Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Can Atheists Have It Both Ways?

My blog has only been here for about a week, yet a number of inconsistencies have already been found in the atheist’s Argument from Evil. As a philosophy student, I spend my days analyzing arguments. But after seeing the way atheists use evil to argue against the existence of God, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an argument filled with so many inconsistencies. There are, however, many more to discuss.

For instance, atheists seem to be arguing (1) that human beings are so good that God shouldn’t allow us to suffer, and (2) that human beings are so bad that God shouldn’t have created us (or given us free will, etc.). That is, atheists are simply shocked that a good God would allow human beings to experience all sorts of pain and injustice. “Why doesn’t God intervene?” “Why doesn’t God come down here and protect us?” The point of this criticism is that God should save us from harm (i.e. God is morally obligated to protect us). Therefore, we are worth saving from harm.

Then, usually in the course of the same argument, the atheist gives a long list of human atrocities that God should have prevented. The examples consist of dozens of instances of how awful human beings are. Consider the following sample from a recent post by John Loftus:

There is a horrendous amount of suffering caused by humans. This is known as Moral Evil; suffering as the result of the choices of moral agents.

Here are some examples: The holocaust, molesting, torture, beatings, and kidnappings. Drunk drivers across America regularly slam their vehicles into other cars instantly killing whole families. There are witchdoctors in Africa who tell men who have AIDS to have sex with a baby in order to be cured, and as a result many female babies are being taken from their mother’s arms and gang-raped even as I write this. Is this not horrendous? In sub-Saharan Africa nearly four million people die from AIDS each year! Just watching a re-enactment of the holocaust as depicted in Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List, is enough to keep Christians up late at night wondering why God doesn’t do much to help us in this life. Nearly 40,000 people, mostly children, die every day around the world, due to hunger. Then there was Joseph Mengele, who tortured concentration camp prisoners; atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet gulags, 9/11 twin tower terrorist attacks, Cambodian children stepping on land mines, Columbine shootings, Jeffery Dahlmer, Ted Bundy, gang rapes, and brutal slavery. The list of atrocities done by people to each other could literally fill up a library full of books.

Go any place where humans live, and you will find horrible atrocities. We kill one another, we steal from one another, we rape, we torture, we bully, we mock. We will do practically anything to increase our pleasure. (Interesting how the Argument from Evil is based on God not giving us an “appropriate” balance of pleasure, isn’t it?)

But is this consistent with the atheist’s claim that God should protect us from harm? Sin and selfishness are ubiquitous in the Kingdom of Man, as even atheists admit in their criticisms. However, in piling up countless examples to illustrate how awful human behavior can be, atheists thereby forfeit the right to say that God is morally obligated to protect us.

In order to be consistent (and, as I said recently in a comment, proponents of the Argument from Evil seem to have no concern for consistency), atheists need to choose. If humans are so awful to one another that God shouldn’t have given us the opportunity to carry out our horrendous exploits, fine. Stick with this as an argument. But don’t turn around and immediately claim that God should protect us, because your argument, if correct, shows that human beings are very, very bad.

Alternatively, if human beings are so good that God should swoop down and save us whenever something goes wrong, all right. Stick with this argument. But don’t turn around and complain that God created us or that he gave us free will or that human beings are awful. After all, we’re so good that allowing us to suffer would be an abomination. But if we’re that wonderful, surely God would create us, give us free will, and let us exhibit our greatness on earth.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Stepford Wives and the "Problem" of Freedom

At the end of our first debate on the Problem of Evil (after videotaping had stopped), John Loftus was explaining to the audience why free will isn’t very important. I brought up the movie The Stepford Wives (the new version), which deals with free will. In the film, husbands program their wives to be the “perfect” mates—completely obedient to the will of their husbands. The point of the film is that a “perfect” robot wife is only better than a real wife if your sole criterion is that your wife always does exactly what you want her to do. If other things are important (e.g. if it’s important that your wife does things of her own accord and not because you programmed her to do them), then a real wife turns out to be much, much better.

I asked the men in the audience whether they would prefer a Stepford wife to a real wife, and atheists and theists unanimously agreed that a real wife is better. When she says, “I love you,” she means it. When she spends time with you, it’s because she chooses to spend time with you, not because of a computer chip in her brain.

There was, however, one person who thought that a Stepford wife would be better than a real wife—John Loftus. While I respect his honesty, the idea of programming a woman to do whatever you want her to do seems a bit repulsive to me. I suspect that technology may one day make Stepford a reality, by allowing us to purchase the ultimate blow-up dolls, such as the robots from Steven Spielberg’s AI. But are “perfect” robot women better than real women? I suspect that even most atheists would say that they are not. But why not?

The difference is freedom. A robot wife only does what it is programmed to do. If it says, “You’re the king, Baby,” this is only because a programmer inserted a program that made the robot say these words. Hence, there is no value in what it says. No genuine complement was made. A real woman, however, is free to leave if she likes. Thus, there is value in her staying. When a real wife gives her husband a kiss, it’s not because she must. She could have refrained, which is why a kiss is so special.

John recently wrote an article explaining why free will isn’t very important. I haven’t read it yet, because after two debates I have a fair idea of his reasoning. Freedom isn’t important enough to justify God’s allowing us to suffer. But even before I read the article, I have to wonder what John is really aiming at. Yes, God could have made a world full of Stepford wives and Stepford husbands. We would take care of the planet and not hurt one another. But is this the sort of world a good God would create? If we say “Yes,” then as far as the movie goes, we should greatly admire the men who turn their wives into robots, and despise the man who chooses to preserve his wife’s freedom. After all, a real wife might criticize you, or nag you, or leave you, or even kill you. Why take the risk?

I plan to discuss John’s reasoning more thoroughly after reading his article. But I’m greatly interested in knowing what other people think about this. I suspect that most Christians will say that free will is far better than programmed obedience, but I’m not sure how atheists will respond.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Elie Wiesel and the Problem of Evil

As theists, we must always remember that we’re not responding to some abstract argument. We’re not dealing merely with premises, but with people. As such, if we intend to respond to the Problem of Evil, we must keep the problem always before our eyes, lest we forget.

Elie Wiesel, reflecting on his sojourn in a concentration camp:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never. (Night, p. 34)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Suffering and Expectation

I recently debated former Christian minister John Loftus on The Debate Hour (click here to download the program). One of the many inconsistencies I noticed in John’s (and Reginald’s) position was that he frequently applied some “test” to Christianity that would absolutely destroy atheism, if only he applied his test consistently.

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?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sherlock Holmes and the Problem of Evil

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Cardboard Box,” Sherlock Holmes makes a brief reference to the Problem of Evil:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes, solemnly, as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

I like the way Holmes sets up the problem. Either there’s a reason for suffering, or there isn’t. (There are no other possibilities.) So let’s consider the possibility that there is no reason for suffering. If that’s the case, then the universe is ruled by chance, and according to Holmes, this is unthinkable. If we keep in mind Holmes’s maxim “that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”), the only remaining possibility is that there’s a reason for suffering. Hence, even if the human intellect never finds an answer for suffering, we can be confident that there is an answer.

Proponents of the Argument from Evil will, of course, object. “I have no difficulty believing that the universe is governed by chance,” one will say. But I have to side with Holmes on this one. The fundamental constants of our universe were finely tuned for life, and even with a life-permitting universe, we still need a designer to create living organisms. Moreover, it can hardly be a coincidence that protons, neutrons, and electrons, when placed in a certain order, form living organisms. These properties can’t be for naught. Consciousness, our moral sensibility, our hunger and thirst for something beyond ourselves—all of this points not to chance, but to something divine.

But perhaps a skeptic will argue, “Well, even if there’s a reason for suffering, this doesn’t point to an all-powerful, wholly good God.” This is absolutely correct, and Holmes’s argument only serves to rule out the absurd, not to settle our minds on some positive conception of God. Nevertheless, Holmes also holds that we can know that Providence is benevolent. In “The Naval Treaty,” he notices a rose outside a window, and he deduces the following:

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

While I do not share Holmes’s optimism that natural theology can be built up “as an exact science,” he is correct to note that the world is filled with “extras.” We may add a million more examples of life’s embellishments—the beauty of the cosmos, the joy of friendships, a child’s smile. None of this was necessary for our existence, so it is all extra. This doesn’t prove that God is all-powerful or wholly good, but it is definitely consistent with such a view.