Angry Atheists? chapter 5: An Open Letter to Religious Believers on God and Evil

This chapter in the book is pretty straightforward, so I’m just going to say enjoy.

  • Disagreeable Me

    But then I encountered people who thought the problem of evil was a very good reason for believing in God

    Now, you could mean crazies like William Lane Craig who believe that evil proves that God exist because there could be no good or evil without God, but from context I think you mean they think it is a good reason for disbelieving in God.

  • John

    I like it as an introduction to dealing with the problem of evil.

    There is something I’m wondering if you’re going to discuss this objection in your future sections on Plantinga’s free will defense, or maybe this objection isn’t very good:

    How can Plantinga (or any apologist) call beings with free will more valuable, or even good, when the god they believe in does not have free with with respect to performing good and evil. If god is perfectly holy by nature, he can do no evil.

    This brings even more problems if any apologist tries to define “goodness” with “gods nature”, like William Lane Craig does.

    After thinking about this potential problem, I did some searching online and found out that Wes Morrison has written a piece about it, and so far I’ve not seen any replies to that, but I’m just a deconvert and don’t subscribe to journals or anything.

    Even if it’s not related to your book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Disagreeable Me

      Does he call beings with free will more valuable?

      But I’m not convinced that the goodness of God is an argument against free will. Goodness relates to the outcomes you value, and I’m not sure any of us are really free in that sense.

      Can you choose to value grief over joy? Perhaps you can, but if you couldn’t I wouldn’t think this means you don’t have free will.

      In the same way, God may not be able to choose to value evil outcomes more than good outcomes, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have free will.

      (BTW I’m an atheist but I like to be confident when criticising religion that my arguments are reasonable so I often find myself in the position of Devil’s advocate)

      • John

        I like to say that the supposed Christian god doesn’t have Free Will with respect to morality, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess a kind of Free Will (a christian could argue that god could have made roses blue instead of red, etc).

        That said, Plantinga does state that “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.” in his Free Will defense to the Problem of Evil.

        • Disagreeable Me

          Fair enough.

          I can attempt a defence, because I’ve been thinking about it since I posted.

          Firstly, I can’t defend the concept of libertarian free will because I find it to be incoherent. I just can’t make sense of it.

          But I can defend what Platinga said from the point of view of compatibilist free will.

          In my view, if we didn’t have free will in the compatibilist sense, we would be mindless automatons. We would be like philosophical zombies, having been scripted by God to do and say certain things.

          This is because I believe that our sense of consciousness arises as an emergent property of the fact that we have a mind which is thinking about decisions and courses of action. If we did not have compatibilist free will, there would be no such minds, and we would merely be sock puppets for God. As such, our welfare would be of no importance.

          Therefore if we are to truly exist as independent beings of any consequence, then we must at least have free will in the compatibilist sense. This unfortunately leaves the door open to evil.

          However, we might suppose that a good God would have designed our minds so that we are naturally predisposed to be good rather than evil. This does seem to be the case for most of us. What remains puzzling is why it does not seem to be the case for all of us.

          • John

            I’m not sure that defense holds, since we could have been created in the exact image of god – free in the same respects that he can be said to have free will, but not in the sense that we have the capacity to do evil (as he is purported to not be able to do).

          • Disagreeable Me

            I don’t disagree with you.

            I’m just trying to defend the viewpoint that it is better to create creatures with free will but who occasionally commit evil rather than creating creatures with no free will (sock puppets) who commit no evil.

            That free will does have value, in other words.

    • josh

      This is an important angle I think when dealing with Christians (or most any of the Abrahamic religions.) Either god has free will, in which case we cannot have faith that he won’t decide to do arbitrarily evil things in the future (or didn’t do them in the past); or god has free will but he will never do anything evil, in which case free will is no defense against the problem of evil; or god does not have free will, in which case it can’t be much of a good and why would you worship an automaton anyway?

      Similarly for the afterlife: Do you lose your free will when you go to heaven, or do angels go on sinning but it’s no barrier to eternal salvation and perfect bliss?

      • Disagreeable Me

        Yeah, you and John are talking me around. I think your second possibility defeats my defence of the argument.

        If it makes sense for God to have free will but no ability to commit evil because he is perfectly good, and if God is omnipotent, why couldn’t he have created us to be just as perfectly good with free will?

        It’s a difficult one for the theist to get out of. They could probably utter some waffle about how God can only be perfectly good because he is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent etc. They might argue that it would be logiclaly impossible for him to make us with these attributes because then we would be gods and there can only be one God by definition.

        I don’t buy that but I imagine that’s the kind of argument that might be advanced by someone like William Lane Craig.

      • John

        The argument with the afterlife is what finally deconverted me.

        If there’s no free-will in heaven, then why was humanity created with it in the first place? What’s the value?

        If there is free-will in heaven, then how are its occupants guaranteed never to sin or feel pain again?

        This then goes back to why hell would be created, or why creation would happen at all if god already knew creation would entail sin, then hell, etc.

        • Disagreeable Me

          The inconsistencies of very specific claims such as the afterlife being perfect don’t really impress me much.

          It’s always possible that religion gets some of the details wrong. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

          The kind of reasons why I never really believed in God (even as a child with moderately religious parents in a religious society) is that there is plainly no good reason to believe in him.

          That and I’m a natural contrarian.

  • Disagreeable Me

    I’m not convinced that Platinga’s argument is really as dependant on libertarian free will as it may seem.

    It may be that it is impossible to create a society of deterministic compatibilist free will humans where individuals do no evil. This is not obviously true, but I can’t see how you could prove it is false.

    The word “humans” is pertinent though. If God had created us to be more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees then perhaps there would be less evil.

    • josh

      Just a general comment about these kinds of arguments: Your hypothetical defense (I realize it may not be a position you actually hold) is that it may be impossible to have a world with some kind of free will and NO evil. Lots of similar defenses have been put out their– “blah blah you can’t PROVE that SOME kind of evil wouldn’t slip in SOMEWHERE…”, but that’s far too high a burden of proof on the non-believer. (Even if I think those defenses don’t work anyhow.)

      To address the problem of evil, a believer would have to show that a world with even slightly less evil than the actual world we see would somehow eliminate free will or whatever abstract good is supposed to outweigh the bad. That’s what concrete examples like the murder of children bring to light. A believer literally has to believe that this is the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds”.

      • Disagreeable Me

        You’re absolutely right.

        I don’t agree with Plantinga’s argument at all. I only ask that criticisms of it be valid.

        I think that any argument which asserts that no evil is necessary is probably dubious. I think that it is probably necessary that there be some modest amount of evil in the world if God wants to take a hands off approach, minimising intervention (because less intervention may be to the good).

        However it really is hard to see why he couldn’t have created us to be more inclined to compassion and morality. Hence the comment about bonobos and chimps.

        • rayndeonx

          A fascinating line of argument taking to task the concept of free will theodicies is to pose the problem of Heaven. Most theists who care about these issues at all also believe in a Heaven and obviously, no one actually does anything wrong there. In fact, it is impossible anyone does anything wrong there because there is no possible world where a person is in Heaven and commits some evil act, no matter how minor. Yujin Nagasawa and others have used this to motivate doubt about the supposed greatness of freedom in free will theodicies if theists are apparently willing to accept a lack of it in Heaven.

          The proposed existence of Heaven, moreover, would seem to motivate modal possibility of beings who freely never go wrong with respect to any action whatsoever.

          And independent of that, is that it seems to me that beings who never do wrong are clearly possible. Obviously, God Himself is one such entity (in philosophical theism anyway) and so it seems plausible God can instantiate beings who never do wrong, but either (a) do not morally surpass God in axiological status (i.e. they do no evil, but they don’t necessarily achieve a maximum of good) and (b) do not possess the other sorts of properties God would have i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc. Or so it seems to me.

  • DPirate

    Our perceptions are finite. Our perspective is severely limited. What seems evil to us may, in the grand scheme of things, be actually not evil. Consider a child who is disciplined by his parent. Surely the child, in his limited understanding, considers it unjust.

    • rayndeonx

      I think the problem with this sort of reply (basically the skeptical theist response) is that the skepticism runs too deep: it leads to moral skepticism about all claims and arguably even global skepticism as well. If, when cognizing on the horrific scale and quantity of suffering in the world, are willing to accept to that there may exist morally sufficient reasons beyond our ken, then how can we pass moral judgement on any act whatsoever? Suppose you find someone drowning in a lake. Given skeptical theism, you have no reason to suppose that there is not some morally sufficient why God would have arranged state of affairs in such a way, and hence, there is no moral force to motivate saving said person.

      This has been met with a number of objections, most of which I find unconvincing. One common objection is that people claim to have been commanded by God via scripture to prevent such actions. But, this itself is problematic. First, who’s scripture and according to what interpretation. Given the vast varieties of theism, it is difficult to discern what God’s prescriptions really are. Even more to the point, how can one determine if God’s supposed prescriptions are not deception (i.e. the Binding of Issac/Ishmael in Christian and Muslim traditions respectively) in order to elicit some further greater good?

      Another worry concerns contingent events. Take the act of rape for instance. John raping Mary is a putatively contingent event – in some worlds, it occurs, in others, it doesn’t obtain. But, it seems that both are compatible with the existence of God, granting skeptical theism. But then, either the act of rape or refraining from it both would have morally sufficient reasons that lead to the highest good, something so great that it outweighs any putatively evil act. Then, there is no longer any real moral difference between say, torture or something as banal as picking your nose since *either would lead to the greatest good*. In this sense, skeptical theism collapses into moral nihilism of the worst sort. A way out is to affirm Leibniz’s precept that this world is in fact the best possible world. Ignoring that this seems to be quite flatly wrong, this has serious modal consequences: most theists who care about these issues are also Anselmian theists. That view then has the consequence that there is exactly one possible world, namely this one, eliminating modality altogether. And that seems an even higher price to pay.

      This is where I think you can make an argument that the skeptical theism invoked would lead to a global skepticism as well, since there is no reason to suppose that God’s purposes or understanding in anyway coheres with our supposed view. Why suppose that the entire business with Jesus or with the idea of Heaven is within God’s plan? Perhaps his purposes have nothing at all to do with what we suppose. Some people might object that God wouldn’t deceive us – but why suppose even that, if you are willing to grant that putatively immoral events are not within our ken to judge?* And if are willing to allow that, why suppose that God actually satisfies the properties we think he does: omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection, etc, since we have no reason to suppose that his deceiving us wouldn’t have some morally sufficient reason? So, I think this line of reasoning leads to a radical moral skepticism and arguably, straight into global skepticism.

      Finally, on an abductive version of the problem of evil, skeptical theism seems hopeless by itself. The world seems much better explained on an atheistic hypothesis then the theistic one. To save the apparent conflict between evil and God, the theistic hypothesis must be rescued by adding what is a hopelessly ad hoc supposition. More importantly, this move robs theism of any explanatory power whatsoever since nothing can be garnered as to the actual motivations of God. We cannot even suppose, for instance, that God would favor life-permitting universes, so in a very real sense, skeptical theism would stand in stark conflict with a fine-tuning argument. The theistic hypothesis then would be compatible with any data, but a hypothesis that is compatible with anything explains nothing.

      *It seems to strange to assert that God has no difficulty allowing rape, torture, genocide etc, or even bringing it about directly in some cases (i.e. in natural disasters or according to scripture), but then to assert that he is incapable of deception.

      • DPirate

        You guys sure like to worry over stuff!

    • Patrick

      That’s a fancy way of saying that God might be evil.

      • DPirate

        Depends on your perspective, again. Was your life worth your death? Death and suffering are a feature, not a bug.

        • Patrick

          Ok, see, this is kind of the problem with Christianity. There’s an unbearable lightness to it all.

          First you assert this

          “Our perceptions are finite. Our perspective is severely limited. What seems evil to us may, in the grand scheme of things, be actually not evil. Consider a child who is disciplined by his parent. Surely the child, in his limited understanding, considers it unjust.”

          And obviously there’s no reason that’s a one way street in which people mistake good things as being evil. Consider the calf who is well fed by his owner. Surely the calf, in his limited understanding, might consider it loving… until his throat is slit and his body consumed.

          This is a fairly obvious implication of the position you’re taking- if we can’t tell good from evil due to our limited perspectives, then we can’t tell evil from good. I point this out, and you reply:

          “Depends on your perspective, again. Was your life worth your death? Death and suffering are a feature, not a bug.”

          Suddenly you can tell good from evil again! And the only thing that changed was which position you felt would most easily get you past the most recent thing someone posted!

  • DonDueed

    Plantinga’s argument (as I understand it) seems to rely on the notion that free will is the highest value in the Creator’s view. This appears to conflict with the near-universal notion that God is loving and despises human suffering. Instead, Plantinga argues that God is willing to allow endless sacrifices on the altar of free will.

    Leaving aside the thorny issues like the definition of free will and the ability of humans to discern the nature of God, why would any God worthy of respect not be willing to dial back on the free will slider in order to reduce the suffering index? Does this universe represent the optimal setting as determined by an omniscient creator’s pre-creation simulation runs? If so, I shudder to imagine the universes that were rejected.

    Perhaps if the Multiverse concept is true, each bubble universe represents a different suite of settings that God is trying out. But that isn’t consistent with the idea of an omniscient being who can see the consequences of each tweak in advance.

    [Atheist non-philosopher here, so I'm sure my thoughts are trivial and unsophisticated. Fun ideas to play with, anyhow.]

  • Bill Occam

    Nice chapter. You asked for feedback, so I thought I would provide my input.

    I don’t think the considerations you’ve brought up are at all decisive against theism. While we may not be able to justify every evil event in the world in terms of a greater good, there are certainly enough cases in which we *can* do this to warrant inferring that there are also explanations for cases in which we cannot.

    Even in the cases you cite in your letter, a rape and murder, there are some indications that a greater good was served by the deaths of the victims. There is the pleasure of the rapist and murderer, which must count for something, and both cases surely led to a greater awareness about the possibility of rapes and murders in the community.

    (One sadly typical response to the sort of argument I’ve made here is to discourage inquiry into the problem of evil altogether by calling the theist who offers an explanation for the existence of a given evil, twisted. This move is not only irrelevant to the quality of the argument, but evasive and intellectually dishonest, so I hope you will not opt for it.)

    • Chris Hallquist

      Is this a poe? Seriously.

      I hope it is. Because otherwise…

      I’m not even going to finish this comment, because I don’t want to think about it.

      • Bill Occam

        I’m not a Poe, and I don’t know why you chose to accuse me of such a thing rather than address my argument. I have respect for your thoughtful atheism and I have benefited from your articles in the past, so I assume you have a good reason for ignoring my reasoning.

    • Chris Hallquist

      P.S. this is relevant.

      • Bill Occam

        The article in your link contained this passage.

        “I think insults aren’t always inappropriate. Creationists and homophobes, for example, tend to make revealingly bad arguments. In critiquing these arguments, we first aim to show why the conclusion doesn’t follow. But we are also in a position to draw a conclusion about the character of the person advancing the argument. Many arguments are so bad that they could not be honestly made by any informed rational person. Thus anyone who makes them must be either stupid, ignorant, or dishonest. In the course of criticising such an argument, a partisan may wish to point this out, just to emphasize how incredibly bad the argument really is. I don’t think it’s necessary wrong to do so. Some positions are so lacking in rational warrant that they deserve our scorn.”

        So now I’m in the same category as a creationist or homophobe because I tried to inquire into the problem of evil? I tried to reconcile the evil in the world with my belief in God, and that makes me stupid, ignorant, and dishonest?

        You’re better than this, Mr. Hallquist.

  • Disagreeable Me

    There is the pleasure of the rapist and murderer, which must count for something,

    I winced when I read this.

    I believe you would get torn apart for this statement if you had put it in a more active comments thread. This benefit is negligible at best, or to most people a bad thing, as we do not generally think rewarding rapists is a good thing.

    Much better I’d say to leave this out of your argument entirely and try to think of other reasons why it might be for the greater good.

    • Bill Occam

      Thanks, although this is more along the lines of advice about rhetorical strategy than a serious objection to the substance of the argument.

    • rayndeonx

      Usually under ordinary morality, the pleasure the wrongdoer obtains or the freedom the wrongdoer exercises is assigned no weight or merit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a theistic philosopher argue that the pleasure rapists or murderers might obtain would contribute to a morally sufficient reason and I’m surprised it was even tangentially supported on this thread at all.

  • mnb0

    Wow, this article is not straightforward at all. Sure, the point you make is, but not the way you make it. In fact you recognize this yourself when you write that you are going to repeat yourself. Think about it, the justification you give is quite lame. It means that the chapter is badly structured. That means it can be rewritten without too much effort as soon as you have thought out a better structure. Here is my proposal.
    1. Begin with describing the people whom your open letter is addressed at. Refer others – deists, Zoroastrians, worshippers of the Ancient Greek gods (they exist!) – to a next chapter. Don’t explain why your letter is not for them. Save that ammo for that next chapter.
    2. Describe the case of the little girl. You might refer to Dostojevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov here. I don’t think anything wrong with his (or rather Alyozya’s) emotional approach of a similar case.
    3. Formulate precisely your questions related to that case.
    4. Comment on your questions. Thus you don’t have to reformulate your questions over and over again.
    5. Give a link or an email-address (I only bring this up just in case).

    I think this will improve this chapter considerably.

    • Chris Hallquist

      You’re welcome to try to persuade that I should rewrite the chapter as you suggest, but I’m currently not sold.

      One secret I need to let you in on is this: while I’ve given up on finding the magic words that will force every believer to recognize there is no god, this chapter wasn’t purely about asking questions. I was actually trying to get believers to see what’s wrong with a great many common responses to the problem of evil. Hence the desire to explicitly address a lot of common misunderstandings.

      And I think it worked pretty well, given that my one grad school friend who gave me his response in person was clearly shaken by it. I consider that being a case of the letter working as intended. Though it would be nice to have responses from a greater range of theists who I know to be smart folk.

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