Cleaning up and organizing my blog this evening, I noticed this brief excerpt from Sam Harris sitting as an unpublished 'Draft' in my index of blog posts. Evidently I had intended to compose a response but for some reason forgot all about it. It is a succinct Problem of Evil argument which I pulled from his "An Atheist Manifesto" :
[God is responsible for human suffering. There is no other way to properly frame the issue.] This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.
After listing some examples of human suffering—Hurricane Katrina, the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, etc.—with rhetoric guaranteed to stir up the emotions of his readers, he then asks them to think rationally. If it is the case that his readers are supposed to think rationally about the issue, why did Harris invest so much energy into fomenting their emotions in the ten preceding paragraphs? Because his readers must react emotionally in order for his argument to work. If his readers truly were to think critically armed with reason, the embarrassing holes in his argument would become immediately obvious.
What ought to be the philosophical rebuttal to his PoE argument? Harris believes that pious readers "will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality" (which he finds ludicrous because, according to him, "human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place"). Well no, that is not the response Harris can expect to his argument. Even though it is true that God cannot be judged by human standards of morality (for a complex of reasons that Harris' dogmatic bigotry would likely prevent him from anticipating), that would not be the right critical response.
If his readers were to think critically armed with reason, they should immediately note (or at the very least suspect) that Harris' argument committed the fallacy of bifurcation or false dilemma, which involves "a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are other options" .
Since God is said to be omniscient and omnipotent—i.e., he knows these calamities will happen and possesses the power to stop them—then indeed he obviously "does not care to" stop them; he is infinitely able to but for some reason doesn't stop these calamities. Now, this leads Harris to conclude that God is therefore "evil" but such a conclusion does not follow reasonably from the stated premises. Harris is operating from a premise that is suppressed. Like I said, God is infinitely able to but for some reason doesn't stop these calamities. That is the closet in which can be found the hidden premise that Harris drew his conclusion from.
Only if God's reason (for not stopping this or that calamity) is rooted in "malice" can he be considered evil, if he did it out of some sick enjoyment of inflicting gratuitous harm on others or watching people suffer. But what if his reason is rooted in justice, such that a calamity fell upon people who deserved it? Moreover, what if his just reason for allowing some calamity to befall one person led to not only strengthening their personal development but also to a net greater good in the future for hundreds or thousands of others? In such cases God is not evil at all for allowing the calamity, which firmly proves the fallacy of bifurcation Harris committed. God can know a calamity will happen and possess the power to stop it but nevertheless allow it to happen and not be evil for doing so.
So now the readers need to decide which is more plausible, and I will tell them how they can do that. I can cite multiple pieces of evidence showing where God allowed egregious calamities to occur for the purpose of justice or a greater good, whereas Harris cannot cite one single example of God doing so for the purpose of malice. Not even one. Harris can assume malice out of baseless assertion or personal incredulity but he cannot prove it from evidence. So if I have several pieces of evidence for my contention (e.g., Gen. 50:20; cf. Gen. 45:4-11) and Harris has zero for his, where should the reader think the plausibility lies? The answer is pretty obvious.
The Problem of Evil argument presented by Harris is fallacious and bankrupt. He needs to go back to the drawing board and firm up his suppressed premise, next time exposing it honestly.