Volume 42 - Issue 2

Natural Selection and an Epistemology of Evil: An Incompatible Pair

By J. Daniel McDonald


Underlying the atheistic naturalist’s argument from evil against God’s existence is an assumed knowledge of evil—they know what evil is. For atheistic naturalists, Darwinian evolution serves as the framework of their worldview with natural selection as the blind agent of change. Assuming natural selection is true, how can one who holds to natural selection know what evil is and that something is evil—what the author calls an “epistemology of evil”? This article argues that the beliefs in natural selection and in the existence of evil are contradictory, undermining the argument from evil against God’s existence.

1. Introduction

One mode of attack by atheistic naturalists to undermine Christianity is to appeal to the problem of evil. Underlying their arguments, however, is an assumed knowledge of evil—they know what evil is and use that knowledge to disprove the existence of God. For atheistic naturalists, evolution serves as the framework of their worldview with natural selection as the blind agent of change that drives the evolutionary process.

Assuming natural selection is true, what makes the actions of a person evil as opposed to non-evil?1 Further, what leads one to label natural disasters as evil if such events are typically the result of natural forces? In short, how can one who holds to natural selection know what evil is and that something is evil—what the author calls an “epistemology of evil”?

1.1. Thesis

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the beliefs in natural selection and in the existence of evil are contradictory, undermining the argument from evil against God’s existence. The first section surveys arguments from prominent atheists (particularly Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) that appeal to the reality of evil as undermining the existence of God—appeals that imply an epistemology of evil. The next section explores these thinkers’ discussion on the role and nature of natural selection as it applies to daily life, particularly in events commonly deemed “evil.” The paper then synthesizes the two previous sections by demonstrating the inconsistency of holding to natural selection and a knowledge of evil. This section is developed by incorporating discussion on the lack of cohesiveness within evolutionary thought regarding natural selection and exposing the metaphysical leap taken by the New Atheists to arrive at objective moral values. Finally, the paper concludes with a word on the implication that the atheist’s inability to employ the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.

1.2. A Brief Qualification

In the years following the tragedy of 9/11, the problem of evil—though never absent from philosophical and theological discussion—dominated the attention of not just Christian thinkers, but that of non-Christian thinkers as well, particularly atheists. Though many focused on the evil actions of the Islamic jihadists as the ultimate manifestation of evil, others broadened the scope of their critical eye to that of religion in general as the impetus behind all evil. Four thinkers in this camp rose to prominence—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—all of whom represented what is now commonly referred to as New Atheism.

The New Atheists garnered attention from not only theistic thinkers—from whom many books were written to counter the New Atheists claims about religion—but also from scholars of a wide array of disciplines and—more significantly—from the general public. However, though the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist movement quickly appeared to be a formidable foe to religion, their impact resembled that of a Louisiana summer day’s thunderstorm—a brief period of intense rain, booming thunder, and gusty wind, only to peter out with little to show for its efforts. In fact, so short was the New Atheists’s impact, Paul Copan could quip: “They’re so 2006!”2

If Copan’s observation was true in 2011, then why beat the proverbial dead horse now? To avoid veering off topic, I provide a reason for one more paper against New Atheism. Perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the popularity and influence of the New Atheists—particularly in their heyday—is the accessibility of their writings. Though highly-educated and well-versed in their fields, each of the “Four Horseman” communicate their thoughts on weighty subjects in a manner that appealed to an audience beyond their respective fields. Aside from their Trump-like approach to their religious opponents, the literary breadth of Hitchens, the passion and focus of Harris, and the approachable scholarship of Dennett and Dawkins make them easy to read and understand. Their ability to communicate heady issues in relatable prose make it deceptively easy for one to grant credence to their conclusions. As such, if the works of these men continue to garner attention, Christian thinkers must anticipate and refute their arguments for the sake of the Church and the defense of the Truth.

2. Natural Selection

Everyone operates within a worldview, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously. Entailed in one’s worldview is some narrative that provides an explanation for how the world has come about. Germane to the current discussion are two competing narratives in Western culture today, particularly in the United States. The first narrative, historically held by Christians and by most conservative Christians today, is that Genesis 1–2 provide the basis for our understanding of how the world was created by God. The second narrative stands in stark contrast to the first, and that is of Darwinian evolution—that the universe came about through the slow, blundering, and purposeless process of evolution.3 Darwinian evolution removed the need for any appeal to a creator, for the world as we know it has evolved over billions of years from simple organisms to a complex, rich, and diverse system of plants, animals, insects, and heavenly bodies to microscopic bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms. Though there are variations and combinations of the two narratives, the two stated above represent the opposite sides of a rift that has widened between Christianity and secular culture.

The New Atheists appeal to Darwinian evolution as a basic principle within their overall worldview. Though they assert that science evidence proves the truthfulness of evolution,4 the works of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens presuppose Darwinian evolution as a basic belief. Because evolution is true, the New Atheists go about arguing that God and religion are relics of pre-scientific days gone by.

Essential to their evolutionary framework is the Darwinian concept of natural selection. Without natural selection, Daniel Dennett asserts that Darwin would have been unable to “assemble all the circumstantial evidence that [evolution] had actually occurred.”5 But by demonstrating how evolution occurred, Darwin systematized the previous findings of naturalists and his own observations into a cohesive, powerful explanation of the world that did not necessitate an appeal to God.

Much has been written by theologians and Christian thinkers about the relationship between evolution (and essentially science) and faith (theology). Perhaps the most significant of these works are those that seek to demonstrate how evolution does not replace or disprove the existence of God. Recently Philip Rolnick, professor of science and theology at the University of St. Thomas, published Origins: God, Evolution, and the Question of the Cosmos in which he illustrates how Darwinian evolution en toto is compatible with Christianity. Another, and more significant, work is Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, in which he argues that Darwinian evolution only makes sense within a theistic framework.6 A running theme throughout these and other works is Christianity’s contention with natural selection—it is the hinge upon which the debate turns.

For the New Atheists, natural selection is the explanatory factor for how the world has evolved to where it is today, and how we are able to recognize evil in the world. This section provides a brief discussion on how the New Atheists define and explain natural selection.

Daniel Dennett likened Darwinian natural selection to an algorithmic process. In an algorithm, if certain conditions are met, then a particular outcome is “assured.”7 According to Darwin, given ample time and varying “conditions of life,” given each species’ ability to increase “at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life,” then variation naturally, and necessarily, occurs within each species.8 Dennett provides three characterizations of algorithms that directly apply to natural selection: 1) substrate neutrality—the power of the algorithm is in its logical structure. The procedure will work as long as the prescribed steps are followed; 2) underlying mindlessness—each step, and the transition between each step, is “utterly simple” such that it is “simple enough for an idiot to perform–or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform”; and 3) guaranteed results—if the process is performed correctly, it will always produce the expected result.9

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins defines natural selection as “a process of trial and error, completely unplanned” and “can be expected to be clumsy, wasteful, and blundering.”10 Anticipating any appeal to design in nature, Dawkins asserts that natural selection is the only known driving force behind evolution that is “capable of producing the illusion of purpose.”11 If there is any appearance of design in nature, it can only be a result of one of two things: 1) a designer, or 2) chance.12 The appeal to a designer complicates everything by raising other questions. Natural selection is the “only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.”13 What we have, then, is a process that bumbles through time, discarding what fails to work while the fittest survive to carry on the torch.

Though natural selection is a mindless, necessary process that gives rise to our complex and majestic universe, our world has been “bought at huge costs in blood and the suffering of countless antecedents on both sides.”14 Even Darwin understood that “blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence to natural selection.”15 For Dawkins, despite the carnage left in the wake of natural selection, evolution is neither kind nor evil; rather, it is indifferent.16 On one hand, “natural selection favors the tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships, and punish cheats who take but don’t give when their turn comes.”17 What we as humans view as evil in the world is par for the course with natural selection

On the other hand, though, is evidence of altruism in the world. Species show altruism toward close kin because “of the statistical likelihood that kin will share copies of the same gene.”18 Thus, altruism was selected as a feature that contributed to the survival of a species. Today, however, humans tend to not live in close-knit communities among kin, but we still practice kindness toward another and practice altruism. For Dawkins, though we no longer have the “restriction” to act altruistically toward kin, it still exists as a “rule of thumb” and we can’t help but to feel compassion toward a stranger. This is “a Darwinian mistake: blessed, precious mistake.”19

The theme of evil and suffering is one that the New Atheists expound upon in their critiques and attacks against Christianity. How they are able to make the connection between the mindless process of natural selection and the existence of evil and suffering is an issue that will be addressed later; what follows is how the New Atheists attempt to describe the nature of evil.

3. The New Atheists and the Reality of Evil

Ironically, there is one issue that Christians can be in agreement with the New Atheists, and that is the reality of evil. For the “Four Horsemen,” evil is so prevalent in the world, they seek to expose the root of all kinds of evil (past and present)—religion—and to convert the religious to a life of reasoned atheism.20 The force of their argument is carried by the examples of evil sprinkled throughout their books.

3.1. Richard Dawkins

Dawkins, in an article titled “A Devil’s Chaplain,”21 points to the suffering of animals at the hand of other animals as an example of evil that questions the existence of God. Dawkins favorably quotes Darwin as stating: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ickneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”22 Senseless evil is also seen in the example of digger wasps, who sting their prey the grey worm segment by segment in order to paralyze it. As the grey worm lies paralyzed, the digger wasp larvae are able to feed upon live meat.23 How could there be a God with such senseless suffering even among insects?

In The God Delusion, Dawkins recounts the 2003 murder of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard by Paul Hill. Hill’s motive for the murder was to protect the lives of the unborn, claiming that he would do it again if he had the chance. Moments before his execution, Hill proclaimed that by executing him, the state would make Hill a martyr. Dawkins notes that Hill’s perception of himself is deeply misguided because of his religious faith.24 For Dawkins, Hill’s actions illustrate the lasting pain of evil, for he caused “real, deep, lasting suffering.”25

Dawkins’s abhorrence for evil may parallel that of theologians, but he reserves no respect for Christian thinkers and their attempts to explain the existence of evil. For example, Dawkins recalls a debate in which Richard Swinburne “justified suffering” as an opportunity for one to “show courage and patience,” to “show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering.” Though God “regrets” humanity’s suffering, his greatest concern is that each person shows “patience, sympathy, and generosity,” thereby developing a “holy character.”26 Dawkins recoils at Swinburne’s response, labeling it a “grotesque piece of reasoning” and “damningly typical of the theological mind.” For Dawkins, there can be no justification for the existence of evil; it is a problem that must be answered.

3.2. Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s works abound with examples of evil that pervade the world. In a letter to the editor titled “The God Fraud,” Sam Harris reacts to Karen Armstrong’s claim that equating fundamentalism with the totality of religion misconstrues the essence of religion. Harris mockingly recounts examples of religiously-motivated evil occurring on the continent of Africa:

But in Kenya elderly men and women are still burned for casting malicious spells. In Angola, unlucky boys and girls have been blinded, injected with battery acid, and killed outright in an effort to purge them of demons. In Tanzania, there is a growing criminal trade in the body parts of albino human beings—as it is widely believed that their flesh has magical properties.27

If Armstrong’s claims are true, then how does one factor in witchcraft? Are such examples of evil “perversions of the real witchcraft—which is drenched with meaning, intrinsically wholesome, integral to our humanity and here to stay”?28 Rather, Harris asserts that such manifestations of evil are the natural end to religion. Harris’s analogy clearly implies his disdain for Armstrong’s claim, for no matter how one slices it, all violence in this world is religiously motivated.

Elsewhere, Harris claims that we are in a universe “that seems bent on destroying us…it is a good thing to understand the forces arrayed against us. And so it is that every human being comes to desire genuine knowledge about the world.”29 History demonstrates that it is “an insufficient taste for evidence [that] regularly brings out the worst in us.”30 Concessions made to religion in the realm of politics has prevented us from speaking out against “the most prolific source of violence in our history”—religion.31 It is “reckless and disingenuous” to ignore the role of religion in violence.32 It is “self-evident” that “ordinary people” are not moved to commit acts of violence in the name of religion.33

Harris has published two articles based upon research in neuroscience where a link was sought between brain activity, and belief and disbelief. Related to this research is the question of where religion’s source is in the brain, of which little is known today. According to Boyer, “religious beliefs and concepts must arise from mental categories, and cognitive propensities that predate religion.… [These] underlying structures might determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take.”34

For Harris, “a rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.”35 We do not get our rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong from the pages of the Bible; rather, “our ethical intuitions must have their precursors in the natural world, for while nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, it is not merely so.”36 We need a scientific understanding of the link between intentions, relationships, and states of happiness, which will lead us to a better understanding of the nature of good and evil, as well as a “proper response to the transgressions of others.”37

3.3. Christopher Hitchens

Finally, Christopher Hitchens, in his biting literary style, minces no words in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Like Harris and Dawkins, Hitchens lays the blame for violence at the feet of religion. In a chapter titled “Religion Kills,” Hitchens provides anecdote after anecdote of religiously-motivated or related evil. Though he gives no formal argument to support his claim, his claim is carried by the sheer force of disgust and unease created by the accounts of senseless and unnecessary suffering and pain. Following Hitchens’s lead, one can only conclude that there is no redeeming factor to religion; one can either wallow in the irrationality of religion, or thrive in the rationally of atheism.

The preceding examples of evil do not exhaust the numerous other examples provided in the New Atheists’ works, much less those of others who see the problem of evil as evidence against God’s existence. Nevertheless, they provide a clear enough picture of how the New Atheists recognize the existence of evil in the world and see it as a problem that requires an answer.

4. An Incompatible Pair

Two distinct features of the New Atheists thought have been presented. First, natural selection is the mindless, algorithmic process that has served as the engine of evolution. Though our world has suffered through much bloodshed and suffering to be where we are, evolution is indifferent to what humans consider to be evil, likewise in regard to any examples of altruism. Death and suffering are just a natural effect of the evolutionary process.

A second feature of the New Atheists’s thought is the reality of evil. Each thinker—particularly Sam Harris—devote much energy decrying the evil evident in our world, specifically manmade evil. Evil is an objective reality such that one would have to be irrational to not recognize its manifestation in current politics and world affairs. So passionate are Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens about eradicating evil in our world that they have isolated the root cause of all suffering—religion—and make it their mission to evangelize the world (particularly America) with the truth of modern science. Are the New Atheists consistent, though, in utilizing Darwinian evolution as the lens of their worldview and in recognizing objective evil in the universe? On the surface, there appears to be no disconnect between belief in evolution (natural selection) and in the reality of evil. However, upon further analysis, the two beliefs are mutually exclusive.

4.1. Natural Selection: Redux

Joshua Moritz notes that Darwin saw no inconsistency between suffering and natural selection.38 According to Darwin, “suffering is quite compatible with the belief in natural selection, which is not perfect in its action.”39 In fact, pain, self-interest, and competition (which are entailed in suffering) are inherent in the “very process by which organisms were created”; competition and struggle to survive are an “inherent evil.”40 No doubt, as shown earlier, the New Atheists agree with Darwin on this point. Yet, at certain points throughout their work, they say otherwise.

4.2. An Inconsistency in Dawkins and Harris

Though the New Atheists recognize suffering as a natural result of natural selection Chad Meister identifies Richard Dawkins as a moral realist who admits that on the face of it, natural selection is ill-suited to explain goodness.41 Sam Harris in The End of Faith claims that to say that the happiness and suffering of humans (and animals) concerns us is to recognize that there is a possibility “that much that is ‘natural’ in human nature will be at odds with what is ‘good.’42 Evolution and natural selection can only take us so far in our development: “Appeals to genetics and natural selection can take us only so far, because nature has not adapted us to do anything more than breed. From the point of view of evolution, the best thing a person can do with his life is have as many children as possible.”43 In short, Harris, like Dawkins, recognizes that our morality—our ability to recognize objective evil and suffering—is not a result of the mindless process of natural selection. At best, natural selection selected us to procreate, and this, by implication, out of instinct alone (negating any motivation of love, commitment, desire, etc.).

Perhaps more than Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Sam Harris has written extensively on our sense of right and wrong. Harris’s book The Moral Landscape expands upon a theme addressed in his first bestseller The End of Faith where he begins exploring the question of the root of human morality. Implicit in his works is the inadequacy of evolution (in general) and natural selection (in particular) to explain our sense of morality. In The Moral Landscape, Harris distinguishes between a scientific account of human values and an evolutionary account. Any discussion of human well-being “escapes any narrow Darwinian calculus. While the possibility of human experience must be realized in the brains that evolution has built for us, our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfillment.”44 If this were so, we’d just be concerned with procreation. As it stands, we know that our minds do not “merely conform to the logic of natural selection.” Our understanding of “good” and “bad” cannot be “directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives … our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.”45

Harris continues. Indeed, it may be that “some level of predatory violence is innate in us”, and that evolution has selected for us some type of territorial violence toward others as a strategy to propagate one’s genes, “but our collective well-being clearly depends on our opposing such natural tendencies.”46 No longer are we constrained by evolutionary structures; rather, we are “poised” to soon engineer our own further development.47

Harris claims that acting ethically toward others is to do so out of concern for their happiness and suffering. When we experience happiness and suffering, we can know that others do so as well. Thus, we “soon discover that ‘love’ is largely a matter of wishing’ that others experience happiness and suffering; and most of us tome to feel that love is more conducive to happiness, both our own and that of others, than hate.”48 Love entails to some degree the “loss of self-absorption.”49 We can “easily imagine evolutionary reasons for why positive social emotions make us feel good … but this would be beside the point. The point is that the disposition to take the happiness of others into account – to be ethical – seems to be a rational way to augment one’s own happiness.”50 “We are bound to one another. The fact that our ethical intuitions must, in some way, supervene upon our biology does not make ethical truths reducible to biological ones.”51 For Harris, examples of human goodness and evil are caused by natural events; they are “borne of unconscious processes that were shaped by natural selection. But this does not mean that evolution designed us to lead deeply fulfilling lives.”52

Dawkins likewise asserts that natural selection is to be understood in reference to the biology of life—how the universe came to be what it is today. In light of human politics and how humans conduct our affairs, though, we are to be passionate anti-Darwinians.53 We alone can rebel against the “tyranny of the selfish replicators”—what Dawkins calls the “selfish genes” that seek to reproduce at the expense of other genes.54 It is not inconsistent for one to appreciate Darwinism as a science while “opposing it as a human being.” Like cancer, a doctor can scientifically appreciate cancer while fighting against it as a practicing doctor. Humans are “the only potential island of refuge from the implications of the Devil’s Chaplain: from the cruelty and the clumsy, blundering waste.”55 Humans alone have evolved such that we have the ability to understand the “ruthlessly cruel process” of natural selection as well has have the “gift of revulsion against its implications; the gift of foresight—something utterly foreign to the blundering short-term ways of natural selection.”56

A tension exists within Dawkins’s and Harris’s accounts of evil and their evolutionary framework. Both hold to Darwinian natural selection as the process by which the universe has evolved to where it is today. Though much has been bought by blood and suffering, natural selection has led to a complex, dynamic, and majestic universe, in particular the evolution of the human being. Yet, at some point (when and how?), humanity reached a point at which it seeks to oppose evolution. The New Atheists (at least Dawkins and Harris) mirror the words of T. H. Huxley well over a century ago: “Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but combating it.”57 Absent in the works of the New Atheists is adequate explanation, evidence, or support for their claim that we have evolved such that we can now combat the hand that fed us. With no appeal to science, evidence, or argument, they take a leap of faith—a shot in the dark—to claim a higher status of man as grounds for morality and combating evil.

One can take Moritz’s argument further, for an even deeper problem lies at the New Atheists’ moral realism. For the sake of argument, let us say that the evolutionary account of natural selection is true. How, then, can one even know what evil is, much less ask why it exists? That is, if it is inherent in natural selection that the less fit die off (whether it be at the hands of more fit species, environmental causes, or the inability to survive on its own), then is it not “natural” that there be competition, bloodshed, and struggle? And if it is natural for such suffering to occur, then how are we—products of evolution as well—able to even say that such things are evil, much less know what evil is?58

Joshua Duntley and David Buss, in their essay “The Evolution of Evil,” assert:

Evil has no direct analogue in the formal structure of evolutionary theory. Evolution by natural selection operates by the simple process of differential gene reproduction as a consequence of differences in heritable design…the process of selection leads to the evolution of adaptations that exist solely because they contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the reproductive success of their bearers…the process of selection leads to the evolution of adaptations that exist solely because they contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the reproductive success of their bearers.59

Therefore, natural selection is value free. “Whatever qualities lead to increased replicative success are those that evolve.”60 What we view as evil are those actions that “result in a massive imposition of fitness costs on another individual or group.”61 That is, evil is not a moral issue in nature; rather, it is the economics of fitness costs for an individual or group.

Paul Copan claims that moral atheists “make a massive intellectual leap of faith. They believe that somehow moral facts were eternally part of the ‘furniture’ of reality but that from impersonal and valueless slime, human persons possessing rights, dignity, worth, and duties were eventually produced.”62 The atheist, then, logically should not be able to appeal to any problem of evil; rather, they can only, in the words of Richard Dawkins, say that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”63 If we are just products of evolution, then why should we trust our conviction? How do we know if we’re right about anything?64

According to Copan, the issue is not that of knowing good and evil; rather, it is that of being “rights-bearing, valuable persons.”65 Naturalistic moral realists confuse the order of knowing with the order of being. In order for the moral atheist to appeal to the problem of evil, they must first provide the metaphysical grounds for evil.

The problem of emphasizing the order of knowing without a metaphysical foundation is easily illustrated from an essay by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs in which they describe a gulf that exists between the thinking of perpetrators and of victims regarding what is labeled “evil.”66 The victim of an act of harm may view the perpetrator as evil because he violated that individual’s right or took something away from the victim that was rightly theirs. However, if the situation is viewed from the perspective of the perpetrator, one may realize that he was doing what he perceived to be good. For the authors, “the discrepancy points to an important gap in understanding. The perpetrator’s motives are often opaque to the victim.”67 The questions “Why are some people evil?” or “Why do people do bad things?” should change to “Why do some people do things that others will regard as evil?”68 The question of why there is evil is “stated badly,” and “is almost unanswerable, because very few people perform what they themselves regard as evil.”69

If the problem of evil is not firmly planted within a metaphysical foundation, the New Atheists’ moral realism dissolves into moral subjectivism, and the force of their arguments against God and religion are reduced to a whisper. As Chad Meister asserts, if objective evil exists—as Dawkins and Harris claim—then “there exists objective moral values, moral values which are binding on all people.”70

5. Conclusion

The thrust of the New Atheists’ arguments is that the problem of evil serves as conclusive evidence against the existence of God. Further, they root the problem of evil within religion; as Sam Harris claims, “That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”71 The problem of evil is a major weapon in the New Atheists’ arsenal against what they view as the evil and irrationality of religion.72

This article does not seek to provide a once-and-for-all argument against New Atheism. Rather, it attempts to add one more argument against the validity of atheistic naturalism and, by extension, the coherence of theism (particularly Christianity). Brief mention of Jerry Walls’s recent essay sums up this paper quite nicely: the problem of evil—long a favorite of the atheists against Christianity—assumes that there is such a thing as evil and that it is a problem.73 Our judgments and beliefs about evil “only make sense given certain convictions about ultimate reality.”74 Given the New Atheists’ Darwinian framework, they do indeed have a problem of evil—they are unable to have an epistemology or metaphysics of evil.

[1] The term “non-evil” is used because there seems to be little by way of atheists to argue for the existence of “good” as if it was something in and of itself. Rather, the discussion of “good” is subsumed in the larger discussion of the problem of evil.

[2] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 20.

[3] From this point forward, “Darwinian evolution” is also referred to as “Darwinism.” Any occurrence of “evolution” in the article implies “Darwinian evolution.”

[4] Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 282–283. For example, “By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution), I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence.…We [i.e. scientists] believe evolution because the evidence supports it.”

[5] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 39.

[6] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., quoting from Charles Darwin, Origin of Natural Species, 127.

[9] Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 50–51.

[10] Richard Dawkins, “A Devil’s Chaplain,” in Skeptic 10.3 (Fall 2003): 8.

[11] Ibid., 38.

[12] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 119. Elsewhere Dawkins states: “Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance. And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems which … manifest goal-seeking behavior that, even in a tiny insect, resembles a sophisticated heat-seeking missile more than a simple arrow on target” (79). Dawkins’ language strongly implies that the world looks as if it were designed, but what appears is not the case—it is but “pseudo-design.”

[13] Ibid., 120.

[14] Dawkins, “A Devil’s Chaplain,” 38.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 38.

[17] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 217.

[18] Ibid., 216.

[19] Ibid., 221.

[20] For Sam Harris, at least, atheism does not entail one to live an unspiritual life. In the last chapter of The End of Faith, Harris promotes some form of mysticism (Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason [New York: Norton, 2004]).

[21] Not to be confused with his book with the same title.

[22] Dawkins, “A Devil’s Chaplain,” 38.

[23] Ibid., 38.

[24] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 296–297.

[25] Ibid., 297.

[26] Ibid., 64. Dawkins quotes Richard Swinburne from a response to the Great Prayer Experiment. Dawkins does not cite the source where he obtained the quote. Swinburne’s response can be found on his web-based Curriculum Vitae: Richard Swinburne, “Response to a Statistical Study of the Effect of Petitionary Prayer,”

[27] Sam Harris, “The God Fraud,” Foreign Policy 177 (January/February 2010): 14

[28] Ibid.

[29] Harris, The End of Faith, 23.

[30] Ibid., 26.

[31] Ibid., 27.

[32] Ibid., 28.

[33] Ibid., 31

[34] Sam Harris, Jonas T. Kaplan, Ashley Curiel, Susan Y. Bookheimer, Marco Iacoboni, and Mark S. Cohen, “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Beliefs,” Plus One 10.4 (October 2009): 3.

[35] Harris, The End of Faith, 170–71.

[36] Ibid., 172.

[37] Ibid., 186.

[38] Joshua Moritz, “Evolutionary Evil and Dawkins’ Black Box: Changing the Parameters of the Problem,” in The Evolution of Evil, ed. Gaymon Bennet et. al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 146.

[39] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882: With the Original Omissions Resotred, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins), 90, accessed May 7, 2017,

[40] Moritz, “Evolutionary Evil and Dawkins’ Black Box,” 147 (emphasis original).

[41] Chad Meister, “God, Evil, and Morality,” in God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible, ed. William Lane Craig and Chad V. Meister (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 112–13. According to Dawkins: “On the face of it, the Darwinian idea that evolution is driven by natural selection seems ill-suited to explain such goodness as we possess, or our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity” (The God Delusion, 214–15). Dawkins does try to provide an explanation for how, through the “selfish gene,” we have come to have morality. However, Joshua Moritz rightly points out that Dawkins and others of his ilk presuppose a geno-centric view of biological evolution, giving “priority and sufficiency of natural selection alone” to the evolutionary process (Moritz, 144). Moritz provides four current molecular biologists who have provided a fuller picture of the evolutionary process apart from the geno-centric approach.

[42] Harris, The End of Faith, 186.

[43] Ibid., 186.

[44] Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 13.

[45] Ibid., 13–14.

[46] Ibid., 100–1.

[47] Ibid., 102.

[48] Harris, The End of Faith, 186–87.

[49] Ibid., 189.

[50] Ibid., 192.

[51] Ibid., 226.

[52] Harris, The Moral Landscape, 49.

[53] Dawkins, “A Devil’s Chaplain,” 38.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics: T. H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics with New Essays on Its Victorian and Sociobiological Context, ed. James Paradis and George C. Williams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 141.

[58] Moritz succinctly asks: “What exactly is the dilemma at hand? So nature destroys nature—why is that God’s problem?” (“Evolutionary Evil and Dawkins’ Black Box,” 147).

[59] Joshua Duntley and David Buss, “The Evolution of Evil,” in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, ed. Arthur G. Miller (New York: Guilford, 2004), 103.

[60] Ibid., 103.

[61] Ibid., 104.

[62] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 210.

[63] Ibid., 210; quoting Richard Dawkins, A River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 132–33.

[64] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 212–13.

[65] Ibid., 210–11.

[66] Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Four Roots of Evil,” in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, ed. Arthur G. Miller (New York: Guilford, 2004), 85.

[67] Baumeister and Vohs, “Four Roots of Evil,” 88.

[68] Ibid., 90–91.

[69] Ibid., 99.

[70] Meister, “God, Evil, and Morality,” 109.

[71] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 91.

[72] Jerry Walls, “Atheists Have No Problem of Evil, But They Have a Bigger One,” in The City (Winter 2015): 49.

[73] Ibid., 49.

[74] Ibid., 50.

J. Daniel McDonald

Danny McDonald is Adjunct Professor of Christian Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky.

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