Epicurus asked if God physically can stop suffering and whether He emotionally wants to. If God can stop suffering, clearly He doesn’t want to; if God wants to stop suffering, clearly He can’t. Else, if He can stop it and wants to, where is it coming from? But this problem removes particular definitions of God: an ambivalent, indifferent, petty or angry God is still permitted by this argument. Equally, this argument allows a loving but incompetent and weak God.
Prayson Daniel, a blogger I respect (although don’t think I have agreed with, ever), has tried to get around this problem by placing God’s concern outside of this world. Daniel argues that the best the Epicurean argument can do is demonstrate divine providence as absent here in our mortal realm. Or, to approximately translate On the Nature of Things (book 5, lines 195-199) which Daniel quotes for us (in Latin):
Upon the ways and conduct of the skies,
This to maintain by many a fact besides,
That in no wise the nature of all things
For us was fashioned by a power divine,
So great the faults it stands encumbered with.
(My emphasis. Also, Google helped with the translation)
Put simply, looking around, nature was not designed for us by anything wise.
In the comments section Daniel also tried to defend God, even in this narrative, as moral. He does this by explaining that God balances our actions with punishments. I want to use that a springboard to explain why God is still immoral and, as a politics-based aside, why punishing people doesn’t make you moral. I also want to explain why this argument‒that God doesn’t intervene with our reality‒is a conversation-ender, in the atheists favour.
Daniel’s argument of a non-intervening God that does not concern itself with the reality we live in does not tell us whether a God exists. All it says is that there is no sign of God in our human existence. It might not tell us no God exists, but it does tell us that we have no good reason to believe in Him. And that’s all the justification we need for atheism; God does not demonstrate Himself to us. When it comes to God’s existence, I can’t imagine what more you need: (according to this narrative) there cannot be evidence. Accordingly, there cannot be any justified claim of His existence. It’s just conjecture.
On God’s Morality and the Justice of Retribution
On the accusation of God’s immorality, there is a loophole. In the comments Daniel is challenged on how he feels about the morality of the God which permits rape and murder; suffering and pain; fear and death. And Daniel’s answer is that, even with His complete absence from our world, God is still moral if He punishes sinners in the aeons of the afterlife. I am not a vengeful person and I disagree.
There is no point in the suffering of the afterlife. There is no opportunity to change, no acceptance of apology and repentance, nothing to protect and no rehabilitation. Punishment in the afterlife is vengeful; it is retribution and it is nothing else. It cannot serve a purpose. Retribution is a fearful and human response to feeling wronged. The real benefits of our own justice system are to keep people safe from the actions of those who may harm us and to (hopefully) teach those people the problems with what they do on an emotional level (i.e. rehabilitation). So a person who takes retribution on sinners, without offering protection or rehabilitation is not behaving morally.
What is worse is that God, who knows everything, knows the mind and the will of a murderer or a rapist. Perhaps He knows it as a compulsion, or as a result to particularly abusive childhood; perhaps experience has had an unfortunate effect with specific genetics or brain development. But a sinner stand before God completely accounted for. As horrific as these crimes are, as much as‒in this world‒that criminal needs to be isolated from people and rehabilitated, in God’s domain they need to be fixed or allowed to die forever. They do not deserve aeons of punishment.
In this narrative, where God can see us but takes no stake in our wellbeing, what can be said for His morality? In an existence where God can see us suffer, see the rape and murder of people, and chooses not to intervene it is impossible to imagine why anyone would still call this Being moral. It could stop any murder or rape. But it doesn’t. The God decides that we should be left to our freewill and the whims of force. God allows a rapist to have their freewill because in terms of physical strength they are more powerful than the rape victim. What these people wanted, their wills, were in direct competition. And God just allows one person’s will (and body) to be violated while the other gets their way. How much solace do you take in knowing that God will burn the rapist later, but let it happen, and someone has to live with that? None, I hope.
So, can we still say a God exists?
We cannot save God from people accusing Him of being immoral, and just stating that He doesn’t intervene with this reality is only to reword Epicurus’ challenge that He doesn’t will to stop suffering. But what of existence? That was the initial question, and all this pontificating on whether He can be saved from the accusation of Being moral side tracks the issue. There is something fundamentally wrong with the reasoning that says ‘because the Epicurean paradox only shows that God doesn’t intervene with our reality‒and does not show He doesn’t exist‒it is reasonable to believe that He does exist’. When the reasoning is laid out like that I imagine the problem reveals itself; the assumption being made is that God exists until proven otherwise. It is a philosophical error, confused thinking, for anyone to use or allow that thinking. This argument makes excuses for why there is no evidence of God, and then assumes its okay to believe.
On the premise that God doesn’t intervene with or leave evidence in this reality, I concur. On the assumption that it is then okay for us, intellectually or philosophically speaking, to still believe in Him I disagree. The argument Daniel has put forward paints a picture of a God we simply have no reason to know about. The idea that a God exists remains conjecture.