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In an e-mail conversation I had a few weeks ago, a theist visitor attempted to answer my argument on the problem of evil by comparing God to parents who let their children learn from work and life experience, rather than trying to shelter them from all possible harm.

My parents have money, they could have written away all my debt in an instant and then let me come chill back at home. But no, they helped me enough so that I wouldn’t starve to death, but they made me work.

There is an important problem with this, however: notice the correspondent’s acknowledgement that their parents “helped me enough”. A loving parent would not attempt to shelter their child from everything disagreeable in the world, but neither would they stand by and do nothing if that child was suffering or in imminent need of help. But no such being as God has ever been observed to help human beings in similarly dire straits.

I made this point in my reply:

And yet, God (if he exists) does let thousands of people starve to death each day, as well as doing nothing while they suffer and die from many other agonizing, horrendous ailments. How do you think that affects your analogy?

Not surprisingly, I never heard back from this person. However, I’d like to enlarge on this point.

In 2007, an annual TED Prize (for “Technology, Entertainment, Design”) was awarded to the photographer James Nachtwey, whose work documents raw, powerful images of people whose lives have been destroyed by war, natural disasters, or other catastrophes. One image in particular, taken in the Sudan in 1993, is a stomach-turning glimpse of what famine can do to a person. Here is a link to that image (warning: disturbing photo).

For those who don’t wish to click on it, the image depicts a man on his hands and knees, crawling in the dirt past a crude hut. The man himself is impossibly thin and frail, every single curve and joint of his bones visible and sharply delineated, like a skeleton draped in skin. It seems unbelievable that a person in such a state could possibly be alive.

Let us make our mistakes, fine. Let us learn from hard experience. I can accept that, in a world ordered like ours, these things are a vital part of personal growth and the development of wisdom and maturity. But to believe that there is a loving and righteous god who hovers around us, who watches over us, and yet does nothing as his children wither into such a state – this clashes head-on with all notions of reason and morality. The idea that this god is all-powerful and in control of everything, inescapably implying that he withheld the rains and sent the droughts that cause famines like this to happen, is an even more cruel and callous farce. Even if we add the element of human interference, either intentional or through mismanagement, as a contributing factor in many famines, this does not change this conclusion in the slightest.

For all that atheism is accused of being a heartless philosophy, the idea that there is a God who can avert famine and other catastrophes, but instead sits by and does nothing, is a far more revolting and misery-inducing idea. The idea of help available but arbitrarily withheld is much more frustrating and depressing than the idea of help not available at all. Instead, we must learn that we live in a cosmos that does not bend to our needs or listen to our pleas, and that the only assistance and compassion that exists or that we can expect to receive must ultimately come from each other.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...