From Born Again Pagan (click to enlarge).
Stephen Law has published a paper on theology called the evil-god challenge. Law’s position is that the problem of evil, and the Christians’ assorted theodicies, can be mirrored by the hypothesis that the supreme being is supremely evil instead of supremely good.
This evil-god is subject to the Problem of Good, just as belief in God is subject to the Problem of Evil, and can respond with the exact same theodicies. So for instance you have the free will theodicy, that God created humans with the capacity to do evil in order to let them freely choose good; evil-god likewise created humans with the capacity to do good so they could freely choose evil.
Or take the greater good theodicies. Theologians argue that evil builds character or that evil is necessary for higher-level goods. The evil-god proponent can likewise argue that good provides contrast to the evils of this world, and that good is necessary for higher-level evils.
So the general argument is that the problem of evil, and its attending theodicies, find a perfect symmetry with regards to good and evil. This is a strong argument, so strong that William Lane Craig himself admits its validity:
I suspect that Law thinks that theists will try to deny the symmetry between these two cases. But that would be a mistake. The two situations strike me as symmetrical—I would just say that in neither case would we be justified in thinking that the probability is low. Just as a good Creator/Designer could have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world, so an evil Creator/Designer could have malicious reasons for allowing the goods in the world, precisely for the reasons Law explains. My initial response, then, still holds: we’re just not in a position to make these kinds of probability judgements with any sort of confidence.
The fact is that Craig, currently the most prominent theologian, nonchalantly admits that he has no way to distinguish between the chance of God existing and the chance of evil-god existing. This is no small slip, but a rather devastating critique of Christianity as issued by its biggest advocate!
However, he does have an objection:
I talked earlier about reasons to think that the Creator/Designer of the universe is good. Suppose we concede for the sake of argument that an evil Creator/Designer exists. Since this being is evil, that implies that he fails to discharge his moral obligations. But where do those come from? How can this evil god have duties to perform which he is violating? Who forbids him to do the wrong things that he does?
But this is asinine. Due to the symmetry, we can ask the exact same questions about God. Where does God’s moral obligation to be good come from? Who forbids God to do evil? It’s mind-boggling to me that Craig asks these questions, because he already knows the answer to those questions: God is inherently good, it’s part of his nature. Likewise, we can reply that evil-god is inherently evil and that it’s part of his nature.
Another counter which comes up often against the evil-god hypothesis is that evil is merely an absence of good, and that therefore there can be no symmetry between good and evil.
To be honest, I have never been able to make sense of this argument. How does one measure “the absence” of good? Every action that we evaluate is an action that exists in itself, not an “absence of” anything. One example is that disease is “an absence of health.” But this only works if you remain at the most abstract level: in reality, any disease is brought about by specific factors and is a presence of something, not an absence.
If we’re validated to talk at such an abstract level that disease is “an absence of health,” then can’t we equally say that health is “an absence of disease”? Actually, that seems to me more reasonable than the reverse. But both are pointless statements.
Another common example used is cold:
“Cold” isn’t a thing. It’s a way of describing the reduction of molecular activity resulting in the sensation of heat. So the more heat we pull out of a system, the colder it gets. Cold itself isn’t being “created.” Cold is a description of a circumstance in which heat is missing. Heat is energy which can be measured. When you remove heat, the temperature goes down. We call that condition “cold,” but there is no cold “stuff” that causes that condition.
Even if this was true, it would not prove anything about good and evil, which are not forms of energy but ethical concepts. Also, heat is not “energy,” it is a physiological sensation transmitted by the nervous system. Heat and cold are both events that happen because of “stuff” such as neural impulses and specific neural circuits for the sensations of heat and cold.
Here is a different criticism:
As I noted earlier, since Law is ambiguous about the specific attributes of an evil God, one has to think he means a God with completely opposing attributes to the broadly traditional monotheistic God: maximally cruel, unjust, selfish, and so on. And as a maximally selfish being, this evil God would have to be exclusively concerned with itself. Not only would it be exclusively concerned with itself, but it would have to be concerned only with itself to the logically maximum degree possible.
The claim being that an infinitely selfish being would never devote itself to anything else, making creation impossible. But this is a bizarre objection: selfishness and altruism are both concepts about the relation between one person and the people in their life. Never mind that God does not fulfill any test of personhood, but no being can be “maximally selfish” by itself any more than a being can be “maximally altruistic” by itself. Likewise, cruelty and injustice are relational (and contradictory) attributes, just like mercy and justice are relational (and contradictory) attributes.
The very concept of a selfish being existing alone is nonsensical: selfishness by its nature is parasitical and needs productive beings to extract surplus value from. Christianity is a great example of a parasitical ideology, because it flourishes on the labor of productive people and gives nothing in return (except for sending the money earned by others to charities, bolstering its own reputation on the back of others).
So the evil-god hypothesis works very well for the problem of evil, but I think we can go a step further and show the symmetry in other theological arguments as well.
Let’s start with the moral argument, since it’s very much related to what I’ve already talked about. According to the moral argument, objective morality can only exist if God exists. Why would God want to create objective morality? Because God is good and wants us to do good, of course. But the same applies to anti-god: anti-god would want to create objective morality because anti-god is evil and wants us to do evil.
What about all the evidence of God, like intelligent design, the universe, and the Bible? An evil-god would leave the same kind of traces of its creative act as God, and given the incredible number of evil acts supposedly sanctioned by God in the Bible, it seems that the Bible is better evidence for evil-god than for God.
There is one final argument I want to discuss because I think it points to an interesting fact. One of the Christian reactions to the evil-god hypothesis is that obviously no one would believe in evil-god, and therefore the argument is moot.
This totally misses the point, in that the fact that no one would believe in evil-god is one of the premises of the evil-god hypothesis. The point is that, if the evil-god hypothesis is just as valid as the God hypothesis, but the evil-god hypothesis is clearly absurd, then the God hypothesis must be just as absurd. So stating that “no one would believe in an evil god!” merely confirms the validity of the evil-god approach. Of course no one would believe in such a thing; so why do people believe in God?
But this brings me to another question: why would no one believe in evil-god? I think that for Christians the term “believe” is equivocated with the word “worship” in a way which simply does not make sense to atheists.
For atheists, to believe something simply means to hold it as a true proposition. To an atheist, the idea that one could believe in evil-god is not particularly incoherent (or at least no more incoherent than the idea of believing in God). But to a Christian, the idea is absurd because no one would want to worship a god that wants you to suffer (never mind that God does it all the time).
So to a Christian, there is there an asymmetry that cannot be refuted. But this (like the “absence of good” argument) relies on a peculiarly Christian form of reasoning, which can only make sense within the faith. Outside of the faith, it can only be described as a sort of semantic disconnection.