This is part 2 of my response to Reasonable Doubts “Episode 121: Divine Deception with guest Erik Wielenberg“. As you may know, Part 1 was an episode in The Tentative Apologist Podcast and my intention was that Part 2 would be as well. Indeed, my original intention was to release part 2 at the end of June, about ten days after Part 1. However, providence (or fate, or circumstance, or …) had other plans. When I had completed half of the podcast my software crashed and I lost the audio files I’d spent a few hours recording. This left me no time to complete part 2 as I then left the country on three weeks for vacation. To add insult to injury, I returned to working on the podcast episode in August, only to lose the files a second time.
In recognition of all these difficulties, here’s Mr. Krabs playing the world’s smallest violin:
After that fiasco, I decided to cut my losses and make part 2 a print response instead. If you haven’t yet listened to part 1, I’d suggest you do so. I’d also recommend following the link to the Reasonable Doubts interview and listening to it.
In part 2 I’m going to focus on Wielenberg’s argument that theists face a skeptical dilemma concerning divine deception.
Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception
According to skeptical theism, the evil we see in the world doesn’t count against the existence of God because God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil, and we have no good reason to believe that we could fathom what God’s reasons might be. At first blush skeptical theism seems to provide a tidy solution to the intellectual problem of evil. But Wielenberg believes that another problem is lurking nearby. In short, if we accept that God might have reasons to allow evil which we cannot fathom, then he might equally have reasons to lie to us which we cannot fathom. And once we concede that fact, we have an undercutting defeater for the various claims God has presented to us. This is how Wielenberg summarizes this problem of “divine deception”:
“The heart of my idea can be put this way: Just as God might have reasons beyond our ken for permitting horrendous evils, similarly he might have reasons beyond our ken for deceiving us in various ways.” (29:52)
And hence the undercutting defeater to testimony: as Wielenberg puts it, “we can’t trust divine revelation.”
In addition, Wielenberg points out that when considering whether a person might be deceiving us, it is important to consider the track record of the individual in question. If the person has lied in the past, that heightens the concern that he might lie again in the future. This leads Wielenberg to ask, “What’s God’s track record like?” In response, he cites four biblical passages in which God allegedly lies to people. The first is in the Garden when God warns Adam and Eve that they will die if they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But they don’t die, and so Wielenberg concludes that God lied.
This leaves open the possibility that God might have sufficient reasons to lie to us about various other matters, even something as serious as salvation. Is there any way out of this skeptical morass of divine deception?
Let me begin by reiterating that you should listen to the Wielenberg interview if you haven’t already. I can’t hope to provide every nuance of the argument in the brief summary I’ve included above.
Next, let me note that I appreciate the care and nuanced tone of Wielenberg’s presentation. I got the sense that the two Doubtcasters who interviewed Wielenberg (who both did a good job, by the way) were really interested in apologetic ammunition for their particular atheistic perspective. Fair enough, but even as Wielenberg laid out his position he also rightly cautioned that he is only able to give a snippet of a large conversation to which there are endless replies and counter-replies. In other words, the triumphalist who wants some quick ammunition to bolster his position had better appropriate the discussion here with a degree of care, noting that the discussion is provisional and part of an ongoing debate.
Of course, the same applies to my rebuttal. Speaking of which, how about that rebuttal?
Okay, let’s get started. The first point to stress is that Christians understand God to be maximally perfect, by definition. That’s just what Christians mean by “God”. Wielenberg acknowledges this point in principle (and an important quotation from Origen to which he appeals assumes it). But it doesn’t seem that he has digested the point. So let’s consider the situation more closely.
The alleged dilemma is that a maximally perfect, loving, good, and wise teacher might have morally sufficient reasons to allow some of his students to believe falsehoods. But how is that supposed to be a dilemma, exactly? If he is perfect, and thus maximally loving, good and wise, then any deception he allows is consistent with his perfection, love, goodness and wisdom. Why should that be a worry?
Perhaps it is worth taking a step back for a moment and considering pedagogy more generally. Every teacher knows that good pedagogy often includes students being led to believe as true statements which are, strictly speaking, false. Consider, for instance, the grammarian who teaches her students “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.” This is, in fact, false since many words (e.g. neighbor, weigh) do not conform to it. So why does the grammarian teach such a falsehood?
The answer is, she does so in recognition that the student needs a toehold somewhere. As the student progresses in understanding grammar the pedagogue can add the appropriate qualifications such as “except after ‘c’ or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’.”
Interestingly, there are even more exceptions to the ole “‘I’ before ‘e'” maxim than this, a fact that leads some grammarians to question the value of the principle in the first place.
The fact is that you and I were misled by our grade 1 teachers when they taught us grammar. And we were misled by our grade 10 biology teachers and our university philosophy teachers. Who knows how we are being lied to now?
The most important difference between the general epistemic state of all human beings (we are lied to by others more knowledgeable than us) and the specific dilemma Wielenberg presents to the theist is that God is, as already noted, believed to be perfect, a fact that extends to love, goodness and wisdom. While I might have some degree of worry about the goodness and wisdom of my teachers generally, I have no reason to have the same worry about God. I’m not sure about the wisdom of my grade 1 grammar teacher, but if God sees fit to mislead me in a particular instance, I’ll happily defer to his perfect judgment. As a result, I don’t see that there is a problem here at all.
What about the specific issue of God’s track record. In particular, did God lie to Adam and Eve?
In response, it is important to note that the Christian understands God’s role in the formation of the Bible to be relevantly analogous to an editor’s role in bringing together texts as part of a greater text. With that in mind, let’s open Christopher Hitchens’ edited volume The Portable Atheist. Chapter 20 consists of an essay by H.L. Mencken called “Memorial Service”. The essay consists of a funeral oration to dead gods. It’s possible that some folks will read this essay and end up thinking that there was such a funeral service and Mencken delivered the oration at it and that by including the essay in his book Hitchens is affirming that this event occurred.
Does it follow that Hitchens is lying to us?
The short answer is “no”. Indeed, it seems to me tendentious to conclude that Hitchens was lying. By the same token, I find it tendentious to surmise that God is lying to us based on the evidence provided.
In conclusion, I remain wholly unpersuaded that Wielenberg has presented us with any sort of divine deception dilemma.