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Debating religion: The evidential problem of good and its implications
A Philosophically Informed Perspective, by Justin Vacula
In a recent debate with popular Christian apologist William Lane Craig, philosopher Stephen Law -- arguing against the motion that [the Christian] God exists -- presented an ingenious gambit known as 'the evidential problem of good.' Law's argument raises two main concerns. If belief in an all-evil god is rendered irrational by the presence of joy and happiness in the world, why isn't belief in an all-good god rendered irrational by the presence of egregious suffering in the world? If belief in an all-evil god is very unreasonable, why should belief in an all-good good be much more reasonable?
The gambit Law presented in his debate with Craig traces back to a Spring 2005 piece written by Law that was published in “Think” titled “The God of Eth.” Law notes that the traditional arguments for God reveal nothing about his moral character and the argument known as the problem of evil – “if God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much suffering in the world” – seems to cast tremendous doubt on belief in an all-good god. Religious thinkers have resorted to “the free will solution” (suffering is a consequence of God giving us free will), “the character-building solution” (suffering can lead us to be compassionate), the “some good require evils” solution (some goods that exist require suffering to exist), and the “mystery card” solution (we can't know the reasons God has for allowing evil) and Law believes these defenses profoundly fail [as, of course, do other atheists].
Law then presents an imaginary debate in an imaginary universe whose members largely believe in an all-evil god. Throughout the debate, the believer in an all-evil god uses the traditional defenses theists use to defend the all-good god, albeit 'mirrored' in a way. For example, a defender of the all-evil god argues “Good in the universe exists because all-evil god gave persons free will; “by giving us free-will, God can be sure we will agonize endlessly about what we should do. […] We end up torturing ourselves. The exquisitely evil irony of it all!” The defender of the all-evil God, in addition, plays the mystery card [similar to theists who defend an all-good god], “True, I may not be able to account for every last drop of good in the world. But remember that we are dealing here with the mind of God. Who are you to suppose you can understand the mind of an infinitely intelligent and knowledgeable being? Isn't it arrogant of you to suppose that you can figure out God's master plan?”
Ironically (or not), when Law presented these ideas in his debate with William Lane Craig, Craig 'played the mystery card' stating that we are simply not in a position to say that an all-good God [who is also all-knowing and all-powerful] could not have reasons for allowing evil in this world. Law responded, later in the debate saying something similar to, “Who are you know the mind of an all-evil god” clearly showing the absurdity of Craig's “mystery card.” Law, on his blog, noted “...that STILL doesn't help Craig at all, so far as explaining why it's more reasonable to believe in a good god rather than an evil god (the latter belief being absurd). The point is this: whether or not Craig plays the sceptical card, he's still left having to explain why belief in his good god is very significantly more reasonable than the obviously absurd belief that there's an evil god. […] Craig failed to explain why belief in his good god is significantly more reasonable than the absurd belief that there's an evil god.”
Law's ideas were so hard-hitting that someone who believes that Craig won every debate he has ever participated in admitted that Craig lost the debate with Stephen Law. This person formulates Law's argument which perhaps other atheists, including you, can use in future discussions with theists: “(1) There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good. (2) We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god. (3) Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.”
Law ends his “Think” article saying, “...belief in an evil god clearly remains downright silly. But then why isn't belief in a good God also silly? Aren't we justified in rejecting belief in a good God for the same very good reason that we are justified in rejecting belief in an evil God? If the problem of good is fatal to belief in an evil God (which it clearly is), why isn't the problem of evil similarly fatal to belief in a good God? That's the question the theist needs to answer.” The question still stands...and William Lane Craig has failed to adequately address it.
While atheists obviously believe that belief in any gods is irrational – and while some feel that religious belief is so ridiculous that it should only be ridiculed – it should be important for atheists to understand why theism is an irrational position and, for those who are able and willing to do so, present intelligent counter-objections to theism. Atheists, like Law, with a background in philosophy can often do a great service by presenting an intellectual defense for fellow atheists and we would do good to learn from them instead of simply outright dismissing religious belief without providing effective arguments and informed rebuttals. While I detest gangster rap music, nothing seems worse to me than atheists 'losing' debates with theists. Don't be a victim because you weren't prepared.
Take time to listen to this great debate. I could not possibly cover the entire debate in this post – and did not intend to – so enjoy Law's refutation of Craig's arguments.
Justin Vacula, author and owner of justinvacula.com — a blog about atheism, theism, philosophy, and much more — is an active outspoken atheist in Northeastern Pennsylvania who is the co-organizer, spokesperson, and board member of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, a secular discussion and activist group of non-theists. Justin received a large amount of media attention in his 2009 church/state battle in Northeastern Pennsylvania and graduated from King’s College in Pennsylvania with degrees in Philosophy and Psychology in addition to receiving a distinguished award in Philosophy and a minor in Professional Writing. He regularly publishes articles for Examiner.com as the ‘Scranton Atheism Examiner’ in addition to authoring blog posts.