Last week I provided an overview of an ongoing debate between atheists and theists on the existence of God. The debate is also known as “The Problem of Evil”. As a reminder, the debate centers only on the God of the Mosaic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islamism. While a variety of points and counterpoints are made on both sides, a primary question that arises over and over is this: How could the Mosaic God, who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnibenevolent (all-good), exist at the same time as evil? Four premises create what appears to some to be a conflict. God is all-powerful. God is all-knowing. God is all-good. Evil exists. The question is whether all four of these statements can be true at the same time.
One caution to consider as you delve into this debate is to be aware of the philosophical biases and assumptions made in the arguments. Both theists and atheists have strong biases and both sides make assumptions that they might hope will go unnoticed by their opponents. Watch for and be very aware of these and of your own biases and assumptions as well. This article will focus on the atheists’ contributions to the debate along with some objections and counter arguments raised by theists.
Professor Kai Nielsen, PhD. has argued the atheistic perspective of this problem of evil repeatedly. He finds belief in God irrational and explains that finding in this way. Nielsen says, “Consider the sentence, ‘God made the heavens and the earth,’ as distinct from ‘Louis made pasta and cake.’ When I say, ‘Louis made pasta and cake,’ you can understand what would make that sentence true or false. Now go back to the religious sentence, ‘God made the heavens and the earth.’ How do we know? What I’m trying to say is that they are what philosophers would call problematic conceptions. Indeed, they are so problematic and so obscure that it turns out that we don’t know what we are talking about when we use them. We have a kind of familiar pictorial sense that we know what we are talking about, but when we think very carefully about what these expressions mean, they are so problematic that we can’t use them to make true or false claims. Before we go to the proofs or the evidence for God’s existence, the believer must show that we know what we are talking about when we speak of God.”
The theistic rebuttal to this might include the fact that we also lack universally accepted definitions for concepts such as knowledge or love or life, but we can still distinguish between a knowledgeable person and one who is not, whether an act was loving or not, and whether something or someone is dead or alive. I have also heard this point argued from the perspective of the shear masses of believers as compared to a relative few atheists, but quantity alone does not prove truth.
Nielsen argues further that God is not observable either directly or indirectly and therefore the existence of God cannot be proven. Another well-known and influential atheist, Antony Flew, expanded on this by addressing personal religious experiences and near-death experiences. For much of his career Flew was known as a strong advocate of atheism, arguing that one should presuppose atheism until empirical evidence of a God surfaces. He also criticized the idea of life after death, the free will defense to the problem of evil, and the meaningfulness of the concept of God. Though late in life he came to believe in the Aristotelian God, while still a young and staunch atheist Flew argued, “We need to develop the fundamental distinction between two senses of the word ‘experience.’ In the ordinary everyday sense – that in which a farmer might announce his need for hands experienced in dealing with cows – anyone so experienced must have both knowingly perceived and possess some theoretical and practical knowledge of real, external world, flesh and blood cows. But in the peculiar, philosophers’ sense – the private as opposed to the public sense – someone might truly claim to have enjoyed experiences of cows without that assertion entailing any actual perception of such ruminants. It would be sufficient to have dreamed of cows, to have suffered hallucinations involving cows, or merely to have had – without prejudice – ‘cowish’ sense-data. This fundamental distinction once firmly made, it should become obvious that we may consistently concede the complete honesty of witnesses in their testimony about their private experience, while nevertheless insisting that, construed as accounts describing or misdescribing their public experience, their testimony is – partly or mainly or even totally – mistaken. Nielsen supports Flew saying, “I don’t deny that there are religious experiences and they’re humanly very important. Nobody denies that; it’s a question of how to interpret it. They are just psychological experiences, and they can’t be used as a model for saying you have a self-authenticating experience of God.
Theists might counter this contention of a solely private and self-authenticating experience with descriptions of well-documented accounts of large groups of people having the same religious experience at the same time and place, such as happened in Fatima, Portugal in 1917 or in the Zeitoun district of Cairo, Egypt over a period of 2–3 years beginning on April 2, 1968. These were reportedly witnessed by many thousands of people, believers and non-believers alike. So these experiences are not only self-authenticating, but are authenticated by many thousands of people.
The case for God is also challenged by the concept of design in or of the universe. The argument of design generally takes two forms. The first is whether the universe as we know it is a product of design or random selection, that is chance. This opens the door to the much broader debate on the creation and/or evolution of the universe. While it is pertinent and not in the least tangential, for the sake of brevity, that debate will be set aside for the time being. Suffice it to say, there are both theistic and atheistic theories of evolution. They include those of theists Erasumus Darwin (grandfather to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Charles Darwin) as well as the most widely accepted, that of Charles Darwin, which is atheistic. Other well-known theories are those of Intelligent Design and Creationism.
The second argument on design is different. Atheists who grant the premise of the universe being a product of design will say the very evidence of design is still evidence against the omnipotence of the designer. How is that? We must first take a look at the meaning of design. The Random House College dictionary offers fifteen definitions of “design”. Most of these are similar and can be understood by reading only the first, “to prepare the preliminary sketch of the plans for a work to be executed, especially to plan the form and structure of”. The dictionary however, gives two variations to the definition of design. Definition #8 is, “to plan and fashion the form and structure of”. The last of the given definitions is, “intention; purpose; end”.
The variations in definition tend to muddy the waters of this argument somewhat. Atheists tend toward the primary understanding of design: a plan for a work to be executed. They may grant that there is design in the universe. They must then also grant there is a designer, perhaps even a Designer God. They will then also argue that design is only a beginning step with the end far off and this fact alone gives evidence to a limitation of power, which in turn means God is not all-powerful. They ask, “Who would use this means to an end if to attain his end in full required merely and only his word?” Theists then respond using the other two given definitions. God not only planned, but also fashioned with intention, purpose and end.
How do these arguments strike you? Did you find biases? Does one side impress you as more persuasive than the other? Does any of it have the ring of truth for you? I would like to leave you this week with a quote from the late Pope John Paul II in an address he gave to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (October 22, 1996). “I am pleased with the first theme you have chosen, that of the origins of life and evolution, an essential subject which deeply interests the Church, since revelation, for its part, contains teaching concerning the nature and origins of man. How do the conclusions reached by the various scientific disciplines coincide with those contained in the message of revelation? And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what direction do we look for their solution? We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.”
Check back next week for the next installment of the series, titled, “Does God Exist? Yes. Some theistic contributions to the debate.”
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