Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

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My friend Peter asked me this a week or two ago.  Peter is a Jehovah’s Witness and our house is in his territory.  He knows I’m an atheist and the chances of converting me are close to those of global warming being reversed, but we both enjoy 10 minutes of mental sparring on the doorstep once a month.

Actually, what he asked was, “Do you ever wonder why bad things happen to good people?”  I said “No” and he changed the subject.

But after he had gone I thought about it.  Why should anyone expect the incidence of good or bad things to be correlated in any way with the moral quality of the people to whom they happen?  Has there ever been any evidence for this, even evidence of the most circumstantial nature?

On the other hand there is pretty good evidence for the following propositions:

  1. The universe behaves in accordance with a set of fixed physical laws.
  2. Within those laws, there is plenty of scope for random events.
  3. Conforming with the laws, customs and values of one’s own community is likely to result in better outcomes than flouting them (eg not spending time in jail or being ignited by an angry mob).

I suppose the third of these propositions goes a little way towards validating Peter’s question, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.

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