Monthly Archives: January 2014

Does God Heal?

I have spent a lot of time recently reflecting on my time in various charismatic churches. When I first dipped my toes in the waters of Pentecostalism/Charismania years ago I was very much open – hoping and willing – to see evidence of the supernatural in terms of healings, prophecies or other supernatural events. I withdrew from this form of Christianity entirely after 10 years, perceiving a patent lack of any such occurrences. My charismatic friends will be disappointed and perhaps angry with what I write here; but, I’m simply reflecting honestly on my experiences and subsequent research.

If I could point to evidence of the almighty in the world of charismania I would do so. But after a decade I found precious little to point to that amounts to a genuine case of miracle, healing, or prophecy. I have no desire to credit God with phenomenon that either hasn’t actually occurred or for which He is not responsible.

I want to focus here on divine healings. The conclusion I came to was this: God doesn’t seem to answer prayers for healing, or if he does it’s incredibly rare and undetectable. Let me make one thing completely clear from the outset: I’m not saying God can’t heal. God – being omnipotent – can strike us down or heal us at will. I’m simply making an empirical observation: God does not seem to heal. Or, as I’ve said, if God does heal he does it in such a way as to be virtually undetectable. He certainly doesn’t heal people day-in-day-out as a matter of course, as many charismatics would have us believe.

The charismatic movement is full of rumours of the supernatural. Talk to any charismatic and he or she will almost certainly have an anecdote about something supernatural, like a divine healing. You get the impression that divine healings are dime-a-dozen in charismatic circles. Healing are regularly reported and “praise reports” of healings given. However, I’ve discovered that most people who believe in divine healings do so largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence: evidence which is incredibly weak.

To illustrate: here’s an account of a Twitter conversation I had recently with one charismatic Christian who works in his church as a youth worker and musician.

SG: “Funny how the “gift of healing” is more at work amongst Christian hipsters than, say, the third world, cancer units, or old people’s homes.”

CY: “Unless you’re @HeidiIrisGlobal and it’s a daily occurrence in Mozambique.”

[I gather than @HeidiIrisGlobal is some form of missionary in Mozambique that CY knows]

SG: “Really? Cancers healed every day? Paraplegics? Burns victims scars removed? And we never hear of it??”

CY: “I don’t know about them, not that I’ve read, but deaf hearing, and blind seeing, disabled walking.”

SG: “Really? Where’s your evidence for this?”

CY: “I’ve not been to Mozambique and documented evidence with doctors notes and medical tests. I trust what they say.”

SG: “Well, that’s hardly good enough reason for me to believe something like that.”

CY: “You can pay for my flights and I’ll get some evidence for you?”

SG: “Ha! Aren’t you suspicious that they claim daily miracles but no confirmation comes?”

CY: “Not with this. Others, like Benny Hinn, I am. I know people who’ve been with Heidi and told me healing stories.”

SG: “But if it was a daily occurrence surely there’d be some evidence. Journalists, doctors, scientists would catch on and investigate. If such things happened We’d have more evidence. So, I’m very sceptical.”

CY: “I know what you mean, but we’re talking about tiny villages in Africa not the UK.

SG: “Sure, but the world is a small place, so if this happened daily we’d have reports and investigations and evidence.”

CY: “Hmm, possibly. What do you believe about God?”

SG: “God can strike down or heal whoever he wants. My point is purely observational: people don’t seem to get healed that way.”

After changing the subject, CY didn’t respond again. Perhaps I made him think. Of course, it was rather easy to make him think: his evidence for daily miracles was entirely anecdotal. None of it was either direct or confirmed in any objective way. He just believed what someone told him. And thus the conversation ended before I got out of second gear.

CY is not atypical either. People tend to be attracted to anecdotes. Humans love stories, and if stories have elements of the extraordinary or supernatural then so much the better! However, anecdotal evidence is an incredibly flimsy basis on which to believe in miraculous healings, and I’ll explain why – hopefully helping you see how I came to my conclusion.

Lets take the example of terminal cancer. Some people who have been prayed for spontaneously get better. I’ve heard lots of anecdotes along these lines. Isn’t this proof of divine healing? Well, no. Here’s the problem: cancer specialists are well aware that spontaneous remission is simply a natural fact about cancer. It happens in a small number of cases – more so in some cancers than others – though we don’t fully understand exactly what happens. Now, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that virtually every single cancer patient receives prayer. Most people have Christians amongst their friends or families or work colleagues and I’ve personally lost count of the number of times churches ask people to pray for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. A small number will spontaneously recover, but of course we know that a small number will spontaneously recover anyway! So the fact that Bob was prayed for and recovered doesn’t mean he recovered because he was prayed for. In fact, to claim that Bob recovered because he was prayed for would be an example of what philosophers call the “post hoc fallacy.” Just because B follows A does not mean A caused B. B could’ve happened anyway, and in the case of cancer we know it sometimes happens anyway.

Since we know that some cancers will go into spontaneous remission we cannot conclude anything from the fact that some given person experiences remission after being prayed for. That some people will get better is entirely to be expected given what we know of the natural behaviour of cancer.

Contrast cancer sufferers with amputees. In contrast to cancer, limbs growing back IS contrary to what we know about the natural function of human bodies. However, notice that this never happens. There is not a single medically confirmed case of a limb spontaneously growing back. Interestingly when we study the literature on reported cases/stories of divine healing what we find is almost always the reports are restricted to those ailments where we already know spontaneous remission can occur: cancers, back pain, improved eyesight etc. But we never find reports – or anything beyond the level of rumour – of healing for those things which run against what we know about the natural function of our bodies.

Which brings me to a second powerful point against believing in regular divine healing: confirmation bias. I’ve discovered that many people who believe in divine healings can recite a few examples of a person recovering from some disease or disorder. However, what they tend to forget are the many – vastly superior number – of occasions where the person prayed for does NOT get healed. Believers naturally remember the times when prayer has been “successful” and, forgetting all the “unsuccessful” prayers, they seem to have a tendency to think that they therefore have some powerful evidence for the efficacy of healing prayers, when in fact it’s a combination of coincidence and forgetfulness.

Suppose I told you that just yesterday I got three bulls-eyes in a row while playing darts. You might be impressed with my abilities, perhaps not willing to take me on in a £100 winner-takes-all match. However, what you don’t realise is that I’m actually terrible at darts, spending most my time getting low scores and being beaten by everyone I play. I might show you my competitive record and you are rightly unimpressed and more than willing to put £100 on the line to play me. My 3 bulls-eyes happened by chance – such flukes are to be expected from time to time – but when we take into account the total evidence then the picture changes dramatically. Those who believe in regular divine healings because of a small number of “hits” are guilty of not taking into account the total picture. The total picture shows that I’m not a great darts player. It also shows that divine healings don’t appear to happen very often at all.

Thirdly, we should also factor in the power of suggestion in healings, or what is commonly known as the “placebo effect.” In World War 2 an anaesthetist called Henry Beecher found himself without the morphine required to tend to soldiers in pain. He decided to inject the soldiers with a weak saline solution and told them that it was a powerful painkiller. The funny thing is, it worked! The same treatment was used on many others, and today the placebo effect is well-documented. An incredible number of reported healings are of the sort that are well within the scope of the placebo effect: in particular pain related conditions. We also know that the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade is a perfect arena for the placebo effect to work.

Lastly, the case for skepticism is made by many supposed faith-healers themselves. There is, alas, no shortage of frauds, fakes and conmen around. Some of these men and women gain a reputation through the telling and retelling of stories of their supposed powers. Anecdotes pass from person to person, get edited (consciously or unconsciously), dramatic details get amplified, situations and events are exaggerated (as tends to happen with any good story), and suddenly we have a powerful myth on our hands which people find believable.

And yet so many of these stories end up with a less than happy ending. For example, Peter Popoff was exposed as a fraud by James Randi. One of Popoff’s little tricks was to wheel people up on stage in wheelchairs – people who could walk – and then miraculously heal them in front of everyone. In the sort of emotionally charged context in which such displays are typically given, critical faculties are lowered, people are more open to the power of suggestion, much more easily manipulated and carried along in the whole swirling tempest of the moment. They leave and tell their friends that they saw the lame walk. They didn’t. They saw a fraud, a trick anyone could pull on their friends. It was also Popoff who told members of his audience things about themselves that he couldn’t possibly know except by divine lights. Well, either divine lights or his wife feeding him information (via a hidden earpiece) about people that she gleaned from mingling with the audience beforehand. Randi’s book “The Faith Healers” is an excellent account of the many scams in the faith-healing movement.

We could add to this the results of a number of studies that have shown that intercessory prayer for healing does not seem to produce notable results. This doesn’t prove that God does not answer prayer for healing. However, it does suggest that such prayers are rarely answered and when they are they are answered in such a way as to make it impossible to know that the healing was due to prayer. For instance, let’s say 10,000 are diagnosed with cancer today. Let’s say 45 of them will experience spontaneous remission. Now, it’s possible that in the absence of prayer only 42 would have gone into remission. Perhaps God answered the prayers in relation to three of the patients. But how could we ever know?

To conclude then, it is the combination of these factors that should make us very sceptical when encountering tales of divine healing. My charismatic friends will tell me that they know God heals and does so all the time. Regrettably, the evidence suggests otherwise. I wish it didn’t, but it does.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing

Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish?

Towards the end of 2013 Christian preacher and writer John MacArthur gave us the “Strange Fire” conference. A leading critic of the charismatic movement, MacArthur sometimes appears to suggest that charismatics are not Christians at all but dangerous deceivers, corrupters of the church, and preachers of another gospel. His conference was aimed at the tearing down of charismatic pretensions. Needless to say the charismatic blogosphere really got its knickers in a knot about the ramblings of MacArthur and his cohorts.

On the back of the Strange Fire conference, Premier Christian radio hosted a discussion between Adrian Warnock, a charismatic church leader at Jubilee Church in London, and Doug Wilson, an American Presbyterian and (far milder) critic of charismania. When I listened to the exchange I was struck by something Adrian Warnock said. He described how he would come to speak in tongues in a worship service, and referred to how it “sounds like gibberish.” In other words, he appears to use a private “tongue” that does not have any interpretation – at least not that he knows. He implies that he has no idea what he’s saying. He’s just making noises that sound like gibberish.

Intrigued at such an admission on the part of a charismatic thinker, I thought I’d ask him about it through Twitter. Here’s the short conversation:

SG: “Adrian, you described your tongues as like speaking gibberish…how do you know you aren’t in fact speaking gibberish?”

AW: “I don’t worry about that really. The spiritual fruit of the experience is important rather than precisely defining it.”

SG: “So, you don’t actually know you’re speaking in tongues?”

AW: “1 Cor 12 speaks of tongues as ‘unintelligible’ and needing a supernatural interpretation gift. By the fruit we know.”

SG: “Yes, but how do you KNOW it’s tongues you are speaking rather than gibberish? Maybe it’s just gibberish (1/3) after all gibberish is unintelligible too. So, how do you know the difference? (2/3) Gibberish can also yield “fruit” – whatever that means – as can be seen from things like Buddhist chanting.”

Warnock didn’t reply to this challenge, but I found even this short exchange to be particularly revealing. Note first his statement that he doesn’t worry about whether or not he is speaking gibberish. As long as there’s “spiritual fruit.”

Quite what this spiritual fruit is I’m not sure. Perhaps it means a feeling of closeness to God, an awareness of the divine presence, or peace. The Bible states that the fruit of the spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. So, maybe tongues speakers find their lives being morally improved in terms of these virtues through their speaking in tongues (though quite how that would work is far from clear).

However, lets suppose this is indeed the case: speaking in tongues bears some sort of spiritual fruit. Would this fact mean that some given episode in tongues is in any way genuine? I don’t see how that would be the case. According to Warnock we know something is genuine because it yields “fruit.” But that criteria is far too general to be of much help. Let’s consider two other cases. In some Buddhist practices adherents will meditate by chanting prayers or sayings over and over. Alternatively, in certain other meditative practices adherents will make random noises or sounds with no meaning at all – effectively gibberish being used as a meditative aid. In both of these practices there is spiritual “fruit” produced – a sense of peace, or well-being, or the growth of humility or love. The problem it seems is that producing spiritual fruit appears to be a necessary condition for identifying genuine tongues, but not a sufficient condition. Chanting gibberish or Buddhist prayers or “koans” can have much the same effect. So we are still a long way off a helpful criterion for distinguishing tongues from gibberish.

It seems to me that the only way to know that speaking in tongues is genuine is if two conditions are met: the speaker uses an actual identifiable language, and the language is not one which was known to the speaker. So, if a person were to suddenly start saying “deus é tão bom,” and if this person has no previous knowledge of Portuguese, then we might have a genuine case of speaking in tongues. We will know the person has no previous knowledge of Portuguese, and what they say can be translated: “God is so good.” It might be even more impressive if such an event took place in a church meeting into which – unknown to the tongues speaker – a Portuguese man had stumbled in the hope of finding God. In linguistic studies this rarely happens, and in cases where it occurs it turns out that the speaker is repeating a phrase he had learned years before and has forgotten he knew. In fact, far more common are reports by listeners that some given message in tongues “sounds like” German or Arabic, but of course they aren’t able to tell if it actually is.

What are we to do with the vast majority of occasions in which the tongues that are spoken are not identifiable languages? It seems to me that even if such cases are genuine – say, some angelic language – it seems impossible for anyone to know – including the speaker – whether or not it is really genuine. For all we know what sounds like gibberish might just be gibberish. And in fact there are many problems with speaking in tongues that might push us to conclude that it probably is gibberish in many (most?) cases.

Firstly, there is often no discernible connection between tongues and interpretations: often the latter are much longer than the former, or the former are incredibly repetitive while somehow the latter ends up wonderfully verbose by comparison. James Randi, a professional conjuror and mentalist who has made something of a sub-career from exposing dubious religious and psychic nonsense, tells one amusing story about tongues and their interpretation. He challenged a charismatic preacher to interpret a message in tongues that had been recorded in a church. The preacher willingly did so, listened to the tapes and gave the interpretation. However, Randi then revealed to him that the recording of the tongues had been made at the preachers own church only two weeks previously, and on that occasion the preacher in question had given a completely different interpretation of it. That sounds to me a lot like making it up as you go along. My own experience of charismania tells me that this is the norm. I have often wondered what would happen if I were to learn Surah One of the Qur’an in Arabic and recite it in a number of Pentecostal/charismatic churches. Would it be interpreted correctly? I have my doubts.

Secondly, tongues-speaking appears to be a learned behaviour, with styles and sounds differing from one church to the next, giving the impression that the “language” is picked up from other people rather than coming from a supernatural source. I have even witnessed cases where people who have never spoken in tongues before are brought to the front of a worship service and coached in making sounds. Linguists are well aware that the phonology of tongues speech is closely associated with the native language of the speaker.

Thirdly, linguistic studies of tongues phenomena haven’t been charismatic-friendly – some conclude that the phenomenon of tongues is merely noise and lacks the features required for identifying it as a language – known or unknown. Linguistic studies are unanimous in viewing tongues speech as at bottom a non-miraculous phenomenon, one that occurs in non-Christian religions and is parodied in the free vocalisation of young children and psychotics.

When you mention any of this to your local friendly neighbourhood charismatic, he’ll almost certain tell you something like, “yeah, fair enough, there is fraud and fakery, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the genuine too!” What he’ll not do is demonstrate something that is genuine, nor point you towards a clear instance of a genuine tongue.

In the final analysis we can agree that tongues may well have discernible benefits, as do other forms of emotional or meditative utterances. Undoubtedly many good people benefit from the practice, as they do from other forms of emotional or meditative utterances. Tongues speech is sometimes considered to provide an emotional release for the speaker: particularly on those occasions where he or she cannot find the words to express themselves or some deep hurt or longing within them. But, do we have grounds for believing – as charismatics do – that tongues is an actual language from a supernatural source? If we do, I haven’t seen it – or heard it. On the contrary, linguistic and psychological studies have tended to provide a rather satisfying naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Tongues

The Problem of Heaven

The article below is a brief of a much long essay in progress:

The problem of heaven emerges on the back of the problem of evil, or more specifically once a certain answer to the problem of evil is suggested: namely, the free will defense. This defense explains many of the world’s evils on the basis of human free will. However, this raises a further problem: is there free will in heaven? If there is, then will there be sin and evil in heaven? Isn’t heaven to be a place of sinlessness? If it is indeed a place of sinlessness, then how so if the people there are free? Even more problematic: if those in heaven are not free why didn’t God create the world like this from the start? If the people in heaven are free and yet somehow never sin, then the same question arises: why didn’t God create free people who always do the right thing from the start.

There seem to be four possible options:

1.There is free will in heaven but no-one ever sins.
2.There is no free will in heaven and no one ever sins.
3.There is free will in heaven and some freely choose to sin.
4.There is no free will in heaven and some sin.

Number 4 would be ruled out on two grounds. Firstly, the concept of sinning requires free will on the part of the agent, and so there cannot be sin where there is no free will. Secondly, if there is no free will and people do “bad” things (perhaps like a robot programmed to kill) then God would appear to be the cause of this sort of marred heavenly existence, which Christian theism must rule out.

Number 3 may avoid the first problem faced by 4 above but it doesn’t appear to be a live option for the Christian, given biblical teaching about heaven which appears to make sinlessness a prerequisite.

So, the live options for the Christian are 1 and 2. There is no sin in heaven, and the issue is whether or not there is free will. However, whichever option we decide is correct faces a problem: if there is free will then how can there be no sin? Surely given enough time someone will freely choose to do wrong. On the other hand if there is no free will then we must ask why there was ever free will. Why didn’t God create humans like this from the beginning and thus avoid the whole mess of sinfulness and the fall?

The nature of free will is crucial. What we must acknowledge from the outset is that free will is not absolute. We are more or less free with respect to certain actions or doings in certain specific contexts. For instance, let’s say I’m in a helicopter flying over the city and the pilot invites me to jump out. Am I free to jump to my death? Well, yes, in the sense that I could if I desired jump out of the helicopter and plummet to by doom. People do after all die in similar circumstances from time to time. There are no external constraints preventing me from doing so. However, in another sense, I’m not free to jump out. I desire to live and this desire is so strong that I will not jump out, even though doing so is certainly logically possible. Alternatively, if I go to a restaurant with my wife and the menu lists 3 options – liver, steak and chicken – then I know my wife will choose chicken, despite the fact that she does so freely. And so it seems to me that our level of free will is not absolute in all circumstances, but is context dependent.

With this conception of free will briefly sketched out we can re-approach the heavenly throne. Might it be possible that there is free will in heaven and yet no-one ever choose to sin? Or might there be free will but not free will to sin? On Christian theism it isn’t difficult to imagine the context in which this is possible. Theologians have long spoken of the “beatific vision.” This concerns the intense experience of God’s presence directly to the saints in heaven. Our union with God will be so overwhelming that sin is no longer a live option for us. Imagine being on an island which is so beautiful, and which contains everything we need and desire. One day a boat docks and the captain invites the islanders to leave for another island – a place of desolation and hardship (and, oh, there is a mighty storm presently out at sea!). Who would choose to leave? Surely no one would. And yet, isn’t it correct to think that we do indeed freely stay on the island? I suspect something analogous holds with respect to heaven. This means that our having free will has the same practical outcome as having none at all – sin just isn’t a real possibility. So, while it may be broadly logically possible to sin, it simply is psychologically possible under heavenly circumstances, anymore than a starving man would freely leave a banquet before eating.

But, the Christian theist is not yet out of the woods. For now he must answer the question: why didn’t God create the world like this from the very beginning? Why not fully manifest his being to his creation and avoid all the sinful mess in the first place? Why not create this kind of world – one charged from the beginning with the tangible presence of God – rather than the world we behold?

To begin answering this question we should note first of all that heaven is not in fact a total state of affairs. It is a partial state of affairs that, crucially, pertains on the back of another state of affairs, which together make up the total state of affairs. If heaven is something that must be freely chosen then it simply isn’t the case that God could have created the world like this from the beginning. The intense and overwhelming presence of God would remove creaturely free will such that no-one could freely choose or freely reject God. In Christianity heaven is something of a reward for those who have chosen Christ in this life. Those who say “no” to God in this life do not reap the heavenly benefits. In order to allow morally significant freedom for his creatures God has created us at “epistemic distance.” His presence under these circumstances is not therefore coercive. God really can be rejected if that is what a person wishes to do.

So, God remains partially hidden in this life. Pascal suggested that the presence of God is balanced in this world such that those who want to know God will find Him, while those of a contrary disposition will not. Such can go their own way if they please. To the faithful – those who have freely chosen God – He grants heavenly blessedness. In this new state of affairs, however, his presence (the reward of their faithfulness) is now so overpowering that they can no longer turn against Him. In this way their lack of freedom with respect to sin and God was freely chosen.

There is much more to unpack here, but hopefully enough has been said to show that it is not implausible to suggest that the saints in heaven do not have free will (at least with respect to sinning), and that there is good reason – in the preservation of morally significant human freedom – for why God did not create the world like this from the beginning.

Stephen J Graham

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God Vrs Santa

The article below is an unedited version of an article published by the Presbyterian Herald, December 2014.

Christmas past saw my 7 year old son questioning his belief in Santa Claus. He used to be totally convinced that Santa exists. After all, all the evidence pointed in that direction: his letters to Santa got replies, he got phone calls from Santa, his parents told him about Santa, he saw Santa in the shopping centre, the cookie, coke and carrot left on Christmas Eve had gone by Christmas morning, and of course how do you explain the presents? But doubt has set in. How could Santa be in so many shops at the same time? Why did he always look different? Why does Santa never phone when daddy is in the room? His childish belief is about to go, never to return.

This is but one of the beliefs we lose as we grow up. We find out more about the world. We learn the truth. We would think there is something wrong with someone who maintained belief in Santa into adulthood, or even adolescence. Losing belief in Santa is part of growing up.

For a certain contingent of popular atheism, the same goes for belief in God. Believing in a benevolent creator of the cosmos might be nice for little kids but really should be abandoned with intellectual maturity. It therefore remains surprisingly common in certain atheist circles for belief in God to be compared with belief in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Atheist philosopher AC Grayling once refused to debate Christian philosopher William Lane Craig on the existence of God because, he says, he might as well debate the existence of water nymphs. Such beliefs, it is often claimed, are ridiculous; and surely we should have grown out of them by now. Believers themselves are often written off as infantile, unthinking and naïve – like children who maintain belief in something they should have grown out of.

But, is such a comparison fair and rational? And does it have any place in the God debate? It seems to me that belief in God is not remotely comparable to belief in Santa Claus at all.

Some atheists argue that the beliefs are on a par because neither God nor Santa Claus actually exists; and therefore believing in either is the same irrational act. For the sake of argument let’s grant that God does not exist. Does it really follow that belief in God is therefore no different from belief in Santa? Surely not. Our atheist objector is here overlooking the fact that one can rationally believe in the existence of something that does not in fact exist. Let’s say two physicists sit down to debate the existence of some physical particle. Let’s say the particle does not in fact exist (as will be proven in, say, 20 years time). Knewton doesn’t believe in the particle; Einstain does. Would it be fair and rational for Knewton to compare Einstain’s belief in this particle to belief in the Easter Bunny? Hardly. In fact, it could be the case that Einstain has impressive evidence for his belief. It might even be the case that the evidence is so impressive that Knewton should be convinced but is just too stubborn to change his mind. So, although this particle doesn’t exist, not only might Einstain be rational to believe it does, Knewton might be irrational in withholding his belief. There is it seems a world of difference between believing in this particle and believing in Santa.

It is my contention that such is the case with belief in God. Belief in God should not be compared to belief in Santa. The reason is that there appears to be some very relevant differences between the beliefs and between the people who hold the beliefs.

So, what are these relevant differences?

Firstly, and most importantly, Santa Claus is known not to exist. More accurately, we know the existence of Santa is a fabrication, a fictional story told to children at Christmas time to make it all the more exciting for them (as if little kids need such encouragement!). All sane and rational adults and older children are well aware of this. Those who wish to be overly skeptical might claim that for all we know there may well be a Santa. Perhaps he sprinkles fairy dust to delude us all into thinking that we are buying the presents for our children. This is a fairly radical line, and in an article as short as this such skepticism must be left to one side. At the very least, however, it seems reasonable to say that if we can claim to know anything at all we can at least claim to know that Santa is a fabrication, a made up story, and our experience of buying presents for our kids is real. I thus leave the recalcitrant skeptic under the Christmas tree for someone else to open.

By contrast God is not known to not exist. Atheists tend to be split on this one. Some – the minority – will claim that we do in fact know God does not exist because the very concept of God is incoherent – like the concept of a square circle. For example, one argument claims that the concept of a timeless person makes as much sense as the concept of a non-spatial mountain. Of course, there are theistic counter-arguments to such objections. For instance, some claim that the central notion of personhood is self-consciousness and there appears to be little reason why a self-conscious being cannot also be a timeless one. Alternatively, others might defend a concept of God that doesn’t involve timelessness. In any event it is far from philosophical orthodoxy that the concept of God is incoherent, and the work of Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne has gone a long way to putting such objections to rest.

These days it seems far more common for atheists to refuse the burden of proving that God does not exist or that the idea is incoherent, and instead content themselves with informing us that they are unconvinced by theistic arguments and therefore have no good reason to believe God does exist.

Fair enough. But then we appear to have some agreement on this first point: we know that Santa does not exist, but we don’t know that God does not exist. And this is a highly relevant difference between the two beliefs.

Secondly, God’s existence is a matter for serious intellectual inquiry, debate, evidence and argument; and those who hold belief in God – some of whom are incredibly intelligent thinkers – usually give arguments and evidence for that belief. There is no moral argument for the existence of Santa. No cosmological argument for the Tooth Fairy. No design argument for the existence of the Easter Bunny. No Ontological argument for pixies. In short, no sane and rational human beings will even attempt to defend belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny with reasons and evidence. The proposition “God exists” is therefore in a very different intellectual category. There are serious arguments by serious thinkers for belief in God and the rationality of theism. Of course atheists are not persuaded by such arguments, but that does not warrant the equating of belief in God with belief in Santa Claus.

Thirdly, millions of people past and present have claimed to have had experiences of God or an inner awareness of God (a “sensus divinitatus” as the reformer John Calvin put it). As far as I’m aware the same cannot be said for Santa Claus. No “sensus Santa Clausitatis” has ever been reported, except perhaps by those with a penchant for LSD. Claims to have experienced God or the divine are not at all incontrovertible evidence to an atheist (or even to a theist for that matter), but they do provide some further grounds on which to question the equating of belief in God with belief in known fictitious creations of the human mind.

Lastly, beliefs in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy are all infantile beliefs, held solely by children. Rational adults all over the world believe in God. Moreover, many of them come to believe in God after childhood, and thus the beliefs cannot be written off as some kind of childhood hang-up. CS Lewis, Alister McGrath and Antony Flew are a few examples of highly intelligent adult converts to theism.

Of course we should note, however, that even if it is the case that most theists believe in God because they were taught to as children, (and there are good reasons for denying it), it would not show that there is something wrong with the belief or with those who hold it. That would be a classic instance of what philosophers call “the genetic fallacy:” claiming a belief is false because of how a person arrived at it. After all, we are taught many things in childhood that are true, such as that 1 + 1 = 2.

In any event, belief in God is not a throwback to childhood, nor a delusion that should have died out when we gave up belief in the Easter Bunny. It is a much more serious proposition, one entertained by millions, and with plenty of sane, rational and highly intelligent defenders. None of this makes the belief true, but it should surely make the atheist pause for thought before placing it and those who believe it in the same category as belief in Santa and those who believe in that proposition.

Believing in God is not infantile. It seems that in the final analysis the argument that theism is comparable to belief in something like the Easter Bunny could be likened to an Easter egg: looks tempting, smells sweet, but break it open and you soon discover that it’s empty.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Belief, God, Santa Claus

Pascal on Hiddenness

I love these thought-provoking comments from Blaise Pascal on divine hiddenness:

“God has willed to redeem men and to open salvation to those who seek it. But men render themselves so unworthy of it that it is right that God should refuse to some, because of their obduracy, what He grants others from a compassion which is not due to them. If He had willed to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He could have done so by revealing Himself so manifestly to them that they could not have doubted of the truth of His essence; as it will appear at the last day, with such thunders and such a convulsion of nature that the dead will rise again, and the blindest will see Him.” It is not in this manner that He has willed to appear in His advent of mercy, because, as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy, He has willed to leave them in the loss of the good which they do not want.

It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him.

He has willed to make himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées (430)

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Was Blind but now I see

At Christmas I was delighted to get tickets to see the Blind Boys of Alabama in Belfast later this year. I saw them a few years ago, and wrote an article on the back of my experience. An edited version appears below.


I had the pleasure of seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Grand Opera House last week, and what a show it was.

Four of us went: my atheist father [no longer an atheist], my mother, my devout Christian grandmother [now deceased], and me: a Christian. A pretty diverse bunch. And to the credit of the Blind Boys we all loved it. From the start it was superb. Jimmy Carter is the leader of the bunch, a man as old as my grandmother who had as much energy as I do. What made them so fantastic was more than just the music.

The Blind Boys (4 out of 7 of them are blind) don’t ask for pity or sympathy because of their disability. I’ve seen people with lesser disabilities complain about their lot, about how hard life has been to them. Not so the Blind Boys. They don’t do self-pity. For them their disability is seen as a blessing, and even a source of humour. Getting up from his chair and reaching for his microphone Jimmy Carter had wandered slightly sideways and was left groping aimlessly in the air before finally laying his hands on it and remarking (with an Alabama accent that made it all the more humorous): “Well, I suppose that means you all know I can’t see. No hidin’ it now.” They’re a great example of disabled people getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves.

Not only are the Blind Boys fantastic musicians and vocalists, they also know that they are and aren’t afraid of saying so. But, somehow it never comes across as smug arrogance. The only thing that irks me more than brazen arrogance is false humility – which seems to infect much of the music industry these days. The Blind Boys have a remarkable genuine humility blended wonderfully with a massive dose of self-confidence. Telling us all how great they are at singing, Jimmy Carter quips: “Blind Boys don’t brag. They just state facts.” They are great singers: fact. So, I guess Jimmy would be right on the money there.

As you may know the Blind Boys are also unashamedly religious, but they are so without many of the excesses of modern day Christianity. They aren’t preachy. They never tell you that you’re going to hell for disagreeing. Their gospel message is one of joy – a joy that springs from a sure faith in God, and a delight that one day they’ll sing for Him in heaven (no doubt informing God about just how good they are: stand aside angels and arch-angels, eh?). All they want to do is make people happy. Jimmy Carter announces from the start: “All we want is for you to go home feeling uplifted.” Their theology might come across as a little bit trite at times: “no matter what trouble is going on in the world [the Iraq war at the time], God is in control,” but they aren’t theologians. The manner of their religious expression has a far greater impact than any amount of traditional preaching. No matter how clichéd their religious pronouncements sometimes sound you’re more inclined to agree because of the manner in which it’s said. The aurora of joy and peace that surrounds them is something that I rarely see these days. Disagree with what they say, but they make you smile when they say it. And that’s a rare gift.

This joy and happiness that the Blind Boys exude also jars with the manner of many of our “New Atheists,” and reminds me of one of the problems I see in that movement. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris & Hitchens [peace be upon him] get labeled “atheist fundamentalists,” and not without good reason. They tend to share many of the same character traits as the worst religious fundamentalists, including the often shrill and manic nature of many of their pronouncements. And just like religious fundamentalists they make little effort to understand the object of their criticism: for instance Dawkins’ intellectually pedestrian book “The God Delusion” shows little more understanding of religion than you would expect from a High School student of Religious Education. And often they aren’t motivated by anything other than hatred of the other side: a fact beautifully illustrated by Christopher Hitchens who calls anyone with any hint of religion about them evil or stupid or both. Many who wear the new atheist jersey strike me as terribly bitter men and women with nothing to offer humanity other than vitriolic damnations of all who disagree. It seems as if they have lost any belief in progress and purpose in life and are simply bitter at those who still have some vision of good, some sense of meaning and purpose. Frankly, they need to smile a bit more. Is atheism something that cannot be enjoyed? A glimpse at the current crop of “New Atheists” doesn’t give much hope.

And it is this feature that “New Atheism” would need to capture. They need to move far beyond their rather unimpressive critique of religion that’s long on polemic and short on decent arguments. They need to give humanity something more positive, something to live for, something to give people meaning and purpose to their lives. Something to be celebrated. Disagree with every religion on earth, but there’s no denying that religion excels as providing this for people. What will “New Atheists” offer humanity in place of religion? Hitchens offers: “Probably the most daunting task that we face, as partly rational animals with adrenal glands that are too big and prefrontal lobes that are too small, is the contemplation of our own relative weight in the scheme of things…the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort.” Is that it? It doesn’t mean atheism is false, but if it’s true and if this is the best its defenders can offer then it’s pretty bad news for humanity.

One might be forgiven for thinking that such an over-the-top crusade against religion is a ruse: a way for “New Atheists” to avoiding any reflection on the lack of popular appeal of their own agenda, with their reveling in causing offence to religious people bordering on the self-indulgent. And I think people will soon tire of it. What next for them?

Anyway, who would I rather sit in the pub and have a pint with? I’d choose the Blind Boys any day over fundamentalist Christians – who wouldn’t go to a pub anyway – and fundamentalist atheists with little sense of joy and purpose, who’d probably sit and sneer at everyone else until someone throws them out for sucking the souls out of everyone. The Blind Boys are sure. The Blind boys are happy. And that sense of happiness is wonderfully infectious. They have a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that I envy, and they absolutely delight in it.

The high point of their concert was their singing of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” One of the lines of Amazing Grace says: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; Was blind, but now I see.”

And that sums up the Blind Boys of Alabama: they’re blind, but they sure can see.


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A Problem with the Problem of Evil

Many objections have been made to the existence of God in the history of philosophy. One of the most important of these is the problem of evil.

The problem of evil has typically appeared in two forms. The first of these forms can be called the “logical form.” The argument here is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with other beliefs the theist holds: more specifically, the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God is said to be logically incompatible with the presence of evil. Given that the current consensus appears to be that this form of the problem of evil is unsuccessful, I will say no more about it. However, there is a second form of the problem called the “deductive” or “probabilistic” form. Skeptics who make this argument typically concede that the existence of God is not strictly logically incompatible with the presence of evil. Instead they argue that the existence of God is highly unlikely or improbable given the presence, quality, and extent of evil. In other words, their contention is that the probability of the existence of God with respect to evil is much less than denying the existence of God with respect to evil. If this is so, the argument goes, we would be irrational to accept the existence of God.

It seems to me that this claim is both widespread in atheist literature and, regrettably, patently fallacious. This should be quite clear once we set out the logic of the argument offered by the atheist. (It’s worth noting that in popular atheist literature the procedure of setting out claims in logical form is almost never followed, but rather the argument is typically carried along by the methodology of pointing to all the evil in the world and crying rhetorically: “how could an all-powerful, all-loving God allow it!?”). However, as is typically the case in philosophy, arguments which are prima facie persuasive wither and die when we see them in their logical form and find that they really do not amount to very much.

The atheist critic contends that the belief that:

(1) God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world

is improbable with respect to the evil we find in the world, or unlikely given the belief:

(2) There is X amount of evil in the world.

Firstly, let’s be generous to the skeptic and grant that belief (1) is indeed improbable given belief (2), (a claim which is highly contentious, not least of all due to the work of certain philosophical theists who have constructed arguments for the existence of God using the fact of the existence of evil). What follows from the fact that belief 1 is indeed improbable with respect to belief 2? How is it an objection to belief in God? It hardly follows that theism is false. Nor does the argument show that we cannot rationally believe in both 1 and 2 at the same time, as so often assumed. It should be fairly obvious that even if (1) is improbable given (2), (1) might be probable with respect to something else we know. For example, (and this is based on an example given by Alvin Plantinga) I might believe that:

(3) John is an Irishman, and 9/10 Irishmen cannot play a musical instrument.

I might also believe that:

(4) John can play a musical instrument.

Now, in this instance belief 4 is improbable with respect to belief 3. Does this mean there is something wrong with my acceptance of both beliefs? Hardly. After all, I might also believe that:

(5) John plays in an orchestra, and 999/1000 orchestra members can play a musical instrument.

In this case it is entirely plausible to hold these beliefs. Even though belief 4 is highly improbable with respect to belief 3, it is still incredibly probable given something else we know: namely, (5). If (3) and (5) are all I know about John’s musical ability then (4) is much more probable than its denial – despite the fact that (4) is improbable with respect to something else I know.

So, returning to theism, despite granting that belief (1) is improbable with respect to belief (2), there does not appear to be much consequence for the theist. And this despite the grand claims of many atheist writers who simply point to the all the evil, conclude that God’s existence is improbable with respect to it, and then call for the abandonment of belief in God for that reason, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in philosophical terms they have accomplished zero, nada, nothing.

How then can the skeptic proceed? We have seen that it is not good enough to simply say 1 is improbable on 2, since our example shows that despite 1 being improbable on 2 it may yet be very probable given other beliefs we hold. Taking beliefs in isolation shows nothing about their reasonableness or probability. It seems to me therefore that the only other approach left for the advocate of the probabilistic argument from evil is to posit that not only is (1) improbable with respect to (2) but that (1) is improbable with respect to some body of total evidence. The argument here is that for any given person there is a set of propositions – SP – that comprises the total evidence. So, for any specific proposition – p – that is accepted, we are rational only if p is not improbable with respect to SP. SP is therefore the set of propositions to which the beliefs of the person in question are responsible.

However, as Plantinga points out, the question as to precisely which propositions make up SP is a crucial one, and is an issue that is too frequently overlooked by proponents of this argument. It doesn’t matter much for my present purposes how we describe SP. The issue is this: what rules out belief in God from being one of the propositions comprising SP?

If, at least for some theists, belief in God is a member of SP, then it obviously cannot be improbable with respect to SP. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Alston have done a lot of work defending the proper basicality of belief in God – at least for some theists. If their conclusions are correct – and I think they are, though can’t go into the details here – then theists are entirely within their “epistemic rights” in actually starting from belief in God, and thus in using it as one of those propositions the probability with respect to which judges the standing of other beliefs and propositions. In fact, even for those theists for whom belief in God is not a basic belief, the point still stands. A theist might have, or at least claim to have, very good reasons to believe that God exists, is omnipotent and all loving, and his arguments might well be a defeater for the contention that the problem of evil makes the existence of God highly unlikely. There are many arguments for the existence of God and the point here is that the problem of evil cannot be considered aside from all the other evidence a person might have before them. For instance, in a criminal trial there might be a really good argument for the defense, but this argument is not considered in isolation from the total body of evidence before the court – which might include strong enough prosecution arguments to lead to a verdict of guilty regardless of this single strong argument held by the defense.

This should be enough to have exposed the naiveté and narrow vision of this form of the problem. It ignores the big epistemological picture, the brute fact that taking propositions in isolation tells us very little about their reasonableness. We could take all manner of propositions which are unlikely with respect to other propositions we hold but highly likely given our big epistemological picture which includes many other propositions that the skeptic here conveniently ignores.

It would appear to be the case then that the fact (granting it even is a fact) that belief in God is improbable given the existence of evil does not even remotely suggest that the theist is irrational in accepting the former.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under God, Problem of Evil

The Hope of the Incarnation

The full text of an article published in The Presbyterian Herald, Dec2013/Jan2014, pg 20-21:

In the summer of 2012 my wife, my son, and I stayed for two weeks in Torremolinos in Spain. Whilst going for a walk off the beaten track I came across a tiny little chapel wedged between two tacky tourist shops. I love churches and couldn’t resist taking a peek inside. When I walked in there were about seven rows of pews, all facing towards a platform at the front. Right in the middle of the platform was a large statue of Mary, lit up with spotlights. People knelt before her to pray and then left the church. I stood at the back watching, wondering where Jesus fitted into their theology. Why wasn’t Jesus in the middle, the centre of attention, lit up for all to see? Then I turned to leave and I saw him. There he was, on the cross, stuck in a dingy corner at the back of the church. In darkness. Ignored. No splendour or majesty. No pride of place. Not displayed for all to see. In a corner in the dark for all to miss.

It’s Christmas time, and many who still bother with the religious element to the festivities will be displaying their images of the nativity: a stable, a few sheep, one or two shepherds, three wise men, and a proud looking Mary and Joseph. And there in the middle he lies: twice the size of a regular newborn, thick wavy locks, a knowing smile, and his hands outstretched as if speaking a blessing over his visitors. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-baby!

Such an image of the nativity says something about our attitudes to the incarnation. Jesus is almost always pictured as a divine figure, sometimes even with a halo. It’s as if so many of us don’t really believe Jesus was also truly human. Do we think perhaps he was just playing at humanity? Taking the form of a human but not really being properly human? Of course, orthodox Christianity has always held that Jesus was truly God and truly man. The mystery of the incarnation is precisely that: “meekness and majesty, manhood and deity, in perfect harmony, the man who is God,” as the song puts it. But I wonder do we tend to lose sight of his humanity when we contemplate the incarnation? Often we see the hope of the incarnation lying solely in Christ’s divinity – the fact that the Saviour – the Wonderful Councillor, the Mighty God – Immanuel – has come. However, it’s also in his humanity that so much hope for us rests, not to mention great wonder. And thus in reflecting on the incarnation we should never lose sight of one important fact:

Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity.

The humility of Christ’s incarnation blows me away. Think about it. God, the creator of life, was knit together in Mary’s womb. As he developed he had to learn to walk, wobbling unsteadily and falling over his own feet again and again until he got the hang of it. The Word of God had to learn words. The one who calls the stars by name had to learn the names of animals, objects, and places. He wasn’t born with the vocabulary of He didn’t recite sonnets on the day of his birth; nor did he join in with the angelic choir to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo!” God – the sustainer of life – is now sustained by a young Jewish woman. He had to be weaned like any toddler, and if he was anything like all the other toddlers I’ve ever seen then he probably managed to wear more food than he ate. John the Baptist once remarked that he wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. There was a time when Jesus had to be taught how to tie those sandals. He almost certainly learnt carpentry skills from Joseph, and thus the one who hung stars in their place had to learn how to bang two boards together.

Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity.

The one who never tires – never slumbers – accepted the need for sleep. He got hungry and thirsty. The one who reigns on high, Lord over all, now sits quietly at the riverside with every other peasant to wash his clothes. He gets around by walking, often having to spend several days travelling from one place to the next. Judea, for instance, was 70 miles from Galilee. When we read lines like “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” we tend to think it’s like running into town in 20 minutes rather than several days walking and camping in the desert. The omnipresent God now gets around only as fast as his calloused human feet will carry him.

The humility of this is surely breath-taking. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us that Christ “made himself nothing,” “emptied himself,” “gave up his divine privileges.” Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity. Jesus taking on human nature is not like William Shakespeare sitting a Key Stage 1 English comprehension test. He was truly human.

The hope for us here is summed up well by John Eldredge in his book Beautiful Outlaw: “If Jesus was pretending to be a man then his life is so far beyond ours it can’t really be a model for us to follow. . . But, if Jesus chose a genuine humanity, and drew his power from the Father as we must do, then we can live as he did.” Jesus set aside his divine office and power, and his humility was the humility of utter dependence on his Father. He prayed to his Father and “learned obedience,” so that we might learn to do likewise. In short, Jesus lived showing us how to live, and using only the tools available also to us. Therein lies great hope for us.

Jesus didn’t come in great splendour. He didn’t come in glory. He didn’t put himself onto a stage. He didn’t turn the spotlights on himself. He didn’t display himself in his majesty for all to see. He truly was one of us. Chesterton captured something of the humility of Christ’s incarnation with his poetic words in The God in the Cave: “The strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.”

He joined us – as one of us – in the darkness to bring us to the light; by sharing our human nature he showed us humanity as it was intended to be.

So perhaps the little Spanish church, in putting Jesus in a dark and dusty corner, unwittingly gave him the place that in his incarnation he chose for himself -a light shining in the darkness.

Stephen J. Graham

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Who Created God!?!?

Too often in philosophical debates concerning the existence of God I hear atheists smugly ask, “yeah, well, who made God?” The “who made God” move is normally used to resist arguments for the existence of God. The complaint is that by inferring God as the creator of the cosmos we raise the issue of where God came from, and that therefore positing God solves nothing. Is the atheist correct? It seems to me that the atheist objector is incorrect on at least two fronts.

Firstly, we should note that Christians typically believe that God possesses the property of aseity – that is, self-existence. This means that God exists totally independently of anything else. He does not owe his existence to another being, nor does he rely on other beings for his continued existence. As such God did not come into existence. He has always existed. Some atheists think this is simply a case of special pleading – as if the theist is arbitrarily defining God as having some characteristic or other simply out of convenience. But this is not the case. Many theistic arguments make a rational conclusion to the existence of such a being, and thus the attribution of the characteristic of self-existence is far from being an arbitrary one: it’s the conclusion of an argument.

For example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument concludes to a being that is timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, and personal. Self-existence is implied by these characteristics. Alternatively, various species of the Ontological Argument conclude to a being that is “necessary” or “maximally excellent,” and again therefore self-existent. The same goes for other arguments – the argument from contingency also concludes to the existence of a necessary being. This is why the “who made God” question is so tiresome. The atheist simply hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to the kind of being inferred by such arguments. To respond to these arguments with the retort “who made God!?!” is to ask “who created this being that wasn’t created?” It’s simply an incoherent question.

But, secondly, even if this question did arise it still would not invalidate the initial inference to God. For example, if astronauts were to discover a bunch of weird technical equipment on a distant planet they would rightly conclude to the existence of some alien species even if this then raises all sorts of questions as to who they are and where they came from. The question “where did the aliens come from” does not invalidate the inference that some sort of alien species is responsible for all this technical equipment. In short, in order for some given explanation – E – to be valid, we don’t need to have an explanation of E itself. So resisting a theistic argument because you think it raises such a question is a patently flawed move.

I addressed above the atheist charge that attributing self-existence to God is arbitrary or a case of special pleading. It is noteworthy on this point that the atheist usually engages in some special pleading himself, which is smoked-out by asking the question: “who created the universe?” Unless the atheist holds the rationally indefensible position that the universe popped into existence uncaused and out of nothing for no particular reason, he must hold that the universe (or at least whatever pre-cursor he believes it sprang from) is self-existent, (Bertrand Russell once remarked that the universe just exists and that’s that. Carl Sagan once proclaimed that the universe is all there was, all there is, and all there ever will be). The point is that something must be self-existent – theists and atheists simply disagree as to what that is. Theists see a self-existent creator; atheists hold that the universe itself is self-existent. It seems to me that the weight of evidence leans heavily on the side of theism. Everything we know about the universe suggests that it is contingent, that it doesn’t exist by necessity, that it’s possible that it might not have existed. It certainly doesn’t appear to be the sort of thing that has the property of self-existence, and the atheist owes us an argument as to why we should consider it so. On the other hand theists have several streams of evidence all flowing together to show that – probably at least – the universe was created and that whatever created it must also be self-existent. To use the words of Thomas Aquinas: “and this we call God.”


Filed under Aseity, Atheism, God, Theism

Bang Goes Theism?

Bang Goes Theism…

I have written about and defended the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God by philosopher William Lane Craig on numerous occassions. This deceptively simple argument runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins to existence has a cause of its existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

After establishing this argument, Craig goes on to argue – primarily on the basis of conceptual analysis – that this cause must be timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, incredibly powerful, and even personal.

Given that premise one is strongly supported by our universal experience of the world as well as our rationally ingrained metaphysical intutions that things cannot just pop into existence ucaused and out of nothing, Craig spends most of his time defending premise two: The universe began to exist. Not only does he provide two strong philosophical reasons to support this premise, but he also provides two scientific reasons – evidence from thermodynamics and evidence from what we know of the origins of the universe in the event that has come to be known as the Big Bang. What makes his case so strong is that we have two very different bodies of evidence both pointing strongly in the same direction. Much of the science is technical and weighty, going into deeper issues within cosmology and even quantum physics, but I was reminded this week of an argument against the existence of God from the evidence of the Big Bang by philosopher Quentin Smith.

It is this argument that I want to deal with here. I will first lay out the argument in its logical form and then bring some criticisms against it which to my mind are devastating to Smith’s case.

Smith’s argument runs as follows:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than an inanimate universe.

4. Therefore, if God created that earliest state, then it must either contain life or eventually lead to a universe containing life (1, 2 & 3).

5. There is an earliest state of the universe, and it is the unique event of the Big Bang.

6. The earliest state of the universe involves the life-hostile conditions of infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density.

7. Since the Big Bang even is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will lead to life (from 5 & 7).

9. Therefore God could not have created that earliest state (4 & 8)

10. Therefore, God does not exist.

Theists are highly unlikely to quibble with premise 1, since being the creator of the universe is one of the main features of God as conceived across a broad spectrum from deism to specifically Christian theism. It’s possible of course for God to exist and yet not have created the universe, but we can set that possibility aside here. Premise 2 lays out the more specific concept of God that Smith is dealing with in this argument. Of course even if the argument is success it would remain open that some other type of deity exists – perhaps an all-powerful but benevolently-indifferent being, or a less than perfect God, or perhaps a God of limited power. However, a huge number of theists hold to this conception of God, and so we shall run with it and still show the shortcomings of the argument.

The first significant problem with Smith’s argument appears in premise 3, the statement that “a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe,” and thus the initial conclusion stated in premise 4 is also suspect as it relies on 3 in order to function. Why must God create a universe with life? What reason is there for the claim that a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe? Better for whom or what? It can hardly be better for the beings that do not exist in such a lifeless world, since non-existence beings can have no interests at all. Nor can it be better for God. If God is perfect and lacks nothing then a universe of life is no better for Him either. Smith seems to think that God has some sort of obligation to bring about the best possible world. However, not only has he given us no reason to accept that a universe with life is in some way “better,” he fails to appreciate the incoherence in the notion that God could have any such obligation. Where does such an obligation come from? Who or what could possibly lay an obligation on God? The notion of divine obligations which exist over and above God himself simply makes little sense. It might indeed be the case that God has a reason for creating a universe with life but there is no obligation or necessity here.

Far more can be said about this point but I want to leave it here since the really fatal premise is further on.

Premise 5 is fairly unobjectionable, as is Premise 6. However, the argument really begins to come apart at the seams with Premise 7:

“Since the Big Bang event is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.”

It strikes me that this premise is begging the question, albeit implicitly. After all if an all-powerful God who wishes to bring about life exists, then it simply isn’t true that “there is no guarantee that [the Big Bang event] will lead to a universe with life.” Quite simply if God exists then there is a guarantee that we will get a universe with life. It would appear, then, that if God exists there is no reason to grant Premise 7, and in fact unless we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true then Premise 7 is flat out false. The only way Premise 7 can possibly be true is if we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true. The argument therefore commits the informal fallacy of begging the question. As such it is dead in the water.

But in the interests of flogging the goat a little more we should point out that there is good reason to deny Premise 7 in its own right. The premise, as we have seen, describes the Big Bang event as “inherently unpredictable and lawless, [with] no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.” However, maybe such a capacity to guarantee life was present at the outset even if to our eyes it appears to have been inherently unpredictable and lawless. After all, as Smith rather splendidly overlooks, the universe did in fact produce life despite massive odds to the contrary! Alternatively God could very easily have ensured a universe with life through subsequent intervention. Smith owes us a good argument if he wishes to persuade us that there is some logical necessity that a life-engendering capacity be present from the very start, but all he offers us is his own musings that if God had to intervene it would be “a sign of incompetent planning. . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” Leaving aside Smith’s apparent knowledge of the field of universe creation, he has given us scant grounds to suppose that intervention after the initial Big Bang event is in some way illogical. He only hints that God should have adopted a more efficient way of working, a way which would rule out any need for subsequent intervention. In response to this notion, Thomas Morris concludes, quite rightly, that: “Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. Before you know whether a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in. . . In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.” I have my doubts if Smith – or any human being – is in the right position with the necessary knowledge to make such a judgment call.

In any event, why should we even think that efficiency is a necessary property of a divine – and perfect – being? Even if God does not act efficiently is that somehow a defect? Hardly. Efficiency is arguably a good property to possess if you’re a being with limited time, power and resources; but God presumably lacks neither time, nor power, nor resources. God, as a perfect being, is creatively free and thus under no constraints with respect to the property of having to act efficiently.

On the basis of these considerations I therefore conclude that Smith’s argument collapses under the weight of its own faulty premises and unwarranted assumptions. No rational person need accept it without making several significant quantum leaps of logic.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Atheism, God, Quentin Smith, Theism