Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What Would Make the Atheist Happy?

The problem of evil atheist has a problem.* If they are going to argue that the evidence makes it clear that no God exists, then they must be prepared to enumerate the sorts of evidence that would make it clear that God does exist. If they will not, that is, if no possible set of circumstances would constitute convincing evidence from their perspective, then they are just as guilty of dogmatism as the theists they criticize who would not relent in their belief in God in the face of any evidence.

So either there is no possible state of affairs that they would find convincing (irrational dogmatism) or there is some state of affairs that they would find convincing.

What could that state look like? Maybe they are demanding that God intervene and prevent some horrendous evils like the Holocaust or the Thailand tsunami. But the thoughtful atheist shouldn't be convinced by what appear to be miracles, even if there is good evidence to think that they have happened, because miracles are not good evidence for attributing the three omni properties to God. God's meddling in the course of things in some cases and not others raises more problems than it solves. If he stopped those evils, then why not all the others? Wouldn't a good God stop all of them? If he has all power, knowledge, and goodness, then he could have done something about the other cases of gratuitous suffering in the world. But he didn't. The atheist shouldn't be satisfied by just a few interventions. Those wouldn't make the problem of evil on the whole go away, and they would create more doubt. A God who would prevent a few but not others would appear to be fickle, unreliable, flighty, or inattentive. A single miracle, however great, would not prima facie be convincing evidence for an omni God. Such a God would not appear to have the 3 omni traits from making a statue bleed from the eyes, or healing a sick person, or walking on water. Those are minor party tricks, not the grandiose acts of an infinite omni being who would have a full plan for how all events and all evil in the universe should unfold. At most, a few interventions like that might be indicators that there is some being who has enough power, knowledge, and goodness to lead it to do those acts. But those indicators would be too meager to entail omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. So the atheist shouldn't be satisfied by some miracles that prevent some isolated evils. (And the theist should be careful about trying to employ a few minor miracles to prove the existence of an omni God.)

What about more comprehensive intervention? Would the atheist be satisfied by a world where there were no superfluous evils and it was clear from our perspective that there are no superfluous evils? Maybe. But theists like Hick have plausibly argued that there could be no real moral actions in such a world. In the world where everyone gets what they deserve, people's first motivation becomes avoiding punishment and earning rewards. Those motives cannot be the ground of morally worthy actions.

The atheists in that world could complain that this is not a God who cares about our moral and spiritual development. This God gives us no freedom. This God gives us no autonomy or opportunities to learn and grow. This God is a petty tyrant who isn't really concerned with our best interests. This is a God who cares about nothing more than mindless obedience. He punishes every transgression and rewards every positive act. He treats no better than dogs. How is that loving? And why would a being who knows all and has the power to do anything build us, knowing what we would do, and then punish us for those transgressions. In what sense would we be deserving of reward or punishment after being set up with little or no choice like that? Surely the being who would do this to us is not an omni God.

Another option is a world where it appears from our perspective that there are superfluous evils. And from the arguments above, an omni God might have good reasons for creating the world to appear that way. But again, in such a world, the atheist has grounds to complain. "Look at all these superfluous evils," they complain, "surely an omni God would not tolerate the existence of these. The only reasonable conclusion is that there can be no such being.

So it is beginning to look like there really is no state of affairs that would satisfy the problem of evil atheist that there is a 3-omni God. And if that is so, then when they invoke the existence of evil as evidence that there is no God, they aren't really offering an argument in favor of their position based on a posteriori evidence. It looks like no matter what the evidence was, they'd make the same case. And that means that the argument and the evidence don't really matter to them. So is the problem of evil atheist being irrational and dogmatic?

* A problem of evil atheist is someone who thinks that the existence of evil in the world provides us with reasonable grounds to conclude that no omni-God exists.

1 comment:

sam said...

Perhaps this criticism against the evidential argument from evil pushes the discussion back to the logical argument from evil (with its own problems). If even the slightest amount of gratuitous suffering counts against the existence of a tri-omni god, it is because the existence of _any_ gratuitous suffering is intrinsically incompatible with a tri-omni god. Perhaps the concept of 'perfect goodness' is itself intrinsically incoherent. Perhaps a being who watches billions of babies suffer and die (within a timespan that, to it, would seem very fleeting), and feels justified in doing so, is unworthy of respect whether it is perfect & tri-omni or not. Certainly, one would be justified in fearing it, if it exists, but respecting it would vitiate our own moral responsibilities.