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We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the unpleasant baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits make it acceptable? Read part 1 here.

This is post 21 in this series, the final critique of the soft theism dialogue. We wrap up with suffering, heaven, and the clash of the toughest arguments from soft theism and from atheism.

The role of suffering in this life

Soft Theist: Absolutely, agreed, I can see some suffering as necessary, to develop character, but not the excess of suffering that some people go through.

Cross Examined Blog: So where does that leave us? God isn’t particularly benevolent but does care about us, sort of. He’s omnipotent and omniscient, he’s set up some sort of afterlife where justice is handed out, and he wants us to behave well. And we’re back to invented properties on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet!

As for developing character in humans, this is unnecessary. Show me an outcome reachable through life’s ordeals, and I’ll show you an outcome God can achieve through magic (explored in more detail here).

Atheist: I’ve heard Christians say, “Suffering teaches us to love one another.” Fine, but, again, the excess is not justified.

Right—from a naturalistic standpoint, we often have little choice about adversity, but we can find the silver lining. (You seem to be waffling about whether we should expect perfect actions of any sort from God.)

Yeah. Yeah. I talked to William Lane Craig, and he made the defense that we are cognitively limited, so we cannot possibly know the greater good that the immediate suffering might eventually bring about. That we can’t know that God does not have a morally sufficient reason for apparent evil. That maybe the purpose of an innocent child’s death might not emerge for hundreds of years.

I realize this is Craig’s point and not yours, but let’s explore this claim. So there might be a particular good centuries in our future that is only achievable if a child dies today? To quote Wayne from the movie Wayne’s World, “Yeah—and monkeys might fly out of my butt.” (I apologize for that powerful philosophical broadside, but some ideas so stupid that they need the big guns.)

There is no reason to believe (1) that a child dying today will bring about a net good that’s only apparent centuries in the future and (2) God has no other way to accomplish this. Point 2 is impossible, since God can achieve that future goal through magic. And the claim “But this might be true” is a terrible reason to believe anything. I might be a cleverly disguised alien to whom you must give your life savings or I’ll destroy the world, but that’s not the way to bet.

But, I think Craig is just grasping at straws. Sure, there’s instances where great evil brings about a greater good. But, do you really think children dying has a good overall effect??!! It’s clearly excessive evil, not instructive evil.

. . . Hah. I’m reminded of a David Letterman joke. He says the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused massive destruction for the city, but . . . on the positive side . . . bowling scores were never higher.

(Because all the bowling pins fell, I’m guessing.)

Ha ha. . . .

Soft Theism’s toughest problem vs. atheism’s toughest problem

So, isn’t the Problem of Evil a knockdown argument against God!?

Yes . . . I think it is . . . But . . . I think the infinite regress argument is a knockdown argument FOR God. And I find that argument a stronger one, because I see no possible rebuttal to it, by my lights anyway. Whereas, for the Problem of Evil argument there is a possible answer, not a good answer, but a possible answer.

But your position is full of regress problems. The atheist proposes the multiverse as an explanation for our universe, and you ask where the multiverse came from and propose God as the better explanation. But this just brings up more questions: where God came from, what his properties are, and so on. You complain about an answer that only kicks the can down the road, but how are you immune from the same criticism?

The atheist proposes physical causes to explain how you raised your arm, and you wonder what started that chain of causes. Your suggestion that some supernatural element of free will is at the beginning again raises questions about where that came from.

Where does human intelligence come from? Your answer: from a higher intelligence. Where does beauty in our world come from? Your answer: from a greater beauty. These are more regressions.

God and heaven

[And that possible answer to the Problem of Evil] is?

That . . . IF there is an afterlife of ultimate justice and happiness, then that outweighs the evil we experience in this life. Mathematically, any number, no matter how large, over infinity, makes that fraction . . . approach . . . zero. Likewise, any suffering, no matter how great, compared to an infinity of happiness in an afterlife, amounts to nothing.

You’ve said that the Problem of Evil is the atheist’s most powerful rebuttal, and you’ve responded by suggesting that God is just a dick. Unlike Christians, soft theism has the flexibility to drop the claim of God’s omnibenevolence, and that’s a smart move.

You’re saying here that however unjust or cruel life is on earth, when you average it out with an (unevidenced) perpetual heaven, life’s cruelty becomes insignificant. That’s true, but God still was immoral in letting us suffer on earth when any goal he had for us could’ve been reached without suffering. Here again, “God is a dick” gets you out of that jam. (Christians aren’t so lucky, because they can’t jettison God’s omnibenevolence. Their use of this averaging-of-pain argument is what I’ve labeled Stupid Argument Christians Should Avoid #25a.)

But you’re not off the hook yet. By your thinking, the same guy is in charge when we’re enduring a shitty life on earth and when luxuriating in bliss in heaven. Why would God suddenly be motivated to create a beautiful heaven for us when you’ve admitted that he doesn’t care enough to do that for us on earth?

Another problem is that you’ve not clearly defined the afterlife. Do I even want it? You put ultimate justice at the top of your list for heaven’s features, but that’s not what I’d put. Maybe the Norse or Spartans would put honor at the top. The 72-virgins crowd seems to want hedonism at the top. So, sure, put justice at the top of the list for your heaven, but remember that you’ve given no more evidence for your heaven than the Pastafarians have for their heaven with its beer volcano, stripper factory, and fluffy ponies.

Well, that’s just speculation.

Yeah, but it IS a logical theoretical answer to the Problem of Evil. Whereas, in my mind, there is NO theoretical answer to the infinite regress problem . . . other than . . . God. So that’s the bottom line for me—the infinite regress argument FOR god, outweighs the Problem of Evil argument AGAINST GOD.

Signing off

Well . . . we see things differently. I found this conversation frustrating, but . . . also fascinating. I’m glad we engaged.

Yeah, me too. Thanks for your thoughts.

I’ll add my thanks to Miklos Jako for allowing us to put his ideas about soft atheism through the atheist gauntlet and the commenters who debated the issue by contributing 3000 comments.

Next: My concluding remarks

Nature never deceives us;
it is always we who deceive ourselves.
— Jean Jacque Rousseau.


Image from William Murphy (license CC BY 2.0)

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...