The Gay Cake Debacle: A Rejoinder to Robertson

Free Church of Scotland Moderator, David Robertson, has written a piece concerning the now infamous Ashers Bakery “gay cake” case.

You can read the Ashers judgment here:

https://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial%20Decisions/PublishedByYear/Documents/2015/%5B2015%5D%20NICty%202/j_j_2015NICty2Final.htm

You can find Robertson’s article here:

http://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Bake-me-a-Cake-and-Mark-it-with-B-for-Bigot

Upon reading this, I tweeted in frustration:

Yet another commentator who hasn’t bothered to read the judgment….”

To which Robertson replied:

yet another tweeter who presumes ignorance. Feel free to answer the points made in the article. If you can.”

Challenged extended!

Challenge accepted!

Robertson’s central point is that the ruling of the judge is an example of double standards being imposed. But before we get to that Robertson makes a few comments:

He states: “Ashers did not refuse a gay person a cake. They refused to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage. And that changes everything.” This is flat-out false; it doesn’t change anything, not under the law. Ashers offered a service whereby a customer could design their own cake and Ashers would bake it and print the design. In this case the customer – a gay man – chose a slogan – “support gay marriage” – which is defined as “political opinion” under the law, and Ashers, after first accepting the order, refused to follow through. In other words, they discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation and political opinion – both protected categories in Northern Irish law, made abundantly clear in the judgment Robertson claims to have read. Moreover, Robertson ignores the fact that in law Ashers is a commercial business which exists for profit. Commercial enterprises are not legally identical with their owners. Ashers therefore doesn’t have a religious conscious which is protected by the European Convention on Humans Rights, and it isn’t a religious organisation which can appeal to certain legal exemptions. Again, the judgment makes this abundantly clear.

Next, Robertson asks:

Does this ruling now mean that a Jewish baker should be forced to bake a cake with a Swastika on it for the BNP (neither the sign nor the party are illegal in the UK)?”

If Robertson is speaking of the wider UK, then the answer is: no, because political opinion is not explicitly a protected category in England, Scotland or Wales. In any event, a Jewish baker could quite easily adopt a policy – which Ashers didn’t do – of rejecting all political or religious slogans, which is entirely legitimate under Northern Irish law.

Robertson’s other example also betrays a misunderstanding:

Would the equalities commission sue a Muslim baker who refused to bake a cake with a cartoon of Mohammed on it, for a Charlie Hebdo party?”

Firstly, Robertson incorrectly identifies the Equality Commission as the plaintiff in such cases. In the Ashers case it was not the Commission who sued – it was the customer, which again should be abundantly clear from the judgment. In any event, since a picture of Muhammad would not represent anyone’s genuinely held religious belief, political beliefs, or identity, it would be difficult to make a case for discrimination here. And, of course, a Muslim-owned bakery is perfectly entitled to refuse all religious slogans (and probably would).

Robertson’s misunderstandings continue to pour forth, as he claims that “it is ridiculous for a Christian who thinks that Same-Sex Marriage is against the Word of God to be compelled to bake a cake with a message supporting it.”

Again, this isn’t true. Remember, the issue is not with a private individual but with a commercial entity. Anyhow, Ashers cannot be compelled to bake a cake with a message supporting same-sex marriage. It has been announced today that Ashers are now only printing birthday and Christening cakes – and no one can compel them to put “support same sex marriage” on a cake. Why? Because they no longer put any such slogans on their cakes. However, the problem before was that they did offer a service, which they then denied to a gay man on considerations pertaining to sexual orientation and political opinion.

Robertson then points out that in his view there was no discrimination in this case because “a heterosexual asking for such a cake would also have been turned down.” However, the judgment makes it explicit that this is not relevant. After citing a number of case law authorities the judge said: “it is my view that….the correct comparator is a heterosexual person placing an order for a cake with the graphics either “Support Marriage” or “Support Heterosexual Marriage.”” The judge deemed it clear that Ashers would have made such a cake for a heterosexual, and thus were making decisions based on sexual orientation in refusing Mr Lee (a homosexual) his cake with the slogan “Support Same Sex Marriage.”

Now beginning to lose the run of himself, Robertson claims that the real discrimination in this case is against “the Christian baker who is being told he will have to close down if he is not prepared to provide cakes with messages that contradict his beliefs.” Again, this is simply flat-out factually incorrect. The baker was not told to bake cakes with slogans contradicting his beliefs or close down. Remember, the entity in question is a commercial “for profit” business – which in law does not have religious beliefs that can be protected under the European Convention of Human Rights (as the judgment – which Robertson has read – makes abundantly clear). In any event, as I’ve already explained, Ashers will continue to bake and sell cakes and will not have to print any slogans with which they disagree.

Anyhow, to the crux of Robertson’s point: “There is a double standard in British society.”

To demonstrate this double standard Robertson mentions the example of The Scottish Christian Party (SCP), who during the general election had their election leaflet rejected by a printer because the printer, says Robertson “did not agree with the messages on it,” and that “The messages were not illegal but nonetheless they refused. Could they not be sued for the same reason?” Robertson laments that “The fact is that there is a double standard in British society just now. The law is being interpreted and enforced in one way for those who represent the cause celebres of our culture, and yet used in a completely different way for those who don’t agree with the shibboleths of our elites.”

Now this baffles me entirely. Robertson is comparing apples with oranges. There are several significant disanalogies between the two cases. Firstly, the Ashers case involved a private individual with rights under the European Convention. The SCP is a political party which, like a commercial business, enjoys no such protection. Secondly, the two cases emerge in different legal jurisdictions! It’s astounding that Robertson hasn’t noticed this fairly obvious fact. Ashers were brought to court under the following pieces of legislation:

The Fair Employment & Treatment Order (Northern Ireland) 1998, and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

Both pieces of legislation are mentioned in paragraph 1 of the Ashers judgment (maybe Robertson skipped paragraph 1?). Notice that both are uniquely applicable to Northern Ireland. They do not apply to Scotland. This clearly isn’t an instance of the law being interpreted and enforced differently in one case than another. It’s a case of different law applying in different legal jurisdictions! Perhaps Robertson misunderstands the nature of the United Kingdom. Our country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland & Wales) and Northern Ireland. There is some legislation that applies to all jurisdictions, some applies fully to some jurisdictions and only partly to others, and some that is only applicable to one jurisdiction (which happens increasingly these days since Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own regional assemblies with certain legislative powers). So, the legislation in the Ashers case simply doesn’t apply to Scotland. Scotland has its own equality laws. Note further that in the case of the SCP no case was brought before the courts, so unlike the Ashers case there was no legal interpretation or enforcement taking place at all. So, why didn’t the SCP case go to court? Simple: under Scottish law, political opinion is NOT explicitly protected as it is in Northern Irish law. The reason for political opinion being protected in Northern Ireland traces back to our political tensions and the grief that has come from political disputes here. Clearly Robertson has made a blunder. The law simply isn’t “being interpreted and enforced” differently in different cases, and certainly not to suit some grand anti-Christian or politically correct conspiracy. The laws in each jurisdiction are simply different, and thus cases that occur in Northern Ireland will be treated differently.

[It’s worth noting in passing that the Scottish Christian Party member in question – John Cormack – gives a slightly different reason for the rejection than Robertson gives. Cormack says, “The printer I had lined up refused to print the leaflets for me because they have a policy of not printing material that might offend people.” He claimed further the printer was afraid to print the leaflets – not that they refused do so for the reason Robertson claims “[they] did not agree with the messages on it.” Given that the Scottish Christian Party is borderline homophobic – it’s election material spoke of REAL marriage – capitals in the original – as opposed to, presumably, “fake” (though legal in Scotland) same-sex marriages – it is entirely legitimate for a printer to err on the side of caution and not print material which is potentially inflammatory or homophobic. Anyhow, I digress….]

I agree with Robertson in his desire that our Christian freedoms not be eroded, but what he splendidly overlooks is that he lacks no right or freedom whatsoever that a non-Christian enjoys. The law applies equally to Christian and non-Christian alike. And this was upheld by the Ashers judgment.

Stephen J. Graham

PS

On Robertson’s own blogsite he reproduces this article but includes two notes:

“1). The man who brought the law suit is a member of a homosexual group called queer space who just happens to visit a bakery which was well known for its Christian owners, miles from his hometown. All entirely coincidental!”

Again, Robertson is showing his ignorance of the case. Gareth Lee had previously been a customer of Ashers, because it was near the office where he worked. Coincidence? No. Conspiracy theory? Maybe….

“2) SSM is illegal in Northern Ireland. The judge is supposed to uphold the law yet he finds that a bakery which refused to put a message of support for something that is illegal, are the ones breaking the law! The law is sometimes an ass!”

Another misstatement. SSM is not “illegal,” it’s simply that there is no legal provision for it. Murder is illegal. Theft is illegal. SSM is not illegal. Moreover, the judge was not a “he” – the judge was Isobel Brownlie – a she.

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The Charismatic Movement & Princess the Hypnodog

Princess the Hypnodog made her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent a few weeks ago. You can view the act here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYHYgU6S2lg. If you’re too dog-tired to bother then basically the act went as follows. Volunteers from the audience were brought up onto the stage and after looking at the dog for 5 seconds they collapsed into a trance on the floor. Her owner then made the audience volunteers forget the number 7, so when they were awake and were asked to count their fingers they counted to 11 instead of 10. Intrigued, the Dark Lord of Britain’s Got Talent – Simon Cowell – took to the stage and stared at Princess, but nothing happened. Or did it? Seemingly for a period of time afterwards Simon was uncannily pleasant to even some of the oddest acts. Hypnodog had made Mr Nasty rather pleasant, at least for a time.

Or so we were meant to believe.

The camera captured numerous shots of an audience amazed that a dog could possess such powers. They seemed totally taken in by it. The reaction on Twitter was somewhat more sceptical. The majority considered the act a blatant fix and were enraged at Britain’s Got Talent for taking the viewers for fools. However, there remained a sizeable number of people who were seriously asking whether or not the act was real – that is, seriously asking whether or not a cute dog with a long tongue had the powers to put human beings to sleep after they looked at her for a few seconds.

But, of course, the whole thing was a trick. Dogs do not possess hypnotic powers. To be as generous as possible to Princess we can speculate that if the audience volunteers weren’t stooges they had perhaps been hypnotised prior to the show by Princess’s owner and “programmed” to fall into a trance when brought in front of the dog, thus making it look like the dog had hypnotic powers. As for Mr. Nasty, a little bit of clever editing on the part of the TV show made it look like for a time after the act Simon Cowell was being unusually pleasant, when in fact the few occasions on which he had been judging acts out of character were simply edited together and made to look like they all followed his being hypnotised by Princess.

The first thing I noticed about this episode was the difference in reaction between the live audience and those watching on TV. The latter were, on the whole, much more sceptical. Those at the live event were far more credulous. Thus what we have here is a case of the power of a live show. It’s dramatic, you get caught up in it rather easily; expectations are high, sceptical walls are lowered. Add to this a bit of human imagination and the desire to be part of something wonderfully bizarre – even other-worldly – and we have all the ingredients for, frankly, making people stupidly gullible.

Exactly the same thing happens at big charismatic rallies. Take for example Benny Hinn. I’ve had the, umm, pleasure of witnessing a Benny Hinn show first hand, and I’ve studied his techniques for some time. Hinn uses a powerful mixture of showmanship, psycho-hypnotic techniques, and plain old deceit to produce the effect that he wants. Someone who claims such a massively positive healing record could easily minister in hospitals and heal the sick there. However, notice that Hinn needs people to come to him – to where he has control: control of lighting, mood, security (certain sick people get nowhere near him), music, and the order of service. Hinn’s events are highly choreographed and scripted. Fundamentally he’s a showman who manipulates sick and vulnerable people into opening their wallets nice and wide.

All of this plays on sheer dumb human credulity. We are a gullible species. We take things as they seem to us, rarely pausing to ask if things really are as they seem. Of course, in evolutionary terms this is understandable. If you paused to wonder “Is that really a huge tiger bearing down on me” you probably wouldn’t be around long enough to think the matter through. Our natural reaction is to believe what we see: it’s a tiger, run.

Moreover, something seems to happen to us when we gather together in large groups, particularly in a certain atmosphere like a concert, show, or healing crusade. Extensive research has gone into human behaviour in such scenarios. Take Benny Hinn again. A huge crowd has gathered, full of hope and expectation. The singing begins, and during a chorus of “How Great Thou Art” – (the reader can decide if “Thou” refers to God or Hinn) – Hinn – like a demigod – walks onto the stage and begins to orchestrate the thousands of cognitive and emotional experiences that have already begun. People are encouraged to close their eyes, empty their minds, and open themselves up to God. Before long many in the crowd show all the signs of an opiate release in the brain: they may smile or laugh, they appear to have a certain glow about them, they may shake and begin to sway, and some might even cry. Soon, those who are most susceptible to hypnotic suggestion may experience other physical effects. Some might even notice pains begin to leave their bodies, and stiff joints starting to loosen. Soon – after passing through Hinn’s rigourous screening process where the sick and infirm are effectively auditioned to see if they are good enough to perform on-stage – these people come into Hinn’s presence to be declared healed, and then typically “slain in the Spirit” – using either the power of hypnotic suggestion or a good old fashioned shove. With this apparent display of the power of God, other people watching who are perhaps less susceptible to hypnotic suggestion have any remaining scepticism undone and finally come under the showman’s spell. It’s very clever, and Benny Hinn is an expert at it.

But, as with hypnodog, there are no mysterious or other-worldly powers at play. It’s all a combination of expectation, psychological tricks, careful choreography, and the simple human propensity to accept at face value the things we perceive.

How then do we avoid being fooled? By developing a sceptical frame of mind. By paying attention to what’s going on “behind the scenes.” By coming to realise that all is not what it seems at such events. My own exit from the charismatic movement involved research and reading. I discovered that when it comes to the claims of faith-healers and charismatic preachers there have been more than enough exposes to leave such claims dead in the water. When a preacher calls out someone in the audience – about whom he supposedly can’t know anything by natural means – he’s using a trick like the “pre-service prayer card” trick of Peter Popoff or WV Grant. Sometimes homeless people have been employed by certain pastors to pose as sick and infirm and rise out of wheelchairs. Numerous bodies of evidence demonstrate that the vast majority of faith-healing miracles are nothing other than psychosomatic reactions to the highly choreographed and emotionally charged surroundings of a service. It has been demonstrated time and again how healers perform tricks to make it look like the blind see, the deaf hear, and that legs are being lengthened. One man at a Reinhard Bonnke rally was proclaimed healed of blindness. Upon follow up by a researcher it was discovered he was never blind at all. In another instance a deaf child can be seen clearly lip reading and repeating words spoken by Bonnke: but she was declared healed of deafness. For those interested in how such tricks are performed, have a look at illusionist Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sale” programme on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuP5uOI7Xwc

So, why, in the face of all this evidence, do charismatics still believe in such things? There’s no simple answer, but I want to suggest a few factors at work. Firstly, many are desperate. They are terminally ill or permanently disabled and the only hope they have left is the charismatic healer making grand promises about their miracle healing. Secondly, perhaps the kinds of people who attend such meetings simply aren’t the type of people to read, say, James Randi’s book exposing faith-healers, or watch a Derren Brown programme about the techniques used by healers and preachers to manipulate the masses. Recently during a Twitter exchange I sent several links to articles from this blog to a charismatic. Although he claimed to have read them, according to my website statistics none of those articles had in fact been accessed. My own experience is, sadly, that often Christians live in a faith bubble – listening exclusively to Christian music and reading Christian books by authors they largely already agree with. Thirdly, many of us live in almost perpetual boredom. Our lives aren’t terribly exciting most of the time. We might desperately want something unusual to break the tedium – whether it’s a dog with hypnotic powers or a healer breaking someone’s crutches on a stage. Many people desperately wish to experience the power of God in their otherwise mundane lives.

But of course we shouldn’t conduct our lives by wishful thinking. Reality simply doesn’t bend to our desires and dreams. I desperately wish that it was the case that deaf kids were regularly healed, or that wounded soldiers could grow back limbs. I’d even love to live in a world of magical dogs! But we don’t live in a fairytale. For better or worse the world is the way it is, and no amount of desire to the contrary is going to change it.

Of course, if you’re a charismatic and you don’t like what I’ve said here, then know this: the hypnodog made me say it.

Stephen J Graham

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Is the Problem of Evil a Greater Problem for Atheism than Theism? A Response to David Robertson

A link to an article by David Robertson appeared on my Twitter feed recently, in which it is claimed that “The problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheists than Christians.” You can read the full article here:

http://www.christiantoday.com/article/the.problem.of.evil.is.a.bigger.problem.for.atheists.than.christians/38926.htm

Now, let me first acknowledge what the article is not. It’s not written by a professional philosopher. It’s not written for a technical or professional journal, but rather a popular Christian magazine. It makes no pretensions as to providing the final word on the matter. Some people might therefore think I’m choosing a fairly soft target here. However, I don’t wish to write a thorough critique of the piece, nor hold Robertson to the sort of standards I might wish to hold a professional philosopher. However, what he says in the article is – I think – a popular misconception which is worth pointing out, if only to help other apologists from making a similar mistake. Moreover, I couldn’t find a scholarly statement of this argument which seems to make various repeat performances across the world of popular apologetics. (I did come across a version of this argument used by William Lane Craig in his debate some years ago with Frank Zindler, though it wasn’t a scholarly treatment either).

Anyhow, what is the claim, and what is the problem with it?

Robertson claims that many atheists, when asked why they don’t believe in God will point to the amount of evil in the world – because evil exists, God does not exist. Robertson sees a problem here for atheists: “I think all of us have a sense of evil and a sense of good – I don’t think morality is relative. . . There really is such a thing as good and evil. To me this truth actually leads to God, rather than away from God.” How so? Well, according to Robertson atheism has trouble making sense of the concept of evil. If you’re a naturalist, says Robertson, “There is no ultimate foundation for morality. It’s just something that happens, and has evolved.” The problem is exacerbated – so Robertson claims – since on naturalism there is no human free will, no meaning, no life after death, and ultimately no-one to answer to. Thus, he challenges: “The problem with the atheist view of evil is that logically it doesn’t make sense. Either you agree that [evil] exists, or you don’t. If it does exist, then on what metaphysical basis does it exist? It can’t just “be” in a world that is just atoms and molecules.”

Now, it seems to me – a theist who has spent a long time on the problem of evil, and who rejects it as a convincing argument against the existence of God – that Robertson (representative of other popular apologists) is unhelpfully misrepresenting the problem of evil. What he is in fact presenting is a moral argument for the existence of God. He’d have been better simply presenting that rather than trying to tie his argument to the problem of evil. In fact, I have some sympathy with the idea that atheism struggles with the notion of objective good and evil. So, it’s not primarily this aspect of Robertson’s argument that’s the problem, but rather his misconstrual of the problem of evil. (Though in passing I should mention that I rather suspect a sizable chunk of the atheist community would believe in and attempt to defend objective morality in a non-theistic universe. Precisely how successful such efforts are I leave as homework for the reader).

Robertson presents the problem of evil “in a nutshell” roughly along the lines of the so-called logical problem of evil, which runs like so:

1. If God is omnipotent, He will be able to eradicate evil
2. If God is omnibenevolent, He will be willing to eradicate evil
3. Evil exists
4. Therefore an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God does not exist.

I agree with Robertson that such an argument is unsuccessful. In fact, most atheist philosophers would likely agree. However, Robertson ignores the fact that the problem of evil is a much bigger beast than this version suggests. In fact, the problem of evil is really a group of several arguments on a similar theme. The significance of this is that an atheist need not actually agree with the existence of objective evil in order to raise the problem of evil as a case to answer for the theist.

So, for example, William Rowe’s argument from evil is that there are many forms of suffering in our world which do not seem to have any possible justifying goods. He famously gives the example of a fawn caught in a forest fire, suffering for days before finally succumbing to death. Seemingly then, says Rowe, there are gratuitous evils (such as many forms of pain, suffering and distress), and such would not exist if God existed. Now, I don’t think Rowe’s argument is a good one (Stephen Wykstra, Alvin Plantinga and William Alston all provide strong cases against it) but notice that this version of the problem of evil doesn’t rely on any claim about the existence of “objective evil,” in the sense Robertson seems to mean. Or take Paul Draper’s version of the argument (which is, in my view, only marginally better than Rowe’s), which says that the evil we find in the world is more likely on naturalism than on theism; in fact, he reckons, given the facts of our universe it appears most reasonable to think that nothing and no-one has the interests of biological organisms at heart. Draper weighs the hypothesis of theism against an alternative hypothesis, namely: “Neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non-human persons,” using a set of observations – O – comprising “both the observations one has made of humans and animals experiencing pain or pleasure and the testimony one has encountered concerning the observations others have made of sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure.” According to Draper O has a much greater antecedent probability on this other hypothesis than on theism, and thus we have a prima facie case for thinking this alternative hypothesis is more likely to be true than theism. Again, an atheist could make use of this form of argument without bringing the “Robertson Retort” down on his own head. Robertson shows no sign of being familiar with such arguments, and even though he’s only a popular level apologist he really should pay these arguments some attention, for in doing so he mightn’t be so quick to claim that the problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheism than theism.

In any event, I hope it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. The problem of evil isn’t just a problem about morally objective evil. It’s about suffering, pain, and seemingly poor biological design. An atheist who cites the problem of evil as part of his or her case for unbelief is quite likely to have all this in mind, not just the rather restricted version Robertson presents. In my own experience I’ve heard atheists complain about things like the process of evolution and the unimaginable suffering that would have occurred as a result of the process; or the destructive power of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; or the horrendous little beasties that are visible only under the microscope, whose existence causes all manner of pain and trauma to millions of other biological organisms; or the suffering in the animal world caused by predation. Such things, so says the atheist, make it difficult to believe in the God of Classical Theism. I freely admit there are times when the world strikes me as a particularly horrid place, and though I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil I sometimes find doubts rise up in my mind through my own experience of the world’s evils.

Of course, for many reasons way beyond the scope of this short article, I don’t think any of this warrants the rejection of theism. But what it does show is that there are versions of the problem of evil which are not open to the Robertson Retort, and thus the atheist who embraces one or more of these versions of the problem isn’t caught in the contradiction Robertson seems to think he or she is.

Modern versions of the problem of evil are, quite clearly, more of a problem for theism than atheism. There is a case for theism to answer. Robertson and other popular level apologists who use such a line of argument would be better off acknowledging this, and joining the rest of us in honestly trying to make sense of the evils our world contains in light of our theistic worldview.

Stephen J. Graham

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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:

https://elijiaht.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/annihilationism-101-an-introduction-to-conditional-immortality/

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

*****

Postscript:

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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Filed under Atheism, Divine Attributes, God