Quentin Smith - The Gratuitous Fallacy, part IV of V

This is the forth part of a five part essay responding to Quentin Smith’s assertion “that the existence of gratuitous evil proves atheism.”[1]

Part I: On Obviously Gratuitous Evil
Part II: Emotions in Motion
Part III: Theism By Proxy
Part IV: The Illusion of Gratuity
Part V: Atheism Makes Evil Worse

The Illusion of Gratuity:
My five year old son formulated the “problem of evil.” We were walking in the front yard, he in his socks, when he stepped on a goat-head and said, “Goat-heads hurt. Why did God make goat-heads?”
“Goat-head” does not here refer to a goat’s head but to a little thorny seed. There it was, one of the two greatest ways to prove atheism as conceived by a 5 year old. Well, I explained that we think that goat-heads are bad because they hurt us when we step on them. But the reason that they are thorny is so that they will get stuck to an animal or human who is passing by and thereby be transported to a location away from the mother plant so that a new plant can grow.
Thus, it is apparent evil because we take it personally when the thorn pierces our skin but we are really dealing with a plant that found a way to cut down on competition for resources (National Public Radio was kind enough to publish an essay of mine on this issue, The Godhead’s Goathead).

The week after that another event occurred to my 5 year old: he was in the kitchen and for reasons that I will soon disclose he fell with his lower back against the corner of the dishwasher and twisted his leg. I went to him, hugged him, kissed him, looked him over for injuries, asked him if he was alright and the whole daddy thing.
After giving him time to stop crying and enjoy the comfort that I offered him I stated that while I was sorry that he got hurt it was a good thing that he was there in that time and place. This is because what had happened was that my 21 month old, whom I will mention in the next anecdote, was standing on a chair, leaned against the backrest and toppled over.
By the angling it seemed to me that he would have smashed his little head against the corner of the dishwasher (which is actually a wooden frame inside of which is the dishwasher), probably smashed his little face against the floor and perhaps had his fingers smashed by the force of his weight and the fall between the floor and the back of the chair which he was holding.
It just so happened that as he and the chair fell my 5 year old was walking by and the chair knocked him over, twisted his leg and made him fall back. In the end, both were fine. They certainly cried a little bit—the 5 year old for the fall and the 21 month old for being scared (of course, they were off running, playing and laughing within minutes).

While there is much to be learnt from these apparent evils one thing is for certain: we do have the ability in the here and now to know the reason / purpose for some evils.

Please indulge me in another true story with particular regards to Quentin Smith’s statement, “the pain of a vaccination is in itself bad, but is a means to a greater good.”

Call me strange but when one of my children was born and he was mere minutes old I was thinking about this very issue, the problem of evil. As the nurse came towards him with needle in hand I stared straight into his face as she plunged the sharp metal object into his tender newborn foot. His face instantly turned red and he yelled and cried. This was one of the very first experiences that he had outside of the womb.

There is a lot to learn from this event. I, for all intents and purposes his omnipotent father, did not prevent this evil from occurring to him even though I could have easily prevented the nurse form puncturing his little foot. Am I not good, not potent, not able, not willing, do I not exist?

I allowed the evil to occur because I, not he, knew that it was not gratuitous but that the evil was for his benefit—his blood sugar had to be tested. Now, ask him if he understood what was happening to him and why it was happening. He had no idea, he merely experienced the evil and surely hated it.

As an experiment I told him about this even now that he is 21 months old and he responded by fidgeting a little bit and then turning around and walking away to find something with which to play. Perhaps I will attempt the explanation again in a few years at which time I could tell him that the nurse needed a little bit of blood to make sure that he was healthy. Surely, it will require quite a few more years for him to understand the technicalities of blood sugar levels and the medical minutia that goes with. Thus, it will require the passing of years, perhaps more than a decade for him to have a full understanding of the situation.

What is the relevance? Imagine that at this stage of his development he manages to conceive the following thought, “Why did such an evil occur to me and why did my father do nothing to stop it when he certainly could have.” Yet, he could not understand my explanation. As far as he knows it was gratuitous evil.
However, at some point in the future when he has developed his cognitive abilities further I will explain it to him and he will come to realize that there is apparently gratuitous evil that was, nonetheless, purposeful. I knew that, he did not, I understood it, he did not, I will be able to explain it eventually, he will be able to understand it eventually.

All metaphors break down eventually because they are just that, metaphors. While I do believe that the above true stories are very relevant it may still be argued that not only do we know in the here and now what the purpose was but furthermore, he will find out in the here and now. I do still think it very relevant and elucidating since it occurred to him when he was merely minutes old and it will require quite a few years for him to fully grasp the situation.
Why should we deny the possibility that some day, maybe even on the other side of the grave, God would reveal to us why evil was only apparent and not gratuitous?

[1] Quentin Smith, Two Ways to Prove Atheism


  1. Thank you. Most atheists will still say that God should have given us paradise now, but there will be the odd one who will get it. God Bless.

  2. Well, you can thank God that God didn't give your child cancer. That's a littler tougher to hug away than a bruise.

  3. You had to allow some harm (not really an evil) to befall your son in order to prevent a greater harm from happening. Why didn't you just prevent the greater harm in the first place or find a non-harmful way to prevent it? Simple: you are not omnipotent (nor any of the other omnis.) That is the key point to the problem of evil: if some deity exists and there is this type of harm going on in the world then that god does not have all those omni-properties we have been talking about. THAT god does not exist. But that should be quite all right with theists because. there are plenty of other gods on the shelf that would fit the description.