A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VI

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VI June 16, 2009

To my friend Ebonmuse,

Offered with genuine respect to the readership and commentators of DA,

The presumption of atheism, the hiddenness of God, the Problem of Evil, the Euthyphro dilemma, epistemic warrant, Pascal’s wager, NOMA, Hume’s critique of the miraculous, the Kalam cosmological argument…

I’m near concluding that I’ve interacted with far more atheists — or perhaps far more atheists and agnostics of a different type than those who frequent internet blogs — than many here at DA. The man on the street who doubts God’s existence, or flat out denies Him, usually does so because his wife passed away unexpectedly, or because his neighbor attends church, presenting a holier-than-thou exterior while sleeping with another neighbor’s wife.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it’s a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand. It’s not at all likely to be mistaken, but I’m willing to listen…

In my experience, people prove more irrational than rational — not necessarily in an epistemological sense — in all matters of life, including their beliefs about God. I count myself among their number, admittedly. Hence, Ebon, we may have to ultimately disagree with regard to the primary reasons people believe or disbelieve.

I could very well be wrong, but I think this disagreement may stem from the premium placed upon rationality here. I applaud y’all for your single-mindedness aimed at Reason; however, I think the reasonable should acknowledge their frequent unreasonableness. It’s a human condition, not to mention the noetic effects of sin.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We’re all guilty of it, and I can’t speak for y’all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

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… Do you think that should mean anything to people who live in a largely Christian country and are Christians themselves?

Statistically, it’s an unavoidable conclusion that the older one becomes the less likely s/he will believe. I assume it’s the same with belief deconverting, but I’m not aware of any studies. I comprehend how the cultural particularism you cite supports your unbelief, and, in fact, now that I think about it, it’s another common reason for unbelief. We should incorporate it into the list.

But I don’t feel the weight of the objection. I prefer Calvinistic, and to a lesser degree, Molinistic theologies relating to the Christian God. Both of these systems do not posit that God calls every person in the same manner, nor do they posit that He is obligated to do so, for a variety of plausible reasons from both compatibilistic and libertarian viewpoints, respectively. For like and similar rationale, the hiddenness of God objection does not weigh heavily upon me.

Moreover, I’m pleased to report that Christianity is currently exploding worldwide. It is growing faster than at any time in its history. It is experiencing historic, unprecedented growth in Asia, Africa, and other places not normally associated with Christianity, as well as in Latin America. If current trends hold, the locus of Christianity may no longer reside as it traditionally has within Europe or North America. Thus, it may just turn out that all cultures are equally represented when it’s all said and done. I suspect we may already be nearing that balance right now.

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I’d also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Is this sensation a continual awareness, or are there moments when it’s absent and others when it’s especially intense?

I’ve never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There’s definitely times when it’s stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I’m figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I’ve got nothing to lose! I’d enjoy hearing of your comparable experience…

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.

I quite agree, Ebon, in spite of your usage of the word “rational,” and please believe me when I say that in the event there is no God, you’ve created as healthy an ethical system as I’ve encountered, and I’ll gladly sign the social contract with you. However, and I suspect you will agree with me, we still have significant differences here: objective moral values, ultimate responsibility, etc. I will say this, though, and I hope you accept it in the manner it’s intended: after reading you, and your commentators, for more than a year, it’s my distinct impression that you are more moral than “conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer [your] own behavior.” When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I’m not convinced yet that your and your commentator’s actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end, some other goal that he desires…What grounds can there be for reaching a different conclusion in the case of evil?

To borrow your quite clever phrase, my friend, you’ve answered your own question. This illustrates the reason you’ve reached your conclusion inductively, rather than deductively. It’s simply too heavy a burden to prove that God cannot have a morally sufficient reason for so doing. How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end? Certainly you wouldn’t claim to know everything God knows. I’m not certain you could successfully support this premiss with respect to an infinitely closer, finite authority to yourself, say, the US President — much less God.

Furthermore, I’d quibble a bit with your definition of omnipotence, and the ramifications thereof. I’d define omnipotence, non-technically, as God’s ability to execute or accomplish His holy will. It seems false to me to claim that God can directly actualize any logically possible state of affairs: for instance, it is a logically possible state of affairs that God does not exist!

When we entertain possible world semantics and modal logic, you’re correct in noting that the normative Christian answer revolves around free will. If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I’m on the side of reason here, I’ll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

But as you’ve noted, I’ve expressed concerns with the free will defense. I’m just not convinced libertarian freedom of the will is true. If it is, then the free will defense is widely accepted as successful by atheist and theist alike, as I noted in the last post. If not, then obviously I’ll have a more difficult time handling the POE.

So, I’ll be honest, and consider the POE without resorting to free will, even if it costs me some points. Evil is a great mystery—its origin, much more so than the POE itself, actually. This, I think, is related to Erika’s most thoughtful comment:

Quixote addressed the technical question of whether or not the problem of evil disproved God, but he never addressed the more interesting question of how goodness could provide evidence for God without evil presenting equally compelling evidence against God.

As I said in the beginning, it would be unreasonable for either of you to analyze every point made by the other, but if either you or Quixote find this asymmetry in the treatment of observations interesting, I would request that it be brought up again.

I do find it interesting, and would say in response that, to me, evil presents compelling evidence for God, rather than against Him:

P1 If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.

P2 Evil exists.

P3 Therefore, objective moral values exist (from P2)

C Therefore, God exists (MT, P1, P3)

To me then, the existence of evil deductively requires the conclusion that God exists. I readily acknowledge that this argument, though valid, is not sound for every rational agent. But for those of us who find the existence of objective moral values compelling, and their sole ground to be in God, the conclusion follows necessarily. Stated another way, for those of us to whom the premisses of this argument are even more plausible than their denials, the conclusion follows necessarily.

  • Furthermore, the background knowledge of Christianity blunts the force of the POE.
  • There’s always the possibility that a libertarian free will does in fact exist, thus explaining the existence of evil.
  • Christianity asserts that none of us are innocent, and, in actuality, we deserve any evil that comes our way. If Christianity is true, we don’t have much valid complaining available to us with regard to evil.

  • If Christianity is true, God in some sense became a sharer in the experience of evil in the person of Christ. Not only that, Christ experienced more evil bearing the sins of the world than any of us could hope to claim.
  • God could certainly choose to rid the world of evil; however, He’d have to remove all of us from the world to achieve that aim. Presumably, this is not the solution everyone wishes for.
  • Christianity provides answers for evil that do not obtain in naturalistic philosophies: 1) God will one day settle all scores; under naturalism, evil often prevails. 2) Evil may be viewed as true evil, and thus I can speak out against it and resist/fight it in an ultimate sense; under naturalism it is a human conception, or as I believe has been claimed, a random event, which does not lessen an atheist’s success in fighting against it, it just lessens what s/he is fighting against. 3) Even if we appeal to nescience, the existence of God provides the assurance that one day the mystery will be laid bare; under naturalism, no meaning for evil is forthcoming. 4) As pendens noted, temporal evil considered in the light of eternity staggeringly reduces its impact; no so under naturalism. 5) If Christianity is true, evil, though truly evil, is understood as a part of an overall good brought about by God, even if we see through the glass darkly at this point. 6) If Christianity is true, there are malevolent forces at work as well, which accounts for some of the evil in this world.

Truly, I think most Christians are troubled by evil, just as most atheists are, and just as I am. Nevertheless, I don’t think most Christians are that troubled by the POE. I’m not. Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn’t you trust in Him with regard to evil? I can only think your honest answer would be yes, if you adopted the presuppositions, but be sure to let me know if I’m wrong. At any rate, it affords Christians a way to embrace the problem of the existence of evil in a manner unavailable to atheists. What do you think?


MS Quixote

I’d like to add a few words in response to the logical positivist/verificationists from the last thread as well. As far as I’ve seen, Ebon, you’re not a part of this group, as you accept knowledge that is not delivered by testable science.

If testable science is posited as the only source of knowledge, then the claim that testable science is the only source of knowledge is self-refuting.

Moreover, the claim is demonstrably false. I’ll pit one of your own poets’ works, Shelley’s Ozymandias, against any deliverance of science of your choosing: there’s no scientific fact that delivers knowledge any more reliable or any more valuable than that delivered in Ozymandias. An inexhaustible supply of examples remains at our disposal.

Furthermore, consider this excellent comment of Greta’s that actually, and deservedly, won its thread—thanks for this one Greta, it hadn’t occurred to me previously:

Emphasis added, to make this point:

He is, in fact, ruling out a hypothesis at the outset. He is ruling out the hypothesis that the natural/ material world is all there is. By seeking out consultants who don’t limit themselves to the natural/ material world, he is essentially refusing to talk to anyone who doesn’t already agree that the supernatural world exists.

The hypothesis that naturalism is all there is is valid, as far as I’m concerned. But not to the verificationists…it doesn’t meet their standard, nor do forty or so of their own comments from the last thread. The only thing I’ve been able to conclude from this, and I’ve waited all this time to ensure that I wasn’t chiming in prematurely, is that this is only a mechanism designed to preclude belief in God, and what I had in mind from my original post when I mentioned a walling off of what can be known…

After all is said and done, theism’s empirically verifiable, naturalism’s not. Naturalism’s falsifiable, theism’s not. And, in my view, life is one grandiose experiment: the living is the hypothesis and experimentation set-up phase…the results come in four score and ten, on average.

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