Tag Archives: belief

Arguing About Evil: An Introduction

Just as there are arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, teleological, ontological and so on),  there are arguments against the existence of God. One of these is the famous ‘problem of evil’. You might have seen it evoked by a quotation attributed to Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, which goes:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” – source

The challenge evil poses for theism is obvious and does not require a degree in philosophy to see. We are exposed to suffering and evil on an almost daily basis. Some of us probably have asked why God allows us to suffer, or why God allows such things as war, disease and natural disasters to occur. It is not surprising, given this, that the “argument from evil is an objection to theism as old as theism itself”. (Everitt, p. 227)

The argument from evil aims to show that there is an incompatibility between some of theism’s doctrines (which not all theists may endorse) and certain features of the world, namely the existence of natural and moral evils and the suffering they bring about. As old as the argument is, a great deal of discussion about is still taking place in contemporary philosophy of religion. This series, “Arguing About Evil”, is meant to offer readers a glimpse of the ongoing debate and the latest developments related to the problem of evil.

Links to all posts that are part of this series will be posted here:

  1. Arguing About Evil: An Introduction
  2. Arguing About Evil: Two Kinds of Arguments

Next post, we’ll consider two kinds of arguments from evil: logical and evidential.

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Some Books

I haven’t posted anything for over a month, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about this blog. I’ve been reading philosophy of religion and biblical historical criticism (more of this than the former, as will soon be evident). Some of the books I’ve read have made it into the bibliography, because I consider them potentially worthwhile reading for others. They’re not all layman-friendly, but some (like Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God) have versions intended for less scholarly audiences. I tend not to read these, so I can’t honestly recommend them, but it might be advisable to pick these up if their longer counterparts seem to be too difficult.

Here are the books I’ve finished and some others I’m still reading. It’s difficult to sum up everything about the books, but I’ll try to explain why they made the bibliography (or not).

Theism and Explanation, Gregory W. Dawes – The most accessible book-length work in philosophy of religion I’ve looked at. It deals with questions related to supernatural explanations (such as the one argued for in Letters to a Doubting Thomas), questions like whether these kind of explanations can be good explanation and the requirements for good explanations. I strongly recommend it (along with Swinburne’s The Existence of God.)

The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne – I remember reading somewhere that Swinburne is responsible for the strongest case made for the God. I don’t know if that is true, being in no position to evaluate this book, but I find this kind of argumentation (which posits God as the best explanation for an observed fact/s) to be appealing. It’s less accessible than Theism and Explanation, and requires careful reading.

The Evidence for Jesus, James D. G. Dunn – This didn’t make the bibliography. It is one of those books aimed at popular audiences, which I probably shouldn’t have bothered with in the first place. I was put off repeatedly by assertions on the part of the author (example: “Clearly it is the same story in each case, and in each case we have no reason to doubt that the story derives from memories of Jesus’s ministry” (p. 13)) which I thought needed to be fleshed out.

Jesus is Dead, Robert M. Price – This is another book that didn’t make it into the bibliography. Price takes the time in this book to deal with various apologetic arguments related to the resurrection. Two things I like about Price is his style – which is often amusing – and how willing to experiment and speculate he seems. Unfortunately, the book lacks citations and makes it somewhat difficult to follow-up on its arguments.

The Case Against the Case for Christ, Robert M. Price – Like Strobel’s Case for Christ, this book is aimed at a popular audience. Unlike Strobel’s Case for Christ, Price’s book is more interested in showing us the breadth of scholarship (whereas Strobel seems to stack the deck with the authorities he likes) and using it to show how selective and unquestioning Strobel was. Although this book isn’t going to be in the list, I’d recommend it to anyone who has read Strobel’s Case for Christ and is looking for a critique of it (or needs to know that one exists, at leasts).

Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, Clarke W. Owens – This was more of an impulse buy for me, since I’d been seeing references to literary criticism of the New Testament and the Bible, and coming from that background, I was really curious about the form it takes when it engages with the Bible. Although Owens makes a number of interesting points, I won’t be recommending this book, not at least until I’ve reread it (and who knows when that might be).

Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity, G. A. Wells – This is the third book to earn a place in the bibliography. It is difficult to sum up n a couple of sentences, as it is rather long and covers so much ground in so much detail.  (But it is because of those features that it is highly recommended by me.)

Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapter 2 – The Absurdity of Life without God

Last week, I wrote about Chapter 1 of Reasonable Faith. I described how, according to William Lane Craig, we can know Christianity is true by virtue of our self-authenticating experience of God, and I also discussed some of the problems I had with that chapter. In this post, I will focus on Chapter 2, which called “The Absurdity of Life without God”, and write more generally about some of the traits shared by Chapters 1 and 2.

We have already seen that Chapter 1 consists of an attempt to insulate oneself from all evidence and arguments that contravene the truth of Christianity. In a sense, it is as if the witness of the Holy Spirit should function as damage control for those Christians who come across arguments they can’t deal with. They, according to Craig, already have reasons to believe and believe with confidence that Christianity is true, independently of the arguments and evidence. The latter only provide additional reasons to believe. I won’t repeat my objections to this here. My only point is to say that this chapter feels entirely superfluous to the case Craig makes starting on Chapter 3. I think that if Christianity is true, then we should expect the arguments and evidence to reflect that, and if they don’t, then we should consider what this failure of expectation means, and not simply assume that there must be better arguments to make or stronger evidence to find. It’s hard to think that this chapter isn’t there as a sort of safety net for readers of Craig and budding apologists who are unconvinced by apologetic arguments.

Chapter 2 is similarly superfluous. Craig, after having explained that we already know Christianity is true in Chapter 1, and before describing the arguments for the existence of God in Chapter 3, strives to show that life without God is undesirable, meaningless and purposeless. It’s not an appeal to consequence, because he doesn’t argue that Christianity is true in this chapter (which is what I’m actually interested in). In this sense, it’s unnecessary, since it has no bearing on the question of Christianity’s truth. It’s also unnecessary in another sense. Since, according to Craig, we already know God exists, what is the point of elaborating the implications of God’s nonexistence? The only purpose this chapter seems to serve is give readers something terrifying to tell nonbelievers about their worldview, which might be more effective than the arguments they might reject. Cynically, we might say that this chapter could, in the same way, be more effective on its readers than the ones that follow it. And there’s a good chance of this, because it’s a well-written chapter, with effective rhetoric and several beautifully chosen quotations. At the same, there appears to be very little argumentation. This could be because of the way Craig presents them, which is a bit uncharacteristic in this chapter.

Craig starts, as usual, by giving the topic of the chapter a bit of historical background. After that, he proceeds to talk about the death of human beings and the universe, in rhetorical passages like this one:

“And the universe, too, faces a death of its own. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and the galaxies are growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. This is not science fiction. The entire universe marches irreversibly toward its grave. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction—death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope.” (p. 72)

In a section titled “No Ultimate Meaning without God and Immortality”, Craig begins his argument:

“If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate significance of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.” (p. 72)

I’m not sure what Craig means here by “ultimate”, so I’m very likely to misread him here. In the context of the words used in this section, it seems that he’s talking about something being important, something really mattering. At the same time, what makes something really matter is in this section tied to what happens to that thing in the future, and it’s not clear to me why this is the case. Why should we think our lives are meaningless if we knew that a billion years from now the human race would be extinct? Furthermore, not having the sort of significance Craig is talking about doesn’t entail that life is meaningless. Consider what Craig writes here:

“And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.” (p. 73)

If Craig is right, then, after the human race is extinct, it won’t matter ultimately if the human race spends its brief lifetime in a constant state of suffering or progressed to the point where happiness was reached for all. But does that mean that it doesn’t matter at all, at no point in time? Craig continues:

“Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships—all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless.” (p. 73)

Again, this conclusion does not seem to be entailed by what Craig is arguing. Having no ultimate meaning does not preclude having a non-ultimate meaning. I hesitate to formalize the argument in this part, because it’s not easy to discern Craig’s thought process or his definitions in all of this, but the argument may look something like this:

1) Each person’s life has no ultimate meaning.
2) Therefore, each person’s life is meaningless.

This is only logically valid if all meaning relevant to the meaningfulness of our lives is ultimate meaning or is somehow dependent on us having ultimate meaning.  In other words, there might be a suppressed premise which Craig didn’t mention or defend. (It’s possible that Craig is only talking about ultimate meaning and that I have misread what he meant by “utterly meaningless” and “also meaningless” in the context. He later switches to talking about “objective” and “subjective” meanings, and I’m not really sure if these correspond to “ultimate” and “non-ultimate”). Craig, in the section, focuses for the most part on the finitude of life. Without immortality, life wouldn’t be meaningful. But he goes on to argue that life wouldn’t be meaningful without God even if we had immortality. Unfortunately, to support this, Craig for the most part asks us to read Waiting for Godot, references other literary works and fails to provide any additional arguments.

He proceeds to make similar arguments about value (what is right and wrong) and purpose in life, and argues that atheism cannot provide a consistent or happy life, given that life cannot have meaning, value or purpose without God. (This chapter seems to take it for granted that all of these are available if God exists. This may be true, but it doesn’t really bother to argue this.) I won’t discuss purpose or value in this post. Both closely parallel the argument about meaning, and I’ll probably be writing about value when I write about Craig’s moral argument.

I’m not sure what the next post will be about. Since I’ve done all previous chapters in order, I might move on to Chapters 3 and 4, in which Craig argues for the existence of God. But I’m tempted to skip ahead to Chapters 5 and 6, because Chapters 3 and 4 are far more complicated than anything I’ve dealt with so far and I’ll probably need several posts for each. (I would like to treat each argument independently and find the papers that relate to them, but this will take time.) The later chapters are also closer to Christianity than Chapters 3 and 4, which simply argue for the existence of a God, but not necessarily the Christian god.

Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapter 1

As of last week, I’ve been reading William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, as part of the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge. William Lane Craig is an American philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist, who has published a number of popular books and academic works related to Christian apologetics. He is also known for his many formal debates with atheists and Muslims.

Reasonable Faith is a book aimed at a Christian audience. It is geared towards teaching its readers how to argue that Christianity is true and does not give the impression that the author is going to do his best to objectively determine the facts. Rather, the book’s operative assumptions are that Christianity is true, and that non-Christians are wrong. This might seem trivially obvious when said about this kind of book, and one might say there’s nothing significant about it, given that one might think Christianity is true because of the arguments supporting it. Unfortunately, the first two chapters of the book enforce the impressions obtained by reading the introduction. As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the third chapter, so I’ll preface my criticisms in this post by saying that Reasonable Faith gets much better after the first two chapters. The beginning, especially the first chapter, left me quite disappointed.

The first chapter is entitled “How Do I Know Christianity Is True?” The answer to the question posed by the title is quite simple, and Craig opens with it after giving some historical background about faith. As he writes, “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” He clarifies, adding, “the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it.” A person who has this experience “does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God”. Further, “such an experience provides one not only with subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and… arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 43)

Craig spends most of the chapter fleshing out the implications of this (before moving on to explain how we can show Christianity to be true, even though we know it is.) In a section titled “The Unbeliever”, Craig claims that unbelievers also have this experience, which confirms God’s existence to them, their guilt before God, and so on. (p. 46) (It’s not clear how Craig knows this; the only evidence in this chapter consists of quotes from the Bible.)  A page later, he adds that:

“when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves the darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.” (p. 47)

He also argues that because of our experience of God, “the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role”. (p. 47) Craig refers to Martin Luther’s distinction between the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Craig writes, “The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the Gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the Gospel.” Given the witness of the Holy Spirit, “only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.” (p. 47) Furthermore, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 48) This is one of the main problems I have with this chapter; I’ll discuss it below.

Craig adds a few comments about the similarly self-authenticating experiences claimed by adherents of other religions. Regarding this, he makes three points:

  • “The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims to the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion do anything to logically undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit?” (p. 48)
  • When asked “how do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious?”, Craig replies with “the experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for him who really has it.” (p. 48)
  • He also addresses one possible objection, the idea that similar, false claims ought to undermine his “confidence in the reliability of the cognitive faculties which form religious beliefs, since those faculties apparently so often mislead people”. To do this, he says that one needn’t believe that these claims are false (meaning adherents of other religions also enjoy such an experience of God) and that this objection “unjustifiably assumes that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a product of human cognitive faculties or is indistinguishable from their outputs.” (p. 49) He writes that he sees “no reason to think that non-veridical religious experiences are indistinguishable from the witness of the Holy Spirit.” He adds that “one way to get empirical evidence for this would be simply to ask ex-Mormons or Muslims who have become Christians if their experience of God in Christianity is identical to what they had before their conversion.”

There are a number of problems with this chapter. I’ll deal with these four:

  • There is no reason to believe that anyone knows Christianity is true because of a self-authenticating experience, or to believe someone who claims to know Christianity is true because of such an experience.
  • There is no reason given in this chapter to think that people who claim not to have such an experience are mistaken or lying.
  • Craig’s objections in regards to the diversity of religious experience ignore or overlook the lack of such an experience claimed by unbelievers.
  • Craig is attempting to insulate himself from anything that contradicts the truth of Christianity.

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Reading Jesus Interrupted – Part 1

Earlier this week I wrote that I would be taking the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge made back in 2010 by Luke Muelhauser of commonsenseatheism. Now, I’m halfway through Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman is an agnostic and an author of several popular works about early Christianity and the New Testament. Jesus Interrupted is not a book that sets out to debunk Christianity. Rather, its aim is to present an accessible overview of the scholarly consensus in biblical studies about a number of issues, including Biblical authorship, the reliability of the books found in the Bible and the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s aim, as he explains in the first chapter, is to make known to the churchgoing public what is established and uncontroversial to Biblical scholars. He explains that there is a huge difference between what the public learns from their pastors (at least in the United States) and what academics know about the Bible. This point has particular resonance for me, because it parallels my experience with Christianity. Almost none of this basic information about the Bible was, to my recollection, discussed or explained in the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard or the numerous catechism classes I attended. (I was vaguely aware of the New Testament Apocrypha, which were referred to once and twice in a positive way.)

Ehrman, in the first four chapters, makes three important points, which you can read as a quick summary of the rest of this post.

  1. We don’t know who wrote most of the books in the New Testament. The Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses, and there are books or letters whose authenticity is disputed in the New Testament canon.
  2. The authors of these books had different opinions about who Jesus was, and did not necessarily agree with each other about his teachings. They interpreted and presented them differently, leading to discrepancies between them.
  3. These books are not inerrant. There are mistakes, later additions by editors and contradictory claims.

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The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge

Back in 2010, Luke Muelhauser of the now closed commonsenseatheism set up a challenge for Christians and atheists called the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. This challenge, like John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity challenge, invites people to attempt a rational and careful consideration of their beliefs, by having them read a list of books written by skeptics and Christians alike. I’ve been interested in Loftus’s challenge for a long time, but it’s aimed solely at Christians and thus lists only skeptical works. Luke Muelhauser’s challenge is less one-sided, and as I want to give each side a fair chance to convince me (after a few years of following skeptical blogs and works), I wish to take up the challenge.

Unfortunately, the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge is quite difficult, requiring an advanced knowledge of philosophy and involves reading about 10,000 pages of material. Hence, the easy and more manageable version of the challenge.

I intend to go through the books recommended by the easy version:

This leaves me with a digestible 2600 pages. I’m not likely to follow this particular order, given that I’ve already acquired some of these books, but I will be posting a short review whenever I finish one of them. Along the way, expect me to post questions I have, things I find interesting or relevant, and the like.

I also want to learn more about the history of Christianity and biblical scholarship in general, so I’ll probably do a bit of side-reading while working my way through these.