Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A God Who Performs Miracles is Evil

If a doctor travels to a village with enough polio vaccine to inoculate 1,000 children, but only gives 10 of them the shot and throws the rest of the vaccine away arbitrarily, and then watches the remaining 990 die or be crippled by polio, we would conclude that doctor was a monster, not a saint.

In the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino in 1997, Jeremy Strohmeyer brutally killed a little girl while his best friend, David Cash Jr. watched and did nothing about it. Strohmeyer was tried and convicted for the murder, but even though Strohmeyer had confessed to Cash, the law had no provision for prosecuting Cash for his gross failure of moral duty to report the crime. The California state legislature quickly passed a law obliging witnesses of felonies against minors to report them. David Cash’s negligence was morally wrong.


Many years ago, a woman name Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment in New York. Dozens of neighbors listened and even watched, but did nothing. The murder took over half an hour. After the attacker had stabbed her repeatedly, stolen her money, assaulted her, gone away and come back, and left her for dead, someone finally called the police. They came within a few minutes but it was too late. The neighbors were immoral in their indifference.


The doctor, David Cash, and the witnesses to the Genovese murder
should
have done something, particularly since so much good could have been accomplished with so little effort.

Adults have greater moral obligations in the presence of children or animals than they do with other normal adults. They must restrain themselves and to protect the other beings because they are weaker, more vulnerable, and have greater basic needs. There are moral obligations of stewardship. In general, it is wrong to do less good or to fail to prevent evils that you are able to prevent with very little effort.


At any given moment on the planet when miracles are alleged to have occurred, there are billions of other people who are not
being miraculously cured, healed, or benefitted.

Suppose that Jesus miraculously fed and healed thousands, raised someone from the dead, or that God parted the Red Sea to save the Israelites. Suppose that all of the millions of visitors to the shrine at Lourdes, France who claimed to have been miraculously healed were actually miraculously healed. Suppose that God were to reach out and instantaneously eliminate all pointless suffering in the world today. None of these miracles accomplishes nearly as much as God could: He didn’t do it yesterday, he didn’t do it at Auschwitz in 1945, or when the bubonic plague ravaged and killed millions in Europe during the 1300s. He didn’t do it in countless other cases where all of the morally relevant details were the same as the cases where he is alleged to have performed a miracle.

Christine Overall says, “If Jesus was the Son of God, I want to know why he was hanging out at a party, making it go better [turning water into wine], when he could have been healing lepers, for example.”She concludes, “a being that engages in events that are trivial, capricious, and biased cannot be a morally perfect God.”


She says, “As those who would defend the argument from evil point out, there is a huge amount of evil in the world—psychological and physical suffering, malnutrition, starvation, pandemics, cruelty, torture, poverty, racism, lynching, sexism, child abuse, assault, war, sudden deaths from natural disasters—the list is appalling. . . . Instead of using miracles to feed a small number, to transform water into wine, or to convert a few people, God could very well be performing miracles that have a much larger effect, especially on the lives of the millions of children whose suffering is particularly incomprehensible to anyone with a sense of justice. The question is why a good God would be concerned with details like the need for wine at a wedding, and yet apparently not be concerned with huge tragedies like the holocaust of six million Jews.”

James Keller argues against God’s performing miracles: “The claim that God has worked a miracle implies that God has singled out certain persons for some benefit which many others do not receive implies that God is unfair.” He continues, “there may be two cases which are similar in all ways that seem relevant, yet in one case there will be a recovery (which some deem a miracle) and in the other case no recovery.”


A supernatural being who performs a miracle while idly standing by in the presence of so much suffering in the course of history would be guilty of gross negligence, failing to meet obligations of moral stewardship, and failing to fulfill a duty to rescue. It would be reasonable to conclude that such a being is evil.


Overall, Christine, “Miracles, Evidence, Evil, and God: A Twenty-Year Debate,” Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 358.

Keller, James. “A Moral Argument against Miracles,” Faith and Philosophy. vol. 12, no 1. Jan 1995. 54-78

32 comments:

Huai said...

I believe a nontheist would reply that only God can define/recognize good or evil. Man is incapable of defining an event as such. Whatever God does is by definition - good.

How would one then answer this retort?

Huai said...

Above, I meant "theist". I'm a little surprised to see a philosopher use the term: Evil

Matt McCormick said...

The problem of evil has come to be the widely accepted description of a standard problem for theism.

Only 19 year olds in their first ethics class think there is no such thing as evil.

The Holocaust was evil. Pol pot was evil.
Torturing children is evil.

If a theist wants to claim that only God can recognize good and evil, they have a number of problems. First, that theist won't be entitled to claim that God is good. What ability do they have to recognize it in God? Second, deny it as much as you like, when God commands that the Israelites commit genocide and wipe out all the men, women, and boys, and then keep the girls for their own use, he's commanding something that is morally abhorrent. There won't be any way to reason with a theist who refuses to acknowledge that such an act is immoral. I've got a number of previous posts on this topic. When George Bush declared that any act that they authorized was,by definition, not torture, no one bought it. You shouldn't either. Waterboarding is not a morally praiseworthy thing to do to a person.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
It is called the "transendential argument". There are many ways of replying- the simplest is to ask them why being god gets to be a moral rulemaker- I mean the guy has doen such an... unusual job.

Or you could simply say evil is causing unneccesary suffering, and it is evil because we define it as such... and we do bad stuff to people who disagree.

There is more sophisticated answers- you can browse the web if you wish.

Huai said...

I'm not a 19 y/o (and that is a very poor reason to discount an statement) and I would be the first to disagree that Pol Pot was ALL evil. Are you saying that every intention underlying Hitler's actions, from when he was born was evil? Can't be.

I'm very surprised to see a philosopher use an unqualified use of the term good/evil. Why can't it be that whatever God commands is good as a definition (God is the not so much a rulemaker but a definer)? Morality (immoral as a term) seems to be arguably a different magisteria for humans.

Good/evil seem to me, as absolutist terms foreign to their relative nature - very odd for humanists to use instead of "good for the group as a whole" for example.

David B. Ellis said...

Huai, are you actually unacquainted with the euthyphro dilemma? With the enormous problems that come with trying to claim that moral facts are grounded in and require a god?

If you are going to argue that good and evil are meaningless terms if there is no God then, by all means, actually present such an argument.

Once you do then we'll have something to discuss.

David B. Ellis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B. Ellis said...

Also, I would point out that the Problem of evil doesn't require a belief in moral truths. It can be framed just as powerfully if moral subjectivism is true:

That is, rather than by arguing that it would be objectively morally wrong for god to allow extreme suffering, arguing that it is inconsistent with God's supposedly loving nature for him to stand by and do nothing while extreme suffering he could easily prevent takes place.

This form of the argument in no way requires any claims about whether there are or arent moral truths and presents just as effective a case against the existence of God---exactly why this form of the POE is better---it avoids getting sidetracked into a discussion about meta-ethics, as so often seems to happen in debate on this topic.

Huai said...

Well first off, I am a strong agnostic, not a professional philosopher but would like to claim rigor in reasoning.

I would like to make the distinction between morality (which is man-made and relative) and good/evil (claims about absolute truth). Although I was not familiar with the term "Euthyphro dilemma" but had heard the arguments before.

In the original article, the moral principle of "decreasing suffering" is taken as the highest principle. My contention is:

1) There needs to be a distinction between absolute claims such as good/evil versus relative morality.

2) God might have had other principles in mind during inflicting the bubonic plaque, such as setting the groundwork for the Renaissance. I can be loving toward my son when I ground him for staying out late, but he might construe this as inconsistent with a father's loving nature. He just is too immature to understand my grand design.

Maybe the author wanted a catchy title, but I find the reasoning sloppy. We might lump all premature deaths as evil, but perhaps there are finer distinctions which need to be made. While "it might be reasonable to conclude such a being as evil" one might just as well conclude "we just don't understand the way of the Lord" or what He does is good and man cannot apply observed rules as moral principles.

The reason for performing a miracle may be to impress the humans into belief and have no moral content. It seems rather presumptous to not consider some of the other possibilities.

David B. Ellis said...

As to point one, there is no need for such a distinction when the POE is framed in the form I described. Such meta-ethical questions are simply irrelevent to the argument since the argument is not based on a contradiction between a good God who is inactive in the face of evil (which is, of course, an ethical question) but simple the contradiction between one that is of a loving nature yet is inactive in the face of suffering he could prevent.

Whether morality is absolute or relative has no bearing on the issue. Either way, the contradiction between God's supposed disposition and his behavior is stilling strong evidence against his existence.

AS to point 2---its simply silly:

An omnipotent being that can't lay the groundwork for the Renaissance without releasing a plague?


I can be loving toward my son when I ground him for staying out late, but he might construe this as inconsistent with a father's loving nature.


A good example of argument by bad analogy.

It would fit the reality of our world and its suffering better if the father chopped the son's arm off for staying out all night.....but then that wouldn't be useful for someone trying to argue for the plausibility of a loving God.

Huai said...

I've read an argument similar to your second point in Smith's Atheism. I don't think it is a strong one because we as mortals are not in a position to argue whether a supreme being's punitive action is too heavy handed.

Your POE argument denies the distinction between morality and the use of the terms good/evil - seemingly without stated reason.

Divine command theory seems to me to be careful not to use "good/evil". I would not object to the article if the author had titled it: A God Who Performs Miracles is Immoral.

Many cancer survivors say they are better people having gone through the ordeal and would not relive their life any other way. Call it philosophical moralizing, but they might just as easily have said "God loves me and made me a better person by making me go through chemotherapy."

Finally, let me suggest just one other possibility in addition to your conclusion, "Either way, the contradiction between God's supposed disposition and his behavior is stilling strong evidence against his existence."

That is: The contradiction between God's behavior and loving nature is strong evidence for either his Deist nature or misunderstood concern for each and every individual. Again I wish to reiterate, sloppy atheist writing undermine our side's presentation.

BTW, Y. pestis infestation destroyed the restrictive manor structure, greatly improved monetization, created private property, weakened Catholicism by trying people's faith and created upward mobility. What a brilliant god!

Huai said...

Dave Ellis,

One more thing, could you define "evil"? (Immoral I understand.) Osama bin Laden is revered by a significant portion of the earth's population even though an equally large portion labels him as evil. (I only bring this up as Matt McCormick chooses to label Pol Pot at evil).

I've been rereading your postings and at most I see you are equating evil with unnecessary or excessive suffering, whatever that means.

I'll even try to help out with the other term: Good, well that's when something is good for my team!

David B. Ellis said...


I don't think it is a strong one because we as mortals are not in a position to argue whether a supreme being's punitive action is too heavy handed.


Anyone who comprehends the definitions of the terms "omnipotent", "omniscient" and "loving" is in more than sufficiently good position to judge the existence of an entity defined as having all those characteristics to be implausible in the extreme.

The issue here isnt whether there is a bare possibility a loving God could have a reason for allowing extreme suffering which is not inconsistent with that loving nature. Pretty much any claim, no matter how implausible, can pass that bar.

The question is whether its actually reasonable to set the bar for belief that low.

Because, if it is, then its reasonable to believe pretty much anything.

Someone believes the Harry Potter books are historical fact and that they were written by JK Rowling, a real live witch, to introduce the muggles to the wizarding world in a gradual way to minimize disorientation?

Sure. No problem. Perfectly reasonable.

Remember here the argument in question was concerning what's reasonable to believe based on the evidence....not on whether something is a bare logical possibility.

Matt McCormick said...

I don't know if it will be productive to pursue this much further,but just a few more comments. David Ellis is just dead on right about this. 2,500 years ago Socrates showed that it's just irrelevant what God commands because the question of whether or not an action is a good one is a separate matter. It is always possible to wonder whether or not God's commandments are themselves moral.

We also have 2,500 years of important moral theories that give a foundation for ethics that do not rest on God. See Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Mill, Rawls, and Singer just for starters. They all have robust and sophisticated accounts of the natural of morality. And they'll all give you plenty of definitions for you to ponder, Huai.

Keep in mind that the original post is about the unfairness and the neglect indicated by a God who does miracles. If God does one miracle but doesn't do anything about a million other situations that look just like it, he's being inconsistent. It would be more like you rewarding your son for being out late one night and then torturing him mercilessly with cattle prods for being out late the next night.

The moral relativist point is really a dead end here. Think about it, Huai. You don't really want to argue that my argument if faulty because we don't have any grounds for morally condemning Hitler or Pol Pot, do you? You don't really want to argue that David Cash or the witnesses to the Kitty Genovese case didn't do anything wrong because there really isn't any such thing as "wrong." Suppose the cops show up while you are torturing someone for laughs, are you going to insist that they have no grounds to condemn you because there's really no such thing as good/evil?

I have a long list of previous posts where I've dealt this this problem from several different angles. Take a look at all of those, linked on the left side of the main page:

Evil and God

* God’s Evil
* If There is a Satan, Then There Is No God
* God and Suffering
* The Paradox of the Soul Building Defense for Evil
* God or Gratuitous Evil?
* The Double Standard of God’s Goodness
* The Super Evil Challenge
* Is Heaven Guilt Money?
* The Inductive Problem of Evil Argument for Atheism
* What Would Make the Atheist Happy?

And read the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on virtue ethics, deontological ethics, utilitarianism, social contract theories, moral realism, and the problem of evil.

MM

David B. Ellis said...


One more thing, could you define "evil"? (Immoral I understand.)


The terms good and evil are used in many ways. In general, when I use the terms I use them as synonymous with "benevolent" and "malevolent". However, this is different from the usage in the POE, where the term "evil" has a distinctly different meaning which can be confusing for the modern reader:


I've been rereading your postings and at most I see you are equating evil with unnecessary or excessive suffering, whatever that means.


The term "evil" when used in the philosophical argument called the problem of evil is used to mean extreme and unnecessary suffering---not malevolence, nor moral wrongness, the two narrower meanings in common usage today. Though, of course, such suffering may, in some cases, be due to malevolence and be morally wrong as well. Still, that isn't the meaning of the term in this context.

This is, of course, confusing for those not acquainted with philosophy. That's why I prefer the term "problem of unnecessary suffering" to "problem of evil".

But this isn't my blog or my post and problem of evil was the term used so I'm forced to deal with the confusions that inevitably result from framing the argument as the POE rather than the POUS.

If only I had a dollar for every time I've had to go over this.....

David B. Ellis said...


And read the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on virtue ethics, deontological ethics, utilitarianism, social contract theories, moral realism, and the problem of evil.


Absolutely. And to that list I would add ideal observer theory as well.

Huai said...

“Socrates showed that it's just irrelevant what God commands because the question of whether or not an action is a good one is a separate matter. It is always possible to wonder whether or not God's commandments are themselves moral.”

This seems to me to be a restatement of my position.

“Keep in mind that the original post is about the unfairness and the neglect indicated by a God who does miracles.”

I am perfectly okay with a title of “A God Who Performs Miracles is Unfair.” Or “A God Who Performs Miracles is Neglectful.”

“You don't really want to argue that my argument if faulty because we don't have any grounds for morally condemning Hitler or Pol Pot, do you?”

This is a misrepresentation of my position. I do morally condemn the actions of Hitler and Pol Pot. Saying their actions are actions were evil might even be okay with me. What I said was misguided is saying they (themselves) were evil.

I appreciate Dave Ellis’ last posting on his difficulty with the definitions of evil/malevolence and the confusion it presents with a nonprofessional philosopher who is presumably the main audience of a blog such as this. That is about as close to an agreement can be reached and I thank you. I think defining evil as equated with malevolence might be acceptable, but then why not more accurately title the article to (and avoid the absolutism of evil):

“A God Who Performs Miracles Is Malevolent To Most And Beneficent To Few.”?

Brad said...

I propose another paradox.

If an atheist is certain there is no God and no eternal reality, why should he waste his time converting others to his belief?

Surely, a conversion attempt in either direction would be a waste of everyone's time and since life is short and meaningless, why bother?

As an atheist, you have no motivation to persuade me, so the only one left to persuade must be... you.

Something to think about.

-Brad
www.SimplyOneLife.org

Anthony said...

Brad,

What a tired argument. There is a reason we push so hard. We can actually see religion laying havoc upon the Earth. 2,00 years of Christian genocidal history, Islam in its current state, the denial of equal rights to homosexuals based on "moral" beliefs. We may be the minority, but there is something so clear and logical about atheism.

To all,

If you have not, check out this page. Best argument ever.

http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

Anonymous said...

"huai: I believe a nontheist would reply that only God can define/recognize good or evil. Man is incapable of defining an event as such. Whatever God does is by definition - good.

How would one then answer this retort?"

Very simple. If whatever God does is good, then Judeo Christian morality is nothing more than the whim of a supernatural being.

If this was true, then if God murdered someone for NO REASON WHATSOEVER it would thus be morally right.

However, I doubt the nontheist would agree that that murder was morally acceptable. He/she is using an external moral source to analyze God's choice to murder someone and to determine that is is morally wrong.

In the end, they're still making a moral judgement, except they're using God as the vehicle for their morality.

Anonymous said...

lol, I made the same "nontheist" mistake...

Anonymous said...

If I follow your logic you are saying in a nutshell. "I don't like what God does." Then you use that as one of your 100 reasons to be an atheist.

Again we have a problem. Not liking what God does doesn't disprove Gods existence. To be an atheist you (should) have to be rational. It's the only tool you have.

David B. Ellis said...

No, anonymous. His argument is simply that the God depicted by the Bible, if he exists, is evil.

Whether he actually does exist or not is a separate question.

Snow28boarder said...

I agree with huai. Matt McCormick, you insult him in your first reply to his valid point. So you think only 19 year olds believe in relative morality? I personally wouldn't have pointed out your use of evil, I would have assumed that if pressed you would admit that it was your definition only, not a set in stone idea.

It just seems to me you only know the me vs. them argument. Both huai and I are on your side. We both think a God that would do this is immoral, yet you have to admit it is only immoral by our standards, and if someones standards were "whatever God does is morally right," you have to concede that God is not universally evil. So take it down a notch, be open to ideas. Evil is in the eye of the beholder.

Rosemary said...

By today's moral standards the god depicted in the Bible is evil.

While Christians like to provide excuses for the behavior attributed to this god they would be appalled if their children followed the moral examples set by this god.

It is even worse that a policy of "Do as I say, not as I do" because the Yahweh god commanded some horrid things as well as did them. What Christian tries to keep any of the hundreds of commandments given to the Jews around the same time as the Top Ten?

Another problem for Christians is that they have no clear basis for determining whether an act is good or evil, commanded by god, or commanded by the devil. This is pointed up by the biblical conumdrum over who it was who told David to take a census of his people. Was it God, as one author said? Or was it Satan, as another author stated? What was it that was evil about taking the census? Was it evil because one of these protagonists commanded it? Or was there something inherently evil about the act itself? If so, what was it?
The bottom line is that Christians cannot expect their children to learn good moral behavior by following the Yahweh god's biblical examples or by following his example of neglect in this present age.

So on what do these people base their moral code? An internal voice that is inconsistent with the acts of god in the Bible? An internal voice that is consistent with the acts of god in the Bible? An internal voice this is inconsistent with the acts of the devil in the bible? And, er, what are these acts, exactly? According to the book of Job, the devil colluded with the Yahweh god to harm Job on a divine bet. Whose behavior is the moral standard in this story? How does a Christian tell the difference? How can he be sure, especially if his fellow Believer comes to the opposite conclusion?

4D said...

I agree with the argument, but then i believe God exist by a simple fact, that He knows ALL, we only know that has been offered for our 20%Brain activity. We still cant cure cancer and AIDS, why?then we blame God now?if he DOES NOT exist, we shouldnt bother. If he DOEZ? life is his play ground we cant judge him, events happen for his will at his will. We have created more evil aroound us than there should be, why would that guy kill a child?then we blame GOD?that guy is the problem, a product of our problematic society.

brenn durst said...

The question, why god allowed evil.
a theist simply answered they are not of this world, that their god prepared a better place for them, those who believed, hang on to his promises,those who never faltered and endure evil.

Graceyn Yonce said...

Um... hello??? Don't you realize if God let everyone live who we prayed for, we would be spoiled/ live forever/ and God wouldn't be God.
No offence, but this is bullcrap.

Graceyn Yonce said...

how did you get all that from miracles? They are a good thing, just saying.

Aisha Arshad Alam said...

The miracles at that time were to prove to the people who disbelieved in the messengers that they were genuine and sent by God. The miracles had a purpose. As for why doesn't God solve all the evil in the world? Well this world is a test for us. If people do evil then that is their choice despite God having commanded that they do only good. If this world was perfect it would be heaven. Heaven is the reward that believers receive after being put through the test of this world. The suffering of this world is not pointless. Its a test. God is not a person. He's a supreme being and we are His creation. When you start attributing human behaviours to Him you are failing to see Him as God. He's beyond our comprehension. He can't be measured or proven by science or this world. He is out with the boundaries of this universe. How can something out with universal laws be measured by those laws? Doesn't make sense.

christian isaiah domingo said...

The reason why the author, Christine Overall and James Keller say that god is unfair because they believe that god can perform miracles only in the place where god stands on his feet. That's not the kind of god I and the rest of the believers have. Our god can perform his duties even thousands of miles away from where he stands. Analyze this, God commanded us to help those in need. Now if you want god to help all those in need then what is the purpose of his commandment.

The question of Christine Overall as to why a good God would be concerned with details like the need for wine at a wedding, and yet apparently not be concerned with huge tragedies like the holocaust of six million Jews.” is a question of someone who knows very little about the bible and god. First, how sure is she that millions of people are dying at the when Jesus turned water into wine? does it always follow that doing big things will always have a bigger impact than the small ones? how sure is she that god was not concerned about other things on that particular time? if we are going to follow her statement then I can say she is not concern about her family while she is away from them. my point here is that, it is not necessary for us to be in the same place of the needy to help them.

Jack said...

Consider this...how can there be evil, or a standard of evil without an authority to define what evil is? How can there be good without an authority to define what good is?

Is it good to feed someone, taking away their desire and ability to feed themselves?

Is it okay to kill a living being of another species for food and raiment, but not kill one of your own species?