Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mac Donald/Novak Debate Pt. II

Sunday I posted some comments on an essay by Heather Mac Donald which has triggered a debate among conservatives on the importance of Christianity to a conservative worldview. I'd like in this post to consider the argument she makes in her follow-up piece. Ms Mac Donald notes in this second column that the fundamental question, the "threshold question", is whether Christianity is true. She believes it is not, and the reason she gives is that she believes that the existence of a loving and just God is simply incompatible with the evil that afflicts our world:

The most important characteristics of the Christian God, as I understand them, are his love of man and his justice. If one were to posit a god who is capricious, ironic, absent-minded, depraved, or completely unknowable, I'd be on board. Any one of those characteristics would comport with a deity superintending the world as I see it. But not the idea, as a Bush administration publicist put it to me, that every one of us is "precious in God's eyes."

In the course of laying out her argument, which she does quite persuasively, she writes many things to which Christians would do well to give careful consideration, but she does not, in my opinion, successfully defend her claim that the presence of evil refutes belief in the Christian God.

In fact, Ms Mac Donald is really attempting two arguments in her paper. One argument is against the inconsistent manner in which many Christians conceive of God's action in the world, an argument with which I concur. The other is an argument that seeks to show that the manifest evil of the world is incompatible with the existence of a God who is loving and just.

The nut of this second argument is found here, I think, where she writes:

Let me take a banal example. As I write this, the Los Angeles Times has a small item on a thoroughly unremarkable traffic accident. A 27-year-old man in Los Angeles misread a traffic signal, and drove his car into an oncoming Blue Line Metro Train. He and his sister were killed; his 7-year-old son and his grandmother were seriously injured.

Now imagine that a human father had behaved towards the occupants of the car as our Divine Father did. That is: a) He knew that his children would be mowed down by a train; b) he had the capacity to avert the disaster through any number of, for him, quite simple means; and c) he chose to do nothing. No one would call this father's deliberate and possibly criminal passivity "love." Instead, we would deem such a father a monster and banish him from our midst. Yet when God behaves in just this way, we remain firm in our conviction that he loved the occupants of that car, and that each was "precious" in his eyes.

Ms Mac Donald is implying that there is a contradiction contained in the conflation of the beliefs that God is able to prevent evil and wants to prevent evil with the manifest fact that evil exists. Actually, this was a popular argument among atheists ever since Epicurus sketched it out over 2000 years ago up until the 1960s when just about everyone finally realized that, in point of fact, there actually is no contradiction. God might well be omnipotent and omnibenevolent and still have a reason, nonetheless, for permitting evil. Such reasons might include a commitment to honor our autonomy and to grant us the freedom necessary to make us more than robots. Or it could be that preventing some evils would unleash even greater evils. There may be other reasons as well which lie beyond our ken, but the point is that as long as it's possible that God have such reasons the argument that His existence is logically incompatible with evil just doesn't work.

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that the God Ms Mac Donald accuses of being able to prevent the train crash, unbeknownst to us cries out in profound anguish as this terrible tragedy unfolds. It breaks His heart to see it happen, to know from all eternity that it is going to happen, and yet, although He could intervene to suspend the laws of nature and prevent it from happening, He is constrained by considerations, perhaps self-imposed, of which we are unaware to let the event unfold. Suppose, too, that the grief God experiences in allowing this terrible tragedy far exceeds that of any experienced by even the family of the victims. Suppose, finally, that God quickly folds those victims into His bosom and embraces them in love and joy forever. Just suppose that something like this happens. If so, would Ms Mac Donald now say that the God of Christianity is a "monster"? Yet isn't this a thoroughly Christian view of the God of the Bible?

It could be, however, that Ms Mac Donald is trying to say something a little less strong than that there is a contradiction between evil and the existence of the Christian God. Perhaps she's making the case that the existence of evil makes the existence of a loving and just God not logically impossible but rather highly improbable. God's existence, she might be taken to mean, is unlikely given the facts she lays out in her essay.

Now the facts that she sets forth certainly must be allowed to count as prima facie evidence against the existence of God, and if these were all the facts there are then we might agree that it seems indeed that God, if He exists, at least appears to be either uncaring and unjust, or capricious, or inscrutable. But there is more to consider here than just the argument based upon the world's horrors before we conclude that the existence of God is unlikely.

Consider the following example. Someone tells you that they know a Chinese man who is over seven feet tall. You, having seen lots of Chinese men, none of whom is much over six feet, are very dubious. But suppose you then learn that this person is a professional basketball player, a center in the NBA. These additional facts might soften your doubt and make you reconsider. The fact that he's Chinese may count against him being seven feet tall, but the other facts would count in favor of it.

Likewise, the existence of so much apparently gratuitous suffering, grief, pain, and terror count, on the face of things, against the existence of the Christian God, but then we should throw into the pot the classical arguments for God's existence - the cosmological and ontological arguments, and Kant's moral argument, for instance - as well as the religious experience of millions of believers, the fine-tuning of the universe which gives every appearance of having been designed, the existential argument that concludes that the existence of God is the best explanation for man's yearning for meaning, as well as for a ground for morality, dignity, human rights, justice, and for his desire to survive his own physical death, etc. We should also stir into the mix the irreducible complexity of some biological structures and systems and the ubiquity of information throughout the biosphere, both of which point prima facie to an intelligent author of life. We should add, too, the implausibility of a naturalistic origin of life and the phenomenom of consciousness. All of these must be counted in support of the proposition that God exists.

We might then reason that if God does indeed exist the testimony of the Scriptures and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit might also count as evidence that this God is both loving and just.

All of these lines of evidence may have explanations other than God, of course, but the point is that the evil we find ourselves surrounded by might also have an explanation other than the one Ms Mac Donald assumes.

She is right that Christians often respond to instances of evil much too glibly and with an unseemly assurance that they understand God's doings, but the shortcomings of some theists is hardly an argument against the existence of God.

One final note. At one point in her essay she writes this:

Religious institutions and beliefs are, however, human creations. They grow out of man's instinct for system and order, as well as out of the desire for life beyond death and a divine intervener in human affairs. Our striving for justice is one of the great human attributes. Far from imitating a divine model, man's every effort to dispense justice is a battle against the randomness that rules the natural world.

A believer might ask Ms Mac Donald from whence she derives her notion of justice. If she's correct that there is no transcendent source of moral truth then her concept of justice is perforce a matter of her own subjective preferences. Justice for one person may be, as Plato has Thrasymachus say, merely the interest of the stronger (or the ruler). For another person justice may be treating other people with dignity and kindness. If there is no God there's no way to decide that one definition is better or any more right than the other. The correct definition is simply whichever one Ms Mac Donald likes the best. In other words, if there's no transcendent standard for justice, Ms Mac Donald's last two sentences above are nonsensical.

Moral Anguish

The Washington Post has a must-read account by Laura Blumenfeld of an Israeli air-strike against Hamas leadership in 2003. It is especially important that those who suspect Israel of wanton killing of Palestinians read this article all the way to the end.

I wonder if the Palestinians put themselves through the same agonizing moral struggle before they launch their suicide bombers and rocket attacks against the Israelis. It's hard to imagine.