This is an argument I have experienced a number of times, most notably at my God on Trial talks, but yesterday, on my piece on petitionary prayer, involving the notions of classical theism – God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.
I wrote a book (The Little Book of Unholy Questions) and an ebook (The problem with “God”: Skeptical Theism Under the Spotlight) on the problems concerned with the idea that God has these three omni properties. They are properly incoherent. Many of my posts build on this case by pointing out further inadequacies with this version of God.
I have, as mentioned, been met not uncommonly with this sort of pushback:
You know, you have a habit of writing about the same thing for multiple articles in a short period of time. That’s serious fluff you’ve got going. Regardless, since you’ve been at this for a while, you should know that even among Christians, let alone theists, there is considerable variation in how believers view the powers of their gods. For instance, omnipotence often means being able to do anything that is logically possible, while omniscience is knowing anything that can be known. The latter is important in discussions about prayer, the problem of evil, and free will. A god that knows all potential futures but not which one will be realized is often still considered omniscient.
I’ll ignore the annoying rhetorical flourishes (“fluff”) and add this further comment:
Let’s start at the beginning: “Petitionary Prayer, otherwise known as asking for stuff, is a bit of a problem for the classical notion of God.”
The problem is that you have severely narrowed the domain of the problem. That’s fine, but you do not even admit to just how narrow the domain is.
Your discussion does not even speak to what many Christians believe when it comes to prayer, let alone people of all Abrahamic faiths, let alone all theists, let alone all people who believe in the efficacy of prayer.
Indeed, what fraction of theists have ever believed that a god can do anything, even things which are illogical? How many theists believe that omniscience means knowing every element of every future.
Show that the god of which you speak of is indeed the “classic theistic god.”
What these points amount in part to is: Well you are attacking this omni version of God, but what about other versions of God?
The interesting, almost ironic thing about this is that, unanimously, the people who have raised this objection have been nonbelievers, doing so in the hypothetical. Because it seems intuitively powerful and provocative. The problem is that whilst this may be the case, whilst there may be a multitude of god versions that are not equivalent to a classical theistic version of God and that would (in ad hoc fashion) escape a given criticism, Christians do not, in the main, adhere to such a version.
As for petitionary prayer, The Stanford Encylopedia has a pretty good entry on such:
What would it mean to say that a petitionary prayer to God had been effective? Petitionary prayers often make a difference to those who offer them (see Phillips 1981 and Brümmer 2008), but the more interesting question is whether or not such prayers make a difference to God. And the question is not whether God simply hears or notices such prayers—after all, we have assumed that God knows everything that happens in the world and is perfectly good. Typically, when philosophers discuss the effectiveness of petitionary prayer, they wonder whether petitionary prayers ever move God to act. What would it mean to say this?
Philosophers usually assume that a prayer is effective if and only if God brings about the thing requested because of the prayer, so that had the prayer not been offered, the thing in question would not have occurred. So if you pray to God for rain tomorrow and it does rain tomorrow, this all by itself is not enough to say that your prayer for rain was effective—it must also be the case that God actually brought about the rain at least in part because of your prayer. If it would have rained anyway, without your prayer for rain, then it doesn’t seem that your prayer for rain was effective. So an effective prayer would be a prayer that made a difference by influencing God to act. (For more on this question, see Flint 1998, chapter 10, and Davison 2017, chapter 2.)
Indeed, if you look at the defences in the Divine Omniscience section, Open Theism, Middle Knowledge and timeless eternity, all of which either take the believer away from classical theism, or are issues with which I have previously dealt.
Why do I attack classical theism so much? Simply because it is the version of God which prevails in philosophy and modern Western culture and thought.
Look, I want to set aside pedantry in favour of pragmatism. I am not about to spend every single blog post exposing every different version of God. Arguably, there are as many versions of God as there are believers. And this is the case in politics, social science, psychology and what have you. It is why we generalise. If we didn’t generalise, we would heave to mention every single instantiation of a given set of subjects in order to be as technically accurate as we could. So every point would take about a decade to type or say.
This is patently ridiculous.
I make no bones about the fact that I spend most of my time attacking Christianity, though I have also written extensively on Islam (and give talks on it, too). But the reality is I only have one life, and it’s full enough as it is without having to discuss (whilst also knowing about) every single instantiation of the term “god”, with every single relevant property in each instantiation. Christianity is relevant to me and to my readers.
No, this is silly. For pragmatic reasons, I choose the most common version of God – the classical version. Interestingly, and I have spoken to and conversed with an awful lot of Christians (and Christian philosophers), this is the version that has been adhered to by every single one of them. Yes, the commenter above is right to point out there are conceptually other versions of “god” (this is why, in the title, I scare quote “God”!). Technically right. But it is a point not worth making, really. He stated, for example:
> Every version of God assumes it can know what you’re thinking so, even taking out the pre-knowledge part, you’re still ebookstuck with why you need to pray if God already knows what you want to say.
Not sure that Zeus, etc could read peoples’ minds actually. Try again.
This has the feel of the conman’s pea in the shell game. Moving the god concept around endlessly in answer to a given criticism until one forgets original criticisms and the god concept ends up at the beginning again.
Well, I dunno what YOU were told growing up. I can’t really speak to that. What I can speak to is that there is signfiicant variation, even among Christians, let alone Abrahamic theists, LET ALONE theists in general, LET ALONE those who believe in prayer.
Now, Johnathan was careful enough to say “if God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent…” but failed to define the terms which carry different meaning in different religious groups. He also failed to justify why the premises were chosen.
Besides, there’s another problem. If we define omnipotent as being able to do absolutely anything, than logical consistency falls apart: a being can be omnipotent and powerless at the same time. Proof by contradiction does not work in a logical system where logical consistency is not required.
As I mentioned, not a single Christian I know believes, for example, in Open Theism – the belief that God’s omniscience doesn’t quite stretch to freely willed decisions, in order that God’s benevolence and free will can work together. I can see why some thinkers presently entertain this relatively new version, in light of the Problem of Evil. I have written about Open Theism before – it, too has problems (not least a lack of biblical support) – but I am not about to write a tract on every single blog post detailing rebuttals against every single theism.
Classical theism is common. It is especially common amongst laypeople, but also amongst theistic philosophers (after all, it is the basis of the ontological argument – or its conclusion). So classical theism is the target unless otherwise specified.
In my piece on petitionary prayer, as quick as the blog post was, still did contain relevant qualifiers:
Petitionary Prayer, otherwise known as asking for stuff, is a bit of a problem for the classical notion of God. If God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, then we have some issues. If God knows all future events, then we have a serious breakdown in coherence.
Let me start off by establishing the context. If we have the classical version of God, the one most adhered to by theist, then we have a god who knows everything. Everything that was, is, and ever will be. God knows all the counterfactuals (if this happens, then that happens) and he knows the outcomes of all supposedly freely willed decisions. He is all powerful, so can do anything (within logical parameters, arguably). He is all-knowing, so knows what to do in any given scenario, as well as having his divine foreknowledge. He is all-loving, and so will want the most loving outcome for any given scenario (in some way – overall, for example).
In other words, if this is the kind of god in existence, then these are the ramifications. It seems rich to then claim, “but there are other kinds of gods!” Yes, but I stated that I was starting with a particular premise.
If you want to pick holes in ideas of the omnis, as seems to be the case, then you will actually be on the same page as me. I think the omnis are thoroughly incoherent, often in a stand-alone context, but particularly set as a threesome. What happens is they are consistently redefined as to be so far from their original definition as to barely qualify for omni status. This means that the classical idea of God cannot exist even before we start talking about petitionary prayer. But the starting point of these posts is: if you are the person who believes in these generic attributes of classical theism, ignoring those many problems, then you have to deal with this given problem (prayer issue, for example).
The only point I would be willing to entertain from the commenter (Spiritual Anthropologist) regarding my claims is wondering whether the classical notion of God is indeed the most popular. Well, I haven’t done a scientific analysis with the kind of methodology of a research paper. But (again, as mentioned) every single Christian I have personally sparred or talked with in my life (I am trying to think of exceptions, but can’t come up with any) adheres to this idea.
Moreover, let me refer you to Pojman and Rea’s Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (page 2):
Although there are various models of God with which we might fruitfully work in our thinking about God, contemporary philosophy of religion has mostly been occupied with the “perfect being” model. Working with this model means taking as a starting point the idea that God is perfect and allowing that idea to play the dominant role in shaping our decisions about what attributes to ascribe to God. Philosophers working with this model generally agree that God, if God exists, is at least omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (perfectly good).Indeed, theism is terrific typically just defined as the view that there exists a being with those three attributes…. Because theism and classical theism have taken center stage in contemporary philosophy of religion, our treatment of divine attributes will focus on controversies associated with attributes drawn from these lists.
There is perhaps a fruitful discussion to be had about what differentiates theism and classical theism, and whether properties like immutability, simplicity and timelessness are also necessary components of God.
But that’s for another piece.
In short, I am not including, for example, the above quote, or endless qualifications, and I am not listing every instantiation and every relevant property thereof of every single god at the beginning of every single blog post. It may satisfy this commenter, but it would be tedious as hell.
Now, about hell…