For instance, John and Reginald asked me whether I would expect a world of suffering, given my belief in an all-powerful, wholly good Being. John repeated this challenge in his blog:
Your mission, should you choose it, is to try to sufficiently explain why there is so much intense suffering in this world, if a good, omnipotent God exists. Is this the world you would expect prior to experiencing it, if that kind of God existed?
Presumably, by “sufficiently explain,” John means “give an explanation that atheists will find persuasive.” I’m not sure that this is even possible, so John’s dice may be loaded. But I like to live dangerously.
If we begin with only the concept of God, and we try to deduce what kind of world, if any, this Being would create, would we expect anything like the world around us? Before I answer this question, let us first consider how atheists would answer it if they took the extraordinary step of applying their tests consistently (i.e. to both theism and atheism). Now the question becomes:
If God does not exist, is this the world we would expect prior to experiencing it?
The answer, of course, is “No.” We would never expect a world like ours (a world which had a beginning) without some first cause. Indeed, I wouldn’t expect any world at all without something to cause it. And this is why atheism is so unconvincing (unless we exempt atheism from the critical evaluations we apply to other positions). If God is involved, God can choose what kind of world to create. But if God is not involved, the atheist is left with sheer improbabilities, and improbabilities are some of atheism’s chief adversaries. Suppose that God does not exist. What are the odds that a universe will form out of nothing, by nothing? I would say that the odds are effectively zero. But let’s suppose that the “nothingness” somehow overcomes these odds and produces a universe. Would the universe that forms be suitable for life? The odds are overwhelmingly against this. The constants necessary for life have to be fine-tuned to an amazing degree (and that’s a tremendous understatement). But let’s suppose that “randomness” overcomes these odds and the universe ends up finely tuned for life. Would life form? Like it or not, the odds are against this as well, but let’s grant the atheists a single-celled organism. Would this single-celled organism evolve into multi-celled organisms? Probably not, but let’s grant it anyway. To speed things up a bit, would these multi-celled organisms eventually develop into conscious, autonomous agents, capable of reason, moral action, and intense suffering? The probabilities here are so astronomically against atheism that we must admit that, if God does not exist, we would never expect anything even remotely resembling our world.
A sophisticated atheist may regroup and say, “Ah, but the properties you ascribe to God lead us to expect a world different from ours, whereas atheism doesn’t lead us to expect any particular world.” But atheism does lead me to a particular expectation. It leads me to expect that there would be nothing at all. And, if something does form, I would expect a world that cannot support life.
It seems, then, that if we apply the “expectation” criterion to atheism, the atheist must forfeit his belief. After all, that was the point of the original challenge. If we wouldn’t expect our world on the theist’s hypothesis, then the theist should abandon his hypothesis. However, as we have seen, on the atheist’s hypothesis, we certainly would expect our world. The atheist’s belief can’t pass the atheist’s own test, which means that there’s a double-standard here.
But let’s return to John’s challenge. Given my belief in God, would I expect a world like ours? True, I might not expect a world like ours in every detail, but I would expect a world somewhat like ours. I said this on the program, and John and Reginald both seemed to think I was being insincere. I offered what I call a “Two-World Theodicy,” in which I argue that, proceeding philosophically, we can construct our world from scratch, beginning with the idea of an all-powerful, wholly good Being.
I shall present my Two-World Theodicy in a future post. For now, I will give a simpler response that will at least get us much farther than atheism will ever get us.
First, God could either create a world or not create a world. Since I think it’s better to be creative, I would expect God to create a world. (We’ve now got a world, so we’re already beyond what atheism can achieve.)
Second, God could either put living beings in this world, or leave it lifeless. I believe that life is better than non-life, so I would expect God to add some living beings. (Now we’re way beyond atheism.)
Third, God could either populate this world with free beings (morally free, volitionally free, etc.), or he could create only beings that lack true freedom. I think freedom is extremely important, so I would expect God to create free beings.
Fourth, these beings will either obey God or disobey God. Based on what I know of every free being I’ve ever met (and here I’m appealing mildly to experience), it wouldn’t surprise me to find that these free beings will disobey God.
Fifth, God could either remain with these disobedient beings, giving them a perfect world, or he could separate himself from them. Since I believe that God’s goodness implies holiness and justice, I would expect God to separate himself from these creatures (to some extent).
Sixth, if God separates himself from our world, would I expect a perfect world of complete pleasure, or a world with both pain and pleasure? To be honest, I would expect a world of both pain and pleasure. Indeed, I would be absolutely shocked if God gave a perfect world to a bunch of rebellious creatures.
Seventh, would I expect God to intervene whenever something goes wrong? No, I wouldn’t. Since the free beings had rejected a world in which God takes care of everything, I have no reason to think that God would overrule their rejection every time they get into trouble.
So, it seems that I might expect a world like ours after all. True, the issue is far more complex than I’ve made it here. But we’ve covered the major steps, and the most important point is that theism gets us much closer to our world than atheism can.
Now that I’ve offered at least some idea of why a theist might expect a world like ours, atheists will have many objections. But it seems only fair that before they object, they return the gesture. That is, John (or another atheist) should show that atheism can get us a world somewhat like our own. Once he has done that, we can focus on working out the difficulties in my position. Thus, I will modify John’s original challenge so that it applies to his own position:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to try to sufficiently explain why the world is as it is, if God does not exist. Is this the world you would expect prior to experiencing it, if atheism is true?