Should we want God to exist? And explaining evil in pragmatic belief.
We will consider three related questions with emphasis on the third question pertaining to the existence of evil and suffering:
- The ontological question – does God exist? (ontology =nature of being)
- The epistemological question – is it rational to believe in God? (epistemology = theory of knowledge)
- Should we want God to exist? In a certain sense a pragmatic question. Could it be rational to want that God exists especially regarding evil?
Evil exists and very few would deny it. It is recognized by atheists, agnostics, and theists because it is real. Though many atheists might deny the existence of evil but cannot deny the existence of suffering.
All around and within us, there is much evil and the suffering that results from evil. Humans suffer, animals suffer, nature suffers. (See Time to Think. 4. The Problem of Evil.)
Why does evil exist? One can view this question from a theist or from an atheist/materialist perspective. The existence of evil and suffering is a very strong argument against the existence of God and is often being brought into discussions as a counterargument for the existence of God. But who can explain evil and suffering better, the theist or the atheist? Can there be meaning and purpose, and reasons, for the existence of evil and suffering?
We will argue that the atheist offers a more desirable explanation. But not that it is necessarily true, even if more desirable. Yet which explanation, the theist or atheist explanation, do we want to be true as it would also have implications for believing in the existence of God?
Let us consider the two explanations.
The atheist explanation for suffering (evil):
- The world is a harsh place with a lot of pointless ‘evil’ and suffering.
- It is a brute fact, and we just have to accept it and live with ‘how the dice falls’
- There is no powerful loving creator and evil and suffering are not surprising.
Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist, well-known atheist, and author ‘The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.’ ‘In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.’ Bertrand Russell, atheist philosopher, ‘If there is no God, there is no universal right and wrong’ implying no evil
The theist explanation of evil and suffering:
God is all good, all-loving, and has reasons for the pain and suffering
- Free will. Alvin Plantinga, Christian philosopher: free will is necessary in order to make moral decisions, good or bad.
- Soul making i.e., the role of suffering in spiritual growth.
- Incarnation and atonement by Christ – if there is no evil/sin the Christ would not have been necessary. Through the existence of sin and evil, Christ is made ‘necessary’ or desirable. The revelation of who God is, the goodness of Christ, and God incarnate through His atoning death brings us into a personal relationship with Him and is so great that it outweighs the evil in the world. Christ entered our pain and suffering and became one with our pain and suffering allowing a better understanding of Him, ourselves, and the world we live in.
Skeptical theism argues that we do not always understand the reason for evil and suffering. We as humans do not know the essence of what we are: what is consciousness, what is life, are we just brain or brain & mind, and free will, does it exist? We are but a speck on a speck on a speck in the universe and it would be arrogant and preposterous to judge the essence of the Creator of the universe and that we can even remotely hope to know all the possible reasons He might have.
So, which is more likely, and which is more desirable? That there is no God and there are no reasons for evil and suffering, just a sad, bad, brute fact. But is it reasonable to prefer the theistic explanation? And can it be true?
Let us consider the implication of each view
If the atheist explanation is true:
- Most evil and suffering have no purpose or reason.
- Most evil is gratuitous (pointless).
- Many injustices will never be rectified.
This is a very pessimistic picture.
If theism is true, it would imply
- There are good reasons for evil and suffering e.g., the existence of free.
- There is less, probably, no gratuitous evil.
- There is ultimate justice – people will ultimately be held accountable for the all pain and suffering they caused. For their evil deeds.
Therefore, it would seem that the theistic explanation is more desirable. But is it true? Or just wishful thinking?
Does the evidence balance out between the two possibilities? What arguments and evidence are stronger? That God exists or that He does not exist?
Let us consider the rationality of pragmatic belief – or practical belief, i.e., a belief aimed at the good, because we want it to be true e.g., believing in free will or you will be depressed if it is true that free will is just an illusion (Sam Harris). A belief without good, conclusive, evidence.
Consider the pragmatic belief that there is no God because I do not want God to be true but lack enough evidence to know that He does not exist, or vice versa.
Is pragmatic belief always irrational? Most of the time, but one can also have a pragmatic belief in God because you want it to be true but also have some good evidence and arguments, and testimony of friends’ changed lives, that support your pragmatic belief.
Consider two jurors in court with the same evidence but it is not a clear case, really complex. One juror sees the person as guilty. The other sees him as not guilty. Two different conclusions on the same evidence in a difficult case, with the evidence inconclusive.
When the evidence does not tell us what to believe, pragmatic reasons can break the tie and influence us to decide what to believe.
Two possibilities: 1. I want God to be true and the evidence is good enough for me and pursuing this route or 2. I do not want God to be true and the evidence is not good enough for me for His existence.
That is when both have the same but inconclusive evidence. Under these circumstances, it is particularly important to seek unbiased evidence and pursue the truth in all sincerity.
We have to seek the truth, find credible and coherent arguments to come to a meaningful conclusion even if the theistic view is optimistic and the atheist view of pain and suffering is pessimistic.
It is not what we want to be true but what is true. The two scenarios described could lead to either, 1. If you believe God exists, even as your decision is swung by your pragmatic belief, God will reveal Himself to you as you believe He exists or 2. If your pragmatic belief contributes to your decision not to believe in the existence of God, you will drift further away from God denying His existence and seek more evidence/arguments that He does not exist to support what you actually want to be true.
To find God is a life-changing delight and makes so much more sense of life itself. See To Know and to Love God
It would be more desirable if evil and suffering have a good reason but is only when theism is true, that the Judeo-Christian God exists.
The atheistic viewpoint is bleak and pessimistic.
Therefore, have good reasons why you believe God exists or why you believe He does not exist.
Recognition for most of these thoughts to Dr Liz Jackson, assistant professor in philosophy, the Ryerson University.
Should We Want God to Exist? Dr. Liz Jackson // CCv1 Session 2.