular moral ontology. We can understand evil to be a bad or undesirable state of affairs. There’s no reason to think an evil will suddenly cease to be evil if it is permitted with some greater purpose in mind – it will simply be a morally justified evil in that case. If we accept an epistemic principle like the Principle of Credulity, we can rationally believe apparently pointless evils are pointless unless and until there is indication to the contrary.
The debate here is not about whether an evil really is evil, but about whether an evil is pointless or not, and this is something entirely side-stepped by theistic assertions alleging that evil is proof of God’s existence. To engage in that debate is to admit evil is at least prima facie evidence against God, but to try and do without a theodicy is to leave the argument from evil unanswered.
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1. Frank Turek, “It May Just be that Evil Disproves Atheism…” YouTube (June 3, 2016).
2. G. Stanley Kane, “Evil and Privation,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11, no. 1 (1980): 49.
3. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Palgrave: New York, 2010), p. 371.
4. Richard Swinburne, “Does Theism Need a Theodicy?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18, no. 2 (June 1988): 292.