In response to my post on evil and the fairness of God, Timothy Mills offered a few friendly but probing questions from an atheistic (Humanist) perspective than I wanted to highlight and interact with here. In particular, he noted:
I wouldn’t say that evil is only a problem for theism. But it does present special problems for theistic viewpoints that it does not for non-theistic viewpoints.
There are ample hypotheses that present plausible means by which we might have acquired our moral sense through natural selection. So I would say that atheists have access to “origin of morality” explanations just as theists do. I find explanations based on a creator god to be flat and unsatisfying; many theists find evolutionary explanations of our morality to be similarly unsatisfying. As you say, neither approach is likely to provide a full and certain answer in this life. We must each decide for ourselves which uncertainties we are more comfortable with.
I actually agree with almost everything he says here, but I think he is only getting at half the problem. There are actually two types of questions when it comes to morality and evil: origins and obligations. That is, we have to explain both where evil came from, and why we are obligated to shun it even when that is not in our best interests. Bill Vallicella gets at this in a recent post, noting that logically speaking, whether a person can be “good” (by any particular definition) and whether they are obligated to conform to a particular definition of “good” are completely separate questions. When we see this, it becomes apparent that while atheists may have an easier time explaining the origins of evil and morality, theists have an easier time explaining our ongoing moral obligations.
When it comes to the origins of morality, there are unanswered questions for the atheist–for instance, how natural selection might have led us to value any particular trait that we value–but there is no good reason to think that such questions are, in principle, unanswerable. In fact, there isn’t even any reason why a theist could not accept such explanations, which are indeed less “flat” than, “God made us that way,” however true the latter may be. In short, this kind of approach is more at home in an atheistic worldview than a theistic one, even if its conclusions can be accepted by theists as well. More importantly, since evolution produces both good and evil, there is no mystery for the atheist about why our world is full of both, whereas the theist is forced to appeal to all manner of supplementary hypotheses to explain how we got from a perfect creator to a less than perfect creation. Though, obviously, I don’t think this problem is insurmountable, it is clear that theists have have the more difficult time with the origins of evil.
When it comes to moral obligations, however, the unanswered questions for the theists–i.e. how can we know God’s will–are essentially practical rather than logical, and not in principle unanswerable. That is to say, theists can be sure that there is a right answer to any particular moral question, even if we disagree on what it is (the same problem faced by any other area of human knowledge). But if the atheists are right that human beings are themselves the highest and only authority–and, obviously, humans disagree!–that leaves substantial logical problems to solve. After all, if our moral sense is merely the result of some natural process which is not itself moral, then while it may sometimes be useful to us, it is far from clear that we are under any obligation to follow its dictates when they are not. Here the fact that evolution’s gifts are a mixed bag–it has given us selfishness along with altruism, smallpox along with sentience–works against the atheist. For if we have no particular reason to accept the results of evolution in any other area, why morality?
The difficult question for atheists, then, is not how we came to believe that certain things are right or wrong in the first place, but why any individual should feel obligated to maintain those beliefs when they run counter to their own interests. Moreover, how do we justify rejecting some people’s moral viewpoints (e.g. those of racists or sociopaths), which are just as much a result of evolution as everything else? We, as individuals or societies, might choose to be “good” (and, obviously, many atheists do), but that still leaves the serious problem of explaining how we get from the “is” (evolution has trained some of us to think certain things are right and wrong) to the “ought” (every one of us must accept those views). It is one thing for an atheist to say that I choose to live according to such-and-such moral code (say, “killing infants is wrong”), but it is far more difficult for an atheist to justify the claim that they or anyone else is obligated to accept that, for where does that obligation come from, if not evolution? Of course, atheists do not think this problem is insurmountable any more than theists think the origin of evil is, but once again, the problem is not trivial, and is much more pressing for the atheist than for the theist.
Thus, while it is not really true that theists and atheists are in the same boat, evil is a problem for all of us. Theists have to explain where evil came from, and atheists have to explain why our own perceptions of what is evil amount to more than personal preference. The ironic thing, though, is that both sides quite often draw stock from the other’s viewpoint, even while arguing against it. On the one hand, theists commonly appeal to nature to justify their own moral claims (just think of the “it’s not natural” objection to gay rights), even while denying atheists the right to make the same move. On the other hand, atheists commonly treat evil as an absolute and universally recognizable thing (i.e. when they attack the religious or their views of God as perpetuating evil), while denying that good and evil are anything more than human constructs. For theists and atheists alike, then, what we unconsciously recognize and rely upon, and what we consciously believe and defend, are often at odds, which is no small part of why these debates remain endlessly controversial.