When atheists bring up the age-old problem of evil (i.e., that the abundance of suffering in the world is proof that there is no god that is both omnipotent and benevolent), many theists — Christians, in my experience — reply that suffering is a necessary consequence of God giving humans free will. Free will, they say, is just mysteriously so important and central to goodness in the world that it’s worth the tradeoff.
This argument misses the point to such a degree that I almost can’t believe anyone’s convinced by it. Let’s break it down. Maybe one of you can add something in the comments to explain what I’m missing…?
First, there are a ton of bad things that happen in the world that have nothing whatsoever to do with any human choices. There were volcanoes and earthquakes before humans ever existed on the planet, so the fact that volcanoes and earthquakes and other natural disasters happen today and cause immense suffering could not possibly have been brought about by our alleged sins. There’s also plenty of suffering in the natural world outside of that which directly relates to humans. Think of the animals that survive by viciously tearing other animals to shreds — their prey, or their competition — or the parasites that explode out of their hosts’ bodies. (Yeah, that last link is extremely gross. Only one picture though.) Suffering is happening in these cases, too, and it didn’t have to be that way if an omnipotent and benevolent god designed everything.
Next, though, are the problems with free will as the answer to human-caused suffering. For one thing, free will is the ability to choose to do whatever you want to do. The existence of free will is consistent with the world we see today, but it’s also consistent with a world in which there are no murders, ever — it might just be that in that world, nobody ever wanted to murder anyone else. An omnipotent and benevolent god could have created that world instead of this one. Why did this god apparently cause some people to desire to commit murder, and then command them not to? If he really wanted them to choose not to murder, and it was important to him for some reason that they have that choice, it would have been much more effective (and more benevolent toward their eventual victims) to give them different desires to start with.
The other big problem I have with the free will response to human actions is that it assumes that convincing someone to change their mind is a violation of their free will. (This comes up most often in the version of this conversation in which a Christian is speaking more broadly, referring to the original sin of Adam and Eve, or to the rampant sin and nonbelief in the modern world. It could apply to specific immoral acts too, though.) Their god could appear in front of everyone, all over the world, and state simultaneously in everyone’s native language that he is real, that his intentions for humanity are exactly as dictated by Christian doctrine, explain the reasoning behind his creations, etc., and this incredible event would presumably convert the nonbelievers and prompt the sinners to turn from their ways. But he wouldn’t do that — so they tell me — because that would “violate our free will.” But the fact is, convincing someone with compelling arguments or evidence is not the same as forcing them, and I have no idea why anyone would think that it is. If anything, withholding arguments and evidence when they could be made available causes people to remain misinformed, ignorant, against their probable desire to figure out what’s true.
I don’t know… I just don’t see how free will in any way responds to the problem of evil. So why do people keep bringing it up?