About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanks to all who sent me that review of 50 Voices of Disbelief

Youse are great!

I'd actually seen this review somewhere along the line - I think an advance copy was sent to Udo or to Wiley-Blackwell - but confirming that is still useful.


Whether you are an atheist or not this volume contains a plurality of viewpoints and certainly stimulates all readers concerned by providing challenging discussions on a variety of vital issues such as the problem of evil (theodicy), the plurality of religious beliefs in the world and religious fanaticism, the bad influence of religion on the social life of human beings, the suffering and pain of all animals (and human beings) in the past and present, the supposed validity of the different rational proofs of God’s existence, and personal stories of why atheism is the only reasonable stance.

Good! Overall it's a positive review, though it's a little on the lukewarm side. The author seems to be a liberal-ish Christian who bemoans the fanaticism of religious fundamentalists and other extremists. He is unwilling to acknowledge the tendency for comprehensive apocalyptic worldwiews to press in the direction of totalitarianism and fanaticism unless this is positively opposed. He also offers what strikes me as a remarkably lame response to the Problem of Evil, which I'll quote in the interests of fairness:

First, it would undermine the autonomy of human the sense that they are absolved from preventing evil deeds themselves; secondly, it would promote laziness in people with regard to solving moral problems themselves and thereby human beings would be unable to develop important social and ethical virtues such as compassion, care etc.; and thirdly, such a world would obviously face the same difficult problems utilitarians have when they try to prevent evil (what is morally bad for one person is not necessarily morally bad for another person).

Leave aside the fact that the contributors anticipate and reply to most or all of these points.

Briefly, you don't get let off the hook for allowing suffering that it was in your power to prevent on the basis that preventing it would absolve someone else of the responsibility. Instead, you do whatever you can. That is not usually regarded as taking away the autonomy of others who are not stuck with the problem. On the contrary, it would usually be seen as manipulating other people if you deliberately refused to prevent suffering that is within your powers, deciding instead to offload the problem on those others. In controlled circumstances, it is okay to delegate a problem to subordinates, but an omnipotent being does not need subordinates. It can also be okay to give certain kinds of problems to students or trainees for educational purposes, but that is a controlled and justifiable interference with autonomy ... and it's not something you do if serious suffering is at stake should they foul up.

The business about the virtues is unconvincing. First, it gets things horribly back to front: virtues such as kindness are valuable because they are needed to counter suffering. Arguing that suffering is valuable because it brings about, among other things, the development of kindness is, frankly, not only illogical but also morally abhorrent.

In any event, an omnipotent God could give us all the neurology, etc., on which virtues such as kindness supervene, without having to put us through some sort of history of encountering actual suffering. We could be equipped, in our "programming", for the counterfactual possibility of suffering without it ever actually arising, and we could even be offered choices whether or not to bring it about (we'd freely decide not to, because that's what we'd be like).

Indeed, God himself, if he existed, would presumably be kind or compassionate whether any actual suffering existed or not - it's not something God had to learn. So the theological story itself considers kindness or compassion something that a being could possess with no particular history. It could simply be part of our nature, as created by God, just as it is part of God's nature.

All this is not to mention the millions of years of suffering that existed before any beings with the capacity to decide to oppose it ever existed. Why all that suffering, on such a vast scale and for so long, when it had no formative or educational value?

I don't know what utilitarianism has to do with the isue. The important point in the vicinity is that allowing intense and extensive suffering that you could have prevented is regarded as morally bad (to say the least) by ordinary human standards, and is certainly not a hallmark of benevolence. There may be a thought lurking here, somewhere, that our moral norms for each other should not be so demanding as to require that we seriously think or act like utilitarians, always trying to maximise global utility, given that, as individuals, we have interests of our own to pursue and it may not be reasonable to demand that we drop these or divert too many of our resources from pursuing them. There's much more to say about this, but, in short, human moral codes should (arguably) make some allowances so that they are not too burdensome for finite creatures. Or rather, they are developed for the needs of finite creatures and inevitably contain trade-offs.

But none of this applies to God: God is not a finite creature with limited resources and specific interests of the ordinary kind. He is supposed to be omnipotent, transcendent, and all-benevolent. It's not just that he works within certain relatively lenient deontic constraints that are (arguably) reasonable for finite creatures like us. His goodness, or at least his beneficence, goes far beyond that.

Like so many theodicies, the one under discussion shows two vitiating tendencies. First, it assumes that it's okay to assign God human limitations (rather covertly), wherever needed, thus failing to take his superlative abilities (particularly his omnipotence) seriously. At the same time, secondly, it allows him motivations that would be seen as monstrous if they appeared in finite beings like us. Thus, God is actually held to a more lenient moral standard than the rest of us.

Believe in such a God if you wish, but don't be surprised if others find this being appalling even if he exists. It's logically possible, of course, that we live in a world that is controlled by a God who is morally horrible by our ordinary standards. Fortunately, the motivation for believing in any God at all starts to dry up once you realise that no such being meets the warrants offered by theodicists.

All in all, it's a thoughtful review, but none its criticisms do much to shake the arguments in the book.


Eamon Knight said...

We could be equipped, in our "programming", for the counterfactual possibility of suffering without it ever actually arising, and we could even be offered choices whether or not to bring it about (we'd freely decide not to, because that's what we'd be like).

...which is what the "elect" are supposedly like in Heaven. They presumably still have free will, yet no one ever sins.

In the book, I particularly like Julian Baggini's "reverse theodicy" -- turn the argument on its head, and works just as well.

Unknown said...


russell blackford does not exist...


atheists, we’re gonna cut off your heads…