Come out of your Worldview Bubble

My first time reading Bertrand Russell on Christianity was a greatly frustrating experience. I found myself shaking my head and thinking “No! No! No! That’s not it at all!” Russell was critiquing a different Christianity from the one I know. Of course, that’s not terribly surprising since Russell was writing several generations ago in a different cultural milieu, but, alas, there’s no shortage of modern misfiring critiques – of Christianity, other faiths, and even religious critiques of atheism, humanism, and naturalism.

It seems to me that a large part of this failure is due to a lack of meeting of minds. By this I don’t just mean a failure to engage with the core ideas of the worldviews of others, but rather I mean a failure to engage with the actual human beings who hold these ideas. It’s fairly easy to spot when a critic of some religion (or a religious critic of atheism) has spent little or no time personally engaging with those who adhere to that particular tradition. Sure, books can teach us a lot about Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism, but many ideas – particularly religious ideas – are never just abstract, but are embodied in human persons and communities. If you read every book on Islam ever written there will still be something lacking in your education and understanding of that faith if you have never engaged with “embodied Islam.” When we engage with the individuals who adhere to some worldview or other we typically find nuances that books often struggle to communicate. Believers often disagree or understand elements of their faith in a different way from what was expounded by Joe Faith PhD in his new book on the subject. You see with your own eyes what faith means to the individuals who adhere to it, you come to appreciate the diverse reasons they hold to their faith, and you learn something of their history, culture, and psychology, in a way that books cannot communicate. It really makes a huge difference: not unlike the difference between reading all about Paris in a guidebook and then actually visiting the city for yourself to experience and appreciate the life, vibrancy and beauty of the place.

Most importantly of all, when you engage with those from other worldviews you gain a significant degree of empathy. When critics of some faith tradition haven’t engaged at a significant personal level with adherents of that faith they often speak incredibly aggressively, and in a way that tends to dehumanize those who hold to that tradition. It’s a bit like that modern internet phenomenon witnessed by anyone who reads the comments section of a controversial article or video: people tend to talk to others as if those others are more machine than man. Often things get said which would never get said if the people were sitting at the same table looking into each other’s faces. The human dimension of the exchange is, tragically, often diminished. I’ve witnessed atheists being spoken to as if they are moral degenerates trying to send the country to Hell in a handbasket. Sometimes this is given a “holy spin”: atheists really, deep deep down, know God exists; therefore their atheism is really little more than a wicked moral rebellion against their creator. I’ve also seen religious believers written off as dangerous fanatics who’d like nothing better than to cage their opponents like wild animals. As for me, I’ve been spoken to – by people who don’t know me from Adam – as if I’m a brainwashed idiot, a fool, a moron simply by virtue of the fact that I’m a theist. I suspect many of these people live their lives in something of a bubble, surrounded largely by people who think and act like they do. In my experience, I’m sad to report, religious believers in particular can be incredibly inward looking. Many Christians have no real friendships with people who do not share their beliefs. I’ve gone to churches where people only ever socialize with their fellow churchgoers. It’s easy to see how under such circumstances those who hold significantly different worldviews can come to be demonised, viewed with distrust or derision. And this applies to Christians who belong to other traditions and denominations. I often wonder to what extent the ugly spectacle of Christians at one another’s throats can be explained simply by this reluctance to form friendships and significant social interactions beyond one’s own sectarian boundaries.

Actually spending time with people who disagree with one’s own fundamental opinions can be humbling, enlightening, and mind-expanding. I once thought of Hindus as little other than irrational mystics, and I thought so largely as a result of my academic studies (I had studied world religions as part of my theology degree). Then I met some Hindus – spending several weeks in an area of London containing a 60,000 strong Gujarati Indian immigrant population. I’ll never forget one particular Hindu businessman. He knew his tradition inside out and back to front, and understood Christianity at least as well as I did. He was reflective, friendly, level-headed, sensible, and very successful. I visited several Hindu temples and met many Hindu families, experiencing their friendliness and warmth, and I left London a very humbled young theologian. Rene Descartes, whose own travels had opened his eyes to the wealth of views and opinions in the world, had written words that were ringing in my ears: “all those who hold opinions quite opposed to ours are not on that account barbarians or savages. . . many exercise as much reason as we do, or more…

In my previous article I said, “We aren’t the wholly rational impartial observers we might like to paint ourselves as. Each of us, for better or worse, is a complex of many factors and influences: our upbringing, our background experiences, our cultural milieu, our peers, our education, our innate temperament and dispositions, and much else besides. These things provide the spectacles through which we view our world.” I didn’t always believe that. I was happy thinking I was one of the few impartial rational observers and others – such as the Hindus – were irrational screw-ups. But when we take the time to get to know those of other faiths and none – beyond superficialities and text-book understandings – we come to appreciate the complexities involved in belief formation, and, crucially, come to see that those who disagree with us are not simply wicked or stupid. They are, just like us, human beings with a personal history, psychology, and culture.

As we come to appreciate this reality it should help to burst the little worldview bubble that we tend to keep ourselves in.

Stephen J Graham

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The Problem with Probabilistic Arguments

One of the perennial problems of philosophy is the question of the existence of God. This question has traditionally revolved around the so-called “theistic proofs” and has a philosophical tradition going back at least to Plato. Some philosophers think there are successful theistic proofs (Swinburne or Craig, for example), others – probably the majority – think there are no successful proofs at all. Still others think the issue of proof is an interesting philosophical sideshow at best but is either irrelevant with respect to the rational justification of belief in God or has little, if any, positive religious value.

My own view – very briefly stated is:

There is a God, and there are arguments which lend some not insubstantial weight to theism. However, very few people – myself included – believe in God because of such arguments. Theistic beliefs seem to rest upon very different grounds.

In this article I want to say why I think the project of theistic (or atheistic) proofs is not a promising one.

Types of Proof

Theistic proofs typically come in two forms: a priori and a posteriori. A posteriori proofs are those which rely on some premise or other derived from experience. For example, the fine tuning argument or the Kalam cosmological argument both rely on certain things which we can only learn from experience: that the laws or constants of the universe are fine-tuned for life, or that the universe began to exist. An a priori proof, on the other hand, is an argument which is logically prior to and independent of experience. I can only think of one such argument: the ontological argument.

Sadly, whilst ontological arguments are very interesting it’s far from clear that any such arguments are successful. A posteriori arguments are therefore much more common. These types of arguments also come in two general forms: deductive demonstrations or some form of probabilistic argument.

Take the strictly logical deductions first. What would it mean for arguments of this type to prove the existence of God? Well, first of all we must be clear what “prove” means in this context. We aren’t thinking of proof in terms of mere logical validity or even arguments which have true premises but which no-one knows are true. To prove something means fundamentally to prove it to some specific person. So, the conclusion must follow from the premises, the premises must be true, and the premises must be acknowledged to be true by those we hope to convince.

It seems to me that we hit something of a snag here. Whilst I disagree with John Hick who reckons all such strict a posterior proofs necessarily beg the question, he’s almost certainly correct that anyone who accepts the premises of such arguments almost certainly already accepts the conclusion that God exists. Purely from my own experience I would hazard a guess that the vast majority who think the Kalam cosmological argument is a persuasive argument for the existence of God already believed in God prior to entertaining the argument. That’s no coincidence.

But perhaps even though such arguments do not succeed as strict demonstrative proofs they could be taken as providing pointers, clues or indications; in short they could be presented as probability arguments for the existence of God which appeal to a more informal kind of rationality. Are these any more successful?

Arguments such as the various design arguments or arguments from religious experience are amongst those which seek to establish the existence of God to some degree of high probability rather than logical certainty. The general form of such arguments is that “in view of some characteristic or other of the world it is more probable that there is a God than not; or, such features are better explained (or “to be expected”) on theism rather than naturalism.”

Now, quite clearly the probability at work here is not the sort of strict mathematical notion we come across in the physical sciences. The concept of probability that operates in various theistic (and atheistic) arguments must be nonmathematical, something along the lines of more reasonable or less reasonable acts of assent on the basis of the relative antecedent/intrinsic probabilities of theism or naturalism. The claim that is typically made is that it is more reasonable to interpret the universe in theistic terms than naturalistic terms (or vice versa).

But can this nonmathematical concept of probability be usefully applied to the question of God’s existence? It is of course a matter of fact that human beings have experienced things within the world from which they conclude that God exists or, more likely, on the basis of which their already existing conviction concerning the existence of God is strengthened or reaffirmed. Such conclusions are often couched in probabilistic language: “it seems more probable than not that…” or “it is overwhelmingly more probable that…” However, is it not the case that when used in this way the notion of probability is simply an expression of subjective judgments, a hunch, a feeling or a “how it just seems to me?”

The problem, as I see it, is that there is a huge number and variety of relevant considerations. Some seem to clearly point towards theism; others clearly to naturalism. For example, even theists would agree that the problem of evil counts to some degree against theism, for why else would they seek to answer it? On the theist side at least some of the following provide some weight in favour of theism: fine-tuning, objective moral values, consciousness, contingency, certain other human traits such as free will and rationality, and even the phenomena of religious experiences. Atheists of course try to present interpretations of such things so as to fit them into their own worldview, whatever that is (typically materialism/naturalism). Likewise with the atheist, he presents arguments from evil or hiddenness and the theist tries to give these an understanding which helps them to sit within their overall theistic way of seeing the world. None of the many factors that we could consider seem to point so unequivocally in one direction such that only one explanation or interpretation is possible; despite the fact that in isolation they point one way or the other, each can be fitted into a theistic or naturalistic worldview. Put simply: there is no single piece of evidence for either view which cannot be incorporated into the contrary view by the mind of a person operating with different presuppositions.

So, can acceptance of one interpretation or the other be said to be more reasonable in the face of the total evidence? Someone may be convinced of Christian theism after reading a Lee Strobel book, but of course Strobel doesn’t entertain contrary arguments. All he achieves is the rather jejune conclusion that the existence of God is more probable on X, Y or Z, a conclusion an atheist could easily grant. Often when apologists (theist or atheistic) claim the evidence as a whole points clearly one way rather than the other it’s not unreasonable to conclude that his research has been infected with confirmation bias. We must treat theism and naturalism as comprehensive wholes, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. But which of the various hypotheses squares best with our whole experience of the universe?

How can we say one is more probable than the other? Can we count points in favour of each? So, consciousness and morality in favour of theism gives us a score of 2-0? Add in the problem of evil: 2-1? If 10 items go in favour of theism and only 8 in favour of atheism does theism win by 2 points? That method hardly seems promising. Some factors will be clearer evidence one way than other factors. Some considerations will carry weight – even substantially greater weight – than others. Moreover, there will be no agreed objective way of weighing the various items. It all starts getting rather vague and subjective. Judgments on these matters are personal and intuitive: each of us simply makes a judgment call, and if we seek to apply the notion of probability here we can only legitimately do so on the understanding that it no longer has any objective meaning.

On the methods typically adopted by theistic and atheistic apologists alike there seems no objective sense in which one worldview rather than the other can be described as “more probable.” It’s fairly uninteresting to point out that to theists theism seems more likely, whilst to naturalists naturalism seems more adequate. The reason for this lies, I think, in that they are judging from very different standpoints, with different criteria and presuppositions. We aren’t the wholly rational impartial observers we might like to paint ourselves as. Each of us, for better or worse, is a complex of many factors and influences: our upbringing, our background experiences, our cultural milieu, our peers, our education, our innate temperament and dispositions, and much else besides. These things provide the spectacles through which we view our world. It is largely for these reasons that I find, say, Swinburne’s attempt to convince us that the existence of God is 97% probable, or a naturalist’s attempt to tell me that the immensity of the universe is more probable or more expected on naturalism rather than theism, to be borderline laughable. Of course, great minds make such claims; the claims are no less risible for that.

In the final analysis I can see very little grounds to think the dispute can be settled by appeal to some agreed procedure or by referring to some alleged objectively ascertainable probabilities.

Can my opponents convince me otherwise? Probably not…

Stephen J Graham

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John Hick’s Pluralism: An Appraisal

After Alvin Plantinga, John Hick is the biggest influence on my own philosophy. Whilst I strongly disagree with him on several points Hick is often challenging and always interesting. Hick is most famous for his work on religious pluralism, and what follows here is a very brief account and appraisal of it. For further details the reader should consult Hick’s “An Interpretation of Religion,” or for a more popular level treatment “The Fifth Dimension.”

Hick’s pluralism flows from his interpretation of religious experience, which in turn is essentially an application of Kant’s noumena/phenomena distinction to God, or “The Real,” to use Hick’s preferred phrase. According to Kant we cannot directly experience the world as it is in itself, independent of human observers, but rather only its phenomenal appearance to us. Applying this insight to “The Real,” Hick wants to distinguish between the transcendent divine reality – The Real as it is in itself and which from our point of view is transcategorial (or ineffable) – and the humanly constructed God figures or non-personal “Absolutes” of the various world religions. Hick draws also on the Wittgensteinian idea of “seeing-as” as a clue to the nature of religious experience and faith: noting how something can be experienced in one way by somebody and in another way by someone else, as in the famous duck/rabbit picture. The crucial point for Hick’s view is that all the world religions are literally false, but mythically true; in other words, they fail to describe this Ultimate Reality, but they are all valid responses to it.

Hick’s pluralism was a long time in the making. He was particularly influenced by his multi-faith work in Birmingham, England, as he spent time in various mosques, synagogues, gurudwaras, and temples. It seemed to him that whilst all the externals were different, at a very deep level these religions were essentially the same: “men and women were coming together under the auspices of some ancient, highly developed tradition which enables them to open their minds and hearts upwards towards a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives.” He quotes the Sufi poet Rumi approvingly: “The lamps are different but the light in the same: it comes from beyond.”

Religious experience was central to Hick’s religious epistemology. He was particularly impressed by various saints, mystics and gurus, and how their various religious experiences greatly impacted them. This as much as anything else lead Hick – rightly in my view – to think that there is more to our existence than purely materialistic or naturalistic accounts permit. His chief work, An Interpretation of Religion, is a sustained defence of the rationality of building one’s beliefs on religious experience as well as regular sensory experiences. One of the strengths of Hick’s view is that much of the typical fire naturalists, materialists and atheists direct against religious experience is impotent when directed at Hick. For example, in his book “Believing Bullshit” Stephen Law argues that the vast differences between religious experiences and the beliefs they are said to support gives strong reason against treating such experiences as reliable or veridical. But such a critique does no damage to Hick’s pluralist hypothesis, which holds that differences in religious experience are simply culturally conditioned responses to The Real; or The Real as experienced through the various filters of cultural traditions and belief frameworks. Far from agreeing with Law, Hick claims that we best make sense of the phenomenon of diverse religious experience by postulating this Ultimate ineffable/transcategorial “Real” whose universal presence is humanly experienced in different ways. Furthermore, Hick’s position seems to offer another non-naturalistic option for explaining why it is that people seem generally to select the God in whom they believe on the basis of the culture and traditions of the land of their birth. More conservative thinkers have offered their own responses to this, but for those not inclined to be persuaded by such answers, and yet who find themselves seeing the value in religious experience, Hick provides an interesting way to view the matter.

Another positive we can draw from the work of Hick is his emphasis that there is indeed much that is similar between the various world faiths. It is common, particularly amongst a certain breed of fundamentalist evangelicalism, to view other faiths with deep suspicion, and even in extreme cases as demonic. Hick’s work is a timely corrective to this way of thinking. To give just one example, here is a prayer written by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak:

There is but one God. He is all that is.
He is the creator of all things and He is all-pervasive.
He is without fear and without enmity.
He is timeless, unborn and self-existent.
He is the Enlightener.
And can be realised by grace of Himself alone.
He was in the beginning; He was in all ages.
The True One is, was, and shall forever be

If you prayed this prayer in a Christian church you’d almost certainly receive hearty “amens.”

I think Hick was also correct to chastise much of contemporary theology as “depressingly inward looking.” Part of the reason for this, observed Hick, is that too many theologians are interested solely in their own creeds, or, to use Hick’s charming phrase, they have their “heads stuck in the ecclesiastical sand”. Even today many university “Theology” degrees are really little more than Christianity degrees, with a general reluctance to grapple seriously with the fact that Christianity is only one of many great world faiths, or theologies. Further, Hick was generally correct to point out that much of this attitude is a legacy of Christian arrogance and feelings of superiority, which sadly overflowed into historical horrors such as the crusades and persecutions of Jews. There is of course a growing awareness of the spiritual depths and power of other religious traditions – particularly non-Western ones – and it can only be a healthy thing that Christians are being forced to rethink their attitudes towards other faiths and recognise much of the good that is in them, even if these other faiths aren’t taken as salvific.

On this point it is noteworthy that Hick sees a deeper challenge here. Noting that, “It does not seem that Christians in general are morally and spiritually better people than non-Christians,” Hick asks if this is what we should expect if traditional Christian belief is true. His thought is that if traditional Christian belief is true then it was founded by God Himself, superior to all other religions, and provides Christians with a uniquely close relationship to God and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. But, shouldn’t this mean Christians are, at least on average, far more saintly than those of other faiths? There are perhaps good answers to Hick, but it should be seen as a challenge to every Christian who reflects on how they live their lives as the chosen people of God.

Of course, Hick’s position – taken neat – is far from completely convincing and is vulnerable on a number of fronts. Interestingly, it was a Zen Buddhist friend of his – Masao Abe – who raised a crucial question. In describing his pluralist position, Hick had used the analogy of viewing the world through different coloured glasses – the pure light of reality shines upon us all but among those who are conscious of it some wear theistic glasses, others Zen glasses, and we each experience The Real accordingly. However, Masao rightly asked whether it might be the case that some pair of glasses gives a more accurate view of reality than others. In fact, I think a reasonable position between Hickian pluralism and the complete rejection of other religions lies somewhere in the neighbourhood here, and there seems to be an increasing number of theologians and Christian thinkers willing to view God at work, at least to some degree, in the insights of other religious traditions. Hick might claim that it cannot be the case that some are better than others since we are thinking of an ineffable or transcategorial Real. However, here he faces another not insubstantial problem, raised by former Anglican Michael Goulder: what on earth is Hick talking about? If The Real is truly ineffable and transcategorial then aren’t we now talking of something so vague as to be of no use? Moreover, how are we to believe in such a thing? Is it even a “thing” in any meaningful sense? What content can be given to the concept of The Real that makes it possible to have beliefs about it at all? Further, Hick regards love and selflessness as those things which demonstrate that a person has experienced this Real. However, if The Real is transcategorial why think these particular attributes are more to be associated with The Real than, say, selfishness and hatred? In fact, why even suppose The Real is connected in a special way with religion at all, rather than, perhaps, war?

As one reads Hick it seems that he is primarily driven by the need to avoid saying “X is true but Y is false” because he thinks it smacks of arrogance. However, doesn’t Hick’s claim that all are literally false? Moreover, he doesn’t actually argue that no religion could be closer to the truth than another, and it can hardly be wrong or arrogant to think “X is true but Y is false” since this happens all the time in other areas of inquiry. Why should religion be any different?

Whilst these and other problems remain for Hickian pluralism I think Hick has certainly changed the face of inter-faith relations and thinking for the better. He has challenged Christians to rethink, at least to some degree, their view of the value of other religions; he has shown the importance of inter-faith engagement, which the world needs today more than ever; and his emphasis on religious experience is a welcome corrective to the dry traditionalism and straight-jacket rationalism that often (and, in my view, damagingly) dominates the discussion in the West. And good on Hick for all that.

Stephen J. Graham

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God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump objects to Peter van Inwagen’s proposed theodicy because under the terms of that theodicy God would inflict or permit some person, S, to undergo some instance of suffering, without their permission, and purely for the benefit of some other person or group of people, Y (call this “involuntary altruistic suffering”). This is an objection I’ve heard from the lips of a few philosophical atheists also.

What are we to make of it? Better still, how do we turn such an observation into an actual objection? Precisely what is wrong with God inflicting or permitting S to undergo involuntary altruistic suffering? (I am assuming here that it is possible for some person to suffer purely for the benefit of someone else. This might be disputed by some who hold that suffering always brings about – or at least has the potential for – benefit to the sufferer, either directly or indirectly. I’m also ignoring the suggestion that S is better off in a world where S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering than in some other possible world).

Stump’s objection is that God would be in breach of a moral principle like:

“It is wrong to allow something bad to happen to X – without X’s permission – In order to secure some benefit for others (and no benefit for X).”

As much as I respect Stump as a philosopher, this principle strikes me as clearly wrong, at least if we hold it as a universal principle. It is all too easy to think of counter-examples. Van Inwagen himself lists a few general types of case where such a moral principle wouldn’t hold, for example:

1. When the agent is in a position of lawful authority over X and the others in the question. For instance, if a citizen returns to his home country from a region where a killer disease has been rampant, aren’t the authorities perfectly entitled to keep him or her in quarantine before being free to mingle with fellow citizens?

2. When the good to be gained by the others is considerably greater than the evil suffered by X.

3. When there is no way to achieve the good for the others except by X suffering (or someone else equal to X).

Imagine I’m a train driver and I’ve just been informed that a man has been tied to the tracks by a psychopathic serial killer. There isn’t time to pull the breaks. I can either run over the man or I could re-direct the train onto an abandoned line that leads off a cliff, killing all the passengers on board. I choose to inflict pain and suffering on the man (and his friends and relatives), without their permission, and purely for the benefit of others. Have I acted wrongly? Clearly not, I should think.

Perhaps, you might protest, although this is a case where there is no explicit permission given, permission could be rationally implied or inferred. How so? Well, arguably whilst the man does not consent to die, he would almost certainly agree with the decision to end his life if he was making the decision as a neutral observer.

This raises a very interesting point. We might say that if the man could objectively weigh the big picture he would consent to the infliction of the suffering. In other words, if the man was to make the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing that the person tied to the tracks is himself – he would almost certainly choose the action the train driver chooses. But if this is so it seems to me that the objection to God acting in a way such that S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering is fatally undermined. It seems that there is little objection to God permitting or causing suffering to S for the good of Y if the suffering is taken on voluntarily, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if S is not in a position to choose to accept the suffering, God – being omniscient – knows that if S were in a position to make such a decision S would accept the suffering that comes his way. In this case too there doesn’t seem to be much that’s objectionable in causing or permitting S to suffer for the benefit of Y. But, what if S is able to make such a decision and would not choose to suffer? Well, again, God knows that such unwillingness is due to ignorance. If S knew all the facts of the situation – and perhaps if S had all the right affections – then S would accept the suffering. Again, I’m not sure there is an objection here. The point is that God sees the big picture, and weighs it perfectly objectively. So, arguably in inflicting suffering on S (or permitting such suffering) He is acting in a way S would agree with if S had the big picture God has.

So, if there is to be an objection that God violates some moral principle or other we require a coherent statement of the principle and a decent argument that it passes the “counter-example” test. I don’t think Stump has achieved that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Is Experience of Evil a Defeater for Theism?

I’ve never been much impressed by atheistic arguments from evil. I’ve written quite a few articles in the past year on the problem of evil and in the coming months plan to analyse what I think are two of the best arguments: those offered by William Rowe and Paul Draper. What strikes me is just how difficult it is to formulate a good argument against the existence of God from the facts of evil or suffering. A large part of the problem – as I hope to show in forthcoming articles – is that often these arguments try to produce defeaters by pointing out certain probabilistic relationships between certain propositions about God and the facts of suffering. However, defeaters very rarely proceed by way of a person becoming aware of probabilistic relationships between propositions.

In any event, even if I’m right about this (and there are those who disagree with me. Shocking, I know), that does not mean that evil and suffering isn’t a problem of some kind. In fact, I think it’s arguably the most troubling feature of the world that theism must face. But precisely what sort of challenge is it if not, say, a probabilistic one? If there is (as I think) no good argument, in what way is evil still a problem?

We could note perhaps that evil might make the theist angry with God, or make Him seem far and distant. Note those passages in Job where God seems to have become entirely mysterious to Job, and Job demands that God appear and justify Himself, and, more importantly to Job, exonerate him. Or perhaps we might think of those Psalms expressing anger towards God for some state of affairs. And then of course there are those haunting words of Christ himself on the cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” All of these show that evil and suffering can indeed be a problem for the theist as he or she wrestles with God. However, in such cases there is no hint that evil was a threat to the person’s theism. All of those in question remained staunchly theistic.

But, isn’t there a stronger threat to theism from our experience or awareness of evil and suffering? Might not one’s experience of suffering in the world provide a defeater for theism? Think of all the most horrific evils or instances of suffering in the world. We might think of those mentioned by Dostoevsky’s Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, hideous cruelties human beings inflict on each other: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.” Here Ivan is referring to people being nailed to wooden posts by their ears and left overnight before being killed, and cases where babies are thrown into the air and caught on the end of spears in front of their parents. We might also think of the cruelties inflicted on human beings by the natural world: from parasites that gradually eat away the insides of the eyes causing blindness, to the pains and indignities caused by conditions such as motor neurone disease. Further, we might reflect on a figure pointed out by Stephen Law in his debate with William Lane Craig: “for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday.” Or we might be cognizant of the wanton destruction in the animal world: from hyena’s who begin to eat their prey before killing it, to the wanton destruction by wasps attacking bee colonies and tearing the heads off all the bees.

Some instances of suffering are so abominable that it seems inappropriate and downright callous to use them in cool philosophical discourse. When brought face-to-face with such things wouldn’t a rational person simply see that there cannot be a God such as Christians believe in? True enough, perhaps he cannot demonstrate this with a cogent philosophical argument of some kind; he or she might even concede that there is indeed no good probabilistic or evidential argument at all. But still, he might insist, isn’t it just obvious that a being such as God wouldn’t permit such things?

The idea here is that a person who is fully aware and properly attuned to the horrors of the world will simply see – or perceive – or something like that – that such a being as God would not, if He existed, permit it. We might call this phenomenon a “sensus deus absconditus.” In the same way as Calvin spoke of a sensus divinitatis bringing people to perceive the existence of God in the absence of any argument, so, it might be claimed, no argument is needed. (Of course, if Christianity is true a sensus divinitatis makes winsome sense, but on atheism what would account for a sensus deus absconditus?) Our atheistic objector might say something like: “just open your eyes, drink in the sheer horror of reality, the utter loathsomeness of so much of earthly existence.” He might even think that giving arguments from evil is counter-productive, diverting our attention away from all the blood and pain and towards a piece of arcane reasoning. Giving philosophical arguments, it might be said, keeps our attention off the very realities that constitute a defeater for belief in God.

Is there really a defeater here? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The thing about defeaters is that they are relative to a given noetic structure. Whether something is a defeater for some belief I hold will depend on my other beliefs, and how strongly I hold them, as well as my background experiences. Thus, viewing the loathsome evils of the world might be enough to defeat X’s belief in God, but not Y’s. (I’m ignoring the complication that A can defeat B for person S without really being a defeater for B at all).

However, there is a more important point to be made here. If Christianity is true then experience of evil will not be a defeater for theism with respect to fully rational noetic structures. As Plantinga has shown, if Christianity is true then there are cognitive mechanisms such as the “sensus divinitatis” and “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit,” or others very much like these which provide, for the person with a fully rational noetic structure, a clear knowledge of God and awareness of his presence. Such a person may therefore be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own. Such a theist might be greatly puzzled about evil, but abandoning faith simply wouldn’t be on their radar.

Of course, for most of us theists there is no wholly evident presence of God; none of us enjoys such a pristine condition of complete rationality. But of course, it’s also a part of Christian belief that our cognitive faculties are being renewed, our “sensus divinitatis” is in the process of repair (to use Calvin’s language). Such knowledge doesn’t provide an answer to the mystery of evil, but still might provide over-ridding grounds for the person’s theism in the face of life’s atrocities. Whilst we do hear of stories of missionaries going off to the third world only to come back atheists due to what they have witnessed, we also hear of people whose theism in the face of the world’s evils becomes ever more resolute. Some might see the evil of the world as the result of “man left to himself,” desperately in need of God. The hideousness of it all might just as easily drive people towards God. (Note in passing that the vast majority of people who experience the worst atrocities are more likely to be theists). For my own part, whilst my awareness of evil provides possibly the greatest puzzle for me, denying the existence of God seems out of the question. The existence of God – for whatever reason – is among those propositions about which I’m most certain. If, after thinking really hard – as well as I can – on the case for and against God, and on reflecting on how the world honestly seems to me, I stand before the evils of the world with my theism still intact, I can’t see that I – or any other theist – would be guilty of an epistemic faux pas.

It seems to me then that whilst it’s clearly factually correct to say that for some theists the experience of evil has defeated their theism, there is no general defeater – either a warrant defeater or a rationality defeater – to be had here. I think the atheist could only properly claim a warrant defeater for Christian belief by first assuming that Christian belief is false, and thus that there is no source of warrant such as a sensus divinitatis or something else like that. Moreover, there does not seem to be a rationality defeater as long as the theist has considered all the evidence she has to the best of her ability and still finds herself persuaded by theism. The theist who continues to believe in the face of even the most grotesque instances of suffering the world can produce is not therefore, so far as I can see, breaking any epistemic duty, acting contrary to reason, or otherwise epistemically deficient.

Stephen J Graham

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The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:

I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham



The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.


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Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham


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The Making of a Philosophical Theologian

I had planned to write my 50th article on the topic of the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.” Regrettably, as a person wholly bound by it, time has slipped through my fingers and I’ve had to postpone the article until the new year. So, I thought I’d write a much lighter piece to finish off the year – a short article about, well, me and how I ended up on the intellectual road on which I find myself. I ask the reader to forgive my self-indulgence.

I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during what are known as “the troubles,” a rather volatile mix of religious and political hatred that took the lives of several thousand people, maiming and traumatising thousands more. Neither of my parents were Christians (still aren’t) but we used to attend church with my devout Grandmother – an old traditional Church of Ireland church (similar to Episcopalian for American readers). I hated it. In fact I hated it so much I was regularly taken out during services due to my poor behaviour, and eventually my parents decided to leave me with my heathen Grandfather (whose only worship took place in the evenings at the bar counter, and whose idea of Holy Communion was 6 pints of Guinness followed by 12 shots of Irish Whiskey) each Sunday morning while the rest of them went to church.

Thus ended my experience with formal church services for a number of years. Church just wasn’t on my radar…until one of my best friends (Davy) seemed to undergo a rather dramatic change, telling me one day he had been going to a small Pentecostal church and had got “saved” and why didn’t I come with him one Sunday morning. It was a very different church experience from what I had hitherto experienced. But through conversations with Davy and others in that church I began considering the “great things of the gospel” (to steal a phrase from Jonathan Edwards) for the first time. I remember in particular a man called Clark Mills who seemed to radiate peace, and whose company and conversation had a profound impact on me. One day, without much drama, I joined my friend Davy in a prayer and became a Christian. I was 15 years old.

But, unlike so many Christians I didn’t live in a spiritual bubble. At this point in my life my father was an aggressive atheist (though he tends towards theism these days), and one of my best friends – Jon Donaghy – was an atheist. The latter was to prove a big influence in my intellectual direction.

If I was to pick out one single episode that greatly influenced me, it was an argument I had with Jon one day in his house – we were both around 17/18 at the time. The topic was whether or not there is a God. I don’t remember much of the fine details of our debate but I do remember not coming off terribly well. Blurting out “you can’t get something from nothing” was about as close as I came to making a philosophical argument. But the discussion lit a flame under my ass and made me investigate whether theism made good rational sense, or if I had been deluded. I’ve never been pacified by simplistic Sunday School theology that tells us to “only believe” or “just have faith.” These kinds of responses just irritated me. So, I began reading popular works of philosophy. One particularly influential book I came across at this time was “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by William Lane Craig. This was the first time I had seen someone getting philosophical about the existence of God. I was mesmerised that books like this existed and began to read widely. (My only regret was that I wasted so much time on books advocating young earth creationism, a topic I now regard as so silly that I refuse even to debate it with anyone).

When I went to university I was initially enrolled as an undergraduate chemistry student; turns out I enjoyed my high school chemistry class far more than the subject itself. At the end of my first semester I had planned to leave university altogether when Jon advised me to switch subjects to something I liked. It was too late in the academic year to switch so I ended up taking the rest of that year out, enrolling the following September on a degree programme I knew I’d like: Theology & Philosophy.

I was at the time attending a Presbyterian church, and I remember telling an elder what I was going to study. “Theology” – “Oh, that’s great.” “And philosophy” – And with a frown he added: “you need to be careful about that philosophy.” Studying philosophy was the one of the best decisions I made, and frankly I found it far more “faith friendly” than theology. With a few exceptions theologians tended to irk me greatly, largely for their sloppy reasoning, but also their penchant to vie with one another to see who can concoct the silliest theory. Philosophy by contrast made me come alive.

My Philosophy of Religion teacher was William Crawley. William used to be a trainee Presbyterian minister, but after leaving the profession (and subsequently describing himself as a “lapsed Protestant”) he works as a journalist and presenter for the BBC. William massively influenced me. He had a wonderful manner, was argumentative, funny, and iconoclastic. (He had also been a youth leader in the Presbyterian Church I had been going to during my mid-late teens, so I enjoyed the advantage of already knowing him). Moreover, it was through William and his classes that I came across a name that forever changed how I think about religion, faith, God and related topics: Alvin Plantinga. William had written his Ph.D on the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (he was quite critical of it, in fact), and I remember thinking that this was a guy I had to read. So I did…

Despite the best efforts of philosophers such as William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, I found myself uneasy about the kind of approach they adopted. My problem was that this was not how I had come to believe in God at all. It seemed artificial, even contrived. True enough, there is some excellent work being done by philosophers of religion in the area of natural theology, but it always seemed rather distant to me – more like a purely academic exercise than anything else. I had been working on a few vague ideas in another direction when I read Plantinga’s essay “Reason and Religious Belief.” This was one of those glorious moments when I found a philosopher saying so much that I wanted to say but far better and with far more intellectual clout than I could ever muster. He took the few broken bones I had been playing around with, and built them into a skeleton, adding flesh, skin and hair! Moreover, it seemed to resonate with how I actually came to believe in God. Whatever you think of Plantinga I think it’s difficult not to appreciate that he really does grapple with the reality of how humans come to believe the things they do. Contrast it with “artificial” approaches by theists such as Swinburne or atheists like Paul Draper, both of whom appear to treat theism like a sort of quasi-scientific hypothesis which stands or falls on its ability to explain some body of data. As much as I respect Swinburne (and I’m fascinated by his work on morality and consciousness), his argument for Christianity is one of the most contrived pieces of philosophy I have ever read. It reads as if he coolly sat down one day and reasoned his way to believing that God exists, that God exists as a trinity, that he would want to become incarnate, and that he would want to stamp his revelation with a great miracle, like, say, umm, a resurrection. The truth is no-one comes to believe these things in this way – not even Swinburne.

It has been the influence of Plantinga more than anything that weakened my earlier enthusiasm for natural theology. Those who have been reading my blog this year will notice that of the 50 articles included here I don’t think there’s a single argument for the existence of God. In fact, I suspect the topic I’ve written about most (and plan to write about further in the new year) is the problem of evil. There’s a two fold reason for this. Firstly, as an intellectual problem I find the problem of evil intriguing, though unsuccessful. However, and secondly, I still think evil presents problems – at least it does for me. The levels of the evil and suffering in the world appals me. Whilst I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil against the existence of God, I’ve sometimes had my belief greatly shaken simply by my experience of evil and suffering. I suffer from both anxiety and depression and have been suicidal on two occasions in my life. Sometimes the universe looks too black and horrible for there to be a God, at least to my eyes. And yet, in my more rational moments I’ve never been convinced by arguments from evil.

I plan to write on two of the best such arguments from evil in the new year: those advanced by William Rowe and Paul Draper. In keeping with my preference for responding to arguments against theism rather than offering arguments for it, I’ll also be writing on arguments which I consider the best (or at least most promising) in the atheologian’s arsenal: arguments against the coherence of the concept of God, starting with the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.”

But for now I’ll draw this article to an end and wish my readers a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Stephen J Graham

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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


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


Filed under Problem of Evil