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Chad Meister, co-author of God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible, is a religious believer, and this comes across strongly in his recent book Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed. He sets out the religious problem of evil, which is broadly the perplexing question of why a very powerful being such as God would allow terrible harm to occur when he or she could prevent it. This is generally posed as an objection to belief in a traditional God. Meister recognizes the power of the problem, but also argues that there are answers to it. He sets out a detailed justification of why God would not interfere in human life to stop suffering. and why God would hide from humans. Meister also examines the argument that atheism is implausible because it can give no objective ground to judgments of evil. He also has a chapter on how Hinduism and Buddhism account for the existence of evil in the world. The book ends with a chapter on how we can respond to evil and suffering in both a theoretical and practical ways.
The strengths of the book are that Meister is a very clear writer and he explains his subjects well. He covers some of the main writers in Christian philosophy and theology, both historically and in the present day. Those who are unfamiliar with this part of philosophy will find the book extremely helpful. Of course, he gives the usual arguments about free will and God not wanting to take away our autonomy. But he also gives a richer set of reasons for why God would allow people to suffer, based on the concept of "soul making." He does allow that for those who start with atheist assumptions, these religious explanations will seem preposterous, and he is right: they do. But he insists that if one starts with a different set of assumptions, they will appear reasonable. It is not so clear how many supernatural assumptions one has to accept before these religious arguments start to make sense, but this approach does leave the worry that it might be entirely question-begging.
The weakest part of the book is Meister's criticism of atheism. One of his central discussions is the idea that atheisms provides no objective basis for morality. He goes through some of the main moral theories, and he points out the problems with relativism and it's approach to understanding evil. He makes a plausible argument that it is hard to fully understand the wrongness of evil according to various forms of subjectivism and relativism. He seems to assume that this is a very strong argument against these views -- i.e., that we can take the wrongness of evil actions as basic. However, there are relativists and subjectivists who are willing to accept the consequences of their views, and while many people may find them unpalatable, that's hardly an argument against them.
Meister also attacks some of the popular anti-religion writers, such as Richard Dawkins. It may well be that his criticisms of Dawkins work, but hardly any serious philosophers find Dawkins to be a sophisticated advocate of atheism. So this is an easy target, and criticizing Dawkins is not a serous engagement with the philosophical literature.
Equally problematic is Meister's discussion of the "problem of the good," which is another version of the worry that atheists cannot provide an account of moral objective judgments. He makes the bold claim that we cannot understand morality without God. But this is just lazy. Not only are there plenty of attempts to ground morality objectively independent of God, going back at least to Kant, but as Plato long ago showed in his Euphythro dialog, there is no good reason to think that positing some supernatural being helps advance any argument for the existence of morally objective values. The problem with Meister's approach here is not that he disagrees with these arguments, but that he does not give them any real attention.
If Meister's aim is to rehearse the basic arguments available to Christians for dealing with the problem of evil, he has done a fine job. However, if his aim to really provide a guide for the perplexed, his approach is deficient, because it is too heavily biased in favor of religious approaches.
The most glaring omission from the book is the work of Claudia Card in providing a secular approach to evil. This is important work in the new years of the 21st century, yet Meister completely omits it. Card has attempted to delineate a secular understanding of evil in a variety of articles in her two most recent books. Her work may be of lasting importance, although it is too early to tell. It deserves consideration in any up to date account of what we would now see as the problem of understanding for, and accounting for the existence of, evil, without appeal to problematic religious ideas.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York