Dialogue w Atheist John Loftus on the Problem of Evil

Former Christian pastor, now atheist John W. Loftus is a big name now in the atheist world, with lots of books, and his popular blog Debunking Christianity. The following is drawn from remarks made on his blog. His words will be in blue. His older words will be in purple, and my past words in green.
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Here are my own shots at solving the problem. I don’t claim all that much for them, except that I think they exhibit some degree of thought and that they’re not lightweight, breezy attempts at solutions. The latter debate I consider one of the best I have had with anyone: Christian or atheist (I wonder if Mike is still around on the Internet these days?):

“Christian Replies to the Argument From Evil (Free Will Defense): Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?”

“Dialogue With an Atheist on the “Problem of Good” and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)” (vs. Mike Hardie)

These constitute one Christian attempt to grapple with the problem. I am more than willing to defend my points of view and even to admit that I have no answer in particulars if that is the case (or to retract particulars if that is required, too).

Best wishes to both sides in the debate, and let it be a fair fight!

Dave Armstrong, I skimmed through the essays on your Blog and what I saw what [sic] that you simply do not understand the problem.

You can’t determine that by skimming long papers on such a weighty topic. The least you could do is show me what you claim I don’t understand: educate the ignorant and get them up to speed.

I saw no interaction with David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion on this, and that only takes you up to the 18th century.

Hume believed in a deity of some sort (though not the Christian God), so whatever he concluded about evil did not, obviously, make him an atheist (and that is far closer to my position than to yours). Many people seem not to know this, but there it is. See my paper: Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?

Christian philosopher Dr. James F. Sennett has said: “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil – the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.”

I agree completely, which is why I made a very similar comment on this blog recently. Just three days ago, I wrote in a thread under one of your posts:

I think I glanced at your deconversion. Wasn’t the problem of evil key? I consider that the most serious objection to Christianity (though, not, of course, fatal at all, as you’d expect). So while I could still quibble with that, it would be in an entirely different league from the sort of shallow stuff that usually constitutes reasons for deconversions.

You know how that goes: there are reasons that one disagrees with, while considering them highly respectable and serious and worthy of attention, and others which are downright frivolous and trivial or plainly fallacious.

Obviously, you missed that, or you wouldn’t quote my own belief back to me. And so your next statement becomes literally, nonsensical, since you thought that I would disagree with what Sennett said, but I do not; therefore, you are the one who doesn’t understand my position on this (whatever you think of its merits). And of course, understanding of opposing positions is fundamental to any decent dialogue.

Dave, YOU don’t understand the problem. Sorry to tell you this.

See the above remarks. I’m willing to interact with anyone who wants to show me where my reasoning went astray in my long paper on the subject. If you decline, that’s fine. Perhaps someone else would be willing to do so.

I find it humorous, too, that I cited very long passages from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. If I don’t understand the problem, then neither do they, so the result would be that two of the very greatest thinkers in Christian history don’t have a clue about the problem of evil; only atheists do. Or else they understood the problem but I didn’t, even though I cited them in agreement. That brings us back to the logical nonsense of me agreeing with and citing people who understand the problem, yet I supposedly do not.

Right. I think you need to give it another try. I couldn’t care less whether you want to dialogue with me on this subject (or any other) or not (I manage to find many dialogue partners; no problem); but I would expect of you something better than this flimsy sort of response and misrepresentation of the position of Christian opponents.

I’ll be dealing with your deconversion story (as much as I can find online), and when I do that, I won’t misrepresent or breezily dismiss what you believe. But if you misunderstand Christian doctrine (as almost inevitably happens in any such cases that I have examined), I will certainly point that out.

[see: Critique of Atheist John W. Loftus’ “Deconversion” Story [10-15-06]

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In any event, I won’t approach your writing with this silly attitude of “I skimmed your [long, involved] papers and you just don’t get it, so I won’t spend any time giving you the courtesy of showing you why you don’t understand the problem; instead I’ll quote Christian philosophers to you who say exactly what you said in a comment under a post of mine three days ago — as if you would disagree with them.”

C’mon; certainly you’re capable of much better than that . . . and if you aren’t, then hopefully someone on this blog is. I started out here in high hopes that good dialogue could be had! I haven’t given up yet . . .

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I did notice your comment about evil, but even though you said this doesn’t mean you understand the depth of the problem. 

Even if that is true (which I deny), you give me no reason why you think this is the case.

I was in a hurry at the time I skimmed through your papers. I’ll look them over again. 

Thank you.

But anyone who attempts to deal with the problem of evil who mainly uses Augustine and Aquinas isn’t caught up to speed on the whole debate since Hume. 

I didn’t primarily use them. Above I made the point that if you want to play the “ignorance” game, you’ll have to include Aquinas and Augustine and I don’t think many people will buy an interpretation that they were ignoramuses, no matter what period they happened to live in.

And anyone today who wants to comment on the debate who doesn’t take into consideration William Rowe’s, Paul Draper’s, Michael Martin’s, Quentin Smith’s, Bruce Russell’s and Theodore Drange’s arguments still doesn’t understand the problem.

This is irrational. One doesn’t have to read all the philosophers to have any intelligent comment at all on a topic. That is simply academic elitism, and I don’t play that game. I’m not an academic and don’t claim to be. I’m a Christian apologist. But to say not only that someone can’t have a constructive, decent dialogue on a topic unless they’ve read a, b, c, d, etc. but that they can’t even comprehend the depth of the problem of proposed difficulty, is sheer nonsense.

Granted, the more one reads on anything, the better prepared and informed they will be, but you aren’t just saying that: you make out that reading these guys is an absolute requirement to even have the discussion or be regarded as a worthy dialogue partner/opponent.

In effect, then, this reduces to: either one has to know all the ins and outs of philosophical minutiae or else one can’t sensibly discuss the problem of evil at all. I vehemently deny this. I may not know all the intricacies of all these arguments as well as you do (freely granted), but that doesn’t mean I can’t spot a flaw in the arguments that I can read and comprehend as well as anyone else. Since I am a Socratic in method, that’s mainly what I do, anyway.

Even Alvin Plantinga thinks it is perfectly reasonable and rational for a Christian to hold certain beliefs without knowing all the ins and outs of the current philosophical discussion. And he is no slouch, as I have heard many atheists agree. He opposes academic elitism and snobbery, as I do.

When my debate transcript and video are made available you’ll see a glimpse of what the problem really is all about.

I see. So being a Christian apologist and having regarded the problem as a very serious and worthy objection for 25 years isn’t sufficient to have any inkling of the depth of the problem. I have to see your video to get a glimpse of how ignorant I really am.

I had so much more to share if needed, too. 

I’m sure you did. So did I when I wrote my papers.

Until then I wish you well. You’re a bright thinker, and I look forward to dialoguing with you on this issue in the future. 

Not if the requirement is to read a bunch of atheists first. If you want to discuss one such paper by one of these guys, great. I’d be happy to do that, anytime. I’d even gladly read, say, long online articles by each of these folks (but not books). And I would reply to them unless I felt that it was too philosophically technical and out of my reach in that sense.

And dialogue on this issue I will. But do me the favor first in reading up on the modern debates, okay?…that is, if you haven’t already.

I’ve read plenty on the topic. One can always read more. I don’t have unlimited time to devote to one topic. The apologist (esp. the Catholic apologist) has many many issues to write about and defend. You can wait till I read the books you think I should read if you like. In the meantime, I will start responding to comments I find here. If you want to counter-respond, fine; if not, fine. It’s of little concern to me. I dialogue with whomever is willing to do so, and I critique whatever I think is worthwhile to critique, whether the person is willing or able to reply back or not. Usually people can’t defend their own viewpoints; that’s been my experience.

Dialogue it is then! Forget my deconversion story. I know what you’ll say about science and Genesis 1-11, since you’ve already written about that.

Then I’ll skip that part and deal with others, but it will be dealt with (especially after the ridiculous, intellectually triumphalistic remarks you made about it that I saw cited at Steve Hays’ site):

[I’m saying the case I make in my new book is overwhelmingly better.

Again, are you going to read it and critique it for yourself? Hey, I dare you! I bet you think you’re that smart, don’t ya, or that your faith is that strong – that you can read something like my book and not have it affect your faith.

If Christianity is true, then you have nothing to fear. But if Christianity is false, then you owe it to yourself to get the book. Either way you win.

And even if you blast my book after reading it here on this Blog, I’ll know that you read it, and just like poison takes time to work, all I have to do from then on is to wait for a personal crisis to kill your faith.

Want to give it a go? The way I see you reason here makes me think it’ll make your head spin with so many unanswerable questions that you won’t know what to do.

But that’s just me. I couldn’t answer these questions, so if you can, you’re a smarter man than I am, and that could well be. Are you? I think not, but that’s just me.]

I would reply briefly that if all it takes (in the sense of immediate cause) to “kill” someone’s faith is a personal crisis, then obviously such a person did not understand the intellectual reasons for why they are a Christian in the first place, since if they had, a mere crisis would not have the effect of transforming one into an atheist, as it is merely an emotional reaction and not a rational one. This rather proves the point that the atheist objections tend to come down to, in the end, emotional and irrational factors. That’s why they’re so big on the problem of evil. It’s a very serious objection, as I’ve stated above and have always thought, but on the other hand, it’s also very rich in possibilities for emotional exploitation, rhetoric, polemics, and so forth, because everyone feels so strongly about suffering and evil.

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[two days later]

Hitler is either “allowed” by necessity of human free will or else we have no free will.

This is a false dichotomy. 

Well, it is an argument from plausibility, based on the more involved logical background arguments of Alvin Plantinga.

Didn’t God harden Pharoah’s heart?

No. This is another instance (one of many I have documented) of atheists not properly understanding the Bible and how to sensibly interpret it. Shame on you, as a former pastor, with a multiple Masters degrees in theology, as this is a rather simple matter.

When the Bible says that God did this, it is in the particular sense of “God allowed the Pharaoh to become hardened of his own accord, then used it for His purposes, to free the Hebrew slaves.” In other words, it is a typically vivid, pungent, dramatic Hebrew way of speech: “God did it [in the sense of it being ultimately used for His purposes, in His providence].”

Because it is pre-philosophical language, all that is bypassed and the writer just says “God hardened Pharaoh.” But nevertheless, other passages give the true sense, so it can be better understood. Thus, the literature teaches by deduction what might be expressed in more logical-type language all in one sentence.

Accordingly, we have the Bible saying God hardened Pharaoh, many times (e.g., Ex. 4:21; 7:3,13; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8 etc,), and even hardening the Egyptians (14:17), but it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15; 8:32; 9:34; 1 Sam 6:6).

Furthermore, it simply states the fact of hardening without saying who did it (Ex 7:14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35) and that one shouldn’t harden one’s own heart, as a generality (Deut 15:7; Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8,15; 4:7).

The obvious, straightforward way to interpret all this data is as I have done. It is not contradictory: neither internally, nor with regard to the problem of evil. One understands this insofar as one also is familiar with the Hebrew oft-poetic, non-literal manner of speaking.

If you want to directly compare that world with human beings, and make us merely an evolutionary development of it (i.e., in a completely naturalistic sense; I am not condemning theistic evolution), then you have huge problems of your own, since how can you argue that cannibalism is more wrong for human beings than for animals (especially in a eat-anything-to-survive environment, such as the famous Donner party)? Atheists will play games and make out that people are qualitatively different, but this is nonsensical within your paradigm, which has man evolving directly from this same animal kingdom, wherein survival of the fittest is the natural order of things.

This is irrelevant to the theistic problem of evil. It’s a red herring, for it sidetracks the problem of why God set up predation in the natural world. 

I was simply responding to your statement: “In the natural world something must be killed so that some other carnivore can eat. This is the world your God set up.” I didn’t claim that it had anything directly to do with the problem of evil. It was, in effect, a footnote.

We could deal with this issue, if you want to do so sometime, but let’s stick to the issue at hand. 

Gladly. Like I said, I was simply responding to what you wrote. It didn’t sidetrack me.

Why didn’t God make us vegetarians? There are naturally existing vegetarian animals.

He did, originally (and some Christians adopt this view on Christian grounds, though it is tough, since Jesus ate fish). Christians usually argue that meat-eating was a result of the fall and not the ideal situation. The fall was as a result of free will; hence not able to be blamed on God (that only applies to supralapsarian Calvinism: itself a small minority of a minority school).

That makes him worse than Hitler by a long long shot.

Really? I don’t see how:

1) God allows free will.
2) Free will entails the possibility of rebellion and evil.
3) Hitler ushered in one such massive societal rebellion against civilization and evil campaign.
4) God is to blame for Hitler’s evil because He allowed free will.
5) Man isn’t to blame for Hitler’s evil, even though he had the capacity to prevent it altogether.

Could God have given Hitler a heart attack and end the war? 

Certainly. The fact that He didn’t is no proof that He isn’t good, if some other plausible scenario can be imagined, consistent with His goodness.

Could utopian, naively pacifistic, Fabian socialist, occult- and sex-obsessed Englishmen in the 1930s have stopped the German military build-up, which was obvious? Yes. Can God be blamed because they didn’t? Nope. Can WWII be directly blamed on their failure to see the writing on the wall? Yes, of course.

You can’t start a war if you don’t have the military weaponry to do so in the first place, it seems obvious to me. But all you want to do is blame God because He didn’t strike down the madman. Isn’t it better for us to do that: does the parent have to do absolutely everything for his child when the child is capable? Clearly not. You act like human beings are like babies who can do nothing; hence God must do everything by way of preventing any evil.

This is a clear case where He didn’t have to do so. Men could have done everything necessary to prevent it. And in fact we did end it when we woke up to what was happening; after London was bombed, etc. Self-interest and self-defense. Pearl Harbor quickly got isolationist America in the war, didn’t it? Prior to that even London being bombed wasn’t enough. That wakes people up fast and motivates them to do what they avoided doing previously. 9-11 did the same in our own time, but it didn’t take long for certain schools of thought to put their heads in the sand again and pretend that fighting back isn’t necessary.

If so, he could’ve stopped a thousand Hitlers.

Yes; no argument there. The question at hand is whether He must do so in order to be believed to be as Christians think Him to be. We say no.

This is irrational. It makes no more sense to blame God for the evil choices of creatures he created free than it does to blame a good parent for sins of a child of his or her own volition, committed after the parent trusted the child to be responsible with its freedom. You can’t blame one being for the sins of another; at some point there is individual responsibility. That’s why it is ridiculous to blame God for Hitler.

If a mother gave a two-year old a razor blade she would be held culpable. And if she sat by and did nothing while my older brother beat me to death she could be considered an accomplice.

That’s correct. But in the case of the two-year-old, the mother is clearly culpable because the child isn’t old enough to know that it could be harmed by a razor blade (till it starts cutting, that is, then it can figure out some causal relationship, I think). That just proves my point that you are irrationally regarding the human race and adults with brains and responsibilities for free actions, as the equivalent of babies in diapers, with rattles rather than adult brains and the capacity to make intelligent and virtuous choices.

The other example at least makes a little sense (though you didn’t give an age of the brothers). There I would say that this is our responsibility as humans: to prevent harm insofar as possible. As for God in this analogy, I could easily argue that He set the world in motion and allowed free will because He wanted us to be responsible and to do good ourselves, not rely on Him to automatically make every situation we have screwed up right again. In effect, it is allowing His grown-up children to look after themselves. That’s what the analogy of God to parents involves, too.

Now God can intervene at times, but it’ll be the exception, just as a parent would assume that children of a certain age should be able to get along without killing each other. The human race knows more than enough to stop warring with each other and butchering children in their mothers’ wombs, but it doesn’t because of sin.

What’s so complicated about knowing that it is bad to start killing each other for greedy reasons or sexual “freedom” or no reason at all in many cases? We can solve that ourselves, but evil and the propensity of man for evil makes what should be simple, impossible to achieve in fact.

I don’t see that God is under an absolute obligation to rectify things that we have screwed up. He has promised a better world that He will rule, where all things will eventually be made right. That’s more than enough, in my opinion. We don’t even deserve that. We all should be condemned to hell for our corporate rebellion, but God in His great mercy gives us a chance to repent and be saved.

But even if that made any sense, why do you atheists not give God any credit for all the good which comes from free will? If you want to hold Him accountable for all the bad things that men do to each other, or the natural events that can hardly be otherwise in a sensible, orderly universe, then how come you never give Him any credit for anything?

Because there is so much unalleviated suffering in the world we just don’t think there is a God.

That didn’t answer my question. I agree there is a lot of evil and that it is a difficulty to understand. I asked why you never give God (even a hypothetical God, for the sake of argument) any credit; only blame for bad stuff that is often clearly man’s fault?

Hitler’s Germany was a Christian nation and all you can do is to ask about Hitler from my perspective?

The people may have been, but the regime was not, by any stretch of the imagination. It was a grotesque mixture of corrupted romanticism, paganism, and occultism. The Final Solution was not justified on Christian grounds.

So I suppose American slavery was not justified on Christian grounds either? 

No; it certainly was. But wrongly so. Biblical servanthood (and often, pagan servanthood) is not nearly the same thing as American slavery was. The Bible condemned the oppressive sort of slavery. Ever heard of the Exodus from Egypt? That’s why black slaves often saw that as an analogy: God desired them to be free, just as with the Hebrew Egyptian slaves. It was only the characteristic of greed that caused Christians to justify such outrages.

But that was a clever way of switching the subject, wasn’t it? Perhaps you hoped that I wouldn’t notice, or that readers wouldn’t? Ah, but not when I point it out.

Who speaks for Christianity? 

Another rabbit trail. I would say as a Catholic, that the pope does, preeminently.

You? 

I do, insofar as I am a Catholic lay apologist devoted to defending Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and representing the beliefs of that system to the very best of my ability, and in submission to its authority.

Based upon hindsight?

Based upon the history of Christianity, the Bible, Church authority, authoritative apostolic tradition, and reason.

If He stopped Hitler by the miraculous and abrogation of his free will, then we would have a world where no one was free, and every bad, evil thing is immediately prevented

False dichotomy. You’ve just got to stop thinking in terms of extremes and clear black and whites here. 

It’s not extreme. It is a conclusion based on an unspoken chain of reasoning (and a sort of reductio ad absurdum). You guys say God should intervene practically at every turn, and prevent all these evils. If He can do so once, then (according to you, it seems), He ought to do so massively, in every case, since why would one be more worthy of attention than another? Why should God not immediately heal a child’s scrape or a hang nail or a blister or pimple if He is required to alleviate every misery known to man, in order to be believed for what He is?

There is no sensible stopping point. So I say it is most logical to believe that He simply lets the world operate according to the laws of nature and the results of human free will, with only rare miraculous intervention (yes, even up to and including Hitler).

The other sort of world makes no sense to me. It really doesn’t. But heaven makes sense to me. That is different precisely because to enter it we had to pass some sort of test, and accept the grace that God gave us in order to be saved. Then we can have perfect happiness.

God clearly directed free willed creatures in the Bible, it’s claimed, so why not do something about the horrendous evils which lead atheists to say he doesn’t exist if God wants us to believe? 

Precisely because those same free willed creatures are able to alleviate most suffering themselves. Atheists will find reasons not to believe no matter what. We maintain that there is more than enough evidence for theism and Christianity. That’s why many thinking people accept it and why atheism has always been a minority viewpoint even in western civilization, with all its marvelous intellectual and technological, artistic and musical and architectural achievements.

God makes your task harder and harder all of the time. I don’t envy your task here. 

I’m doing fine, thank you. I’m not trembling under your supposed profundities of anti-Christian argument, as you seem to think we all will, if we read your stuff. To the contrary, invariably when I take on opposing arguments, my faith grows stronger. It happens every time, and is one of the blessings of professional apologetics. I get to make the arguments and get the added bonus of having my faith strengthened by observing how the non-Christian arguments routinely fail to hit their mark and achieve their purpose, or to see how they are downright fallacious.

But God could avert these tragedies, if for no other reason to help you out in explaining why evil exists.

I think whatever the reason is that He allows them (and I believe Christians probably have a pretty good idea at least about some possible reasons why He does so), it wouldn’t be for any reason so trivial as that.

You say my moral code is subjectively chosen? Well then, where does your God’s moral code come from?

It’s eternal. Therefore, it “comes from” nothing. It always existed in God. God is Love. Yours is certainly subjective because you can’t create an absolute larger than yourself and applicable to all, no matter how hard you try. That has to come from a Being Who transcends creation and mankind itself.

That’s of course another subject, and I consistently refuse to be drawn off-topic while an important, meaty debate is already taking place. But some day I’d be happy to.

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(originally 10-11-06)

Photo credit: John Loftus at SASHAcon 2016 at the University of Missouri (3-19-16). Photograph by Mark Schierbecker [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

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