A Dialogue with Quixote, Part V

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part V June 1, 2009

Hello Quixote,

In reference to your list of reasons why people become atheists or theists, I have to disagree. I don’t think most of those are the initial reasons why people choose one or the other. Many of them are common causes that are frequently taken up by people on one side or the other, or are shared aspects of membership in those communities, it’s true. But I don’t think people become atheists because they have more fun than theists (although, if true, that might be a reason why people stay atheists), or that people become theists because of the sense of community they get from attending church (although, again, that might be a reason why they stay theists).

However, I would zero in one item of your second list, the first item: Most people who are theists were taught from childhood to believe that way. People do convert in adulthood, but we both know that that’s relatively rare. For the most part, the things that people were raised to believe are the ones that they end up believing for the rest of their lives.

Would you agree with that? If so, I’m curious how it influences your belief in the reasonableness of your faith. If you (or I) were raised in a predominantly Muslim country, we’d almost certainly be Muslims; if in a Buddhist country, we’d more likely be Buddhists. Do you think that should mean anything to people who live in a largely Christian country and are Christians themselves?

That this particular portion of my initial post would have garnered the interest it has baffles me, to be honest. I inserted it as almost an afterthought, because I suspect many theists use this awareness as a basis for God’s existence. I do not, nor am I the charismatic type Christian who would be prone to such experiences.

It doesn’t surprise me at all. I think that many atheists find this the most novel claim in the theist’s arsenal, as well as the one they’re personally least familiar with. And notwithstanding the fact that you don’t rely on it as the primary basis for your belief, I think most theists do. In fact, for many of them, I think it’s the first reason they would give.

From what you’ve said so far, this is a hard thing to describe. I accept that, but I’d like to explore it a little more, with your permission. I’ve had experiences that strike me as comparable, but maybe if we talk it over a bit more, we can see if we’re talking about the same thing. Here’s the most important thing I’m curious about: Is this sensation a continual awareness, or are there moments when it’s absent and others when it’s especially intense?

…how you would ever conclude that there is evil and injustice. If these things come about by accident, as you say, why would we consider them good? If they come about by random chance, where’s the injustice or the evil? Certainly you don’t conclude that there’s evil and injustice in the insect world, yet if we’re the same product of naturalism that the insect kingdom is, and there’s no higher authority overseeing our existence, why would we presume that there’s actual injustice or evil simply because we’re a more highly evolved lifeform with an emergent consciousness?

You’ve answered your own question, my friend. Insects are programmed by genes and instinct, and cannot choose in any meaningful way how to live their lives. But human beings are conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer our own behavior. That makes us moral agents who bear real responsibility for the actions we undertake. If we suffer harm that is not merited by our actions, then an injustice is done, even if it’s not done by someone. Similarly, a natural event may be good for us, in accordance with our reasons and desires, even if it was not caused by a conscious being. Our quest for justice is really the quest to impose a rational pattern on an irrational world, to bring the world into alignment with what a consideration of our reasons would suggest.

The primary cause of this wholesale withdrawal has been the inability for philosophers to demonstrate that God cannot possess a morally sufficient reason to permit evil.

With respect to the philosophers you cite, I don’t agree. Assuming evil is not an end in itself, the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end, some other goal that he desires. But if God is omnipotent, that can never be necessary. That’s what omnipotence means: an omnipotent being can directly actualize any logically possible state of affairs, and is not bound, as we are, by the necessity to use tools or contrivances.

If God wants to cross a river, he doesn’t need to create stepping stones in the water; he can just teleport to the other side. If God wants to start a fire, he doesn’t need matches or tinder; he just creates fire. I don’t think you would disagree with either of those statements. What grounds can there be for reaching a different conclusion in the case of evil?

I know the usual Christian response to this question is that true free will requires the ability to do wrong. But – not to preempt your reply – I don’t think that’s the one you’ll go for, unless I’ve misunderstood your views on the nature of humanity’s relationship to God. Of course, I await your reply to see I’ve gone astray!

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