God-Belief and its Problems (by Jeff Cook)

This post is a series by Jeff Cook.

Socrates said, “Philosophy begins with wonder” and nearly all human beings at all times have looked at the world around them and, given its beauties, powers, and complexities, asked if what they saw was designed by a mind for a purpose. I think it is vitally important to think hard about God. Whether or not you are a committed atheist, a believer in God, or something quite different—knowing why you come down where you do is a mark of a good character, of a thoughtful soul, of a person who cares about what reality is like.

I love Top 10 lists. I will watch “The Top 10 Doily-Knitters of All Time” if its on. This post continues a set of two Top 10 lists: for and against God-belief. I write these lists as a theist, as one who believes in God (though that may change by the end), and the arguments below are the ones from which I feel the most pull and seem to capture the rationality for rejecting God belief best.

The best reason to believe in God are coming, but for now what I’d like to hear in response is: Are there good responses that I don’t include? Which of these arguments do you find the most compelling? Which one’s give you pause, or have actually swayed your thinking? Do I pitch the arguments well, or could you state these arguments in a more compelling way?

And of course the real question—Did I get the list right?

Here’s the recap:

#10 – The Logical Problem of Pain

#9 – The Argument from Believers

#8 – No Good Gods

We move to #7 – Evidential Problem of Pain

  1. The type and quality of pain in our world makes the existence of a supremely good and powerful God less likely.
  2. The type and quality of pain in our world constitute evidence against the existence of God that outweigh the totality of available evidence for the existence of God.

On balance, we have a good reason not to believe in a God.

Ah. This argument is stated in a way that is more cutting than the Logical Problem of Pain. It is not as decisive as the Logical Problem—relying on premise 2, which needs significant argumentation to back it up. However, there are many who—at the end of the day—do not think that the arguments for God belief (which we will hit soon) are all that compelling. For those in that spot, this argument can pull one from agnosticism to atheism.

As I argued with Reason #10, I suggest that arguments based on “meaning” and “quality” are not merely value judgments which need substantive support, but that those who affirm such arguments may not have all the necessary information presently to make such value judgments. For example, there are some pains in our world that appear to be meaningless given their type and quality, but after many years may be seen as great goods: the bitter divorce of one’s parents, the birth of an autistic son, the bankruptcy of one’s family, the lose of a spouse. In retrospect such pains are never enjoyable at the time, but may have soul-building power and value in both the life of the one suffering and those who affected on the sidelines.

#6 – Power and Goodness

  1. If God exists, he is both all-powerful and all-good.
  2. An all-good being can only preform good acts.
  3. A being that can preform both evil and good acts is more powerful than a being who can only preform good acts.
  4. Therefore, a being cannot be both all-powerful and all-good.

God cannot exist.

Which is more powerful a god who can (1) only do good, (2) only do evil, or (3) can do both good and evil? It seems the god who accomplish both good and evil acts has the most potential power, and as such the very notion of a being who is both all-good and all-powerful is internally problematic.

Aquinas pitches this problem and then answers it by saying that goodness is defined by function (Aristotle). A barber aims at cutting hair well, and a “good” barber always achieves his goal. Conversely, a “bad” barber aims at cutting hair well, but lacks the power to pull it off. God, being all-powerful (and all-wise), knows what he ought to do and has the power to accomplish his tasks, and as such is a “good” God. If God failed to achieve his aims, and thus act badly, it would not be a display of power but a display of weakness.

As such, Aquinas concludes that the most powerful being imaginable must be exceedingly good.

#5:  Design Flaws

  1. If God exists, he is an excellent architect of our world.
  2. The function of a human being is to attain happiness (Aristotle).
  3. If God is the architect of our world, God has made us to seek and attain happiness.
  4. Our world is poorly constructed for humans to attain human happiness.
  5. Therefore there is not an excellent architect of our world.

Therefore, no God.

This is my take on an argument from David Hume in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume has a great deal of fun arguing for Premise 4 citing “four unnecessary miseries”: the existence of physical pain, our world being governed by law and not miracle, God didn’t give us what we needed to be happy morally and intellectually (that is, human beings just aren’t that impressive), and the fragile nature of our world. Hume doesn’t think this disproves the existence of a creator, but he does argue that the creator is certainly indifferent, and as such God, a supremely good being, does not exist.

It seems to me this argument hinges on the idea of human happiness. If happiness means pleasure—as it often did for David Hume—I think the argument works. If the argument means goodness of soul—as it did for Aristotle—the argument fails, for I think it can be argued strongly that the difficulties we experience have a spectacular ability to fashion and shape our souls.

The list will conclude next time, but I must include an “Also Ran” category:

The Best Humorous Argument Against God’s Existence: The Ontological Argument for God’s Non-Existence

(1)     God can do the most marvelous acts imaginable.

(2)     The creation of our world is one of the most marvelous acts imaginable.

(3)     The merit of such an act is the product of its quality and the creator’s ability (That is, the greater the disability of the creator, the more impressive the act).

(4)     Non-existence would be the greatest handicap.

(5)     The creation of our universe by a non-existent creator would be a more marvelous act than the creation of our universe by an existent creator.

(6)     A non-existent creator of our universe can do more marvelous acts than a creator which exists.

Therefore, If God can do the most marvelous acts imaginable, God does not exist.

A version of this argument comes from the Australian philosopher Douglas Gasling. It seems logically impossible in my mind for a non-existent being to do anything, and therefore Premise 5 and 6 fail because they reference an impossible state of affairs.

(The list will continue soon…)

JEFF COOK teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in (Subversive 2012). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. www.everythingnew.org

 

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Adam

    Jeff,

    I’ve thought of something that you might add to your list. I started reading The Elegant Universe by Brian Green (a book on string theory). He’s just finished describing the 4 fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, weak, and strong force. If these are the only 4 forces in existence how does God interact with reality? How can the supernatural happen if there is no mechanism for the supernatural to engage with the natural?

    Maybe you have a better way of phrasing this question.

    Adam

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Adam (1). It seems to me we experience the supernatural interacting with the physical all the time if you believe your mind is more than chemical motion in your skull.

    How that happens may be mysterious, but we do experience it.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    For example, there are some pains in our world that appear to be meaningless given their type and quality, but after many years may be seen as great goods

    Along these lines, Richard Swinburne argues that evil must exist for the goods of courage, penitence, etc. to exist.

    Courage and fortitude are – absolutely – virtues in our world. No argument there. This world is better for having them, and would be a really terrible place without them. But that’s this world. In heaven, there won’t be any concentration camps, right? So the trait of ‘being willing to risk yourself to save people from concentration camps’ would not be of any use, would make zero difference. Is courage still a good if there is no call for it? For people in heaven, courage will be superfluous for nothing will be at risk. Indeed, so far as I can see, every single ‘good’ highlighted by Swinburne – “courage… compassion, sympathy, penitence, forgiveness, reform, avoidance of repetition” – will be, according to every conception of heaven I’ve ever encountered, utterly unnecessary.

    Why are traits which are so completely unnecessary to life in heaven supposed to be the hallmarks of those going there? How important are these ‘goods’ – how much of a justification for evil do they provide – if they are ultimately irrelevant to life in eternity? (Or, more disturbingly, what does it say about what life in heaven is like if those traits are vital? Or is life in heaven ultimately meaningless, in the exact same way it’s claimed a paradise on Earth would be?)

  • John L

    Jeff, a central problem of the belief/non-belief duality, I suggest, is that it confuses the propositional (logic, reason, belief) with the embodied (love, charity, peace-making, forgiveness, goodwill towards enemies, ideals in action…). Atheists hear pious words, but sense little empathy, and so reject God. I don’t blame them. McLuhan’s aphorism comes alive in this context — it’s far more about the heart of the messenger than the logic of the argument.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    John L (4) Would you suggest there is no reason to think about such arguments?

  • John L

    @3Ray – good thoughts on the paradox of duality. Gen3:5 suggests that “garden” is w/o duality (no knowledge of good, no knowledge of evil). If we had to pick the #1 overarching theme of the OT+NT, perhaps it would be “getting back to the garden” — or recovering a non-dualistic existence. Descriptions of “heaven” and “garden” suggest non-duality as normative, Jn17 personified, or in quantum language, equilibrium.

  • John L

    @5 Jeff, “Would you suggest there is no reason to think about such arguments”

    No, I would not suggest that. But I think religion gets stuck in argument-as-truth.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook
  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    I think that these arguments do a great job combating the idea that a certain all good God all powerful God exists In fact, I agree with them. The problem is that the go they argue against is not similar to the God manifested in Christ.

    Yes, God is all good, all Love, all powerful; but, what does it mean to say that h is powerful? Does not Christ reveal that strength lies in weakness, victory in crucifixion, life in death? If Christ is truly the pure manifestation of God, then we should not be trying to argue that God is all powerful, in the way that we naturally conceive power. The power wielded by God is a deeper more powerful power than the ability to coerce and manipulate creation into Goodness. His power is such that by his own death, he empowers others to live, love, and die for yet others that they may have the same.

    We need to be VERY careful that we are actually arguing for a God who looks like Christ. We will never convince the world that a good God is in control of everything that happens to them unless we can show that he is in control because he himself has been subjected to the suffering and death and shown that life is possible if death and pain can be entered into with love and compassion for others suffering the same.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    To follow up, we need to also be humbly open to the possibility (or fact?) that it may be impossible for logical arguments to convince anyone that life and happiness rise out of giving them up personally for the good of others. It doesn’t make any sense until someone gives the self up for you.

    All things are possible, but our primary refutation of logical arguments cannot be based on overpowering and overwhelming their arguments with “better” ones. The goal should be understanding the heart of WHY people make these arguments in the first place and enter into their mindset, showing them th love of Christ in our charity.

  • John

    @8Jeff, “did you see these posts a few months ago?”

    I just read them. Good stuff. My favorite line: “pursuits of the heart are more important than rational deductions and one’s ontology.”

    A.W. Tozer said, “If someone can talk you into Christianity, someone can talk you out of it.” That statement becomes more profound every time I hear it.

  • Tom F.

    “For example, there are some pains in our world that appear to be meaningless given their type and quality, but after many years may be seen as great goods: the bitter divorce of one’s parents, the birth of an autistic son, the bankruptcy of one’s family, the lose of a spouse. In retrospect such pains are never enjoyable at the time, but may have soul-building power and value in both the life of the one suffering and those who affected on the sidelines.”

    I think an important aspect of this argument hinges on the the possibility of “soul-building” power. I think what is needed to be recognized is that, on their own, some things are actually soul-destroying. For example, child abuse is not only painful, but crippling. This sort of pain and suffering inhibits those who are suffering from developing properly. The unfortunate thing about human

    I think the important thing is that some suffering is not meaningful, but simply needs to be healed. Jesus did not try and make meaning of all of the suffering that he encountered; instead, some of it was simply healed, with the promise that this suffering will not be present in the coming kingdom. This kind of suffering is simply undone , people are restored, and shalom is present where it was absent.

    On the other hand, some suffering is meaningful, especially as human beings have the relational, emotional, and spiritual capacity to grow, learn, and work to make that suffering meaningful. But I think an important point is that none of these outcomes are inherent in the suffering itself.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    John (11) Solid quote!

  • JamesB

    In thinking through these few posts, I’m recalling that I didn’t concern myself too much with proofs for or against God’s existence until after I realized I no longer believed, and even then it was only for curiosity’s sake.

    What really led to my eventual non-belief was the answer to one basic question: If God exists, why should I be afraid to honestly explore the possibility that he doesn’t? And I don’t mean going on some sort of fact finding, apologetic mission. I mean really confronting what it would mean if he didn’t exist and WHY that scared me so much.

    To make a really long story short, I realized that I primarily believed because I was afraid of what the alternative was. Once I realized that the alternative wasn’t as bad as I thought it was (and is in many ways better), only then was I able to honestly analyze proofs such as this.

    I’m not saying my experience or opinion is true of everyone, but I think arguments such as these more often than not simply serve as a means of confirmation bias for either side of the issue.

  • JamesB

    John L (4),

    You say, “Atheists hear pious words, but sense little empathy, and so reject God.”

    I can’t speak for all atheists, but I would say that atheists see just as much or more empathy in people with no religious beliefs and realize God is not necessary.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    JamesB @14: I am appreciating your views in this series of posts, James. Thank you.

    A question, if I may. I believe the Christian faith rests on historical events. If they didn’t happen, there simply is no Christianity. May I ask of you your understanding of the resurrection? and if you believe it didn’t occur, how do you explain the shift in Judaism in the 1st century?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
    Thanks, James.

  • Marcus C

    re #6 – Power and Goodness

    “Aquinas pitches this problem and then answers it by saying that goodness is defined by function (Aristotle). A barber aims at cutting hair well, and a “good” barber always achieves his goal. Conversely, a “bad” barber aims at cutting hair well, but lacks the power to pull it off. God, being all-powerful (and all-wise), knows what he ought to do and has the power to accomplish his tasks, and as such is a “good” God. If God failed to achieve his aims, and thus act badly, it would not be a display of power but a display of weakness.

    As such, Aquinas concludes that the most powerful being imaginable must be exceedingly good.”

    So basically “good” = “effective”… God is all-powerful and “all-effective”?

    Just curious, (and I apologize if this is off-topic) but where does love fit into this? For example, would a better translation of 1 John 4:8 be “God is effective”? I guess I always thought God being all-good meant he was all-loving…

  • John L

    @17Marcus – “…where does love fit into this?”

    Perhaps love is the personified OT+NT metaphor of garden, heaven, unity, no turning, no shadow, first cause, etc.. Love is not bound to the knowledge of good and evil. Maybe this is what Paul was sensing in 1Cor13:8. Every belief and theology, every precept upon precept we hold, will fail. But love is the non-dependent, eternal fabric of the universe, and will never fail. Some embrace Jesus as the personification of this love.

    @15JamesB – Following this same idea, if “God is love” then such love becomes humanity’s most important idea. If God is religion, then it is something other than love, and will fail.

  • JamesB

    Trin (16),

    There are a many solid arguments against the resurrection that can be found if one I willing to look. As I am not a historian, I will simply give a few reasons off the top of my head as to why the resurrection story isn’t compelling.

    1) I see no modern day evidence of any sort of supernatural events occurring, specifically resurrections
    2) A shift in religious or cultural belief is not evidence that a supernatural ever occurred. History is replete with stories of people shifting loyalties to follow a religious leader. Should I believe an angel appeared to Joseph Smith because the new religion of Mormonism was formed?
    3) The idea of a god who demands a blood sacrifice is an ancient idea that is actually quite repugnant when one thinks about it critically from an aesthetic distance.

    Maybe this will help: as a Christian, my whole world hinged on provable facts. If they were false, my world would crumble. As an atheist, my goal is simply to be less wrong about things. In fact, when I’m afraid I might be wrong about something I have found it’s usually a good sign that I am. Just ask my wife. ;-)

  • JamesB

    John (18),

    As one who doesn’t believe in God at all, I still see love as one of humanity’s most important ideas. I seek to love others and instill love in my children. I see how being unloving hurts those around me. I’m not seeing were God enters into that equation. Can you please explain further? Thanks.

  • JamesB

    Trin (16),

    Forgive the typos in my last reply. My phone has a mind of its own sometimes.

    One more problem just occurred to me. If all of history and the salvation of mankind (depending on your soteriology) hinges on believing in the resurrection of Christ, why would God not come up with a better plan for making this clear to everyone than trusting it to a written record that is nearly 2000 years old and humans who can’t ever seem to agree completely on exactly what message that record is trying to convey?

    Again, these are just off the top of my head. None of them alone is a reason why I don’t believe, but I wanted to answer your question as honestly as possible. If I sound flippant in any way, it’s not intended. Thanks for the interest.

  • Jon G

    JamesB in #14…I resinate with your story, although I have come back to belief in God.

    Thank you for sharing it and for your comments in this series.

    Jon G

  • JamesB

    Jon G (22),

    Thanks for your kind words.

    For the record, I have zero problems with someone believing in God. My best friend and most of my family still do. It only bothers me when someone judges me for not believing in their God, but in general I don’t see that here which is why I still stop by for the conversation.

  • Adam

    @JamesB

    In Post #19 you made a statement “1) I see no modern day evidence of any sort of supernatural events occurring, specifically resurrections”

    How does that observation match with my question in post 1 and Jeff’s response in post 2?

  • John L

    @20JB – “I’m not seeing were God enters into that equation.”

    At some point, labels become meaningless. I know both theists and non-theists who cultivate a forgiving heart, who seek peace with enemies, who would give their life for their friends. We can point to myriad examples throughout history of Christ-like people of all religions, and no religion. I don’t care what proxies, creeds, or tribal handshakes people use to define themselves. In the end, it’s the content of their heart that defines who they are. (Tangentially, I don’t know anyone who embodies a Christ-like life who doesn’t also resonate with the story of Jesus – any examples?).

  • JamesB

    Adam (24),

    I’m struggling to see what it is that you are asking me. Do you have a more specific question in mind?

  • Adam

    James,

    It’s about experiencing the supernatural. You made the statement that you see no supernatural events occurring and Jeff’s response is that we humans are an occurring supernatural event. How do you see that? Is the human mind merely a complex part of a deterministic system or is something else happening?

    If the human mind is not deterministic how do you then explain no supernatural events?

  • JamesB

    John L (25),

    I think we are having a problem with labels as well as definitions. When you said that atheists reject God, I was operating under the assumption that you had a certain definition of God which, upon reading subsequent posts, you don’t seem to have. We could spend all day on definitions, so I’m just going to retract my original statement as it doesn’t seem to apply to what you were actually saying. Apologies.

  • JamesB

    Adam (28),

    Thanks. That clears up the question.

    I said I see no supernatural events occurring, specifically resurrections. Do you have examples of modern day resurrections or something that is equivalent but has no natural explanation? If it’s simply a matter of interpreting personal experience, then we are at an impasse because no one person’s experience is any more valid than another’s.

    I see nothing in my experience that would cause me to define things that are “mysterious” or “something else” as supernatural. If scientists did that, we would still be in the dark ages.

    I don’t know if that answers the question or not. Maybe I’m still misunderstanding.

  • JamesB

    I just realized I used “experience” in a confusing manner. In the first paragraph I was referring to internal feelings and in the second I was referring to external events.

  • JamesB

    John L,

    Upon further reflection, I’m curious as to what you mean by “Christ-like”. Could you define two or three qualities that you associate with him or think are unique to him and then tell me why you think these are desirable or admirable? Thanks.

  • Adam

    James,

    I realize I left out the specificity of resurrection but it seemed appropriate to just use the general instead. I was mostly just curious about the extent of your thoughts of what is supernatural.

    I think where I might go with this is that human thought and action does not have a “natural” explanation. It’s really easy to mistake human thought as natural because it’s so ubiquitous but that would be a logical fallacy. If resurrections happened 3 or 4 times a day for thousands of years we would probably think of them as natural too. But when you really dive into the mechanics of it, we don’t have a natural explanation for how we humans think. Hence, the possibility of a supernatural component to humans and therefore a greater possibility of supernatural beings.

  • JamesB

    Adam (32),

    From what little I know of neuroscience, I do know that researchers are in the very early stages of really understanding how the brain works. So I would add the word “yet” to every statement you made that says we don’t understand how such-and-such works.

    Does that mean that absolutely we will have answers to all our questions someday about how the brain works? Maybe not. But I am reluctant to say something is mysterious and therefore supernatural, and I am thankful that scientists don’t either. Could you imagine where we would be today if they did?

  • JamesB

    I meant to add that “I don’t know” is also a perfectly acceptable answer in such situations. Introducing a God of the gaps or a supernatural explanation just convolutes things and still doesn’t really explain anything because then you have to explain the nature of the supernatural being and how you arrived at that explanatio


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