Is Experience of Evil a Defeater for Theism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J Graham


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Filed under Belief, Problem of Evil, Theism

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