I can’t get anywhere near cut grass without sneezing. Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed an overly fine sense of smell when it comes to newly mown lawns. Their odor is strong and repulsive to me; it literally punches me in the nose. The scent of recently chopped blades is an entity to me: I experience it in the present, I can recall it from the past, and I can conjure it up in my brain as a dire prediction for the future. Often, it assails my nostrils when I merely look at a grassy field, when the smell isn’t even there. But it’s very real to me, a constant threat.
My wife, who is normally far more sensitive to aromas, both good and bad, than I am, gets little or no nasal stimulus from cut grass. When she actually does smell it, she finds it, at most, mildly pleasant.
I’ve tried arguing about that smell. I can call it repulsive, nauseating over and over, but she doesn’t get it. She can tell me that I’m imagining things again and again, but I know that my nostrils don’t lie. It’s just not normal for her not to share my difficulty with that blatant stink. Why can’t she acknowledge the truth? It's a terrible smell and it exists in and of itself.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this corner of the Atheosphere, in which we’ve been spinning our wheels for about a week at SI’s blog over the Problem of Evil, specifically Epicurus’s series of questions:
Is god willing to prevent Evil, but not able?It’s a very cute riddle, and loads of fun to trot out when having a discussion with theists who believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. Question: Why does god wear evil? Answer: To keep his pants up.
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh Evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him “God”?
In such arguments, atheists often label suffering as a subset of Evil, apparently to make the solution even more difficult. We call on theists to answer for natural disasters and illnesses as well as the wicked doings of fellow humans. How do they account for Hitler, Hurricane Katrina, malaria, the Bush administration, Earth-threatening comets, and the squirrels who keep eating the birdseed? Evil exists; hence, there's no god.
Of course, given the rhetorical nature of Epicurus’s epigram, there is no answer. Religionists are stumped. “God works in mysterious ways,” they’ll say. They try to weasel out of the difficulty by claiming that there can be no Evil, that everything is, ultimately, for the best in their deity’s plan, that Evil is actually Good, its opposite. Or they may posit that Evil is necessary to test humans’ faith, to give us lowly critters an opportunity to use our free will for the greater glory of their insecure, egomaniacal king of kings. Or, perhaps, Jesus is wrestling with Evil even as we speak, but he hasn’t beaten it yet.
The thing is: atheists don’t actually believe in a Platonic Form known as Evil. There are evil people, yes, but there’s no embodiment of that quality. Evil is not an entity in and of itself. In a world lacking a divine plan, suffering is morally neutral. Tsunamis, tornadoes, tuberculosis, drought, dry rot, and the dove who casually shits on your car — these things can’t be plotted on a morality graph; they’re neither good nor evil. They just are.
For an atheist to assume the premise that Evil does exist — even when he or she finds it a convenient tool for one-upping an ignorant Christian — is nonsense. There’s no such thing as capital E Evil. There’s no Problem of Evil because capital E Evil doesn’t exist, any more than capital G God exists.
In actuality, the smell of mown grass is neither revolting nor mildly pleasant; it just is. Because of my psycho-somatic reaction to that smell, it’s disgusting to me: Evil. I have a problem with it. For my wife, who accepts it as part of the natural world, the fragrance is there, but it doesn’t need to be weighed on a scale of morality.
I’m the one with the sickness, the one with the unreasonable reaction, the one obsessed. I’m the one who dreads that scent, who can call it into existence in my own mind whenever I want to make myself feel ill. I’m the one who insists that the smell is caused by the actions of my neighbors — or my own wife! The propagation of that noxious smell may or may not be part of their plan, but when they mow their yards, they spread the Evil.
My wife, wisely, doesn’t accept that premise. She refuses to argue whether the odor is either good or bad. She just tells me to shut up and blow my nose.