For many unbelievers — both those who regret their inability to believe and those who celebrate their lack of faith as a liberation — the problem of evil, as it is called, is the most powerful reason to reject God. After all, they argue, if unjustifiable evil exists (as it surely seems to), then either God is unable to stop it or he chooses not to stop it. In other words, he’s either not all-powerful or he’s not all-good.
This is a huge issue that’s been debated for centuries, and I certainly won’t try to settle it in a newspaper column. (Some important Latter-day Saint thinkers — among them Truman Madsen, Blake Ostler and David Paulsen — have argued that Mormonism provides unique resources for dealing with it.) Instead, I intend to introduce an argument advanced by the Protestant philosopher Stephen Davis, of Claremont Graduate University.
With considerable cheekiness and an implied reference to the problem of evil at its very worst, Davis labels his case “the genocide argument for the existence of God.” In other words, he seeks to turn the anti-theistic argument from evil into a pointer toward the divine.
“Genocide,” of course, is the intentional destruction, or attempted destruction, of an entire people, based on race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. The horrible classic case is the Nazi Holocaust, in which the Hitler regime sought to eliminate the Jews. (Lesser-known Nazi targets also included Slavs, “Gypsies” and Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
As he formulates it in his 2016 book “Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity” (Veritas Books), Davis’ argument presumes that certain things (such as compassion, keeping promises and telling the truth) are objectively right, while certain other things (e.g., lying, cruelty, murder and certainly genocide) are morally wrong. They’re not mere matters of personal taste, comparable to liking or not liking broccoli.
Here’s how Davis’ argument goes, in his own words:
1. Genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be.
2. If genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be, then there is a way that things ought to be.
3. If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.
4. If there is a design plan for things, then there is an author of the plan, a designer.
5. This designer we can call God.
Davis admits upfront that this argument doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate everything that Christians believe about God. It says nothing, for example, about a divine Father and divine Son, or about omnipotence or omniscience. Obviously, too, it doesn’t demonstrate that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son or translated the Book of Mormon by inspiration.
Still, within its limits, it’s an argument worth serious consideration. As Davis observes, “there can be no such thing as an authorless design plan, a plan for how things ought to be that follows merely from how things are.”
Science is a powerful tool for discovering how the world works and what it is. But nothing that science can discover about how the world is or how it works tells us anything about how the world ought to be. Science can split the atom, but it cannot, as science, tell us whether to build a bomb with that knowledge or to construct a nuclear reactor to light a city.
A story is told of the great Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden: One afternoon, during the period just before World War II, he found himself seated in a New York movie theater watching a newsreel about the brutal mistreatment of Jews under the Third Reich. (And nobody fully understood yet how murderous that treatment was.) For some reason, the theater was full of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who were laughing and cheering. Auden was horrified.
It suddenly hit him, though, that he had no actual basis, in his own personal atheism, for saying that those cheering were wrong. He could only say that he disliked what he was seeing, and that he disapproved of their reaction. Auden dated his Christian conversion to that day. He emerged from the theater convinced that only if he believed in some sort of objectively real morality could he plausibly condemn Nazism, and that he could only have objectively real morality if he accepted God as its source.
The problem of evil, in other words, points both ways. It can cast doubt on God, but it may also imply his existence.