When a Non-Believer Wants to Argue

You have begun to say something about the Faith, when the office atheist shouts “Children with leukemia!”, with all the assurance of a gambler laying down a royal flush when you’ve put all the money you have in the pot. He thinks he’s laid down an unbeatable argument against the existence of God, and that you ought to give up right away.

Many of us look down and shuffle our feet when someone throws the suffering of children at us as an argument against God. How can you justify that? It really does seem like the royal flush of religious arguments.

It comes in two versions. The simple one argues that really, really bad things happen in the world and therefore God can’t exist. That is the one we hear most often. It’s simple and easy to remember, so people use it.

The more sophisticated version argues that God must be both all powerful and perfectly loving, but the evil in the world shows that either he isn’t all powerful or he isn’t perfectly loving. Maybe he can’t overcome evil. Maybe he doesn’t want to. In either case, he isn’t God.

The philosophers and theologians have given us several answers to what is called the problem of evil, but the kind of person who yells “Children with leukemia!” probably doesn’t want to think hard enough to engage their arguments. Their arguments are not arguments for the water cooler. Here I want to suggest something you can say that might at least make your office atheist back down, and just might — though it’s a long shot — actually get him to think.

His Big Problem

Simply point out that he has an equally big problem. Ask him, “So why is there something and not nothing?” You may have the problem of explaining why God allows children to die of leukemia, but he has the problem of explaining why he’s here to ask the question.

He likes a lot of things in the world around him, like sunshine, his children, hamburgers. He knows some things are good, like feeding the hungry, and some things are wrong, like abusing children. He believes the world operates according to rational laws.

But how does he explain this? The Christian can begin with “God created the heavens and the earth,” but the neighborhood atheist, what can he say that makes sense of the world? He has a problem at least as big as yours.

Of course, he may dig in his heels and declare “It just happened.” If he does, you can respond to his “Children with leukemia!” with “God has his reasons.” If he wants to appeal to a mystery, you can too.

As arguments go, it is at least a tie, which in this case is usually all you can hope for. You’ve shown him that his question is harder to answer than he thinks.

His Other Big Problem

Your atheist friend may instead say something about the Big Bang, and the primordial soup, and atoms somehow coming together to form life, and evolution, and adventurous fish crawling up on land, and fish becoming mammals, and one of those mammals starting to think for himself and becoming man.

He will think this story an adequate answer to your challenge. It isn’t, but let’s assume for now that it is. Even if it were an adequate answer, it undermines his original objection to your belief in God. What he has said is that the universe is here by accident. Everything: the sun and the earth, the plants and the animals, the mosquito and the butterfly, the plague bacillus and the rose, him, you.

If the world is just an accident, he can’t complain about evil. If everything came into being accidentally, nothing is good or evil. The world is morally neutral. It’s just there.

Let’s go back to his objection. If he’s right about the universe, leukemia is just a biological process, like the atoms coming together in the primordial soup. The child himself is just a biological process. The leukemia cells have as much right to live as the child they invade.

And lots of animals have disappeared through the ages, so why not man? Why not this particular child? It’s all part of the evolutionary struggle and the survival of the fittest. It’s not good, it’s not evil, it’s just the way things are.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, one has to believe in some sort of God — some superior being who can measure good and evil — in order to deny that God exists. But that’s the atheist’s problem, not yours.

David Mills

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David Mills writes a weekly column for Aleteia. He latest book is Discovering Mary. He’s edited Touchstone and First Things.

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  • kjf

    The title should have been arguing with an idiot 101. Good read

  • Dhaniele

    Without disputing your analysis, I like the simple comparison of Jesus in Matthew 13:24-30. He explains evil in the world as like weeds that do not draw their origin from the sower (God) but from another evil agent, which believers would call the devil and his accomplices. That is what the exorcism at the baptism of a baby is pointing to — it applies to the universe and all that is under the influence of the “Prince of this World” until the victory foreseen in the Apocalypse.

  • Pax

    yes, but that isn’t really an answer to the question. It is an explanation of the situation. The question is why did God create a universe in which such a situation exists. I have never met anyone who is dissatisfied with the answer, ‘because of Love, God created the universe because he knows some will be able to love and that Love is worth it to him. All real evil a bi-product of choice , which is necessary for love to exists.’ Unfortunately , the author is probably correct that the ‘office atheist’ is unlikely to have ever really thought about either the problem or the answer. Often times getting people to actually think is like like trying to get a two year old to lift weights. They have never developed the necessary mental or spiritual strength. So you have to lovingly spoon feed them a bit at a time, which I think was part of the point.

  • Pax

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/mt/5:22

    It is better to be concerned for peoples souls then to call them names. They may be disabled in many ways , but as Christians we must do what little we can for them and let Christ do the great deal he can.

  • JOSEPH

    “Children with leukemia!”, David, the atheist killed the child, and the rest of mankind because of there ingratitude, Confront him with his crime. “If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost”.(St Augustine’) Joseph

  • Soames Landon

    I just tell them the leukemia came from the toilet seat. How can you argue with them? Why should you argue with them?

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