A Quick Note on Skeptical Theism

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Tulse
    December 5, 2013

    The moral skepticism point is a consequence I would think most theists would find horrifying, since it essentially means that they can make no arguments about the moral character of their god. It grants that human morality is not divine morality, so why should one worship an entity that has no understandable moral principles?

    This position seems to butt right up against Divine Command Theory — whatever their god says is right is right, just because their god said it, no matter how evil it might seem. I’ve never understood how such a position is supposed to actually defend the notion of morality, rather than undermine it completely, and skeptical theism seems to do the same.

  2. #2 Joseph Shelby
    December 5, 2013

    worse still on the moral issue is that it contradicts their #1 claim about darwinistic atheism (as they word it, not us), which is that humans accepting Darwinism are just “evolved beasts” with no reason to have any moral base or bearing.

    In reality of course, by arguing from a standpoint of the “golden rule” as a starting point, secular humanism has a far more consistent and supported moral code than any Christian sect has ever produced.

  3. #3 Mike Egnor
    December 5, 2013

    Jason,

    Indeed, the problem of evil is an enormous problem for Christians (I won’t speak for other theists; eg Manicheans explain evil quite easily). I don’t know why God allows evil, which is one of a million things I don’t know about God.

    But while the problem of evil is a problem for Christians, it is a defeater for atheists. If there is no God, there is no objective standard of good and evil. There are simply events and opinions, none of which are “good” or “evil”.

    Christians struggle with the problem of evil. Atheists have no standing to participate in the discussion, because their metaphysics inherently denies transcendent standards, which is the predicate for “evil”.

    If there is no God, there are no objective rules or values, and therefore no “evil”.

  4. #4 James Downard
    Spokane, WA
    December 5, 2013

    Theistic apologists have plenty of awkward Bible moments to tiptoe around as I am sure comes as no surprise to our gang. Recently I couldn’t pass up highlighting the zingy moment in 1st Samuel 15:18-19 that was shown in the recent History Channel “The Bible” (which I reviewed in my premiere outting as the atheist blogger for our local Spokane Faith & Values website, spokanefavs.com). In the installment I dubbed “When God put his thumb on the scale,” I marvelled at how Samuel harranged Saul for failing to slay all the Amalekites as commanded, thereby flushing the Thou Shalt Not Kill (or Murder if you prefer) commandment:

    “what gave me the creeps was Samuel’s grim certainty (mayhaps with a God hardened heart again?) and what that means for the whole idea of divinely mandated absolute morality. Evidently ‘though shalt not kill’ is not an absolute after all, but a conditional: thou shalt not kill without God’s permission. But if God does command you to kill (even down to those tainted livestock?) it now becomes positively sinful to disobey. Yipes!”

    The likes of Torley (or William Laner Craig for that matter) need to heed their Scripture a mite more attentively before they wade into atheistic moral logic.

  5. #5 eric
    December 5, 2013

    @3 – how is that a defeater of atheism?

    If there is none, there is none, and we have to grapple with that. It might not be the sort of universe we’d choose, but the universe did not come with a ‘satisfaction guaranteed or your money back’ promise. Your satisfaction as to its nature and attributes is not guaranteed.

  6. #6 Another Matt
    United States
    December 5, 2013

    If there is no God, there is no objective standard of good and evil. There are simply events and opinions, none of which are “good” or “evil”.

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=2458#comic

  7. #7 Tulse
    December 5, 2013

    Atheists have no standing to participate in the discussion, because their metaphysics inherently denies transcendent standards

    That is only an issue if you think that moral decisions demand that kind of standard. Presumably notions of such abstract concepts as “justice”, “fairness”, and “compassion” don’t require transcendental grounding, yet we still seem to be able to make judgements about them.

  8. #8 Another Matt
    December 5, 2013

    Presumably notions of such abstract concepts as “justice”, “fairness”, and “compassion” don’t require transcendental grounding, yet we still seem to be able to make judgements about them.

    Even quite concrete things like “weight” don’t require such transcendent standards. It’s possible to discern relative differences in weight without having to refer to something with infinite weight or mass, say.

    One can think of moral situations in a similar way — “better” and “worse” does not depend at all on an ultimate good or evil. The biggest difference between the “better-worse” scale and the “light-heavy” one is that the latter is only one dimension. Moral judgments require thinking in many interdependent “dimensions” at once.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 6, 2013

    Mike Egnor–

    Your assertion that atheists have no basis to speak of good and evil is silly. More to the point, though, is that in the present context it is irrelevant.

    Even if it were true that atheists are just being capricious and arbitrary in making moral assertions, that would not change the simple fact that a great many things happen in the world that are hard to reconcile with God’s character and abilities as taught by Christianity. And it would not stop us from pointing that out to theists, thereby making us part of the conversation.

    You opened your comment by conceding that this is a great problem for Christianity. You also conceded that you have no solution to offer. It is unclear to me how those concessions are meant to put atheists on the defensive.

  10. #10 MNb
    December 6, 2013

    @3 ME: “Atheists have no standing to participate in the discussion, because their metaphysics inherently denies transcendent standards, which is the predicate for “evil”.”
    The latter is based on a false dichotomy. The false dichotomy is that there are either objective standards for good and evil or there are none. That’s simply incorrect as a crash course in any form of utilitarianism could teach you.
    The Problem of Evil is only a defeater for atheists in the eyes of theists who desparately cling to their belief system. It’s the theist who needs a perfect ethical system because of his/her perfect god; the atheist can recognize the imperfection of any ethical system and wonder which one works best. That’s actually a plus because recognizing that imperfection makes it less likely that the atheist will enforce his/her ethical system upon others – something theists of all kind of denominations have excelled in the last couple of thousands of years.
    To which I add that in its utter consequence the christian objective standards for good and evil leads to Divine Command Theory, which is completely random: you shall not kill unless you think you hear god whispering the order to kill in your ear. Most christians don’t like that (not even WLC himself) so the result is cherrypicking from the Bible. I hardly can think of anything more subjective.

  11. #11 G
    California USA
    December 6, 2013

    Another Matt @ 8: Excellent point: “better / worse” need only be comparative measures rather than transcendent ones. Though, a sufficient number of examples will end up pointing toward an overall scale of values, from which one can infer underlying principles and universals or near-universals.

    Deities and evil:

    For the following I should first mention that my position on deities is that there is no empirical basis on which to ascertain their existence or nonexistence, so the empirical position is one of agnosticism. However for this exercise we’ll assume that a deity exists.

    If a deity was the prime mover that brought this universe into existence, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the same deity could also have brought into existence the “universe” of the hereafter, and established the rules by which it operates. Therein would be the reward/penalty system for departed souls, and the means of enforcement of moral codes.

    With respect to the problem of evil:

    The Holocaust occurs, and humans pray: “God, this is the most evil thing that has ever happened, please undo it.”

    God undoes the Holocaust, including in human memory: it never happened. Now the most evil thing is Stalin’s dictatorship, and once again humans pray, “God, this is the most evil thing that has ever happened, please undo it.”

    God undoes the Stalin purges: they never happened. The same scenario repeats again and again and again, until every genocide, pogrom, war, every instance of slavery, every plague, every pandemic, etc. etc. becomes “the most evil thing that has ever happened” and then gets magically erased from existence by God.

    Eventually God undoes virtually all human suffering.

    And then one day, someone says “Owww!, I skinned my knee! This is the worst thing that has ever happened!, please God, undo it!”

    By undoing all evil, and then undoing all human suffering, God would have reduced an intelligent species to an infantile mentality, incapable of coping with even the smallest adversity, and incapable of ascertaining right and wrong behavior.

    For which reason God does not intervene except in cases of true existential threats: for example by gently nudging asteroids away from planets with intelligent species (until they can do it themselves), by magically breaking the launch systems for nuclear weapons to prevent accidental nuclear wars, and so on. Humans are unaware of any such interventions, and merely think our species has been “lucky.” (“Luck” is another unfalsifiable black box.)

    Meanwhile individuals who perpetrate acts of evil get dealt with after they die, via the “natural laws” of the hereafter. Hitler and Stalin are cycled through experiencing every death they caused, slaveholders are cycled through experiencing the lifetimes of slaves, etc., until the evil has been burned out of them and they can either be made to cease to exist or they can be “recycled” in some useful way.

    Of course none of the foregoing can be asserted as true from a rationalist perspective since all of it is unfalsifiable. But it does provide a basis for someone to believe in the existence of a deity even in the presence of enormous evil in the world.

  12. #12 couchloc
    December 6, 2013

    “Atheists have no standing to participate in the discussion, because their metaphysics inherently denies transcendent standards”

    There is lots to say about this statement, some of which has already been noted. But it is worth pointing out that strictly speaking there is no such thing as “atheist metaphysics”. While it is true that there seems to be a link between new atheists and some form of hard materialism, that link isn’t required. It is possible to be a platonist about mathematics and still believe the problem of evil shows God doesn’t exist. This is because you might believe that we have rational access to transcendental facts, which would leave intact our ability to come to the judgment that God doesn’t exist. I’m not trying to offer a defense of this view but it’s not ruled out by atheism.

  13. #13 sean samis
    December 6, 2013

    To Mike Egnor (#3),

    Evil: any unnecessary, intentional infliction of harm. There may be more, but that is a good start.

    I don’t think of myself as an atheist, but the problem of evil does not defeat disbelief in gods. It strengthens it. If it takes a God for evil to exist, then gods are evil. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then evil exists because that God WANTS it to; in which case that God is evil.

    To G (#11):

    Your story is silly. A truly good God would not create a world in which such evil as the Holocaust, Stalin, etc. ever happens. We would not need to ask such a God to undo them, they just would not happen. The Problem of Evil does no ask why deities fail to undo evil, but why deities would allow evil in the first place.

    sean s.

  14. #14 G
    California USA
    December 6, 2013

    The problem of failure to understand morality both ways between theists and atheists comes down to this:

    The theist’s source of morality is the deity. From that perspective, someone who does not believe in a deity has no source of morality, and can’t be trusted to behave morally.

    The atheist’s source of morality is something other than a deity, which may be deontological, utilitarian, or something else, but in any case has almost always been reasoned-through from some kind of first principles. From that perspective, someone whose source of morality is seen to be nonexistent, can’t be trusted to behave morally.

    As a practical matter, it would be more useful for atheists to state their case in the positive: “My ethical system is based on X,” rather than in the negative, “My ethical system is not based on Y.” This provides a basis for discussing common ground and thereby overcoming the communications gap that leads to each side thinking the other’s moral system has no real foundation.

  15. #15 G
    California USA
    December 6, 2013

    Re. Sean @ 13:

    A deity that prevents evil from occurring, leads to the same result in the minds of humans _in the present_ as a deity that responds to human prayers by erasing evils that have occurred in the past.

    God hears prayers, undoes the Holocaust, and the entire historic timeline changes such that _the Holocaust never happened_. Six million Jews et. al. and their kids are alive, Germany has had a continuous democracy, there was no WW2, or WW1 for that matter.

    Like this: “Do you remember WW3, when the USA and Soviet Union incinerated each other in 1985 due to a computer accident? Of course you don’t remember it, because God undid it, so our timeline shifted to one where it didn’t happen!” See how that works?

    But my point was _not_ about the “mechanism” by which a deity removes evil from existence, whether proactively or retrocausally.

    My point was that whatever pain and suffering remained, all the way down to a skinned knee and eventually a mosquito bite, would come to occupy the position of “the worst thing that ever happened” in the minds of humans. So once a deity started going down that trail, all forms of pain and suffering would have to be eliminated from existence (either proactively or retrocausally, does not matter), down to the last skinned knee and mosquito bite and case of indigestion.

    And the result would be humanity regressed to the cognitive status of blissful fetus in the womb, perfectly content all the time, perfectly incapable of ascertaining right from wrong, incapable of choice, and incapable of acting with any sort of conscious or informed agency in the world.

    What we see instead is progress in human cultures: for example slavery becomes unacceptable, genocide becomes unacceptable, racism becomes unacceptable, deadly diseases are defeated, etc., and over time the levels of violence and suffering decrease and the levels of knowledge increase.

    These achievements are _ours_ as humans, whether impelled by faith (Martin Luther King, civil rights) or by reason (the eradication of smallpox), or by some combination thereof.

    Lastly, persons of good will do not dismiss achievements of good by others, on the basis that those achievements came from something other than their own preferred foundations. Atheists recognize the good that Martin Luther King did in achieving victories for civil rights, and theists recognize the good that medical scientists did in eradicating smallpox. To do otherwise is to place ideology before the reality of results, a most irrational position.

  16. #16 Tulse
    December 6, 2013

    The theist’s source of morality is the deity. From that perspective, someone who does not believe in a deity has no source of morality, and can’t be trusted to behave morally.

    Given the radically different apparent moralities of the Quakers and Al Qaeda, I would say that being a theist certainly doesn’t mean that one can be trusted to behave morally. I’m not being flip — the fact that religious views of what is moral vary so widely is prima facie evidence that belief in a divine being or beings has no reliable impact on moral actions.

    But more to the point, your argument is mere question-begging. Yes, if you define morality as coming from a deity or deities, then atheists can’t use that source as a basis for morality. But it is that very claim that is in dispute.

    the result would be humanity regressed to the cognitive status of blissful fetus in the womb, perfectly content all the time, perfectly incapable of ascertaining right from wrong, incapable of choice, and incapable of acting with any sort of conscious or informed agency in the world

    Is that what the Christian heaven is like? Because that’s supposedly a place without evil, where people are content all the time. It’s also the place where good Christians are supposed to spend an infinite amount of time. So clearly the Christian god is believed to be able to create a perfect place without evil where humans can exist — so why does there have to be evil here?

  17. #17 bobh
    December 6, 2013

    @#11
    “The Holocaust occurs, and humans pray: “God, this is the most evil thing that has ever happened, please undo it.”

    But he didn’t.

  18. #18 Another Matt
    December 6, 2013

    G, the problem with altering the timeline in the manner you suggest is that it assumes that God could do it in a way that it doesn’t unleash myriad other evils. Now, he’s God so he is supposed to be able to do anything. Many of us owe our existence in part to the contingencies that arose from the two world wars. I hate that they happen, but I like being alive! If God changes the timeline to stop the war and people who existed in the “previous” timeline disappear, is that an evil? Maybe not — we just never would have existed.

    The other problem is that lots of animals make their livelihood by causing other animals to suffer. You mentioned mosquito bites — if you want to get rid of mosquito bites without harming mosquitos, you have to provide them with an alternate source of food. Again, God supposedly can do anything, but we’re talking about not just huge changes in human nature, but extraordinarily vast changes in ecology and probably physics. It’s just not as easy to imagine as your story suggests.

  19. #19 George
    December 6, 2013

    Glad you are back to blogging!

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 6, 2013

    Thanks for the encouragement! A long and somewhat grueling semester is finally coming to a close…

  21. #21 Michael Fugate
    December 6, 2013

    “The theist’s source of morality is the deity. From that perspective, someone who does not believe in a deity has no source of morality, and can’t be trusted to behave morally.”

    Pure BS – through and through.

  22. #22 deepak shetty
    December 6, 2013

    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.
    I too think this view as more honest but one who concedes this view should also concede that his theistic religion is nonsense.
    if we could not understand why God doesn’t prevent evil e.g. children from suffering and dying a horrid death why spend time saying anything about what and why this God wants? Why pretend that God is good when you don’t know anything about the way a God would think? Why pretend that God is worthy of worship? Why pretend that we have understood anything about what God wants. Someone who says evil exists because of some master plan and/or limitations that only makes sense to God should become an agnostic.

  23. #23 deepak shetty
    December 6, 2013

    @G
    from your example I believe you have watched Bruce Almighty too many times – according to you God watches a starving , suffering dying child and says hey if I help this kid, I have to help women getting raped , I have to stop wars and soon humans will ask me to stop mosquito bites! I’d better go and impregnate a virgin to teach them a better way to deal with evil.

  24. #24 sean samis
    December 6, 2013

    G; regarding “and the entire historic timeline changes such that _the Holocaust never happened_.”

    OK, so what’s wrong with that? The world would be better off if the Holocaust, or even the World Wars never happened.

    “whatever pain and suffering remained, all the way down to a skinned knee and eventually a mosquito bite, would come to occupy the position of ‘the worst thing that ever happened’ in the minds of humans.” and “So once a deity started going down that trail, all forms of pain and suffering would have to be eliminated from existence (either proactively or retrocausally, does not matter), down to the last skinned knee and mosquito bite and case of indigestion.”

    Again, so what? If a god exists, then evil especially, but even any suffering becomes unnecessary. God (if a god exists) can prevent PROACTIVELY any and all suffering. But especially any and all evil. You are trying to make this sound too burdensome for God to do, but if a god can create the universe by merely speaking, that god could make it without suffering or evil.

    Then you write “And the result would be humanity regressed to the cognitive status of blissful fetus in the womb, perfectly content all the time, perfectly incapable of ascertaining right from wrong, incapable of choice, and incapable of acting with any sort of conscious or informed agency in the world.”

    No, that does not follow. To make the world evil and suffering free, God would have to make it AND US differently. That does not preclude the changed US acting with purpose, perception, and intent. We would be doing different things, but not nothing.

    You, like many, seem to take pride in our achievements in overcoming evils and suffering, but there are other things to achieve, and the price paid in suffering and death was for nothing. I “do not dismiss achievements of good by others” but I do dismiss the idea that the suffering of so many was worth the pride others feel in ending that suffering.

    Tulse’s question (#16) about Heaven applies here; do you believe in Heaven, G?

    sean s.

  25. #25 sean samis
    December 6, 2013

    OK G.

    My ethical system is based on reason, on the primacy of truth and the reality of the human condition. Everything follows from there. There’s no way to go deeply into it here, in this venue; but evil is any unnecessary, intentional act resulting in harm to others.

    sean s.

  26. #26 MNb
    December 6, 2013

    @14 G: ” From that perspective, someone who does not believe in a deity has no source of morality”
    Like I argued above this is a false dichotomy as you yourself point out in the next paragraph.

    “This provides a basis for discussing common ground”
    Don’t think so. The starting point for the utilitarian is something like “to be happy is to be preferred to being unhappy”. The christian reacts in two ways:
    1. Prove this.
    2. Securing your place in heaven is more important.

    @1: Like any axiom this can’t be proven.
    @2: An example is

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/publiccatholic/2013/12/you-belong-to-me/

    To whom you belong is more important to her than being happy. I don’t see any common ground here. It’s possible that theists get at the same conclusions as I, but that’s another subject.

  27. #27 Nihilist
    December 6, 2013

    @3
    ‘a defeater for atheism’

    How humerous. It sounds like Plantinga’s ideosyncratic language. The fact is, there is no objective standard for morality. Stating that there is doesn’t make it so. Even if there were, there is no decision rule for determining what the standard is…which of the 33,000+ Christian denominations understanding of morality would we start with? There is no need for an objective standard to exist to have morality. We de facto have it. Appealing to some ficticious standard does nothing….’we can’t determine what it is, but it is soooo comforting to know that it exists’. Objective standards are rhetorical sledgehammers to bludgeon dissenters into agreement.
    Without an objective standard we can’t come to an agreement…HELLO McFLY…we don’t have agreement now with your supposed standard. If we’d all accept yours, wouldn’t the world be wonderful?

  28. #28 Patrick Sele
    December 7, 2013

    I also hold the view that sceptical theism is highly implausible. In the following thread I’ve suggested a number of points that aim at refuting the probabilistic form of the argument from evil without resorting to sceptical theism:

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2013/12/02/ye-olde-problem-of-evil/

  29. #29 eric
    December 7, 2013

    The theist’s source of morality is the deity.

    The theist’s source of morality is what the individual thinks the deity thinks is right and wrong. The atheist’s source of morality is what the individual thinks is right and wrong.

    Until a diety actually shows up and tell us in first person what they think is right and wrong, both the atheist and theist positions are equally subjective. In both cases the individual is working off their own opinion, it’s just a difference of about ‘my opinion on what god thinks is right’ vs. ‘my opinion on what I think is right.’

  30. #30 Michael Fugate
    December 7, 2013

    It is always interesting that politically conservative people think their god is also conservative and that liberals think theirs is liberal – even though they claim to be channelling the same god.

  31. #31 Scott
    Washinging
    December 8, 2013

    I’m new here so don’t have any history. Nor do I have any point of view to champion. But it the following statement assumes that God is a personal God who has an eye on us (after all we are so important – on this we all agree?), “Rather than try to explain why God would permit great evil and suffering, we simply concede that we cannot.” Doesn’t this statement assume that God is watching and could, should or would intervene under certain circumstances but we simply don’t know the “why” of it? The word “morals” is used as though those were a set of norms created by God to which God should be subject. If morals are a human creation and the name God is associated with them in order to give them authority, then should we expect God, if watching, to be subject to them? It is an assumption that God is watching and has created morals by which we should act and any argument that God might or might not intervene if we don’t follow those morals has accepted those assumptions.

  32. #32 George
    December 9, 2013

    The sentiment expressed lyrics below of God watching but doing nothing is so common in religion, esp. Christianity. I am always so taken aback that this taken as a given of how God operates. And yet the same people that seeming mindlessly accept this, then turn and pray for God to intervene to cure a disease, get them a promotion at work, whatever. It is so strikingly incoherent to me.

    From a song by EmmyLou Harris:
    (Lost unto this world)

    I was tortured in the desert
    I was raped out on the piain
    I was murdered by the high way
    And my cries went up in vain
    My blood is on the mountain
    My blood is on the sand
    My blood runs in the river
    That now washes thru their hands
    I am lost unto this world…
    Can I get no witness this unholy tale to tell
    Was God the only one there watching
    And weeping as l fell

  33. #33 Tulse
    December 9, 2013

    However questionable the logic, Emmylou’s voice will make you believe, at least for the length of the song. She is a spectacular singer.

    But yes, for some reason Christians seem comforted by the thought that the omnipotent being they worship and praise just stands by when horrible things happen to them, even though they would find such behaviour in human bystanders morally repugnant. Go figure.

  34. #34 George
    December 9, 2013

    True. I play the album sometimes while riding my mountain bike. I am tempted to skip this song becuase it is sad and awful to think what people do and then the God bit ruins the whole meaning for me.

    But EmmyLou usually wins out and I listen anyway, or maybe I just don’t want to grab for my iPod to skip forward when I am struggling up a hill or out of control going down…

  35. #35 G
    California USA
    December 10, 2013

    (So now we find there was a problem with the blog infrastructure, and that’s why comments weren’t getting posted. Heh, here I was thinking I’d pissed off Jason and gotten banned;-)

    Back a ways:

    1) No, I am NOT promoting theism here. If anyone thinks empirical agnosticism is “weak sauce,” I’m up for arguing the point.

    2) Skeptical theism turns out to be a pretty poor basis for addressing the problem of evil. It’s tautologous and basically reduces to “we don’t know because we don’t know.”

    3) The point of my “hypothetical deity of asymptotically decreasing suffering” was merely (and only) to illustrate a stronger basis for theism in the face of the problem of evil. If you want to argue against theism effectively, argue against its strong arguements, rather than against straw men.

    4) The strongest arguement against theism is simply that we have sufficient naturalistic explanations of reality, that there is no need for a theistic causal agent. The strongest arguement for atheism as a matter of personal belief is simple freedom of conscience. You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re “right,” only that you “have a right.” Anything more than that is emotional drama.

    5) Arguing for atheism in public policy is a lose. Arguing for separation of religion from public policy is a win, and arguing for full equality under the law for atheists is also a win. The distinction is important if you want to win elections and lawsuits.

    6) It also helps win arguements, lawsuits, and elections, to grant that “the other side” is occasionally right in some significant way. Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, are all cases in point.

  36. #36 eric
    December 10, 2013

    G:

    If you want to argue against theism effectively, argue against its strong arguements, rather than against straw men.

    There are two parallel arguments going on here, and while they mostly overlap, there are some differences. First, there is what you might call the philosophical argument over the existence of a/some god. For that argument, you are right; it’s best to consider the strongest definition or flavor of theism (or a wide range of flavors), and discuss that. But there’s also the social argument over the existence of the god many or most people say they believe in. And for that argument, it does not make any sense to try and find some strongest form of theism. For that argument, the right way to proceed is to let the theist characterize their God, and then everyone discusses over that conception of God. For the social argument, you take their hypothesis at face value and evaluate it – you don’t try and correct it for them.

    Given that Jason wrote a book titled “Among the Creationists,” I’ll go out on a limb here and say than when he discusses god-belief, he’s typically concerned with the latter, social, type of argument. He’s not looking to argue against the most rigorous possible theistic hypothesis, he’s looking to argue against the theistic hypothesis that is held by many people and affects education policy.

    While neither argument is ‘more right’ than the other, I tend to be a bit cynical about the former. I question whether people like Plantinga are really sincere about defending some ‘philosophically best theistic conception’ on Monday when they go to church on Sunday. Seems to me what they’re doing is changing their position depending on whether they’re facing a critic or a compatriot.

  37. #37 sean samis
    December 10, 2013

    Eric,

    I think I like the way you analyze this topic.

    One effect of this seems to be that those like I who are non-believers (who answer the philosophical argument with a No or Uncertain) have little stake in how the social argument proceeds because much of that will be arguments from scripture. Scripture has no reliability among non-believers; we tend to find it difficult to accept these hypotheses at face value. Whatever the results of the social argument, non-believers will usually respond philosophically and dissect conceptions of God.

    sean s.

  38. #38 Tulse
    December 10, 2013

    “Seems to me what they’re doing is changing their position depending on whether they’re facing a critic or a compatriot.”

    Ah, yes, the Theist Two-Step. It’s the little disingenuous dance they do:

    “Oh you silly philosophically naive atheists, ‘God’ is merely the Ground of Being, a logically necessary precondition for existence! You look so absurd attacking your ridiculously silly and simplistic caricature of sophisticated belief!”

    “Oh my co-religionists, God is person who loves you and cares about you and has a personality and emotional states just like you and intervenes in your life and will hug you forever in heaven — He’s your sky-daddy!”

  39. #39 sean samis
    December 10, 2013

    Tulse,

    You are correct. A social argument that is inconsistent with the matching philosophical argument is untenable. And this situation is quite common.

    sean s.

  40. #40 G
    California USA
    December 11, 2013

    Re. Eric at 36:

    Agreed, there are two levels of arguement involved.

    On this and similar blogs I’m inclined to go for the philosophical arguement and attempt to be reasonably rigorous. When debating at the political level, I’m much more inclined to go for the “social arguement” method. One of my favorite replies to “Christian nation” claims is to ask “which denomination?” and follow up with an example from within Evangelical Christianity, “pre-tribulation rapture or post-tribulation rapture?” That drives fundies up the wall, heh heh. (Keyword search the relevant terms; have fun!)

    Realistically it’s all about “the conservation of mass and energy of the human organism” (observe tongue in cheek), by way of avoiding the excessive expenditure of cognitive “energy” of making arguements that go above & beyond the level of necessity for prevailing. That is, the “social arguement” can be won without need of the added effort that goes into the philosophical arguement.

    This applies generally, not just when dealing with religious extremism.

  41. #41 John
    Franklin, NC, USA
    December 12, 2013

    Human kind obviously misunderstands God’s morals. We fail to understand what God is – a creator, a personal god, a powerful entity that interferes in our daily lives, one that we can influence through prayer, etc. The only I think the only thing we can say is that actions that help our survival are rewarded. Actions that hinder our survival are not rewarded but lead to death. Do you keep a baby with downs syndrome alive? It will consume resources with no hope of returning aid to the givers. Keeping such a baby alive is evil. Classifying such action as “good” yields the observation no good deed goes unpunished. We need to rethink what we consider good and evil to be closer to God.

  42. #42 sean samis
    December 12, 2013

    Do you keep a baby with downs syndrome alive? It will consume resources with no hope of returning aid to the givers. Keeping such a baby alive is evil.

    John, you are so very wrong; not the least being that you know little or nothing about people with Downs.

    sean s.

  43. #43 John
    December 13, 2013

    Sean
    Will people with downs contribute to society more than they consume?
    John

  44. #44 sean samis
    December 13, 2013

    John,

    There’s no guarantee that any person will “contribute to society more than they consume”, nor any expectation that they must. Persons with Downs can do so; if they don’t it is often because others won’t even give them a chance.

    sean s.

  45. #45 eric
    December 13, 2013

    Will people with downs contribute to society more than they consume?

    Thermodynamically, nobody contributes more than they consume. We’re all inefficiently sponging off of the “battery” that is the solar system. So if ‘contributing more than one consumes’ is your criteria for being allowed to live, perhaps you’d like to volunteer to be the first to step out of the airlock?

  46. #46 sean samis
    December 13, 2013

    Eric, very funny, and completely correct.

    sean s.

  47. #47 John
    December 13, 2013

    Eric completely incorrect. Societies grow and consume more power. Those societies that allow non-contributors to live soon collapse.
    The US has been supporting an ever growing population of non-contributors. We meet to criteria of collapse noted by Jared Diamond. Woe to our grandchildren by the acceptance of your views.

  48. #48 Tulse
    December 13, 2013

    Thermodynamically, nobody contributes more than they consume.

    Tell that to The Matrix.

  49. #49 Tulse
    December 13, 2013

    Those societies that allow non-contributors to live soon collapse.
    The US has been supporting an ever growing population of non-contributors.

    I have a modest proposal about that…

  50. #50 sean samis
    December 13, 2013

    John,

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the sky is not falling.

    I am no expert on Jared Diamond’s views, but I do know they are not universally respected.

    And I am very sure that if persons with Downs are “non-contributors” it is only because we refuse to enable them to be contributors. They are usually the last to be hired, generally hard working and grateful for any job, and usually the first to be let go.

    Since most persons with Downs end up living in or near poverty, they consume relatively little. If we want to get rid of non-contributors, especially those whose consumption is the greatest, we’d need to start among the wealthy. I don’t propose taking any action against anyone, but if it became necessary (which is extraordinarily unlikely.) then among the parasitic 5% is where we should start.

    sean s.

  51. #51 John
    December 13, 2013

    Sean
    Try “The collapse of Complex Societies” Jos. A. Tainter. “Becoming Europe”.

    The parasites are the non-contributors (by definition). The parasites are the bottom 5% in the income/wealth category. Or, let the US collapse and the bottom 30% to 40% (historical numbers) suffer and die.

    Wealth is obtained by greater contribution. Smarter contribution is worth more than muscle contribution.

    The sky may not be falling. The US is failing like other empires before (Britian, France a few hundred years ago).
    Who will replace us? Perhaps China if they continue on their pragmatic path and can come to the enlightenment to let people compete and loosers die to control their population. Further, China is not yet creative – they copy technology. Developing technology is tremendously expensive and requires tolerance of new ideas. That is, any highly socialized society is not a candidate.

    Australia is my suggestion. Certainly not Europe.

  52. #52 Tulse
    December 13, 2013

    The parasites are the non-contributors (by definition). The parasites are the bottom 5% in the income/wealth category.

    Those two statements don’t necessarily follow, unless you think that it is in principle impossible for the wealthy to be non-contributors. From my vantage point, it sure looks like the clerks slinging burgers for minimum wage at McDonalds are contributing more to society than the “financiers” that caused the banking crisis. If anything, the problem in the US is precisely that those who are wealthy are no longer necessarily contributors, and have gotten wealthy not by producing useful things, but by manipulating the system for their own personal gain to the detriment of the rest of society.

  53. #53 sean samis
    December 14, 2013

    John;

    The parasites are the bottom 5% in the income/wealth category.

    No, most of them have productive jobs or consume very little. The Top 5% have non-productive jobs and consume enormous amounts. They are parasites.

    Wealth is obtained by greater contribution. Smarter contribution is worth more than muscle contribution.

    How naïve. I agree with Tulse. Wealth mostly comes from manipulating others to gain the greater part of the wealth others created. Even brilliant people (Gates, Job) gained much of their wealth off the work of others, and these brilliant people are, by definition, outliers.

    The US is failing like other empires before (Britian, France a few hundred years ago).

    Hmm. England and France still thrive; I know, I’ve been to both recently. Their empires are gone, but they are doing just fine. As for the US, we are in no particular danger. There are problems and threats, there always have been and always will be. Your brand of panic and paranoia are the greatest threat to the US, not the poor nor people with Downs.

    sean s.

  54. #54 John
    NC
    December 14, 2013

    Who make it possible for those clerks slinging burgers for minimum wage at McDonalds to sling those bergers? Who bought the meat? Who bought the stove? Who built the building? Etc. All before the first berger was slung. The one in the berger chain with the least investment is the clerk. The one in the berger chain with the least to loose is the clerk. The one in the berger chain who cares the least about you and other customers is the clerk. The one in the berger chain least responsible for the berger contribution is the clerk.

    If you stick your head in the sand so as not to see, you will get kicked in the a** by mother nature (God).

    We seem to be getting a bit off point.

    The morals that require resources be diverted to net non-contributors will cause the collapse of their society. The morals reflect the idea of God a group has. If your point is that the very rich get to be very rich by Tragedy of the Commons, then I can partially agree. The resulting regulation becomes overregulation when that destructive moral of supporting failure takes over as it has in the US.

    From 1947 to 1970, all income percentiles grew at essentially the same rate. Since then, there has been substantial divergence, with different percentiles of the income distribution growing at different rates. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_metrics .
    In the ‘60s we have the great society initiative to really implement that destructive moral. By 1970 the trend changed for the lower income percentiles, not the higher income percentiles. That is, the lower income group was injured by the legislation while the upper income group adjusted. Since 1970 through both political party’s administrations the rate of divergence has been steady. We don’t have far to go before we have a type of old style monarchy with the super rich and the super poor.

    Until we change our morals, voters will continue to elect those following the destructive moral as happened in Detroit and is happening in other cities, states and nations. Tragedy of the commons is bad for survival. Overregulation is bad for survival. In between is collapse.

  55. #55 sean samis
    December 14, 2013

    John;

    Who makes it possible to have a job? Customers, who are mostly working class folks.

    Who’s money bought all that stuff to set up the business? Probably a bank’s, mostly using money from working class folks.

    Who pays for the meat, and building upkeep, etc.? The customers, who are mostly working class folks.

    Regarding, “morals that require resources be diverted to net non-contributors will cause the collapse of their society”. Maybe true, so we should stop diverting resources to the parasitic rich.

    Regarding, “We don’t have far to go before we have a type of old style monarchy with the super rich and the super poor.” Maybe true, but that only confirms that we should stop diverting wealth to the parasitic wealthy and use it to enable the real productive workers to create wealth.

    sean s.

  56. #56 Lenoxus
    December 20, 2013

    My problem with the “asympomatic curve” theodicy is that it commits the continuum fallacy and thereby explicitly rules out the possibility of a too-evil universe, which in turn makes the omnimax God hypothesis unfalsifiable in the moral dimension. (For example, it takes away our means of determining whether the universe is actually ruled by an evil god.)

    “Sure, God could prevent earthquakes, but eventually you’d be asking him to prevent papercuts, which is clearly absurd!” (at least from the persoective of a world like ours.) Meanwhile, in a universe several times more evil than ours: “Sure, God could prevent the phenomenon whereby every human being has their skin torn off five times daily, but after a while you’d want him to remove the more minor annoyances, like earthquakes.”

    Also, this comes out as an argument against humans making life better. Surely if we try to create a working malaria vaccine or a “cure for cancer”, we’re going down that same terrible slippery slope where things are so good that it’s somehow bad…

  57. #57 sean samis
    December 20, 2013

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