This past Saturday I had the privilege of moderating a discussion between Dr. Brian Huffling, the director of the SES Ph.D. program, and Dr. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine. The topic of discussion was, “Is the reality of evil good evidence against the Christian God?”
Dr. Huffling did a fantastic job of staying on topic and addressing this difficult issue in a well-reasoned fashion. Dr. Shermer was extremely gracious and good-spirited, but he had a bit more difficulty staying on topic. To be sure, I have little doubt he thought he was on topic, but in point of fact much of what he said had little to do with the issue at hand. The debate was not about the existence of God as such. Rather, the question for discussion was whether the existence of evil serves as good evidence against the Christian God. Contrary to Dr. Shermer’s characterization, we are not merely arbitrarily asserting things of God, like His goodness for instance. As Dr. Huffling reiterated, we approach this issue of evil with the knowledge of God gleaned from other independent arguments about His existence and nature.
With that in mind, if you are familiar with debates, one tactic often used is to bring up many tangental issues to which your opponent cannot possibly respond. If every rabbit is not chased it can seem like the other side is winning points, but if every issue is addressed then the actual debate topic becomes ignored which is also considered points for the other side. It can be a bit of a lose-lose scenario. Dr. Huffling briefly addressed some of the tangental issues raised by Dr. Shermer, but since he was rightly focused with staying on topic as much as possible, and I was trying to be a neutral moderator, I want to take the opportunity to plunge the depths of the rabbit hole just a bit and explore some of these distracting trails.
The Irrefutable God Problem
Dr. Shermer asks, “What’s the difference between an invisible God who doesn’t act in the world and no God at all?” He asserts that when good things happen, prayers are answered, etc. God gets the credit. But when bad things happen God doesn’t get the blame. How can Christians “square this circle”?
Part of the problem here is a lack of understanding of what it means for God to “act” in the world. Deism says that God set the world in motion and then stepped back. Popular theism is often nothing more than deism with the occasional intervention of God. Classical theism on the other hand insists that God is so active in the world that He is constantly “acting” by sustaining the world’s very existence. Indeed this includes the additional activities of miracles on certain occasions, but the very existence of any part of physical reality serves to demonstrate the existence and sustaining action of God.
Therefore, God does get the credit for all good things because all things are good insofar as they exist, and He is the Creator and Sustainer of all existing things. But God doesn’t get the blame when bad things happen because both evil suffered (natural disasters, etc.) and evil done (moral evils like murder) are the result of good things interacting with other good things sometimes at the expense of the other’s good. For example, plate tectonics are good and allow the land to be livable, but earthquakes affect us negatively when we choose to live in an earthquake-prone area. Likewise, even something like murder is the result of a human being (who is good insofar as he exists) not acting the way a human should (choosing to act contrary to the good of human nature) and depriving another human of his good. But even this ability to choose contrary to the actual good (i.e. free will) is itself a good given by God which keeps us from being nothing more than pre-programed meat machines. As philosopher Brian Davies says regarding Thomas Aquinas’ view on this issue, “Aquinas thinks that God can make a world that contains no evil suffered. But he does not think that God can make a material world such as ours without material agents interacting and causing damage to each other. To summarize him somewhat crudely: Aquinas’s view is that God cannot make lions and lambs without the lambs having something to worry about.”
As Dr. Huffling explained, classical theism provides positive arguments for believing in God and is nothing like Dr. Shermer’s “invisible dragon” example which has zero evidence of its existence. If the arguments for God are shown to be invalid or unsound then we would have good reason, perhaps, to think God does not exist. Contrary to Dr. Shermer’s blanket assertions, this has not been done, and the reality of evil in the world certainly does nothing to invalidate the arguments.
Prayer, Miracles, and The Existence of God
Dr. Shermer made much of a particular study on the effectiveness of prayer that he said showed no positive results from prayer. Regarding curing diseases, etc., he said, “We know how to do this. Why can’t God do that?…If you can’t measure it then the null hypothesis is that God probably doesn’t exist.” Regardless of how accurate his portrayal of the prayer study was, or if there are other studies to refute it, the basis of such an understanding of God’s activities is faulty.
No Christian would deny that sometimes God answers prayers with a “No.” Therefore, it does not follow that God did not respond to someone’s prayer if, for instance, they weren’t healed. Dr. Shermer’s main problem with this is that he can’t conceive of any reason why God would not always answer prayers the way we want. Two points arise from this, and Dr. Huffling touched on both of them.
One, the fact that we do not know the reason doesn’t entail there is no reason. God’s nature as Pure Goodness Itself, all-knowing, all-powerful, etc. is arrived at via independent argumentation apart from the problem of evil. To simply say, “Well, that’s not what I would do if I were God,” is the one thing we cannot say! We would have to be all-knowing in order to remotely conceive of what we would do if we were all-knowing, but this is obviously impossible in principle. Therefore, admitting we don’t know why God allows specific evils is in no way a defeater of, or even evidence against, the fact that God exists.
A simple example should suffice to illustrate the point. My oldest son was born with one functioning kidney. When he was two, we had to go to the hospital for a test where they ran dye through his system to make sure everything was functioning properly. They strapped him horizontally to a board, poked him for 45 minutes trying to start an IV line, and then proceeded with the test. All the while, he was sweating, crying, and looking at me standing beside him with eyes that said, “Dad, why don’t you stop this?!” It’s was heartbreaking and brings tears to my eyes to recall. Yet, I knew something he didn’t know and understood things about his body that he didn’t understand. I knew this was ultimately for his good.
Now, given classical theism, my example is not as simplistic as you may be thinking. That is, this is not just a God-knows-more-than-me kind of thing. My point is that, the difference in our knowledge and God’s knowledge is not even the same kind of difference as that between me and my then two year old. God does not have more knowledge than us. His knowledge is equal to His unlimited being meaning that God just is His knowledge. The difference in my knowledge and God’s knowledge is a difference of quality, not merely quantity. I could never learn enough to approach God’s knowledge. He doesn’t learn, or form syllogisms, etc. He just knows in His eternal now.
Therefore, if I was able to know that the current pain of my two year old was for his good even though he didn’t understand that, how much more is God able to draw good out of our current evils suffered, whether or not we ever know or understand the reason why? Our not knowing a specific reason for particular evils in no way invalidates our arguments for God’s existence. To maintain otherwise is simply to hold to an illogical position that results in a non-sequitur. Not to mention, I imagine nearly all of us can remember very difficult situations that ultimately resulted in something good that otherwise would not have happened.
Two, if God intervened and answered every prayer in some miraculous way then we would not know the difference between the natural order of things and the miraculous. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have an orderly world where science is useful and we know how things work and expect a miracle every time something goes wrong. Neither can you have miracles occurring on a regular basis and still expect them to serve as some kind of unusual evidence for God’s existence. Dr. Shermer is stacking the deck in his favor such that no version of this equation will suffice to point to God.
I will also add that miracles are the wrong place to start if one is looking for evidence for God’s existence. God’s existence is the necessary condition for the possibility of miracles, but if one does not believe in God then any miraculous claim could be explained away with any number of naturalistic theories (Dr. Shermer himself compared the idea of God to some super-advanced alien race). Miracles are acts of God that serve to confirm God’s message through revelation but only after someone has reason to believe there is actually a God who can act. And as Dr. Huffling argued, and Dr. Shermer admitted, God’s existence is ultimately a philosophical question.
Implicit Scientism and Self-Defeating Epistemology
Dr. Shermer continually insisted that we must have “empirical evidence not just argument” when it comes to God’s existence. He maintains that the idea of God must be testable in some empirical sense. But this is just nonsensical.
As Dr. Huffling pointed out, empirical science is great at what it does. And as Dr. Shermer admitted, it can’t do everything. Demanding empirical evidence for a non-empirical God is illogical. It is simply a faulty philosophical argument (albeit an implicit argument) that maintains philosophical arguments should not be trusted. Dr. Shermer’s scientism is nothing but bad philosophy that should be rejected as utterly and necessarily false.
Even more defeating, Dr. Shermer said, “We are too self-deceptive…[we have] a whole suite of cognitive biases, motivated reasoning, I already believe this I’m gonna find all the evidence to support it and ignore all the disconfirming evidence…We all do this.…We have fallible sensory apparatus and a brain that’s not weird up to find THE truth.…There is no final answer, and you’re not going to get it from revelation.” Yet somehow Dr. Shermer is absolutely confident in THAT truth and is capable of rising above his own self-deception. Once again, such a position is completely self-defeating.
We agree with Dr. Shermer that feelings are not a reliable source of truth. We also agree that self-deception is possible. Nevertheless, it does not follow that we are incapable of finding the truth about these big issues. Dr. Shermer’s position goes too far and is necessarily false.
the Shotgun Approach of Red Herrings and Straw Men
Most frustratingly is the shotgun tactic many popular atheists and skeptics often use in debates. It happens when the debater launches out any number of red herrings (related but irrelevant topics) and straw men (mischaracterizations of an opponents position) such that their opponent cannot possibly respond to them all. If their opponent takes the bait and chases the rabbits then the original topic is left unaddressed. If they don’t take the bait then it often appears to an audience member that the debater made valid points to which their opponent had no answer. This is merely a tactic and provides no substance to the discussion at all.
Dr. Shermer mentioned topics like what about those who have never heard the Gospel. That’s a legitimate question, and one that has been addressed countless times, but it was irrelevant to the topic at hand. Thus, this is a red herring.
He alluded to the fact that if you were born in Saudi Arabia you’d likely be a Muslim. That may very well be true, but what does that say about the truth of Christianity or Islam? This is both a red herring and a genetic fallacy (judging the truth of a proposition based on its origin). I could just as easily say Dr. Shermer is only a skeptic because he lives in southern California. Whether that is true or not has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the actual claims being made.
Dr. Shermer mentioned the fact that many belief systems claim to be based on divine revelation, therefore, there’s no way to know who’s claim to revelation is correct. That simply doesn’t follow at all. The debate topic was about the existence of the Christian God in light of evil. It was not about whether or not Christianity as whole is true. The existence of God is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for demonstrating Christianity’s truthfulness. Many other lines of argumentation must be marshaled to show the truthfulness of the whole of Christian revelation. But again, that was not the topic of debate.
Finally, Dr. Shermer woefully misrepresented the Trinity. This was another red herring as well as a straw man. Given Dr. Shermer’s experience with Christianity and his interactions with other Christian academics, the fact that Dr. Shermer continues to abide by his debate script and mischaracterize the Trinity so terribly is disturbing. It makes me question how committed Dr. Shermer is to investigating seriously the actual issues at hand. I can’t judge his motives, but I do know he should know better than this.
Let me reiterate, I very much appreciate Dr. Shermer’s graciousness and coming into the “lion’s den” as it were. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that our audience has to wade through so many distractions in order to think carefully about the actual topic of the debate. As you can see, once one starts chasing rabbits down the rabbit hole the original topic of whether evil serves as evidence against God becomes lost, if not forgotten. Many thanks to Dr. Huffling for admirably, and graciously, staying on task and showing that we have every reason to believe in the Christian God even in the midst of the evil we all experience.