There’s a common Christian apologetic: a defense for why a god who’s supposedly all- powerful, all- knowing, and all- good still allows evil to flourish. You’re probably familiar with it. It says that in order to have free will, people have to be free to choose evil… and free will is an inherently greater good than not- free- will, one that more than counterbalances the evil that’s required for this free will to exist.
Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism was recently blogging about this apologetic: he’s written about it well and thoroughly, more than once, and I don’t have a huge amount to add. But I do have a particular take on it, and I’d like to share it with the rest of the class.
Let’s take two people: Person A, and Person B.
Person A is born into relative prosperity — not stinking rich, but comfortable — to loving parents who take good care of him and teach him good values. He gets a good education, good nutrition, good shelter and health care, and has a general sense of security throughout his upbringing. He is born with relative good health, both mental and physical. His education and the relative prosperity of his family make it possible, and indeed fairly easy, for him to go to an excellent college, and to choose from any number of satisfying careers that he happens to have an aptitude for.
Person B is born into poverty, to parents who are abusive, neglectful, and/or absent. He is underfed, he attends lousy schools, his neighborhood surrounds him with crime and violence, he rarely if ever sees a doctor, he often wonders where his next meal is coming from. He may find himself in the foster care system at an early age. He may have mental health problems: perhaps difficulty controlling his anger. Unless he is unusually bright or gifted, his education and family situation will make it extremely difficult, if not wildly unlikely, that he’ll be able go to any college at all, and will make his career options limited to say the least.
It’s pretty well- documented that B is more likely to do bad things — to commit crimes, and make bad, even evil choices — than Person A. It’s not a guarantee, of course: Person A may wind up being a meth dealer or a mugger, or indeed a banker who bilks ordinary people out of their life savings in a mortgage scam; Person B may wind up being an epidemiologist or a social worker, or indeed a janitor who treats his neighbors and family well and volunteers at the rec center on weekends. But the odds are much more in favor of A than B. I think few people would argue with that.
Let’s get back to free will, and to God.
Person B is surrounded by badness everywhere, and the choice to do evil is readily offered to him on a daily, indeed on an hourly basis. Evil is the easy choice for him, even the obvious one. Person A can certainly choose to do evil, but he has much less motivation to do so. The choice to do good is relatively easy for him.
Does that mean that Person A doesn’t have free will?
And if not — if Person A has free will — then why on earth doesn’t God make everybody a Person A?
If relative comfort and security are not incompatible with free will, then why didn’t God create a world in which all of us have that? And if evil is really necessary for free will, then why didn’t God create a world in which all of us live in poverty, violence, and hopelessness?
According to this apologetic, we need to be presented with the choice to do evil in order for our choice of good to have meaning. And yet, if you believe in this particular version of God, then you have to accept that he has created a world in which people are presented with these choices in wildly different degrees. For many people, the choice to do good is relatively easy; for many, many others, that choice is far more difficult. Why the discrepancy? If all these people are equally free, despite having such wildly different opportunities and motivations to choose evil, then doesn’t that put a gigantic hole in the idea that the opportunity and motivation to choose evil is necessary for free will?
Does that make any kind of sense at all?
And think about this. One of the human activities that we think of most strongly as “doing good” is working to change people’s circumstances so they’re less likely to make bad choices, and to give them more opportunities to make good ones. Anti- poverty work, education, prevention of domestic violence… that’s considered doing good. Trying to shape people’s lives — and indeed, their emotions and their minds — so they’re less likely to do bad things, and in fact are less motivated to do bad things… that’s considered doing good. Pretty much a textbook definition of it.
If evil is necessary for free will, then are these people actually doing harm by reducing evil and thus diminishing free will?
And if these people are actually doing good, then why doesn’t God do good in the same way?
And don’t argue “mysterious ways” or “we have no way of understanding what ‘good’ means to God.” If you say that God is still good despite behaving in ways that we would call despicably evil in humans, you’re essentially rendering the whole concept of good and evil meaningless.
I read a metaphor recently (
which I now can’t find again — if anybody has a link, please let me know link found — thanks, Adele!) that explains this beautifully. A woman is brutally raped and murdered on the street, and twelve policemen stand by, watching and doing nothing. When asked why they did nothing, they each say things like, “This evil act gave some passerby the opportunity to do good by stopping it.” “This evil act is necessary for both the victim’s and the rapist’s spiritual growth.” And — most pertinent to this discussion — “People have make their own choices in order for free will to be meaningful: if I stopped this rape, it would negate the rapist’s free will.”
It’s laughable. At best. Unremittingly wicked and grotesquely irresponsible at worst.
And if it’s laughable, irresponsible, and wicked for the policeman, then why isn’t it for God?
If evil is a necessary part of God’s plan to give us free will, then we should all have roughly the same exposure to evil, and roughly the same opportunity and motivation to commit it. We clearly don’t. And the fact that we don’t makes this apologetic a complete joke.