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Posted by on Jun 11, 2008 in problem | 14 comments

Sam’s vanishing solution to the problem of evil

A final thought on the often made suggestion that atheist critics of religion, such as myself, don’t understand what we are criticizing. (I am thinking of Alisdair McGrath’s “I don’t believe in that God either” riposte to Dawkins, and the Rev Sam’s suggestion, following Hart [“It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe.”], that we critics don’t fully comprehend what Christians understand by “God” and, if we did, we would see the problem of evil is not such a problem after all).

As a matter of fact I was raised in a religious household, and my father trained to be a minister, though never took it up. I also attended a church school. So as a teenager I read lots of e.g. C.S. Lewis, Tillich, etc. And since then I have read a ton of philosophy of religion, including D.Z. Phillips, etc. I have swum in the “sea of faith”. So it’s irritating, and really rather unjustified, to have my criticisms of religious belief swept aside on the assumption that I can’t really understand what the religious mean when they talk about God.

In any case, the onus is really on Sam to explain why, given how he, at least, uses “God”, the problem of evil ain’t really so much of a problem.

Having spent ages trying to figure out what Sam does mean, and ploughing through his allusions to Wittgenstein and “forms of life”, we finally discover he never actually had any such explanation.

It’s all been smoke and mirrors.

Of course, I don’t think Sam’s a terrible person, and I don’t think he is intending deliberately to dupe us. I suspect this sort of strategy – of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority – is just a habit of thought he has rather uncritically adopted having spent too much time hanging out with a certain sort of intellectually pretentious theist.

Patronizing of me to say so, I know. But it’s what I think…


  1. I don’t think you’re patronizing. And I don’t think Sam’s a terrible person, either. He’s just an average product of the dreadful muddleheaded mess that our educational system has collapsed into these past thirty years. Not just Humpty Dumpty, but the Cheshire Cat as well, with the Red Queen thrown in for good measure.

  2. My mistake – it was the White Queen who boasted of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.[Moral: never do off-the-cuff quotes without checking your references.]

  3. Stephen – Re: Sams argument that to truly understand what is meant you have to immerse yourself in the belief. You have a strong claim to have been so immersed and yet still Sam is unable to explain clearly to you.It seems that this should also run in the reverse direction. Sam claims to have been an atheist. Why is he not able to communicate his points in atheist language then?

  4. Yes, I too have been wondering what sort of atheist Sam was, and how much he knows about the intellectual history of free thought and the struggle – largely waged and won by freethinkers – for free speech.The claim that anyone else’s position can only be understood “from the inside” is what I call ‘the green-eyed wooden-legged dwarf’ theory, which says that only green-eyed, wooden-legged dwarfs can really understand other green-eyed, wooden-legged dwarfs. This raises deep philosophical issues about communication which I would like to see Stephen addressing in another post.

  5. It’s all been smoke and mirrors.Are you just now figuring this out?

  6. Smoke and mirrors? Dance of the Seven Veils, more like!

  7. Call me literal minded, but what would really help me to understand what religious folk believe (Christians in this case) is a big stack of bibles, some highlighter pens and some willing believers.They could use the highlighter pens to divide up the verses into different categories according to their belief: this bit is literally true, mainly true, true but the participants were mistaken about the nature of god, a fable with a moral message to live by, a fable with a repugnant moral message etc…there may be other categories, you can get lots of different coloured highlighter pens these days.They could write also their other core religous beliefs not covered by the bible on the notes pages.I am sure that the various churches and theologians must have something like this (with longer words and without the highligher pens of course).

  8. Maya – I thought the Inquisition already tried something similar.

  9. I think there is something in the claim that someone else’s position can only truly be understood “from the inside.” if there is something that it is like to be that other person which isessential to the understanding. In the extreme case that entails some sort of mental merging or loss of personal identity so its not really practical. That aside there are plenty of other cases where I cannot have an experience of a particular type but I am still able to have a meaningful dialogue with those that can. For example I will never be able to know what it is to experience childhood in a large extended family. The opportunity has passed. Yet I can build up a reasonable working model by talking to those that have. The large family people do not exclude me on the basis that their language means something different so why should it apply to theism?

  10. There is a perceptive quality called “empathy” which we counsellors use. It is a faculty which everyone has potentially, and can be developed through training and practice. A neat description of it is “stepping into someone else’s shoes without leaving your own”. It was more highly esteemed in the relatively sensitive 1970s and ’80s than it is today, when nearly everyone is in defensive-aggressive mode, seeking to dominate rather than to understand.Empathy is an essential tool for pastoral work, and however much I may tease him about the incoherence of his beliefs, some of the Rev. Sam’s posts on his own site clearly show that he possesses it.

  11. Looks as if the Rev. Sam’s preferred solution is to emulate the Cheshire Cat and vanish without even a parting grin….

  12. Why is evil even a problem?For that matter, what is evil anyway? Is cancer evil? Is getting hit by a car evil? Is cheating on your wife evil? Or are these things jsut life?What’s the problem? And define what evil is please.louis B.

  13. Stephen, if someone said that as a result of spending a long time arguing with a BNP local councillor they had experienced a full immersion in British politics, would you believe them? They would have learnt something, certainly, but would it not be fair to say that the great majority of British politics had passed them by? Most of the interlocutors you engage with are Modern Protestants – Lewis and Tillich here, and elsewhere you engage with people like Plantinga and Swinburne (who, despite his conversion is the quintessential Modern Protestant in his understanding of faith). I’d be open to persuasion that you understood Christian faith if you showed some engagement with the mainstream tradition, and not just the specific context of 20th Century English-speaking Christianity.For example, why don’t you engage with some of the leading catholic theologians? There are more Roman Catholics than all the other sorts of Christians put together, and if you engaged with their thought then you couldn’t be accused of not debating with the mainstream. You’re surrounded by them at Heythrop (they are the ones who formed me, so maybe they count as ‘intellectually pretentious theists’?), but I would be especially interested to see you engage with people like Nicholas Lash or Herbert McCabe, not least because their understanding of the faith chimes with my own. The problem that I have – which you reference at the beginning – is that you often attack something to which I have no loyalty. Your arguments are situated within a context which has very little meaning for me, and for, I would argue, the vast majority of Christians across time and space. They do have meaning for Modern Protestants, by which I mean Christians whose understanding of the faith is to a large extent conditioned by a reaction to the Enlightenment – and most US evangelicals and fundamentalists fall into this category, and as they get a lot of publicity non-believers think that they are representative of Christianity. The truth is effectively the opposite. Yet not only have Modern Protestants been an historically minor phenomenon in Christian terms, they are also a dying breed.When you say that you have swum in the sea of faith, I tend to think you’ve had a dip in – at best – the North Sea, when there are oceans available.Here’s a particular request: have a read of Nicholas Lash’s ‘Believing Three Ways in One God’, it’s a) not very long, and b) pretty representative of the sort of Christianity that I follow, and then write up a review of it. That would help us to at least be talking about the same sort of thing.[BTW I’d also be very interested to read any engagement by you with DZ Phillips, who I’d mostly exempt from being a ‘Modern Protestant’ – but he’s not a theologian either. Have you put anything on line about him?]

  14. Thanks Sam. I don’t have anything on DZ Phillips to post up, but have ordered Lash and will post a review….

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