General Theism (Part 6): Evil

If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is there such tremendous evil and suffering in the world? This oft-asked question lies at the heart of the Problem of Evil, which many theists regard as the strongest objection to the existence of God. Recalling our Bayesian statistics from the previous post, the atheist’s objective here is to demonstrate that evil is much more compatible with atheism than it is with theism. As a theist, I don’t need to show that evil is more probable on theism than atheism – there can be evidence against a true fact. I just need to show that the expectedness gap isn’t as large as it would need to be to outweigh the positive evidence for God’s existence.

So just how big is the explanatory gap between atheism and theism when it comes to evil? Historically, many atheists have tried to argue that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with theism (i.e. the probability of God and evil coexisting is 0) – if they were right, this objection would singlehandedly end the discussion. Fortunately for the theist, this ambitious form of the objection has been largely abandoned due to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who’s definitely worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in the theory of knowledge). But we aren’t out of the woods yet – even if the probability of evil given God’s existence is nonzero, it could still be so low that evil counts as devastatingly powerful evidence against God.

The argument will hinge on a single question: how likely is it that God has morally justifying reasons for permitting the evil we see? The atheist typically answers that they don’t see any morally justifying reasons for permitting, say, a child getting run over by a car. This is colloquially called a “noseeum” argument, and noseeum arguments vary significantly in power. If I use a noseeum argument to back up my assertion that there isn’t an elephant in the room, I’ve got a solid position; if I use one to argue that there’s no flea in the room, I’m on much shakier ground. So are morally justifying reasons more like elephants (we’d likely see them if they were there), or are they more like fleas (they’d be hard to see even if they exist)?

To argue that they’re more like fleas, the theist can provide sample explanations for why God may permit evil (called theodicies) that would be hard to see in particular cases. For example, suppose (as Christianity maintains) that knowing God is an incommensurable good, meaning that it’s worth anything we could give for it. Then a world with more evil and pain could still be better overall if more people came to know God as a result. But how plausible is it that the worlds in which the most people come to know God have as much suffering as we see in ours? Actually, quite! Many Christians can personally attest to the fact that they’ve come to know God as a result of disaster or pain, and this anecdotal trend has been well-substantiated statistically by analysis of the growth of evangelical Christianity during immensely painful periods in a nation’s history (ex. China, El Salvador, Ethiopia). So it seems plausible that if Christianity were true, God may permit some instances of evil and suffering so that a maximal number of people come to know Him. (There are many proposed theodicies that complement each other – you can see 10 more at
https://beliefmap.org/god-exists/pain-unjustifiable#theodicies.)

Theodicies are further complicated by the so-called “butterfly effect”; a single event can have its first major consequence many years and miles away from its occurrence. Even if permitting an act of evil results in tremendous good 150 or 15000 years from now, we may not be able to determine that from our perspective, which is limited to a very small region of time and space.

So while the theist acknowledges that evil exists and that God would not permit evil unless He had morally justifying reasons to do so, the theist can maintain that we simply don’t have the ability to confidently conclude that such reasons don’t actually exist – like fleas, they may just be incredibly hard to see from our vantage point. Since the atheist is the one mounting the objection, this rebuttal suffices to ward off the force of the objection without major damage to the theist’s position.

General Theism (Part 5): Disproving God?

Before we dive into a couple of the strongest arguments against God’s existence, let’s lay some groundwork; in particular, how can one argue for a negative (“God does not exist”)? What would evidence against God look like?

I’ll discuss here the basics of Bayesian statistics, but I’d encourage anyone interested in mathematics or good argumentation to look into it further themselves. Essentially, when comparing two hypotheses P and Q to see which of them we ought to believe, we should consider the implications of P and the implications of Q and compare them to our observations. If a particular circumstance (let’s name it E) is more probable given P than it is given Q, then E is evidence for P (i.e. upon discovering E, we should be more confident of P and less confident of Q, though we may still believe Q on the basis of other evidence).

Let’s consider a simple example to get our heads fully around the concept. Suppose that you think there’s a 90% chance your friend is out of town. Based on prior experience, you know that there’s an 80% chance his lights will be on if he’s home but only a 5% chance that his lights will be on if he’s out of town. If you then drive by his house and discover that his lights are on, you need to adjust your confidence that he’s actually out of town – intuitively, we can see that this will decrease our confidence that he’s out of town because the lights being on is more expected if he’s in town than if he’s out of town. Bayes’ Theorem actually lets us produce numbers – you should now think that there’s only a 36% chance that your friend is out of town (and therefore a 64% chance that he’s home). So in this case, the evidence of the lights being on was strong enough to change your mind – whereas it was previously more likely that your friend was gone (90/10), it’s now more likely that he’s home (64/36).

So in seeking to provide evidence against the existence of God, the operative question will be “what aspects of reality are unexpected on theism but expected on atheism?” Circumstances with larger gaps in “expectedness” get weightier consideration – if something is 50% likely on atheism and 49% likely on theism, that’s probably not gonna change anyone’s mind unless they were already perfectly on the fence. 30% to .001%, on the other hand, will carry a lot of force.

We can also use our new understanding of evidence to quickly deal with a really bad objection to God’s existence along the lines of “we can’t directly observe Him.” Now since we can’t directly observe something that doesn’t exist, this observation is extremely expected on atheism. But since God is by definition immaterial and transcendent, we wouldn’t be able to directly observe Him on theism either! So this observation has practically no expectedness gap – it’s utterly mundane and expected for both the theist and atheist and hence doesn’t count as evidence for either.

Just as for theism, though, the abundance of bad atheistic arguments doesn’t imply that there aren’t also good ones. In our next two posts we’ll examine the problems of evil and divine hiddenness; our task will be to assess how big the “expectedness gap” is, and in particular whether it’s large enough to overwhelm the positive arguments we’ve presented.

General Theism (Part 4): Morality

In our final affirmative argument for the existence of God, we’ll be examining the basis for moral values and duties. To preempt a far-too-common misunderstanding, this argument is *not* saying that all atheists are terrible people and all theists are good, nor even that most atheists are terrible and most theists are good. This argument says exactly nothing about how a belief in God affects one’s behavior. Rather, it examines whether the existence of moral values can be adequately explained by an atheistic worldview. The argument goes like this:

  1. Objective moral values and duties exist.
  2. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is like the Kalam Cosmological Argument that we examined two posts ago in that it has two premises from which a conclusion logically follows – a person cannot rationally believe 1 and 2 but deny 3. Just as before, then, we’ll proceed by examining whether premises 1 and 2 are plausibly true, and if they are, 3 follows without further argument.

Before we even get into our defense of the argument, though, we need to define our terms. (Pro tip: always do this. A shocking number of arguments in day-to-day life result from a difference in terminology rather than an actual difference in belief.) Let’s start with moral values. Just like black, white, and grey are color values that can be possessed by different objects, there are moral values possessed by different actions.  Some actions, like stealing, are morally bad; others, like charity, are morally good.  When I say that these moral values are objective, I mean that they’re intrinsic to the action and don’t depend on anyone’s moral beliefs.

Moral duties, rather than dealing with good and bad, deal with right and wrong.  It would be good for me to become a firefighter and help others, and it would also be good for me to pay for the meal of the guy behind me in the drive-through, yet I’m not morally obligated to do either.  I am, however, morally obligated to warn someone if I see a train headed towards them; it’s not just good for me to do so, it is right, and it is wrong for me not to.  Regardless of what I believe about morality, I can justly be held accountable if I fail to fulfill my moral duty.

One last note: in order for premise 1 to be true, I don’t need every action to have an objective moral value, I just need at least one action to have an objective moral value.  With that in mind, we can assess this premise by considering a few questions.  Could murdering someone for fun ever be anything but wrong?  What about torturing a baby for no reason whatsoever?  What about oppressing people because of their race or gender?  I’d argue that these actions can never be morally good regardless of what the perpetrator or their society may believe.  Even if the Nazis had won World War 2 and indoctrinated everyone in the entire world to agree with them, the Holocaust would still have been morally wrong.  These may seem like extreme examples (because they are), but if you say that no objective morals exist, then I don’t see how you can escape the conclusion that even these extreme atrocities aren’t truly, objectively wrong. Assuming, then, that you condemn these atrocities as passionately as I do, we can agree that there are at least some objective moral values and duties.

In order to assess premise 2, we must imagine that there isn’t a God (or perhaps stop imagining that there is one).  In this Godless universe, how can we explain the existence of objective moral values and duties?  While we certainly have an innate sense that some things are right and others are wrong, personal belief and intuition clearly can’t be the source of an objective (person-independent) moral standard; at most, they’re indicators of a higher moral standard.  A natural place to look for this standard is society, but it too fails to be objective; as just one example, America used to believe that slavery was morally acceptable, and now it doesn’t.  Some have suggested that morality is grounded in evolution, but there are a number of problems with this suggestion.  For starters, it’s not clear that every action favored by evolution is a moral one.  But the much deeper issue is that evolution can only describe why morality appears to exist; if my moral urges are nothing more than evolution-favored instincts, I have absolutely no obligation to continue following them.  The last option I’d like to consider is that morality is like chess. The ultimate goal of chess is to take the opponent’s king, so moves which further that goal are said to be good, and moves which don’t are said to be bad.  This seems like a promising approach to morality; maybe morality is ultimately about helping people, and from that we objectively derive all our morals and duties.  The problem with this model is that we’ve smuggled in our goal (or “objective”).  Why should I help other people instead of, for instance, acquiring a maximal number of socks? To say “because that doesn’t help people” would be plainly circular – what we need is a super-standard by which to judge our standards, and that puts us squarely back where we started.

In the end, we find that the search for objective morals in our Godless universe is fruitless.  We feel certain that they exist, but we can’t seem to find any way that they could have come about.  What we need is an authoritative, unchanging, personal source for our objective morals; in other words, God.

If our defenses of premises 1 and 2 hold water, God’s existence follows necessarily. This concludes the “affirmative” section of our dialog on General Theism. To review, we’ve tried to argue that the beginning of the universe implies a transcendant cause, that the fine-tuning of the universe implies a cosmic designer, and that the existence of objective moral values and duties imply the existence of an authoritative and personal Lawgiver. Taken together, these arguments make a powerful case for God’s existence – but before we draw any conclusions, we need to make sure that there are no counterarguments that outweigh the arguments we’ve presented.

General Theism (Part 3): Fine-Tuning

For our second argument in favor of God’s existence, we’ll need to lay some mathematical and scientific groundwork. Bear with me – this argument is quantifiably powerful in a really unique way, so I promise the numbers pay off.

Most of us probably learned the equation for gravity in high school: F = \frac{G m_1 m_2}{r^2}

In that equation, F is the force of gravity, m_1 and m_2 are the masses of the two objects on which gravity is acting, and r is the distance between the masses. G, though, is just a number – 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2, to be exact. And G isn’t alone – we find constants like this throughout the most foundational equations in physics. These constants don’t seem to be determined by the laws themselves or (generally) by one another – mathematically, many combinations of values for these constants would produce a consistent description of a universe.

It was typically assumed that the values of these constants could have fallen anywhere within a wide range of possibilities without any substantial consequences for the universe; this idea is now near-universally rejected by theoretical physicists. It turns out that an inconceivably small number of the possible combinations of these values produce a universe permitting life – physicists call this phenomenon “fine-tuning.” There are many examples of fine-tuning, but to examine one of the more understandable ones, let’s think about stars. We take it for granted that the universe is filled with interesting elements from which life is made – oxygen, carbon, iron, nitrogen, and so on. But immediately after the Big Bang, the universe contained only hydrogen, helium, and trace amounts of lithium and beryllium; those ingredients aren’t sufficient to produce the chemical complexity needed for life of any kind. Heavier elements had to be formed through billions of years of nuclear fusion in stars – but what if stars didn’t exist? As outlandish as that may sound, stars depend on a delicate balance of gravity and the strong nuclear force to sustain themselves – in fact, if you were to pick a random gravitational constant and coupling constant (which determines the strength of the strong nuclear force), the odds that you’d pick one that permits stars is just 1 out of 1035! Without stable stars there’s no way of producing heavier elements and hence the chemical complexity needed for life to exist. (This example was selected for clarity rather than strength; for any sciency readers wanting more data, you can check out the work of Luke Barnes in his book “A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos” or his research papers such as this one: https://arxiv.org/abs/1112.4647.)

The question, then, is how are we to explain this fine-tuning? We can divide explanations of the fine-tuning of the universe into three basic categories:

  1. Fine-tuning is the result of design.
  2. Fine-tuning is the result of necessity.
  3. Fine-tuning is the result of chance.

I define these terms so as to make the groupings exhaustive: “design” means that the fine-tuning of the universe was purposefully causally influenced by a personal being, “necessity” means that the universe wasn’t designed and could not have different from the way it is, and “chance” means that the universe wasn’t designed and could have been different, i.e. it just happened to be the way that it is.

How do these explanations fare? Design does pretty well – if there were a transcendent person, it’s pretty plausible (or at least not wildly implausible) that they’d be interested in creating a universe in which other persons could come to exist. Let’s turn to the other two.

The explanation of physical necessity proposes that our marvel at fine-tuning is like a 2-D creature marveling at the fact that the angles of the triangle in which he lives add up to exactly 180 degrees – but of course it shouldn’t be that surprising, since the angles of a triangle must add up to 180. But the proposal that, like the triangle, our universe had to be this way is worse than speculative – a wide range of constants do appear to be compatible with the laws of our universe, and far from having evidence to overwhelm this appearance, the variability of constants is implied by the Standard Model as well as even its more speculative competitors (including String Theory). There’s just no good reason to believe that the values of the constants are necessary – it’s sheer wishful thinking.

The “explanation” of chance simply acknowledges fine-tuning and asserts that we got really really (really really really) lucky. And while this is certainly possible, rational thinkers seek to avoid excessive improbability. If a bank robber entered the 12-digit vault code in a single try, it’s possible that he guessed it, but overwhelmingly more likely that he already knew it (e.g. from a corrupt bank employee) – any good detective would move forward with the latter as their working theory over the former. So unless we have prior evidence making the design hypothesis as unlikely as fine-tuning by chance (on the order of 10-35 from just my one example), design is the way we ought to go.

As with all our arguments, the Fine-Tuning Argument doesn’t produce certainty in its conclusion that a cosmic designer exists, just rational confidence. Furthermore, the Fine-Tuning Argument in isolation doesn’t even tell us that the designer is God – for instance, the theory that our universe is a computer simulation could also explain the fine-tuning via a design hypothesis. But just as learning that someone is at the door makes it more likely that any particular person is, our confidence in there being some cosmic designer should likewise make it more plausible that a particular cosmic designer (God) exists.

General Theism (Part 2): The Kalam Cosmological Argument

We’ll be starting our “debate” on General Theism with the affirmative side; what are some reasons we ought to believe that God exists (or at least that He plausibly might exist)? Before I begin, I’ll note that there are innumerably many reasons why theists actually believe that God exists and I’ll readily concede that many of them aren’t good; however, the existence of bad arguments for a thing doesn’t imply that there aren’t also good ones. I’ll also note that I’m not claiming to know with certainty that God exists – I don’t even know with certainty that my apartment exists. My contention is merely that these arguments, taken together, make it more plausible that God exists than that He doesn’t.

The first argument in my cumulative case is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. My presentation of it will be closely based on the work of Dr. William Lane Craig, an excellent philosopher/theologian/apologist who’s defended this argument in great depth. (He’s also the founder of Reasonable Faith, of which we are a chapter.) I’ll be giving a very light version of the argument aimed at comprehension; if you’re interested in a heavier treatment of it, you can check out Dr. Craig’s work at reasonablefaith.org.

The argument runs like this:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This is a deductive argument, meaning that it has a set of premises (statements 1 & 2) which together imply a conclusion (statement 3). You cannot rationally believe that 1 and 2 are true but 3 is false. Hence, all the defender of this argument needs to do is defend the truth of its two premises.

So why believe premise 1, which states that everything that begins to exist has a cause? A few reasons can be given in support of this pretty intuitive principle. For starters, we observe no exceptions to this rule in the collective scientific and day-to-day experience of humanity, so it’s reasonable to inductively infer that the principle holds in general (rather than that things do begin to exist without causes, but coincidentally only when our back is turned). Furthermore, suppose for a moment that something (say, a universe) could causelessly begin to exist; what’s stopping a universe from causelessly beginning to exist in front of me right now? (Or now? Or now?) It seems that someone who rejects this premise would have to say “nothing” – there is absolutely no reason why a universe couldn’t appear in front of me right now and incinerate me in the second Big Bang. It seems extremely implausible that universes can causelessly begin to exist but have, for no reason whatsoever, only done so once.

What about premise 2 – why believe that the universe began to exist? (Note that by “the universe,” I’m referring to all space, time, matter, and energy – this is a relatively standard definition.) We have good reason, both philosophically and scientifically, for thinking that it did. Philosophically, an infinite number of past events is absurd, since we’d have had to traverse an actually infinite amount of time to reach the present. (Think of why it’s impossible for someone to count from negative infinity to 0.) It would seem that there must be finitely many past days (for instance) – but this implies an absolute beginning. Scientifically, the Big Bang model explains what we see about the universe far better than any competing model, and it implies an absolute beginning of the universe (after which the model is named) about 13.8 billion years ago. One would have to reject both of these streams of evidence in order to deny this premise.

So if the first two premises turn out to be true, it follows logically that the universe has a cause. But nothing can cause itself (since it’d have to exist prior to its own existence), so if the universe (which is all space, time, matter, and energy) had a cause, that cause would have to be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial. We even have reason to suspect that it’s personal, but that requires heavier thinking than I want to do in this introductory post – if you’re curious, check out Dr. Craig’s treatment of the argument. But even without pressing for personality, the conclusion that the universe has a transcendent cause should help make the existence of God more plausible.

As I stated up front, I’m not claiming that this argument gives us certainty that God exists, and I don’t even require that it gives us a high degree of confidence that He does. I’ll be making a cumulative case for God’s existence, so we’ll be examining several different lines of evidence; even if no one of them is strong enough to demonstrate God’s existence on its own, I claim that they succeed when taken together. But even before seeing those other arguments, the Kalam should make you pause and think – are you willing to deny either premise in order to escape the conclusion, and if so, why? Be sure to share you thoughts and comments below!

General Theism (Part 1): Intro

Imagine you’re at home watching Netflix, playing computer, reading a good book, or whatever it is you do in your free time. You receive a call from a trusted friend, and as soon as you answer, they immediately yell “You’re never gonna believe it, I just saw _____!”

I contend that your response to your friend’s exclamation will depend substantially on what it is they claim to have seen. If, for instance, it’s “a live T-Rex rampaging through New York,” you’re immediately going to suspect that they’re joking or hallucinating. If it’s instead “Tom Cruise walking down the street,” you may be a bit suspicious but willing to believe them after further questioning (are you serious? are you sure it wasn’t just a look-alike?). If it’s “a really cute cat,” you’ll probably just take them at their word.

In each case, you have the same “immediate” reason for believing that your friend saw the object in question: their testimony. The difference between your responses is due, then, to a priori beliefs that you have about live T-Rex’s (there are none), Tom Cruise (he surely walks down streets sometimes), and cute cats (they’re everywhere because cats are adorable, change my mind).

Similarly, when assessing the question of whether the Christian God exists, our response to the “immediate evidence” for Christianity’s truth will be shaped by the background knowledge we bring to the table. (Note that by the above analogy I am not implying that belief in Christianity amounts to taking someone’s word for it. All I mean to say is that whatever kind of evidence we’re looking at, our prior knowledge will affect our interpretation of it.)

So what kind of an attitude should we have about God before we even see the evidence for Christianity? Is He more like a live T-Rex, Tom Cruise, or a cat? By assessing arguments for and objections to “general theism,” or belief in a monotheistic God of any kind, we can better determine how skeptical we should be of any particular person or group who claims to be revealing Him to us.

One True Religion?

Welcome to our first official blog post! We here at Reasonable Faith UTD hope that this blog can serve as a forum for civil and rational discussion of the evidence and objections pertaining to God, Christianity, and Christianity’s many alternatives. But to go ahead and lay our cards on the table, we think that Christianity is true in a way that no other religion (or even more broadly, worldview) is.

To some of you, that claim may seem ridiculous because you’re confident that Christianity is false and any sincere investigation of the facts will show that to be the case. I’m so glad you’re here, and we have much to discuss! But I want to begin even further back in the discussion; to some people, the claim that Christianity is true may seem ridiculous because “true” isn’t the kind of thing that a religion can be (or fail to be). They may regard religion as more like a preference in the same category as which football team you support or which flavor of ice cream you eat. If that’s you, I’d like to challenge you in this post to reconsider what religion really is.

The fact is that all religions make claims about the way the world is and will be. Even in just the major world religions, there’s a remarkable degree of factual divergence. Buddhism doesn’t hold that there’s a personal God, Islam holds that Allah is one person, Christianity holds that God is tripersonal, and Hinduism is somewhat ambiguous on the subject. After you die, Buddhism and Hinduism hold that you will be reincarnated until you eventually escape the cycle and cease to exist as an individual, Islam holds that Allah will judge you and salvation can be found in Allah’s mercy which He will dispense to the righteous, and Christianity holds that God will judge you and salvation can be obtained only by faith in Jesus. I hope it’s evident that these assertions can’t all be true.

“Okay,” you may concede, “religions present pictures of reality that contradict each other. But aren’t religions really just about how to be a good person? After all, that’s where the rubber really hits the road – all this ‘God’ and ‘afterlife’ stuff is just peripheral.” And indeed, it is true that some of the external behaviors of different religions are similar, such as loving others and attending regular religious services and so on. But I’d argue that while these things are definitely important, they are the more peripheral parts of a religion in the sense that they’re based on and derived from the religion’s factual view of reality, not the other way around. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 that “if [Jesus] Christ has not been raised [from the dead], your faith is futile … [and] we are of all people to be most pitied.” Here, Paul (who wrote 1 Corinthians) is staking the value of Christianity on the factual issue of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead; if He didn’t, Paul says that Christianity is a waste of time and Christians are pitiful. (For those unfamiliar with the Bible, Paul doesn’t mince words.)

In short, if we want to know how the world ought to be, it seems we first need to understand how it actually is. Is there really a God who created the universe? If so, what is He like? And was Jesus of Nazareth actually raised from the dead? Our answers to these questions will powerfully influence, and perhaps determine, our answers to many others. Let’s investigate!