George Pell missed an opportunity

In 2016, Pell wrote an essay titled “A wise reply to atheism’s strongest argument”. It gets off to a bad start — don’t brag about how wise your answer is before you’ve even given it — but it gets even worse.

You might be wondering what atheism’s strongest argument might be, and I’ll cut to the chase: Pell thinks it’s the argument from evil. Personally, I don’t find it very compelling or interesting, because it presupposes a god whose purposes we’re supposed to be arguing over, but OK, I can see where a Catholic would find it relevant. And then…this is child rapist George Pell. I would think he’s spent a lot of time contemplating evil, rationalizing evil acts, fantasizing about evil, condemning evil people, practicing evil. He’s an evil authority! If anyone is going to be an expert on justifying how god would allow evil to persist, it’s a devout evil-doer who has to be having an interesting internal monologue on the acts he has committed.

Evil and suffering constitute the most formidable argument against monotheism, for those who believe in the existence of one good and transcendent Creator God.

So I settled down to read a challenging argument about how a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient being could co-exist with evil in his personal hand-made universe, and boy was I disappointed. The entirety of his argument is one paragraph. One short paragraph. Most of the essay is namedropping philosophers and theologians and explaining how the resurgence of atheism should jolt us out of our silence and indifference because oh, this is such an important question, and isn’t suffering such a wonderful gift from God yadda yadda yadda. The Catholic bullshit gets thick in there.

But here is the one paragraph which purports to answer the whole Problem of Evil.

I believe that the intellectual arguments now available to be drawn from biology (the discovery of DNA) and from physics and chemistry and the fantastic improbabilities necessary for evolution from the Big Bang to humans, mean that the rational or metaphysical path to the Supreme Intelligence is easier for us than in the past. Thinkers are coming to God from or through science.

It’s lies and nonsense through and through, and it isn’t even relevant to the question.

The intellectual arguments from biology and physics and chemistry are all about the fundamentally natural properties of our universe. They don’t say a god did it; they say chemistry happens whether a god wills it or not. The probability argument is not an answer to the evil argument, and you can’t use improbability to claim that the current state of life couldn’t possibly arise without design and purpose. Also, the more science you’ve got in your life, the less need you have for silly mythology, so no, with few exceptions, scientists aren’t suddenly flocking to church every Sunday.

This isn’t what I’d be interested to hear from Pell. God did wicked things; George Pell sexually molested 13 year old boys. Is he going to claim that DNA and physics and chemistry and biology compelled him to force his penis into a child’s mouth? That it was fantastically improbable that he was wracked with sexual obsessions, therefore God must have made him do it? Save it for the trial defense. I’d like to hear how a man who thinks he is good can commit gross, unforgivable crimes.

Maybe I should just read Dostoevsky instead.


  1. says

    Since you don’t like what Pedophile Pell had to say here’s a perspective on the problem of evil from a medieval Muslim philosopher, Al-Ghazali. Yes I know he was supposed to be anti-philosophy but he actually opposed speculative philosophy and considered reasoning and logic as legitimate pursuits. His view was that there were two types of evil. The first, natural evil, the wasp parasitising the caterpillar that supposedly gave Darwin nightmares kind of evil was not a problem for science or faith because that was the way the world worked. In his view it wasn’t good for the caterpillar but it was beneficial to the wasp. That sort of evil was relative.. The other kind was the evil we create ourselves. In Al-Ghazali’s view we know the difference between right and wrong and we have a choice between the two. We can do what is right or we can rationalise and try to justify doing wrong. In the end we are accountable for our choices. Now Al-Ghazali considered us accountable to God in the final instance but also accountable to the society we live in.I think Al would be happy to see Pell get his just desserts but I don’t think Pell would have much time for him. He is not exactly fond of Muslims.

  2. weylguy says

    Dr. Myers, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was indeed the turning pojnt for me regarding the problem of evil (aka theodicy), so it puzzles me that you’re brushing it off here, as I see no more compelling reason to reject the notion of a benevolent, omnipotent God. It’s the same problem that made the erstwhile Christian fundamentalist Bart Ehrman turn atheist, which he documents in his 2005 book God’s Problem.

    Regarding Pell, I think he’s laboring under the same “my genes made me do it” alibi that so many Christian leaders have resorted to as an excuse their monstrous behaviors, although by blaming physics and chemistry he seems to be blaming science itself — perhaps it’s also meant as a subtle stab at higher education and the need for true believers to remain ignorant and stupid.

  3. says

    Sorry, I think you’ve missed the crux of that article. It’s not an essay, it’s a book review of a book by Fr Purcell called Where is God in Suffering? and it’s that that Pell is calling a wise response.

  4. Bruce says

    Pell’ “wise reply” shows that, not only has he not read or understood books on evolution, he’s actually never even understood the TITLE of the book “Climbing Mount Improbable.”

  5. says

    Hypocritical virtuecrat Pell
    Whose evil acts we know too well
    Is a damn lucky sod
    In that there is no God
    Else he’d surely be roasting in Hell.

  6. Matthew Herron says

    The argument from evil doesn’t show that there’s no god, but it does show that there’s no omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent god.

  7. aziraphale says

    Assume his argument works to support the existence of a Supreme Intelligence. Given the amount of suffering in the world the most likely conclusion is that the Supreme Intelligence is either evil or indifferent to suffering. I don’t think that’s what he wanted to prove.

  8. zetopan says

    “There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.” Isaac Asimov

  9. Gregory Greenwood says

    The Epicurean Problem of Evil is extremely relevant and a fantastic counter to religion apologist blather, because the vast majority of main stream theists are arguing in favour of what is supposed to be a benign, omni-benevolent god (despite how horrifically their god is depicted in many of their own religious texts). This notion of theirs that their god is not only good, but is the ultimate and final expression and well spring of everything that has been, is, or ever could be good, is absolutely central to their belief system.

    They have no interest in arguing for a vision of god that is malicious, apathetic, or so alien that it doesn’t recognise our concepts of morality at all and would not be out of place in an H P Lovecraft story – they are trying (and failing, as usual) to argue for an idealised, heavily spin doctored version of Yahweh as some imaginary quintessence of ‘goodness’, not for Azathoth. The second they are forced to admit that they can’t make a credible case for a ‘good’ god is the second they cede ground on their religion to an irrecoverable degree. It is hard to snidely say to atheists ‘can you be good without god?’ when they can’t even claim with a straight face that their imaginary magic friend in the sky has any interest in a good and just world.

    The true fanatics may well soldier on regardless, just a small smidge more to their freight of cognitive dissonance, but the less deluded among the faithful might begin to question, and we all know how corrosive questions honestly asked are to the kind of blind faith that not only maintains the power and wealth of the church, but also creates cover for vile child rapists like Pell. Every person who actually stops to really think about the patently ludicrous claims of their faith is another crack in the edifice of lies and corruption commonly known as religion.

  10. says

    #6 has it right on. If you’ve already dismissed the notion of god because it is superfluous and explains nothing, then arguing about the nature of the nonexistent god seems like a pointless exercise.

  11. Aaron Baker says

    “If you’ve already dismissed the notion of god because it is superfluous and explains nothing, then arguing about the nature of the nonexistent god seems like a pointless exercise.”

    True enough, but there are a A LOT of ways of getting to disbelief. My ongoing inability to wrap my head around a benevolent god in charge of this particular world has been as responsible as anything else for my rejection of Christianity.

    (I did also read John Mackie’s Miracle of Theism years go, and was struck by how weak the case for theism is. I haven’t seen any significant improvement on the arguments for God that have been offered since Mackie wrote his book.

  12. Gregory Greenwood says

    Aaron Baker @ 11 has a point – when someone is trying to find their way out of the snare of religious delusion, then it could be any of a wide variety of steps that sets them on the path toward rejecting harmful superstition. For a lot of former theists, it is the very fact that they can’t square the often bloody, violent and unjust world they see around them with the notion of an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and yet also omni-benevolent god that first sows the seeds of doubt in their mind.

    Once they start to question that one assumption, that is when the entire tapestry of lies begins to unravel, a process that may ultimately lead them to a position of rejecting the entire god construct as failing to explain anything or be of any intellectual value, but such a rejection will likely be the end point, not the start, of the process.

  13. unclefrogy says

    the rational or metaphysical path to the Supreme Intelligence is easier for us than in the past. Thinkers are coming to God from or through science.

    OK that is what I find irritating with the arguments for belief coming from the religious believers.
    while it is being found that the world nature and the cosmos are susceptible to being explained by reasoned analysis. At no place along the way to understanding the intelligible nature of the reality we see do we find any thing that would suggest that any of the numberless gods man has created have any existence out side of the tales that contain them. At best all we can say is that they are a personification of some aspect of reality into some distinct entity. nothing would lead to Pell’s god by name.
    If you remove all of the folk magical accretions and the poetic language the ancient Chinese idea of the Tao transposed into modern western language comes closer then “holy bible” and the authority of the pope.
    uncle frogy

  14. bachfiend says


    Yes, that’s about the only way of making a supreme god plausible. God knew Pell was going to sin, didn’t want him to sin, but was powerless to stop him. Or he knew he was going to sin, could have stopped him, and didn’t care. Or he didn’t know Pell was going to sin, but didn’t know he was going to sin, but could have stopped him if he had known.

  15. says

    @lochaber & bachfiend:

    pick two

    I’ve always been curious about this. I don’t disagree with the naive formulation, but if a being is omnipotent, then it has the power to make itself Omniscient. Being benevolent, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that making oneself omniscient is morally mandated since you can do so much more good that way and failing to do so is, essentially, willful ignorance of evil. A benevolent being wouldn’t wish to be willfully ignorant of evil.

    Thus the only possible combinations I see are “Omniscience + Benevolence” or “Omniscience + Omnipotence”.

    “Omnipotence + Benevolence” is apparently right out.

  16. shikko says

    #14: lochaber said:

    pick two

    Not even. Omniscient + omnipotent presents an immediate contradiction: an omniscient being can’t learn, forget, or be surprised, so can’t be omnipotent. Omnibenevolent + omnipotent have something similar: omnibenevolence precludes the capacity to sin, so an omnibenevolent being can’t be omnipotent.

    I don’t see an immediate contradiction of omniscient and omnibenevolent, so that may be the only twofer that stands on its own, but if there is an omniscient being, there cannot be free will, so that causes its own set of problems.

  17. nomdeplume says

    It is a mistake to think that people like Pell are arguing about anything within a logical framework. They are incapable of doing so. Having been brainwashed as children to not only believe that all of their own sect’s propositions are true, utterly true, but to be capable of arguing against any dissenting views, they are only capable of performing as the brainwashing has determined. No independent thought, no objective analysis of evidence, no ability to have your ideas changed by facts, is possible to the brainwashed.

  18. shikko says

    #16: Crip Dyke said:
    …if a being is omnipotent, then it has the power to make itself Omniscient. Being benevolent, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that making oneself omniscient is morally mandated since you can do so much more good that way and failing to do so is, essentially, willful ignorance of evil. A benevolent being wouldn’t wish to be willfully ignorant of evil.

    Omnipotence is an automatic game-ender: not only does it Russel’s Paradox itself, it causes paradoxes with the other two omni- qualities. So the only possible combo left is benevolence and omniscience….or the time-honoured goalpost-shifting around the definition of omnipotence.

    An omniscient being can’t be wilfully ignorant of evil: it would be cursed with the knowledge of literally all evil ever done, being done, or yet to come. But it could accept, or even approve of, that evil without contradiction.

  19. chrislawson says


    I didn’t read that line as dismissing Dostoyevsky. I read it as saying “at least Dostoyevsky made something close to this argument with intelligence and style compared to Pell’s smug, blathering non-sequiturs.”

  20. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @6, 10, 11, etc.: I think that the argument from evil is empirically and practically a really good argument. The reason why is simple. We can pretend all day long that the claim of a Christian or any other theist is “A God exists”. But that just ain’t so. It’s “My God is good, and does stuff, and it’s worth praying to It”. The argument from evil is a slam dunk in response to that. Either there’s a God that is powerless for some reason to intervene, or a God that can’t hear us, or a God that is callous, or any number of other possibilities. What just is vastly improbable is a good, omnipotent, omniscient God with a valid excuse to have made exactly the world that we see.

    I don’t think Leibniz realized how powerful a tool against many forms of religion he developed with the idea of the greatest possible universe. The Christian (or Muslim or Jew) literally has to show that this is the most ethical possible universe anyone could possibly design. It’s a fairly insurmountable challenge.

  21. John Morales says

    So, I took a look. James Burtoft @3 is correct.

    I think PZ misread the essay; as I make it, the actual rebutting paragraph (and its coda) is this:

    Purcell does not try to whitewash the situation, because suffering and evil are the great mystery. But goodness, truth and beauty also require an explanation.

    Believers and the overwhelming majority of people know that they outweigh the sadness, even in this life.

    That is, if good is positive and evil is negative, their total summation is positive.

    Interestingly, Pell seemingly repudiates the concept of God’s omnipotence:

    Indeed, atheism is based on a rejection of the world as it is, an exaltation of feeling above reason and a hatred of the human freedom which God gave us and does not control.

    (Seemingly, because choosing not to control something does not entail not being able to do so)

    shikko @19:

    Omnipotence is an automatic game-ender: not only does it Russel’s Paradox itself, it causes paradoxes with the other two omni- qualities.

    No, it doesn’t.

  22. says

    I want to see someone really mess with a Christian apologist by making the case that the problem of evil is not actually a defeater for God(s), period…just for their idea of Yahweh. And that it’s actually very good evidence for maltheism, i.e., an insane/evil/absent/irresponsible God. And that this may very well be Yahweh.

    Bonus points if they faint, soil themselves on stage, or have a cerebrovascular/cardiovascular event.

  23. thirdmill says

    I don’t believe in god because I see no evidence for the existence of god, and I candidly think these conversations about reconciling benevolence with the evil in the world are a waste of time. If god exists, then one of the perks of being god is that he doesn’t owe you any explanations. The universe isn’t a democracy in which your opinion as to what is right or wrong or just or unjust matters. As an absolute monarch, as the lord of the universe, god’s answer to everything is “because I said so.” In fact, St Paul says as much in the Epistle to the Romans:

    “Nay, but O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?” Romans 9:20-21. Say what you like about the Apostle Paul, at least he was internally consistent.

    I agree with whomever it was that said that the God of the Bible is the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. But at the end of the day, since there is no evidence he exists anywhere other than fiction, he can be as unpleasant as he likes. As with other unpleasant fictional characters like Simon Legree and Madame Defarge.

  24. DanDare says

    Pell and others like him are not really trying to make sound argument. They are producing PR for their audience.

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