Evil is the absence of God
|Cogito ergo sum|
Logic and rhetoric
|Preach to the choir|
|Crux of the matter|
|Speak of the devil|
|An act of faith|
“”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 an actual thing, in and of itself. Darkness is simply a comparative lack of light.
- In the same way, cold is not an actual thing, in and of itself. 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 comparative 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 comparative 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 main problem 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 exists… although "How can the perception of evil exist if there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God?" does not exactly roll off the tongue easily.
There is no fundamental physical quantity one could identify with good — 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? What would constitute a lack of God-ness? In that vein, 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?
Separately, considering all who do not follow a particular "correct" monotheistic religion centered on some God that defines goodness, are they all, to an extent, evil despite evidence pointing to the contrary a la some good, charitable atheists in the world?[note 1]
Apart from the problem of identifying "evil" (presumably as a "thing" rather than an adjective) the argument also slips in the existence of a "God" without any supporting argument. It can be paraphrased as "Vaguely defined thing X is generated by the absence of probably non-existent thing Y".
We would advise one to exercise 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 the man is experiencing and his wife simply experienced a situation that did not include God enough; the widower still experiences suffering and his wife is still dead.
After all, you probably wouldn't tell a hypothermia victim that they are "experiencing a comparative lack of heat while buried in that avalanche" (to which they'd respond, "No shit, Sherlock!", as it would be called being an insufferable, unhelpful know-it-all dick). Anyone with an ounce of empathy would just say, "You're freezing; that sucks. Maybe I could help you get to a heated building or vehicle, or give you one of my spare layers?" 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.
Counter Arguments 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.
Proponents of the "evil being an absence of God" analogy might actually agree with comparisons to these statements. Just as such proponents blame humans for causing evil and suffering by not including God sufficiently in situations and decisions, so also would such proponents blame humans for causing poverty by keeping money out of the hands of the poor or causing homophobia by lacking tolerance… or causing constipation by lacking fiber.[note 2]
Similar but alternate Perspective
Many thoughtful people have a problem with the notion that God's presence in a decision or situation is diluted if the decision is ultimately driven/motivated by things in addition to God. The concept of making a choice from "a place that is centered on things other than God" or "from a place where you are ultimately deriving your sense joy, worth, identity, security, etc. from things other than God and His love for you" seems too abstract. The idea that such decisions can dilute God's presence in nature and in the physical world is even more esoteric.
A loose, alternative way to express that "Evil is the absence of God" (or that things are evil to the extent that God is not included) would be to propose that we sense something (a decision or situation) evil to the extent that it diverges from God's purposes. A raw Christian allegory would be that we are sensing the nails being driven into Christ and the cross more deeply, as He pays the price to redeem those situations, choices, and their effects, aligning them once more with God's purposes. From the typical Judeo-Christian view, this aligns well with the textbook definition of evil, since such believers tend to be of the opinion that God's purposes are "to prosper us and not to harm us".
This is a loose rephrasing, though. It is like saying an ice cube is cold because the atoms are not as excited. The atoms are not as excited because there is less energy among them, so they are actually cold because there is less energy. Similarly, an evil decision or situation may have split from the God's design, but, according to adherents of this article's proposition, the split only came about because there was something in addition to God at the decision or situation's root.
- Atheist professor myth
- Examples of God personally showing His Love to people
- Just world hypothesis, another way of denying evil exists
- Followers of most Christian denominations would agree that atheists and followers of other faiths are evil, but they would also say the same about themselves and about the followers of their own faith. The doctrine of "Salvation by grace, not by works" arose from the belief that nobody, Christian or otherwise, centers their lives sufficiently on God; we all worship earthly idols of one sort or another.
- Not to mention all those Prosperity Gospel televangelists who are more than happy to equate God with money as is done in the "poverty" parallel statement.