Skeptical Theism vrs Theodicy

It’s not uncommon to find theistic philosophers and, more frequently, apologists appealing to both skeptical theism and to various theodicies in their responses to the problem of evil. However, the two approaches are not obviously compatible. Before I examine the compatibility of these two enterprises, I had best briefly outline what the problem of evil is and how each of these approaches traditionally seeks to answer it.

The problem of evil comes in various guises, but for my purposes here one of the most popular forms will suffice:

(1) If God exists then gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil exists.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument will, of course, be nuanced differently by different thinkers; sometimes it will come in a deductive form, other times in an inductive form, for instance.

Take now two theists: Joe Skeptic and George T O’Dicist.

Joe Skeptic – as the name suggests – is representative of the skeptical theist school of thought. Joe will be quick to point out that mere mortals such as you and I are not epistemically well placed to make the kinds of judgments required to make the problem of evil a successful atheistic argument. God, surely, has lots of reasons for acting as He does; reasons which we simply do not know – and possibly cannot expect to know. Many evils certainly look gratuitous, but we see only through the eyes of finititude. Joe, being a Tolkien fan, reminds us of Gandalf’s words in Lord of the Rings: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” And thus, for the skeptical theist, we simply cannot make such judgments. We have no way of knowing if any evil is gratuitous or such that there is no morally sufficient reason for God to allow it, even though we do not – or cannot – know these reasons. “How do we know? We can’t know,” says Joe.

George thinks Joe is punting to skepticism far too soon. George reckons that we can plausibly know why God allows certain evils. Perhaps God allows some suffering for the greater good of permitting morally significant freedom. Perhaps other forms of suffering play their part in the world as a “vale of soul-making.” Or, maybe some instances of suffering are plausibly divine punishments for sin. These are just a few of the bewildering array of theodicies on offer from George and his cohorts.

The main difference between Joe and George is that George is claiming detailed knowledge concerning the morally sufficient reasons God has for allowing suffering, whilst Joe is pleading agnosticism on the matter. Joe says: “We don’t/can’t know why God allows suffering.” George says: “God allows suffering because X, Y, Z.” But, of course, in real life many of those who engage with the problem of evil are neither Joes nor Georges, but rather a curious hybrid of the two. Frequently, and this is nothing other than my own observations, I see my fellow theists begin with bold theodicies and, in the course of debate, weaken their claims until they arrive at skeptical theism. Other times theists will change their hat to suit the occasion (or their mood). And this, I’ve also noticed, can be a source of frustration to atheist thinkers: “Do you know or not?” “If you claim we don’t or can’t know, why don’t you spend some time criticizing theodicists?”

Despite all this it seems to me that skeptical theism need not be in conflict with the enterprise of theodicy, though the latter will require certain restrictions to be put upon it. In order to be fully compatible with skeptical theism, theodicy must refrain from any attempts at big, sweeping, assured statements. What I mean is that theodicy should refrain from saying such things as: “This instance of suffering is due to X,” or “Suffering in general is due to Y.” Critics might here complain that I am effectively saying theodicy should cease to be theodicy. I admit, if a full compatibility with skeptical theism is to be achieved then theodicy must make compromises. However, I don’t mean to make theodicy redundant – and readers of my blog may well know that I defend a form of theodicy which attempts to combine a modified form of Leibniz’s best possible world with a version of Irenaeus’ soul-making approach. What I do think needs to happen is a humbling of the theodicy enterprise. Instead of claiming God allows some specific or general type of suffering because X, Y, Z, the claim needs to be restricted to something like, “God might allow some instance or type of evil because of X, Y or Z.” Or, alternatively, “X, Y and Z are, plausibly, morally sufficient reasons for God to allow some instances or types of suffering, even if we do not or cannot know if X, Y or Z constitute God’s actual reasons for allowing some instance or type of suffering.”

This, I think, would make theodicy fully compatible with skeptical theism. But is there any benefit in such a weakened form of theodicy? I think there is. There are lots of areas of human knowledge where it can be important to venture even tentative explanations for seemingly recalcitrant facts. Certain aspects of origin of life studies or evolutionary theory can be like that, for instance. Theories can often seem more plausible in the face of uncertainty if we are able to at least take stabs a possible explanations for data that proves difficult to account for. In particular with respect to the problem of evil, we can note that forms of suffering and evil are not all equal. There are some forms which might be accounted for fairly easily; whereas other instances seem intractable. By providing plausible explanations for certain forms or instances of suffering, theodicy can increase our confidence that plausible explanations exist also for these more difficult instances of evil.

Perhaps the skeptical theist might also make a compromise here. Rather than dogmatically asserting that we can’t know, perhaps he should hold to the weaker statement of skeptical theism – that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, why God allows some instance or form of suffering. This attitude would then allow theodicy some role in at least investigating whether or not plausible reasons for some evils can indeed be found, or at least rationally surmised. This surely would be a sensible compromise for the skeptical theist to make, since it avoids for him a rather uncomfortable knowledge statement (“we can’t know”) which sits uneasily with his overall outlook. Skeptical theism of the form “don’t know” seems, to me anyhow, more internally consistent than the “can’t know” form.

Such an “agreement” between these two approaches has analogues in other disciplines. Take, for example, the philosophy of mind. Some philosophers of mind – most notably Colin McGinn – reckon the problem of consciousness is one which we are simply cognitively unequipped to solve, and we need to simply live with it. Others – rather hopefully – think it is solved. Though these two positions aren’t immediately compatible, we can adopt elements of both: we can agree with McGinn that the problem has not in fact been solved; but agree with the optimists that we can make some progress, even if we can’t solve the problem at present.

What this gives us is a much healthier attitude, one that appeals both to our sense of realism and to our sense of curious optimism and which might lead us to say something like: “I’m not sure we can know, but let’s try.” And thus, with one or two compromises made, it seems to me that Joe and George can safely sit at the same table.

Stephen J Graham

2 Comments

Filed under Problem of Evil

Is Theodicy Offensive?

This week a few comments appeared on my Twitter feed concerning the apparent offensive nature of theodicy; theodicy being that branch of theistic thought that attempts to explain why God allows evils and suffering in the world.

A frequent retort to this project of theodicy – and one that occurred this week – goes something like this: “Yeah, go and tell that to a rape victim!” [The precise tweet I saw read: “theodicy is often offensive. Who’s gonna look at a rape victim & tell them it was a reminder from God?”] The idea here is that some explanation or other would be offensive to those who have suffered gross wrongs. But what is supposed to follow from this? That some explanation or other is false? That’s hardly the case, unless we seek to equate offensiveness with falsity. To my mind all that follows is that even if some explanation is true it isn’t necessarily helpful in some given context – such as counselling a rape victim. However, any responsible person wouldn’t approach a counselling situation in this way; not because the explanation is false, but because in this context it is both inappropriate and unhelpful to the recovery of the victim.

I remember several years ago having to attend counselling sessions for extreme anxiety. At the beginning of these sessions the counsellor delved into lots of things in my past, explaining how they had a bearing on my current psychological state and how that state comes about within the human body. It was certainly an education and much of what she told me was undoubtedly true. However, I found this approach extremely unhelpful and frustrating; even counter-productive. I felt like I was being treated as a psychological research project rather than being helped. The truth in my case was unhelpful, inappropriate and at times even offensive. It was still true.

There’s a time and place for everything. Giving a long-winded explanation of why God permits suffering may well be of no use to the victim of some act of evil. A philosophical explanation is not what they need at that moment in time. To judge a philosophical explanation by how it would perform in a counselling context is to set a false standard. Of course, we should note in passing that there are people who have been helped by seeing their suffering in a larger context. It is not uncommon to hear stories from Jewish people who suffered the hell on earth of the Nazi concentration camps about how their belief in God’s providence sustained them, that believing there was at least some reason or explanation for what was happening. Suffering, it seems, can be easier to bear when it’s set into a wider context of having some meaning.

Anyhow, we could make the point by flipping the situation around. Take an atheist who is utterly convinced that there is no God, that this life is all there is, and that each of us faces nothing but personal annihilation in a relatively short time. Say this atheist visits Africa to do charity work in a remote hospital. A mother has just arrived with a sick 10 year old boy on the verge of death. In fact, there’s nothing doctors can do except to bring some modest pain-relief and to help ease the suffering of both the son as he dies and the mother as she grieves. This mother and son are devout Christians. Despite living an impoverished and malnourished existence they look forward to a better future, the heavenly blessing of being reunited after death, when all fear is banished from their hearts, all pain from their bodies, every tear wiped away, and wrongs and injustices righted. Now, suppose our charitable atheists stands by the bedside to ease this boy into his death and help to comfort the mother. Is now a good time to offer the problem of evil? Is now a good time to point out the contradictions in the Bible and that it cannot be trusted when it speaks of the life to come? Wouldn’t to do so be crass and offensive? And yet the atheist believes all this is true.

The point should be obvious: that it is hardly a sensible critique of atheism to say “yeah, well you wouldn’t preach atheism to a dying child,” and likewise it’s rather unreasonable to critique a theodicy on the basis that “yeah, you wouldn’t tell that to a rape victim!”(Of course some given theodicy could be false for many other reasons).

So, how should we judge a belief system or argument? Not on its emotional appeal; not on whether someone considers it offensive; not on how many people agree with it; not even with regard to how effectively it makes the hairs on the back of our neck tingle when we consider it. We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect. Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.

Stephen J Graham

10 Comments

Filed under Problem of Evil

The Unbelievers come to Belfast

And so mssrs Dawkins and Krauss have come and gone from Belfast with their film “The Unbelievers.” I’d heard a lot about this movie before I saw it, admittedly mostly negative. Interestingly the vast majority of this negative publicity came from atheists. In fact, when I tweeted that I had bought tickets for the event in Belfast – which included a Q & A session with Dawkins & Krauss afterwards – the only people who cautioned me against it were atheists.

So, what did I think of it? To be honest the film wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared, though I guess it was only as good as any ego trip can be. There were several scenes that were quite funny. When Krauss went to debate a Muslim and found that he had some time to kill before the debate started he remarked that: “I think I’ll go and sit down for a while and read my Bible” – showing the camera a copy of Hitchen’s book “God is Not Great.” There were several other comic moments, including the scene where an atheist crowd confronts an all male Islamic protest and begins to chant “Where are all the women!?”

Of course, there were other moments which were intended for comedic effect which made me cringe and, frankly, made those in the movie look a tad ridiculous. Comedian Eddie Izzard addressing the Reason Rally in 2012 provided one such moment. Why doesn’t Izzard believe in God? Well, he attempts to demonstrate by calling on God to come and show himself at the reason rally, “Now would be a good time!” But of course, no response. What does that demonstrate? Nothing other than the fact that Izzard isn’t worth paying attention to on the God question. We had some other tired old clichés too: Ricky Gervais telling us that atheism is only believing in one less God than Christians do. Or consider a rather ugly scene in which a (admittedly uncouth) Christian street preacher was surrounded by a group of atheists, who were yelling at him, and few raised their middle finger at him as he attempted to preach. In the audience many people laughed at this – and it was probably intended to cause that reaction – but what message does that send out about atheists? Surely that’s counter-productive to the “atheists are eminently more reasonable than you” message of the movie?

There were a few other cringe-worthy moments. For example, Dawkins – with puppy dog eyes – telling us that he wants people to fall in love with science just as much as he’s in love with it. Or his rather crass dismissal of certain aspects of Christian theology in a phone interview, betraying a mind with little more than a Sunday school understanding of the doctrines in question. But, since he does it in such a blunt and offensive way it’s funny, right? Perhaps we should also include the fact that every single time a religious person or group were included it was either in the context of a rowdy protest – Muslims yelling that infidels will go to Hell, for instance – or a non-expert being shown up as a fool, as in the case of the Australian archbishop who in his debate with Dawkins remarked that we evolved from Neanderthals. There was no attempt to show engagement with any of the better representatives of theism generally, and there’s little excuse since Krauss and Dawkins have both had better opponents than this movie shows.

But, of course, this kind of bias is very deliberate. The movie is not intended to engage people in the substantive issues. It’s far too light and sound-bitey for that. The movie is more of a rally call to atheists to come out of the closet. The message is “religion is ridiculous, you have nothing to fear; and there are thousands just like us, if only we all spoke out like this.”

There were positives in the movie too. Krauss has a wonderful, almost boyish, enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe. It’s seriously infectious. When he speaks about the wonders of the universe he’s like a child telling his friend about some new toy. This came out in the Q&A session after the screening also. And in fact the Q&A session really challenged my assumptions about both Krauss and Dawkins. I was expecting – particularly from Dawkins – to hear a certain sneering, condescending, angry tone as he addressed the audience. That didn’t happen. Dawkins was warm and reasonable and very pleasant, and I even found myself liking him. There was one incredibly poignant moment during this session when Dawkins and Krauss spoke of their memories of the late Christopher Hitchens, with Krauss praising how friendly Hitchens was even with people he completely disagreed with on every topic – including, according to Krauss, people that Krauss would have a hard time sharing a room with.

One last bone of contention that irritated me throughout the movie and the Q&A was the constant equating of atheism with reasonableness. In fact on one occasion we were offered the contrast between God and evolution as if those aren’t compatible, and totally oblivious to the fact that there are several theistic arguments from evolution to the existence of God. Anyhow, the big assumption seemed to be that “we atheists are reasonable, if you want to be reasonable too you’ll have to be an atheist.” This whole emphasis on atheism is, frankly, unhelpful even to Dawkins’ & Krauss’ own cause. They’d be far better advocating the case for secularism, and would gain a much wider audience and acceptance. For instance, there are many points that I agreed on: religion should not have a privileged position; young earth creationism should not be taught in schools; pupils in schools should not have to sing hymns or join in prayers; it’s obscene that we have an established church in the United Kingdom (I’d add that it’s incredibly bad for the Christian church); it’s horrendous that bishops get to sit in the House of Lords by dint of their religious affiliation. And yet, Dawkins and Krauss and their movement would alienate those who share such views because they’re not atheists.

Lastly, and to finish on a positive note, it was great to be at an event like this in Belfast – the religious protest capital of Europe – and not to have a bunch of religious fundamentalists protesting the event (a phenomenon that does more harm to Christianity than atheism does). A number of fundamentalist preachers had claimed to have bought tickets and would come to “take Dawkins on,” but nothing like this materialized. In my session every person who commented or asked a question seemed to be an atheist, and I understand the same went for the second session. The audience members seemed thoughtful; there was no arrogance, anger, or petty Northern Irish mentality on display (as I feared there might be). I was left to wonder, though, whether they would remain so thoughtful and civil in the face of religious disagreement. My own engagement with atheists tells me that there are many, many thoughtful and civil people out there, but atheism, clearly, has it’s own fair share of loons.

Is atheism to be equated with reasonableness? On that I’m an unbeliever.

Stephen J Graham

8 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Belief

Is Stephen J Graham an Apologist?

Last week I was referred to, in a critical article, as an “apologist.” I confess that I winced every time I read that description. I’ve never regarded myself as an apologist, and find it quite irritating when the label is applied to me. What then am I? On this website I describe myself as a “philosophical theologian;” on Twitter I use: “philosopher,” “theologian,” “writer,” and “researcher.” My academic background – what I actually studied and graduated in at university – is philosophy and theology; my major research interest being philosophy of religion. For this reason I suppose “philosophical theologian” is the most accurate label, if a label is required.

To some minds, however, this doesn’t exclude my also being an “apologist.” It might be thought that since I occasionally criticize atheist arguments or (less often) advance arguments in favour of theism, then I must be an apologist. But surely that can’t be correct. Take atheist philosopher Stephen Law, for example. Law writes articles and essays in defense of atheism, he has taken part in debates with theists, and has advanced a number of arguments against theism or doctrines of some particular brand thereof. And yet we would not fairly and correctly call him an “atheist apologist,” despite the fact that he frequently engages in the sort of activity that might rightly be labelled an “apologetic” – a defense of one’s believings or disbelievings in some matter.

So, how do we distinguish between apologetics and philosophy of religion?

It’s not not terribly easy to say. The lines are often blurred and we even find individuals who engage in both – the most obvious example being William Lane Craig, who is rightly considered as a “philosopher of religion” or an “apologist.” Moreover, there are those who are incorrectly called apologists despite the fact that their work has obvious apologetic import – Alvin Plantinga, for instance. In any event, even though presenting cut-and-dried criteria isn’t possible, and even though the two areas often overlap, to my mind there are a number of general features distinguishing philosophy of religion – or philosophical theology – from apologetics.

Firstly, and most importantly, we must ask ourselves what are the aims. In philosophy of religion – or philosophy generally – the aim is to discover truth and rationally compelling arguments wherever they should lead. By contrast, apologetics is often the defence of what one already believes, a search to find arguments for conclusions already arrived at, and to persuade others of one’s conclusions using arguments, even if those arguments are not the reason why one believes himself. We might put it thus: philosophy of religion asks: “is X coherent and true,” whilst the apologist asks: “Since X is coherent and true, how can we prove it and persuade people.” In speaking of the “paradox of apologetics,” Paul Draper describes the difference this way: apologists seek to justify their religious beliefs; philosophers of religion seek to have beliefs that are justified. He goes on to argue that the nature of apologetics – seeking to justify one’s religious beliefs – is inevitably biased and therefore cannot ground justification. Thus, “paradoxically one cannot obtain justification for one’s religious beliefs by seeking it directly.” We must, then, seek truth rather than justification. Of course this isn’t non-problematic, and frequently it isn’t clear whether someone is doing apologetics or philosophy of religion, but that there is a difference somewhere here seems relatively clear.

Secondly, and following from the above, philosophers of religion must accept risk in a way apologists rarely do. For the apologist – again, generally – philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. By contrast, for the philosopher of religion philosophy will – if necessary – criticize theology and contradict its deliverances. Philosophers must be – and often are, in my experience – much more prepared to abandon even the most cherished beliefs they hold. Apologists tend to have a much greater sense of allegiance to their beliefs, such that even the thought of abandoning some belief is anathema.

Thirdly, philosophers of religion test and critique their own position just as often as they construct arguments for it, and often assist others in doing so. For example, Alvin Plantinga (incorrectly called an apologist, in my view) has on occasion spent hours with critical colleagues to help them be even more effective in their critique. I’ve never witnessed the same charity from “apologists.”

Readers who regard themselves as apologists might well be spitting feathers by now. And perhaps this response is justified and I’ve been unduly harsh. Part of the problem is that the word apologetics can mean different things and be used in different ways. In its simplest form it means merely to give a defense of what one does or believes – like Socrates giving an “apology” to the Athenian court when faced with the charges of denying the gods of Athens and corrupting the youth. Or Paul Draper giving a defense of naturalism. Or Alvin Plantinga rebutting the problem of evil. If this is all we mean by “apologetics” then anyone who ever argues for a position they hold or who defends it against objections is engaging in “apologetics.” But, of course, “apologetics” means more than this. So much so that an entire industry has sprung up in apologetic writing, by authors correctly labelled “apologists.” I’m thinking here of people like Lee Strobel, Frank Turek or J Warner Wallace. What Strobel does, for instance, is not what I do. Strobel can barely bring himself to be critical of a single theistic argument or piece of Christian evidence. If he is critical at all he passes over such arguments in silence so as to focus only on those things he thinks helps sell his beliefs to others. His work is largely about giving answers, the sort that come well-packaged and shrink-wrapped. It’s far too neat to be identified as philosophy of religion, which is a much messier business. No-one could accuse Strobel of criticising Christianity and theistic beliefs just as much or more than atheism – a charge a Christian apologist levelled at me last week.

I suppose ultimately it’s this kind of popular “industry apologetics” I have a strong aversion to, and this that I have in mind when I reject the label of “apologist.”

Stephen J Graham

7 Comments

Filed under Philosophy

Abortion & Men

Below is a section from a longer article on debating abortion. It concerns the popular sentiment from a growing number within the pro-choice movement that men have no right to an opinion or that abortion is none of our business.

**********

This response is incredibly tiresome but I have yet to debate abortion without my opponent bringing it up. I was even told by another man that because we were men we had no right to an opinion on the matter. Ironically, this was stated right after he had given his own – “pro-choice” – opinion!

I have yet to be informed as to precisely how my having a penis is any hindrance whatsoever to my ability to rationally analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning of life, the philosophical question of personhood, the biological facts about life development, or issues of viability, disability, or mortality. In fact in plain experiential understanding of the realities of pregnancy and child birth I have discovered that I often far outstrip even many of my female opponents. I know what it’s like when it dawns on you that you’re going to be a parent. I know what it’s like to see my child for the first time at 12 weeks on a hospital scan. Due to certain complications I got to see many more scans over the months that followed and watched my son grow in the womb of my wife. I know what it’s like to be there every step of the way through a difficult pregnancy and a child birth hit by the complications of an ovarian cyst. My wife was very ill after giving birth, and was required to remain in hospital for a week afterwards. I may not have carried a life inside my body, but to think that this means I didn’t understand what was going on is pure unadulterated nonsense. I’ve lived it.

Furthermore, the idea that abortion has no effect on men is at best factually incorrect, and at worse a horrendous instance of the kind of sexism that would be censured if it was stated the other way around. Being a father is a big deal. Being a father has completely turned my life on its head. Utterly. When a woman contemplates an abortion it’s not just her own well-being and future at stake in the decision. The future of the man is at stake also. When his child is aborted do you really think this has no effect on a man? In fact, in the majority of cases when a woman has an abortion without her partner’s consent the relationship subsequently breaks down. We’re not robots. We’re not devoid of emotion. So please let’s have no more of this patronising nonsense that men should have no right to an opinion because we don’t know what it’s like or that abortion doesn’t affect us.

Of course, the argument leads to all manner of silliness: should only terminally ill people have a right to an opinion on euthanasia? Are disabled people the only ones qualified to dictate public policy concerning provision for disabled people? Are female doctors and surgeons incompetent when speaking on issues of testicular or prostate health? Perhaps all of us in the Western world should remain neutral on questions of third world aid since we don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

But, of course, the claim is merely a red-herring; little more than a lazy attempt to close off all debate, particularly when it’s going badly and a man is asking difficult questions of those who think it’s fine and dandy to take the life of an unborn child.

**********
Stephen J Graham

1 Comment

Filed under Abortion, Ethics

Christianity: A Cold-House for Philosophers & Lesbians

This week the Christian singer-songwriter turned religious commentator Vicky Beeching has “come out.” The Independent printed a fascinating interview with her here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

I’ve read the article and have been fascinated by some of the comments flying around cyberspace. From what I can gather most of the Twitterverse has rallied round, and I’m sure Beeching has been buoyed by the reception she has received. Of course, as is patently clear in her interview, Beeching knows all too well the suspicion and downright religious hatred that is often directed towards homosexuals by Christians generally and Evangelicals in particular. She was quite rightly nervous about how the news of her sexuality would be received.

Thus far, from what I can tell, she’s done well. Most of the reaction has been supportive, and many people were moved by the interview (if you haven’t read it stop reading my ramblings and read it), with some claiming to have shed tears at what she has struggled through from a very early age. I can’t claim to have shed any tears myself, but one particular episode she recounts had me almost shaking with rage (I’m from Belfast, we don’t cry, we just get mad!). At age 16 she attended a large rally, seemingly the kind of charismatic shindig where people are told that Jesus has the power to deliver you from all sorts of bondage. Being confused and guilt-ridden from feeling same-sex attraction and trying to live within a conservative faith community which condemns it, Beeching went forward for prayer only to find herself surrounded by horribly overzealous charismatics praying in tongues and trying to cast evil spirits out of her. This maddened me so much I was almost swearing in tongues.

When you read the interview you are struck by just how harmful and abusive certain forms of Christianity can be. And the question was inevitably raised in several comments: why on earth would you stay true to a church or a faith that has wounded you as much as this?

I have often pondered the same question in my own case. I’m not gay, but I’ve seen and been victim of my own fair share of ecclesiastical abuses. I spent 10 years in the horribly abusive charismatic movement, I’ve witnessed enough church abuses to last me a lifetime from manipulative, greedy preachers to the cultish behaviour of certain faithful church members. In my own case I’ve experienced rejection and alienation simply because I’m not an “easy believer.” Being a philosopher can be a difficult business when it comes to church. The kind of questioning and critical nature of the average philosopher isn’t often welcomed in churches. To a great extent I’ve lived in isolation from Christian culture, feeling I don’t fit in. I even deleted my Facebook account a few months ago largely because I was growing weary of other Christians I know. I was weary of having my faith constantly called into question because I didn’t sign up to the party-line on some given issue, or because I questioned the public comments of some fundamentalist preacher. More than that I felt many of these Christians were embarrassing themselves in front of my non-Christian friends with downright idiotic comments. In fact, one of my closer non-Christian friends remarked to me: “Do you not think you’re on the wrong side?”

And thus the question comes back: why bother with an institution or with a faith that has wounded you so much, that has caused so much grief to you?

Beeching has stated that she wants to be an agent for change in the church, and that she remains a passionate Christian believer. And that’s exactly the right answer, I think. In my own case I remain a Christian because I believe the central tenets of Christianity are true. It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about how the behaviour of other adherents affects you. At rock bottom the best (only?) reason to hold to any belief is if you are convinced of its truth. Some of the adherents of Christianity can be rotten, blinkered, petty-minded, bigoted, intolerant and about as much fun to be around as a grizzly bear with a migraine. In fairness, there are many also who are kind-hearted, compassionate, hard-working, helpful, fair-minded and self-sacrificing. But we’re not Christians because some Christians are nice. Nor should we abandon faith because others are nasty. Christianity – like any worldview or faith system – stands or falls on the grounds of truth. Insofar as Beeching is convinced of the truth of her faith she is quite right not to abandon it despite the horrendous suffering she has endured at the hands of those who really should have done better.

Stephen J. Graham

Stephen J. Graham

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kids, Philosophy & Religious Objections

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” – Robin Williams (as John Keating), Dead Poets Society

**********

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of philosophical education for children in schools, and was delighted to find this recent article written by Stephen Law, a philosopher at Heythrop College: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/religion-and-philosophy-in-schools.html

In this article Law defends the teaching of critical thinking skills to children against some common objections. What is most amazing to me is that we should have to defend the teaching of critical thinking skills at all. And yet there really are people – Law cites a popular British columnist and a leading Rabbi – who are very influential, should be intelligent, and yet who oppose it. Law points out that many religious people would be absolutely fine with such a programme of education, and yet (as I too find in my own research) those who oppose it are typically religious.

But let’s look at a few positives first. It’s my own view that philosophy is of such fundamental importance that we should consider it alongside traditional staples of education such as mathematics or English. At its most basic philosophy is about reasoning well about all manner of subjects – from every day run-of-the-mill issues to the big questions of life, existence, meaning and morals. It can help us to cut through nonsense and waffle, spot reasoning mistakes in the work of news reporters, journalists, politicians, and even teachers, as well as analyze complex concepts and entire worlds of thought. In a mini interview Guy Longworth, a philosopher at Warwick University, captures neatly the importance of philosophy: “Many important questions – including truths about morality, aesthetics, the very general structure of reality, and our relation to that reality – can be known, if at all, only through philosophy.”

I recently took an IQ test (130 if you’re interested, and even if not I’m bragging) which included questions that the vast majority of the population gets wrong, and yet in order to get them right all you need are basic reasoning skills – the sort that understands nothing more complex than modus ponens or modus tollens. Apparently the failure to spot elementary reasoning mistakes is widespread. I’m reminded of an article I read a number of years ago which reasoned that because most rapes were committed by men that therefore most men were inclined to be rapists. Quantifier shift fallacy. Logic 101. Of course, philosophers also make mistakes and propound invalid and unsound arguments (I’ve propounded a few myself), but rarely so glaring and basic, and are typically more willing to abandon (or able to correct) a poor argument when the mistake comes to light.

Reasoning skills are vital. Does anyone seriously suggest that a lack of reasoning skills is a useful thing? Is it a bad thing that children learn skills that will assist them in analyzing complex problems, read carefully, critically assess all kinds of ideas, and explore the big and most interesting questions of human existence? Is there some supposed problem with teaching children to express themselves with clarity and precision, or how to construct a solid case for something? Learning to think for oneself is an important part of maturity and intellectual growth, the skills for which can be taught from quite an early age. I routinely use Lego to explore philosophical topics with my 7 year old son – ranging from free will, to right and wrong, good and evil, and the existence of God (see my blog post here: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/category/lego/). And none of it goes over his head. Kids tend to respond incredibly well to philosophical issues and problems, and often display a creative intelligence and curiosity that, sadly, many adults have long since lost. Whilst some people claim that we run the risk of raising a bunch of argumentative brats, I would argue that when properly taught philosophy should increase one’s levels of intellectual humility. After all, in philosophy we’ll see incredibly intelligent opponents stating their case, we’ll come to appreciate that even seemingly obviously wrong positions aren’t quite as silly as they look at first, and that when dealing with ultimate questions the answers are rarely straightforward.

The strength of philosophy as a discipline is well known. For instance, recent studies in the US have shown that university students who have studied philosophy at undergraduate level exceed other graduates on standardized professional and graduate school admissions tests (such as the LSAT, GMAT and the GRE). Incredibly enough philosophy graduates even perform better on verbal skills than English graduates, and unsurprisingly outstrip all other graduates on analytical skills. The following link and the graphs contained therein illustrate just how strongly philosophy graduates perform in contrast to other disciplines:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/12/verbal-vs-mathematical-aptitude-in-academics/

And thus it’s really no surprise to find philosophy graduates in all manner of careers from law to banking to journalism. So, it seems that philosophy is massively beneficial (though, of course, the philosophers reading this will point out that perhaps it is the case that smart people choose philosophy, not that philosophy makes one smart!). This evidence isn’t conclusive of course, but it’s highly suggestive that it’s a great discipline to study and master if one wishes to excel at a range of skills that are valuable both in life and to potential employers.

As beneficial as studying philosophy seems to be, there are opponents; and as already stated these opponents tend to be religious. This baffles me – a “non-Calvinist Presbyterian!” I first attended university to study chemistry but found I wasn’t interested in it enough to study it. I decided to switch to what I was interested in: theology and philosophy. I remember the look on the face of a church elder when I told him I was going to study theology – sheer delight. I remember how his faced changed when I added “and philosophy” – sheer horror. “You’ve got to watch that philosophy!” was his advice. To be honest, in my experience, the study of philosophy is much more conducive to religious belief than studying theology. Theology was often dry and tedious, not to mention full of shockingly poor reasoning. I ended up approaching the subject primarily as a philosopher than a theologian, choosing theology modules that were more philosophical in nature – such as Christian thought and world religions, though admittedly the Old Testament always fascinated me. Philosophy, by contrast, was much more of an “adventure of the mind.” It was in my philosophy classes that I met authors who forever changed how I think – William James and Alvin Plantinga being particularly influential on me. Moreover, they changed how I think as a theist in ways that theologians rarely did (though I happily give a nod in the direction of NT Wright, one particular exception).

So what lies behind this suspicion of philosophy on the part of many religious believers? I suspect the biggest problem is simply ignorance – ignorance of what philosophy does. Or perhaps ignorance that considers it synonymous with rabid atheism. Ignorance too of the fact that there are many philosophers who are both religious and of the highest academic standing: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, Evans, Davis, Pruss, Helm, Hick (deceased), Wolterstorff, Alston (deceased), McGrew, Stump, Leftow. So many, in fact, that atheist philosopher Quentin Smith complained that God is alive and well in His one academic stronghold – philosophy departments.

But I think more than ignorance is at work. I detect a strong level of fear: the fear of risk. What if we study philosophy and it turns out that the case for God crumbles and atheism appears to be the truth? Some Christians prefer the discipline of apologetics to philosophy of religion for this reason. Apologetics is about defending what one believes. Philosophy of religion is about seeking the truth wherever that may lead, even if it leads away from the beliefs that one currently holds. There’s no real way to assuage such fears – such a risk will always be present in any truth seeking discipline. But as a theist I honestly cannot imagine being in the position of having to give up theism. It’s a risk, sure, but a small one, I’ve discovered. In any event if one is sure of one’s faith what is there to fear of any discipline that seeks to discover truths about reality?

The teaching of philosophy would be greatly beneficial to children. So important, I think, that the fears of a largely religious minority should not have veto power over it. Thus it’s difficult to disagree with Stephen Law when he concludes: “all children should, without exception, be encouraged to think critically – and thus philosophically – even about the moral and religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom. Religious parents should not be able to opt out.”

Stephen J. Graham

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Philosophy

Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Belief, Theism

The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

JW Wartick, a graduate in Christian apologetics from Biola university, has written an article that appeared retweeted in my Twitter feed this week in which he seeks to outline what he thinks is the most powerful theistic argument. You can find the full article here: http://jwwartick.com/2014/07/07/kalam-are/

For Wartick the most powerful argument for theism is “The Argument from Religious Experience” [ARE], and he seems to think it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Wartick rightly points out that – like most arguments – the ARE can be stated in different forms. Here is the form Wartick provides, (actually this is a revised form after realizing his initial argument was question-begging):

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Now, to be fair to Wartick he has only written a blog article so there isn’t time or space to flesh out all the details. However, even allowing for this fact the argument strikes me as desperately weak at best, if not fatally flawed. I want to raise five problems with what Wartick presents.

Firstly, in an article concerning what is the best theistic argument it’s odd that Wartick doesn’t actually outline what this exclusively theistic argument is. He prefaces the argument he does give with these words: “Here’s a way to formulate [the ARE] to merely defend a transcendent reality.” This, then, is not an argument for theism. Even if the argument he presents is a good one (it’s not, see points 2-5 below) an atheist could affirm every single step and remain just as much an atheist as he was before. Buddhists, for instance, are typically atheistic and would affirm this argument’s conclusion. Other atheists might agree that believing in a transcendent realm is rational even if they themselves don’t believe it. What use, to theism, is an argument that could easily be affirmed by an atheist? Take the Kalam cosmological argument by way of contrast. If valid and sound the KCA brings us to an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, incredibly powerful personal creator of the universe. Wartick’s argument doesn’t even give us the actual existence of a “transcendent realm”, it simply concludes that it’s “rational to believe” such a thing exists. Now, Wartick might say this is only one formulation of the ARE, but then why in an article outlining “the most powerful theistic argument” does he use such a weak formulation? Why not state what this powerful theistic argument is? As it is the reader is left totally in the dark. Moreover, it’s rather bewildering why Wartick concludes with “I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism,” when in fact he hasn’t even presented any argument for theism at all.

In any event we can but analyse what Wartick has given us, which the rest of this article will do.

The second point of critique is that the argument as presented isn’t even valid. Wartick realizes this, saying: “The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at it as it stands now.” This is a curious statement indeed! The argument is invalid, but let’s consider its merit anyhow? It has no merit, it’s invalid! As it stands it’s little more than 3 dubiously connected sentences on a page. Claiming to be painting in broad brush-strokes is no excuse for presenting an invalid or incomplete argument. I don’t wish to be uncharitable but it smacks of laziness.

Thirdly, the argument turns on what strikes me as an incredibly vague term: “transcendent realm.” What does this term mean and what does it refer to? Wartick never tells us, and again it’s such an important phrase that the lack of space is no excuse not to define it. Later in the article Wartick claims that “when millions of people say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.” This is the so-called principle of testimony. Now, I’ve no problem with the principle of testimony itself but Wartick is flat-out wrong to claim that people say they have experienced a “transcendent realm” (whatever that means). The literature on religious experiences is massive, but it’s rare to find people claiming to experience a “transcendent realm.” Christians typically claim to experience the grace of God or the love of Christ. Hindus claim to experience some sense of oneness with “the Real.” Mormons experience a burning in their bosom. And so it goes on. It seems to me that Wartick is taking massively diverse experiences and sticking them all in a box labelled “transcendent realm,” a term suitably vague to cover the fact that many of the experiences contained therein have precious little in common with each other, with many downright incompatible. Of course this is all before we address the thorny difficulty in moving from what some person claims to have experienced to what – if anything outside their own mind – they did experience.

Fourthly, the argument’s conclusion is also vague. The first premise is singular – when a person experiences something then they can prima facie trust their own experience. Then in premise 2 Wartick refers to people who have had experiences of the “transcendent realm.” However, in the conclusion he simply says “Therefore it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.” But who are we talking about in the conclusion? Are we talking of the people who have had such experiences? Or are we talking of those who haven’t had such experiences? Again Wartick doesn’t tell us, and again there’s no excuse for not doing so. Presumably it’s the latter since this is intended as an argument with powerful apologetic potential. However, in addition to adding to the argument’s invalidity, this presents further problems for the argument. Which brings me to…

Fifthly, the argument is of very limited use for those who have never had such experiences (and of course the argument is hardly necessary for those who have!). In the comments section of his article Wartick states: “[the ARE] may provide evidence to those who have not had the experience by way of the principle of testimony.” [Emphasis mine]. This is not nearly good enough! Surely any apologetic argument has to do a little bit more than maybe provide someone with some evidence, especially if we’re talking about incredibly powerful theistic arguments. The problem Wartick faces if he tries to make his argument conclude to something more specific than some ill-defined “transcendent realm,” is that religious experience is so diverse that it’s understandable that the skeptic will stand scratching his head wondering who on earth to believe. If he believes the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Christians, and all the various species of these faiths, to take him to belief in a “transcendent realm” it seems that he will have to rule out most of these experiences when it comes to believing in something more specific – say, a triune God, unless Wartick would suggest that the experiences of the Hindu are in some way evidence for the trinity? Are we to accept the Buddhist’s experiences as evidence for a transcendent reality only to rule them out later if we narrow the argument to the existence of a personal God? That sounds like a dubious pick and mix approach to me.

The principle of testimony which Wartick draws on is fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic in the world of physical reality, but it’s incredibly difficult to apply to otherworldly contexts in which there is widespread disagreement amongst those who claim to have had such experiences. This is the only objection to the ARE that Wartick actually addresses, albeit doing little more than glossing over it. Wartick rightly points out that claim X and claim Y don’t “cancel each other out.” True, but who is the skeptic to believe? For the person lacking any such experiences it’s understandable that he should throw his hands up in despair and join Hume in a game of backgammon. This isn’t to dismiss everyone’s experiences as false – though Wartick would have to overcome powerful psychological and cultural explanations for religious experience before he could construct a plausible argument – it’s simply to point out that such an argument faces massive difficulties in the diversity of reports of religious experiences.

Wartick’s example on this point concerns two people giving different descriptions of a murder suspect in court. The first describes the suspect as a “tall, dark male” and the other describes him as a “pale, short male.” Both descriptions could be correct from the point of view of the different people giving them. With this example I fear Wartick isn’t taking the differences in religious experiences nearly seriously enough. It’s more like having multiple witnesses: one claims he saw a tall man, another saw a group of teenaged girls, a third that a dog savaged the victim, a fourth that the man collapsed as if with a heart attack, and a fifth that he committed suicide. Wartick doesn’t deal with this problem except some waving and hand gesturing in the direction of “the relevant literature.” However, I wonder does Wartick believe the experiences of the following are veridical: Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, Shamanists, Wiccans, Druids and Satanists. Do they all just experience God (or the transcendent realm or the Ultimate or the Real) from their own point of view, as his witness analogy would suggest? John Hick would’ve probably welcomed such a conclusion, but he was a pluralist – is Wartick?

In another article (http://jwwartick.com/2012/04/02/re-usefulness/) Wartick is much more modest about what the ARE can achieve: “it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.” [Emphasis mine].

However this is now a long way from a powerful theistic argument. If in fact there is a powerful theistic argument from religious experience Wartick has done little to cast light on what exactly it is.

Stephen J Graham

2 Comments

Filed under Theism

Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Football, Problem of Evil