Saturday, October 11, 2008

Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 1 of 7: A Brief Review

Recently, I wrote a two-part article on the problem of evil, which can be found here and here.  The same day that I posted the second part, John Loftus from Debunking Christianity offered a partial response, linking to an article he’d written earlier this year.  This led to an exchange in which Loftus quoted his book and sent me links to several of his articles, while I responded to part of what was sent.  In the course of things, Loftus pointed me to two things that were too large to be addressed in a comment box: his “Atheistic Ethic” and his book, Why I Became an Atheist.

While comments are, of course, welcome, my article was originally intended as a primer to help fellow Christians properly address the problem of evil.  I was a bit surprised when I saw that Loftus offered some responses to what I said.  I was pleased that he had taken the time to do even that.  I was disappointed, however, with the lack of care that he displayed in those responses, as you can read in the exchange itself.  

Today, I begin a series of articles that address, in detail, John Loftus’ argument from the problem of evil.  In these articles, I hope to do four things: (1) I will review and evaluate the exchange as it occurred and look at what points were brought up vs. what points were addressed/rebutted.  My hope for this project is that it will fully address all of the major points Loftus has made on this subject. (2) I will do this by reviewing and evaluating the relevant portions of Loftus’ book, in which he presents the problem of evil as one of the most powerful arguments against Christianity. (3) I will also review and evaluate Loftus’ “Atheistic Ethic”, and determine whether it does what he says it does.  And finally (4) I will look at the exchange as it now stands and challenge Mr. Loftus to answer some simple questions, questions that must be answered if the problem of evil can ever be used honestly to challenge Christianity.

And that last point is a big one.  This is not about why Christianity is true and atheism is false.  This is a defense of the Christian faith against a specific challenge, the problem of evil, especially as it is expressed by a specific atheist, John Loftus.  Attempts to show that I have not proven Christianity true will, of course, be successful, but irrelevant.  I only seek here to show the impotence of the problem of evil as a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity.  In other words, I seek only to put forth a defensive argument that shows that the problem of evil does not show Christianity false, or even implausible.  Whether some have left the faith because of it is also irrelevant.  The question is, does the problem of evil, as formulated by Loftus, pose a legitimate challenge against Christianity?


The Exchange Thus Far


It is recommended that the reader go back over this exchange to get up to speed on things.  However, I do want to bring a few things to the table about what has transpired so far that I hope, if Loftus chooses to respond to this at all, will not continue to be the case.

First, I hope that he will read and respond to what’s been written, rather than just skimming and pigeon-holing these articles into one of his predetermined theistic molds.  I know that everyone is busy sometimes and makes mistakes, and for that reason, I’m going to be very clear about the simple, factual and logical mistakes that Loftus makes in his responses and articulation of the problem of evil, so that he can have the best chance not to slip up again.  I say this with no malice or gloating.  My hope is that everyone, including Loftus, can be edified by these articles.

Second, I want to bring out a point that was briefly noted earlier.  In his second comment, Loftus posted this quote from his book:


I consider this book to be one single argument against Christianity, with each chapter as a subset of that one argument, and as such it should be evaluated as a whole. Each chapter of this argument depends upon the others for its force since no single one of them alone can bear the whole weight of showing that the Christian worldview is false. In evaluating this one argument of mine, it’s proper and fitting to do so as a whole, especially since this is the only way to properly evaluate worldviews. (Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist p.62)


As I pointed out before, this quote could only be relevant to this debate if the problem of evil is a necessary aspect of Loftus’ worldview.  The implicit charge is that I can’t challenge the legitimacy of Loftus’ use of the problem of evil without taking his entire worldview, as expressed in his book, into account.  This tactic allows him to answer any challenge to his use of the problem of evil by saying that his critic is just attacking one leg of his argument without realizing how the others support it.

On some levels, I completely agree with this line of reasoning.  My Christian worldview is a whole.  Most aspects of it do inform the others and as I continue to grow and mature in that faith, I hope to bring everything into more and more complete harmony.  For this reason, and through no fault of his own, some of Loftus’ argumentation will prove to be irrelevant to my worldview, because it attacks things that, while believed by many Christians, are rejected by many other Christians because they are inconsistent with a thoroughgoing biblical worldview.  This alone does no damage to Loftus’ case, since many Christians do so believe.  It only renders parts of Loftus’ case null with respect to the biblical Christianity I embrace.  I’ll go into the details on this later.

The reason I bring up this quote is that, true as it may be in some respects, its use at the point in the debate it is used can only serve one purpose: to say that I can’t challenge his argument from evil without taking on his whole worldview/book/argument-against-Christianity at once.  This was a tactical debate move on his part and I believe he writes it in his book to serve just this purpose.  The problem with this line of defense on his part is that it is inconsistent with his argumentation elsewhere, as can be seen in two examples: his first “partial response” which can also be found, almost verbatim, on pages 243-244 of Why I Became an Atheist, and a point he made during a radio discussion with David Wood on this subject.

In his initial response to me, Loftus linked to an article called, “The Most Asinine Christian Argument I’ve Probably Ever Heard”.  I won’t go into a full response to it again here but I mention it to point out that Loftus sees the problem of evil as an internal problem for the theist, and that he’s only using reductio ad absurdum, an argumentation technique that simply tests the internal consistency of someone’s position.  If a contradiction can be derived from assuming a position to be true, then it is false.  And as Loftus points out, “I may be a relativist, a pantheist, or a witchdoctor and still ask about the internal consistency of what a theist believes.” (p. 243)

The question I have is, “Is your overall worldview important or not?”  On the one hand, Loftus doesn’t want anyone to attack his formulation of the problem of evil without considering everything else he has to say on every other subject concerning Christianity.  But on the other hand, he says that, since the problem of evil is an internal problem for the Christian, his worldview is irrelevant.  This is inconsistent.

This inconsistency is minor, however, compared to what Loftus said in his radio discussion with David Wood.  Consider the following, taken from an hour and twenty-seven minutes into the show, and don’t get hung up on the cumbersome language.  This is taken from a spoken conversation, which is never as precise and ordered in delivery as writing.


“We have all kinds of views that are brought to bear on any single issue.  Now we’re dealing with the problem of evil, you see...  Now you’re bringing in things like, say, the design argument, you know, under cover, and that’s okay, because that’s part of your worldview.  But the more often you have to punt or revert back to your worldview type of beliefs in order to defend an issue, say, the problem of evil, like the design argument or arguments for the existence of God, which you spent one third of your debate dealing with.  Maybe two-thirds if you count the design argument, ‘cause that’s one of those arguments.  Two-thirds of your arguments in the debate was basically based on background beliefs, you know, worldview beliefs that were brought to bear on the problem of evil.  That just tells me that you can’t defend the problem of evil in and of itself.  And the more often you have to resort to these background beliefs, the more you have to resort to your overall worldview to defend an issue, then you’re actually already admitting that the issue is weak.” (emphasis mine)


Read again what Loftus says in his book about worldviews:


I consider this book to be one single argument against Christianity, with each chapter as a subset of that one argument, and as such it should be evaluated as a whole. Each chapter of this argument depends upon the others for its force since no single one of them alone can bear the whole weight of showing that the Christian worldview is false. In evaluating this one argument of mine, it’s proper and fitting to do so as a whole, especially since this is the only way to properly evaluate worldviews.


And remember that Loftus offered this quote in the context of debate.  He’s being inconsistent in his argumentation.  On the one hand, he won’t allow Wood to use his overall worldview to argue for his answer to the problem of evil.  But on the other, he requires that I take his entire worldview into account when arguing against him, using the same kind of argument he condemns Wood for in response to me.  These are the first examples of a general logical sloppiness that permeates Loftus’ arguments from evil.  We’ll see this again and again as we evaluate those arguments.

And there is one final point I want to make concerning our exchange thus far.  As I said in my first comment to Loftus, I did read his articles before I posted mine on this subject, and sought to take them into account when I made my case against the success or propriety of the problem of evil as it is used by the atheist against the Christian.  My case can be expressed simply in logical form:


1. An atheist using the problem of evil is always either pointing out an internal inconsistency in Christianity or pointing to external evidence that, because it is external, must be accounted for on all worldviews.

2. While both approaches can be affirmed by a single atheist, they are separate critiques and cannot logically be combined into one argument.

3. If the atheist is making an internal critique, then the atheist’s own worldview is not relevant to the case, thus, any challenge concerning the atheist’s worldview is inappropriate as a defense. (This is a strength of an internal critique)

4. If the atheist is making an internal critique, then the atheist must show that the Christian worldview’s understanding of the existence and nature of God is inconsistent with the Christian worldview’s understanding of the existence and nature of evil, thus allowing the Christian worldview to define what we could reasonably expect God to do given His nature and what counts as evil or gratuitous evil. (This is a weakness of an internal critique. Note: If the atheist says of the Christian’s definitions, “Those definitions are just wrong.  Christians have defined God (evil/gratuitous/greater good) incorrectly,” then the atheist has entered evidence outside the Christian worldview, and has therefore switched to an external critique.  See 5 and 6)

5. If the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist’s worldview must account for that evidence.  If it cannot, then the atheist cannot consider it “real, external evidence”. (This is a weakness of the external critique.  Note: If the atheist says of the evidence, “It doesn’t matter how I account for evil. The Christian worldview can’t account for it,” then the atheist has switched to an internal critique.  See 3 and 4)

6. Also, if the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist must argue for why the Christian definitions and explanations are empirically wrong.  (This is also a weakness, in that it is always very difficult--perhaps impossible--to make a case that any worldview is defining and explaining itself incorrectly, e.g. making a case, not that the Christian’s definitions are inconsistent, but that they are factually wrong concerning the nature of God and evil.)

7. If the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist is not limited to the Christian worldview’s definitions, but is making a case based on widely agreed-upon definitions of key points: God’s goodness, power, gratuitous evil, etc. (This is a strength of the external critique)

8. Therefore, in order to use the problem of evil as evidence against Christianity, the atheist must deal with the inherent weakness of whichever problem he chooses by either (a) demonstrating a logical inconsistency within Christian definitions on the subject or (b) accounting for the existence of objective moral imperatives to account for evil in an atheistic universe.


In light of this argument, I asked Loftus three questions:


1. Do you, yourself, believe in objective morality?

2. If you do, how do you account for it on a naturalistic worldview? You must be able to answer this in order to use external evidence.

3. If you don’t, then where is the internal inconsistency in the Christian account of evil, as I've outlined it above? You must be able to answer this question without appealing to external evidence in order to use reductio ad absurdum.


In his response, Loftus said that he answered my questions in his “Atheistic Ethic” and his book.  One of my main purposes in these articles, then, is to evaluate this claim.

8 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Excellent! I like your thinking skills AND your research. Who are you, anyway? You directly respond to me, and in that sense you are better than David Wood!

About my inconsistency with regards to evaluating issues and whole worldviews, I want to remind you of what I said:

And the more often you have to resort to these background beliefs, the more you have to resort to your overall worldview to defend an issue, then you’re actually already admitting that the issue is weak.

Again, I said ...the more often you have to resort to these background beliefs... in the context of a verbal, less precise, format.

I don't see an inconsistency here at all. I realize we all retreat to background beliefs here and there to support a weak plank in that worldview, an anomaly, so to speak. I meant that the more one has to do this the weaker his whole position is. And I claim that on any given issue I wrote about in my book, one after another, a Christian cannot defend that issue on its own terms. Instead he must resort to his background beliefs to do so, time after time, after time. THAT'S why I said my case should be judged as a whole. It's because it will become crystal clear that the Christian cannot fall back on any background belief since I attack each and every major background belief he has, one after another, from the existence of God, to miracles, to the resurrection of Jesus.

Cheers. I look forward to interacting with you, and I may have another comment about this post later.

John W. Loftus said...
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Drew Lewis said...

Thank you for the kind words. I see two kinds of things being said here, and I just want to clarify them so that we both know what we're saying.

1. I don't disagree with the idea that falling back on other supporting beliefs shows an inability to handle the issue at hand. And I agree that we all do this sometimes, since a mere inability to handle one issue does not destroy a belief system. A person just may not be an expert on that issue.

2. I also agree that if someone has to do that with issue after issue, then this casts doubt on the person's whole position.

Since the quote you mention came from a spoken interchange, it can sometimes be vague as to which of these two statements you meant. If you meant the second by "the issue is weak", then I have no disagreement. Since that's what you say you meant, I won't contradict you on it.

This series, as you know and will continue to see, is more focused than that. It's an examination of the problem of evil as an argument against Christianity. As I hope you'll see, the "background beliefs" that I appeal to are not separate issues that bolster Christianity, such as appeals to unrelated arguments for God's existence or archeological data. Those things have their place, but they don't address this problem.

As for who I am, my first post on this blog gives a bit of an outline. I haven't written any books (yet), or had any formal debates (yet), or made much of an impact, theologically or philosophically, on anyone outside of my close friends (yet). This blog is kind of a starting place to address some of the theological, philosophical, and apologetical issues that Christians face. If that leads to some spirited debate along the way, I welcome it.

I hope this series is as helpful to all three of my readers (heh, heh) as it has been to me in writing it.

John W. Loftus said...
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John W. Loftus said...

Here is considered my response to the other things you wrote.

As far as the internal/external criticisms I offer for the problem of intense suffering, you have some things right. You also have some things wrong.

Drew: While both approaches can be affirmed by a single atheist, they are separate critiques and cannot logically be combined into one argument.

Yes they can! I use a cumulative case argument that uses both approaches to come to the same conclusion. As I said, it’s one argument, a comprehensive one, utilizing many other arguments, both logical and inductive. Yes, each one is separate argument. That’s correct. But since no single argument can topple your whole worldview, or anyone’s for that matter, these separate arguments, while seemingly defective on their own terms, present a comprehensive and cumulative whole case.

Drew: Note: If the atheist says of the Christian’s definitions, “Those definitions are just wrong. Christians have defined God (evil/gratuitous/greater good) incorrectly,” then the atheist has entered evidence outside the Christian worldview, and has therefore switched to an external critique.

What you must remember, is that the argument from intensive suffering is not an atheist argument. An atheist uses it, of course. But since it does not lead to atheism, it’s not an atheist argument at all. Process theologians, deists and pantheists can look at that argument, agree with it, and conclude that the Christian conception of an Omni-God is improbable while retaining some belief in God.

And it's just false to say that as an atheist I’ve entered into an external criticism of your faith by arguing with you about the correct definitions of God. Because every single argument I offer has been considered by a thoughtful Christian who wants to reconcile his own conception of God based on the evidence of suffering. Some of these thinkers will remain Christians after having thought through this, while others have become process thinkers.

As I argued on page 58, it is a solid Christian principle that “all truth is God’s truth.” Experience, for instance, has always been a check on Biblical exegesis and theology, whether it comes to Wesleyan perfectionism, perseverance of the saints, second coming predictions, Pentecostal miracle workers, and so on. While experience is not the test for truth, the Christian understanding of the truth must be able to explain personal experience. The whole science/religion discussion is an attempt to harmonize the Bible with what scientists have experienced through empirical observations of the universe. My contention is that other disciplines of learning, including experience itself, continually forces the believer to reinterpret the Bible and his notion of God, until there is nothing left to believe with regard to either of them. Is this external? It cannot be. For according to a Christian “all truth is God’s truth.” So my argument is neither an external one, nor is it an atheist argument.

What exactly is an external argument given the Christian view of truth? If an external argument is merely one that the Christian don’t accept at the present time then that’s irrelevant, for Christian theology has adjusted itself numerous times by arguments and evidence that the previous generation did not accept. Christians should adjust their views here too, just like they’ve done with a rigorously literal view of the Genesis creation accounts in the light of modern science. They should adjust, just like they've adjusted to liberal views on women when compared to Christians of earlier centuries. They should adjust, just like they've done by condemning racism and slavery, unlike Christians who justified these things in the American South. They should adjust, just like they do with their liberal views of hell when compared to the Middle Ages. They should adjust, just like they do with regard to their liberal and heretical ideas of a free democracy when compared to earlier times of the divine rights of kings. They should adjust, just like Christians have done who no longer think the Bible justifies killing people who disagree. If these previous Christians replied to the evidence, as you do now, that such arguments are external to their faith, you'll see my point. Since Christians have historically changed their views based on this so-called “external evidence,” what they believe is now considered to be internal to their faith.

Drew: If the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist’s worldview must account for that evidence.

At some point, yes, and I think I have.

Drew: if the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist must argue for why the Christian definitions and explanations are empirically wrong.…

Which is what I’m doing. But it’s not external unless you don’t believe God is a God of all truth. He's supposedly the creator, so he must be the author of all truth! No Christian can possibly say that all truth—all truth—is found in the Bible. Is rocket science found in the Bible?

Drew: Therefore, in order to use the problem of evil as evidence against Christianity, the atheist must deal with the inherent weakness of whichever problem he chooses by either (a) demonstrating a logical inconsistency within Christian definitions on the subject or (b) accounting for the existence of objective moral imperatives to account for evil in an atheistic universe.

There may be no logical inconsistency here (a). But most things admit of no logical disproof. In any case, by asking me to prove you wrong you’re admitting the evidence is against what you believe, as I wrote. You’re trying to explain the evidence away. And while (b) is true, it is a separate issue which I do indeed deal with.

Cheers.

John W. Loftus said...

Drew I meant #2 but I also agree with #1,

Cheers.

david said...

John,

Just for clarification, where is it that you account "for the existence of objective moral imperatives to account for evil in an atheistic universe."

Is this in your book?

Thanks.

John W. Loftus said...

david, I think I dealt with this problem in chapter 2. To see another place where I deal with it read through this.