The rationality of theism and the problem of evil
As I noted in the comment thread of “Is belief in God rational? My Reasonable Doubts Debate with Chris Hallquist,” my contribution to the debate has received a vicious and ill-informed response from commenters at “Reasonable Doubts”. However, one commenter named Michael did offer a courteous and thoughtful comment in response to my article which I find deserving of a reply. Let me begin by quoting Michael’s comment in full:
I listened to your debate and read the comments. It is unfortunate that somebody used that kind of invective, which is out of place. To be fair though, most of the comments were more thoughtful and related to the actual content of the debate.
During the discussion, Chris asked several times for your explanation on how the rape and murder of a five-year old girl was consistent with your view of an all-loving and all-powerful god. In my view, you evaded the question in favor until the end, at which point you listed a number of possible objections. I don’t have recall them all, but at least one seemed irrelevant, such as the chaotic explanation of natural disasters (?)
In your closing, you provided a response for what you seem to suggest is a parallel problem, that of a son dying from some disease. You quote the mother’s justification, in part by saying “how could we be expected to know?” If you are willing to answer related but easier questions, why not address the one posed by Chris?
I don’t see the question as a cheap dramatic debating trick. I think it is exactly the kind of challenge to theism which helps keep me as a non-believer.
Perhaps you could take this opportunity to share your point of view. What are the best arguments for explaining how a loving god would allow this kind of rape / murder, which by the way is not a unique event but replicated on a massive scale across the world and throughout history?
If you think this kind of act is actually evidence for god, as I think you suggested, I would be interested to hear your views on that as well.
I think many of the listeners at Reasonable Doubts, and perhaps your own blog followers, would rather hear your answers to this than some of the more narrow arguments which occupied much of the debate.
Thanks in advance for your thoughts. I hope you find this respectfully offered.
Michael is asking about the problem of evil. However, if we are going to address the problem of evil, it should be with reference to the topic of debate, viz. “Is belief in God rational?” I was arguing that belief in God can be rational while Chris Hallquist was arguing that it cannot be rational.
Unfortunately Chris offered no definition of rationality, so I stepped in and noted in my opening statement (which, as per the instructions of Reasonable Doubts, was in fact written as a rebuttal to Chris):
We can define rational belief negatively and positively. Negatively we can define a rational belief as a belief the holding of which violates no epistemic duty. If Chris wants to claim that all theists (or a defined subset of theists) violate some particular epistemic duty, perhaps he can explain what that duty is in his rebuttal.
In our present context, Chris would have to demonstrate that the problem of evil is such that it renders any theistic belief the violation of an epistemic duty. Chris provided no such duty that is being violated.
Next, I noted that rational belief can also be defined positively:
Positively, a rational belief is any belief that is either properly non-basic or properly basic. A properly non-basic belief is a belief that is held appropriately in light of supporting evidence. A properly basic belief is a belief that is held appropriately but which does not require evidence.
I went on to demonstrate in the debate that Chris had not defended the claim that no theist could believe in God either as a properly basic or non-basic belief.
And please keep in mind that the burden of proof here is borne by Chris and that by his own choice since he and/or Justin Schieber selected the debate topic. Chris was the one who wanted to shoulder the burden of demonstrating that all theists are irrational, and so it was his obligation to demonstrate this. Failure to do so would warrant the conclusion that at least some theists are rational in their theism which is consistent with my position.
But wait, doesn’t the problem of evil provide a defeater to theistic belief? And specifically, doesn’t the rape and murder of a child constitute a great evil and so a defeater to God’s existence? And that, I take it, is the substance of Michael’s question.
First off, in the debate I pointed out that there is no logical contradiction between God’s being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and the existence of evil. All one needs to recognize is that God would have a morally sufficient reason for allowing any evil that occurs. Thus, the onus is on Chris to demonstrate that no rational person could believe that God has such reasons. But he didn’t even try to argue that position. And yet it is precisely his burden in the debate to do so.
What Chris’ approach overlooks, is that people have multiple reasons for being theists (a point I made several times in the debate). Life is full of examples of rational belief that are held despite anomalies (or putative defeaters) to those beliefs because the sheer weight of evidence for the belief is seen as being greater that the weight against it. So for a Christian who believes God exists due to the cumulative case of cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from miracles, and arguments from personal religious experience, Chris would have to demonstrate that the problem of evil as he has stated it is sufficient to outweigh that entire cumulative case of arguments for God’s existence. Again, he didn’t even attempt to do this.
Now consider how things look if one turns the tables on the atheist. There are at least two very serious problems for atheism in the same vicinity as the theist’s problem of evil. You see, the problem of evil is motivated by the perception that some events are objectively evil. They are not merely evil relative to the subjective opinions of particular human beings. They are objectively evil, irrespective of the opinions of any human beings. This leads to these two problems for the atheist.
Problem 1: the ontological problem of moral value and obligation: in virtue of what does objective good and evil consist in a universe of blind, purposeless indifference?
Problem 2: the epistemological problem of moral perception: assuming that objective moral values and obligations do exist, if human cognitive faculties were produced by an undirected process merely to produce survival value, how is it that we have a faculty of moral perception that provides justified moral beliefs about those objective moral values and obligations which serve as the very basis for the atheist’s problem of evil?
These are both serious problems for atheists, and there is a vast literature arguing on both sides of each problem. Now imagine if I argued that all atheists everywhere are irrational based upon problem 1 and/or problem 2. Such a claim would be the worst kind of naïve triumphalism. These are both serious problems and the atheist needs to wrestle with them. But there are also evidences that seem to support atheism and if the atheist believes those evidences are sufficient in strength to outweigh these putative defeaters, it is proper to conclude that one can continue rationally to be an atheist.
However, the very same logic applies to the theist as regards the problem of evil. Chris’ whole appeal to evil to justify the conclusion that all theists are irrational is itself a wholly irrational conclusion based on the evidence. (Not surprisingly, when I made that point in the debate it drew the outrage of the Reasonable Doubts mob.)
Finally, what about the problem of evil apart from the debate? This is an important topic and I’ve addressed it in God or Godless and The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. But I’m a mere dabbler. There is a vast literature by eminently rational theistic philosophers and theologians addressing the topic. I’m just now writing a review for this blog of Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump’s magisterial 650 page book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford, 2010). If I may quote the blurb from Paul Draper on the back cover. Keep in mind that Draper is arguably the leading philosopher in the world who argues against the existence of God based on the problem of evil. And yet he writes of Stump’s book:
“a must-read for philosophers of religion and a very beneficial read for other philosophers and for other scholars of religion. It is without question a highly nuanced and philosophically deep book.”
That’s high praise and it comes from one of the world’s leading atheological philosophers of religion. The contrast with Chris Hallquist’s juvenile triumphalism and the nasty reception I received at Reasonable Doubts couldn’t be greater.
For all those interested in the problem of evil, keep tuned to my forthcoming review as well. And also check out my podcast interview with Paul Copan which will be released later this week.
And thanks to Michael for his courteous statement of the question.