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Evil is the absence of God
| Part of the series on|
Logic and rhetoric
“”Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
"Evil is the absence of God" is a supposedly logical argument that attempts to solve the problem of evil by explaining that "evil" does not exist as a positive, but is simply the relative lack of God.
Proponents also deploy the argument to address the apparent contradiction that arises from combining the existence of an omnipresent, omnibenevolent God with the existence of evil (since, if God is in all things and if God is 100% good, one would not expect patently evil things to exist...).
One way to phrase this argument would be: "Claiming that a situation is evil because of God's presence is like claiming an ice cube is cold because of the energy it contains."
This thinly veiled sleight-of-hand also has the added benefit that if "the absence of God" is indeed allowed to share definition with "evil", then atheism (or one's choice of heresy) inherently becomes evil, without the need to argue for or against specifics.
The "argument" itself basically follows like this.
Question: Does evil exist?
- Darkness is not a thing, in and of itself. Darkness is simply a comparative lack of light.
- In the same way, cold is not actually "created". It is simply an area that has less heat (energy) in relation to some other area (or in relation to an expected amount of heat)
- Equally, we can say the same about evil. Evil does not exist as something created by or emanating from God. Evil is a relative absence of God.
Perhaps the most famous rendition of this argument is in the urban legend that circulates in e-mail and social networks which tells of a young student in smart-alec debate with his strawman atheist professor.
After explaining to his idiot professor that cold and dark are not created by heat and light (they are, rather, the absence of heat and of light), the bold young student goes on to explain that, despite his professor's foolish belief to the contrary, evil does not have a manifest existence from God, either; instead, evil is the absence of God. The strawman professor is dumbstruck.
That student's name was . . . Dunh, dunh, DUNH . . . Albert Einstein.[citation NOT needed]
Criticism of the argument
The argument relies on a fallacy known as mistaking the map for the territory. The principal error is that even though cold does not exist as a physical quantity, the sensation of cold, as perceived by humans, clearly does exist. Similarly, regardless of the dubious definition offered in the argument, the perception of evil and suffering does exist. Moreover, there is no fundamental physical quantity one could identify with good - both good and evil are human perceptions, and so the analogy does not apply at all . . . although "How can the perception of evil exist if there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God?" does not exactly roll off the tongue easily.
One does not need examples to show oddities. Applying this argument at a conceptual level is sufficient: If evil is the comparative lack of God's inclusion in a situation, then what is the baseline? How much light do we need to see? How much heat do we need to not feel cold? How much God do we need to not suffer? An omnipresent God would — by definition — be present everywhere at all times, just like energy; so why doesn't God make sure He is present enough to keep us "warm" (so to speak)?
One should probably use restraint when using this analogy in real world situations. If someone murders a man's wife, the apologists should just tell him: "Dude, that sucks". They should not try to comfort the man by saying his wife simply experienced a situation that did not include God enough; the widower still experiences suffering and his wife is still dead, regardless of how the apologists describe this event. After all, you wouldn't tell a hypothermia victim that he is "experiencing a comparative lack of heat while buried in that avalanche". You just say "you're freezing; that sucks." In the opinion of most mere mortals, an omniscient and omnibenevolent God would not absent himself/herself/whatever in ways that allow suffering and our non-omniscient opinions are obliviously better informed.
Examples of how this logic fails
- Widespread poverty comes from a lack of money, social programs and moral character. Poverty isn't really poverty but a lack of means to support yourself — meaning poverty doesn't actually exist but is just a lack of wealth. The state in the end is a kind, caring, compassionate, perfect government that wants to take care of its children but sometimes goes a little over budget ... and makes cuts to social services which we puny humans cannot properly understand in the grand scheme of national budgeting.
- Systemic homophobia isn't abuse but is in fact a lack of tolerance. When a group of jocks punch in the face of a gay teenager before dunking his head in the toilet, it isn't in fact fag-hate but really a lack of kindness and understanding. Homophobia is thus an illusion and the real problem is a temporary blip in human decency.
- Constipation isn't a blockage in your bowels but is a lack of a well-functioning colon. When you are constipated it isn't hardened poop you are dealing with (that's just a misunderstanding): it's really an absence of well-performing bodily functions. Eating more fiber and taking regular enemas will make that perception of constipation disappear since your problem wasn't really encountering a blockage, but was temporarily lacking body regulation.