A Dialogue with Quixote

Since its inception, Daylight Atheism has been first and foremost a platform for atheist thought. We've had plenty of theist commenters, but never an entire post written by a theist - until now.

Some of you may recognize Quixote, who's been a commenter here for some time. There have been many theists commenting on Daylight Atheism whose beliefs I've strongly disagreed with, and (I like to think) many theists whom I've been able to converse with in a spirit of civility and friendship, but I don't think any other visitor on DA combines those qualities in as high a measure as he does. That's why I thought it would make for interesting reading for the two of us to engage in a dialogue, one that avoids the usual cliched arguments and gets down to the most meaningful differences in respective worldviews. When we more clearly outline the chasm between us, it may be easier for one side or the other to see across it.

My model is the 2007 debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, which I thought was both civil and illuminating. I hope ours will achieve a similar standard. I don't have a specific plan for how many rounds this will continue; I trust the time will become clear when we've both spoken our peace. My opening statement follows below, and his will be posted tomorrow. Your comments are welcome as well, but please be sure they show the kind of civility that attracts commenters like Quixote here in the first place!

Hi Quixote,

So, as I believe we had agreed, we were going to talk about the most fundamental reasons why people become atheists or theists. In my case, there are two main ones. These are similar to arguments I've made before, but in this letter, they're described more personally: I wanted to emphasize the reasons why I'm an atheist, the ones that I myself find most convincing. You may disagree, of course. If you want to respond to these, or if you'd rather discuss the reasons that motivate your beliefs, either is fine with me.

The first reason is that, when I look at the world, I get the strong impression that no one's in charge. History lacks a discernible moral order. Happiness and misery are distributed randomly, without regard to morality; good people sometimes succeed and sometimes suffer, and evil people sometimes are punished and sometimes prosper. Humanity has made some moral progress by its own effort, but even so, this world is not one that consistently rewards virtue or punishes vice. In short, the universe gives every sign of being ruled by pure chance and mechanistic, unintelligent natural forces. And when people are suffering unjustly - by which I mean, suffering in a way that bears no relation to any choice they have made - there is no divine help for them.

That last point is the one that sticks in my craw the most. If there is a god that loves us and cares about our well-being, why doesn't he do anything to aid people who are suffering or in need? How could he not?

If I were God, I would pass through all the hospitals in the world and heal the suffering in their sickbeds. I would miraculously cure AIDS, so that millions of children don't have to grow up orphans. I would calm hurricanes before they could hit coastal communities, or at the very least, send angels to pluck people from the raging floodwaters. I would send rain where there's drought and turn deserts into fertile breadbaskets where crops grow in abundance, so no one would go hungry. When violent people tried to harm the innocent, I would make their guns turn into flowers in their hands. I can't believe that, if there is a god, I'm more moral or more compassionate than him. Yet all these evils and many more remain unalleviated, and the only aid for those in need is the aid that we give each other. My sense of conscience rebels at believing that a god is responsible for this state of affairs.

The second major reason why I'm an atheist is the diversity and confusion of religious beliefs among humankind. When you look out at the world's cultures, you don't see a uniform testimony of faith; you don't see the same creeds arrived at independently in different societies, you don't see prophets preaching the same god and the moral lessons among every people. Instead, every culture has its own beliefs and its own stories, all of which are wildly different from the ones that predominate elsewhere. If every culture in the world past and present held what was recognizably the same faith, that would be extremely difficult for an atheist to explain. But what we see instead is a vast sea of religious confusion and discord, and this suggests that what we're dealing with is the diversity and creativity of human imagination.

Again, if I were God, I would not leave humanity in darkness and ignorance. I would not communicate through hazy oracles, ancient anonymous writings, or vague promptings of conscience. I would make my message as clear as daylight and as brilliant as the sun. I would not have a chosen people; I would raise up prophets from among every people, from every region and every era, speaking my message to the populace. Or better yet, I would speak to all people individually - not in an ambiguous inner voice, but in visible, tangible manifestation, making it perfectly clear what I desired from them, so that even people who chose to ignore me would know exactly what my message was. I would not remain silent, hidden, invisible, leading some people to doubt my existence and others to cause chaos and strife as they battled over competing ideas about my wishes. This strikes me as the more rational course of action by far, and again, my sense of reason rebels when I'm asked to believe that an all-knowing god chose a plan so obviously inferior.

In my eyes, these are the two most persuasive reasons. What do you think?

April 29, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink44 comments

A World in Shadow VI

In 2006 and 2007, I wrote several entries in a series called A World in Shadow, bolstering the atheist's argument from evil by describing particularly shocking or egregious instances of natural and moral evils. However, I haven't written any new entries for this series in some time.

To be honest, I stopped writing these posts because I found them too upsetting. There are more than enough - far too many - examples of tragedy and catastrophe in this world to make the case against a benevolent overseer; we need not dwell on them. But today, I have to make just one further exception. I don't like writing about these things, but this is one case where the tragedy is so shattering, the suffering so horrendous, and the action needed to stop it so trivial, that it perfectly sums up and encapsulates the argument from evil.

I'll begin where Gene Weingarten begins, from his March 8 article in the Washington Post:

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept.

This ordinary man, Miles Harrison, was a loving father who made an irrevocable mistake: on his way in to work one day last summer, distracted and beset by daily trivialities, he forgot to drop off his infant son at daycare. He entered his office, leaving the child still strapped into his car seat in the parking lot. And over nine hours, on a sweltering July day, the temperatures inside the car rose until the boy slowly boiled to death.

It seems incredible, unbelievable that any parent could forget their own child. But this case is not the first, and it will not be the last. It happens, on average, around 20 times a year in the United States alone, to parents of every occupation and social class:

Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Part of the reason why this happens is the recommendation of safety experts that young children in child seats be in the rear of the car, facing backwards, to protect them from injury in crashes. A child who can't easily be seen by the driver is easier to forget about. But the larger reason, as Weingarten's article explains, simply has to do with the fallibility of human memory and attention. Though we value the lives of our children, that does not mean the memory is treated any differently by the neural circuitry of the brain. In people who are stressed, sleep-deprived, distracted, the higher executive functions can be shunted aside by the lower, more primitive system of the basal ganglia, an evolutionary autopilot that carries out frequently rehearsed tasks with mechanical single-mindedness. (This is why you can sometimes drive a familiar route and end up at your destination with no memory of the journey.) Usually this is a harmless mental shortcut, but when it goes awry, this is the tragedy that results.

I have no desire to place blame on the parents who do this. For the most part, they're not bad people; they're loving parents who made an awful mistake, and who've already punished themselves far beyond anything a judge or jury could ever impose. But consider, now, how little a benevolent god - if there was one - would have to do to stop this from happening. It would take no dramatic interventions, no obvious miracles - just a small, possibly even subconscious nudge to the parent before it was too late. It would interfere with no one's free will to do this. These parents, after all, are not murderers, did not desire to kill their children.

But these tragedies continue to occur, and that can only mean one of three things. Either there is no cosmic authority watching the affairs of humankind, and we are on our own and must take the initiative ourselves if we are to prevent tragedies like this. Or there is a god who lacks either the knowledge of what is going on or the ability to do anything about it. Or, most horrifyingly, there is a god who knows perfectly well when this happens, could save these children if he so desired, but does nothing - only stands by and watches while innocent infants slowly broil to death behind glass.

For reasons I cannot fathom, millions of people adopt the third of those three choices and call it comforting. What comfort they find in believing that their lives are overseen by such a heartless monster, I couldn't say. But there is reason to believe that at least some people to whom this has happened have drawn the obvious moral:

The Terrys are Southern Baptists. Before Mika's death, Mikey Terry says, church used to be every Sunday, all day Sunday, morning Bible study through evening meal. He and his wife, Michele, don't go much anymore. It's too confusing, he says.

"I feel guilty about everyone in church talking about how blessed we all are. I don't feel blessed anymore. I feel I have been wronged by God. And that I have wronged God. And I don't know how to deal with that."

Four years have passed, but he still won't go near the Catholic church he'd been working at that day. As his daughter died outside, he was inside, building a wall on which would hang an enormous crucifix.

Other posts in this series:

March 20, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Free Will and Evil

A correspondent to William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith column writes in with a very good question, one that atheists have often raised:

An acquaintance of mine recently asked me why it is necessary that we be able to choose evil for us to have free will, while it is not necessary that God be able to choose evil for Him to have free will....

I cannot explain why, if God could create us free without the capacity to choose evil, He did not do so (especially given the fact that we are created in His image, and He is unable to choose evil). Is it because we are finite?

Craig's first response is to suggest that possible worlds such as this exist, but are somehow worse than worlds with moral evil, in some unspecified way:

It’s consistent with the Free Will Defense that although there are possible worlds such as you describe, they have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable to worlds in which humans can choose both evil and good.

Again, Craig is tripped up by the most common problem that plagues Christians who argue for the necessity of evil: what about Heaven? That is a type of existence in which, presumably, we retain our free will but no longer choose evil. Craig seems to concede that it is possible for God to create such a world. All we're asking is why, if this is going to be the end state anyway, God didn't simply start out with that and not create a world of suffering in which billions of people end up condemned. Is Craig arguing that Heaven has "overriding deficiencies" that make it inferior to Earth?

The atheist has to prove that, necessarily, God would prefer a world without evil (for whatever reason) over any world with evil if he’s to prove that God and evil are logically incompatible.

This is a bizarre point for Craig to deny. Is he really claiming that God does not prefer worlds without evil over worlds with evil? That would fly in the face of two thousand years of Christian theology by implying a God who was either malevolent himself or, at best, morally indifferent. The usual Christian apologetic response is that God values free will highly enough that he considers it worth the cost, but Craig has already foreclosed that argument: he agrees that there are possible worlds with free will and no evil, but claims that they have unspecified "overriding deficiencies" that make them even less desirable. Left unexplained is why God's omnipotent power is incapable of correcting those deficiencies as well.

Craig's second response, which seems to contradict his first, is that it's actually not possible for God to create beings who only choose the good:

A free being which possesses a nature which is characterized by less than complete moral perfection... lacks the power to choose infallibly the Good. For God to create a being which has the ability to choose infallibly the Good would be, in effect, to create another God, which is logically impossible, since God is essentially uncaused; and, of course, omnipotence does not entail the ability to bring about the logically impossible.

This entire chain of inferences is built on a starting premise that is obviously nonsensical. A being possessing moral perfection, but not omnipotence or omniscience or omnipresence or atemporality or other attributes usually identified with God, would not be another God; it would simply be a free-willed being possessing moral perfection. Again, Christianity itself supplies an example of this: angels are traditionally believed to have free will - they must have, else how could any of them have fallen? - and yet, they are said to infallibly carry out the will of God.

Indeed, if God is uncaused by definition, then there ought to be no problem here. He could create a being possessing all of his other attributes - omnipotence, omniscience and so on - and yet, since this being was caused and not eternal, it would not be God.

There's a larger issue which neither William Lane Craig nor this week's questioner explores in detail. Namely, an abiding puzzle for Christian theology is why, if God hates evil and sin so much, he created a world that would guarantee the production of massive quantities of it. As I've written in the past, free will is not a mathematical point, nor is it a simple binary choice between good and evil. Free will is a complex bundle of desires, habits and predispositions, any of which can be altered or taken away. Even if we grant the premise that free will is necessary for a world of meaningful choice, why wouldn't God create human beings with inclinations toward virtue, so that few people exercise the evil options that are theoretically open to them? The reality of our world seems rather to be the opposite.

Other posts in this series:

March 9, 2009, 6:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink86 comments

Thoughts on the Soul-Making Theodicy

In "All Possible Worlds", I wrote about the various religious responses to the problem of evil. Today, I want to say some more words about one of the common theodicies, the "teaching" or "soul-making" theodicy, as it's defended in the Christian tradition. This theodicy holds that experiencing and resisting evil is the only way to produce the kind of genuine moral development and strength of character that God desires.

In the Christian view, one could imagine that the universe is like a testing ground, with human beings sitting for their exams under the eye of a divine proctor. But God, according to the Christians, is not a stern, disinterested examiner who grades on a curve. On the contrary, he wants as many people as possible to pass. Why, then, would he not make the test as easy as possible?

Even if we grant that moral development requires facing and overcoming real temptations to evil, there is no reason why the choice needs to be as difficult as it is. Our world, according to the teachings of many religions, is fraught with temptation - nearly every situation offers an opportunity to sin. Worse, the path of evil often holds the promise of considerable material rewards, whereas the path of virtue entails continual sacrifice and self-denial.

A wise and benevolent architect would not have done things in this way. Instead, he could have arranged things so that the world steers us toward good rather than toward evil. He could have seen to it that, in most circumstances, obeying the rules was the only realistic course of action, and opportunities for disobedience only reared their head in special rare and limited cases. He could have ordered the world so that the good were blessed with happiness and prosperity, whereas evildoers suffered privation. A world like this would still have provided for moral development by offering real opportunities to do evil, yet would have guided far more people to the correct path.

It might be objected that a world like this would encourage people to do good purely out of self-interest, rather than practicing virtue for its own sake, and that this is not the kind of moral development God wants. But if that's true, then we already have a problem: the traditional monotheistic religions all teach that there is a Heaven for the obedient and a Hell for the disobedient. These teachings, too, could inspire people to believe purely for the sake of self-interest, but it is not believed that such conversions are unacceptable to God. Thus, there's no reason why a more perfectly ordered world would cause a greater problem in this respect.

Another point against the soul-making theodicy is that, often, evil does not give rise to good but only to more evil. Many people respond to unjust suffering with anger, frustration and vengeance, rather than developing patience and fortitude. Severe and incessant suffering, such as many people experience, does not produce virtue but only trauma, passivity and despair. A world where evil was restricted to special circumstances would give people more of an opportunity to resist and overcome it than a world such as ours where evil can be pervasive and inescapable.

Finally, the soul-making theodicy has one more big problem to confront: the fact that most conceptions end not in birth but in spontaneous abortion. Via the Christian "age of accountability" doctrine, the bizarre, yet inescapable conclusion is that most of Heaven's residents will never have had a mortal life at all.

The age-of-accountability doctrine is incompatible with the soul-making theodicy. How could it possibly be true that God had no choice but to fill the mortal world with suffering and disaster to temper our moral fiber, yet he has no problem granting salvation to those souls who avoid mortal life altogether and are never tested at all? This would be like a professor giving a complex, difficult test, which most of his students fail, yet giving straight As to those who skip the test and never show up in class.

October 22, 2008, 8:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink106 comments

Poetry Sunday: Design

This month's Poetry Sunday features another classic by a famous poet who's already made an appearance: Robert Frost, the skeptical New Englander whose work has become iconic of the American experience.

Frost's views on God are complex. In some of his letters, he calls himself "an old dissenter", "secular till the last go down", and said there were "no vampires, no ghouls, no demons, nothing but me". In others, he expresses belief in and even fear of God, whom he usually identifies as the wrathful Old Testament deity Jehovah. Still, after twenty years of marriage, his wife said he was an atheist, and he did not deny it. (See Robert Frost: Old Testament Christian or Atheist? for a fuller exploration of Frost's religious beliefs.)

What I find remarkable is that so many of Frost's poems, when speaking of people and their relationships, are warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. Only when he turns to the subject of God does his poetry become dark and terrifying. Consider poems like "Once by the Pacific", Frost's famous vision of the apocalypse, or "A Loose Mountain", which envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth like a stone thrown from a sling. I think the best way to describe Frost is as a frustrated freethinker, one who never fully shook off the religious indoctrination of his past.

Today's poem, simply titled "Design", explores some of Frost's own beliefs about God and nature. It comes from his 1936 collection A Further Range. In it, the poet muses on the experience of witnessing a camouflaged spider capture a helpless moth, and poses a version of the same question that has stymied philosophers since antiquity: why would a benevolent deity create a world where predation and death were integral parts of the natural order? If God oversees the course of events, then must not the evil be part of his will, as well as the good?


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Other posts in this series:

June 1, 2008, 11:17 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Evolution and the Problem of Evil

In the opening chapter of The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins penned the following words:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Creationists have quote-mined this statement ad nauseam in a bid to prove - admitted by the archbishop of atheism, Richard Dawkins himself! - that accepting evolution requires one to give up belief in God. But if they use this statement for that purpose, they haven't read it very carefully. What Dawkins is actually saying is something different: not that Darwin made it necessary to be an atheist, but possible. Before Darwin, there was no compelling reply to the argument that only a supernatural creator could have brought about the well-adapted diversity of life. Now there's an alternate explanation, one that does not require any godly intervention. A believer could say that God used evolution as his means of creation, but an atheist can just as well say that evolution happened in God's absence.

Of course, if it's a vital tenet of your religion that the Earth is 6,000 years old and was created in seven days, then there's no help for it: evolution contradicts your religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean evolution was dreamed up by a bunch of nefarious atheists seeking to undermine faith. It just means you foolishly placed your religious beliefs out where science had something to say about them. If it's a vital tenet of your religion that lightning and thunder are the strike of Thor's hammer, then modern meteorology will likewise seem to you to be an atheistic conspiracy invented to turn people away from belief in your god. That's your fault, though, not the meteorologists'.

As I've written before, I despise the idea of hiding my true beliefs for the sake of political expediency. If I really did believe that evolution necessarily and inevitably implied atheism, I would say so. But I don't believe that.

As I said, evolution does disprove clumsy, literalist interpretations of theism, although no more so than any other branch of science. Just as Richard Dawkins said, it also robs the force of the argument from design, providing a powerful means of producing complex life that does not require the intervention of a deity.

It does not, however, prove that no deity exists. No branch of science, evolution included, can ever fully rule out the idea of a god who works behind the scenes to control the course of events in a way indistinguishable from natural law and coincidence. Certainly, it's possible that God has been subtly guiding the evolution of life over the eons, nudging molecules at the right time to create just the right mutations that would shape the future to his will. There's no way to disprove that, although I also don't see any reason to believe it.

That said, I don't think this gets theism completely off the hook. One could postulate a god like the kind I described - but then one is also faced with the unavoidable problem that a god which controlled evolution would be a god who deliberately brought about enormous amounts of suffering, terror, death and extinction to achieve his goals. Evolution proceeds by the death of the losers, and those organisms that are weak or cannot defend themselves are ruthlessly exploited. Infectious disease, parasitism, and predation are the rule at every level and in every niche of life. It's quite amazing that this process of ceaseless struggle and violence has brought forth living things as beautiful, intricate and diverse as the ones as we see. We can appreciate that beauty, but we shouldn't forget what lies behind it. This is just what Darwin meant when he wrote about the parasitic wasps who implant their hungry larvae in a caterpillar's living body, and how he could not persuade himself that a benevolent god would have deliberately designed such a thing.

In this respect, I think evolution does pose a problem to believers in God. Of course, Darwin didn't invent all the pain and ugliness in the world. The ruthless amorality of nature is an observed fact, not subject to debate. Even if evolution turned out to be false or had never been proposed, theists would still face the challenge of explaining it.

With that in mind, my conclusion is this: Evolution does not disprove the existence of God. It does add force to the atheist's argument from evil, but it's just one point in a larger picture, and the problem as a whole would remain even if evolution were to fall. A person who accepts evolution and still believes in God can do so consistently. But evolution does cast into sharper relief the problem of evil, a recurring problem for theism of all varieties. It doesn't create a problem for theism where none existed previously, but it does further drive the point home.

May 19, 2008, 8:22 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink43 comments

The Arrogance of the Miraculous

This past Tuesday, a DC-9 jetliner crashed on takeoff in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After failing to lift off, the plane crashed and burst into flame on the ground. Among the passengers were the Mosiers, a family of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries. With the help of other passengers, they forced open a door and escaped as smoke filled the stricken plane's cabin. The Mosiers' 3-year-old son Andrew suffered a broken leg, but other than that, they got out with only bruises. Surely, this was a miraculous escape - a tangible sign of God's supernatural protection - and the Mosiers didn't hesitate to affirm that belief:

"We couldn't believe that our family of four could all escape a plane that was crashed and on fire, but by God's mercy, we did," he said.

Mosier said he believes the family made it for a reason.

"I think the Lord has a plan for us, otherwise we wouldn't have survived," he said. "He still has work for us to do."

There's just one tiny little problem with this interpretation. After failing to lift off, the plane overshot the end of the runway and crashed through a fence, into a crowded marketplace. Most of those on board the plane got out, but the people on the ground had not been expecting a huge mass of tangled, flaming metal to suddenly come hurtling towards them. The market was decimated, and at least 40 people died.

Read those sappy, self-congratulatory quotes again. The missionaries made it out by God's mercy. God has a plan for them. He miraculously saved them from this catastrophe.

Now read the accounts of people on the ground:

Hundreds of people gathered at the morgue in Goma. Annemarie Mulotwa, 19, leaned against a wall and wept for her young nephew, Kikuni.

"I saw his body inside, he is dead, he was burned," Mulotwa said, covering her face with her hands. "He was 12 years old, he was only in primary school. He wasn't even on the plane."

Mary Rose Kiza, 33, said she watched as her 15-year-old son ran out of a shop, his clothes and body on fire. She does not know if her three other sons were alive.

"What have I done to God to deserve this?" she wailed outside the morgue, after leaving a hospital bed where she was treated for back injuries.

Apparently, God's mercy protected the family of white American missionaries on board the plane, but God did not have mercy on the 12-year-old boy who was burned to death. Evidently, God had no particular plan for the lives of the dozens of people in the marketplace, nor did he have any reason for them to continue living, so there was no reason for him not to violently kill them in a sudden, unexpected disaster. This view makes us all out to be God's toys, to be used as he sees fit while we're useful and then thrown away without a second thought when we're no longer useful. Don't these missionaries see the grotesque arrogance and ugly narcissism of believing that they rated God's special protection, while the people burning and dying all around them did not?

In the real world, there are no demonstrable miracles, and in catastrophes like this one, blind chance rules the day. The lack of any tangible evidence that a deity is protecting his followers makes it even more offensive for people to claim that their survival was due to some special worthiness or virtue. A humbler, more ethical philosophy would refrain from drawing any conclusions about the relative moral worth of those who survived versus those who didn't, and simply express happiness to be alive without demeaning those who were not so fortunate.

April 18, 2008, 6:27 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity

Last month, in "An Impoverished Infinity", I wrote about the strange limitations that many Christian believers impose on God. These theists believe that God was not wise or powerful enough to create a world with intelligent beings that did not also include earthquakes, diseases and other disasters - as if the infinite space of possible worlds was somehow foreclosed.

The discussion in the comments thread centered largely around the issue of free will, which is the most common example of these theological limitations. Several theists showed up to argue that God could have created human beings such that we never chose to sin, but believe that he could only have done so by making us into automata who lack meaningful freedom.

I believe this argument is wrong, and I'll explain why. As I wrote some time ago, what it means to have free will is that you can choose from the options available to you in accordance with your desires. The "automata" claim overlooks the fact that there are three things which free will does not require.

First, free will does not require infinite choice, where every imaginable course of action is a realistic possibility. Even if the laws of nature and logic restrict our options to a limited set, we can still choose freely from among the members of that set. Free will is not a total absence of constraint, but rather the ability to select among the options that are available.

Free will also does not require a mental blank slate, where every possible course of action seems equally attractive and compelling. On the contrary, a free person can have dispositions, desires and character traits that incline them to choose a certain way in a given situation. This must be so, for a person who had no desires or inclinations would never act at all. Having a certain set of unchosen desires is a precondition for having a will in the first place. Just as with the previous point, we are still free because we can still choose among the options open to us. What makes a person unfree is not acting in accordance with their desires, but being compelled to act against their desires.

Finally, free will does not require randomness. Granted, a free person can choose to inject a kind of "radical choice" into their decision-making, permitting their decisions to be controlled by some external source of random input - whether it be a coin-flip or quantum noise in the synapses of the brain. But a random component is not required for an act to be free. Even a decision that involves no quality of randomness, one that is entirely determined by the facts and reasons available to the decision-maker, can be a free choice.

After all, wouldn't the freest possible agent be one who is perfectly responsive to reason, who is perfectly aware of all the facts relevant to any decision, and who decides on that basis? Such a person would always make the decisions that were best for them without ever needing to choose randomly, and surely that is the purest and most desirable form of free will. Anything less would be inferior, because being unaware of facts relevant to our choices diminishes, not increases, our freedom; it causes us to overlook possibilities we would otherwise have considered.

All three of these points should be uncontroversial, even among theists. To deny either of the first two is to deny that humans have free will, because obviously we do have built-in inclinations and do not have infinite choice. To deny the third, meanwhile, is to deny that God has free will; or at the very least, it is to suggest that our free will is more perfect than his, because we are blessed with ignorance and he, presumably, is not. Since I doubt that most theists would want to make either of those claims, I figure they would agree with me.

Now see where these conclusions lead. Free will does not require unlimited choice, absence of desire, or randomness. A person whose choices are constrained by physical law and their own desires, and who chooses in accordance with those desires and with the relevant facts, still can be and is free in a way that is genuine, significant, and worth wanting. (In fact, each of us is such a person.)

Given all this, why couldn't an omnipotent deity have done things differently? Such a being could have created a world where evil was a literal impossibility, where physical law is constituted by God's will and it is not possible to act in contravention to that will. Or God could have created a world in which evil acts were physically possible, but in which human psychology would be different than it actually is, such that we only desire to choose the good. To truly rule out evil in this world, our decisions would also have to be non-random, so that chance would not occasionally intervene and cause us to do evil despite our desires. In either of these worlds, human beings would truly be morally perfect.

None of these options, as we've seen, would turn humans into puppets or automata. We would still be truly and legitimately free. But in these worlds, there would be no sin or wrongdoing at all, and thus no evil, no suffering, no need to create an afterlife of torture or send earthly catastrophes as punishment. Why wouldn't God, if he exists, have created a world like this? It would have been superior to our own in every way.

The force of this argument should be undeniable. In fact, in worldviews like the Christian one, God conferred on human beings a positive attraction to sin - a set of psychological inclinations that frequently bias our decisions toward disobedience. If that isn't seen as taking away our free will, why couldn't he have done the opposite and instead given human beings an equally strong set of inclinations toward obedience? In short, instead of original sin, why not original virtue? If God hates sin so much, why would he create a world that would all but ensure the maximum amount of it?

A rational deity would not demand moral perfection unless he created beings capable of supplying it. To say otherwise contradicts a basic point of morality: that you cannot blame someone for not doing what they are not capable of doing. This is why, for example, we don't hold mentally ill people criminally responsible. We understand that their capacity to tell right from wrong is impaired, and that it wouldn't be just to treat them as we treat people who possess that capacity. But God, if we believe the Christian logic, rejects this reasoning - he created human beings imperfect and then punishes them harshly for their imperfection. If, as the Bible says, God is "not willing that any should perish", then I am unable to see why he would not have created a world where that will could be realized.

February 4, 2008, 8:28 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink124 comments

An Impoverished Infinity

In Christian theology, God is presented as the omnipotent creator, able to bring about literally any world it is possible to imagine. His power has no limits, he never suffers from weakness or fatigue, and he possesses the omniscient knowledge necessary to shape the world according to his overarching plan.

Or so Christian apologists say, anyway. Yet when we atheists challenge them with the problem of evil, asking why a benevolent creator would bring about a world where disease and disaster wreak havoc on the innocent, these same apologists often fall back on a very strange defense. They insist that this is the best world God could possibly have created, that natural evil is a regrettable necessity, and that not even infinite power could have made a world where conscious beings like us could exist without also including these undesirable elements.

In the past few weeks, I've had two Christian correspondents make the same argument to me in e-mail. First, one visitor said this:

Take earthquakes, for example. Earthquakes are almost exclusively caused as a result of plate tectonics. Plates move, grind, slip - and the earth shakes as a result. The only alternative is to have a fixed, unmoving crust - plates that cannot move. But scientists have proven that plate tectonics are, in essence, a "necessary evil." Without the movement of the plates, life on earth as we know it could not exist. Therefore, in order to have life, one must accept plate tectonics - and the earthquakes that come with it.

In another example, I asked a Christian correspondent if he believes God could have avoided the need to create Hell by creating human beings who desired above all else to worship God as he requires. My correspondent's response: "There are 5 billion or so examples on this planet that show that what you propose is not possible."

Though neither of my correspondents seemed to notice, their argument effectively demotes God from omnipotence. What they're effectively saying is that God is not powerful enough, or wise enough, to create the world as other than it is. Not even an infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent deity could have engineered a universe with different natural laws or conditions than ours, so as to permit self-aware living beings but exclude earthquakes caused by plate tectonics. This amounts to a claim that it is logically necessary that earthquakes accompany life, in the same way it is logically necessary that triangles have 180 degrees.

Similarly, the second argument amounts to a claim that it is logically impossible for human beings to be any different than we are. Not even God could have created us with different dispositions, different characters, different natures. Human beings as we are, with all our faults and contingent pecularities - our xenophobia, our emotional turmoil, our impulses to lust and violence, our often faulty grasp of cause and effect - are the only sentient creatures that exist anywhere in all the limitless space of possibility. Truly, the infinity of possible worlds must be an impoverished infinity indeed in the theist mind.

Even famous Christian apologists are willing to put sweeping limitations on God's power when theologically convenient. C.S. Lewis did the same thing in The Problem of Pain, claiming that this world is the only one God had the power to create, that he could not have made it any different, and that even God could not think of a way to allow life and free will without also allowing random disaster and catastrophe:

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself...

...With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.

For people who believe in God, these theists don't give him much credit. They presume that God has no more imagination or knowledge than they, and that since they can't think of any world better than our own, then he couldn't either. Like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's famous satire Candide, they blithely assume that this must be the best of all possible worlds, not subject to improvement in any way.

Admittedly this conclusion, absurd though it is, is a rational conclusion from their own strained premises. Since Christians start with the assumption that God is all-powerful and good, they logically infer that he would not have created anything less than the best world possible. But this conclusion runs smack into the manifest imperfection of the actual world.

By contrast, atheists who are not bound by theological preconceptions can readily imagine ways in which an omnipotent being could have crafted better worlds than our own. (I listed just a few possibilities last March in "Improving on God's Handiwork"). This may relate to the common theme of fundamentalists fearing sci-fi and fantasy writing - it may well be that the exercise of imagining worlds different from ours is a dangerous path for these believers' tightly circumscribed imaginations to start down.

January 17, 2008, 10:31 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink162 comments

A World in Shadow V

A while back, I came across the moving story of an individual calling himself Real Live Preacher, whose faith was shattered when he saw a young mother die while working as a hospital chaplain:

30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.

Jenny had only one request. "I know I'm going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It's for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it."

She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an "alphabet blocks and apples" kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.

She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing - sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter's wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.

I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

This terrible, heartbreaking tragedy, alas, is far from the only one of its kind. Even a world where suffering and disaster were rare, lightning-like events would pose a potent challenge to belief in a benevolent god. But in our world, such tragic stories are all too common. Misery and catastrophe strike virtually every life at some point, including both believers and nonbelievers, and many people live their entire lives in pain and need. As the proliferation of theodicies show, religious believers are very far from finding a satisfactory resolution to this problem.

Yet I'm not convinced that all the effort at theodicy truly helps at all. All religious explanations for evil and suffering have in common the notion that these tragedies do not happen at random, that God has ordained them for some reason of his own. And that, to me, makes the problem even worse.

In a recent column in On Faith, Susan Jacoby makes this point bracingly clear. Simply put, an atheist never has to ask why people suffer natural evil. We do not have to ask "Why me?", because there is no "why". We live in a natural universe with laws that do not bow to our will, or anyone's. Thus, when natural evil strikes, there is no reason, no intentionality behind it. Like all natural phenomena, evil is a random phenomenon, admitting of no deeper meaning.

Religious apologists may think this cold and impersonal, but I find it strangely comforting. Knowing that the suffering we incur was not our fault, that we did nothing to deserve it, is a far more appealing idea than the logical opposite, that we were being deliberately targeted by God. Believers who suffer must inevitably ask if it was punishment for something they did, or if God wanted to teach them some sort of lesson. And this problem afflicts liberal religious believers no less than conservative ones, for they all believe that God orders the world in his divine providence. Atheists, by contrast, do not have to search for a reason justifying tragedy. We know that it is an unqualified evil that should be opposed without reservation, and that the only response that is required is for us to reach out and help one another in times of need.

Other posts in this series:

October 19, 2007, 10:00 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink62 comments

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