Dialogue w Agnostic/Deist on the “Problem of Good”

Dialogue w Agnostic/Deist on the “Problem of Good” July 18, 2018

VicQRuiz is a friendly “agnostic/deist.” He was interested in making some comments on my 2001 exchange: The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue With an Atheist. I consider that old exchange the best dialogue I have ever been engaged in, out of what must be 900-1000 of ’em by now. His words (complete) will be in blue.

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Hi Dave, thought I would drop in here with the comments I promised a couple of weeks ago. As I have already mentioned, I consider myself an agnostic-slash-deist rather than an atheist. You’ll get no argument from me when you question rigid materialism or scientism. But I remain unconvinced by any of mankind’s structured theisms, past or present.

Understood. Thanks for being clear in summary of your belief-system.

In response to your analogy of UFO sightings and miraculous apparitions:

Your comparison to UFO sightings makes sense. I would take it a step further. I don’t doubt everyone who sees something inexplicable in the sky. I do doubt very much those who claim to have been taken aboard alien spacecraft. I doubt those claims because it seems logical to me that a visiting alien intelligence would either keep its existence secret, or would reveal itself publicly to all. I don’t think such an intelligence would spend decades playing hide-and-seek mind games with humanity.

I agree, though I do highly suspect that if aliens truly exist and manifest themselves, there will be surprises and likely things about them that we can’t even comprehend, let alone predict.

And neither do I think that of God. My concept of a god who created the universe, and gave it the laws of gravity and thermodynamics which govern it, and gave us the mental power to observe and deduce those laws, does not allow for that same god to occasionally play with those laws in our sight, causing us to doubt our powers of observation and analysis. That would be the action of a trickster god, a god whom I would not desire to worship.

I think God, like our (partial) agreement on possible visiting aliens, wouldreveal [Him]self publicly to all” and I believe He did so with the Bible and several interactions with human beings throughout history. Why would God not do so? If He exists, and is benevolent, it seems to me self-evident that He would want to make Himself known, for the good of mankind. But deists deny exactly that, and think God is virtually hidden: some obscure “hermit” cosmic watchmaker. They deny Providence and miracles alike.

The Christian view is that God not only set the laws of science and actions of matter in motion, but that He continually sustains them as well (several Bible passages to that effect). It doesn’t follow that uniformitarianism and predictability of matter are denied. Science has advanced to a great degree precisely because those things are true. Occasionally, God intervenes with a supernatural miracle, which is outside the purview of the laws of science and matter.

Ironically, I find that it is the atheist who more often demands that God intervene in a miraculous manner, far more than He does. So, for example, when I am, debating about the problem of evil with atheists, they will (quite often) “demand” a universe in which God routinely suspends the usual laws of nature in order to prevent a tragedy (which means, innumerable tragedies, since if He prevents one, why not all?). If someone jumps off a building to kill himself, God (being good and all-powerful) is supposed to make the sidewalk jelly just before he lands, etc. I have argued that this would produce a chaotic universe, in which science wouldn’t even be possible.

If my understanding of historical Christianity is true, there is no shortage of cases in which God revealed himself, and communicated with his own creatures, without in any way violating the natural laws of the universe. In fact, these cases run into the millions if not the hundreds of millions. I’m not deprecating any of -those-.

I believe C. S. Lewis argued in his famous book, Miracles, that miracles are not “interruptions” of natural law. But I’d have to go look at it again to remember how he argued that. It sounds like you have something similar in mind, in this comment of yours.

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From my read of your dialogue with Mike Hardie, a few thoughts:

You repeatedly make reference to the necessity that Hitler, Stalin, etc. be held responsible for their crimes. I don’t disagree. No decent person would want the likes of those murderers to escape justice. But there are two things which do concern me.

First, it’s hard to see Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainians or Hitler’s gassing of the Jews as any more evil than God’s wiping the Earth clear of humanity with the exception of one family. But that rolls into the general realm of theodicy, for which see my final comment below.

The distinction we draw is that God has the right and prerogative to judge human beings (whom He created) in a way that we do not have with each other. Thus, I deny the analogy you attempt here. I’ve written about this many times:

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Second, I think it borders on strawmanning to use world-class criminals as examples of those deserving divine justice.

After all, if the conventional Christian view is true, Mr. Weinberg behind the deli counter (a lifelong orthodox Jew) as well as Miss Allison the kindly librarian (a lifelong agnostic) will suffer the same eternal fate as Adolf and Uncle Joe. One rarely hears an apologist ask, “Doesn’t Miss Allison deserve punishment for her crimes”?

Oh, I totally agree. We Catholics, remember, believe that even one mortal (serious) sin, can potentially cause one to go to hell, if they do not repent. God will forgive anything, but He can’t forgive minus repentance. It’s a transaction. But we believe that the possibility of salvation is open to anyone who will accept God’s merciful free offer of grace and salvation.

I used Hitler and Stalin in order to highlight and make it clear (by using the worst-case scenarios) what atheism entails, in terms of “cosmic justice.” It’s a scenario which is both incomprehensible and outrageous to me, and I don’t believe that the universe is like that: whatever it turns out to be in the end. In any event, Christianity (whether true or not) at least offers final justice and ultimate meaning in a way that atheism never has, and never will.

You are an agnostic / deist. I understand that; so this is not necessarily your dilemma. But you’re responding to a dialogue I had with an atheist, so I am replying according to my thought processes in that dialogue. It will be a given throughout that I am not attributing to your view all the problems incipient in hard atheism.

I should clarify, too, that Catholics (and many other sorts of Christians) do not believe that Jews and atheists / agnostics (and any other non-Christians) automatically go to hell because they are not Christians / have not accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It’s far more involved than that, and each individual is judged by what they truly know (see Romans 2). Degrees of culpability vary widely. See my papers:

Are Atheists “Evil”? Multiple Causes of Atheist Disbelief and the Possibility of Salvation [2-17-03]
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New Testament on God-Rejecters vs. Open-Minded Agnostics [10-9-15]
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What would make more sense to me would be something like the ancient Egyptian “weighing of the heart” where each individual is judged on his or her own character and deeds.

Exactly! That’s what I’m saying. That is, I note, in cases where people haven’t heard about Christianity at all, but have only heard about it in the most biased, distorted ways (as is the case, sadly, with many many Jews). Whoever has heard the Good News of Christianity, will be held accountable to act upon that knowledge. “To whom much is given, much is required . . .” In my studies of the last judgment, I found fifty biblical passages that always talked about good works, and never faith alone (the big Protestant thing). That’s not to deny in the slightest, grace alone or to assert a works-salvation (the heresy of Pelagianism), but it is very striking, and quite “unProtestant”. And it ties in with what you are saying above.

Candide is referenced in the discussion several times. With that in mind let me ask:

(1) Is it possible for God to have any unfulfilled desires?

Yes. For example, Jesus expressed it in this way:

Matthew 23:37 (RSV) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 

The Bible says:

1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

But of course they do not all do so and are not all saved, and that’s because God permitted them the free will to reject Him and His grace, if that is their choice. Thus, in this way, even an omnipotent God can’t get everything He desires, because He has allowed “counter-desires” or a counter-will to make that (virtually, though not intrinsically) impossible. It started right with one of His angels, Lucifer, who rebelled against Him. 

(2) If the answer to (1) is “no”, then do we not live, as Pangloss might say, in the best of all possible universes?

It’s been argued that we do (from God’s perspective). I think it’s the best we have, given human free will. Obviously, we have failed miserably and made a mess of many things. God has provided us the way out and the way forward, if only we would heed His advice.

In another sense, it’s obvious that it is not the best of all possible universes. It would be much better if only we weren’t so attached to sin and ourselves and lack love for one another. But that failure rests squarely on our heads, not on God.

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You and Mike both refer to morality being “grounded” in God. I believe the use of this term by apologists to be an unsuccessful attempt to sidestep the Euthypro dilemma.

Either morality exists independent of God, or it does not. If it does, then God’s actions may be judged by that morality just as human actions may.

I agree. I think He passes that test. Technically, our view is that “God is love.” He is the embodiment of it. It’s “grounded” in God from our limited perspective. Whatever is good, God is. Whatever God is, is good. God isn’t “subject” to morality. He simply is goodness itself.

If not, then to define “good” as whatever is done by God is fatal in my view to the concept of fixed, objective morality, since whatever hitherto-unseen action God shows us at any given point in the future must necessarily require an edit of what we up to that point had considered as moral.

The first option (with my disclaimer) is the best one of the two.

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While I’m on the subject of objective morality, let me pose a thought experiment:

I love those!

In Universe A, there is a fixed standard of objective morality, originating with the creator of that universe. However, for some reason this standard of morality has been instilled in the universe’s inhabitants in an incomplete or inconsistent manner. The result is that many of those inhabitants may disagree over questions of right or wrong (“May one tell a lie to prevent an innocent person from harm?”) and a few are found to be outright sociopaths, capable of committing the foulest evils on a grand scale.

In Universe B, there is no creator, and no fixed, objective morality. Moral standards are the end product of millenia of social evolution. This is a hit and miss process, and of course those standards have varied across history and across cultures, although there has been some convergence. The inhabitants of this universe like to think that their moral standards have advanced over time, but it is clear that evolution has failed to extinguish sociopathic behavior in the same way it has extinguished failed species of plants and animals.

Now the thought experiment is this: Suppose an observer from Universe C were to arrive at one of these two universes. Would he be able to determine which one he was in?

He wouldn’t, unless he had other good reason to believe that God exists.

Mind you, I do not reject outright the concept of objective morality. I rather hope it does exist. I do question the Christian god (as well as all the rest of humanity’s gods) as the source of that morality, and I think that one can make a case for, or against, its existence based upon observing the conduct of humans in our particular universe.

But if humans have free will, and commit acts not in accord with God’s will, how is that God’s fault? My three sons and daughter have (in the final analysis) a different will than I do. We teach them right and wrong to the best of our abilities and (Catholic) lights. They may not always perfectly follow it (in fact I know they do not, because I don’t, either). But if I’ve done my best as a parent and moral teacher, it’s not my fault when they mess up.

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You say “It is a sad and troubling thing, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is (when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic and meaningless place”

This is something I have read and heard from many apologists and evangelists. And once you have come to believe that God exists and has a personal interest in your welfare, it’s totally understandable.

It’s not just that. This is what we believe, by thinking about it, that a godless universe would be like.

But, and please don’t take offense here, this sounds to me like “I don’t desire to live in a universe in which I would be sad or devastated”.

But that’s a given for everyone, so I don’t see how it’s particularly relevant, let alone some defeater of our view. No one wants to be “sad or devastated” or to live in a universe where that was routinely the case. But that’s different from thinking about the universe as it actually is (as can be best ascertained): wholly apart from what we would prefer it to be.

In fact, I would contend that it is this inherent quest for meaning and happiness (which I believe is put into us by God), that causes atheists (who still have it within them too!) to deny that the universe is meaningless. I think their view that it is meaningful without God is an “unconscious” carryover from the Christian worldview. In my opinion, they have not fully grappled with the implications of a universe without God. For the Christian, such a universe would be like hell: the ultimate horror.

Whether or not a particular universe brings you joy or despair is not a marker for whether or not that universe truly exists.

Of course. No one stated otherwise.

I am sure you’ve been asked this before and answered it, please feel free to link rather than compose the same answer anew.

I did my best.

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And last but not least my most recent take on dealing with the problem of evil:

I see three ways a Christian can address the various evils done or commanded by God as presented in the Bible. OT or NT, punishment before or after death.

You have assumed from the outset that God has committed evils (preserved in the Bible). I, of course, strenuously deny that premise.

First, the acceptance of divine command theory, as set forth by W. L. Craig and others. “God’s the boss, he creates us and therefore can do with us precisely as he wills, we have no grounds for objection.” This has the advantages of requiring no exercises in parsing the text nor attempts to do psycho-history on the ancient Israelites. (But I do respect those Christians who unhesitatingly grasp the OT as it is, nettles and all). The disadvantages are that the moral proof for God is rendered effectively invalid, and unbelievers who have actually read the Bible are not likely to become converts.

He can do what He wills (as far as logically possible, which is what omnipotence is), but He is also all-merciful and all-good. He is love. So what He does, is out of love. At the same time, He is the Just Judge, and those who reject Him will have to pay the consequences for their rebellion, just as in this world, those who commit crimes have a price to pay, in our worldly systems of legal justice.

Second are all the “apparent evil in the service of a greater good” theodicies. In my opinion, these require intellectual tap dancing at a level which would make Fred Astaire or Bill Robinson shake their heads in astonishment. If God loves us completely and individually, they just don’t satisfy, because real love must put the well-being of the beloved -as an individual- above any other consideration. And I doubt they have ever convinced many unbelievers. However, they do seem to work to some extent in convincing the Christian believer who is occasionally plagued by doubt.

I would have to consider this on a case-by-case basis. But I find that accusations against God (what I consider “bum raps”) usually come down to a misunderstanding regarding human free will, and irrationally blaming Him for that. Other things, like natural disasters, have to be explained in a different way (C. S. Lewis strictly — and most helpfully — differentiates the two in his Problem of Pain). I would approach those by saying that the laws of science are what they are, and they include natural disasters. If we don’t want God intervening in nature every two seconds, then we have to accept those, and — this being the case –, some people die or get hurt. It’s reality.

Sidewalks are hard. If we fall off a bike, we’ll skin our knees. I recently half-climbed a mountain in Maine (Katahdin, where the Appalachian Trail ends). Both my ankles became very sore. I accept that (assuming: “if you climb big rocky mountains and have ankles prone to soreness, you will likely have sore ankles”). I didn’t blame God for making the mountain rocky and steep and not changing the rocks to jelly when my ankles were being harmed by the rocks and the climb. I like mountains. I don’t want them to become jelly merely for my sake.

Third, (and I find this more common among Catholics and Orthodox, who are not hobbled by rigid biblicism) one can over time mentally excise all those Biblical caprices and downright evils from serious consideration as actual exemplars of God’s nature. Whether it’s God making a bet with Satan about his servant Job,

. . . which is almost certainly anthropopathism.

or commanding the slaughter of babies,

See my paper, “How Can God Order the Massacre of Innocents?” (Amalekites, etc.).

or hardening men’s hearts against him,

No problem at all. This has to do with Hebrew literary genre and ways of expressing things. See:

God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?

we can gently set them aside by saying Jesus would never do such a thing.

No need, because they are all sufficiently explained (in my humble opinion) anyway. I don’t set the Old Testament against the New Testament. All Christians believe that both are equally inspired. So it is a matter of proper interpretation: and this is where atheists and other biblical skeptics massively get things wrong, as I have documented time and again. And it’s because they haven;t studied the Bible enough. I have for now 41 years, and have been engaging in apologetics for 37.

A few more adjustments (“reinterpreting” original sin, and the command to Abraham to kill his son, and the literal fires of hell) might enable us to arrive at a Christianity which is all sweet, without even a hint of sour. This may in fact work in nullifying the objections of many potential converts. But at that point could it still be called Christianity?

No. But all those things require discussions themselves. I can only constructively discuss one thing at a time (at least “one” in a broad sense).

As an agnostic, I do not have a problem in answering the problem of evil with “I really don’t understand it”.

Virtually all Christians will agree that many aspects of it (especially when suffering hits us personally) are hard to understand. But we also know that it’s not feasible to hold that we would understand everything about an omniscient God in the first place (the point of the last half of the book of Job). We can understand evil to a great extent, however, by understanding the tension between our free will and God’s perfect and all-knowing benevolent will.

There may well be a God out there moving us around like pawns on the chessboard, promoting some of us on the eighth rank and sacrificing others early in the opening, with motives that are completely incomprehensible.

The Bible doesn’t teach that this is the case, and so I don’t believe that it is. The life of Jesus in particular, shows me God’s character and nature.

Hey, you Christians have plenty of acknowledged “mysteries” of your own, can’t you allow one to me?

Sure. But I’ll put in my $00.02 cents’ worth if I’m asked about it! My job is to defend Christianity and Catholicism in particular, which is exactly what I’m doing here. I don’t claim to have all the answers, though. I’m doing the best that I can, by God’s grace.

Thanks for the excellent dialogue! I hope it will be the first of many. And I think we agree that such amiable, non-hostile (and to me, enjoyable and stimulating) dialogue is entirely possible. We did it here, ought to be able to do it again, and it should be possible among those of all beliefs. But alas, it’s a rare thing, for many reasons. Because of that rarity, I always highly appreciate the chance to engage in true dialogue, so I am heartily thankful to you for the opportunity.

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Photo credit: [Max Pixel /  Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license]

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