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After having looked at Randal Rauser’s reasons for being a Christian, and having had my reasons and his defences intensely debated on his blog, I would like to offer Dr Vincent Torley’s account. Some readers may know Vincent from the Uncommon Descent website which attempts to refute evolution. I have argued with him at length when I used to write for John Loftus more often at Debunking Christianity. Here is his bio:

Vincent Torley is originally from Geelong, Australia. After obtaining a B.Sc., a B.A. and a B.Ec. from the AustralianNationalUniversity (all at no cost to himself), he worked for several years as a computer programmer in Melbourne, during which time he obtained an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne. In 1999, he moved to Japan to take up a job as an English teacher, returning to Australia for a year in 2001 to complete a Dip. Ed. in high school teaching before going back to Japan, where he has resided ever since. He obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne in 2007, while studying in Japan. He currently teaches English in high schools, as well as teaching English conversation and business English. He is married and the father of a seven-year-old son. His personal Web page is at http://www.angelfore.com/linux/vjtorley/index.html

I have split this up into two parts as it is pretty lengthy (whilst he didn’t have that many paragraphs, he made them massive!). I have also taken it upon myself to split it into Points so that it makes it easier to reference. I hope both of these actions are OK with Vincent.

Please make every effort to have a civil and discursive back-and-forth. I hope some interesting discussion can be had. Thanks to Vincent, as it takes some guts to put your beliefs in the firing range, but it is what we should all do. Over to Vincent:

Before I explain why I am a Christian, I’d like to address the problem of evil. The world we live in is filled with all manner of appalling (and pointless) evils, and in most cases, we have no satisfactory explanation as to why an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator would permit these evils to continue, for even one moment. At the same time, there’s no proof that the existence of these evils is logically incompatible with there being a God. There isn’t even a probabilistic argument; for if there were one, then it should be able to provide us with a mathematical estimate for the likelihood of God’s existence (or at least, an upper and lower limit). What we have instead is a strong prima facie argument against the existence of God. It’s an emotionally powerful one, but we need to recognize it for what it is: an argument from incredulity. We cannot imagine how a good God could make or even allow a world like this to exist, in which so many people (and sentient animals) suffer so needlessly. Rather than answer that question, let me quickly point out several flaws in the argument.

Point 1

First, it implicitly assumes a static model of evil: there is evil, and there is God, and we are asked how the existence of the two can be reconciled. But the world is a changing place. What we need to ask, then, is whether the changes occurring in the world comport with what we’d expect of a morally good Deity. And to answer that question, we’d need to know a lot more about the world than we know now.

Point 2

Second, the argument assumes that God can get the job of removing evil done in no time. Maybe He can’t. Just because we can mentally picture an omnipotent being instantly abolishing evil by Divine fiat (“Let there be no more suffering!”), that doesn’t mean it’s possible in the real world. Maybe it’s not that simple, even for God. Maybe freeing the world from evil necessarily takes quite some time.

Point 3

Third, the argument assumes that the only relevant duty that God might have vis-à-vis creatures is the duty to prevent them from suffering when there’s no good reason for them to do so. But if God has other kinds of duties towards creatures as well, then we have to at least consider the possibility that these duties might get in the way of Him removing pointless evils from the world, all at once. Perhaps it would be bad for us if He were to do that – perhaps even worse than it is now.

Point 4

Fourth, the argument assumes that God’s duties vis-à-vis creatures are determined purely by their nature, as sentient and/or sapient beings. The argument fails to consider the possibility that God might have extra duties towards us that He assumed voluntarily, at some point in the past – perhaps because we asked Him to do so. Perhaps at some point very early on in our prehistory, our ancestors grew tired of God always watching over us like the attentive parent of a young child, and said, “Enough! We don’t need a cosmic nanny protecting us from evil! Leave us alone to figure it out for ourselves!” And maybe God reluctantly complied with their wishes, and promised to refrain from continually saving us.

Wow, lots and lots to talk about, and this is only a quarter of it!  Enough to be discussing for no.

Point 1

“There isn’t even a probabilistic argument; for if there were one, then it should be able to provide us with a mathematical estimate for the likelihood of God’s existence (or at least, an upper and lower limit).”

This is actually incorrect by Vincent’s own language. The language of probability gives modal verbs like could, might and may probability values. Something I am sure Vincent is aware of considering his English teaching heritage. There are dozens and dozens of grammar pages and actual analytical papers from journals which will tell you this (just google ‘verbal probability estimates’). The fact that he lists such modal verbs means that he is already conceding that it is unlikely. Therefore, God’s existence is predicated on unlikely probabilities. Ergo God is improbable. At best. If God ‘might’ do this, or ‘could’ feel this, then we are dealing with unlikely scenarios as defined by those modal probability values.

Modal counter:

  • Perhaps 5
  • Might 12
  • May 5
  • Maybe 5
  • Could 11
  • Possible 6

Now, on their own, these will merely show Vincent’s thesis to be improbable. But if they are used in conjunction, the probabilities are compounded. This means that if one perhaps means a 25% probability, and a possible means a 10% probability, then the final probability of the thesis is .25 x .1 = .025, or a 2.5% chance of being true. There are at least 44 modal expressions used. If they are in conjunction at all, you can see how small the final probability will become.

“First, it implicitly assumes a static model of evil: there is evil, and there is God, and we are asked how the existence of the two can be reconciled. But the world is a changing place. What we need to ask, then, is whether the changes occurring in the world comport with what we’d expect of a morally good Deity.”

Hang on Vincent, are you conceding moral relativity?  Whilst this may be accepted by an atheist, depending on their moral framework, this is not going to help a theistic account of the world. However, it does make sense considering God is a consequentialist (which implies that morality is not grounded in God) and has illustrated Covenantal moral relativity (slavery, eating shellfish, wearing different materials etc was bad in the OT, but superseded by Jesus’ covenant in the NT and now become (un)acceptable!). Vincent, do you, by contextualising suffering (evil) admit that it is relative in some way?

Point 2

“Maybe freeing the world from evil necessarily takes quite some time. “

Well, we must get into the argument as to what omnipotence means, and whether he is truly constrained by his own creation. There is obviously an implicit hierarchy of needs and desires for God here. I imagine he doesn’t like suffering, but then he would rather have suffering than disallowing free will or some other greater, outweighing good. Of course, it is hard to see what greater good must come to “necessarily” cause the unstoppable suffering of a fawn dying in a forest fire. This affects no one or anything. It is just painful and rather senseless.

What Vincent is really doing here is appealing to the omniscience escape clause. We cannot know the mind of God and there could be a reason for allowing this: a greater good.

The issue here is summed up in my book, The Little Book Of Unholy Questions:

282. If my child was to walk on the flowers in my garden, trampling them, it would be immoral to punish him without telling him what he had done wrong. This would communicate to my child his misdemeanour so that he would not do it again. What have we done wrong to deserve cancer, malaria, the tsunami, the Holocaust, disability, cholera etc., and is it right that you have not communicated to us why we have had these ‘punishments’?

The analogy that I use about my child stomping on the plants and being told off arbitrarily after the event is powerful. The fact that ‘high-falluting’ philosophers and theologians argue incessantly, and without sound conclusion, over the nature of evil clearly means that God is doing exactly this. There is no clear communication from God as to why this evil is taking place, as to why we are being punished, if indeed evil exists as a result of some kind of punishment. If evil exists for any other reason, God is still not communicating this, and as a supposedly all-loving ruler I suggest that it is his duty to do so. His subjects are suffering each and every day in a universe where there could be no suffering. As the suffering ones, I believe we have a right to know why this is the case.

This ‘could’ and ‘might’ style of appeal to reasons for God allowing suffering punts to the unknown. But worse, it often implies that we are too stupid to understand. So we can pretty much get quantum mechanics, but are not clever enough to understand why God would want to allow 240,000 people to die in a tsunami? Wow. If not this, then we are just being kept in the dark. How fair is it to be punished without knowing why we are being punished? Our morality prohibits this, and it is grounded in God’s moral goodness, supposedly. He is dying by his own sword.

The crucial tack we must take here is asking this question:

What thesis more likely explains the massive amount of suffering on earth, from that caused by freely willing humans, to tsunamis and plate tectonics, to the millions upon millions of malaria deaths each year?

A) an all-loving, all-powerful God.

b) a universe without a personal god.

Think on that and savour the intuitive probabilities. Yes there may be a reason why God keeps us in the dark whilst he goes about killing literally billions of organisms every year (by designing and actualising this world over infinite others, he is actively responsible, knowing all of the counterfactuals, in this coming about). But is that likely? Especially given that I am only likely to believe in that god if I am fortuitously born into a particular situation and geography where that god is prevalent.

Point 3

“If there is a God, then He could have made rank upon rank of beings higher than ourselves, whom we know nothing about, because they’re invisible to us.”

It is easy to appeal to invisible entities to explain real and empirical facts. It could be the unicorns’ faults. Why did the stock market crash? Well, it could  be that the money goblins, they’re invisible don’t you know, flew in and… You get the picture. Do we have good reason to think these things exist? No.

Point 4

“Perhaps at some point very early on in our prehistory, our ancestors grew tired of God always watching over us like the attentive parent of a young child, and said, “Enough! We don’t need a cosmic nanny protecting us from evil! Leave us alone to figure it out for ourselves!” And maybe God reluctantly complied with their wishes, and promised to refrain from continually saving us.”

These reasons are becoming increasingly ad hoc to the point of being incredible, as in I am amazed that they could be believed to be even remotely true. We have no evidence of this at all and it appears incredibly unlikely.

But more than this, the crucial mistake that Vincent makes here is assuming that we would want and allow some prehistoric hominid or early human to speak for us!! Man, I wouldn’t even allow a person from 50 years ago to speak on behalf of me and what I want. This argument is by far the weakest Vincent has to offer. It simply makes no sense. Imagine if I kept saving Vincent from being run over to the point that he said, “Look, bugger off and leave me be” so that I did this and left his descendants be. 6,000 years later, his descendants are getting run over left, right and centre whilst I sit back and watch. They ask me why I am not helping, and I just look blankly at them. I don’t even stoop to letting them know that their great ancestor, Vincent, told me to stop mollycoddling him, and that his demands and rights supersede theirs. For no particular reason.

To be continued. Let the debate begin!

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...