Skeptical Theism and New Arguments For Atheism

R.N. Carmona

Skeptical Theism is overtly present in Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense. It must be noted here that he does not call it that. The monicker makes sense because it relies on human ignorance in order to work. In other words, the defense states that since human wisdom is incomparable to God’s, we cannot know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it is reasonable that he has some reason, unbeknownst to us, for allowing evil, we cannot reasonably blame God for the evil in the world. Of Plantinga’s explications, Kai Nielsen says the following: 

Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400)

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.

This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance Defense. Humans are, in other words, ignorant of God’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen’s contention, however, has the makings of a perfect defeater. All that is needed is to see his objection from the point of view of one of God’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil” and adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us” (Ibid.). This defeater is perfected if we see this from the point of view of God’s omniscience. God would know that we would be incapable of seeing that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, by way of his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., its incapacity to appeal to people of other cultures, e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and indigenous people across every populated continent, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. 

We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good” (Ibid.). This as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, this appears to imply the superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use” (Galilei, Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615” (2013). Instructional Resources. 97.).

For a clearer explication of skeptical theism, McBrayer offers:

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.  In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.

McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

This matches Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense one-to-one. There is therefore, no need to belabor the point. My concern is twofold: the failure of skeptical theism should be clear and since this appeal to human ignorance is an obstinate roadblock borne of a reluctance to accept an atheistic conclusion, it is crucial to develop arguments that make use of its faulty intuition and arguments that leave no room for a skeptical theistic response. In other words, if the intuition can be turned on its head, in a perfect example of how to employ the double standard and outsider tests (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print), perhaps the theist is not in a position to see the vast shortcomings of skeptical theism. This is what I want to do because I am at a loss when it comes to understanding why anyone would think such a response works when confronting The Evidential Problem of Evil and Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. For our purposes, I will set aside stating explicitly The Evidential Problem of Evil, as I think it is unnecessary review for the initiated. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, on the other hand, is not as familiar, even to the thoroughly initiated. Thankfully, Veronika Weidner has explicitly stated the argument accurately:

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a personal perfect being.

(2) Necessarily, if God is a personal perfect being, then God always loves all human beings perfectly.

(3) Necessarily, if God always loves all human beings perfectly, then God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God.

(4) Necessarily, if God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God, then God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God.

(5) Necessarily, a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God is only able to relate to God personally if she believes that God exists.

(6) Necessarily, if God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God, then it is not the case that there is a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.

(7) There is at least one human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.

(8) Therefore, God does not exist. (see Schellenberg, 2015b: 24–25)

Weidner, Veronika. Divine Hiddenness. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Web.

Prior to discussing Schellenberg’s argument in some detail, it is crucial to understand why skeptical theism fails:

A) Even if we grant that unforeseen goods balance the scales, as it were, i.e. justifies the 1,800 cancer-related deaths of children per year in the United States, there is no way for finite human minds to causally connect these deaths with the goods whenever they arrive; the most we can do is callously reason that their deaths are akin to necessary sacrifices that enable us to eventually find a cure—which is related to minor problem (a) below and more importantly, is not something we should ever give God credit for; developing cures is a slow, painstaking process that does not involve anything like putative revelation or God whispering the secrets to a much needed vaccine in a doctor’s ear. There is also the issue that the goods may arrive well after our lifetimes, which segues into the next problem.

B) On exclusivism, many of today’s atheists are eternally lost because evil and hiddenness were just too persuasive and the goods never came due within our lifetimes. On universalism, this is all arbitrary. This can be conjoined to Street’s recent response to skeptical theism: we are free to indulge moral aporia because no matter what we believe or not, we will ultimately be saved (see Street, S. (2014). If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: Why the price of theism is normative skepticism. In M. Bergmann & P. Kain (Eds.), Challenges to moral and religious belief: Disagreement and evolution (pp. 172–192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.). So talk of evil and hiddenness and unknown goods to account for them ends up being null.

I have a sneaking suspicion that theists feel the gnaw of these defeaters. Atheists certainly do. This then becomes an exercise of being overly charitable to a kind of argument that can never prove successful. If skeptical theism fails, it is a thread that should be cut and discarded. There are a couple of minor problems that are important as well:

a) It is utilitarian in its analysis. The evil and hiddenness we experience are lesser in magnitude when compared to the goods that await us, be it in heaven or by way of some earthly recompense. The greater good overtones are palpable. I cannot see how a being who is appealed to as the objective and perfect moral standard can subscribe to utilitarianism given its shortcomings.

b) It begs the question because it really is no different from someone saying “just wait and see!” Many people on all sides died waiting and seeing and per Schellenberg, honestly sought divinity their entire lives and came up empty. If God had a better track record of making do on past atrocities, then we would be able to inductively reason, as many of us do with science, in this manner. The thing is, it looks like the bills for the Holocaust and slavery are overdue and all of us, living ~80 and ~450 years respectively, after these atrocities happened, cannot even begin to causally connect potential goods that God has deployed with the intention of paying this debt. Perhaps it is too much to expect God to pay that debt because those were human crimes; but I can also think of disasters, diseases, pandemics, mass extinctions, and other natural evils that are overdue and again, I am not sure what goods are intended to repay the extinctions of all of our hominid cousins, for example.

c) The whole accounting that is done really puts a lack of value on human life that turns out to be nihilistic and even fatalistic. The Black Plague wiped out millions. Are we really to believe any good repaid that debt? Are we supposed to buy that the life of a child, whose loss emotionally crippled her mother, is worth so little that we can just make do with the fact that some future kid was saved from danger in her place? That does nothing at all to alleviate the suffering the child and her mother experienced, so that is another issue, one of currency: what is the value of this coin God is paying his debts with and how exactly does it exchange with the coin in the sometimes distant past?

Now to turn my attention to an argument that subsumes the observations of The Evidential Problem of Evil and The Divine Hiddenness Argument. This argument is novel, forceful, and to my mind, defeats the idea of not just perfect being, omni-god theism, but theism overall. Weidner already observes the following: “After all, the hiddenness argument, if successful, helps us see the deficiencies of personal perfect being theism” (Weidner, ibid.). My next argument should help one see the deficiencies of theism in general.

Infinity Entails Supererogative Capacity

Weidner’s next stop is to grapple with the conclusion of My Argument From Assailability: “if we find in any being, a characteristic that is assailable, then we have no reason to call it a god.” How is a non-perfect theistic being different from an alien, one might ask. Crucially, if per the hiddenness and evil arguments, God does not seem open to being in a relationship with all human beings and does not intervene when great atrocities happen, then we have located an assailable characteristic. How does an omnipotent or, at least, an incredibly powerful being succumb to bystander effect? Even if God is not all-powerful and could not snap the Nazis out of existence, if he is at least powerful enough to assume a disguise and poison Hitler and his top advisers, why not step in and prevent the Holocaust?

The reason Aquinas and others maximized God to have infinite capacities in all respects is because theists already saw the crippling limitations of a god with finite abilities. The question would immediately follow: what motivation is there to worship a being that is not perfect? Infinity entails supererogative capacity. God would be able to give an infinite amount of love, kinship, succor, power, knowledge, and presence and still retain an infinite amount of each. So why does he seem to blithely refuse to commit to this? Perfect and infinite personal being theism is defeated by the combination of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, The Evidential Problem of Evil, and my argument from God’s apparent lack of supererogatory agency. What is left is non-perfect being theism.

That, however, falls on the horns of my Argument From Assailability and so, Theism is defeated in all its iterations. This is to say nothing about the fact that even a finite deity would be far more capable of supererogatory acts than we are. In any case, the intuition of my supererogative argument can be turned on its head. We can deduce something about God’s power given this lack. God must be much weaker than a hypothetical infinite being due to the fact that he remains a bystander, utterly apathetic to even the worst atrocities known to maneven ones we played no part in causing. This is an assailable characteristic. We therefore, have no obligation whatsoever to worship a being that is apparently weaker than ourselves. As Tracie Harris famously said: “If I could stop a person from raping a child I would. That is the difference between me and your God” (Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “‘Atheist Experience’ TV Host Shocked By Caller’s Statement About Child Rape (Video)”. Huffington Post. 9 Jan 2013. Web). Ultimately, if God appears to be this much weaker than human beings, who can potentially lose their lives when intervening on the behalf of another person, it is far more probable that God does not exist.

Notes on Necessity

The standard contingency argument looks something like the following:

  1. There exists a series of events
  2. The series of events exists as caused and not as uncaused 
  3. This series cannot extend infinitely into the past
  4. Therefore, there must exist the necessary being that is the cause of all contingent being (credit: Queens Community College)

The intuition of skeptical theism, as I made clear at the outset, can be used to cast doubt on contingency arguments across the board. Aside from the fact that there is a chasm between a necessary cause, e.g., something like the Big Bang, and a necessary being, we can assert that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern what a necessary being is. How do we know that it is one necessary being as opposed to many? If a Triune god solves the one-many problem, then why not the Divine Septad of Zoroastrianism? Since we cannot know what the realm of necessity is like, we should refrain from making these kinds of arguments.

Contingency arguments only accomplish one thing: they point to the existence of metaphysical necessities, quite possibly something like brute facts, that can be explained by something more concrete like physical necessity. In my overview of Rasmussen’s recent contingency argument, I go over what this looks like and it is more plausible than crossing the infinite chasm between a necessary cause and a necessary being on blind faith alone. In any case, since we cannot know what necessity is really like and since we cannot visit the realm of necessity, it is best we accept our ignorance on this matter. The intuition of skeptical theism undermines what many theists consider one of the stronger lines of argumentation in favor of theism.

The Argument From Phenomenal Distance

This novel argument, not to be confused with Mander’s “Does God know what it is like to be me?” (see Mander, W.J. (2002), Does God Know What It is Like to be Me?. The Heythrop Journal, 43: 430-443. completely evades skeptical theism. It is an argument from analogy in where an observation about human behavior is mapped onto God. The argument has been alluded to before, but as far as I know, has not been formally stated or given a name.

RC*: The condition of the argument is as follows: there is a difference between the phenomenal experience of human beings and that of earthworms (if it is even appropriate to think that worms have phenomenal experience). Even if earthworms lack phenomenal consciousness, according to some philosophers, we certainly have phenomenal consciousness and as such, there is a distance between our experience and theirs.

RC1 Human beings have phenomenal distance from earthworms and therefore, are indifferent to them, e.g. we walk through a parking lot on a rainy day and probably trample dozens of them underfoot with no second thought.

RC2 An infinite god or even a vastly powerful deity would have an infinite or incalculable phenomenal distance from humans.

RCC1 Therefore, we should expect God to be indifferent to us.

This argument avoids the nauseating intuition of skeptical theism as it cannot appeal to any ignorance we have. One thing we are not ignorant of, as evil and hiddenness make clear, is that either God does not exist or if any gods exist, they are astoundingly indifferent to us. Camus, in The Plague, observes through the character of Tarrou that if God is not going to provide succor in times of great atrocity, it is up to us to take the helm and do something about our plights. Conjoined to his scathing criticisms of the religious propensity to prefer the abstract over the concrete is Camus’ clearsighted focus on God’s absence or indifference, for even as Jacques Othon dies in agony and Father Paneloux shouts out “My God, spare this child!,” the child dies writhing in pain and wailing across the halls of the auxiliary hospital (Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International Books. 217. Web.). This argument is yet another powerful blow against personal being theism because a friend is there in times of need and a father who loves his children, all the more so. No appeal to our ignorance, as my defeaters make clear, can be marshaled in to salvage the notion of the existence of a personal being who loves us and has our well-being and prosperity in mind. The absence or more tentatively, the indifference of God should disabuse one of the belief in a personal being who loves us infinitely.

In the end, I think the lines of argumentation I have pursued here are by no means exhaustive, in that a lot more can be said about evil, suffering, hiddenness, God’s lack of supererogative agency, and an indifference stemming from the incalculable, if not, infinite phenomenal distance he has from us. I defer to Rieux: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, Ibid., 218).

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