My thanks to the organizers of this debate for the invitation to take part – I’m genuinely honoured to share the stage with Professor Craig.
We’re here to debate the question “Does God exist?” We’ve just heard various arguments that are supposed to justify an affirmative answer. I’ll address those arguments in the first rebuttal period.
I’m going to devote my opening speech to sketching out an argument against the existence of God. There are many such arguments. I’m going to make things relatively easy for Prof Craig by sketching out just one.
It’s an argument with which I’m sure you’re familiar. It’s often called the evidential problem of evil.
There’s a great deal of bad stuff in the world. There are moral evils: the terrible moral deeds we do. There are also natural evils – such as natural diseases and disasters that cause humans and other creatures immense suffering.
Let’s start with animal suffering. I recently watched a documentary about Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then, finally, when their victim became too weak to defend itself, disembowelling and eating alive, a water buffalo. The cameraman said this had been his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he just couldn’t cope with the depths of suffering he had been forced to witness.
Each day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This might, in many ways, be a beautiful world. But it’s also a quite staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very many of its inhabitants.
Perhaps some will dismiss all this animal suffering by saying, “But they’re just animals. They don’t ultimately matter.” I wonder if they’d say the same thing if took a red-hot poker to their cat.
Then there’s human suffering. Take, for example, the psychological suffering a parent must go through who has to watch, helpless, as their young child dies slowly of starvation or an agonizing disease.
The consensus among population experts is that, over the sweep of human prehistory - hundreds of thousands of years - the parents of each generation have had to watch, on average, between a third and a half of their under-five children die, usually from disease.
Kenneth Hill, Director of the Hopkins Population Centre at John Hopkins University, writes (and I quote)
“over the long haul of prehistory, the probability of dying by the age of five for females was probably no lower than 440 per thousand live births, and was probably no higher than 600.”
That’s to say, on average around half of literally millions of generations of girls never made it beyond their fifth birthday.
This appalling suffering and death was not something these children and parents brought on themselves.
Unavoidable, unspeakable horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit.
So now here’s the argument. If Professor Craig’s God exists, then these hundreds of thousands, nay, hundreds of millions, of years of horror must, ultimately, be, well, all for the best!
For an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God: (i) will know about, (ii) will have the power to prevent, and (iii) will desire that the world not contain, any pointless, gratuitous suffering. If Professor Craig’s god exists, there must be, not just some reason, but an entirely adequate reason for every last ounce of all this suffering and horror.
But surely, as we look back across the aeons, we witness suffering of such depth and magnitude that it becomes highly implausible that it can all be fully explained away.
In which case, it looks like very powerful evidence against the existence of Professor Craig’s God.
Now, interestingly, a similar argument can be run against an alternative god hypothesis I want you now to consider.
Suppose that, after a bump on the head, I become convinced that the universe is the creation of a single, all-powerful designer. However, I also believe this being is evil. There’s just one god and he’s cruel and evil as it is possible for him to be.
Who believes in a creator like that?
Hardly anyone outside of a mental institution.
Yet notice that this evil god hypothesis is as well supported by, say, Professor Craig’s cosmological and fine-tuning arguments as is belief in his good god hypotheses.
For those arguments fail to provide us with any clue at all as to our creator’s moral character.
Yet, still, I’m sure you consider the idea of such an evil creator absurd. Why?
Well, one obvious reason for dismissing the idea is that our world is clearly not the sort of world an all-powerful and maximally evil being would create. Take a look at it. Yes, it contains suffering. But it also contains a great deal of good. Far too much for it plausibly to be considered the creation of such an evil being.
Why, for example, would an evil creator intent on maximizing evil give us beautiful scenery to enjoy?
Why would he allow people to reduce the suffering of others, sometimes quite selflessly? An evil god would want to maximize suffering and prevent morally virtuous behaviour. So surely he’d clamp down on, say, Mother Theresa’s activities straight away. And he’d destroy all the hospitals.
Why, you might also ask, would an evil god bestow on some people immense health, wealth and happiness? David Beckham, for example, who leads a charmed existence.
And why would an evil God give us children to love? Evil God hates love. Surely the last thing he’d do is populate the world with bundles of joy.
So, you might think there is, on the face of it, overwhelming observational evidence against the evil god hypothesis.
I’m sure some of you have spotted that what we’re looking at here is, in effect, the evidential problem of good. If you believe in a good god, you face the problem of explaining why there’s so very much bad stuff in the world. Similarly, if you believe in an evil god, you face the mirror problem of explaining why there’s so very much good.
So why, we might ask, if the problem of good is fatal to the evil god hypothesis – and it is – is the problem of evil not similarly fatal to the good god hypothesis? If one hypothesis is pretty straightforwardly falsified by observation of the world around us, why isn’t the other?
Now, as you know, Christians have cooked up some pretty ingenious explanations for all the bad stuff. Let’s look at a few such explanations, beginning with free will.
Some Christians try to explain certain evils by saying that, being good, god gave us free will – the ability to make free choices and act on them. Why? Because god wants to allow for the possibility of moral goodness. God could have made us puppet beings [act] or automata that always did the right thing. But puppet beings lack moral responsibility. Their good behaviour, if compelled, would not be morally good. So God cut our strings. He set us free. As a result, some of us choose to do evil. That’s the price god must pay to allow for moral goods.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that sort of explanation. But now notice that someone who believes in an evil god can mirror it with a free will explanation of their own. Evil god gave us free will. Why? To allow for the possibility moral evil. Evil god could have made us puppet beings that always did the evil thing. But puppet beings lack moral responsibility. Their bad behaviour, if compelled, would not be morally evil. So evil god cut our strings. As a result, some of us choose to do good. That’s the price evil god must pay to allow for moral evils.
You can see that I have taken one standard Christian theodicy and just flipped it round.
Here’s another example of theodicy flipping. Some Christians try to explain some pain and suffering as the result of the operation of laws of nature – laws that are nevertheless, on balance, supposed to be good. So, for example, a Christian might argue that, without a law-governed universe in which the effects of our actions can be predicted, we can’t morally interact with each other. Suppose I see you cold and hungry. In order to help you by lighting you a warming fire and cooking you a much needed meal, I need to know both that by striking a match I will create a flame and that wood burns to release heat. Unfortunately, these same laws of nature have a downside – they entail that there will, occasionally, be spontaneous forest fires that cause suffering. That’s the price god pays for greater goods.
But again, someone who believes in an evil god can produce a mirror explanation to account for goods. In order to allow the very great evil of my burning down your wooden house with you and your family inside, they may say, I need to know both that by striking a match I will create a flame, and that wood burns. Such laws of nature are required for such very great evils to exist. True, these same laws have good consequences. They allow people to cook each other warming meals, for example. That’s the price evil god pays for greater evils.
We can similarly flip round the familiar Christian suggestion that the pain and suffering we endure are there to allow us to grow and develop morally and spiritually.
Yes, evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair. To that end, he introduces various goods into the world.
But then why, you may ask, would an evil god allow a few people, such as David Beckham, to lead a charmed life? Why, to make the rest of us feel worse, of course. To invoke feelings of jealousy and resentment in others. To motivate crime.
Why would an evil god pepper his creation with some beauty, which we enjoy? Why, because he requires a contrast. In order to fully appreciate the drab dreariness of day-to-day life, we need to BE reminded now and them of how much better things might have been.
Why would an evil god give us children to love? Because it’s only if we truly, unconditionally love someone that we can made to suffer as deeply as we do when evil god kills them slowly before our eyes.
In short, someone might conclude, this is not, as many Christians suppose, a vale of soul-making. It’s a vale of soul destruction – engineered by an evil god intent on crushing and breaking our spirits so that we bow out in agony and despair. As so very many of us do.
While not all standard Christian explanations for evil can be reversed in this way, most can. Take, for example, explaining evil in terms of god’s mysterious ways. A defender of belief in an evil god can adopt the same ruse, putting the good we see around us down to evil god’s mysterious ways. After all, evil god is omnipotent and omniscient, so of course his evil plans are likely to be largely beyond our understanding! Just because certain goods appear to us to be quite gratuitous given the aims of an evil god gives us no reason to suppose that they really are gratuitous.
Don’t presume to know the mind of evil god!
Moreover, just as some Christians maintain that whatever horror we experience in this life will be more than compensated for in the next, those who believe in an evil god can maintain that whatever goods we experience in this life will be more than compensated for by the far deeper, unremitting horror of the next.
Clearly, despite these and various other ingenious manoeuvres that might be made in defence of belief in an evil god, it remains the case that there’s far, far too much good stuff in this world for it to be the creation of such an evil deity. We can still, on the basis of what we observe around us, reasonably conclude there’s unlikely to be an evil god.
So my question is: if the evil god hypothesis can, solely on the basis of observational evidence, be ruled out as highly unlikely, why can’t we similarly rule out the good god hypothesis?
True, we may not know the answer to the question: “Why does the universe exist?” Perhaps we’ll never know. It doesn’t follow that we can’t reasonably rule certain answers out. Obviously we can quite reasonably rule out the evil god hypothesis. So why not the good god hypothesis?
Why suppose, as I assume Prof. Craig does, that the good god hypothesis is, not just a bit more reasonable, but very significantly more reasonable, than the evil god hypothesis? For remember, the latter hypothesis remains downright absurd, notwithstanding such appeals to evil god’s mysterious ways, and so on?
That’s the challenge I am setting Professor Craig tonight. To explain why belief in a good god is, on the basis of the available evidence and arguments, not just a bit more reasonable than belief in an evil god, but very significantly more reasonable.
How might Professor Craig respond to this challenge? He has given his arguments for his particular god of course. I’ll examine those next.
He may also try to disarm the problem of evil, perhaps by invoking a smokescreen of scepticism and mystery. He may say, “Well, we just can’t presume to know, regarding all the horror we see around us, that God lacks adequate reasons for it.”
But as we’ve just seen, we can use the same sort of smokescreen to defend belief in an evil god. We can say: “We just can’t presume to know, regarding all the goods we see around us, that evil god lacks adequate reasons for them.”
Professor Craig can’t, by means of such a smokescreen, show that belief in his good god is better supported than belief in an evil god.
It will be interesting to see how he thinks it can be shown to be better supported.