• Why Skeptical Theism Fails

    The Problem of Evil is a powerful argument which takes its form in various ways, both the logical and evidential format. I was watching a video debate on the problem of evil and animal suffering between Michael Murry and Daniel Breyer. I really enjoyed it. I don’t buy the skeptical theistic approach, but, as Breyer said, if I was a theist, that would have to be the approach I would take to the claim of gratuitous evil. It’s the only proper option the theist has. Except it has problems.

    Skeptical theism is the defence against the problem of evil argument, which says that if God is all-loving, -powerful and -knowing, he would want to, know how to and be able to do something about gratuitous evil (see my talk with Justin Schieber and Counter Apologist on the topic here). The skeptical theist counters that evil or suffering is not gratuitous, but that it must happen for a reason. The problem is that humans know nothing in comparative relation to an all knowing, infinite God. We cannot access God or the reasons for his actions or omissions. All evil, every single unit of pain, is necessary, even down to a stubbed toe, for achieving the greater good.

    The parent-child analogy is almost always used (as it was in this debate), and I would like to refute the use of that analogy. The analogy goes something like this. The relationship that God has with us is analogous to a parent’s relationship with their child. A parent may take the child to a doctor for a vaccination to prevent the child later getting a fatal disease. There is pain involved in the inoculation, the child cries, but the parent is morally right in following through with this course of action and in not stopping the doctor (well worth looking at Stepehn Maitzen’s criticism of this point). Moreover, the child is not able to access the reasons or explanations for such action and omission.

    This style of analogy can be used for any scenario where the child goes through necessary pain for a greater good, such as learning a lesson, informing future behaviour positively and so on. Yes, there are some instances where we could argue that such actions or omissions are not necessary, and that the aim or outcome could be achieve in another, less painful way. Natural evil does seem to prompt the question as to exactly what is being learnt, or what greater good could come. That a fawn dies over three days from critical burns from a forest fire caused by lightning does throw a spanner into the works. What on earth could be the greater god that comes from this and could it be achieved in any other more benign manner?

    We would save it if we could, right?
    We would save it if we could, right?

    What I want to concentrate on, though, is the parental analogy, which Breyer also mentioned in the debate.

    The idea is that humans cannot access or understand the reasons for evil, and that this justifies a lack of communication from God (or that this lack is itself justified for a greater good). The problem is that this is very un-parental.

    I talk about this in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions where I ask this question:

     282. If my child was to walk on the flowers in my garden, trampling them, it would be immoral to punish him without telling him what he had done wrong. This would communicate to my child his misdemeanour so that he would not do it again. What have we done wrong to deserve cancer, malaria, the tsunami, the Holocaust, disability, cholera etc., and is it right that you have not communicated to us why we have had these ‘punishments’? (p.114)

    The idea that God is an all-loving parent is demonstrably wrong against everything we know about what it is to be an all-loving parent! When your child needs to go to the doctor for that jab, you don’t make the child get themselves to the doctor, let the doctors manhandle the child, inject it painfully, and throw it out on the street without the first idea of what is going on! That is cruel and demented.

    That is what God is doing with us.

    God has been on a 2,000-year-long holiday and unplugged the phone. We are left in the cold as to why things are happening. And I simply don’t buy that we cannot understand why, for example, cancer and malaria are rife in the ‘presence’ of an omni-God. There are no reasons offered, supposedly because we cannot understand said reasons. Yet we are grappling with quantum mechanics and string theory. How complex must those reasons be? I am, to say the least, skeptical of skeptical theism.

    But more importantly, the actions of a loving parent would be to escort the child to the doctors, all the while explaining in the best possible way, in a manner that the child would understand, what will happen, to hold their hand, to comfort them. And when they are crying, you pick them up and carry them from the clinic. Maybe buy them some sweets. The Bible is not the explanation, and answered prayer is not the comfort. I don’t buy that, and it sure as hell doesn’t cut the mustard for the burning fawn.

    Essentially, if God is a parent, we should call social services and get him restricted from ever having children again.


    Category: FeaturedPhilosophyPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of EvilSkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce