Monday, October 09, 2006

Serious Christian Treatments of the Problem of Evil and Irrational Atheist Dismissals of Them (John W. Loftus)

By Dave Armstrong (10-9-06)

The following is from remarks made on the blog Debunking Christianity. Former Christian, now atheist John W. Loftus mentioned that he was doing a debate on the Problem of Evil. I then simply cited some papers of mine and said I would be willing to discuss them. John came back and dismissed my work in a rather silly fashion. It's a case study, I think, in How Not to Go About Serious Rational Discussion. His words will be in blue:

* * * * *

Here are my own shots at solving the problem. I don't claim all that much for them, except that I think they exhibit some degree of thought and that they're not lightweight, breezy attempts at solutions. The latter debate I consider one of the best I have had with anyone: Christian or atheist (I wonder if Mike is still around on the Internet these days?):

"Christian Replies to the Argument From Evil (Free Will Defense): Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?"

"Can God be Blamed for the Nazi Holocaust? Reflections on the "Problem of Evil" and Human Free Will"

"Dialogue With an Atheist on the "Problem of Good" and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)" (vs. Mike Hardie)

These constitute one Christian attempt to grapple with the problem. I am more than willing to defend my points of view and even to admit that I have no answer in particulars if that is the case (or to retract particulars if that is required, too).

Best wishes to both sides in the debate, and let it be a fair fight!

Dave Armstrong

(posted on 6 October 2006)

Dave Armstrong, I skimmed through the essays on your Blog and what I saw what [sic] that you simply do not understand the problem.

[his comments post, dated 9 October 2006]

You can't determine that by skimming long papers on such a weighty topic. The least you could do is show me what you claim I don't understand: educate the ignorant and get them up to speed.

[my reply, dated 9 October 2006]

I saw no interaction with David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion on this, and that only takes you up to the 18th century.

Hume believed in a deity of some sort (though not the Christian God), so whatever he concluded about evil did not, obviously, make him an atheist (and that is far closer to my position than to yours). Many people seem not to know this, but there it is. See my paper: Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?

Christian philosopher Dr. James F. Sennett has said: "By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil - the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don't understand it."

I agree completely, which is why I made a very similar comment on this blog recently. Just three days ago, I wrote in a thread under one of your posts:
I think I glanced at your deconversion. Wasn't the problem of evil key? I consider that the most serious objection to Christianity (though, not, of course, fatal at all, as you'd expect). So while I could still quibble with that, it would be in an entirely different league from the sort of shallow stuff that usually constitutes reasons for deconversions.

You know how that goes: there are reasons that one disagrees with, while considering them highly respectable and serious and worthy of attention, and others which are downright frivolous and trivial or plainly fallacious.
Obviously, you missed that, or you wouldn't quote my own belief back to me. And so your next statement becomes literally, nonsensical, since you thought that I would disagree with what Sennett said, but I do not; therefore, you are the one who doesn't understand my position on this (whatever you think of its merits). And of course, understanding of opposing positions is fundamental to any decent dialogue.

Dave, YOU don't understand the problem. Sorry to tell you this.

See the above remarks. I'm willing to interact with anyone who wants to show me where my reasoning went astray in my long paper on the subject. If you decline, that's fine. Perhaps someone else would be willing to do so.

I find it humorous, too, that I cited very long passages from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. If I don't understand the problem, then neither do they, so the result would be that two of the very greatest thinkers in Christian history don't have a clue about the problem of evil; only atheists do. Or else they understood the problem but I didn't, even though I cited them in agreement. That brings us back to the logical nonsense of me agreeing with and citing people who understand the problem, yet I supposedly do not.

Right. I think you need to give it another try. I couldn't care less whether you want to dialogue with me on this subject (or any other) or not (I manage to find many dialogue partners; no problem); but I would expect of you something better than this flimsy sort of response and misrepresentation of the position of Christian opponents.

I'll be dealing with your deconversion story (as much as I can find online), and when I do that, I won't misrepresent or breezily dismiss what you believe. But if you misunderstand Christian doctrine (as almost inevitably happens in any such cases that I have examined), I will certainly point that out.

In any event, I won't approach your writing with this silly attitude of "I skimmed your [long, involved] papers and you just don't get it, so I won't spend any time giving you the courtesy of showing you why you don't understand the problem; instead I'll quote Christian philosophers to you who say exactly what you said in a comment under a post of mine three days ago - as if you would disagree with them."

LOL C'mon; certainly you're capable of much better than that . . . and if you aren't, then hopefully someone on this blog is. I started out here in high hopes that good dialogue could be had! I haven't given up yet . . .

* * * * *

I did notice your comment about evil, but even though you said this doesn't mean you understand the depth of the problem.

Even if that is true (which I deny), you give me no reason why you think this is the case.

I was in a hurry at the time I skimmed through your papers. I'll look them over again.

Thank you.

But anyone who attempts to deal with the problem of evil who mainly uses Augustine and Aquinas isn't caught up to speed on the whole debate since Hume.

I didn't primarily use them. Above I made the point that if you want to play the "ignorance" game, you'll have to include Aquinas and Augustine and I don't think many people will buy an interpretation that they were ignoramuses, no matter what period they happened to live in.

And anyone today who wants to comment on the debate who doesn't take into consideration William Rowe's, Paul Draper's, Michael Martin's, Quentin Smith's, Bruce Russell's and Theodore Drange's arguments still doesn't understand the problem.

This is irrational. One doesn't have to read all the philosophers to have any intelligent comment at all on a topic. That is simply academic elitism, and I don't play that game. I'm not an academic and don't claim to be. I'm a Christian apologist. But to say not only that someone can't have a constructive, decent dialogue on a topic unless they've read a, b, c, d, etc. but that they can't even comprehend the depth of the problem of proposed difficulty, is sheer nonsense.

Granted, the more one reads on anything, the better prepared and informed they will be, but you aren't just saying that: you make out that reading these guys is an absolute requirement to even have the discussion or be regarded as a worthy dialogue partner/opponent.

In effect, then, this reduces to: either one has to know all the ins and outs of philosophical minutiae or else one can't sensibly discuss the problem of evil at all. I vehemently deny this. I may not know all the intricacies of all these arguments as well as you do (freely granted), but that doesn't mean I can't spot a flaw in the arguments that I can read and comprehend as well as anyone else. Since I am a Socratic in method, that's mainly what I do, anyway.

Even Alvin Plantinga thinks it is perfectly reasonable and rational for a Christian to hold certain beliefs without knowing all the ins and outs of the current philosophical discussion. And he is no slouch, as I have heard many atheists agree. He opposes academic elitism and snobbery, as I do.

When my debate transcript and video are made available you'll see a glimpse of what the problem really is all about.

I see. So being a Christian apologist and having regarded the problem as a very serious and worthy objection for 25 years isn't sufficient to have any inkling of the depth of the problem. I have to see your video to get a glimpse of how ignorant I really am.

I had so much more to share if needed, too.

I'm sure you did. So did I when I wrote my papers.

Until then I wish you well. You're a bright thinker, and I look forward to dialoguing with you on this issue in the future.

Not if the requirement is to read a bunch of atheists first. If you want to discuss one such paper by one of these guys, great. I'd be happy to do that, anytime. I'd even gladly read, say, long online articles by each of these folks (but not books). And I would reply to them unless I felt that it was too philosophically technical and out of my reach in that sense.

And dialogue on this issue I will. But do me the favor first in reading up on the modern debates, okay?...that is, if you haven't already.

I've read plenty on the topic. One can always read more. I don't have unlimited time to devote to one topic. The apologist (esp. the Catholic apologist) has many many issues to write about and defend. You can wait till I read the books you think I should read if you like. In the meantime, I will start responding to comments I find here. If you want to counter-respond, fine; if not, fine. It's of little concern to me. I dialogue with whomever is willing to do so, and I critique whatever I think is worthwhile to critique, whether the person is willing or able to reply back or not. Usually people can't defend their own viewpoints; that's been my experience.

Dialogue it is then! Forget my deconversion story. I know what you'll say about science and Genesis 1-11, since you've already written about that.

Then I'll skip that part and deal with others, but it will be dealt with (especially after the ridiculous, intellectually triumphalistic remarks you made about it that I saw cited at Steve Hays' site):

[I'm saying the case I make in my new book is overwhelmingly better.

Again, are you going to read it and critique it for yourself? Hey, I dare you! I bet you think you're that smart, don't ya, or that your faith is that strong - that you can read something like my book and not have it affect your faith.

If Christianity is true, then you have nothing to fear. But if Christianity is false, then you owe it to yourself to get the book. Either way you win.

And even if you blast my book after reading it here on this Blog, I'll know that you read it, and just like poison takes time to work, all I have to do from then on is to wait for a personal crisis to kill your faith.

Want to give it a go? The way I see you reason here makes me think it'll make your head spin with so many unanswerable questions that you won't know what to do.

But that's just me. I couldn't answer these questions, so if you can, you're a smarter man than I am, and that could well be. Are you? I think not, but that's just me.]

I would reply briefly that if all it takes (in the sense of immediate cause) to "kill" someone's faith is a personal crisis, then obviously such a person did not understand the intellectual reasons for why they are a Christian in the first place, since if they had, a mere crisis would not have the effect of transforming one into an atheist, as it is merely an emotional reaction and not a rational one. This rather proves the point that the atheist objections tend to come down to, in the end, emotional and irrational factors. That's why they're so big on the problem of evil. It's a very serious objection, as I've stated above and have always thought, but on the other hand, it's also very rich in possibilities for emotional exploitation, rhetoric, polemics, and so forth, because everyone feels so strongly about suffering and evil.

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