Negativity Bias and the Problem of Evil

negativity, homeless, suffering

The Problem of Evil causes me more trouble in my faith than any other atheistic argument. It’s the best case against God. When I see children with cancer, or hear of vulnerable people being abused, I wonder how God could allow it to happen. The argument comes in several varieties, but it runs something like this: the world contains a lot of evil–let’s say the quantity is X, and X is too much. If the Christian God exists, the world would contain less than X. So, the Christian God must not exist.

cancer, child, evil, faith, negativity bias

Now, the reason we think that X is too much evil is because of its relationship to the amount of good in the world. If there was infinitely more good than evil, then I don’t think the problem would get off the ground. But it seems to many people that the good-to-evil ratio is less than optimal. Maybe there’s more evil than good, or maybe there’s just not enough good to “make up” for the evil in the world. Maybe the ratio would need to be 100:1 (good:evil), or 1,000:1. But whatever the ratio is, it seems wrong for a world superintended by the Christian God.

Doubting My Doubts

But a year or so ago, I read about something that made me question my reasoning about evil: negativity bias. Could it be that the power of the Problem of Evil argument rests on a flaw in our cognition? I first encountered the concept in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. They call it “negativity dominance.” They talk about how the brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. For instance, look at these two images:

negativity, eyes
From Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 300.

According to Kahneman’s research, the image on the left will cause your heartbeat to speed up, but the image on the right will not. Researchers have also found that angry faces “pop out” of a series of faces, but happy faces don’t.(1) Negative images and experiences affect us more deeply and broadly than positive ones, and stick in the memory easier.

Slanted Perception

In a paper entitled, “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” researchers wrote:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. . . Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.(2)

negativity, child, evil

Another study claims that, “There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”(3) You only need to google “negativity bias” to see the mass of evidence. The bottom line is that our perception of the world is slanted. We tend to notice more bad than good, remember more bad than good, and feel the impact of bad more than good.

A Defeater for the Problem

So why is this a problem (or a ‘defeater‘) for the atheistic argument from evil? It undermines the argument, or at least the force of it, because our judgment about the good-to-evil ratio in the world is purely subjective. And if it is subjective, then it is undoubtedly inaccurate, and not just by a little. The bias is quite potent. How much good did we miss or forget or discount? How have we exaggerated evil in our minds? It’s not unlike an optical illusion.

negativity bias, evil, illusion

The truth is, we don’t know what the actual ratio is. Gathering such data accurately seems nearly impossible. But once we know we have a bias toward noticing and feeling evil, we should recalculate our judgment about the ratio. We should tell ourselves, “It may seem like there is far more evil than good in the world, but the ratio is probably closer to 1:1 than I thought.” And this should, rationally, lead us to doubt the force of the Problem of Evil. 

(1) Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, Ch. 28.
(2) Baumeister, Roy F., et al. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review of general psychology 5.4 (2001): 323.
(3) Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development” Psychological bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403.

Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?

Conclusion

I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?