Tag Archives: Atheism

Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham

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Are There Any Honest Atheists?

Jeffrey Jay Lowder strikes me as one of the most fair-minded atheist thinkers; he’s civil, deeply thoughtful, and charitable to his opponents. Further, he has no qualms about chastising his fellow atheists when their manner descends below that which is helpful in civil discourse, or when they make poor arguments. He has also in the past conceded that there are features of the world that lend some evidence to theism. I wish more atheists – and theists – adopted his attitude.

Lowder expressed irritation recently concerning how so many theists consider atheists to be liars, linking to an article by Sam Storms in which Storms rejects the concept of an “honest atheist.” Storms is not a lone voice either. This view of atheists is incredibly widespread. In his short, but substantial, book “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?,” Randal Rauser provides an excellent brief overview of thinkers past and present who adopt what Rauser labels “The Rebellion Thesis.” The thrust of the rebellion thesis is that no one really disbelieves in God; atheists are simply in moral rebellion against their creator – and, crucially, they know it. They hate God and desire a life of sin. Rauser cites an account of the Christian theologian RC Sproul who was invited to present a case for the existence of God to a university sceptics group. After presenting the case, Sproul told them: “Your problem is not that you do not know that God exists; your problem is that you despise the God whom you know exists. Your problem is not intellectual; it is moral—you hate God.” So, here was a group of sceptics reaching out to the “opposition,” and giving him a platform, their time, and attention – a very charitable act these partisan days – and Sproul shows his thanks by pretty much spitting in their faces. I call upon my fellow theists to – at the very least – acknowledge how frustrating it must be to have one’s honesty called into question. Sproul basically accuses an entire room full of strangers of being self-deluded liars. The brazen arrogance is astounding.

Imagine the following conversation:

John: “I’m a vegetarian now, I believe killing animals for food is wrong.”

George: “You say that, but you know eating meat is not wrong.”

John: “Pardon me? I’m telling you I believe eating meat is wrong!”

George: “Yeah, but you’re a human, and we’re one of millions of species who eat meat. We’re designed to eat it; there’s no way any human can REALLY think it’s wrong when it’s hard-wired into our being.”

John: “Well, I think it’s wrong!”

George: “You’re only saying that, deep down you know there’s nothing wrong with eating meat! I bet you even stuff your face with bacon sandwiches when no-one’s looking!”

John: “You’re insane! I really believe killing animals for food is wrong!”

George: (fingers in ears) I can’t hear you MEAT LOVER!”

A parody perhaps, but the view of atheists held by many theists isn’t a whole lot different. Where does it come from?

Many of those challenging the “honest atheist” concept cite certain Biblical texts in support of their position. Sam Storms – when he isn’t quoting John Calvin at length – relies on Romans chapter 1. Others draw also on the two near identical passages in Psalms which tell us “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” [Ps 14:1 & 53:1]. Upon such texts these theologians build a theology which labels all unbelievers generally, and atheists in particular, as liars. In other words, not only are they considered as living a life estranged from God, but they know they are and are in wilful rejection of the God in which they claim not to believe. Saying that atheists – or other non-believers – are in some way estranged from God is one thing, but it’s a whole different ball-game to claim that they really know there is a God and have wilfully and with full understanding rejected Him. The latter is a much stronger claim, and I contend that the evidence – biblical evidence, testimonies from atheists and converts from atheism, and psychological evidence – simply doesn’t support it.

I haven’t the time to exegete properly the relevant biblical texts here, but I want to make just a few comments, and I refer the reader to Rauser’s book for more details. Firstly, it seems to be rather anachronistic to read modern intellectual atheism into either of these texts. In fact, as Rauser points out with respect to Psalm 14:1, even if modern atheism was indeed in view it still wouldn’t justify the thesis that atheists are dishonest, or that all atheists are fools. Just because the fool says in his heart “there is no God,” does not entail that everyone who says “there is no God” is a fool. That would be logically fallacious. In any event, I am in full agreement with Rauser, who argues that when we examine the wider cultural and literary context we discover the most likely targets of Psalm 14 are those who believe in God but live as if they do not. That’s religious hypocrites like you and I, not atheists.

Romans 1 is perhaps a more convincing basis for denying the “honest atheist” concept. But even here there are problems. Rauser points out that the passage is part of a larger discourse concerning the universality of the sinfulness of humankind, and thus shouldn’t be used to single out any particular group. In addition, the immediate context is that of Gentile pagans who supress their natural knowledge of God and embrace pagan religion. Rauser also cautions that by applying this text in the way proponents of the rebellion thesis do, we cause all manner of mischief for any Christian who goes through a period of doubting God. Is such a person really just sinfully rebelling? That seems highly implausible. As Christians we can have all manner of doubts – stemming from intellectual doubts caused by some atheistic argument, to existential doubts, perhaps caused by some period of suffering and the apparent absence of God. I find myself in agreement with Rauser’s comments that: “The Christian cannot deny the fact that God’s existence and nature are not always plain and clear. The fact is that there are countless people of religious faith who have not always found God’s existence and nature to be plain and clear.” Perhaps some theologians will simply bite the bullet and insist that this is indeed all just sinful rebellion, but that strikes me as uncharitable and implausible in excelsis. Whatever we make of Romans 1, there seems to be good enough reason to doubt that the intention is to teach that all atheists are really believers in God knowingly and sinfully rejecting their creator.

When the interpretation of a passage is dubious it seems prudent to bring to bear other considerations on the matter, and there are a few non-biblical indications that the rebellion thesis can’t be quite right. Firstly, there are atheists who seem completely genuine. They are good, decent, and very honest people (shocking, I know!), and they tell us that they genuinely don’t believe in God. They aren’t angry or particularly immoral. They are well-balanced and psychologically stable people. That in itself is very good reason to believe they are accurately reporting their epistemic situation. From a purely psychological perspective the rebellion thesis seems like quite a tall tale. Secondly, Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a “seeing the light” or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously. In fact, Storms would have to call me a liar when I report as a Christian that prior to my conversion I genuinely didn’t believe in Jesus or the God of Christianity. If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. If this is true of the vast majority of Christians, why is it so difficult for Storms et al to accept that atheists are currently in this same state?

Despite the lack of evidence and high implausibility of the rebellion thesis, perhaps it is true after all that every atheist really knows that God exists. Still, I can’t see how any good can come from making such a claim. It’s irritatingly patronising, smacks of arrogance, does nothing for theist-atheist dialogue, and reeks to high heaven of self-righteousness. I therefore propose that we adopt a principle of charity: that when we engage in any intellectual discussion, we do our interlocutors the courtesy such that when they tell us that they hold such and such a position, we simply accept it and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed a truthful report of their epistemic situation.

Anything else is to spit in their face.

Stephen J Graham

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Randal Rauser’s book “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism” (Cascade Books, 2015) is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheist-Neighbor-Rethinking-Christian-Attitudes/dp/1498217168 or through the Kindle shop.
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Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham

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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

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Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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Leibniz’s Best Possible World

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THIS IS A WORKING DRAFT OF AN ESSAY IN PROGRESS. IT’S MUCH LONGER THAN THE TYPICAL BLOG POST, BUT I’LL BE REFERRING TO IT IN THE NEXT COUPLE OF POSTS.
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Karth Barth accused Leibniz of having no serious interest in the problem of evil. Barth was wrong about many things, and such is the case here also. The problem of evil was of concern to Leibniz from his youth, and his thinking on the problem culminated in his influential work, “Theodicy.”

The central thesis of Leibniz’s work is the notion that the world in which we live is the best possible world (BPW). The concept of the BPW is a slippery one, often left ill-defined as if those who use it expect their listeners to instinctively know what it means. Unfortunately it is used differently by different thinkers, and, as we will see, criticisms of one understanding do not necessarily apply to others. According to Leibniz the BPW is that state of affairs – or combination of possibilities – which allows the maximization of being, in terms of both quantity and quality. His idea here has echoes of Neo-Platonism’s so called “principle of plenitude;”in creating God intends to manifest his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being, and such purposes are best served by creating a rich variety of finite beings, as opposed to a mere quantitative maximum of the same sort of being: “To multiply one and the same thing only would be superfluity, and poverty too. . . to eat nothing but partridges, to drink only Hungarian or Shiraz wine – would one call that reason?

In developing his notion of the BPW Leibniz also points out that while X, Y, Z might be individually possible, they may not be “compossible” – capable of existing in the same reality. For instance, it’s possible for Dodos to exist in the year 2014 and it’s possible that Dodos be extinct by 2014. But we can’t have one reality in which Dodos exist in 2014 and are extinct in 2014. One excludes the other. So, God must choose which set of coherent possibilities to actualize. Leibniz pictures an infinite number of possible universes present as ideas in God’s mind: W1…Wn. These universes exhaust all possibilities, such that any change in W1 would render it identical to, say, W2. From surveying each possible universe God applied his creative power to bring one into existence. The combination of God’s omnipotence, perfect understanding, and perfect goodness leads him to choose the best world.

It is Leibniz’s notion of compossibility – or noncompossibility – that means that whilst God chooses the BPW, this world still contains a great deal of evil. God’s creative activity is thus limited by inherent compatibility issues. There are, however, countless possibilities from which God can choose. He compares them – perfections and imperfections, weaknesses and strengths, goods and evils – and then in His wisdom chooses the best “in order to satisfy goodness completely.”

So, God surveys all the possible worlds he could make: W1 to Wn. According to Leibniz God knows these possible worlds exhaustively, including all the free decisions of any beings he could create in whatever circumstances he chooses to create them. Moreover, God sees each world as a completed whole. So, in terms of the idea of our own world in the divine mind, He knew about the Fall and its corrupting effects, about the redemption of Christ, and about the choices of each person which leads them to either salvation or damnation. God doesn’t determine these choices; He simply decrees the existence of this world and its entire history.

Here we meet the first common criticism of Leibniz: that the universe is just as rigidly determined as Spinoza’s, despite Leibniz’s protestations to the contrary. In fact, Charles Werner accuses Leibniz of presenting us with “a perfect and devastating image of necessity.” After all, in Leibniz’s scheme, God has decreed a complete sequence of events; what room then for human freedom?

This criticism is much too hasty, as Leibniz’s view needn’t exclude genuine free will. If – as many philosophers of religion think – God has so-called “middle knowledge,” then He knows what any creature He might create would do under any set of circumstances in which God might place him. These circumstances are “freedom-permitting” circumstances. For example, under the particular circumstances God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ three times. God’s knowing this does not, however, make the actions any less free – even in the libertarian sense. So, when our world was considered in its totality in the divine mind, this included all the free actions of free agents within it. God does not determine the agents to act as they do, but rather He knows how they will freely act in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the Leibnizian view we notice that evil is unavoidable. Evil – for Leibniz – is very real, though always a privation of something good. No matter what form evils come in – whether metaphysical evils in terms of finitude and imperfection, physical evils in terms of pain and suffering, or moral evils in terms of human sins – they are part of the BPW by virtue of being inter-connected with certain goods. Leibniz here agrees with Augustine that the universe as a whole is good despite containing elements that, when considered in isolation, are bad: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them.”

Leibniz thus approves of the ancient hymn which translates as “O fortunate sin that merits such and so great a redeemer,” to illustrate this principle, and writes: “all the evils of the world contribute, in ways which generally we cannot now trace, to the character of the whole as the best of all possible universes.” But, what about tiny evils? Couldn’t we do away with even just one of them and so make a better world than this? Leibniz answers: “if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found best by the Creator who chose it.”

It’s crucial to understand that Leibniz does not think we can derive the conclusion that this is the BPW simply by reflecting on how it appears to us. This, reckons Leibniz, would be impossible: “For can I know and can I present infinities to you and compare them together?” We have no way to know what the BPW is, except in so far as we might arrive at this conclusion by reflection on the existence of a perfectly good creator. Being perfectly good (and omnipotent) means that – having freely chosen to create (as an expression of over-flowing goodness creatively expressing itself to creatures) – God will create the best possible world: “supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best.” Leibniz, then, would be utterly unimpressed by recent atheistic arguments which attempt to show that God does not exist because this is not the best possible world. Leibniz was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly omniscient enough to draw such a conclusion!

This brings us to another criticism of Leibniz’s position: the coherence, or lack thereof, of the concept of “best possible world.”

Certain theologians, following Aquinas, have argued that the “best possible world” is by definition unrealizable – like the fastest possible speed. Charles Journet argued that regardless of what world God makes he could always make a better one, and thus: “To demand that God, to be above reproach, must make the best of all possible worlds is to demand him to make what is not feasible, and to give existence to something absurd.”

It seems to me that Journet has failed to grasp the sense in which Leibniz uses the term. Following the Thomist tradition Journet holds that there is a scale of possible universes from non-being to God, but that this scale contains an infinity of steps, and that between any two universes there is always the possibility of another. This means that no matter what universe God creates there is always the possibility of there being one that is better but still less than God. If the Thomist tradition is correct then the concept of the best possible world is indeed incoherent, since there cannot be a best possible world in the sense of a closest approximation to perfection within an infinite series of such approximations.

However, this is not how Leibniz uses the term. Leibniz agreed that there could well be an unlimited range of possible worlds; however there is one which – though not particularly close to the level of God – is such as to be the most superior compossible system, in so far as it best satisfies some given criterion of excellence. Thus, Journet’s criticism misfires.

Journet then levels a second criticism at Leibniz, one with which many other commentators concur. Journet accuses Leibniz of effectively denying God’s omnipotence, and setting up a form of dualism. According to Leibniz, once God has freely chosen to create he is limited by fixed possibilities and compossibilities, and therefore even in the BPW there may well be a lot of evil. And since He is limited in these ways, God is not omnipotent.

To my mind accusing Leibniz of denying God’s omnipotence or advocating a dualist solution to the problem of evil is quite unfair. Philosophers of religion have typically argued that there are certain things which God logically cannot do. God cannot create a world in which it always rains everywhere and in which it never rains anywhere. Moreover, there are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent God cannot create. For example, it’s possible under the conditions he finds himself in that Judas not betray Christ. But God can’t create a world with exactly those conditions in which Judas does not betray Christ, because Judas will freely choose to betray Christ under those circumstances. Such a world is not feasible for God to create despite its being a possible world.

Some critics go further and accuse Leibniz’s system of being one that leaves us without hope. Why? Well, if this is the best possible world then there is no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy writes, “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Or, as Voltaire’s Candide asks in a spirit of hopelessness: “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possible, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”)

This, however, represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz. This is best illustrated by differentiating between two other concepts: a static view of the world and a dynamic view of the world. The static view treats the world like a picture – existing all at once, such that if this is the BPW then there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. By contrast, the dynamic view treats the world more like a drama, moving across time. In fact, the best possible drama might start off incredibly boring, but such boredom may well be setting the foundation for later scenes of the play. After scene one should I despair that because this is the “best possible play” that it therefore can’t get any better? Not at all! The same holds for Leibniz’s concept of the BPW. With this dynamic view we can see that the BPW can improve as time goes on. The world today can be a better place than it was yesterday and yet it would still be true that the world is the BPW. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticisms of Lovejoy and Voltaire fail. Once we adopt the dynamic view there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that it is better at time t2 than it was at t1.

Admittedly this notion of a dynamic view of the universe is not explicit in Leibniz. When he speaks of the universe as the BPW he is referring to its adequacy – as a complex whole – as an expression of the overflowing creativity of God. As such the criticism of Leibniz above is understandable, since arguably he may have thought that the universe at t2 could not in any way be better than it was at t1. At both times, for Leibniz, the world perfectly reflects God’s goodness. However, as I have argued, his view can be easily interpreted, or at least modified, in precisely the way I have outlined.

Such criticisms further expose the need to carefully define what “best possible world” means. The BPW, as I have said, is certainly a slippery concept and often different thinkers mean different things when they use the term. Some, with Leibniz, understand the term along the lines of the universe’s being the best expression of the overflowing goodness and creativity of God. Others – particularly modern atheist critics – use the term in an ontological sense to mean a world containing only “perfect” types of being. However, on the back of the dynamic view outlined above we can find another understanding of the term, one which fits neatly within an orthodox Christian view. This understanding we might call “instrumental,” and recognizes that it’s impossible to make any claims about what would be the best possible world aside from dealing with the prior question of what God is trying to achieve through creation. What are God’s purposes?

This then brings us to the question of why God created the world. We need not disagree with Leibniz that the world is the expression of the overflowing creativity of God who desires to communicate his being beyond Himself. However, on the Christian understanding of God there is more to creation than that. In fact it seems that whether or not this is the BPW ultimately depends on a prior question: why did God create us and place us in the sort of world in which we find ourselves? The BPW, then, is that state of affairs which best serves the purposes that God wishes to fulfill through it. The early church father Irenaeus seemed to think along such lines (though not in any kind of systematic way). Put simply, Irenaeus thought that man is an unfinished creature – not created in perfection, as Augustinian theologians often suggest. Human beings – as autonomous moral agents – must be developed. The world then is the “vale of soul-making,” a place built for this process, a place in which human beings can exercise and grow in virtues, but by necessity also a place where vices and real evils exist.

I will expand on this Irenaean idea in a later essay, but for now we notice what this exposes about the nature of the real divide between theists and atheists when it comes to the notion of “best possible world.” Atheists and agnostics – represented philosophically by the likes of Hume, Mill and Russell – tend to assume that if an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists then its purpose is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the creatures it creates. The BPW will therefore be that which works best to this end. Since this world is almost certainly not that kind of world, then God almost certainly does not exist. By contrast the Christian view is not at all like this. The highest good in Christianity is the knowledge of God – not the maximization of earthly pleasure. In other words the world is designed as an environment for the development of finite persons, and in this world they have real and significant freedom to engage in real and significant acts of good or evil.

This brings us back to Leibniz: how do we know that this is the BPW? For Leibniz, as we have seen, there is a reasonable answer: because it is the creation of an omnipotent, perfectly good God. For the atheist, how do we know that if an omnipotent, perfectly good God exists that He would create a better world than this one? I don’t see how the atheist can answer that question. It requires knowing that there is a world which is better than this one. But how can we know a thing like that? To paraphrase Leibniz: Can the atheist know and can he present infinities to us and compare them together? Most atheist arguments here take the form “If God existed he would/would not do this or that.” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than crass presumption, as if such a being might have the same values, goals and purposes as a modern day atheist, and no higher level of insight into reality. Such arguments would have been regarded as sheer folly by Leibniz, and rightly so.

It seems to me that Leibniz was certainly on to something in his central notion that we live in the best possible world. Even Christian philosophers who claim to reject Leibniz end up affirming his core thesis in some shape or form. For instance, in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick rejects Leibniz’s position, and yet his own position strikes me as inherently Leibnizian, with the exception that he defines “best” in more explicitly instrumental terms. Others make a similar move, implicitly accepting that if God exists with the attributes Christianity claims He possesses, then in some sense this must be the best possible world. And so they should, since if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists and has a purpose for his creation it would be inexplicable why He didn’t create the world that would be best suited for achieving it.

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Contra God

Contra God
An all too quick survey of anti-theistic arguments

Philosophy of religion has been my “chosen specialist subject” for the past 18 years (half my life now!) and in all that time I’ve come across many arguments for and against God, ranging from the standard arguments of “Philosophy 101” classes to the often weird and wonderful musings of internet “philosophers.”

As a theist I believe there are good arguments in favour of the existence of God, but I’ve been asked on previous occasions what I consider to be the best arguments against the existence of God. Considering the various arguments against one’s position is a good exercise for anyone to do: theists, atheists, Kantians, utilitarians, socialists, libertarians, physicalists, dualists, a-theorists, b-theorists, and agnostics.

So, what is the best anti-theistic argument?

Many of the offerings floating around cyberspace can be ruled out straight away as little more than lazy slogans. For instance, some atheists will argue against the existence of God with the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The existence of God is, apparently, an extraordinary claim and therefore in the absence of “extraordinary evidence” we should reject it. It’s rarely spelled out exactly what amounts to an “extraordinary” claim or “extraordinary” evidence. In any event it’s patently false to think that as the extraordinariness of a claim goes up so must the extraordinariness of the evidence. For example, if my wife makes the rather ordinary claim that there is a red car outside then all I need to do is look out of the window to verify it. But if my wife makes the much more extraordinary claim that there is a herd of elephants down the street, how do I verify this? In exactly the same way: with nothing more extraordinary than the ‘miracle’ of sight. In any event, probability theorists are well aware that it simply isn’t the case that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to establish their probability.

Other silly arguments that are all too common include: “Who created God!?” and “Can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?!” The former question is typically asked by those who don’t understand the nature of theistic arguments and the sort of being they conclude to. For example, many theistic arguments conclude to a being that is uncaused. To ask who created this being is therefore an incoherent question: Who caused this uncaused being to exist? That’s meaningless. [for more on this point see: HERE] A similar point holds with respect to God making a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. It’s a meaningless task. There are various versions of the concept of divine omnipotence, but no one I’m aware of defines it as God’s ability to do the logically impossible (Descartes was an exception). Omnipotence is more often defined in terms of God’s ability to actualize certain states of affairs along such lines as logical possibility and consistency with God’s good nature and character.

Of course there are also good arguments against the existence of God. Two of the most popular are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.

The former comes in various guises and I have written about it on several occasions on this blog and elsewhere [see: HERE and HERE]. Even in its strongest versions I find the argument far from conclusive. The logical problem of evil has been more or less abandoned even by atheist philosophers, while the probabilistic problem is contentious on several points. (1) The incredible difficulty of assigning meaningful probabilities in a case such as this. (2) Even if we can conclude that the existence of God is improbable given evil, this doesn’t tell us anything about the rationality of theism whatsoever, which could still be rationally held given other evidence we have. (3) The fact that humans are finite – limited in space, time, intelligence and insight – makes it highly dubious that we can with any certainty make such judgments about whether or not there are morally sufficient reasons for God to permit the various evils we find in the world. (4) Most damning, the fact that even if successful the problem of evil wouldn’t show that God does not exist, unless it can be shown that necessarily if God exists he is both omnipotent and all-loving.

Is the divine hiddenness objection any better than the objection from evil? Well, like the problem of evil it’s certainly a worthy argument. However, in the same way it can never be conclusive. This argument says that God, if He existed, would leave more evidence of his existence. God could very easily have made his existence obvious and prevented unbelief entirely. However, why would God do that? If, for instance, Christianity is true, then it doesn’t chiefly matter to God whether people believe He exists or not. God is primarily interested in people coming to saving faith in Him. Do we know that in a world where more people believe God exists that more would come to have such saving faith? It seems we have no way of knowing that at all. And if so then there is little in the claim that if God existed there would be more evidence. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig goes even further: “if God is endowed with middle knowledge, so that He knows how any free person would act under any circumstances in which God might place him, then God can have so providentially ordered the actual world as to provide just those evidences and gifts of the Holy Spirit which He knew would be adequate for bringing those with an open heart and mind to saving faith. Thus, the evidence is as adequate as needs be.”

Whilst I think both arguments can be satisfactorily answered, other theists may simply appeal to mystery: we don’t know what the answer is but we know God is all-powerful, all-loving, and just in his dealings with his creatures and therefore we trust that God will do right, and that he has morally sufficient reasons for setting up the world as he has. Hiddenness and evil are then puzzles for the theist, but they need not amount to defeaters of theistic belief.

And this brings me finally to the arguments that I think are best: those against the coherence of the very concept of God. In my view, these arguments are far more threatening to theism. If a successful argument could be constructed along these lines then it’s as close to a disproof of the existence of God as the atheist could ever hope to find. Unfortunately (for the atheist, not for us theists!), such arguments are incredibly difficult to construct, and most versions tend to be highly implausible if not downright fallacious. In fact, the “heavy stone” argument dismissed earlier is a form of this sort of argument. What tends to help the theist out with respect to incoherence arguments is the fact that theologians and philosophers of God enjoy incredible latitude in drafting coherent accounts of the various attributes of God.

However, there are two incoherence arguments that I think amount to the best arguments against theism (note, I don’t say either is a good argument!).

(1) The argument against the possibility of a timeless person
(2) The argument against the possibility of a bodiless person

If it could be shown that either idea was incoherent then theism would be in real difficulties. The reason is that God, if he exists, is supposed to be personal, and if personhood is incompatible with the mode of God’s existence then the concept is flat out incoherent.

Some theologians might deny that God is “timeless,” and perhaps claim that he is everlasting through time – from infinity past. To my mind this escape isn’t satisfactory. Firstly, it faces the problem of traversing the infinite. Secondly, it faces the problem of the existence of an actual infinite. Thirdly, there’s Leibniz’s interesting question: why didn’t God create the world sooner? Lastly, there are good reasons – scientific as well as philosophical – to hold that time itself had a beginning at the Big Bang. The philosopher of religion must hold that either God is necessarily timeless, or at least timeless without creation – and either way must face the problem of timeless personhood.

These are the two arguments I’m currently working on, so I’d like to wrap up with some pointers towards a solution to each.

With respect to timelessness and personhood much will depend on what criteria we lay down necessary for personhood. This is a question that’s hotly disputed in other areas of philosophy such as the ethics of abortion and artificial intelligence. Two strategies can be adopted by the defender of timeless personhood: (1) He could deny that the criteria given by the critic are in fact necessary for personhood at all. (2) He could agree that the criteria are necessary for personhood but show how a timeless being could possess them.

Three broad areas of personhood criteria tend to be proffered: criteria on the basis of conscious states, criteria on the basis of intentionality, and criteria on the basis of inter-personal relationships. Minimally, I think, a person should be a self-conscious being, but I fail to see why a timeless entity couldn’t be self-conscious. With respect to intentionality there is no necessity that intentionality need be inherently future directed. Lastly, a timeless God could be capable of inter-personal relationships even if it is the case that were he to enter into such relationships by creating persons He would no longer be timeless. In any event, the Christian doctrine of the trinity (and in particular the notion of perichoresis) shows how the persons of the Godhead exist in inter-personal relations timelessly. So much more needs to be fleshed out here, and I am currently writing a research paper to that end – snippets of which will appear on this blog site in the coming weeks.

What, then, about the coherence of incorporeal personality? It seems to me that much here will depend on wider debates in the philosophy of mind between physicalists and dualists. Arguably, even human persons are not essentially physical either. So says the dualist and not without reason. For example, the dualist will point out that mental states are not identical with brain states. The former have properties – for instance, intentionality or “aboutness” – that the latter do not possess. As with the argument from timelessness, much will depend on what we mean by a person. If being a person is an inherently physical and temporal notion then the concept of God is in trouble. Whether or not there is any reason to limit personhood in this way is far from contentious. On the contrary, it strikes me as false, which is what I intend to show in my paper.

Stephen J Graham

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If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist…

Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists.

The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics. Comments on this draft are welcome.

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Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.

Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.

And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

There are atheists who regard this as a water-tight argument and claim to be baffled as to why Christians can’t see the logic of it. But it seems to me that the argument goes wrong on several counts. Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.

What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. Think of the common illustration, from the science of chaos theory, of a butterfly fluttering around a plant setting in motion events which lead to a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of such events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.

Even worse: it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:

4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
5. God exists.
6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous. It all has a plan and purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.

This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. As Christians we believe in God already. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.

An illustration will help show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.

One of my favourite illustrations of this kind of principle comes from the movie “Sliding Doors.” [Spoiler alert!] In the movie the lead character is running to catch a train. At this point the movie branches off into two “sub-movies”: in one she catches the train, and in the other she misses it. The movie shows how her life goes in two completely different directions as a result of one seemingly mundane event: catching or missing a train. In one world she goes on to be incredibly successful, while in the other she goes through various trials, frustrations and hardships. However, in the life in which she is successful she ends up dying much younger; while in her other life she finally turns things around. Imagine one day in eternity God shows her just what would’ve happened had she caught the train. She might then be grateful for missing it, even though it brought hardship and frustrations for a time.

We also see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God so he might overwhelmingly reward in eternity those who go through such trials in faith.

Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the appearances, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.

No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist is content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….

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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.

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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.

Stephen

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