Catholic Sense 3

Reply to Your Neighborhood Atheist

By David Mills

You have begun to say something about the Church or about our Lord, when the office atheist shouts “Children with leukemia!”, with all the assurance of a gambler laying down a royal flush when you’ve put all the money you have in the pot. He thinks he’s laid down an unbeatable argument against the existence of God, and that you ought to give up right away.

Many of us look away and shuffle our feet when someone throws the suffering of children at us as an argument against God. It really does seem like the royal flush of religious arguments.

It comes in two versions. The simple one argues that really, really bad things happen in the world and therefore God can’t exist. That is the one we hear most often. It’s simple and easy to remember, so people use it.

The more sophisticated version argues that God must be both all powerful and perfectly loving, but the evil in the world shows that either he isn’t all powerful or he isn’t perfectly loving. He either can’t overcome evil or he doesn’t want to. In either case, he isn’t God.

The philosophers and theologians have given us several answers to what is called the problem of evil, but the kind of person who yells “Children with leukemia!” probably doesn’t want to think hard enough to engage their arguments. Their arguments are not arguments for the water cooler.

We may look at their answers another time, but here I want to suggest something you can say that might at least make your office atheist back down, and just might — though it’s a long shot — actually get him to think.

Simply point out that he has an equally big problem, by asking him, “So why is there something and not nothing?” You may have the problem of explaining why God allows children to die of leukemia, but he has the problem of explaining why we have the world we do and why we’re here at all to ask questions like his.

He likes a lot of things in the world around him, like sunshine, his children, hamburgers, and the Penguins, at least this year. He knows some things are good, like feeding the hungry, and some things are wrong, like abusing children. He believes the world operates according to rational laws.

But how does he explain this? The Christian can begin with “God created the heavens and the earth,” but the neighborhood atheist, what can he say that makes sense of the world? He has a problem at least as big as yours.
Of course, he may dig in his heels and declare “It just happened.” If he does, you can respond to his “Children with leukemia!” with “God has his reasons.” If he wants to appeal to a mystery, you can too.

In any case, as arguments go, it is at least a tie, which in this case is all you can hope for.

Your atheist friend may instead say something about the Big Bang, and the primordial soup, and atoms somehow coming together to form life, and evolution, and adventurous fish crawling up on land, and fish becoming mammals, and one of those mammals starting to think for himself and becoming man.

He will think this story an adequate answer to your challenge. It isn’t, but let’s assume for now that it is. Even if it were an adequate answer, it undermines his original objection to your belief in God. What he has said is that the universe is here by accident. Everything: the sun and the earth, the plants and the animals, the mosquito and the butterfly, the plague bacillus and the rose, him, you.

If the world is just an accident, he can’t complain about evil. Because if everything came into being accidentally, nothing is good or evil. The world is morally neutral. It’s just there.

Let’s go back to his objection. If he’s right about the universe, leukemia is just a biological process, like the atoms coming together in the primordial soup. The child himself is just a biological process. The leukemia cells have as much right to live as the child they invade.

And lots of animals have disappeared through the ages, so why not man? Why not this particular child? It’s all part of the evolutionary struggle and the survival of the fittest. It’s not good, it’s not evil, it’s just the way things are.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, one has to believe in some sort of God — some superior being who can measure good and evil — in order to deny that God exists. But that’s the atheist’s problem, not yours.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on 14 September 2009.