Monthly Archives: October 2014

Is Theodicy Offensive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

The Unbelievers come to Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Atheism, Belief

Is Stephen J Graham an Apologist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Philosophy