Theistic Critiques of Atheism, Part 7January 12, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
We’re up to theodicy argument number 2 in Dr. William Lane Craig’s scholarly article, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism.” His first argument didn’t go too well, appealing to our ignorance to justify the claim that there must be some good reason for evil to exist, because we can’t be absolutely sure there isn’t. That doesn’t work out too well in practice, because if every evil necessarily has sufficient moral justification to merit God’s implicit approval and assent, then we all ought to do as much evil as possible, since the existence of evil is morally superior to its absence. Speaking from a strictly secular moral perspective, I’d say we can pretty much discard that notion as reprehensible rubbish.
Craig’s second argument is just as hypothetical as the first: he suggests that certain Christian doctrines make God’s co-existence with evil a bit more likely than it would be if we simply posited a non-Christian God. That’s not strictly true, since Alethea is the God whose character makes the current state of affairs the most likely, but Craig would like to argue his case anyway. He’s got four doctrines which he proposes as indicating that we ought to expect evil to accompany God’s existence, and we’ll take each one in turn.
First, the chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. One reason that the problem of evil seems so intractable is that people tend naturally to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this world. God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets. But on the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God—which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper, saving knowledge of God. To carry his argument, the atheist must show that it is feasible for God to create a world in which the same amount of the knowledge of God is achieved, but with less evil—which is sheer speculation.
You are not mistaken. William Lane Craig, a religious philosopher, a man who makes his living studying an alleged Being Whose chief observable characteristic is His failure to show up in real life to be studied, a theologian who just two paragraphs ago argued that evil is not gratuitous on the grounds that we can’t be sure there’s not some unknown and/or unknowable justification for it—this William Lane Craig just lectured us on the folly of appealing to speculation.
What we have here, of course, is a classic attempt to shift the burden of proof. Craig is speculating that their might be some connection between knowing evil and knowing God. That’s not a terribly salubrious association in my mind, but that’s the one he apparently wants us to assume. But he offers no justification for it. Why would we need to experience venereal disease in order to better understand what kind of person God is? And if that is the purpose of VD, then why aren’t Christians out trying to become infected so that they can know God better? How do war, and torture, and starvation, and disease, make us more familiar with who God is (or is supposed to be)? And why do we call them evil, if they are the means by which we achieve life’s chief purpose?
What Craig is appealing to here is the experience that religion has had with the existence of evil, and the various ways they’ve rationalized their theology to accommodate the undeniable facts. Evil contradicts people’s expectation of God, so they’ve come up with ways of re-framing the facts so that it sounds like there’s a reasonable justification for evil. One of those ways is to suggest that evil highlights God’s goodness by contrasting with it. “I would not have known light, had I not known darkness.”
But that’s a misperception. You don’t learn about light by studying darkness, you learn about light by studying light. All the contrast between light and darkness tells you is that light and darkness are different from each other, and that’s information that’s only useful if you need to distinguish between the two. If darkness did not exist, then that difference would be irrelevant. So the idea that evil is somehow teaching us something good is a fallacy: it might teach us the tautology that “not good” is not good, but to really know what “good” is, you need to know more than just that it is not evil. And if evil did not exist, then there wouldn’t be any point in learning the difference. If Christians were indeed destined for an eternity in heaven where no evil dwells, then all their experience and knowledge of evil here on earth will be irrelevant. If the only thing you know about God is that you’re sure glad He doesn’t lay eggs inside your body so that His larvae devour you alive from the inside out, you haven’t really learned anything useful or significant about God.
Notice, too, that Dr. Craig is assuming that the chief purpose of life is for us to develop a saving knowledge of God. The only reason we allegedly need saving, however, is because God allegedly created a necessity for evil, when there was no pre-existing necessity for such a thing. The Garden of Eden, in which God walked plainly and openly among men, would have been an ideal environment in which a person could learn to know God better. Much better, in fact, than the world we have now, in which God is visibly absent and in which men compete to see who can invent the most plausible sounding speculations about God, as though this were the truth. We might not know how God is different from evil, but if evil did not exist, then there would be no point in possessing that knowledge anyway.
So Dr. Craig ultimately has no justification for his assumption that knowing evil means knowing God better, and instead merely tries to shift the burden of proof onto atheists, as though it were up to them to demonstrate that you can develop a reasonable knowledge of a person who does not choose to subject you to futility, sin, suffering and death. And as far as that goes, I have been happily married to the same woman for 25 years, and as far as I can recall, I’ve never employed deliberate torture or disease or robbery or murder as a way of helping her to get to know me better. It doesn’t seem to me as though a civilized introduction followed by simply spending time together are really all that difficult, so I’m just not sure why these things would pose such an obstacle for Almighty God.
Then again, that begs a whole ‘nuther question. If the chief goal of life is indeed to know God, why then does God consistently fail provide the necessary and essential ingredient of showing up to introduce Himself and spend time with us? That is, after all, the chief means by which humans get to know a person. But Dr. Craig isn’t conducting his apologetic in the context of the real world. He’s taking things in isolation, as abstract notions that you can manipulate so as to throw the burden of proof on the other guy. In so doing, however, he produces yet another argument which seems to have local validity and coherence, but which introduces a conflict with other Christian dogmas in the context of the real world.
Goodness, I had hoped to cover all four of Dr. Craig’s hypotheticals in this post, but clearly that’s not going to happen (unless I really break my standard conventions for the length of a post). We’ll pick up on Wednesday with hypothetical #2.