You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘atheism’ tag.
In this post I am going to offer an account of the basis of moral obligation. When we ask about the basis of moral obligations, I take us to be asking for an explanation for why objective moral obligations exist? What is their source? What we are looking for is not an account of what our obligations are, but rather some thing (or things) that serves as the source of obligations, that explain why moral obligations exist at all. I believe that the answer to this question is fairly straightforward.
I will begin my answer be drawing our attention to a kind of experience that is very common; namely, the experience of being wronged or hurt. Think of an experience that you have had in which you felt wronged by someone else. It need not be a particularly egregious example; it might be a time in which people you care about made fun at your expense or laughed at some misfortune of yours. Or it could be something even more mundane like being cut off by another driver. Now the key feature of such experiences is the feeling of being wronged. This feeling reveals something very significant about what we think about ourselves.
When a driver cuts me off in traffic, especially if it is on the freeway and my kids are in the car, I feel something that can best be described as righteous anger. In the case of egregiously dangerous examples, the driver has carelessly placed my life and the lives of my passengers in jeopardy. What a jerk! He shouldn’t do that to me. Why? Because I matter and my passengers matter. When a driver intentionally cuts me off, there is a value judgment behind that action, namely that his desire to quickly get where he is going trumps both my desire to get where I am going quickly and, more importantly, my need to be safe. As the cut-off driver, I have to react quickly to ensure that I will not collide with the other vehicle and I have to do so in a manner that protects me and my passengers and all of the other people on the road with us. That is asking quite a lot. Even though all of us deal with this kind of thing fairly regularly, that does not change the fact that it places us in serious jeopardy, and plenty of drivers fail to react effectively. What makes us so angry when we are cut off is that we recognize how close we have come to a potentially catastrophic collision. But even in cases that don’t necessarily involve danger of serious bodily injury, there is still an offense caused since the driver, by his actions, asserts that his desires trump mine.
Aggressive drivers who consistently practice unsafe habits see other drivers as mere obstacles. What matters to them is that they get where they are going as fast as possible and everyone else on the road is merely an obstacle to that end. So, we rightly feel wronged when we are on the receiving end. I feel wronged because I know that I am not a mere obstacle. I know that I matter, dammit! And when a person does something that involves ignoring this fact, I feel wronged.
So, what I want to say is that this feeling of being wronged is based in a veridical experience of our own importance. When I am wronged I am viscerally in touch with the objective fact that I matter morally. This fact, that I matter and its corollary, namely that it is wrong for people to act as if I don’t matter, is the starting point of a genuine understanding of the basis of ethics. The more important step, however, is to make what is simultaneously the most obvious and the most easily overlooked of inferences. That is, I need to recognize that, while it is true that I matter, there is nothing special about me. In other words, if I matter, then every other person matters just the same. There is no reason to think that I matter but nobody else does, or that I matter more or in a special kind of way. So, I matter, but I do not uniquely matter. And it seems to me that once I make this inference, which as I say is obvious, then I have to recognize that I have obligations. To acknowledge that other people matter is to acknowledge that I should not treat them however I want; that I cannot legitimately treat them merely as means to an end or merely as obstacles in the way of my getting what I want.
Now I said that this inference is both obvious and easily overlooked. We are social creatures and thus it is obvious to us that we live in a world of fellow persons. But we are also self-centered by nature and so we easily ignore and discount the interests of others in favor of our own interests. This is what the rude driver does when he cuts off one of his fellow drivers; he discounts their interests (in safely arriving at their destination in a timely manner) in favor of his own desire to get where he is going as fast as he can. So, our own self-interest constantly interferes with our ability to make the inference I mentioned, which is something we are called on to do every time we interact with another person.
So, what is the basis of morality? Why do objective moral obligations exist? The short answer is that moral obligations exist because persons exist. A person is a being that matters. The existence of beings that matter logically entails the existence of objective moral obligations.
I want to slow down a bit and explain my argument a bit more carefully. I think that, on the basis of what I’ve said so far, we can establish two important theses:
(1) I matter morally.
That is, every person is directly aware of the fact that he/she matters. I know that I matter in a very direct way. This is particularly salient when another person wrongs me. What I am aware of when I have such an experience is the fact that I am a being whose interests and agency must be acknowledged and respected (more on this below).
(2) There are other beings that are relevantly like me.
I know that I am not the only person in the world. Each of us finds ourselves in a world that is populated by others who are relevantly like ourselves. In particular, I know that other people have interests and agency. These factors, interests and agency, are what make me matter morally and thus I know that there are other people who are relevantly like me.
Now, from these two claims, I think that a third follows rather naturally:
(3) Every person matters morally just as much as I matter.
Obviously it is important that I am speaking of moral mattering. In a different sense of “matter” one person might matter more than another. For example, an ace pitcher may be more important to a baseball team than a reserve catcher. But this would not entail that the pitcher matters more as a person than the catcher. So, from a moral perspective, every person matters just as much as every other person. More specifically, the interests of any one person matter just as much as the like interests of any other person. This claim is thus an assertion of impartiality. It is this third claim that forces us to admit the existence of objective moral obligations.
Now, even though I think that the impartiality claim is fairly self-evident, I think that we can do better than rely on its self-evidence. Suppose that I doubt that everyone else matters just as much as me. Have I made an error? To prove that objective moral obligations exist and arise from the existence of persons, I need to argue that the answer is yes.
Before I argue for this conclusion, I want to say more about what it means to recognize that there exist other beings that are like me. In doing so we will also think more carefully about why I matter morally (i.e., what makes it the case that I matter) and why, more generally, persons matter morally. Obviously I am a unique individual and there are things that are true of me that are not true of any other person. Such things include facts about my history, about my current location, about my appearance, etc. But I know that such differences between me and other people are relatively insignificant when it comes to the morally relevant property of personhood (or the fact that I matter morally). That is, if I think about what makes it the case that I matter morally, I soon realize that the facts about my history, about my appearance, and certainly about my spatial location (indeed any specific fact about me as an individual) are irrelevant to the fact that I matter. I know this because if any of these things were otherwise (if, for example, my appearance were to change, which indeed is happening all the time) I would not cease to matter. What makes it the case that I matter is that I have desires and needs; that I desire happiness and want to avoid unhappiness and suffering; and, perhaps above all, that I can make choices, that I can pursue my interests, in short, that I am an agent. I know that agency matters because I know directly that one of the greatest harms that can be perpetrated against me is the denial of my own agency. When I am forced to do something against my will or when I am forcibly not permitted to pursue my interests, I feel this as a great harm. Of course there are other harms too; causing me pain, even if it does not involve any threat to my agency, is a harm; denying me access to things that I need is also a tremendous harm. So, when I recognize that there are other beings like me, what I recognize is of course not that there are others who are exactly like me, but that there are others who have the features that I recognize as features that make it the case that I matter. I recognize that there are other conscious agents in the world.
Very importantly, it is not the case that I matter because I have my perspective. Everyone has a unique perspective and I certainly have my own. But what makes me matter is not that I inhabit my perspective. Rather it is the case that I matter because I am a conscious agent. We’ll return to this issue later, but it seems clear that this gives us very good grounds for rejecting egoism. An egoist is someone who believes that every person matters uniquely to him or herself. In other words, if I am an egoist, I will assert either that only I matter or that I should pursue my interests above all else. But surely this involves a mistake. What makes my desires, my needs, and my agency matter is not the fact that they are my desires, needs, and agency but rather the fact that they are somebody’s desires, needs, and agency. How do I know this? Well, it seems to me that it is part of knowing directly that I matter. When I am wronged what makes it wrong is not that I am wronged but that a person is wronged. It just so happens that this person is me, but that, so to speak, is merely accidental. I experience the harm as a wrong that happens to a person, who just so happens to be me. That it happens to me allows me to experience it directly as a wrong, but that it happens to me in no way makes it the case that it is wrong. I can see this even more clearly when I imagine being someone else who is wronged. In that case, I can see that it is just as possible to wrong someone else as it is to wrong me. As I said, we will return to this issue below.
Now, it is hard to imagine that either statement (1) or (2) could be false. But, as I said, they compel us to accept (3). To show this I will show that (3) is the only reasonable inference from (1) and (2); that is, other inferences involve some kind of error. As far as I see it, there are basically four possible conclusions to draw from (1) and (2):
(3a) Only I matter.
(3b) I matter more than any other conscious agent.
(3c) I matter to me, but other people don’t matter to me (at least not as much as I matter to me).
(3d) Every conscious agent matters just as much as I do.
Now to this list we might think that we need to add some claims that only specific groups of people matter. That is to say, (3a)-(3c) all involve claims that a specific individual matters in some unique way that other people don’t, but strictly speaking I could infer rather that some group of individuals matter while everyone else doesn’t. So we might think we should add claims like (3a’) (Only me and my family matter). But obviously the main difference between (3a, b and c) and (3d) is that the first three all involve claims of exclusivity while (3d) is a universal claim. And that is the real issue: Is it the case that everyone matters in the way that I matter, or am I justified in thinking that only I (or some select group of people) matter? So, I don’t think that we need to worry about exclusive claims involving groups. Once we’ve shown that the exclusivity claims about me (an individual) are unreasonable, we have thereby dismissed exclusivity claims generally.
I maintain that (3d) is the only reasonable thing to infer from (1) and (2). (3a) and (3b) can be dismissed relatively easily since both imply that there is something fundamentally different about me compared to every other conscious agent in the world. First, let’s note what an odd state of affairs such a situation would represent. Out of all the people in the world, I and I alone matter morally (or I matter more than everyone else). There is no evidence whatsoever for such a claim. In order to justify the conclusion that I am special (i.e., that I matter in way that nobody else does), I need to identify some relevant difference between myself and everyone else that could explain why I matter but nobody else does. But there is no such difference. Similarly, to justify (3b) I would need to identify some relevant difference that could explain why I matter more. But there is no difference that could plausibly account for this discrepancy. Thus, it is unreasonable to believe either (3a) or (3b). If I know that I matter and I know that there are other conscious agents who, as I indicated above, are like me in the relevant way (that is, have the features in virtue of which I matter), then there is no justification for believing either that only I matter morally or that I matter more.
The problem with (3c) is twofold: first, it presumes that something can matter morally to one person and not another. But it is difficult to see how we could establish this. Second, and much more importantly, it fails to acknowledge a very crucial aspect of the fact that I matter. Remember that I said that when someone harms me, I feel wronged. The reason I am so upset at the driver who cuts me off is that I know that he should not do it. That is, I matter and he is wrong not to recognize this. Indeed, this is the problem with so many people in the world: they don’t realize how much I matter! What I am saying here is connected to the error that I attributed to egoism earlier. Let’s revisit that point.
If I believe that only I matter to me and other people don’t matter to me; then it is illogical to presume that I ought to matter to other people. Thus, when another person harms me, it should not confront me as a wrongdoing. After all, the driver who cuts me off is acting on the basis of the fact that he matters to him and I don’t matter to him. But this cannot account for that fact that I feel wronged. Remember, I am maintaining that the experience of being wronged involves a direct and veridical experience of the fact that I matter. But then if I am wronged it can only be because the wrongdoer acted in a way that ignored my legitimate needs or interests (i.e., acted as if I don’t matter). So, it seems to me that my experience of being wronged brings me directly into contact with the fact that I matter, not just to me, but that I matter, period.
Thus, the most reasonable inference is (3d): Every person matters the same way that I do. (3a, b, c) all involve some kind of error or unreasonable presumption. On analysis, it seems clear that what makes me matter is that I am a conscious agent. If I believe this, then I have to believe that other conscious agents matter and that they matter just as much as I do.
Now, the existence of other conscious agents that matter in the same way that I do entails the existence of moral obligations. The fact that you matter morally means that I cannot treat you however I might want; I cannot use you as a means to my ends nor can I treat you as a mere obstacle to the achievement of my ends. Thus, behaving morally mean treating other people with the respect that they are owed in virtue of being persons.
The source of moral obligations is persons. The fact that persons exists entails that objective moral obligations exist. Notice that this satisfies the requirement that I laid out in my previous post in this series. I said there that we need to find a source of moral obligations that is external to any particular person. That is precisely what we have: The existence of persons does not depend on the beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. of any particular person. Thus, we have found the source of objective moral obligations.
Before I close, I want to do two things very briefly. First, I will make some brief comments about the role that God might play in the foundation of moral obligations. Second, I want to raise some questions about my position as I have described it here that I will try to address in future posts.
In my last post I reported that though many thoughtful and intelligent people claim that only theism can account for objective morality, I find such comments completely without foundation. I hope that this current post begins to explain why. What could God have to do with it? A person is a being with interests and agency. Persons matter morally. Every person matters. Thus we have obligations toward persons. How could God establish this or change it. Even if God does not exist, persons still exist and thus objective moral obligations still exist. So God is completely unnecessary for the foundation of moral obligations.
Finally, here is a list of questions/objections that one might have about the position that I’ve described and argued for here. In a series of future posts, I intend to address each of these questions. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments.
(1) Do my obligations arise from the fact that I wouldn’t want people to discount my interests? Are we to understand that morality is grounded in reciprocal altruism?
(2) Why should I care about other people?
(3) What is the source of the fact that I matter? Why do I matter?
(4) Isn’t God the reason that persons matter morally? You say that God does is not necessary for moral obligations, but isn’t he necessary for the fact that persons matter morally? Some theists will agree that every person matters but will insist that only God can make it the case that we matter.
(5) What about non-persons? Do non-human sentient creatures matter?
(6) Where does this moral ought come from? Moral properties are queer things and you have not shown how such queer things are possible.
(7) It cannot be true that everyone matters the same or that like interests deserve like consideration. Obviously I am going to give the interests of my loved ones (my children, for example) more consideration than the interests of complete strangers. And there is nothing morally wrong with doing so.
I have been thinking a lot about the cosmological argument lately, in part because I am currently teaching it in my Introduction to Philosophy class and also because of some recent discussions at the Secular Outpost. My general view on cosmological arguments is that whatever the validity and/or soundness of the arguments (whether the Kalam, or arguments from contingency or any other version), the proper conclusion of such arguments can never be that God exists. That is, no cosmological argument implies that theism is true. I’m not prepared to fully develop and defend this view now, but a few brief remarks are in order:
This point is easiest to see with respect to the Kalam:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(C) The universe has a cause.
Nothing about the premises guarantees that the cause of the universe is God. Even if we follow William Lane Craig and believe that other considerations show that the cause must be personal, nothing implies that this person is God. God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. The person who created the universe, if indeed there is one, need have none of these features, which are essential characteristics of God.
In general, even if we are convinced that there must exist an uncaused cause or a necessary being, nothing forces us to believe that such being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. So, the proper conclusion of a cosmological argument (CA) will always be something less than ‘God exists.’ And I take this to be a significant point.
In his, “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God” (reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, W. L. Craig, ed.), Stephen T. Davis presents a version of the CA with precisely the conclusion that I said a CA could never have. Here is Davis’ argument, which he calls the “generic cosmological argument” GCA:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then God exists.
(2) Everything can be explained.
(3) The universe is a thing.
(4) Therefore, the universe can be explained.
(5) Therefore, God exists.
I think that premise (1) is fairly obviously ridiculous and that, if we are being careful, we should not formulate a premise like it. Why? Because, as I said, God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, creator. But nothing about the fact that the universe can be explained implies that the explanation of the universe involves an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent person. Indeed, nothing about the fact (assuming it is one) that the universe can be explained implies that this explanation involves a person. In other words, it is possible that the universe can be explained completely in terms of a non-personal force or forces. Furthermore, even if we had some reason to think that the explanation must appeal to the activity of a person, nothing forces us to believe that this person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The explanation of the universe could be that it was created by a supernatural omnipotent evil idiot.
But Davis thinks that Premise (1) is perfectly fine and he is a more successful philosopher than I am, so I had better give him the benefit of the doubt and carefully consider what he says in its defense. First, he admits that even if GCA is successful, it does not necessarily prove the existence of the God of theism. He does, however, think that, if successful, it does prove the existence of some kind of divine reality. In addition, he says,
Premise (1) simply claims that if there is any explanation of the existence of the universe, then God must exist and provide that explanation. This premise seems perfectly sensible because if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “God created it.” And this seems about the only sort of explanation that could be given. If no God or Godlike creator of the universe exists, it seems that the universe will have no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Its existence will be what we might call a brute fact. It is just there, and that is all that can be said. (p. 83 of Craig)
This is really not very good. First, the fact, and I grant that it is one, that if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is that God did it is really quite irrelevant for the truth of (1). All that it means is that God is a possible explanation for the universe, not that, if there is an explanation, God is it. There are other potential explanations. I mentioned a couple above: a non-personal force of some unknown kind, the activity of a supernatural being who is neither God nor divine. Suppose I asserted (1′) If the universe can be explained, then the Gnostic Demiurge exists, and then defended this with the following assertion: (D) if the Demiurge exists, then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “the Demiurge did it.” Obviously (D) is not a reason to think that (1′) is true.
Now, as I said, above Davis recognizes the problem that his argument cannot prove that God (the god of theism) exists (or at least he recognizes part of the problem), hence his use of “God or Godlike creator.” But this is very slippery. If he is going to be completely clear, he needs to change premise (1) to read “If the universe can be explained, then God or a Godlike creator exists.” And the proper conclusion would be, “God or a Godlike being exists.” But now this is not an argument for theism, it is an argument for theism or some theism-like view. Even so, we still have a few problems. First, how much like God does this Godlike being have to be. Suppose, as I suggested earlier, that the explanation of the universe is that it was created by the Demiurge or by an evil omnipotent idiot (a being I’ll call Fod). Is Fod really Godlike? The demiurge of gnosticism pretty clearly is not. Would we say that Fod worshipers, if any existed, hold a view that is very much like theism? I doubt it. So, I don’t think that even “God or a Godlike being exists” is the proper conclusion of this argument. Rather, at best it is “A creator exists.” That is interesting, but much weaker than Davis’ original conclusion.
However, we still haven’t dealt with the possibility of a non-personal force. Without some argument that the explanation for the universe must involve the activity of a person, we had better weaken Davis’ Premise (1) and conclusion even further:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
(5) Therefore, either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
This is pretty weak tea. And it is consistent with my view that no cosmological argument has, as its proper conclusion, the claim that God exists.
The primary reason that I wanted to write this post has to do with something that Davis says toward the end of the article. He considers the following objection to the GCA: “If GCA is a successful argument, the “god” or necessary being that it proves exists is not the God of theism or even any lesser god-like sentient being, but rather the universe, or physical matter itself” (88). In reply Davis says that it does not seem sensible to think that the universe is a necessary being but admits that he cannot prove it. He points to an argument from Richard Taylor that something can be both everlasting and contingent. (This, by the way is a very interesting claim, which warrants more consideration that I can give it here.) But his considered view on this issue is given in the following:
And a truly telling point against the objection to the GCA that we are considering is this:even if the universe were everlasting, it would still make sense to ask: Why should it exist at all? That is, why is there a reality at all? Why is there anything rather than nothing? There is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe. . . . It follows that there is nothing about the universe that implies or even suggests that it is a necessary being. (89)
I am particularly interested in Davis’ claim that “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe.” Now, this claim is ambiguous (an issue I will deal with below) but at first blush, Davis is admitting something that is devastating to his argument.
Davis is here indicating that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists. He is also inferring that since there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. He is also relying on a general principle something like this: (A) If there is nothing absurd about the idea that something, s, does not exist, then there is nothing about s that implies or suggests that s is a necessary being. The problem is that all of this applies to God just as much as it does to the universe.
Davis is claiming that we can consistently suppose that nothing exists. Well, this supposition entails that God does not exist. In other words, when we suppose that nothing exists, we are supposing that God does not exist. So, if there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there must be nothing absurd about the idea that God does not exist. Thus, by principle (A), there is nothing about God that implies or suggests that God is a necessary being.
So long as we allow that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists, I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion. Now, perhaps when Davis says, “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe” he does not mean that there is no absurdity in the idea of there being nothing at all, full stop. After all, there is that comma and “no universe.” As I indicated above, I think that this statement is ambiguous. I have been reading Davis as claiming that the idea that nothing at all exists is not absurd. But perhaps all he means is that the idea that the universe does not exist is not absurd. If so, he faces a different problem.
Either he claims that there is some absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists or he claims that there is no absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists. If the latter, then he must admit that there is no absurdity in the idea that God does not exist and my conclusions above stand. If the former, he needs to explain what is is absurd about the idea that nothing at all exists. He might say that this is absurd because it implies that God does not exist. But then he needs to show why the idea that God does not exist is absurd. Presumably he will say that it is absurd because God is a necessary being. But this is a petitio principii if there ever was one. If we grant that God’s existence is necessary, then there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist. But the same can be said about the universe. So, how do we know that God’s non-existence is absurd but the non-existence of the universe is not absurd?
The reason Davis gave us for thinking that the universe is not a necessary being, on this reading, is the fact that there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. If that is the only reason, then to suggest that there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist because God is a necessary being is to beg the question. I have to assume that God is a necessary being in order to see the absurdity of the suggestion that God does not exist. Davis either needs some other reason for supposing that the idea that God does not exist is absurd, or else he needs some other reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.
Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.
On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:
(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.
If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.
Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.
Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.
So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.
Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).
Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.
Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.
Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.
So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant. But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?
It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.
This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.
Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The Universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,
(1*) Everything that exists has a cause
has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.
It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.
But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.
We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?
The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.
So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.
So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.
Nearly two decades ago, Alvin Plantinga developed an argument against naturalism (the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, EAAN) that purports to show that naturalism and evolution are incompatible. You can find a version of this argument, as well as Plantinga’s responses to several objections in this paper.
It has become commonplace for apologists to lean heavily on this argument and to suggest that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of human cognitive powers. William Lane Craig makes such an argument in this op-ed article. It should be noted that Plantinga’s argument, if correct, shows only that naturalism together with evolutionary theory cannot both be true; one or the other can be maintained, but not both together. However, given that evolutionary theory is the most widely accepted naturalistic account of human origins and development, it has become commonplace for the argument to be stated more simply as the claim that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
As readers of this blog might know, I have no interest in defending metaphysical naturalism. I suspect that it is probably true, but I grant the possibility that it is false and I see no reason to defend it against all comers. Naturalism is best understood as a methodological commitment; we should try to explain as much as we can, as best as we can without having to resort to phenomena that transcend the natural world. In general, commitment to any metaphysical account of ultimate reality is more of a hindrance to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom than a help. Since the state of our knowledge about reality is characterized by a great deal of ignorance and half-understood theory, I think that it is best to be humble.
So, my interest in Plantinga’s argument has to do not with whether it defeats naturalism, but in its use as an argument for the existence of God. Plantinga thinks, as do many apologists, that theism can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. As with many beliefs of a religious nature, I think that this one is the result of a failure of imagination. In the article “Naturalism Defeated” (linked to above), Plantinga says this:
Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. (pp 2-3)
But is it true that we should expect God to create creatures with reliable cognitive faculties? Why would we think so? If God had a good reason to create humans with unreliable faculties, then wouldn’t he do that? Perhaps there is some greater good that God can only realize by creating creatures with deficient cognitive faculties. How can we know that there isn’t? I suppose it is open to the theist to insist that God does not have a reason to create humans with unreliable cognitive faculties, but how would they know? It is certainly possible that God does have such a reason and that, given our epistemic position, we are unable to know what this reason is. I conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to suppose that God does not have such a reason. If he does have such a reason, then, if theism is true, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. Thus, theism does not account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
Perhaps you notice an affinity between the above argument and a certain kind of response to the problem of evil known as skeptical theism. Skeptical theism maintains that, given our epistemic situation, there is no reason to believe that we are in a position to know what reasons God might or might not have to engage in certain activities (such as, for example, refraining from saving children from tornadoes or deranged gunmen). Because we cannot know what reasons God might have, we are not in a position to say with confidence that God does not have a reason for permitting any instance of evil, no matter how gratuitous that particular evil might seem to us.
[Here is a very good discussion between three Christian philosophes about the problem of evil. They begin discussing skeptical theism at about the 16 minute mark.]
Regardless of whether a particular theist adopts a robust version of skeptical theism, many, if not most, agree that at some point in a response to the problem of evil, we will have to rely on the fact that we cannot discern all of God’s reasons. But if it is true that God might have reasons beyond our ken for engaging in some activity, then how can we know that God does not have good reasons for creating creatures with unreliable cognitive powers?
It is important to note that even theists who do not espouse skeptical theism are faced with a problem here. How does the theist get around this inference: For all we know God has very good reasons for wanting human cognitive powers to be less than reliable. Thus, if theism is true, for all we know, human cognitive faculties are not reliable.
It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.
Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an article by Jennifer Fulwiler in which she argues that her atheism and her belief that life is meaningful were in irreconcilable conflict and that the only way to resolve the conflict was to renounce atheism (she converted to Catholicism). The best criticism of her implicit argument, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that I have come across is from Will Wilkinson. Sullivan also published some of his readers’ comments, a few of which took the opportunity to express disagreement with Fulwiler about what makes life meaningful. In response to one reader’s comment, Sullivan said something that I found rather odd. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the reader response, followed by Sullivan’s rejoinder:
“We have a constant explosion of love and sadness through the enormous sweep of the cosmos and it makes us feel without meaning? If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it. It can be found in a virus if one has to look. The lesson of the Universe is not insignificance, the lesson of it is our mutual enormity. The Universe is loud with it.”
But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.
It is very odd that nonbelievers are being admonished to let go of something that they explicitly don’t believe in. But what Sullivan thinks he means is that nonbelievers are confused about the real nature of God and that if they understood what God really is, then they (or at least many of them) would realize that they do believe in God. But this is deeply confused. Atheists have let go of the anthropomorphic sky deity because that is what an atheist is: someone who thinks that there is no such thing. Whatever else he may believe about the source of meaning, and whatever he may want to call that source, what the disbeliever disbelieves in is a personal creator.
Theism is the belief that there is an almighty person who created and sustains the universe. And thus atheism is the belief that there is no such almighty person.
Now, if Sullivan himself has let go of the anthropomorphic conception of God, and if he means by “letting go of” that he believes that this conception is false, then Sullivan is an atheist. Atheism is just the rejection of theism, and theism, to repeat, really is the belief that the world was created by an almighty person. And so if Sullivan thinks there is no such almighty person, then he is an atheist (despite his repeated assertions that he is a Catholic). If he does believe that there is an almighty person, then it is very peculiar that he is admonishing atheists to give up the anthropocentric being.
But actually the above quote suggests that Sullivan has not completely let go of the anthropocentric being, for he tells us that God is “the highest consciousness of all.” This is an enigmatic phrase, to say the least, and its occurrence in this sentence is highly ambiguous. Is he saying that God is that consciousness that is highest of all, that is, higher than any other consciousness? Or is he saying that God is the highest consciousness of everyone; asserting that there is some kind of collective consciousness? Well, he doesn’t make this clear. But if he is claiming that there is some kind of highest consciousness, higher than any other, then it is pretty obvious that he has not completely let go of the anthropocentric bearded guy. For Sullivan is, on this interpretation, asserting that there is some kind of greatest conscious being, which is really not far from claiming that there is an almighty person.
But suppose he really does want to assert the proposition that there is some kind of collective or underlying consciousness of all of us. It is not at all clear why Sullivan would call that God. Did this consciousness create the universe? Did it send its only son to die for the sins of humanity? Did it die on the cross? And if he does want to say that this consciousness did all of these things, then he is most definitely conceiving of it as a kind of person.
Here is the upshot: Atheists deny that there is an almighty conscious creator. (They also, by the way, generally want to add that the supposition that there is such a conscious being does not at all help us account for any of the important aspects of life, including that life is meaningful). Theists assert that there is such a being. I don’t really know whether Sullivan is an atheist or a theist, and it doesn’t really matter. But when anyone asks questions such as, “Can life be meaningful on the assumption that there is no God?” or “Can atheism account for the fact that life has meaning?” we need to be clear about what we are talking about. When an atheist claims that life is meaningful even if there is no God, what this means is that the existence of an almighty person is not required for life to have meaning.
I came across this article by Matt Flannagan criticizing a recent article by Jerry Coyne about secular morality (thanks to Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost). Coyne seems to want to make two distinct points: One, that atheists have a well-developed moral sense and thus you don’t need God to be a good person; and two, that morality cannot come from God. Flannagan makes some good observations about the relevance of the distinction between having a moral sense and being under a genuine moral obligation and shows that Coyne doesn’t always acknowledge this distinction. However, Flannagan himself is guilty of misunderstanding Coyne’s argument about the Euthyphro dilemma and he wants to downplay some of the serious problems that the dilemma creates for God-based moral theories. I’ll quote the relevant portion of Flannagan’s article:
The only time Coyne is remotely on point is when he argues that if moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands then morality becomes arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God has commanded it – even stealing or infanticide. Coyne suggests this argument is devastating and has known to be so by philosophers for hundreds of years.
In fact, since Adams’ publication, this argument has been subject to extensive criticism in the philosophical literature. So much so that today even Adams’ leading critics grant that it fails. Adams contended that moral obligations are, in fact, the commands of a loving and just God; therefore, it is possible for infanticide or theft to be right only if a fully informed, loving and just person could command things like infanticide and stealing. The assumption that this is possible seems dubious. The very reason Coyne cites examples such as infanticide and theft is because he considers them to be paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever knowingly entertain or endorse.
Coyne seems vaguely aware of the response, stating “Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.” Here he again falls into confusion. What his response shows is that people can have ideas about and recognise what counts as loving and just independently of their beliefs about God and his commands. Now this is true but this does not show that moral obligations can exist independently of the commands of a loving and just God. Coyne again fails to grasp the basic distinctions involved in discussions of God and morality.
I think Flannagan is wrong in his interpretation of Coyne’s argument. And I know that he is wrong about what Adam’s leading critics say about the validity of the arbitrariness objection that stems from the Euthyprho Dilemma. (One need only consult the work of Michael Martin, Erik Wielenberg, Mark C. Murphy, or even Richard Swinburne, to see that this is so). Regardless of what the academic consensus is, it is fairly easy to show that the arbitrariness objection is very powerful. But first, I want to address Flannagan’s misinterpretation of Coyne’s argument.
Coyne does not make the mistake that Flannagan accuses him of; he is not just saying that in order to judge God’s commands as moral or immoral we would have to have a moral sense that is independent of God. Rather, he is saying that we would need a standard of moral obligation that is independent of God. What Coyne has done is condense a bit of argumentative interaction between the purveyor of the Euthyphro objection and the defender of the divine command theory (DCT). One aspect of the Euthyphro objection is that, if the DCT is true, then morality is arbitrary. If the DCT is true, God can make any action (even something universally regarded as horrendous such as torturing small children) morally right just by commanding that we do it. But this conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions: it seems natural to believe that something as awful as torturing children could not possibly be morally right. But the DCT implies that this action, along with any act that causes unwarranted and horrendous suffering, could possibly be right (Note: the notion of possibility at use here is metaphysical possibility, not epistemic; more on this below.) One divine command theorist response to this is to say that a loving and moral God would never issue commands the require us to needlessly cause people to suffer (this is the response that Coyne mentions).
There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands, then this in essence capitulates to the Euthyphro objection. That is to say, the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT is false.
Consider: If God’s commands are the standard of right and wrong, then it makes no sense to say that one of his commands is immoral. Say he commands that every person kills at least one dog in their lifetime just for fun. If his commands establish the moral facts, that, e.g., an action is morally right (or wrong, as the case may be), then his command that we kill a dog establishes that killing dogs is obligatory. And it makes no sense to say that this command is immoral because killing dogs is morally wrong. On the DCT, under this scenario, killing dogs would be morally obligatory, full stop, just because God commanded that we do it. Thus, if the DCT is true, it is logically impossible for God to command us to do something that it would be morally wrong for us to do. The fact that God commanded us to do it establishes that it is morally right. The very important upshot of this for the purposes of the current discussion is that, on the DCT it is a logically necessary fact that every action that God commands us to do is a morally right action.
So now, if we say that God is a morally good being and that therefore he won’t issue immoral commands, we are assuming that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God. For according to what standard are God’s commands to be judged? We just saw that on the DCT, it is logically impossible for God to command us to perform an action that is immoral; but that is just because an action is morally right just in virtue of God’s commanding it. And this means that no matter what commands God issues, including that we kill dogs or torture children, those things would be morally right. So, if we want to say that God won’t issue those kinds of commands because he is moral, then we have to assume some standard, independent of God, according to which an act can be judged as moral or immoral. And this means that we would have to reject the DCT.
This is the point that Coyne was making when he said, “you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.”
Notice that this has nothing to do with appealing to a moral sense that is independent of God. The point is a logical one and does not depend on us having a moral sense or on there actually being genuine moral value. So I think Flannagan just misinterprets the gist of Coyne’s objection in the above quoted passage.
In any event, as Flannagan indicated, the debate does not end here because the divine command theorist may concede the point but still insist that all he needs is that God is all-loving, and he will get the same consequence (or at least one that is close enough); namely that God will not issue commands that require us to cause horrible pain and suffering (or do anything that we all agree would be horrendous). If developed in the appropriate direction, this reply can lead to a fully developed response to the arbitrariness objection. That response goes something like this: “God is necessarily an all-loving being. The commands that he issues flow naturally from his essential nature. Thus it would be impossible for an all-loving being to issue commands to kill, maim, or unjustly harm. So, in fact, it is not possible, on the DCT, that torturing children is morally right because, on the DCT, it is not possible for God to issue a command that we torture children.”
There are two problems with this response. The first problem is that when we are talking about what is metaphysically possible, we are talking about what can happen, not what will happen. So, if I want to know whether it is possible (in the relevant sense) for my friend to jump off of the Empire State building, I need to know only whether he can do it. It is irrelevant to this question whether or not my friend will do it. He may be an unusually content, satisfied, and happy person by nature who has absolutely no inclination toward suicide. I may conclude therefore, that he will not jump from the Empire State building. But it remains the case that he can do it. Similarly, we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command. And if he can do it, then it is possible for him to do it. So, it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right.
But even if we could somehow respond to this concern, there is still a second problem. This problem stems not from a concern about what it is possible for God to do, but what is possible period. Consider:
The following is possible:
(A) There exists an all-powerful creator that enjoys watching sentient beings suffer.
As I’ve done in the past, let’s call this horrible deity, ‘Asura.’
Given that (A) is possible, the following is also possible:
(T) Asura commands that parents torture their babies.
To translate this into possible world semantics, we’ll say that there is a possible world (call it WA) in which (A) and (T) are true. If the DCT is true, it follows that in WA the following is true:
(O) Torturing babies is morally obligatory for parents.
What all of this means is that it is possible that it is obligatory to torture babies. And it’s important to note that I am not saying that it is epistemically possible, that for all we know torturing babies is obligatory (on the contrary, I think we know that torturing babies is wrong). Rather, I am saying that, if the DCT is true, then it follows that it is metaphysically possible that torturing babies is the right thing to do.
There are two relevant conclusions to draw from this: First, it shows that the arbitrariness objection cannot be answered via the claim that God is necessarily a loving being. Second, it demonstrates once again that the DCT has consequences that are fundamentally contrary to our moral intuitions. We cannot imagine that torturing babies could be right. Torturing babies is wrong everywhere, every time, in all possible worlds. That is to say, torturing babies is necessarily wrong. Since it implies that it is possible for torturing babies to be obligatory, the DCT conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions.
So, contrary to Flannagan’s dismissal of it, the arbitrariness objection to the divine command theory is very much alive.
I just started reading, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. Literally just started, I’ve read just a few pages, and already I’ve found quite a lot that is problematic, as might be expected. One thing that might not strike many as terribly problematic concerns the following sentence:
I (Frank) enrolled in that class [a university course on the Old Testament] because I was in the midst of a spiritual search. I didn’t want any religious party line. I just wanted to know if there was a God or not.
Well, the search for the answer to the question “Is there a God?” is one kind of spiritual search but it is hardly the only kind. In our culture, dominated as it is by monotheistic religious conceptions, it is naturally to assume that a spiritual search entails searching for God. (Some might even assume that these are the same quest.) You can find some such presupposition in the common view that to be an atheist is to be non-religious or non-spiritual. But these assumptions are misguided as any study of non-monotheistic religions will reveal.
In fact, if we read early buddhist texts, such as the Cala-Malunkya Sutta or the Tevijja Sutta, we find the Buddha claiming that excessive concern with speculative metaphysical issues (of which the question of the existence of a transcendent god is most certainly an example) is a hindrance to progress on any spiritual journey. For Buddhism, the spiritual quest is the search for a path to relieve the sense of dissatisfaction with life. Relieving this dissatisfaction, for a Buddhist, will have nothing to do with finding out whether God exists.
One of the problems with recent discourse about religion and atheism is that atheists have often been presented (and often present both themselves and atheists more broadly) as hostile to religion and spirituality more generally. This is wrong. Atheism is just the belief that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator. There have been many atheists, e.g., Camus, Sartre (and other existentialists), Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and others who are very much interested in something that, while obviously very different than most mainstream religious thought, is still recognizably connected to what is called religion and/or spirituality.
I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism). This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me. In any event:
The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God. Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist. I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs. The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.
Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day. This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me. So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.
In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain. This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.
This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs. And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils. Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway). Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself. In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own. Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives. My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective. If I were to feel the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive? Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living. But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.
How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God? To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.