This is a letter I wrote to Michael Shermer, on his debate with Brian Huffling, held in a church, “The Problem of Evil – Good Evidence Against the Christian God?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH4jIHlMunw&t=5930s and Michael’s subsequent featured topic in SKEPTIC magazine, vol. 24, no. 2, 2019, “DEBATE: IS THE EXISTENCE OF EVIL EVIDENCE FOR THE NONEXISTENCE OF GOD?
I found your debate with Brian Huffling absorbing. I want to give you my feedback, from the perspective of someone who has been at this for decades and takes a position between the atheist on the one side and the Christian on the other. I think that atheism is possibly true. That soft theism is probably true. But that Christian theism is emphatically untrue.
GENERAL ASSESSMENT – I think you made the better case by far. You made an excellent selection of the pithy, valid talking points you’ve used in the past, and delivered them solidly. I think Hufflling’s claim that God is beyond morality, is sophistry.
FALSIFIABILITY – Shermer claims that without falsifiability an assertion cannot be regarded as knowledge. I agree. It can only be regarded as speculation, or a purely philosophical hypothesis. But Huffling claims that beside empirical falsifiability, there is rational falsifiability. If something “can be shown to be contradictory or internally inconsistent,” it is false. And he claims that Christian theism cannot be shown to be contradictory. I think Christian theism is exactly that – profoundly, prolifically contradictory. It claims a God of love, who is deeply unloving, with genocides in the Old Testament, and the concept of hell in the New Testament. Christianity is falsifiable in terms of Huffling’s own rationality criterion.
BEGGING THE QUESTION – Huffling claims that science, by definition, will not tell you about the existence of God, because God is something outside the physical universe, an immaterial being. Thus, Shermer is guilty of question begging, of defining God out of existence from the start. I think that’s a good point. If science by definition excludes the supernatural at the outset, then not surprisingly, you will conclude there is no God.
On the other hand, Huffling writes, “Given these arguments, the reality of evil is evaluated in light of our knowledge that a good God exists.” Does he not see that HE is begging the question? The phrase “in light of our knowledge that a good God exists” shows he is assuming a good God in the first place and drawing conclusions based on that questionable premise.
It seems to me that both sides are starting with unwarranted assumptions, one side that God can’t exist if He is not scientifically detectable, and the other side that we know a good God exists.
Tucker (the debate moderator) says that to demand empirical evidence is question begging. I don’t know if it’s question begging, but it may be an unreasonable insistence that God be scientifically verifiable. Given that there is no hard evidence for God, I think considering soft evidence is a reasonable next step. Shermer thinks if there is a God, we should be able to tangibly detect how He reaches in and “stirs the particles.” I recently took a spill playing tennis. I watch my scraped knee heal, day by day. To me, that IS God “stirring the particles.” To me, this is soft evidence. (I don’t believe in breach-of-nature miracles, but I believe nature itself, life itself, healing, are miraculous.)
A GOD BEYOND MORALITY – Huffling argues that God is beyond morality. Morality doesn’t apply to Him. Yeah, I suppose, on a strictly theoretical level. But in the real world, we humans have a right to expect some degree of morality from him, if He is a good God. By Huffling’s reasoning, God could say all blond people should be killed and there is nothing wrong with that, because it was God who said it and He is beyond morality.
Huffling implies that if God is outside space and time, He has nothing to do with natural evil. Bull. Sophistry. Reminds me of Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft’s mindset. He said to me that natural disasters are part of the natural order, that God is not responsible for them any more than He is responsible for the rain. I responded, “What do you mean!? He IS responsible for the rain. He’s responsible for all of it! He created the world. You can’t give God a free pass like that.” (Yes, God does not micro-manage, but He, by definition, does macro-manage.)
We have a right to expect some level of morality and kindness from God, especially since Christians claim we are made in His image. If God’s morality is so detached from human morality, then we are not made in His image.
INFINITE REGRESS – Huffling says that if all material things are created, God can’t be one of those things, or He would have been created, one of those material things. “However, such is impossible since we know that there can’t be an infinite regress of one material thing causing another material thing.” I tend to agree here. I think the First Cause argument, the infinite regress argument, is the strongest one FOR God (a general God, not the Christian one).
THE LESSON OF JOB – Huffling writes that God cannot be unjust “Because he’s God. There is no standard by which to judge him. God transcends morality…” Well, yes, God can do what He wants, but He can’t do whatever He wants AND still be a loving God. Note carefully God’s persona in the Job story: The biblical God doesn’t say, Sorry to put you through this horrendous suffering, but I wanted to prove a point. Instead He says, Who the hell are you, Job, just a puny human being compared to almighty Me (Job 40:2-6)! It’s like a father killing a son’s beloved dog just to prove a point, and having the attitude, hey, you’re just a little kid, I’m the boss of this place. Clearly, this is not a God of love, but a God of power.
ANSWERED PRAYER – Why won’t God heal childhood leukemia? Huffling says if God always answered prayer “he would alter the natural course of the world.” But that is not the point, to have every prayer answered. The point is to have key unselfish, compassion-based prayers answered, as Jesus promised Christians. [See Lennox below.]
MIRACLES – Huffling says that just because there are many religions and miracle claims that are false, that does not mean they cancel out the Christian claims. “Non-miracles today don’t count against possible miracles in the first century.” OK, the abundance of false miracle claims, does not disprove miracles, sure, but they do constitute strong evidence against miracles. How many sheep do we need to throw off a cliff to prove they can’t fly? After a thousand, we have, for all intents and purposes, disproven the flying sheep hypothesis.
Here’s a disproof of the Red Sea crossing. Shortly thereafter, the Hebrews started complaining of Moses’s leadership. That makes no psychological sense, given that they had just (allegedly) experienced a spectacular miracle.
WE ARE COGNITIVELY LIMITED – Huffling says, “We don’t know what God should be like… so we can’t say that God should behave in a certain way.” Not so. IF he is a God of love, as claimed, then we CAN. If He is just a God of power, sure, then God can do anything we wants, no matter how cruel. In which case, there is no problem of evil, since God can do whatever He wants. But if we are the crown of His creation, and He is good, as claimed, then He MUST care about our welfare and happiness.
Tucker makes the same argument, that we are in no position to make a judgment on what God allows. He gives the analogy of his own son not understanding the necessity for a painful operation; it does not mean that he, the father, is unloving. But, I think one example of necessary suffering, not understood yet by the sufferer, does not justify ongoing, pervasive, unnecessary suffering, which has no conceivable purpose, to any intellect. Tucker should have carried out his analogy further to include the doctor coming in every day and unnecessarily smacking his son with a baseball bat. WTF!? As today’s youth are wont to say.
We understand enough so that we are in a position to make a judgment. Just as a dog knows enough to know his master is cruel if, as a matter of course, he constantly beats him for no reason understandable to the dog.
OMNIBENEVOLENCE – It has always baffled me why people do not see how clearly insane it is to attribute omnibenevolence to God, given childhood leukemia, given the predatory basis of the animal kingdom. God is clearly not omnibenevolent, but possibly only ultimately benevolent.
THE FALL – Huffling claims man’s original sin is the cause of natural evil. “While Shermer does not like this explanation, there is nothing illogical about it.” It is totally illogical. Afflicting everybody with suffering, including babies, and animals, for something they had no responsibility for (Adam’s “sin”), violates the very essence of morality and justice.
THE TRINITY – Hufflng writes that Shermer’s view of the trinity “demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the orthodox view.” Well, the orthodox view is that the trinity is beyond human understanding, so don’t blame Shermer for not understanding it.
HUFFLING’S UNFALSIFIABLE RATIONAL ARGUMENT – Huffling is saying that if God exists, and can do anything, then ANYTHING is reasonable because God is the arbiter of what is reasonable, no matter how it seems to us puny humans. This is not a good argument; it is sophistry. The exact same reasoning can be applied to Allah, Thor, or Jupiter, and would support any bad idea, any atrocity! The argument is sophistry because it makes the unwarranted assumption that we have unequivocal knowledge of 1) that God exists, and 2) that that God is the Christian one. It is sophistry because the premise to be examined is assumed, rather than examined.
THE CHRISTIAN GOD SPECIFICALLY – If the Christian God is NOT presented as a good, loving God, then Huffling is correct in saying the existence of evil does not disprove the Christian God. But the Christian God IS presented as good and loving. John 4:8 “because God is love.” 1 John 4:16 “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.” Ps 145:9 “The Lord is good to all; He has compassion on all He has made.” Ps 107:1 “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”
Thus, Huffling loses the debate. Shermer’s contention that there is no rational explanation for the existence of excess evil is evidence that the expressly designated “good” God of Christianity does not exist.
JOHN LENNOX I re-viewed your debate with John Lennox. A key statement of his, separate from the problem of evil, was that biblical slavery was, quote, “nothing like slavery in America.” William Lane Craig claimed the same thing when I talked to him, that biblical slavery was really indentured servitude. But, the fact is that the biblical God condones also, outright slavery. This is a point to bring up and clamp down on like a bulldog. Because they have no answer!! If one is allowed to own people as “property” (Exod 21:21), own them as “permanent” slaves (Lev 25:46), beat them severely (Exod 21:20-21), and own their children (Exod 21:4), then that is NOT indentured servitude. It is true slavery. (I’ve made the point that the entire Christian religion can be refuted on one word! “Property.” Humans are not “property” of other humans.) This is an issue on which you can make the best apologist squirm.
A second major issue that Lennox avoided, is that Jesus did not say, “Sometimes the answer to your prayers is no.” He specifically said the Christian’s prayer will be GRANTED. Mk 11:24 "Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them." Christians will turn intellectual cartwheels to avoid the plain meaning of this verse. They’ll say, Obviously, Jesus didn’t mean that if you prayed your neighbor has a heart attack, that that prayer will be granted. Yes, but just as obviously, Jesus did mean that if you prayed that he not have a heart attack, that that prayer will be granted. And in the real world there’s no guarantee of that, as the Benson study showed.
I assume you are passing on my McGinn article “The Omnipotence Paradox.” I’ll just post it on my website. Don’t forget my website, especially my video “Defending Soft Theism against Atheists,” which presents all the key issues from both sides. (I also have further adventures in mediumship sessions.)
Keep up the great work. Other than the God issue, everything you say makes good sense to me.
Thanks Miklos, this is all very helpful feedback for my next debate, if and when that happens. Being in the lion’s den grows tiresome. So much motivated reasoning and not an honest search for truth.
[I disagree with atheists on the existence of a general God, but at least they are being honest, given their usually scientific worldview. Whereas with Christians, I agree with Shermer that so much of their reasoning is simply not honest. They want to
believe what they want to believe and will rationalize and rationalize.]