- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 1 of 7: A Brief Review
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 2 of 7: Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist Part 1
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 3 of 7: Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist Part 2
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 4 of 7: Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist Part 3
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 5 of 7: Concluding Review of Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 6 of 7: Loftus’ “Atheistic Ethic”
- Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 7 of 7: Concluding Remarks
Loftus begins his argument
I’ll be arguing here against the theistic conception of God, who is believed to be all-powerful, or omnipotent, perfectly good, or omnibenelovent (sic) and all-knowing, or omniscient. The problem of evil (or suffering) is an internal one to these three theistic beliefs, which is expressed in both deductive and evidential arguments concerning both moral and natural evils. p. 228
To properly unpack this statement, a basic outline of Loftus’ argument should be understood. In chapter 12, he lays out his case. It begins by stating the problem, looking briefly at some theistic answers, and then talking about the logical and evidential (what I’ve called intuitive) problems. Finally, Loftus presents his own specific argument from evil. Chapter 13 is then devoted to answering various defenses offered by Christians.
This short outline is necessary to point out that, instead of making a distinction between internal and external forms of of the problem, as I did in my articles, Loftus treats his entire case as an internal critique. There’s nothing wrong with limiting one’s own critique to an internal one. The problem is that he’s calling the problem of evil an “empirical” case against Christianity. (p. 61) Again, while it’s possible to couch it in terms of internal consistency, empirical arguments are almost always based on raw data that should be obvious on any worldview, not just the one under question. As I will show, Loftus appears to be confused about the real nature of his critique of Christianity. He calls it internal, but frequently makes arguments that are inconsistent with an internal critique. As I go through them, I’ll point out some of these instances.
Loftus categorizes evil into three types: moral, natural, and accidental. “Moral” is a result of human oppression or deliberate action that brings about suffering. “Natural” is suffering as a result of natural disasters, forces of nature, diseases and such. “Accidental” is suffering as a result of human action with no malicious intent. (pp. 228-229) Note that, for Loftus, evil and suffering are functionally synonymous. His types of evil are types of suffering. This can be seen even more clearly later in chapter 13:
Some theists like C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity will argue from the start that there can be no evil without absolute goodness (God) to measure it against. “How do you know a line is crooked without having some knowledge of what a straight line is?” In other words, I need some sort of objective moral in order to say something is morally evil. But the word evil here is used both as a term describing the fact that there is suffering, and at the same time it’s used as a moral term to describe whether or not such suffering makes the belief in a good God improbable, and that’s an equivocation in the word’s usage. The fact that there is suffering is undeniable. Whether it makes the belief in a good God improbable is the subject for debate. I’m talking about pain–the kind that turns our stomachs. Why is there so much of it when there is a good omnipotent God? p. 243 (emphasis mine)
I’ll spend more time with this quote later, but I bring it up now in order to show Loftus’ definition of evil as suffering. There is nothing wrong with Loftus so defining evil. It is a widely used definition in the realms of philosophy, especially when treating this issue. The problem, which can be seen in Loftus’ charge against C. S. Lewis, is that Loftus is limiting the definition to only suffering. Even his category of evil called “moral evil” is just that kind of suffering that is deliberately caused by human beings. The import of this limitation will become clear as we begin to examine Loftus’ case in detail.
Loftus states the problem of evil this way:
If God is perfectly good, all knowing, and all powerful, then the issue of why there is so much suffering in the world requires an explanation. The reason is that a perfectly good God would be opposed to it, an all-powerful God would be capable of eliminating it, and an all-knowing God would know what to do about it. So, the extent of intense suffering in the world means for the theist that: either God is not powerful enough to eliminate it, or God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is just not smart enough to know what to do about it. The stubborn fact of intense suffering in the world means that something is wrong with God’s ability, or his goodness, or his knowledge. I consider this as close to an empirical refutation of Christianity as is possible. p. 230
This is the age-old problem. There is not much to comment on here specifically except to point out some of the lack of care with which Loftus presents the problem. Overall, it looks like the internal critique, but he refers to the “extent of intense suffering”. Also, he refers to the problem as an “empirical refutation.” This sounds more like an evidential argument. It seems that he is trying to combine both arguments into one.
It is in the stating of the problem here that Loftus’ definition of evil as suffering becomes very important. Loftus wants to limit the discussion to something that is “undeniable”, as the above quote says. This is understandable, since the existence of real moral depravity is quite often denied, often by many of his fellow atheists. The question is this: Is suffering morally evil? Or to put it better, does the existence of suffering constitute a moral failing on God’s part, should He exist? If we limit “evil” to “suffering”, and don’t also ask about its moral character, then it can do nothing, logically, to indicate whether a morally perfect God exists. This type of mistake can be seen in a basic deductive argument.
1. There are trees.
2. A master termite farmer would make sure his termites are fed.
3. Therefore, there are no master termite farmers.
This argument is obviously invalid. The existence of trees is irrelevant to the termite farmer according to the argument. Suppose, though, that we added a premise.
1. There are trees.
2. The termites of a master termite farmer would need to eat every tree.
3. A master termite farmer would make sure they are fed.
4. Therefore, there are no master termite farmers.
So, aside from the silliness of the example, this is now a valid argument. The added premise is necessary to make any logical connection between the master farmer and the trees. Since Loftus calls C. S. Lewis’ connection between suffering and evil an equivocation, we’d be safe to say that Loftus considers the connection inappropriate. So, let’s reconstruct Loftus’ argument with this in mind, remembering that “evil”, if it is just the same thing as suffering, has no moral character.
1. There is undeniable nonmoral suffering.
2. A morally perfect (and omniscient and omnipotent) God would prevent all the evil he knows about and can prevent.
3. Therefore, a morally perfect God does not exist.
Do you see how this argument has exactly the same logical form as the first termite argument above? The premise that suffering is morally evil, which Loftus doesn’t want Lewis to use, is the one that makes the argument valid. If suffering is not morally evil, then it carries absolutely no weight in helping to decide whether a morally perfect being could exist. Merely equating suffering with evil doesn’t do the work either, since it’s only moral evil that can be relevant. In truth, it is Loftus who is equivocating. Equivocation is the fallacy where an argument looks sound, but only because it is inserting more than one definition into one word at different points. When a word is limited to one definition, the argument fails. Loftus equivocates on the word “evil”. On one definition, it is the same thing as “suffering”, which he says is “undeniable”. On the other, it is the opposite of “morally good”. Now, the only way Loftus can say that suffering is “undeniable” is if he does not attach any moral evaluation to it. Suffering is just the experience of physical or mental pain or anguish. We may not like it, but it is not “undeniable” to say that it is morally evil. Many atheists deny it themselves.
Let’s look at this, again, in logical form. This time, we’ll put it into two separate arguments, each one using only one definition for “evil”.
1. There is undeniable, nonmoral suffering.
2. A morally perfect God would prevent nonmoral suffering.
3. Therefore, a morally perfect God doesn’t exist.
1. There is real moral depravity.
2. A morally perfect God would prevent real moral depravity.
3. Therefore, a morally perfect God doesn’t exist.
So, in the first argument, we limit “evil” to “suffering” and it’s apparent that the second premise is false. If suffering carries no moral character, then it’s like cooking rice or listening to Beethoven. What does preventing nonmoral events have to do with one’s own moral goodness?
In the second argument, it is the first premise that is difficult for Loftus. His whole argument from evil is based on the universality of belief in suffering. It’s not that I think there is no moral depravity. It’s that Loftus doesn’t base his argument anywhere in his book on the existence of moral depravity. In fact, the one thing Loftus is careful to (almost) never say is that there is real moral failure, because that would commit him to believing in objective morality, which he can’t and won’t account for in his writings. Loftus is trading on two different definitions of “evil” to make his argument work, but that renders his argument invalid. Both of the above arguments are valid, but both have questionable premises. Loftus says in his quote about Lewis that he’s only using one, but as we’ve seen, he has to sneak in the other or his argument cannot be relevant to the morality of God.
Loftus gives a brief introduction to what he calls the “three global theodices”. (pp. 223-224) I should just point out here, that, while my own (and I think the biblical) theodicy is most like the Augustinian, there are some major differences such that I wouldn’t use his to defend against the problem of evil. As for “soul-making”, I think it, too has some things in common with the biblical account, but is not complete. I completely reject process theology.
My own theodicy can be summed up like this: God freely, and for his own reasons, which are good because he is perfectly good, created the physical and spiritual realms. (Gen. 1:1) He has a perfect plan to bring those realms through history and everything that happens has an exact place in that plan. (Isa. 46:9-11, James 4:13-16) Because He is the Creator, He has the right to execute His plan over His creation. (Rom. 9:19-21) Nothing that happens is in opposition to that overarching perfect plan. God, in his wisdom and for the glorification of all aspects of his nature, such as his love, wisdom, justice, mercy, power, knowledge, etc., has decided that this world will not be without suffering and moral evil, just as it is not without joy and blessedness, but that no suffering, evil, joy, or blessedness will be without purpose in His plan. (Rom. 8:28, 9:22-24) We, as finite human beings, only sometimes get a glimpse of what that purpose is, but, since God is infinite and all-wise, He knows it perfectly and everything fits perfectly into it. (Job 38-41, Isa. 41:22-23) Sometimes, evil’s purpose is to make us better people. (James 1:2-4) Sometimes, it serves to punish sin. (Gen. 3, Isaiah 10) Sometimes, it is to save many lives by the suffering in one life. (Gen. 50:20) Sometimes, it is to prove the sincerity of the faith of His people while removing pretenders from His house. (Rev. 2:9-10) It often serves many goals, and we never see all of them. But they are there.
Loftus never addresses this theodicy. In part, I don’t blame him, since he’s probably never read it and he may rarely encounter those who believe it. However, this is, in terms of content, the very theodicy of the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther or John Calvin, and other theologians since then including Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards. Many of today’s evangelicals would reject this perspective, but many would not. Loftus limits his effectiveness when he limits his responses to theodicies that depart from the roots of the Reformation. Rather than arguing against this position, Loftus dismisses it:
There is theological determinism, where God decrees everything that happens for his glory (or hyper-Calvinism). According to Clark Pinnock, “One need not wonder why people become atheists when faced with such a theology. A God like that has a great deal for which to answer.” p. 232
Now, aside from the fact that Loftus offers no argument to support his endorsement of the Pinnock quote, he also misidentifies Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is a term that is used as a pejorative by non-Calvinists of consistent Calvinists, and by Calvinists of actual hyper-Calvinists. Without going into too much detail, a Calvinist is someone who believes in the five doctrines of grace: total depravity/inability, unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual calling, and perseverance of the saints. A hyper-Calvinist adds to this that no one is personally responsible for his actions, and that evangelism is unnecessary and not required of the Christian. These additional beliefs contradict Scripture and are argued against constantly by Calvinists. It appears that Loftus’ understanding of evangelicalism is limited to the non-Calvinist views and rhetoric he picked up in his church and schooling.
The Logical Problem of Evil
When I wrote my first article on this subject, I had only read some of Loftus’ articles on it. In those articles, Loftus claimed that the problem of evil was an internal one, but he also referred to example after example of suffering to make his case. As I said in that article, it is common for people addressing this issue to not be aware that there really are two separate problems of evil. One is a logical, internal critique, and the other is an inductive, evidential critique. I wrote that it is a common mistake for someone who hasn’t really studied the issue much to accidentally conflate these two arguments. When I read Loftus’ article on his blog called “The Logical Problem of Evil is Alive and Well”, which can be found almost verbatim on pages 233 and 234 of his book, I was rather confused. It seemed that Loftus was conflating these two arguments on purpose knowing full well the differences. As I’ve said before, I think that this is just an example of the logical sloppiness that Loftus employs in his use of arguments. The subheadings of his first chapter on the problem hint at this: “The Logical (Deductive) Problem of Evil” p. 233, “The Evidential (or Inductive) Problem of Evil” p. 234, and “My Specific Case” p. 235. Loftus doesn’t identify his specific case as being of either form, and from his other statements, it can be pretty well determined that he means to try to combine the deductive and inductive arguments into one, which is logically impossible. An internal critique is just a critique that only uses internal evidence. As soon as it uses external evidence, it is no longer internal.
In this section, Loftus spends more than half of the time giving a sort of “history” of the logical problem, but doesn’t make his own argument until the end. He basically agrees with an argument by Richard La Croix, whom he quotes:
“If God is the greatest possible good then if God had not created there would be nothing but the greatest possible good. And since God didn’t need to create at all, then the fact that he did create produced less than the greatest possible good…Perhaps God could not, for some perfectly plausible reason, create a world without evil, but then it would seem that he ought not to have created at all…Prior to creation God knew that if he created there would be evil, so being wholly good he ought not to have created.” p. 233-234
Loftus responds with approval, asking “Why did God create something in the first place?” and concluding, “Besides, a perfectly good God should not have created anything at all, if by creating something, anything, it also brought about so much intense suffering.”
Before dealing with La Croix’s argument, I just also point out that Loftus’ last phrase again is inappropriate in an internal critique if the Christian’s theodicy says that all suffering serves God’s purpose, which even non-Calvinists say.
As for La Croix’s argument, he is equivocating on the phrase “greatest possible good”. His first premise is referring to an individual thing, as in the “greatest possible good thing”. Then he says that God’s act of creating produced less than the “greatest possible good”, but here he needs it to refer to all of existence as a whole, or the “greatest possible good situation”. If we carry the first definition through, then his second premise is obviously false, since God never ceased to exist, and therefore never ceased to be the “greatest possible good thing”. If we carry the second definition from the first premise, then La Croix must assert that the evil in the world makes all of existence “less good” than God existing alone. The problem with this is that, if God is a perfectly good being, then adding something else to existence, namely the created realm, adds both good and evil, but does not diminish God’s goodness. Also, Christians hold that all of the evil in this world is purposeful to reach an ultimately good end. It is God plus an ultimately good creation. Therefore, Christians believe that the amount of good is actually increased because of the created realm. The only way to say that suffering in the created realm lessens the total good that exists in the world is to say that the Christian account of a good must be arbitrarily limited to considering what “percentage” of the world is evil, and that the Christian account for evil in the world is factually false, which requires an external argument that Loftus claims not to be making.
Next time: More from Loftus’ book