Faithful listeners to my podcast will be familiar with Professor Paul Beach as one of two guests on Podcast episode 84. Is belief in God rational? A Christian and atheist in debate. On that podcast Paul provides a spirited defense of atheism and the irrationality, as he sees it, of theism.
Today Paul posted a comment in reply to the lecture I delivered at Concordia University (which you can read here). In the lecture, I critique the claim that atheism is always the result of rebellion against God (what I call the “Rebellion Thesis”). As a result, it follows that one could possibly accept the proposition “God does not exist” without epistemic culpability.
With that in mind, Paul Beach offered the following comment in response to the article:
“A very satisfying read, Mr. Rauser. You seem to claim that Atheism is not necessarily immoral, but Anti-theism is clearly culpable. I wonder how you would morally evaluate my stance: I do not belief that there is a God. I have never had a spiritual experience, never experienced any compelling evidence, never heard an argument that I considered adequate to support any theistic claim. So, I am an atheist, and by your evaluative criterion, not immediately culpable for my disbelief. BUT, I also think, that if it were revealed to me somehow that God (of any sort) did actually exist, I would be morally compelled to rebel. Any God that would permit the atrocities of the world should be resisted. I could not submit to such a purposeful order. How would you morally evaluate my conditional rebellion?”
I like Paul’s pointed question and I believe it is deserving of a careful response. My response will proceed in two parts. This article constitutes part 1.
What does it mean to have an epistemically non-culpable belief?
Let’s begin with Paul’s claim that according to the analysis I offer in my lecture, he is not culpable for his disbelief in God. In order to offer a reply I should begin by unpacking a bit further what it means to lack epistemic culpability for a belief.
I propose that for a person to lack any epistemic culpability when holding a particular belief, that person would need to hold that belief wholly free from any degree of culpable bias and fully in accord with epistemic virtue.
Based on these two criteria, Paul’s claim that he is an atheist non-culpably amounts to the claim that he is an atheist wholly apart from any degree of culpable bias and wholly in accord with epistemic virtue.
Before we consider whether we should believe this, we must ask a prior question: why does Paul believe it?
The most plausible (and charitable) explanation is that Paul reasons to this conclusion discursively by way of introspective analysis. On this scenario, he begins with an introspective search for any culpable bias or any lack of epistemic virtue in his disbelief in God; upon finding no evidence of culpable bias or lack of epistemic virtue he then concludes that there is no culpable bias or lack of epistemic virtue, a conclusion which he then shares with us.
So the question is whether we ought to consider Paul’s testimony to be reliable.
At first blush it would appear that we ought to do so based on the principle of testimony. According to this principle, one ought to accept the testimony of another individual unless we have good reason not to accept it. Thus, if Paul declares by way of his own introspective analysis that his belief in God’s non-existence is wholly non-culpable and not lacking in any epistemic virtue, then we ought to accept it.
But remember, the conclusion does not follow if we have a good reason to reject it. In the remainder of this article I’m going to present one reason to question the proposition that Paul’s unbelief is epistemically non-culpable in the sense defined.
The endorsement of antitheism
My argument in this final section is simple. I will present evidence that Paul holds an attitude toward God which is irrational. And I will take it that this is sufficient to undermine — if not rebut — Paul’s claim that his unbelief in God is without epistemic culpability in the sense defined above.
To make my case I’ll turn back to Paul’s own words where he endorses a form of antitheism. To recap, he writes:
“if it were revealed to me somehow that God (of any sort) did actually exist, I would be morally compelled to rebel. Any God that would permit the atrocities of the world should be resisted.”
Let’s note first that there is a standard definition of God commonly assumed in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Often called “classical theism” it can be summarized as follows:
Standard Definition (SD): “God is a necessary agent who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.”
Since Paul is a philosopher, I must assume he is familiar with this standard definition in philosophical discussions of God. And thus, when Paul insists that he would rebel against God “of any sort”, he means to include God as defined under the standard definition.
But if SD God exists, then it follows that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good being exists. And any being which is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good would only allow evil for morally sufficient reasons.
Thus, Paul’s position entails that he would rebel against a perfect being who has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. In other words, Paul would rebel against a being who knows infinitely more than him, is infinitely more powerful than him, and is infinitely morally superior to him.
And that is simply irrational.
In conclusion, the fact that Paul holds an irrational belief about God provides sufficient basis to undermine — if not rebut — his claims to lack any epistemic culpability in his belief that God does not exist.