• Why Skeptical Theism Fails

    The Problem of Evil is a powerful argument which takes its form in various ways, both the logical and evidential format. I was watching a video debate on the problem of evil and animal suffering between Michael Murry and Daniel Breyer. I really enjoyed it. I don’t buy the skeptical theistic approach, but, as Breyer said, if I was a theist, that would have to be the approach I would take to the claim of gratuitous evil. It’s the only proper option the theist has. Except it has problems.

    Skeptical theism is the defence against the problem of evil argument, which says that if God is all-loving, -powerful and -knowing, he would want to, know how to and be able to do something about gratuitous evil (see my talk with Justin Schieber and Counter Apologist on the topic here). The skeptical theist counters that evil or suffering is not gratuitous, but that it must happen for a reason. The problem is that humans know nothing in comparative relation to an all knowing, infinite God. We cannot access God or the reasons for his actions or omissions. All evil, every single unit of pain, is necessary, even down to a stubbed toe, for achieving the greater good.

    The parent-child analogy is almost always used (as it was in this debate), and I would like to refute the use of that analogy. The analogy goes something like this. The relationship that God has with us is analogous to a parent’s relationship with their child. A parent may take the child to a doctor for a vaccination to prevent the child later getting a fatal disease. There is pain involved in the inoculation, the child cries, but the parent is morally right in following through with this course of action and in not stopping the doctor (well worth looking at Stepehn Maitzen’s criticism of this point). Moreover, the child is not able to access the reasons or explanations for such action and omission.

    This style of analogy can be used for any scenario where the child goes through necessary pain for a greater good, such as learning a lesson, informing future behaviour positively and so on. Yes, there are some instances where we could argue that such actions or omissions are not necessary, and that the aim or outcome could be achieve in another, less painful way. Natural evil does seem to prompt the question as to exactly what is being learnt, or what greater good could come. That a fawn dies over three days from critical burns from a forest fire caused by lightning does throw a spanner into the works. What on earth could be the greater god that comes from this and could it be achieved in any other more benign manner?

    We would save it if we could, right?
    We would save it if we could, right?

    What I want to concentrate on, though, is the parental analogy, which Breyer also mentioned in the debate.

    The idea is that humans cannot access or understand the reasons for evil, and that this justifies a lack of communication from God (or that this lack is itself justified for a greater good). The problem is that this is very un-parental.

    I talk about this in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions where I ask this question:

     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’? (p.114)

    The idea that God is an all-loving parent is demonstrably wrong against everything we know about what it is to be an all-loving parent! When your child needs to go to the doctor for that jab, you don’t make the child get themselves to the doctor, let the doctors manhandle the child, inject it painfully, and throw it out on the street without the first idea of what is going on! That is cruel and demented.

    That is what God is doing with us.

    God has been on a 2,000-year-long holiday and unplugged the phone. We are left in the cold as to why things are happening. And I simply don’t buy that we cannot understand why, for example, cancer and malaria are rife in the ‘presence’ of an omni-God. There are no reasons offered, supposedly because we cannot understand said reasons. Yet we are grappling with quantum mechanics and string theory. How complex must those reasons be? I am, to say the least, skeptical of skeptical theism.

    But more importantly, the actions of a loving parent would be to escort the child to the doctors, all the while explaining in the best possible way, in a manner that the child would understand, what will happen, to hold their hand, to comfort them. And when they are crying, you pick them up and carry them from the clinic. Maybe buy them some sweets. The Bible is not the explanation, and answered prayer is not the comfort. I don’t buy that, and it sure as hell doesn’t cut the mustard for the burning fawn.

    Essentially, if God is a parent, we should call social services and get him restricted from ever having children again.


    Category: FeaturedPhilosophyPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of EvilSkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • D Rizdek

      the actions of a loving parent would be to escort the child to the doctors, all the while explaining in the best possible way

      I would say many Christians would claim their god IS with them when they are going through this or that bout of suffering. Of course, IMHO, that is simply their imagination. AND that kind of compensation is what they say must be happening to others who suffer or would be happening if only they thought about the right god in the right ways.

      The thing I note is that most who defend their god against the problem of evil is that they tend to think about what I call minor problems. For example, if I only had my life as an example, I’d probably conclude there could very well be a good god who allowed minor tests and tribulations into my life to help me grow and to help me understand how to live better. IOW, my personal suffering has been minor. But contrary to how god defenders chide, it’s NOT ABOUT ME.

      When I think of gratuitous suffering, I think about the millions of children who live with chronic deprivation, disease and deformity. How are these “trials” going to help a child who grows up in Africa if after suffering various serious ailments for 10 years, he just dies? What greater good comes from yet one more child suffering chronic hunger for years? Are they there suffering just so comfortable Christians in modern nations can gain a bit in character by thinking of and praying for them and offering some help? IOW, they are simply collateral damage in god’s plans for those better-off folks?

      And, except when they ARE talking about these millions who suffer daily and unless they adopt some form of universal salvation, most Christians seem to assume these children (who suffer all their lives grow up to be adults and die with out knowing Jesus) will end up in hell, suffering additional torment for eternity per most Christian’s belief.

      I saw this defense of god in the face of suffering here:


      First (and most importantly), like with the Sadotheist, in order to define the very concept of “evil,” the atheist has to borrow from a theistic worldview (one that believes in God). In other words, if there is no God, there is not really any such thing as evil.

      I find it interesting that Michael thinks this is a useful response to the problem of evil. It fails in two ways. FIRST, indeed it is possible that the atheist might be borrowing their concept of evil from the theist. But so what? The atheist IS posing the problem as if there is a god and evil needs to be explained. So it is completely appropriate for the atheist to borrow the concept from the theist and use the problem of evil when discussing the inconsistency of a good god with what seems like excessive evil. The second way it fails is that evil as used in the problem of evil in many cases is equated with and connotates suffering. And that is something the atheist, with no reference to a god at all, can observe and pose as a problem. IF there is no god, the “problem of evil” disappears completely because we do understand, from a natural standpoint why things suffer. That is not to say I personally don’t have a problem with evil AND that we should not strive to lessen it…it is not a problem of explaining why there is evil. The more technical description should be the problem with explaining evil in the presence of a good god.

    • Void Walker

      For me, one of the best contentions that can be raised towards skeptical theism is the Christian concept of heaven. God creates an eternal paradise, replete with ever lasting joy, an absence of pain/suffering/death, free will (minus the option to choose evil),etc. If God can conjure up such a place, it simply makes no sense at all that he would even create the natural world we are all a part of. Why would he not simply start out with heaven from the get go?

      It’s nonsensical. On the one hand, you have a flawed, poorly “designed”, suffering and death laden natural world, on the other, you have an eternal paradise wherein humans possess supernatural powers, still have contra-causal free will (but evil choices are not on the menu), and absolutely zero suffering/death.

      When the comparison is made, it seems like this world is simply a science experiment set up for his own amusement; all of mankind merely pawns in a cruel game.

    • I think there’s a simpler reason why skeptical theism fails. Namely, if God is omnipotent, then by definition he is capable of achieving whatever ends he has for humanity/the universe/whatever *without* allowing natural suffering. So either God is cruel and chooses to invoke or allow natural suffering, or he is not omnipotent.

      There’s a whole other related issue of how a ‘perfect being’ can have a ‘plan’, since that would suggest that there is something God has not attained. Toss in the quandary of God being ‘timeless’, and the idea of having a divine plan just gets more confused.

    • Clare45

      When I bring this up with my Catholic friend, she goes to the “potter and the pot” argument. God has made us (pots) and therefore has a right to destroy us or make us suffer. I can’t get her to see that pots are inanimate objects and cannot be compared to humans, as she just says it is an analogy. Suggestions?

      • Hi there Clare
        the problem is that your friend IS using a fallacy, and she needs to realise that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_analogy
        Simply put, a pot is not a sentient human.
        For a dry and thorough analysis of analogy in logic, see here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-analogy/ Just reply here:
        Since it is ok to kill and eat animals, it is ok to kill and eat humans. Of course, this is a false analogy, especially since pots and humans are EVEN further apart. At least humans are actually animals.
        Subject: Re: New comment posted on Why Skeptical Theism Fails

      • Void Walker

        What Jonathan said.

        It’s striking that your friend would use such an archaic “argument” from analogy, especially when the issue being discussed is human well being. Such a tactic is a clear indication that she hasn’t given the issues at hand much thought.

        • Clare45

          This is the Bible quote:

          “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

          How do you convince someone that the Bible itself makes the false analogy? This is still the subject of sermons etc.

          • Well, she would have to show that this is theologically what the bible is definitely saying, as well as showing that the bible is, indeed, always right. That we are the creations of God is different to saying we are the creations of God and God can do with us what he likes, and still remain omni/ll loving.

          • Void Walker

            Good point.

            May I ask: is your friend a literalist?

            • Clare45

              Yes, I think she is.

            • Void Walker

              In that case, there isn’t too much you can do to change her mind, in my rather extensive experiences with literalist types.

              But I still want to be of some help, so I’m quite irritated.

              Perhaps you could give me a few more examples of her interpretation of the bible? That is, does she usually take some of the nastier bits literally (Numbers and Deuteronomy spring to mind)? If so, have you made efforts to demonstrate how grossly inhumane much of these books actually are, and how that, in itself, does not square with a maximally loving, perfectly good being?

            • Clare45

              She believes that Adam and Eve were real people. Yes, I have discussed the nastier bits of the Bible and she replies something along the lines of “God must have his reasons”. I am not sure that she thinks that God is a maximally loving or good being- more of a lord and master to be obeyed or else.
              All Catholics are supposed to believe in the concept of original sin and atonement, although most of them ignore the fact that to do so means they have to take the Bible literally.

            • Void Walker

              “I am not sure that she thinks that God is a maximally loving or good being- more of a lord and master to be obeyed or else.”


              I had a similar mind-set when I was a believer, but it evolved into a more liberal, “God is love, god is peace” type over many years, before I threw it all into the garbage.

              I suppose you could start with the fact that, were adam and eve real people, this could not possibly explain the genetic diversity in modern humans. You may also attempt to point her towards biblical scholarship regarding the authenticity of the Torah. Of course, this may all fall upon deaf ears. If a person has elected to remain ignorant of any evidence that’s contrary to their beliefs, no amount of evidence can convince them of their folly.

            • Clare45

              Yes, I agree. Part of the problem with Catholics is that they don’t read the Bible much, or if they do it is the greatly edited and annotated Catholic version. It is more about the dogma and the catechisms and what the priest or bishop tells them. They are brainwashed to accept the word of authority figures without question. C.S Lewis has also influenced her. She starts to get angry if I try and explain the genetics etc. so I have to back off- she has high blood pressure!

            • Void Walker

              She has a high blood pressure? Eek. Maybe pointing out all of the myriad problems with her faith isn’t the best course of action, then. Apologies for my shoddy advice.

              It’s really, really hard to know what to do in situations such as this. I wish you the best of luck!

        • D Rizdek

          Archaic? Perhaps, but I hear this off and on. I grew up gong to a church that had a chorus “Have thy own way Lord.” In it is the line…”thou are the potter, I am the clay.”

          And even if Christians don’t use the potter and clay analogy, they respond to my questioning by saying their god is infallible and we humans have no basis to challenge ‘his’ decisions and actions. It is essentially the same thing IMHO. They want to think their god is above questioning and anything that happens by his hand it perfectly good regardless of the apparent consequences.

          • Void Walker

            “Archaic? Perhaps, but I hear this off and on.”

            But? Frequency of use has no bearing on whether or not an argument can be considered archaic.

            “And even if Christians don’t use the potter and clay analogy, they respond to my questioning by saying their god is infallible and we humans have no basis to challenge ‘his’ decisions and actions. It is essentially the same thing IMHO. They want to think their god is above questioning and anything that happens by his hand it perfectly good regardless of the apparent consequences.”

            I see this all too often as well. Christian seem to want to have their cake and eat it, too.

            It’s funny, because on one hand most Christians claim to have a *personal* relationship with “him”, which clearly implies some knowledge of god. But at the drop of a hat, when the going gets tough, they claim to not possess knowledge of god, his ways, his plan, etc. How very convenient.

            • Pious_Ted

              Void, here is a recent comment that may be of interest to you re. your pal, Luke:

              ” I’ve probably spent 15 years and 15,000 hours discussing online, and a huge portion of that is with atheists.” – Luke Breuer on 10/23/2014


            • Void Walker

              Yep, I saw the comment. Relevance?

            • Pious_Ted

              Didn’t you and he have a testy exchange on another thread about him making such a claim? I thought that you once challenged him re. such a claim.

            • Hi Ted, thanks for popping by!

            • Pious_Ted

              Thanks, mate. I haven’t been commenting much lately, but I do enjoy reading your articles.

              I have noticed that when Mr. Luke Breuer starts a dialogue re. one of these articles, he sometimes goes on… and on… and on. I have never seen one person post as much as he does. He is sometimes like a perpetual motion machine.

            • Void Walker

              Nope, this would be the first time I accused him of asserting what he did.

              Not to sound rude or anything, but do you have a point?

            • Pious_Ted

              Someone (I thought it was you) was having a testy (and lengthy) exchange with him re. this claim of his on another thread. I thought that someone was you. Therefore, that is why I cited his recent post – as I thought it might be of interest to you. Apparently, it does not interest you. Therefore, I will have no more to say to you on this score.

            • Void Walker

              I see now, I was apparently misconstruing your reason for dredging this up.

              Apologies if I was rude!

            • Pious_Ted

              No problems, mate.

      • D Rizdek

        I suggest explaining once as clearly as you can and then drop it. Plant the seed and let it go. Either it’ll do some good or it won’t. Some people seem impervious to the reasoning I think is sound…that a good god simply would not create a world like the one we see around us.

        • Which is, indeed, the skeptical theism approach.

          • D Rizdek

            I’m a bit confused pls explain a bit more. What is the skeptical theism approach? My view that a good god simply would not create a world like this one?

            • Um, what this post is about! The idea that we cannot know God’s mind, that we cannot access his reasons for allowing evil etc

        • Clare45

          I have planted a lot of seeds but there is no sign of germination yet!

          • D Rizdek

            Oh, I know what you mean. I have relatives who I initially talked to shortly after I realized I was an atheist, but gave up decades ago because they seem impervious. Their ability to manufacture rationale exceeds any doubts my comments might cause.

            Interestingly, it is never possible to actually know what theists think belief means. It might mean they willfully keep telling themselves they “believe by faith. Every day, every minute, whenever they have doubt they say to themselves, “I believe, I believe, I believe.” It reminds me of the old movie “Miracle on 34th Street” where Susan Walker sits there in the car repeating, “I believe, I believe, I believe”….that Kris Kringle IS Santa Claus. That might be why some theists chide atheists claiming we are the ones who gave up the faith and allowed our earthly desires to cause us to “stop” believing in god. They think beliefs can be changed, like underwear or one can force ones self to “believe” like you can force yourself to learn a skill.

            After reading about the history of philosophers, I am convinced some people just think differently than I do. To some folks their “thoughts” and “rationale” supersede what their senses tell them and they are more apt to distrust their senses than what they think their mind/spiritual side tells them is true. Then there are those of us who tend to think what we sense should lead our reasoning and thoughts and when what we sense contradicts or does not support our reasoning, we are quicker to alter our reasoning than distrust our senses. I’m sure there are terms to describe this, but I don’t know them well enough to use them.

            • Clare45

              “Then there are those of us who tend to think what we sense should lead
              our reasoning and thoughts and when what we sense contradicts or does
              not support our reasoning, we are quicker to alter our reasoning than
              distrust our senses. I’m sure there are terms to describe this, but I
              don’t know them well enough to use them.”

              Very true. I keep get FB posts about “Going with your gut instincts”.

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