Gratuitous evil is good for atheism

Assume that after a rigorous and exhaustive analysis we finally proved beyond all doubt that some event was a gratuitous evil. Just so we can use an example already out there, we’ll use William Rowe’s example of a fawn that dies after being trapped by a forest fire. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say it was a particular four-month-old fawn who died in Voyageurs National Park after campers left a campfire unattended in mid July 2007.

After considering the story thoroughly, all theologians and philosophers agree that this is undoubtedly a gratuitous evil. Plantinga, Hasker, and all the luminaries of the philosophy of religion concede that there is in fact a contradiction in assuming that this action could ever lead to a good and/or that any good it led to could have been just as easily attained without the evil. Working from our sufficient understanding of the possible modalities of providence, we conclude that none of them could contain this event, and so that the God described by the major religions of the West could not exist.

It would take all of ten minutes before the fawn was on a t-shirt somewhere. Fawn bumper stickers would soon dwarf all the sales of “coexist” and “=” and Darwinfish as in-group signs. The fawn would get a hallowed status of an object at once omnipresent and not cliche. We’d get a cataract of popular and scholarly literature referencing the fawn. Voyageurs National park would become a worldwide spot of pilgrimage – the three resorts at the site would find it all but impossible to keep up with the demand for food, lodging, and boat rentals. The number of babies named “Fawn” would skyrocket. Finally, we’d think, after thousands of years of fumbling around in the dark with confused questions and disputes over gods and providence, we found definitive proof that there are no such things, thanks to the fawn.

But this leaves the atheist with a paradox. The death of the fawn is at once a gratuitous evil – and so by definition incapable or of leading to a greater good – and at the same time the event definitively establishes what is perhaps the most significant truth and advance of human knowledge in the history of thought. To think: all it took to rid the world of the greatest lie it has ever fallen under was the death of a fawn!  If someone had told us in advance that all we had to do to settle the truth of all Western religions was kill one fawn, even PETA would have volunteered to kill it. But then we’re stuck simultaneously claiming that the fawn died for nothing and that its death was one of the most significant events in the history of the world; an event that was not even worth the death of an anonymous animal turns out to be literally more significant than the death of Christ.



  1. thenyssan said,

    February 7, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I love your reflections on gratuitous evil but they also bring me great pain. I cannot get my students to care about the initial problem in the first place! Every year I find myself in the position of trying to convince my students that the problem of evil is a great big awesome problem so that I can then work some responses to it. All I get from them is the polite faux-interest of “Ok. Uh huh.” This is an age where they typically need no help at all in jettisoning the religious beliefs of their parents or society. I can’t get them to go after this one even painting a giant target and pushing them off the cliff (to mix the metaphor).

    I wonder how deeply ingrained this sophomoric indifference to suffering is. Does Rowe’s fawn and the problem of evil really exist outside of the academy? Do we really come to this problem in a natural awakening or is it a socialized construct contracted by going to college?

    • February 7, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      Part of an explanation might be that this is pretty pleasant age. At the moment we might struggle more with the idea of why God doesn’t just advertise like all the other stuff that claims to be good for us rather than with how he can allow evil and suffering. Shouldn’t God do more tricks? Put on a light show every now an again? Throw himself off the parapet of the temple for everyone to see?

  2. Jacinta said,

    February 7, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    What if an evil, instead of leading to a greater good, prevented a worse evil? Is there a name for that?

    • Nick said,

      February 7, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      Isn’t this usually called the “lesser of two evils”, or, if it’s the best of a lot of bad outcomes, perhaps a “necessary evil”?

    • February 7, 2015 at 2:12 pm


      There’s no explicit name for that in the literature, but it probably would just count as a non-gratuitous evil. But the question is a good one, and it can be compared to a lot of other questions we might raise about the relation that evil might have to good. What if an evil by its nature is supposed to give rise to some good, but this good can fail to come about (say, by an evil choice)? Is this still gratuitous? What if evils do not lead to goods, but are somehow simply reversed in the eschaton? (my friend points out that one of the reasons why the laws of nature are reversible is just because all evils are to be in some way reversed). Here the evil might be strictly speaking gratuitous but we’d be idiots to take it as an element in an anti-theistic argument.

      • Jacinta said,

        February 8, 2015 at 12:50 am

        Ahh, thank you. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “reversed in the eschaton.” By reversed, do you mean undone?

    • vetdoctor said,

      February 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      Heal an amputee?

%d bloggers like this: