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Honesty and belief

November 26th, 2011

I suppose we all like to think we are very honest with ourselves – we only believe what we really think is true and we don’t close our minds to evidence that goes against our beliefs. I suppose we all like to think that. But I think we are sometimes fooling ourselves.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Evil and suffering

The evil and suffering in the world is probably the biggest reason atheists give for not believing in God. It’s not a difficult argument to push – if God is good and powerful, we does he allow so much suffering?

Christian believers rush to defend God. There is purpose in suffering, they say; without suffering we would not grow. Or they say that most of the suffering is caused by human sin, and the only way to stop suffering would be to take away human choice, which would be an even greater evil.

I’m a christian, but I’m not sure I can buy those arguments completely. I can see the truth in them, but …. well I still can’t help feeling that surely God could have set things up so there is at least a little less suffering, especially gross suffering and especially by innocent victims. I think all the attempts to explain evil only make their proponents seem a little callous.

In the end, I have to agree that the evil and suffering in the world counts as an argument against the existence of God. I think christians should be honest enough to say that. If this was the only evidence we had, I don’t see how I could be a believer.

But of course, it isn’t the only evidence we have.

The origin of the universe

In the same way as suffering presents a problem to a believer, the universe presents a problem to the unbeliever. The universe exists, but how can we explain its existence. What caused it? If we consider the universe to be the total sum of space, time, energy and matter, there are really only three possibilities:

  1. The universe has always existed, and things that have always existed don’t need a cause.
  2. The universe began without a cause, for no reason.
  3. The universe was caused by something outside it, that itself has always existed, and thus doesn’t need a cause.

But we can be pretty sure that the universe hasn’t existed forever, because (i) it is composed of a sequence of events and you can’t make a sequence of events reach infinity, and (ii) if it had existed forever, every physical event that could ever have occurred would have occurred an infinite time ago, and all action would have ceased.

And we can be pretty sure that it didn’t just appear out of nothing because nothing comes from nothing. No-one would ever think otherwise – except in this case.

So it is pretty obvious that the only sensible explanation is that something outside it caused it, something eternal led to it coming into existence. This is such an obvious conclusion, made all the more obvious by the tortuous attempts to avoid it – like physicists claiming it could come from a quantum vacuum or from the laws of gravity, as if these things were nothing!

So, just as suffering makes the existence of God less likely, the universe makes the existence of God more likely. It seems to me that, if we are honest, we should be able to admit both of those conclusions regardless of what we actually believe.

Balancing the ledger

Once we are willing to see the logic of both arguments in a common sense way, we can see that the arguments about the existence of God should be re-framed. Honest christians and honest unbelievers should be able to admit the force of the opposing arguments, and discuss how the strengths of the various arguments should be balanced. Unfortunately, few seem able to, yet.

For me, I continue to believe in God because:

  1. I think there are more arguments that point to the existence of God than there are that point to his non-existence.
  2. I think the arguments for God are stronger, and more fundamental. By this, I mean that we can only have a problem of suffering if (i) we have a world and people in it to suffer, and (ii) we have a objective ethical standard by which to base our judgment that suffering is evil. But all those things (the universe, rational conscious people and an objective ethical standard) are all reasons to believe God exists and the basis of strong arguments for his existence.

It seems that before we can construct an argument that suffering is such an evil that a good God couldn’t exist, we must first admit facts that point so strongly towards God that they undermine the argument from suffering. For this believer, suffering and evil presents a problem I cannot explain, but not a reason to disbelieve.

Read more on the problem of evil and suffering, the origin of the universe, or reasons to believe.

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I was in the process of researching the spike in interest in the question, “is there a God” and found your blog. Check it out when you get a chance. http://oscarloveslife.blogspot.com/2011/12/google-searches-for-phrase-is-there-god.html

    I especially like this post. My opinion is that religion hastens suffering, but that humanity would have suffering with or without religion. To be be evil, to murder, to cause harm, and to go to war, are inherently ‘human’ qualities. Religion just provides another excuse.

    What do you think?

  2. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I have looked at your post and found it very interesting too.

    I agree with you that doing harm (as well as doing good) are human qualities, and not especially possessed by believers or unbelievers. I think it is true that religion can increase suffering but also that it can increase people’s empathy and altruism – as I will be discussing in a post soon.

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