Skeptical Theism and the Resurrection of Jesus

The Evidential Problem of Evil (EPOE) claims that the world’s suffering is evidence contrary to classical theism: that there exists a personal being who is uniquely omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, the creator of the world, and who is called “God”. William Rowe famously offered one version of the EPOE [1], in which he pointed that there are various sufferings which are not justified by the existence of any greater good that we know of (he called these inscrutable evils). Rowe offers the example of a fawn trapped in a forest fire, who suffers a long, horrific, agonizing death and which does not appear to contribute to any greater good. The fawn’s suffering was pointless. Another example, a favorite of one of my professors from graduate school, is the pain felt when we stub our toes: why does stubbing your toe need to hurt that much?

Rowe infers from his observation of inscrutable evils to the existence of gratuitous evils: these are evils which not only appear not to contribute to some greater good, but really do not contribute to any greater good. However, gratuitous evils are largely understood to be logically incompatible with classical theism. While God may allow evils if they contribute to some greater good, evils which ultimately contribute to no greater whatever are incompatible with Her nature.

Michael Bergman, among others, has offered what many take to be the best response to Rowe: skeptical theism [2]. Skeptical theism is the conjunction of a number of skeptical theses with classical theism. The requisite skeptical theses point out that the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations of which we are aware are not representative of the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations that there are. Because our moral knowledge is not representative of Moral Truth, we cannot infer that inscrutable evils really are gratuitous.

Skeptical theism has been challenged on several levels. It has been pointed out, for example, that skeptical theism is incompatible with inferring God’s existence from evidence of design [3]; that it destroys any trust we might have in divine revelation (because we cannot say that it would be contrary to God’s nature for God to lie to us) [4]; that it introduces the ineradicable possibility of global skepticism because God might have morally sufficient reasons for deceiving us at every turn [5]; and that it destroys any possibility for moral deliberation [6]. Given the problems posed by skeptical theism, it might seem as though there is very little reason to maintain skeptical theism.

Nonetheless, I’d like to take a look at one more trouble for skeptical theism: that skeptical theism appears to undermine arguments made for the divinity of Jesus.

Most of our reasoning is inductive: we generalize from a number of example cases to all of the cases that there are. To take a prototypical example, my observation that for every morning in the past, the sun has risen, leads me to the generalization that for every morning, the sun rises. Induction does not guarantee the truth of our generalizations; there might be some morning when the sun does not rise, perhaps for reasons that I cannot fathom. However, we tend to think that induction lends conclusions a certain degree of support. The question arises as to why, given skeptical theism, our small amount of moral knowledge cannot serve as a basis for inductive generalization. After all, the number of mornings that I have experienced are not a representative sample of all of the mornings that there have been or will be.

Inductive generalization serves as a key feature in Christian arguments for Jesus’s divinity. In a footnote in a 2010 paper, William Hasker provides the following quip:

The early Christians reasoned thus: “Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done that except for the power of God; his resurrection demonstrates that God was with him and approved of his mission and message.” It’s too bad the well-known philosopher, Mikaelos Bergmanos, was not on hand to show them the weakness of this reasoning. He had only to point out to them the evident truth of

(STIV) We have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are.

where “representative” means, representative with respect to being such as to enable a dead person to come back to life.[7]

In what follows, I cash out Hasker’s quip in more detail and rigor. Define Skeptical Naturalism: the conjunct of naturalism with various skeptical theses, including (STIV). We can present two arguments based on this footnote from Hasker. I will assume that there is good evidence for Jesus’s resurrection; this may seem like a large concession to my readers with fideistic or naturalistic leanings, but bare with me.

First, given the failure of induction implied by (STIV), both the naturalist and the theist have no reason to infer the divinity of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. If we cannot make inductive generalizations from a small number of cases to a large number of cases (because our sample is not “representative”), then we cannot infer that there is some law of nature according to which corpses do not come back to life. Miracles, following David Hume [8], are disruptions in the natural order; if we cannot infer what laws constitute the natural order, then we cannot recognize violations of the natural order. In other words: given reasoning parallel to skeptical theism, Christians would have no reason to infer that Jesus is divine.

Second, the Skeptical Naturalist response to the Evidential Problem of Jesus’s Resurrection (EPOJR). EPOJR is a problem for naturalism that parallels the EPOE as a problem for theism. EPOJR maintains that the evidence for Jesus’s resurrection (e.g. the empty tomb, Jesus’s postmortem appearances, etc [9]) undermines naturalism; the Skeptical Naturalist response maintains that because “[w]e have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are”, we cannot infer naturalism is false from Jesus’s resurrection.

Christian theists might be tempted to argue that Skeptical Theism as a response to Rowe’s EPOE is not actually parallel to Skeptical Naturalism as a response to EPOJR; but they would need to provide some reason why the two arguments were not parallel. Given argumentative parity, it would be irrational to rule out skeptical naturalism while maintaining skeptical theism.

Moreover, the most obvious ways in which the two cases are not parallel — that there is much less evidence for Jesus’s resurrection than for gratuitous evils — undermines Christian theism. There is less evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than there is for the existence of gratuitous evils. Thus, if the two arguments do fail to be parallel, it’s only in a way that helps the naturalist.



[1] Rowe, W. (1979) The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (4), 335– 41; (1984) Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to S.J. Wykstra. In International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 16, 95–100; (1986) The Empirical Argument from Evil. In Robert Audi & William Wainwright (Ed), Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; (1988) Evil and Theodicy. Philosophical Topics, 16, 119–32; (1991) Ruminations about Evil. Philosophical Perspectives, 5, 69–88; (1996) The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look. In Daniel Howard-Snyder (Ed), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Bergman, M. (2001) Skeptical Theism and Rowe’s New Evidential Argument from Evil. Nous, 35 (2), 278–296.

[3] Bergman, M. (2009) Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil. In T. P. Thomas & M. Rhea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 374-399.

[4] Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. Religious Studies, 46 (4), 509-523; Hudson, H. (2012) The Father of Lies?. In J. Kvanvig (Ed), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Vol V. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 117-132.

[5] Wilks, I. (2014) The Global Skepticism Objection to Skeptical Theism. In J. McBrayer & D. Howard-Snyder (Eds), The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

[6] Sehon, S. (2010) The Problem of Evil: Skeptical Theism Leads to Moral Paralysis. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion.  67:2.

[7] Hasker, W. (2010) All Too Skeptical Theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 68, 15-29.

[8] Hume, D. (2006) The Essay on Miracles. In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. New York: Cosimo Classics, 517-544.

[9] There are various places where Christian theists have argued for Jesus’s resurrection. Those who are interested might examine what William Lane Craig has to say on the topic.


Zacharias and Dawkins’s Fading Influence

On November 15 of last year, Mark Woods (of Christian Today) reported on an interview with Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in which Zacharias stated that “Dawkins has had his day”. I was asked to share my thoughts on this article on a Christian theology Facebook page; I thought that I would share an edited version of that response here.

In the article, Zacharias implies that the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens) failed to answer questions about personal meaning. I agree that the New Atheists did not answer meaning questions.

Nonetheless, I do not think the New Atheists (excepting Dennett) intended to answer meaning-questions, at least in any sort of philosophically robust way. Each New Atheist author had their own idiosyncratic motivations, many of them political. For example, Hitchens’s God is Not Great is about the abuses of totalitarian regimes (the title being a reference to political Islam). As Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has pointed out, New Atheist authors are better compared to e.g. C.S. Lewis than to professional philosophers of religion or theologians.

Largely, what the New Atheists accomplished — at least in the American context — was a new public awareness of atheism and a new discussion of religion. In a sense, I think everyone interested in discussing religion — whether theists or atheists — benefited because it allowed for a renewed public discourse concerning God.

Zacharias seems to think that the New Atheists are waning in popularity because they were not sufficiently sophisticated. However, historically, the most popular orientations towards religion were seldom the most sophisticated. Deep religion often loses to cheap idolatry. Thus, if the New Atheists had been answering philosophically deep questions, I doubt they would get much attention for it. Dennett has some deep and interesting things to say about free-will, consciousness, and the evolutionary psychology of religion, but those ideas have never been popular — as far as I can tell — in New Atheist circles (popular as they might be among academics).

Zacharias produces a number of factual errors in his article. Here are a few.

He says that: “[The irreligious] would never mock Islam, for obvious reasons, or Hinduism, for fear of being culturally prejudiced.” The article was written before the recent Charlie Hebdo incident, but it sounds peculiar now. 
I look at my Facebook friends list and find that most of them have changed their profile pictures to images purposely disrespectful of Islam in order to defend the right to free speech over what they perceive to be Islamist extremism.

I look at secular student groups at colleges throughout the US. One of the more popular activities — both before and after Charlie Hebdo — has been “Draw Muhammad Day”. I look at the anti-Islamic material put out by Christopher Hitchens — the title of whose book (God is Not Great) was a direct parody of Allahu Akbir (Arabic: “God is Great”) and think about South Park episodes that drew controversy for their depiction of Muhammed. It is false that the irreligious never mock Islam or that the New Atheists were not concerned with it.

Many commentators on the New Atheists — such as McGrath — have expressed the view that New Atheism was a direct response to 9/11. This seems plausible; Dawkins has said that his publisher advised him that, post-9/11, the market would be good for an explicitly atheistic book; Harris begins The End of Faith with comments about Muslim terrorists.

This comment is especially odd in the wake of the recent shooting in North Carolina, where a member of the atheist community shot three young Muslims. Regardless of whether the shooter was ideologically motivated, the incident has sparked a new discussion of the prevalence of racist anti-Muslim sentiment among atheists.

Zacharias talks about the thinning out of Dawkins acolytes from his audiences. I do not know why there would be fewer Dawkins acolytes in his audiences; I’ve never attended one of his talks. I do know that Dawkins fell out of favor in my social circles because of an increased emphasis on social justice among organized atheists and an increased awareness that Dawkins’s public statements are antithetical to those goals. The problem with Dawkins seems to be that he is too conservative. I suspect that Zacharias is blind to this, either because he does not spend his time reading atheist blogs or because he wouldn’t see the new goals of the Freethought community as worthwhile.


Giles Fraser and the God That Was Too Good to Exist

I’ve been writing on the topic of Straw God Arguments (SGAs) for some time. SGA is my term for the argument, often levelled by popular liberal theologians (e.g. Karen Armstrong), that atheists reject the wrong kind of God. According to the accusation, atheists spend all of their time responding to the God of conservative theology, but that God is a false idol that should never have been accepted in the first place. According to liberal theologians, atheists perform a valuable service by showing which gods we should not believe in. However, if the theologies offered by liberal theologians have troubles of their own that render them unbelievable, it cannot be said that atheists reject the wrong gods.

In a recent interview, atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met God after death. Fry states, in no uncertain terms, that God would have much to explain. We live in a world where some species of insects lay their eggs in the eyes of children and spend part of their lifecycles burrowing out. Why was that necessary for God to create? From Fry’s perspective, if God exists, then God is a “bastard” not worthy of praise or worship.

Giles Fraser, a priest in the Church of England, responded in an article in the Guardian. “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either,” he writes. Fraser applauds Fry’s answer, stating that it is “admirable”, even if he does think it contains a mistake. From Fraser’s perspective, Fry is correct to reject a God who others worship out of fear. God, as Fry imagines Him, is an authoritarian bully and a false idol. But Fraser’s God — who Fry has (apparently) never imagined — is worth believing in. This is a classic SGA.

What is Fraser’s God like? Fraser explains that his God is one which surpasses existence. It’s not clear what he means by that, but there are some textual clues. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Fraser tells us that Fry is mistaken in supposing God is the sort of being one can meet face-to-face, which “presumes that God exists”. I can imagine a variety of reasons why one could not meet God face-to-face. For example, because God is immaterial, God is not at any time or in any place and does not possess a face. God should not be counted among the furniture of the world because God created all of the furniture. God is not part of creation but is transcendent to creation. Fair enough, though if this is what Fraser meant, I wonder why he did not spell this out for the reader.

In the final paragraph, Fraser tells us again that his God is beyond existence. He writes that “no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas rightly insists, existence itself is a questionable predicate to use of God”. From this sentence, one might suppose Fraser believes ‘exists’ should not be predicated of God for reasons similar to those provided by Aquinas. For Aquinas, the reason that the term ‘exists’ (‘ens’ in Aquinas’s latin) does not mean the same thing when discussing God as when discussing creatures is because God’s existence is identical to God’s essence (‘esse’), whereas, in creatures, essence and existence are distinct. Furthermore, God’s essence is incomprehensible to the human intellect in this life, implying that the manner of God’s existence is likewise incomprehensible. In creatures, existence is comprehensible in this life. Thus: ‘exists’ means something different when applied to God than when applied to creatures.

Unfortunately, the sentences which follow undermine the interpretation of Fraser’s comment as affirming Thomism. He writes:

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth.

What this has to do with Aquinas’s notion that existence means something different for God than it does for creatures, I haven’t a clue. I’m not sure it’s even coherent (“the name of respect we owe the planet” and “the shape we make of our lives” are the same thing?). Frankly, it seems as though Fraser referenced Thomism more to obfuscate than to clarify.

Fraser is not the first liberal theologian to reference the notion that ‘exists’ is not univocal for God and creatures. Paul Tillich referenced the notion in his Courage to Be in 1952 and in his Systematic Theology. Later, Marcus Borg (The God We Never Knew) and Karen Armstrong (The Case for God and numerous articles) would utilize the notion for their own theologies. It’s become something of a trope for liberal theologians to claim that God transcends even being. (I am confused as to why popular authors do this; I have met very few people who knew what Armstrong meant when she said that “God is not a being at all”.) I fear that Fraser has referenced the notion because it is popular and obfuscatory and not because it adds to his argument in any way. Worse: the notion is not popular among philosophers. Most philosophers follow Quine, who thought that ‘exists’ just means that there is at least one of something. To say that “God exists” would be to say that it is false that there is no God.

Perhaps I am being too harsh in accusing Fraser of obfuscation and there is something in his article that I have not understood. Be that as it may, Fraser’s attempt to explain why suffering exists is no better. As I explained previously, Fraser accepts Fry’s argument: a god who created a world of suffering should not be believed in or worshipped. Because Fraser affirms Fry’s argument, we can surmise that, for Fraser, no greater good is served by the world’s various sufferings. Nonetheless, Fraser proposes a way to make his God compatible with the suffering we observe in the world. He imagines that the existence of the suffering in our world can be explained through the incarnation of the divine Son as Jesus. He writes:

For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

God suffers along with us and is not a passive observer. This allows God to be empathetic to us; because God empathizes with us, God can rest a metaphorical hand on our shoulders and affirm to us that “all will be well”. I imagine that, for many, this sounds intuitively appealing. However, problems are manifest.

Imagine that I create a torture chamber and kidnap a number of people. I force all of them to endure unimaginable torments that I have designed. Suppose I put myself through the same unimaginable torments. Having tormented myself, I know what it feels like to endure all of the sufferings I put my captives through. Would Fraser imagine that I am, somehow, less accountable? I wouldn’t think so. Suppose I put my hand on the shoulder of one of my captives and whisper in their ear, “all will be well”. Do they find hope in my words or do they shudder? I would imagine that they would shudder and find me reprehensible.

Yet the captives in my thought experiment are in an analogous situation to the one we find ourselves in with respect to Fraser’s God. That God has experienced the suffering experienced by humans does not render God less accountable for having created our world’s various torments. Worse: that Fraser accepts Fry’s argument meant that Fraser can imagine no greater good which human suffering can serve. God might suffer alongside us, but this can be of little consolation when all of the suffering is ultimately pointless.

Do atheists reject the wrong God? I don’t know, but Fraser’s God is not one worth accepting.


Secular Women Work Conference

I’m pleased to have been asked to help boost the visibility of a new conference to take place August 21-23 in Minneapolis, MN entitled “Secular Women Work”. The conference is organized by Chelsea Du Fresne, Monette Richards, and Stephanie Zvan and they have a kickstarter located here. Here’s how they describe their event:

We are proud to introduce the Secular Women Work conference, a conference by and for activists. Do you want to build strong non-religious communities? Do you want to change our laws and our culture to be more accepting and accommodating of non-believers? Join us in Minneapolis in August 2015.

We live in a society in which unpaid work disproportionately falls to women. Unfortunately, this means that volunteer work, including activist work, is too often undervalued. We’re here to change that.

The Secular Women Work conference is a celebration of the work of female activists who create and run projects and communities in the secular movement. And there is no better way to honor their work than by using their expertise to help us all become better activists.

At Secular Women Work, you will find workshops: both hands-on exercises to develop your skills and facilitated group discussions where you can share challenges and solutions with other activists. You will find panels on specialist topics, with panelists who can help you broaden the horizons of your activism. And when you’re ready for a rest, you’ll find speakers who will entertain and inspire you with stories and lessons from their own work. In between it all, you’ll find a conference full of other activists who want to make a difference in the world.

All workshop leaders, all panelists, and all speakers will be experienced female or genderqueer activists with demonstrated accomplishments and skills to share. We are excited to announce that Lauren Lane, co-founder of Skepticon; Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., and Desiree Schell, labor activist and host of Science for the People will be appearing at Secular Women Work. We are working now to add more speakers, so keep your eye on this space for announcements.

The conference will be held in the historic Humphrey Conference Center on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank. The center is ADA compliant and situated on light rail.

So, come join us this August 21st through the 23rd for the Secular Women Work conference, and help support the women who work to make these communities happen! Make your pledge now to secure your ticket to the conference, or pledge to build a better movement by helping us make more, and more effective, activists.

See you there!

The Secular Women Work conference is a joint project of Minnesota Atheists; Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists; and Secular Woman.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a variety of places to check out:


Did Derren Brown Demonstrate How To Convert an Atheist?

The following video provides a fascinating discussion of contemporary psychology of religion. I’m not an expert in psychology of religion, but based on the reading that I have done, the presentation seems to be fairly accurate.

Unlike other presentations of this subject, Brown claims to demonstrate how to use psychological manipulation to cause an atheist to have a religious experience. Religious apologists take note.

However, Brown is a magician who is known to mix half truths with various tricks. Did he actually cause an atheist to have a religious experience? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


Is there a difference between democrats and republicans?

I recently witnessed someone make the mistake to tell Ed Brayton that there is no difference between democrats and republicans. Here was his response (which I think is spot on):

[…] frankly, that claim is total bullshit. When it comes to issues where a moneyed interest has a lot at stake, they’re pretty similar. Big business is going to get 100% of what it wants from Republicans and 90% of what it wants from Democrats (because they’re able to buy off both parties with unlimited campaign and lobbying spending). But where there isn’t a lot of money at stake, on issues involving equality and social justice, there’s a HUGE difference. If Democrats had been in charge of the House and state legislatures since 2010 instead of Republicans, we wouldn’t have mandatory ultrasound laws and abortion clinics shutting down all over the country. We wouldn’t have laws banning same-sex marriage and bills to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban it at the federal level. With fewer Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, we wouldn’t have decisions like Hobby Lobby or Citizens United. We wouldn’t have people in charge of science committees who say things like, ‘Global warming is a hoax because God said he wouldn’t destroy the earth again after the flood.’ So no, the two parties are not the same and they’re not equally bad.

While others pointed out — legitimately — on the same thread that American foreign policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, has been fairly appalling, it was also pointed out — correctly, I think — that it is exceedingly rare to see a person from a disenfranchised group (LGBTQA individuals, people of color, etc) claim an equivalence between democrats and republicans. One of the two groups hurts folks at both home and abroad; the other tends to only hurt people abroad.

Is this an accurate way of seeing the differences between the two parties? Let me know your opinion in the comments section below.


The Kinsey Scale, “Religious” Discourse, and Christmas

This past Fall, in the ethics course that I teach, I covered social inequality. We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s famous unpacking the backpack essay in which McIntosh, a white woman studies scholar, lists 26 ways in which society has provided her an advantage over those who are not white. She briefly mentions that “it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors”.

It should not surprise those who work on the academic study of religion to hear that these factors are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle or that all of these involve axes of oppression. However, for my students, many of whom were attending their first college course and grew up in conservative, religious environments, this was an entirely new topic. When I brought the discussion to religious privilege, the idea that Christmas celebrations represent a kind of cultural hegemony was difficult for most to accept. Yet they would quickly acknowledge that they knew almost nothing about the holidays of other religions (none knew what Diwali was, for example) and that stores spend far too much time putting out Christmas decorations.

Organized atheists in the United States have recently participated in a discussion of whether they should celebrate Christmas and in what ways. As a movement comprised of a minority group, atheist identity is a matter of near-constant discussion. Atheist identity is hard won and the recognition of organized atheists as a contingency is deeply embattled. Anything which is seen to threaten that identity — or the right of individuals to freely identify themselves as atheists without facing e.g. microaggressions or other coercive measures — is quickly challenged. Should atheists leave Christmas behind or should they remake the holiday, perhaps legitimating their activity by appealing to a narrative in which the Christian celebration had been previously stolen from third century pagans?

Both of these developments — my classroom discussions of social inequality and the public debate over atheist celebrations of Christmas — involve assumptions about what it means for an activity or an individual to be religious, the political ends of various parties, and the American discourse over secularization. I think that this discussion is fundamentally mistaken in a variety of ways that are often lost on those engaged in the discourse. In order to explain in what ways this discourse is mistaken, I will first provide an analogy with human sexuality. Afterwards, I will provide a way to begin thinking about secularism which does not depend on the discursive assumptions I will identify as problematic.

It is now recognized that human sexuality is complicated. Sexual attraction is not limited to the simple binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality; not only can humans be heterosexual or homosexual, they can be bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Alfred Kinsey’s work on sexual orientation provided a scale on which humans can identify their degree of attraction to either their own gender or the opposite gender. It is now recognized that human sexuality is more complicated still; we have distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Gender is more complicated than a simple male/female binary; biologically, there are at least five different sexes and it is generally recognized by sociologists and psychologists that gender roles are socially constructed and contingent.

It is possible for a society to be repressive when it denies some aspect of this complication. For example, a society which acknowledges only heterosexuality erases the existence of other sexual orientations and normalizes only one kind of interaction. Notice: the framing of human sexual relationships as legitimate or not can depend upon what categories society provides. A society that recognizes only heterosexual relationships is one which has framed relationships too narrowly.

Those who fight for the recognition of gay rights endeavour to frame their discussions carefully. If a discourse recognizes only heterosexual and homosexual relationships, then bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality are erased. Similarly, intersectional feminists are careful to frame their discourse so that trans individuals are not excluded. Either sort of exclusion results if the terms of a discourse are defined too narrowly.

Just as Kinsey set off an avalanche of research indicating the complexity of human sexuality, research on the phenomenon of religion has recognized the complexity of religious phenomena. While our political and legal discourse continues to assume that there is a simple binary between religion and nonreligion, transcultural and transhistorical research demonstrates that no such binary can be identified which does not narrowly describe religion, leaving out important phenomena that most would want to identify as religious. Worse: the construction of religion as a category for political discussion can be traced to specific developments in European history over the last several hundred years. Many academics have simply given up the task of trying to identify what is essentially religious and instead understand the term ‘religion’ as a piece of vocabulary used by those who they study (i.e. a term in actor’s categories). Many would argue that the secular/religious binary is ultimately oppressive, for reasons similar to why non-intersexual feminism and bisexual-erasing gay rights activism is oppressive.

Christmas celebrations bring the resulting tensions to the fore. The discussion is often framed as follows. On the one hand, there are individuals who identify themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘atheistic’ who have fought hard battles to disentangle themselves from what they view as ‘religion’, yet wish to claim their Christmas celebrations as legitimate activity. On the other are Christian conservatives, who perceive that their moralistic hold on society is slipping and a need to re-assert that Christmas is about Christ (“the reason for the season”).

Notice that there are a variety of individuals missing from this conversation: for example, those individuals who are culturally (but not religiously) Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, either as a “secular” or “religious” holiday. In order to fully capture the complexity of this phenomenon, we need to look beyond the categories that our society hands us. To do otherwise is to throw many secular Jews, apostates from Islam, atheistic Buddhists, and others, under the bus.

What of our political and legal discourse? If the secular/religious binary has imploded, how can we talk about church/state separation? I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but I think that I have the beginning of an answer. First, it is important to recognize that there are several ends which church/state discourse aims to accomplish. Second, having identified those ends, it may be recognized that the accomplishment of those ends does not have to rely upon an illegitimate secular/religious binary.

What ends does church/state separation hope to accomplish? I will discuss two. First, there are particular beliefs, traditions, practices that individuals may strongly and deeply hold, which it is unreasonable for the state to force individuals to change by coercion, and which do not circumvent the safety or rights of others. Furthermore, these privately held beliefs should be translated to a public language if they are to be participants in political discourse. As I have described this end, those beliefs, traditions, and practices which have been traditionally considered religious — such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — do not exhaust the category of things that this end should protect; my description did not assume a secular/religious binary. Also included are familial practices — e.g. the consumption of lobster every Tuesday (which an individual might be as strongly committed to as some Catholics are to fish on Fridays) — or participation in sports fandoms or political organizations. Atheists wish for their identities as atheists to have legal protection and, as framed, this end would protect their identities. These beliefs, traditions, and practices can be (and should be) protected from state influence without demanding that they be identified as “religious” or not. The state can be neutral on the topic of consumption of lobster on Tuesdays without declaring that such consumption is either categorically religious or secular.

The second political end of church/state separation involves the protection of a minority against the coercive pressures of a majority. For example, in the Ahlquist v Cranston decision, the judge cited the fanatical abuse Jessica Ahlquist received from classmates, teachers, and other Cranston residents as important in his decision. It has also been recognized that there are considerations in church/state decisions concerning school environments that do not apply to e.g. court houses because of the extra weight coercive pressures place on children as compared to adults. But the autonomy and intellectual freedom of children can be protected without assuming a secular/religious binary.

Atheists are free to celebrate Christmas; I am a Christmas-celebrating atheist. But let’s be honest about what we are discussing: I celebrate Christmas because it is my family’s tradition to do so. The reason my family has that tradition is because my mother is a Catholic from upstate New York and my father hails from New England Protestantism. I don’t expect that my Jewish friends will desire to celebrate Christmas (although it is not illegitimate if they do) despite the fact that many of them are atheists. I don’t believe in anything I would identify as God, but that does not render my interaction with religion and the secular any less complicated.


Karen Armstrong, Daniel Dennett, and Existential Quantification

In her introduction to her Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that P: “God is not a being at all” [1]. At least some other theologians would agree: to say that God is a being among other beings is to put God into the same category as creatures, a straightforward contradiction given that God transcends all creaturely categories: the ontotheological error [2]. In this post, I will explicate Daniel Dennett’s response to Armstrong concerning P, describe why one might have thought that his response was inadequate, and finally conclude by showing that while Dennett’s response is short, it is not off-target.

Dennett, and other New Atheist authors, responded to Armstrong’s claim that God is not a being with consternation. What in the world could it mean to say that God is “not a being at all”? Isn’t God supposed to be the Greatest Conceivable Being (ala Anselm) or a necessarily existent being (ala Leibnitz)? Armstrong foresaw their consternation; Armstrong writes that people give her a perplexed look when she tells them that it is inaccurate to describe God as the “Supreme Being” [3]. This has led to several of the New Atheist authors providing responses to Armstrong which have misunderstood her project [4]. It has not helped that her writing is often less than clear.

Dennett has discussed Armstrong’s view in a variety of places. In a 2010 paper in Evolutionary Psychology, he wrote:

Karen Armstrong (2009), for instance, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.[5]

Elsewhere, Dennett has stated that his interpretation of Armstrong follows from the fact that P has the same translation as S: “no being at all is God” in the predicate calculus [6]. As I understand his view, Dennett is translating P into predicate calculus as

(1) image00

where G is a constant denoting God. Since both P and S are equivalent to (1) — and (1) is equivalent to “there is no God” — Dennett interprets Armstrong’s statements, as literally construed, to be equivalent to atheism.

The problem is that while Armstrong would agree that P and S are equivalent (and true), she would (probably) not agree that either P or S are equivalent to (1). Dennett has understood the term ‘being’ to denote the same thing as ‘exists’, but it seems plausible that Armstrong understands ‘being’ to denote some other property. Consider the following possible translation of P:

(2) image01

Here, being(*) is a predicate function denoting whatever it is that Armstrong is denying of God when she states that God is not “a being”. (2) is equivalent to:

(3) image02

i.e. for all x’s, either that x is not God or that x is not a being. It follows that no being is God and that God is not a being. One might be satisfied with this alternative translation, provided that Armstrong spells out for us what property the ‘being’ predicate refers to. Unfortunately, this alternative translation contradicts other statements Armstrong makes. She writes that “[w]e could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [7]. In other words, Arsmstrong asserts Q: God surpasses all of our notions of existence. Armstrong is not alone in that view; Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that God’s existence was numerically identical to God’s essence. But God’s essence can only be known in the afterlife; so the manner of God’s existence is incomprehensible to the created intellect in the present life. Thus, Aquinas would have agreed to both P and S, but would have denied atheism.

One notion of existence that we possess is that of existential quantification. Thus, Q implies that God cannot be in the domain of the existential quantifier. In her assertion that God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, Armstrong is not alone; Denys Turner has written explicitly that the existential quantification should not be used when discussing God [8]. But if God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, then (2) and (3) are false.

One possibility is that there are two existential quantifiers. One existential quantifier is one which we understand and the other is one which is beyond our comprehension. Note for this interpretation to be coherent, the existential quantifier beyond our comprehension would have to be at least partially comprehensible, in sense that we understand it to quantify over God and that it allows us to say that God exists (albeit in no sense that we understand). Still, vast details about the quantifier may be beyond our ability to understand; just as a 12 year old can understand that solid matter is composed of atoms, yet have no comprehension of the quantum mechanics of solids, so too might the manner of God’s existence surpass the understanding of any human.

However, the introduction of an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension introduces further problems for Q. Define E as the existential quantifier that lies beyond our comprehension. Then we can define a third quantifier — call it D — such that the domain of D is the union of the domains of E and image03. In other words, the following sentence would be true:

(4) image04

D has several advantages. We know what D means when it refers to creatures (the usual existential quantification) and there is a strong sense in which D is incomprehensible when applied to God. Furthermore, following the interpretation of Aquinas recently offered by Kris McDaniels [9], wherein analogous terms are defined via disjunction, we can say that ‘being’ is only analogically predicated of God and creatures (so that, using D, we can make sense of Aquinas’s analogia entis, or analogy of being).

However, contra Armstrong, (4) renders Q false because now we can say that God exists, where, by ‘exists’, we would mean that image05. Worse: it’s not clear that we could avoid the ontotheological error if we use D; the domain of D is a category that would include both God and creatures. So long as Armstrong wishes to maintain Q, she should reject an interpretation of her statements in terms of D. And so long as she rejects interpretations of her statements in terms of D, she should reject interpretations of her statements in terms of E. In other words: it does not help to posit an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension.

Another possibility is that there is no set which includes God as a member. Some theologians — such as Philip Cary [10] — have suggested that to make sense of the trinity, we need to use a logic in which one cannot count over the Persons of the trinity because there cannot be a sense in which the trinity is constituted by three members (otherwise, that would be polytheism or some form of heretical modalism). Each member is One, but only in a mystical sense not comprehensible to creatures, and together they form a mystical Unity. As far as I can tell, the only way to make sense of this idea is to declare that there is no set of which the Persons of the trinity were members. If there were such a set, we could take the cardinality of that set and note that it was equal to three. So perhaps Armstrong would say that God cannot be the member of any set and this would avoid introducing an existential quantifier.

If God is not the member of any set, it really is hard to say what the difference is between her view and atheism. In non-theological contexts, there are three precedents for things which are not members of sets (Armstrong may object that God is not a thing, but let that pass). First, there are multiplicities — such as the collection of all sets — which do not compose a set (there is no set of all sets). But God is not a multiplicity. Second, there are impossibilia — such as square circles — which, on some interpretations, are not members of any set. But Armstrong would claim that God is not impossible. Third, the referents of gibberish utterances — such as “urgblock” — are not members of any set. This is because there are no referents of gibberish utterances. Armstrong may claim that when she is speaking about God she is not speaking gibberish, but, given the difficulties I have presented for making sense of her statements, I remain skeptical whether she can show that her statements are not gibberish while maintaining P, Q, and S.



[1] Armstrong, K. 2009. The Case for God. New York: Random House, p ix.

[2] Adams, M. 2014. “What’s Wrong With the Ontotheological Error?” in The Journal of Analytic Philosophy, Vol 2.

[3] Armstrong, 2009, p ix.

[4] For example, Richard Dawkins describes Armstrong as a relativist; it is not obvious that this is the best interpretation of her work, given that she thinks God is an Ultimate Reality to which humans have some limited access through religious practice. See “Man vs. God” in The Wall Street Journal.

[5] Dennett, D, & LaScola, L. 2010. “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in Evolutionary Psychology, 8(1): p 124.

[6] Dennett, D. 2009. “The Evolution of Confusion” (talk) at AAI.

[7] Armstrong, 2009, p x.

[8] According to Turner, the “One” of monotheism is a mystical Unity and not the cardinality of a domain over which some existential quantifier ranges. See Turner, D. 2007. “How to be an Atheist” in New Blackfriars, Vol 83 (977-978): pp 317-335; 2004. “Faith, Reason and the Existence of God”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] McDaniels, K. 2010. “A Return to the Analogy of Being” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(3): pp 688-717.

[10] Cary, P. 1995. “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct.


On the intelligibility of human action, moral evil, & God’s omniscience

The Problem of Evil holds that some facts about human suffering are evidence contrary to (or in contradiction with) classical theism. Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of evil (or suffering): moral evil — the sort caused by human actions (rapes, genocides, etc) — and natural evil — the sort that are not caused by human actions (the destruction caused by storms, earthquakes, etc). It is a matter of common philosophical consensus that the latter is more difficult for the theist to explain away than the former. In the case of the former, theists typically cite the fact that God has granted humans libertarian free-will and that it is the free choices humans make — which God can neither predict nor interfere with — that explains the existence of moral evil. In the case of the latter, it is difficult to see how theists can use the free-will defense (as this argument has come to be called) without appealing to either victim blaming (van Inwagen) or demons (Plantinga).

Nonetheless, in this post, I will consider an argument for the position that the existence of moral evil cannot be explained away using the free-will defense. The choices humans make are typically intelligible to each other; but, as I will argue, this can only be so if those choices are in some sense predictable. I will then leave the theist with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case the free-will defense will be in trouble.

In section VIII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume considers several arguments opposing libertarian free-will. One of Hume’s arguments concerns the intelligibility of our social lives. We place expectations on each other and feel justified in holding each other to those expectations. If someone visits a far away country and returns with stories about humans behaving in ways that are too good to be true, we have reason to be skeptical. We have a mutual understanding of each other’s motivations and we find it reasonable that a good friend will not stab us unprovoked. Furthermore, Hume argues, history is only possible because humans in one place behave similarly to humans in other places. Ancient humans were not a different species from present day humans. Hume’s argument can be extended further: the only reason that the social sciences are possible is because human behavior is describable using something that at least approaches scientific laws (even if, as many philosophers of science argue, there are no precise laws in the special sciences).

None of this would be possible if humans were not predictable. The only reason that an expectation is formed within me concerning what my friends will do (or will not do) is because my experience with those friends will be repeated (in at least some sense). The reason we doubt stories concerning the too-good-to-be true individuals who supposedly occupy faraway lands is because our former experience with other humans allows us to form particular expectations about what humans will and will not do. We find our social lives to be intelligible because, most of the time, humans are not erratic. And when humans do behave erratically, it is not as though it is without cause; large differences in behavior often require large differences in causes. Sociology, economics, psychology, and the other social sciences are only possible because, at least statistically, humans are predictable. Otherwise, no experimental method could make sense of human behavior.

The free-will defense begins by pointing out that if libertarian free-will exists then there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future. If there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future, it is no violation of God’s omniscience for God not to know what humans will do. In comparison, no one would think that God knows triangles have six sides. No one can know that triangles have six sides because it is false that triangles have six sides and it is logically impossible to know false things to be true. Likewise, given libertarian free-will, God cannot know what any particular human will do because there is no fact of the matter about what any given human will do (just as there is no fact that triangles have six sides). There is no such fact to know.

The free-will defense continues by noting that God created humans not so that they could do evil, but so that they could freely choose to do good. A world where humans can only choose to do good, but not choose to do evil, is one in which libertarian free-will does not appear. Furthermore, a world in which libertarian free-will is absent is not as good as a world where libertarian free-will is present. Thus, as a perfectly good being, it would be contrary to God’s nature to create anything other than a world in which libertarian free-will existed. In what follows, I will grant the theist this entire picture: the only thing consistent with theism is the creation of a world in which there is libertarian free-will.

Immediately, this creates an obvious problem: we do not appear to live in a world where there is libertarian free-will. Thus, if we accept the free-will defense, then to the degree that we have scientific evidence contrary to the existence of libertarian free-will, we have evidence contrary to God’s existence. But put this to the side; perhaps the theist has some way of explaining away the existence of such evidence.

It is not at all clear to me what sort of explanation theists could provide to explain away the intelligibility of human actions, but whatever explanation they provide should be one which does not deny our experiences of our social lives or the data of the social sciences. It seems plausible that such an explanation is possible: notice that the predictability of human actions does not entail that every particular action is perfectly predictable. It remains a possibility that some actions are more likely and more reasonable than others without entailing that there is a fact about what any particular human will do in the future. Furthermore, notice that the sorts of things a particular human is likely to do most often relate to antecedent causes. For example, a trusted friend is not likely to stab me unless there is some reason that renders their action intelligible. Thus, that some humans will have a greater tendency to do good deeds (and others a greater tendency to do bad deeds) is not a violation of their free-will.

Now ask the following question: are human actions more or less intelligible to God than they are to other humans? If human actions are more intelligible to God, then God can predict with a greater degree of certainty what any particular human will do in any particular circumstance. Yet if God knows what any particular human is likely to do in any particular circumstance, God already possessed that knowledge when God created that human and, through Her providence, brought about whatever general state of affairs that human confronts. Therefore, God could have chosen to create humans who were less prone to violence, and other misdeeds, but chose not to. The Problem of Evil reasserts itself.

The only other possibility is that human actions are even more mysterious to God than they are to other humans. Yet, as an omniscient being, God’s knowledge is, by definition, superior to ours. To the degree that human actions are more intelligible to me than they are to God, I am more knowledgeable than God. This is a contradiction; thus, if the theist chooses this side of the fork, they must either abandon theism or libertarian free-will.

So I leave theists with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case theists again face the Problem of Evil. I’m not sure this argument is completely convincing; leave me your thoughts in the comments below.


For Objective Morality

Lydia Allan has recently posted her argument opposed moral objectivism and in favor of something that sounds like ethical noncognitivism.

I’ve written a response, available here, arguing against her view.