In the essay “The Problem of Evil for Atheists” Nagasawa attempts show a form of the problem of evil which applies to atheists and actually poses a greater threat to the atheistic belief than the equivalent problem poses to the theistic belief. In what follows, I will argue that what Nagasawa calls the problem of evil cannot be referred to as a problem of evil in the same sense in which it is used in the case of the theistic problem of evil. I will also argue that, due to this fact, the problem of evil is either non-existent for atheists or at the very least less efficacious than the theistic version of the argument.

Nagasawa begins his argument by claiming that nature itself is embedded with what he calls systemic evil. That is, all beings are subjugated to the rules of natural selection, where the stronger dominates and crushes the weaker and every species and each organism are in a constant struggle for survival with all other organisms.[1] In this contest of what we commonly call “survival of the fittest” much suffering is involved on the part of those organisms who lack the strength to survive against competing organisms. Thus, Nagasawa comes to the conclusion that there is a systemic evil at the very foundation of biology or nature and existence itself.

These observations are very clear and true, but I do not think that this makes nature or the biological system evil, at least in the strictest since. Evil is a concept of morality, but these concepts of morality only apply to that which has some kind of free will or agency. The reason we say someone did evil is because they could have chosen to do otherwise than they chose. Further, according to atheism there is no will that ordered nature any specific way, nor does nature have a free will of its own. So, it would seem that the term evil, in this sense, is incompatible with nature since it has no free will, and no god-figure had any say in nature’s formation. Nature is amoral and evil, at least in this sense, does not apply.

From this we can see a difference between the use of the term “evil” in the theistic problem of evil and the way it is used in the atheistic form. In the theistic problem, evil is meant in its fullest and moral sense in that an omnipotent God could have ordered nature such that no suffering was to be found in it at all, let alone foundational to the natural system which encompasses it. There was for God a choice between two alternatives of suffering and no suffering, and suffering was chosen. On the atheistic side, there is no such “choice”, nature is the way that is has been for eternity out of no one’s fault or volition. From this, I find Nagasawa’s atheistic problem of evil to be more of a “problem of un-ideality”. For though what is meant by evil, in the atheistic case, is not evil in its moral sense, it can still be said that suffering pervades existence and that this makes existential optimism[2] unfounded. Thus, atheism’s true “problem of evil” is not being able to posit existential optimism like the theist who says, “in the end God will make it right”.

But is that true? Is there not an atheistic worldview which can reconcile a world of suffering with some form of existential optimism? Oddly enough, I think there is, and it is somewhat Nietzschean in character. I believe that for someone like Nitzsche there can be a kind of existential optimism in the sense that, in nature, it is a rule that the weak suffer due to their own weaknesses and the strong prosper through their own strength. In this, there is a sense of “getting one’s due” which Nietzsche, far from viewing it as evil, would think it makes more sense, at least more than the idea of a theistic God who allows suffering but claims to be beneficent. Further, this grand competition and struggle in the process of natural selection results in the birth of stronger and more glorious beings who have surpassed that which is weaker. Nietzsche’s dictum from Twilight of the Idols “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”[3], need not be viewed as only applying on the individual level but also the level of all life itself. All suffering in existence can be viewed in an optimistic way since it will only lead to the creation of stronger and more fitting creatures.

To quickly summarize, I have shown that, at the very least, Nagasawa’s problem of evil for atheists is not as efficacious as the theistic counterpart because of its lack of a moral element or notion of choice in the formation of nature. Secondly, that even if there is a “problem” with the fact that suffering exists, this does not eliminate the possibility for a position of existential optimism from being held. It is this second aspect of what I have tried to prove which I have some doubts on the basis that Nietzsche’s views are so radical that most would not hold to that form of optimism. But at the very least, it shows that optimism can be held in a world systemic suffering.

[1] Nagasawa, 151-152.

[2] From page 154 of the journal containing Nagasawa’s essay: “Existential optimism is the thesis to which the world is, overall, a good place and we should be grateful for our existence in it”.

[3] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Polt Richard F H., Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with the Hammer (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1997), 6.

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