Rereading my post from Monday, I see there was one aspect of Vincent Torley’s post that I neglected to address. Recall that Torley was at pains to explain why God might be innocent of the charge of hypocrisy, for demanding that we behave in ways that He does not Himself practice. Torley made two suggestions in that regard, and in Monday’s post I gave reasons for thinking that those suggestions do not solve the problem.
Perhaps aware of the inadequacies of his arguments, Torley tries another gambit:
It appears that Loftus’s argument from evil, like Dr. Sean Carroll’s, is a powerful prima facie argument against God’s existence, as it points to situations involving a victim in distress where there is a strong presumption that God, if He existed, would intervene – and yet He doesn’t. Loftus has no idea why any morally perfect God would withhold assistance to the victim, in such cases. But Loftus’s argument should be seen for what it is – an argument from incredulity. The fact that we cannot imagine a plausible explanation for some state of affairs – in this case, God’s declining to help a victim in distress – does not mean that there is no explanation. Arguments based on ignorance are not compelling – and in this case, our ignorance is massive, as we don’t know what other intelligent beings may exist in the cosmos, and we know next to nothing about humanity’s past interactions with its Creator. For us to totally disregard human history, and our place in the scheme of things, in attempting to arrive at conclusions about what God should and shouldn’t do, is monumentally silly: it represents a blinkered view of the facts. I conclude that Loftus’s two dilemmas fail to undermine the rationality of belief in a Creator.
This is essentially the view known as skeptical theism. Rather than try to explain why God would permit great evil and suffering, we simply concede that we cannot. But we then turn necessity into a virtue by asserting that all is precisely as we would expect, given humanity’s limited perspective, relative to God’s omnipotence.
There are a number of philosophers who defend this view, and I tend to view it as more intellectually honest than the various attempts at theodicy served up from time to time. There is, however, quite a bit to be said against it.
First, echoing a point made by philosopher William Rowe in a similar context, it doesn’t really do the argument justice to call it an argument from incredulity. It’s more like an argument from utter incomprehensibility. It’s not simply that we are incredulous that their could be a morally acceptable reason for God to allow great evil. Rather, it is that we have a rather well developed moral sense, and are not even able to imagine what that morally acceptable reason could be.
Richard Dawkins famously described the creationist argument that evolution cannot craft complex structures as, “The argument from personal incredulity.” In this context the charge is apt, since we have no intuition or experience that will help us judge what evolution by natural selection can and cannot do. That is not the case here. We have good reasons for thinking that our moral intuitions are generally sound, and yet we are utterly unable to explain why God permits evil.
That leads into the second problem with skeptical theism. If we accept it, then we are essentially forced to become complete moral skeptics. Skeptical theism asks us to accept that the world’s most horrifying evils, like holocausts and extremely violent weather, are morally acceptable for reasons that are entirely unknown to us. If our intuitions are that wrong about really big moral questions, then what confidence can we have in any of our moral judgements?
A further problem is that skeptical theism, far from refuting the argument from evil, essentially concedes it. It grants that great evil and suffering seem like a big problem for theism and further grants that we have no answer for it. It’s only lifeline for the theist is the bare possibility that there are reasons for great evil that we cannot conceive of. That might have some small amount of force against the logical form of the problem of evil (in which we argue that a logical contradiction is entailed by simultaneously believing that God exists and that great evil exists.) But it is mostly unresponsive to the probabilistic form of the argument (in which we argue that great evil is strong evidence against the existence of God).
In short, if skeptical theism is the best that theology can offer, then atheists are on solid ground in believing that the problem of evil is a serious problem for theistic belief.