Is God evil? (and why the question matters)

I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and came across a fun bit reasoning leading to the conclusion that if there is a monotheistic God, then it must be evil. I’ll summarize that argument here, using excerpts from his text.

“Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheistic religions, but also dualistic ones. Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is a part of that struggle.

“Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous Problem of Evil, of the fundamental concerns of human thought. ‘Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world….

“For dualists, it is easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

“Dualism has its drawbacks. While solving the problem of Evil, it is unnerved by the Problem of Order. If the world was created by a single God, it is clear why it is an orderly place where everything obeys the same laws. But if Good and Evil battle for control of the world, who enforces the laws governing this cosmic war?… When Good and Evil fight, what common laws do they obey, and who decreed those laws?

“So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but it puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the universe — and He’s evil.” (emphasis added)

This isn’t a new argument: this conclusion is essentially the dark undercurrent lurking beneath the surface of every discussion of the Problem of Evil, going all the way back to Epicurus. Although the classic statement of the “Problem of Evil” is expressed as a mere debate over whether or not an “all-knowing, all-powerful benevolent God” exists, it doesn’t take too much wit to realize the problem is solved by simply knocking off the “benevolent” part.

But as witty as it is–and plenty of atheists have taken great delight in using arguments similar to this to sneer at their opponents across the debate table–I don’t think this narrative represents a complete argument, as it is stated. Instead, it represents the beginning of a deeper discussion over what exactly we mean by “evil” in the first place.

If you’re interested in the philosophical history of the notion of “evil”, I’d recommend the book “Evil in Modern Thought” by Susan Neiman. She traces different theories of “evil” from medieval through to modern times, focusing on some specific historical events that have shaped the broader understanding of evil in our culture.

For example, for a long time during and after the Enlightenment era, “evil” was viewed as an act that was born of malicious intent. Something that wasn’t willed by a conscious entity can’t be evil: thus, a natural disaster is only evil if you believe that there is a supreme being who wills every event in the universe to happen. Moreover, if someone accidentally causes something bad to happen as a result of acting with good intention, then that is not “evil” either.

Although this makes a lot of intuitive sense, Neiman points out that the events of the Holocaust and World War II punched large gaping holes in that view. She writes: “Precisely the belief that evil actions require evil intentions allowed totalitarian regimes to convince people to override moral objections that might otherwise have functioned.” How do we reconcile the fact that we feel that the actions of the Nazis was evil, with the fact that many of them surely believed to the depth of their hearts that they were doing what was “right” for humanity?

For most atheists, the question “Is God evil?” is on the surface of it nothing more than a logic game and a lark. But for Satanists such as myself, who believe very deeply in morality despite also believing that we exist in indifferent natural universe, the question can be more than a game as well. It can be the beginning of an inward journey to explore our own understanding of the place “evil” has in the universe that we create for ourselves every day.