The Problem of Evil revisited by Lotharson
The question of why God or god(s) would allow evil to exist has been a very perplexing and troubling one for every believer attaching to them qualities such as goodness and benevolence ever since the time the Old Testament and parallel near-eastern myths were written.
Recently, British philosopher Jonathan Pierce, Counter-Apologist John and Justin Schieber from Reasonable Doubt, a podcast aiming at challenging the Reasonable Faith ministry of William Lane Craig and promoting “Godlessness”, have had a very interesting conversation about the problem posed by evil for theism before a virtual (white Belgian?) beer.
Unlike many people deeply involved in the culture war raging between secularism and fundamentalism, the three intellectuals have a very respectful tone towards their opponents and develop pretty challenging arguments worthy of the consideration and attention of every thoroughly thinking religious person.
They should be really applauded for that approach and not resorting to the favorite techniques of village antitheists such as the heavy use of emotional bullying and ridiculing everyone not agreeing with their materialist worldview.
My agnostic Christianity
Before going into objections to the different arguments they presented I feel obliged to indicate where I’m coming from.
I am an agnostic Christian, in the way Thom Stark uses this term, that is in the absence of good reasons to believe that theism or atheism is true I choose to hope there is a God.
I view the books contained within the Bible as being inspired in the same way books outside the Canon such as those of the Church fathers, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley and C.S. Lewis are inspired: they depict us, to use Thom Stark’s wonderful expression, “human faces of God” that is man’s thoughts about and experiences with the divine. I don’t base my theology on allegedly inerrant Holy Scriptures but on the very idea that God has to be perfect in order for Him to be God.
During this discussion of approximately 90 minutes, the three godless apologists do cover a lot of ground and raise many interesting questions which cannot be addressed within a single blog post.
I don’t agree with their objective Bayesian approach but also think that the evidential arguments for theism fall short of showing there is a God, tough I do believe they pose serious challenges for many popular forms of atheism out there, but these will be the topics of future discussions.
Moral intuitions and God’s goodness as a heavenly father
They seem to rely on the belief that
1) Our moral intuitions are largely correct and
2) They can be applied to God who is supposed to be a heavenly Father far better any earthly father could ever be.
While I strongly doubt that step 1) can be taken by naturalists, this is certainly a key-element of the theology of Jesus and Paul and many writers of the Old Testament. But I think then that all our moral intuitions should be taken into consideration and not only those related to pleasure and pain as evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt discovered liberals typically do.
Step 2) is extremely important to prevent us from developing abhorrent theologies, like God issuing arbitrary commands about homosexuality even if it is neither harmful for the individual nor for society.
I utterly reject theistic voluntarism, the idea that whatever God wills is good, for this can lead and indeed leads to many absurd and atrocious beliefs such as God predetermining the largest part of mankind to eternally burn in Hell.
Interestingly at one point the three atheists seem to recognize that the problem of evil could be greatly diminished if the doctrine of hell is given up and they jokingly told each other that it would be already a victory in and of itself if they could push Christians to let go of „abhorrent“ teachings. Actually, it is clearly one of the main purposes of my blog to make other Christians deeply think about the implications of noxious doctrines, so we seem to have at least one goal in common.
That said, I do believe it is crucial to take into account the particularities of God’s position and the perspective of eternity before drawing any analogy with an earthly father.
Free will, soul making, Skeptical theism
I believe that the problem of evil is extremely diverse and that the various theistic responses (such as the soul-making defense, the free-will defense and Skeptical theism) are all valid in their own rights and complement each other.
Generally I consider it extremely likely that God does have good reasons to limit Himself and not only allow free will in His creation but also randomness as philosophers Peter Van Inwagen described, in the same way I find computer simulations with random numbers far more interesting than deterministic ones. Such a position is compatible with Open Theism and some forms of divine omniscience.
And if this is true, the question is no longer “why did God allow such and such specific evils?” but “why did God choose to create a universe with such properties and features in spite of all the bad consequences?”
Justin Schieber and the divine lies argument
This is certainly no easy question and it would be completely foolish for me to come up with more than modest indications about possible solutions. This leads us to the question of Skeptical Theism (ST), according to which there are at least some evils humans are in no position to explain or reconcile with the infinite goodness of God.
Unlike Jon Pierce, Justin Schieber does believe that if theism is true ST is very likely and complained about the horrible ordeal inflicted on him to have to defend a position apparently friendly to theism against the objections of Pierce.
But he then mentioned his interesting Divine Lie Argument (DLA) according to which ST entails the clear possibility that God might be lying to us within Scripture for unknown reasons.
I certainly believe this undermines the Evangelical belief we need an inerrant Bible from God to know how He is and how we should behave.
I reject those assumptions and take the view we can objectively recognize goodness (albeit in an imperfect way) and know that God has to be good by His very nature as a perfect being. I don’t believe God speaks to us through the books of the Biblical canon more than he speaks to us through the books of C.S. Lewis or Ellen White and believe, like the apostle Paul expressed it in Athens, that even pagan authors can get quite a few things right about God.
Eternal happiness in heaven
I think that the perspective of eternity certainly changes the extent of the problem of evil in a radical way. For example let us consider the following scenarios:
A. there is no afterlife. Leon is a small Tutsi boy living in Rwanda in 1994. In May his village gets attacked, his family is captured and he dies under an atrocious pain after having seen his parents being tortured and passing away in a very gruesome way. He ceases to exist.
God could have created the universe in a different manner to avoid this but He didn’t.
B. there is a blissful afterlife offered to everyone. Leon is a small Tutsi boy living in Rwanda in 1994. In May his village gets attacked, his family is captured and he dies under an atrocious pain after having seen his parents being tortured and passing away in a very gruesome way. He ushers into the presence of God. He quickly recovers from his pain and live happily with his parents in the presence of God during 100, 1000, 1000000, 100000000000, 10000000000000000000000000… years.
God could have created the universe in a different manner to avoid this but He didn’t.
Clearly, both scenarios should be troubling for every theist. But the assertion that they are almost equally problematic for the goodness of God is an extraordinary claim.
Utilitarianism is a moral theory very popular among atheists according to which the good is ultimately reducible to what increases the pleasure and reduce the pain of the greatest number of persons.
Every moral value which cannot be deduced from this basic principle is rejected as being illusory.
The extent of the evil of a free agent is identical to the extent of his failure to respect this rule. But if God is going to offer eternal life to everyone having suffered between one and hundred years, his moral culpability equals zero since this is the clear result of dividing a finite number by infinity.
So our three atheist apologists need to argue against utilitarianism and show why we ought to reject this theory before saying that the problem of evil is a death blow for every form of theism.
Given all the facts I’ve mentionned, I think we’ve good grounds for thinking there really are not-implausible ways for God to be morally perfect why allowing evils we cannot comprehend.
Of course, I do struggle emotionally a lot with some horrible and apparently absurd things our world contains and it would be a lie to say I don’t seriously call into question either the existence or the goodness of God, like countless characters of the Bible have done.
Materialism, qualia, moral naturalism
Finally I cannot help but notice that the most popular (and perhaps the only plausible) form of naturalism, namely Reductive Materialism (RM) provides us with a terrible foundation for real objective moral values.
Jonathan Pierce mentioned the possibility that God would create philosophical zombies, that is beings acting exactly like humans but lacking any subjective experience, to be bad people and fill out the entire hell. Fair enough, especially if one believes in divine determinism. But this thought experience shows us a huge (and probably insurmountable) difficulty for Reductive Materialism: making sense of the moral evilness of pain.
According to RM, pain is identical to chemical and physical reactions and processes taking place in a brain-like structure. But why should thoseparticular processes have a greater moral significance than the movements of electrons within my computer?
Since in a materialist framework, pain is defined as being these particular processes, saying they are morally significant because they are painful is akin to saying that these particular processes are a moral concern because they are these particular processes.
But I believe that moral naturalism faces a much greater challenge, namely the identification of moral values with material objects.
Saying that the moral truth “A man should never rape a woman“ is identical to a bunch of elementary particles sounds utterly absurd to me.
To conclude I cannot let unmentioned the hugest and most scandalous mistake they did at the very beginning of the video. They dared tell us that God smoking weed could be an explanation for all the mess we see around us.
I and many fellow French citizens have smoked Cannabis as we were teenagers and most of us were quite capable of performing well in many respects while being really high.
If this post were to attain one thing, this should be leading them to give up their prejudices concerning pot. I do hope that in their next shows and videos they will cease smearing the goddess Marihuana and say instead “God is probably an abuser of LSD“, “God drinks one bottle of Vodka a day“ or „God cannot think clearly, because due to His omniscience He has no other choice than hearing every day George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, Dick Cheney, William Demski (and me for that matter) speaking and thinking during hours.“
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