Dialogue with an Atheist on the “Basic” Issues

Dialogue with an Atheist on the “Basic” Issues November 27, 2018

Creation, Freedom, Rebellion, Suffering, Etc.

This exchange comes from the Debunking Christianity blog (my favorite atheist / agnostic haunt at the moment), from a discussion thread Daniel Morgan’s words will be in blue.

* * * * *

“God desired to love and be loved by other beings. God created human beings with this end in view. To make us capable of such fellowship, God had to give us the freedom to choose, since love cannot be either automatic or coerced. This sort of free will, however, entailed the danger that we would use it to go our own way in defiance of both God and our own best interests.”

[I think this is from Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga ]

This argument is well-known. I thought there was something I was missing. First, the question of how and why God would choose to create at all is a good one.

Yep, but not the topic at hand.

Perfection would only seek higher perfection, or maintaining its own perfection.

On what basis do you conclude that?

Why, if God foreknew all that was to come, did It then decide to disrupt the perfection of Its own existence by instantiating evil, pain, and suffering (choosing not to love God is not necessarily evil, by the way, that is an onus for the theist to show)? How is that plausible?

Existence is better than nonexistence. Creation allows more sentient beings to enter into love and the good things we know in life and to eternal life if all goes right. That’s self-evidently a good thing, just as when we are enjoying a baseball game (as when our Detroit Tigers took the pennant yesterday), we like it when more people share our enjoyment. This is why going to sports events or concerts are fun. Imagine sitting there all by yourself in the stands. Not quite the same, is it?

So I take existence as a good thing. The question then becomes: was the evil and suffering entailed by free will worth it, so that God could (or should) create? He thought so, and I believe in faith that it was good to create, based on many reasons I have to believe that He exists and that He is good. Not that it ain’t difficult to comprehend; very few Christians would say evil is not perplexing.

When I think of all the love and enjoyment and pleasure I receive from my wife and three sons and a daughter, it is immediately self-evident that they should exist rather than not exist. The more children the merrier. I love children. They bring joy to one’s life. But they are valuable in and of themselves, not simply because they bring me pleasure. That is just one benefit among many to their existing. Likewise, God and His creation. It’s better for you to be here than not be here. It’s better for me, and so forth. Therefore, creation itself was a good thing. The bad things do not outweigh it (so we believe).

God wanted to be loved so bad that It said, “Well, it’s worth having a few people suffer in torment for eternity if a few other people can live in paradise with me for eternity and worship me.”???

If you frame the issue in these ridiculous, caricatured terms, of course no one will believe it. But this isn’t serious analysis. If you think Christianity is that ridiculous why do you bother attempting to talk to a Christian at all? It’d be like me seeking out conversation with a flat-earther or someone who thinks he is Michelangelo, in a rubber room in a mental asylum. I have neither the desire nor the time to do that.

Freedom of will and freedom of action are two separate things. This is a serious refutation of the free will theodicy, as we can carefully go through and show that the freedom of action that humans possess to do evil is completely unnecessary and unrelated to the question of whether they will to love God (or not).

I see.

And, as I hinted above, God determines (supposedly) what is evil (eating the fruit), as well as the consequences thereof (or the method of redemption). Therefore, all of the things that the theist takes for granted from the Bible can be shown to be completely unnecessary and, in many ways, illogical for a creature that would want what is best for other creatures.

Unless I saw that argument, what could I say?

e.g. The idea of “original sin” and “federal headship” are taken for granted because they are the only way to make sense of how (supposedly) it is that we are affected and afflicted with evil when we do not have the same situation as our supposed perfect great-great-grandpa did. The question of fleshing out how fair or just this scenario is, relative to other scenarios (wherein God does not let Adam breed, and starts over, so that instead of “sin” affected roughly 15 billion people throughout earth’s history (or more), it only affects 2 people…We always take things for granted without remembering that God makes the rules (in your worldview) and holding God to making those rules which minimize pain, suffering, and evil . . .

And the conclusion is? Let me guess . . . . (drum roll) God doesn’t exist! Right!

Et cetera. We can examine all of these sorts of ancillary and contingency issues to see if they make sense and are consistent with perfection, omniscience, and omnipotence, and I find them quite lacking.

Yes we can, and many thoughtful people find theism perfectly plausible and atheism perfectly implausible. All we can do is keep making our arguments. But argument itself is not enough to convince an atheist. They need to be shown love. Say, if I saved your life at great risk to my own, or gave up something for your sake, then that might get you wondering, “why did he do that?” And I would say because it was right and because this is what God teaches me to do. Some profound event like that is what changes hearts and minds, usually. Not abstract argumentation.

Likewise, I think Christians become atheists oftentimes because they are sick of some hypocrisy among Christians that they see, or were treated abominably by professed Christians, or were in a corner of Christianity that doesn’t represent the mainstream and they got a wrong impression of the whole.

Further, the question of whether or not people in heaven can choose to love God, or will love God whether they want to or not, is always an interesting parallel: if they will love God eternally, and no second “fall” is possible, then I would argue this cannot be considered “free will”. If that is true (that there is no FW in heaven), then I would ask why it is that the price of FW (evil) is somehow “accounted for” on earth and for 70 years, but the price of FW (evil) is not “accounted for” in heaven?

I think this is an excellent aspect of the “problem” and one I wonder about a lot myself. At this point my understanding is that freedom need not involve the necessity of actual (or even potential?) contrary choice. Christians believe that the angels were created sinless and free, and most of them never rebelled. So they have remained sinless all this time since they were created. It is possible. We also believe God is free, but He not only never sins; He is unable to do so because this contradicts His own nature. Evil and sinning are not essential to the definition of freedom.

As for heaven, it is clear that God has to bring about a change in creatures so that there is no more sin (we Catholics think purgatory is the process by which that happens). The difference between heaven and this life is that we somehow “passed the test” of this life and achieved salvation with the necessary help of God’s grace, so that He can now transform us. We freely followed; then we were transformed and freely follow without sin henceforth. Therefore it wasn’t just a bunch of robots, where “following” is existentially meaningless.

God thought 70 years (or so) of FW was enough for humans to have, but then decided to make them into auto-God-loving-robots for eternity?

They’re not robots; that’s the whole point. They freely accepted God’s grace in this life so that they could make it to heaven in the first place, after having corporately rebelled against God (original sin). Now God gives them enough grace (having ceased their rebellion) to be both free and sinless again, as human beings were originally.

It is logically implausible. (note I’m not saying “impossible” – but it’s just not very believable)

I think it is quite difficult to comprehend and mysterious indeed, but it is not technically contradictory for a free creature to somehow never sin.

Evil resulting from present human choices and evil resulting from God’s present choices must also be addressed – natural evil. I know you mentioned you had a paper on this and I’ll try to get around to reading it.

Here is that paper. I argued that it is incoherent to argue on the one hand that God hardly ever (perhaps never) intervenes in natural law, but that He must intervene 10,000 times a second to prevent every imaginable human suffering. I think that is a silly notion of how the world sensibly operates. Rather, God lets the world go on as it does, with its natural laws, intervening only rarely in a miraculous way. We are responsible to make the world a better place.

We’re not a bunch of helpless babies, requiring our “daddy” (God) to do everything for us. Every baby reaches a place where it gets a diaper rash or gas pains or scrapes its knee or bumps its head on an end table corner. Parents can’t take that away. But they can comfort and understand the pain. Likewise, by analogy, with God and us.

We find that wills are acted on towards desires – that is, we will things that we desire. Human nature, supposedly perfect before some “fall” event, still had the desire to do the one and only thing God decided to make a violation of goodness (eating the fruit – it “looked good, etc.”).

The sin was rebellion against God. The word picture of fruit is only a means by which to illustrate that mankind decided to foolishly go its own way by not obeying the Creator. Again, it’s just like parents and children. We all understand this. Everyone knows that a mother and father have incomprehensibly more knowledge and wisdom than a one-year-old. You can tell a young child not to touch the flame on the stove or play with knives or put its head through a window, etc. Some will listen (we had great success with ours in that way) but some won’t and will do it, thinking they know better.

But yet when it comes to God, atheists can’t seem to comprehend that a Being of that sort, Who is omniscient, is infinitely above us. Why would we expect to understand everything about such a fabulous Being? But suppose this God chooses to communicate Himself to us in terms we can understand? So we believe God did so in history (with direct communication and miracles) and in the Bible.

God told the first humans to obey Him, because of Who He was and who they were. They chose not to. We believe that this rebellion was corporate in some mysterious sense, and that all mankind is involved in it. A cosmic change occurred.

But the principle behind it is as simple as understanding that a baby is utterly foolish to disobey his or her parents in simple matters of health and safety. They choose to obey by some intuitive sense (“this person feeds me and seems to love and care for me, so maybe I can trust them when they say I can’t do this thing that makes me curious and gives me a desire to do”) or disobey (“I know better than this big person. I don’t care if they feed and clothe me. So what? I’m gonna disobey them because I want to. Period.”).

It has been pointed out on here before that those desires are controlled by God,

They are, huh? So there is no free will and determinism is the thing?

and that although we are all free to cut off our own arm with a rusty saw blade, we choose not to act on that, because it conflicts with our desire to be pain-free and happy and functional.

Of course.

For whatever reason, you think it is more believable that God gave Adam and Eve some sort of “sin” to choose that was easy for them to want to choose. That makes little sense.

I just explained it. It is the irrationality and desire of a child that any parent is aware of. There is this desire for independence and thinking one knows better than the “guardian” that they happen to be left to deal with. Child to parent is as creature-human to God.

There is absolutely no good reason that God cannot say, “The only thing I don’t want you to do is cut off your own arm with a rusty spoon.” Choosing to allow freedom, and create a good/evil dichotomy, in such a way that lessens the likelihood that humans will fall into it and bring about all this pain and suffering is necessary for a good God.

As Alvin Plantinga has shown, it is impossible for even an omnipotent and good God to make a world with free will and make it impossible for there to be suffering and evil. He proves this by inexorable logic, not speculation. You disagree? Great; show me where his logic went astray.

I can go on and on,

So could I. I’ve already gone on and on here. LOL

but suffice it to say that I (and others) have thought much about this defense. In the end, although Plantinga presents us with something to try to excuse God for allowing evil, it just doesn’t stand up as believable an option (as some alternative options would be) under scrutiny.

“Believable” or “plausibility” is a subjective judgment involving premises which can themselves be questioned. We Christians have lots and lots of premises, and we build upon them. Most if not all premises can be questioned at some point, unless they are absolutely basic, or laws of logic or mathematics. This is true for atheists as well.

I have argued for years that we are all basically in the same epistemological boat. If you question my premises as an atheist, I can turn around and question yours. We can play that game all day. You will be in no better shape in the end than any Christian, and perhaps much worse off, and more inconsistent and incoherent, or left without meaning that can be objectively established.

Faith or some sort of inductive leap comes in, with any viewpoint. No exceptions. Now, how we arrive at our viewpoints despite this inability of everyone to construct an absolutely airtight, unquestionable system is what I find truly fascinating. Why does the atheist go the way he does, the Christian another way, a Buddhist a third way, etc.?

I know that many factors are involved. That is a given. But insofar as we can seek some epistemological super-reason for why people believe as they do, I would go again with Plantinga and his explanation of other minds and his contention that certain things (including belief in God) are “properly basic” and that it is not irrational to hold them as such.


(originally 10-15-06)

Photo credit: Andrea Lodi (12-10-07) [Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 license]


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