William Lane Craig misses the barn on the problem of evil

I hopped over to the comically titled website Reasonablefaith.org to see if by some remote chance WLC had responded to the question I sent in a while back. He hasn't, but the most recent "Q&A" on the problem of evil is a dandy. You can read the whole shebang here, but basically someone who identifies as a sort of agnostic theist challenges Craig on the problem of evil. Craig's reply is an extraordinarily long-winded version of "the lord works in mysterious ways". It's typical of his unimpressive level of critical thought, but he makes a few snafus I want to jump on.

Regarding what, exactly, the problem of evil is, he says this:
The problem of evil or suffering is an argument on behalf of atheism. It is offered as a defeater of the theistic claim that “God exists.” The atheist wants to prove that statement false on the basis of the evil in the world. So it’s up to him to present an argument that the evil in the world is in some way incompatible with the truth of “God exists.”
Philosophical atheists have understood this and so have traditionally offered arguments to the effect that the evil in the world makes it either logically impossible or improbable that God exists and that therefore God does not exist. As the person offering the argument, the atheist is under obligation to support the premisses of his argument.
Craig's fundamentally confused about what the argument from evil actually is. It's only an argument against "God exists" in Craig's myopic, insular Christian bubble. Specifically, the argument from evil is the argument that a good, theistic god does not exist. If the problem of evil is a valid argument, then God could exist, but be theistic and evil. Or he could exist and be a pantheistic consciousness or an indifferent deistic creator. The fact that Craig fails to acknowledge this vital distinction typifies why the a/theism debate can be so frustratingly counterproductive: the theist, who is claiming "God exists", has the burden of actually defining what he means by "God". Otherwise, they can just quietly shift between definitions of God whenever it suits their argument – a classic fallacy of equivocation.

The crux of the problem of evil is that there is a profound amount of cruelty and suffering in the world, and God as defined by Western monotheism has the power to stop it but does not. The general Christian response is that it's all part of God's Perfect Divine Plan™. To paraphrase an analogy from Rabbi Harold Kusher: it's like a giant tapestry being viewed from up close; we can't see the entire thing. But surely Bill Craig, being the eminent theologian that he is, has a more enlightened response. Or, y'know, not:
Perhaps God wants man to find cures for the diseases and infirmities that afflict us rather than constantly tinker with the world with miraculous interventions to cure people, just as He wants us to develop plumbers and electricians and computer scientists rather than magically solve our problems by constant miraculous interventions in the world, which would leave us like immature children rather than mature moral agents. More specifically, God could have some providential reason for your mother’s slow decline. Perhaps He knew that it would cause you to wrestle with your faith and to emerge from this crucible a strengthened and more mature Christian. You have no idea of what God might accomplish through your mother’s death. It would be presumptuous of you to think that it was in vain.
Craig's argument is an argument from ignorance. He's saying that because it cannot be logically proved that God doesn't have perfectly good reasons for allowing evil, we can't conclude that evil is incompatible with (the Western Monotheistic conceptualization of) God existing. And he's right: it can't be proved that God doesn't have his reasons for allowing the Holocaust, for allowing kids to suffer and die from cancer or starvation, etc. But here's why Craig, as usual, has missed the side of the barn. Recall earlier that he said,
Philosophical atheists have understood this and so have traditionally offered arguments to the effect that the evil in the world makes it either logically impossible or improbable that God exists and that therefore God does not exist. As the person offering the argument, the atheist is under obligation to support the premisses of his argument.
He's saying that if atheists are going to use the problem of evil as evidence that God doesn't exist, they have to support the claim – the burden of proof is on the atheist. Problem is, his definition of God is contingent upon the claim that God is good, which is a positive claim. So before he can dismiss the problem of evil, he has to prove that God is, in fact, good. If his best argument against this is really that we simply can't disprove God's goodness, then he's shot himself in the foot: we can just as easily argue that Craig cannot disprove God's evilness either.

The philosopher Stephen Law took just that approach when he debated Craig, using the "evil God" argument. Essentially this argument shows that the theodicies conjured up to rationalize God's goodness can just as easily be turned on their head to rationalize God's evilness. Of course, Christians don't believe in an evil god – but not for any logical or evidential reason.

Personally, the problem of evil – or as I preferred to call it, the problem of suffering, resonates with me simply because the appeal to ignorance does not impress me when the suffering in this world is very real. When I was a physical therapy tech, I witnessed a young girl, only eight years old, suffering from terminal brain cancer. Three thoughts came to mind:
  • First, that no Perfect Divine Plan™ could possibly be worth the suffering that exists. I would forfeit an eternity of heavenly bliss if it could spare that one child's suffering and give her the chance to live a normal, happy life.
  • Secondly, that an all-powerful good God would not need to design a "plan" that involved such massive suffering. This is what makes the argument from evil a defeater of a theistic God – because the notion that God is all powerful and good, yet has constructed a plan which involves great evil and suffering – is paradoxical. Did God have no choice in the matter? Then he's not all powerful. Did God willfully design a plan that involves kids dying of brain cancer? Then God is not good. All the stupid "God works in mysterious ways" arguments can be instantly dismissed with this simple observation. 
  • Thirdly, as I discussed in the Problem of Suffering post linked above, the world simply makes infinitely more sense if we stop trying to make excuses for God's behavior and view suffering as it actually is. As Richard Dawkins famously said, "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."


Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

The (pseudo) science of the film "Sunshine"