Monthly Archives: April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Come out of your Worldview Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J Graham

Leave a comment

Filed under Inter-Faith Dialogue, Pluralism

The Problem with Probabilistic Arguments

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

My own view – very briefly stated is:

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

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

Types of Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can my opponents convince me otherwise? Probably not…

Stephen J Graham

Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy, Probability