Tag Archives: Philosophy of Religion

Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?

Over at Tough Questions Answered, I notice they are putting out a lot of quality work. But they also have some answers for beginners. I am going to be posting two of their beginner answers today, just to make sure we can all answer them. Here is the first question they answered: “Why can’t God make a rock so big he can’t lift it”

This is a common question that is asked by those who misunderstand the nature of God’s omnipotence.  Another humorous way of asking this question is: Can God make a sandwich so big he can’t eat it?  (I owe that jewel to my friend Greg).

You’ll have to go over there for the answer, I’m not telling!

UPDATE: My answer is actually a little different than their answer. My answer would be that a rock that can’t be lifted is self-contradictory. All objects that have mass can be lifted, by definition. So what the questioner is really asking is something like this: “Can God make a married bachelor?” or “Can God make a round square?”. God’s power does not allow him to perform self-contradictory things. That is not a limit on his power – self-contradictory things are nonsense, and no one can do nonsense.

Can atheists on the Richard Dawkins forum justify morality on atheism?

Check out this thread where I am debating atheists on whether moral rules, moral choices, moral accountability, human dignity, human rights, and ultimate significance of moral actions are rationally grounded on the atheist worldview.Warning, the thread contains swearing!

Here is the original starting post for the thread:

I noticed that a tension between two positions taken by certain atheists. First, they say that morality is an illusion fobbed on us by our genes. Second, they say that the God of the Bible is immoral, or that the Christian church is immoral.

I have a question about this, and maybe you can help me to understand the apparent contradiction. If moral behavior evolved over time, then it seems to me that it varies by time and place. This means that the standards we have today in the place where we live now are not really better or worse than at any other time and any other place. The evolved moral standards are just arbitrary conventions.

If this is true, then in what sense can atheists consistently press the problem of evil, the immoral behavior of God, and the immorality of Christian church in history?

Here is what I have come up with so far:
1. The atheist is expressing his personal preferences (I wouldn’t do it that way)
2. The atheist is using the arbitrary standard of his time and place to judge God and the church (we in this time and place wouldn’t do it that way)

Here is one of their comments, which I thought was about as good as an atheist can do on atheism:

The morality we all appeal to when we make moral judgments is at least 90% the result of the social conditioning we have all received. Where that conditioning contains a strong religious component (most places throughout history), religious values will have a high place. In the modern West, the religious component is weaker, and we now condemn slavery, crusades, inquisitions, and wars between Catholics and Protestants, all of which were once firmly believed to be sanctified by God. (There is a whole thread on this subject just now under “Faith and Religion” above. So far only the person who started the thread and I have posted on it.)

The other 10% consists of personal views arrived at by reflective people on the kind of world they’d like to live in. That portion of it is personal preference. It differs from a personal preference for chocolate over broccoli in only two ways: (1) Its object involves the behavior of other people and their interactions rather than that of the individual alone; (2) when two people have different preferences, they cannot both have their way, and so they are in conflict.

If you want to learn about these issues at a deeper level, there is also a good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first post is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.

Why doesn’t God provide more evidence that he exists?

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from Apologetics 315! Thanks for the link Brian!

Over at economist Robert P. Murphy’s blog, a recent post makes the point that Jesus had a reason for teaching in vague parables instead of giving detailed lectures like a university professor.

Jesus used parables to get across a watered-down version of His true message, because the masses were not prepared–as His apostles were–to literally discard their old lives and follow Him 24/7. So they couldn’t possibly understand what His mission really was.

This made me think about the problem of divine hiddenness. You may hear that argument when talking to atheists, as in William Lane Craig’s debate with Theodore Drange, (audio, video). Basically the atheist’s argument is that 1) God wants people to know about him, 2) reasonable people don’t know about him, so then 3) he isn’t there to be found.

Basically, the atheist is saying that he’s looked for God real hard and that if God were there, he should have found him by now. After all, God can do anything he wants that’s logically possible, and he wants us to know that he exists. To defeat the argument we need to find a possible explanation of why God would want to remain hidden when our eternal destination depends on our knowledge of his existence.

Well, Dr. Michael Murray, a brilliant professor of philosophy at Franklin & Marshall College, has found a reason for God to remain hidden. He argues that if God reveals himself too much to people, he takes away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us. Murray argues that God stays somewhat hidden, so that he gives people space to either 1) respond to God, or 2) avoid God so we can keep our autonomy from him.

Doing the right thing just to avoid punishment is NOT what God wants. If it is too obvious that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and do moral things out of self-preservation. But God wants us to respond to him out of interest in him, just like we might get to know someone we admire. God has to dial down the immediacy of the threat of judgment, and the probability that the threat is actual. That leaves it up to us to respond to God’s veiled revelation of himself to us, in nature and in Scripture.

(Note: I think that we don’t seek God on our own, and that he must take the initiative to reach out to us. We are free to resist his revelation, at which point God stops himself short of coercing our will. We are therefore responsible for our own fate).

The atheist’s argument is a logical/deductive argument. It aims to show that there is a contradiction between God’s will for us and his hiding from us. The argument requires that God has no possible reason for remaining hidden. When Murray offers a possible reason, the argument is defeated. In order for the atheist’s argument to go through, he must be able to prove that God does not have any reason for being hidden. The atheist has to be able to prove that God could provide more evidence of his existence without interfering with the free will of his creatures.

Michael Murray’s home page is here.

His first paper on divine hiddenness is here:
Coercion and the Hiddenness of God“, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 30, 1993.

Murray has defended the argument in works published by prestigious academic presses such as Cambridge University Press, (ISBN: 0521006104, 2001) and Routledge (ISBN: 0415380383, 2007). The book chapter from the Cambridge book is here.  The book chapter from the Routledge book is here.

Michael Murray’s papers are really fun to read, because he uses hilarious examples. (But I disagree with his view that God’s work of introducing biological information in living creatures has to be front-loaded).

This exposition of the problem of divine hiddenness also touches on the topic of religious pluralism. One of the reasons why Christians are so soft on making exclusive theological claims is that we don’t talk much about evidence with non-Christians. Try it! It turns out that most people (even Christians) are pretty lazy about investigating what God is really like.

In fact, you can confront people with facts that disprove their religion and they may not care, especially if they are very distracted by day-to-day issues. For example, try telling atheists about the findings of science from the big bang and fine-tuning of the universe. See how quickly they deny that science has any bearing on religion? People don’t want to respond to evidence, and God gives them space to avoid the evidence.

People choose to separate themselves from God for many reasons. Maybe they are professors in academia and didn’t want to be thought of as weird by their colleagues. Maybe they didn’t want to be burdened with traditional morality when tempted by some sin, especially sexual sin. Maybe their fundamentalist parents ordered them around too much without providing any reasons. Maybe the brittle fundamentalist beliefs of their childhood were exploded by evidence for micro-evolution or New Testament manuscript variants. Maybe they wanted something really bad, that God did not give them. How could a good God allow them to suffer like that?

The point is that there a lot of people who don’t want to know God, and God chooses not to violate their freedom by forcing himself on them. God wants a relationship – he wants you to respond to him. (See Matthew 7:7-8)

If any Calvinists are reading this, I’m really sorry that I am wrong, but it was pre-destined that I would be wrong. That’s a little humor for you. Ouch! Stop hitting me!

Here’s more terrific stuff from Dr. Murray:

Who’s Afraid of Religion?“, Inaugural Lecture delivered March 30, 2006. Franklin and Marshall College.

Seek and You Will Find“, in God and the Philosophers. Thomas Morris, editor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994.

UPDATE 1: Welcome visitors from the Anchoress! Thanks so much for the link! New readers may want to take a look around since I cover a lot of different topics here, from free speech to economics to science to public policies!

UPDATE 2: Welcome, visitors from Robert P. Murphy’s blog Free Advice. Please take a look around – the purpose of my blog is to help Christians to integrate their faith with other areas of knowledge, especially economics! For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Murphy is the author of the greatest book on economics ever written (and I’ve read The Road to Serfdom!). This is a book for everyone – and it’s the first book laymen should read on economics.

UPDATE 3: Welcome, visitors from Colliding Universes. Thanks for the link, Denyse! Denyse’s other excellent blogs are Post-Darwinist and Mindful Hack.

A Christian and a postmodernist discuss religious pluralism

I listened to this week’s episode of the the radio show “Unbelievable”, which is broadcast in the UK by Premier Christian radio. Justin Brierly, the host, moderated a dialog between author Joan Konner and Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams. Konner is the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and is the author of “The Atheist’s Bible”. I enjoyed listening to Konner speak, and I admire her for coming on the show. I learned from this podcast that I need to work harder at being more tactful, and gentle with postmodernists. Brierly and Williams do a great job, and I hope that when you listen to the podcast, that you will learn something about how to handle similar challengers.

I thought that I would make a list of some of the points that postmodernists make, because I guarantee that you will have heard some these things before. Many people in our society are guided primarily by emotions, and intuition. For them, there is a tremendous insecurity about what they believe, and the differing beliefs of others makes them uncomfortable. They are upset by absolute claims of fact or morality, because they consider these claims to be exclusive, and judgmental. What upsets them the most is that other people seem to be certain about what they believe, and that these people vote for public policies on the basis of these beliefs. What we’ll see is that postmodernists do exactly what they condemn, namely, they exclude, they judge, and they support public policies that they agree with. These are general points, not specific to Konner.

First, postmodernists have view of faith that is a caricature of authentic Christian faith. Postmodernists think that faith is opposed to reason, and evidence. They believe this because they require that all religions are “equally valid”. It is not that postmodernists have evaluated the truth claims of different religions. It is they have decided in advance that thinking you’re right is mean, and makes people feel bad, and causes wars. Therefore, no faith can be right – all faith is irrational and unsupported. The fact that their own view is absolutist, and exclusive, goes unnoticed.

Second, postmodernists reject reason, science, and any other reality-based support for claims, because supported claims constrain their own subjective will. Postmodernists think that believer’s appeals to reason, and evidence, are coercive. This is because they desire complete autonomy to imagine the world based on their own emotions, and intuition. This is especially true for morality. Postmodernists believe that no one has a right to judge the moral practices of others. But, if you disagree with them on their non-judgmentalism, then you are morally wrong. Again, this is self-contradictory, but it goes unnoticed.

Third, postmodernists reinterpret the truth claims made by all religions as myths, (a la Joseph Campbell). That means that every factual claim made by every religion, past, present, future is factually false. No rational analysis or investigation is necessary. For example, if a religion claimed that universe began to exist, that would be a myth, according to postmodernists. Scientific confirmation from the big bang is irrelevant. No religion can enjoy support from reason or evidence, a priori. Emotional concerns about how exclusive truth claims make people in other religions feel bad is the deciding factor. Again, the claim that no one can make truth claims is self-refuting, because they believe that their claim is true.  They don’t notice the contradiction.

Fourth, for postmodernists, the purpose of religion cannot be to hold true beliefs about the external world. The purpose of religions must be to make people behave well, because then they are all equivalent, and no religion is excluded. It is irrelevant to a postmodern that Christians claim that their religion hinges on a historical event, (the resurrection), which either happened or didn’t. Postmodernists simply presume to tell religious people what their religion really says, and what it really means. Also, postmodernists believe that since all people can invent moral rules and goals for their lives out of thin air, that there is no need for God to ground them. What this means is that according to postmodernists, Stalin’s morality is as valid as William Wilberforce’s morality. Both have the exact same validity, namely, that they are “true” for the subject.

The postmodernism and moral relativism I discussed above also informs progressive thought, which is why progressives seem to always take the side of evil against the side of good. An amazing lecture given by Jewish comedian Evan Sayet at the Heritage Foundation is probably the best treatment of that point that you will ever see.

For further reading, check out this paper on Christian exclusivism, and this paper on the fate of the unevangelized. Both of them are by William Lane Craig. And remember, it is OK to think you are right, and to disagree with others. But God does not coerce, and neither should you. Share your beliefs, and your reasons, if someone asks you to share with them. The important thing is to appeal to reason and evidence, and to be civil and charitable. Disagree with the person’s ideas, but treat the person with respect.

Atheism, Christianity and the problem of evil and suffering

In Christian theology, a classical definition of evil is found in the work of Augustine of Hippo. He states that the evil is not a thing itself, and therefore is not brought into being by God. Instead, evil is the privation of right order. Or, to put it more simply, evil is the state of affairs when things are the way they ought not to be. So, if a mugger mugs you and steals your money, that was evil, because humans ought not to do that. And if a tsunami leaves thousands of people homeless, that’s evil, because the world ought not to be like that. (Let’s bracket why God might allow natural evil, such as the latter example, for another post).

The point is that when you talk about evil and suffering, it pre-supposes that the world is not the way it ought to be. But that means that the world ought to be some way. If the world “ought to be” any way other than it is, then that pre-supposes a designer, who had a purpose for the world, i.e. – a way the world ought to be.

But that’s not my point today. My point today is that atheists cannot use the apparently gratuitous evil in the world as a disproof that there is a God until they define what they mean by evil.

It seems to me that there are 2 choices for what evil could be on atheism. What is NOT open to atheists is the solution above, namely, that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be. Because the universe is an accident on atheism – it is purposeless – there is no way the universe ought to be. We are accidents on atheism. There is no way we ought to be.

So evil must mean one of two things on atheism:

  1. Evil means something that the atheist finds personally distasteful. It is a subjective preference that each person decides for themselves. Just as some people don’t like broccoli – some people don’t like murder or tsunamis. It’s up to each person. But that cannot be used as an argument against God, because who says that God’s moral purposes ought to be connected to the personal moral preferences of atheists? It won’t work.
  2. Evil is what society says is counter to the social conventions of a particular time and place. If we decide that murder is against our society’s conventions today, then for that time and place, murder is “evil”. But then, not signaling when you turn right at a stop sign is also “evil”. It’s all just made-up conventions. And again, it is difficult to see why God should be bound by a society’s conception of good and evil, they are just conventions of accidental people, on an accidental planet, in an accidental universe. (Again, we will bracket the problem of deciding what a society is for this discussion).

So, now I am going to ask you atheists. When you say that there is gratuitous evil in the world, (i.e. – a state of affairs that is apparently pointless, apparently without morally sufficient justification for God to permit it), what do you mean by evil? Does not the invocation of a standard of right and wrong that applies to God himself imply an objective morality? (a moral standard that is independent of personal or cultural preferences) And if there is an objective moral standard like this, where does it come from, on your atheistic worldview?

It seems to me that pressing the problem of evil is inconsistent on atheism. There is no moral standard to hold God accountable to in an accidental universe. You have to pre-suppose an objective moral standard, and a designer of the universe who makes that standard and makes it applicable, before you can proceed to hold God accountable to that standard. But then, you have already assumed God in order to argue against him.

Here is a short paper that contains a summary of everything I know about the problem of evil, (deductive/ logical, as well as inductive/ probabilistic). If you can only read one short paper on the problem of evil/ suffering, this is what you need to read. Do not pass this paper up – it is pure wisdom and will make you effective on this issue in the public square better than anything else out there.

Also, to see these arguments in action, check out the debate here, with William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen.  If you want a book, here is one between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, published by Oxford University Press, 2004, (audio of one of their debates here). One of my favorite scholars on this topic is Doug Geivett. If you can listen to the audio from his lecture on evil, that is pure wisdom. It’s up on the Academy of Christian Apologetics, (audio). I love the use of “noseeums” in his examples.

UPDATE:

I was over on triablogue.com, and they were commenting on a post over at Victor Reppert’s blog C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea, on the topic of morality on atheism. Also, there this debate between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens is fantastic for understanding why morality is irrational on an atheistic worldview.