Category Archives: Philosophy of Religion

Critics of “Religion’s Smart-People Problem”

A few months ago I published a piece in the online journal Salon entitled “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.” It generated over 2,500 comments on the site and had over 66,000 facebook shares. I thought my readers might be interested in hearing from some of my most vociferous critics. And while I don’t have time to respond to them, let me say this.

First, critics often focus on what you don’t say as much as what you do say. So critics of the short piece in Salon criticize it for not responding to the theology of Tillich or Kierkegaard, or the latest ruminations from Mormon elders, Catholic bishops, or their other favorite gurus. Heck, it was a piece for a popular magazine, not a dissertation! I’m reminded of one of the readers of my master’s thesis which was about the moral philosophy of David Gauthier. (All three chapter were later published in peer-reviewed journals.)  The reader’s criticism—I should have talked more about Thomas Hobbes! Yes, really.

Second, I have lived too long to think you are going to change people’s minds. Even if your arguments are air-tight, those who have devoted their lives to some cause or whose being is wrapped up in religion or some other ideology won’t change their minds. But despite what all the critics say, religion does have a smart-people problem—the relationship between more education, particularly scientific education, and a decrease in religious belief is well established. Moreover, religion has a young people problem, a people-in- countries-with-strong-social-safety-nets problem, and it definitively has a future technology problem. When science and technology defeat death, and we have become posthuman, the old promises of immortality will have no influence. Posthumans won’t go to church; superintelligences won’t find their answers in Jesus or Mohammed.

All these theologians are like Neanderthals sitting around the campfire deciding which of their creation myths is best while not noticing that the invading Homo Sapiens will soon replace them. Similarly science and technology will eventually put an end to religious superstition. I so wish that all the mental acumen of theologians was employed in advancing science and technology rather than in defending old myths or creating obscurantist metaphysics.

Still I’m willing to let my critics have their say. Here then are some of the intellectual online critiques of my work from various Christian apologists.

The Skeptic’s Smart-Person Problem

Socrates Warned Against the Likes of John Messerly

Atheists Are Smarter Than Believers, Says An Atheist

When We Know Better Than You

Do We Survive Death? Discussed in One Page

The idea of an immortal soul – For Socrates this meant something in you that is indestructible. For St. Paul the immortality of the soul meant your non-physical soul would be re-united with a new physical body at judgment day [The idea that you die and then go to a paradise or punishment is a Greek idea; it is not Christian orthodoxy.]

Problems – Doctrines of immortal souls are difficult to accept in the 21st century because: 1) the idea of soul is useless in science; and 2) consciousness depends on brains. You could just have faith in an immortal soul, or try to find reasons to believe in immortality, or you just give up on the idea altogether. For evidence of immorality you might turn to:

  1. near-death experiences – PROBLEM – NDE, to the extent they occur, provide very little reason to believe in life after death, and are easily explained scientifically.
  2. Reincarnation – PROBLEM – the evidence for R is weak or non-existent.
  3. Psychics who communicate with dead. PROBLEM – anyone who claims to do this is a charlatan. The tricks by which supposed psychics fool people are well-known.

It would be miraculous if our consciousness could survive without our bodies. Perhaps we should just believe in miracles. But David Hume advanced a powerful argument that it is never rational to believe in miracles, it is one of the most famous in all of philosophy.  Hume asks, What is more likely?

  1. that someone in the past actually walked on water, rose from the dead, etc., or
  2. that those who tell such stories are exaggerating, lying, or have themselves been deceived.

Of course #2 is more likely. Lying, exaggerating, or being credulous are common; walking on water or rising from the dead or not. Thus it is never rational to believe in miracles—defined as actions violating laws of nature—because #2 is always more likely than #1.

While immortality is possible, it is easy to see that it is highly unlikely.

The Problem of Evil in Two Pages

The existence of bad or evil things isn’t hard to explain for non-theists—human beings and the world are imperfect—but they are hard to explain for classical theists.

The Problem – The gods are all-good, powerful, and knowing and yet there is evil. Thus either the gods can’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all-powerful; or they won’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all good. We can distinguish between:

a) The logical problem of evil – gods and evil are incompatible or inconsistent; and
b)The evidentiary problem of evil – evil counts as evidence against the gods.

Response to the problem – Theists have articulated defenses, but generally dismiss theodicies (complete explanations for evil.) A defense is easy, you just need to show that it is rational to believe in gods and evil simultaneously. A theodicy is hard, it must show how evil fits into a god’s plan. Most theologians think that the best we can do is to show that evil and the gods are compatible;  but they don’t believe they can completely explain evil. In order to defend the rationality of religious belief—to offer a strong defense—philosophers/theologians try to provide reasons for the existence of evil. These include:

1. The ideas that pain/evil is necessary as part of the body’s warning system

PROBLEMS – Sometimes we need warnings but there is no pain (carbon monoxide, obesity, etc.); sometimes the pain doesn’t help us (cancer, etc.); sometimes pain may be debilitating. Furthermore, why would gods create pain? What explains such cruelty?

2.  The idea that evil is necessary so that we may better appreciate the good – (Logically this implies that we would have no notion of bad without good, or tall without short. Psychologically this implies that we wouldn’t appreciate good things with bad things, pleasure without pain, and happiness without unhappiness. )

PROBLEMS – Even if this is true, why do we need so much evil? We have cancer and heart disease, do we really need Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s too? And do you really need to know there are bad things to enjoy good things? (If you believe in heaven or paradise where supposedly you are eternally happy, would you need occasional pain there to appreciate its goodness?)

3. The idea that evil is punishment from wrongdoing; we bring it on ourselves

PROBLEMS – This makes sense only if moral character and suffering correlate. But misfortune/evil strikes indiscriminately, as does good fortune. Moreover, do babies deserve misfortune? Do we deserve horrible diseases? Do we deserve cancer? Can one ever do enough bad things to deserve say, everlasting punishment?

4. The idea that evil results from free will – Evil results from free will. A world with humans, and the evil that results from their free will, is better than one without humans even if that world had no evil. War, murder, torture, etc. are worth the price of the positives that derive from human free will.

PROBLEMS – We can answer that free will is not worth all the misery that ensues from free choice. In addition, we might wonder why an omnipotent god couldn’t create humans with the freedom to do bad things, but who never do them. Moreover, free will, if it even exists, only accounts for moral evil (evils attributed to free will like murder, rape, etc.) but not physical evil (earthquakes, floods, disease, etc) which have nothing to do with free will.

5. The idea that evil is necessary for the development of moral character. In a world without “trials and tribulations” we wouldn’t get to develop our moral characters or make our souls. Such a world wouldn’t elicit generosity, courage, kindness, mercy, perseverance, creativity, etc.

If the moral character development argument is combined with the free will defense then we have given the best account of evil possible. This is not a theodicy—a complete explanation—but a defense—a partial explanation. We could even add that since there is another world evil here is no big deal anyway. That is, all this pain will be insignificant when we all enjoy eternal bliss. Of course even if we can overcome the problem of evil that doesn’t mean the theistic story is true.

PROBLEMS –At least three basic problems remain in our attempt to reconcile evil and all good, all-knowing and all-powerful gods.

1) Why don’t the gods intervene to prevent extreme cruelty—such as the abuse of an innocent child? The free will defense is implausible here.

2) Why is there so much human suffering? Do we really need all these hurricanes and diseases? Do we really need to develop our characters by, for example, accidentally killing children or suffering from cancer? And even if we need to occasionally die in childbirth or from cancer, couldn’t we have fewer cases of this evil?

3) Why do non-human animals suffer so much? They don’t have freedom or need to develop their moral characters, yet they suffer. If you look about the entire world, and the entire history of the world, does the evidence suggest that it is the product of all good, all powerful, deities? Or does the evidence suggest the opposite? At the very least, doesn’t evil provide evidence against the existence of such gods? Of course it does.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

Summary of the Arguments for the Existence of God

Is it reasonable to believe in a god(s)? To be reasonable, a belief must be backed by good reasons, but are there any? Western philosophers through the centuries have advanced 3 basic arguments for the existence of a god; we will consider each of them briefly. 

ARGUMENT #1 – The Argument from Design (a teleological argument)

Version A – “The best explanation argument”

1) There seems to be design in the universe;
2) This design didn’t come about by chance; thus
3) The universe was intelligently designed.

Version B – “The same-evidence argument”

1) Watches have designs and are designed by watchmakers;
2) Similarly, universes have designs and are designed by universe designers; thus
3) The universe was designed by one or more universe designers.

Hume’s Objections

  • We infer a designer from a watch because we have background information about watches (we have seen them, can visit watch factories, etc.) But we have no background information about universes or how or if they are created. Thus we can make no inference about their supposed design.
  • Suppose we accept the universe has a design; what would we conclude about its designer? Considered objectively, we wouldn’t conclude that it was designed by an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent deity. We would conclude it was made by less than perfect beings, intelligent aliens, drunk, child or malicious gods, etc.

Evolution – Hume’s were logical arguments, but in lieu of a definitive replacement for design the situation was at an impasse. This all changed with modern biology. After the fact of evolution was discovered, the design argument was essentially dead. (For more on the fact of evolution see:**

[There is a new kind of teleological argument, known as the “fine tuning” argument. The idea is that life in the universe can only occur when certain universal physical constants lie within a very narrow range. This may imply a designer. However, the argument is not generally thought to be successful, and it is definitively undermined if we live in a multiverse.]

ARGUMENT #2 – The First Cause Argument (a cosmological argument)

Version A –
1) Everything has a cause;
2) Causes can’t go backwards indefinitely; thus
3) There is a first cause, the gods.

Problems – Either everything has a cause or it doesn’t. If everything has a cause, we should ask what caused the gods? If there is something without a cause or self-caused, we might just as well say that thing is the universe as say its some god. In fact, we would do better to say it’s the universe that is self-sufficient since we know the universe exists.

Version B –
1) The universe requires an explanation; thus
2) The best explanation is a god or gods.

Problems – We have no idea of what, if anything, explains universes, and no good reason why such an explanation would be anything like the gods we imagine.  Moreover, with the advent of “quantum cosmologies” in the 1980s, we have scientific ideas that explain how universes can appear spontaneous existence out of nothing. In conclusion, either:

  1. the universe is explained by something else (but we don’t know what this might be);
  2. the universe is explained by itself (it is its own explanation);
  3. the universe has no explanation/cause (it is unintelligible, it just is); or
  4. the universe is eternal (could be part of 2 or 3 above)

(You can substitute multiverse for universe in the above, but the choices don’t change. )

ARGUMENT #3God as a Necessary Being  (an ontological argument )

Version A –
1) The universe is contingent (depends on something else); thus
2) Something else is a necessary (not contingent) god.

Version B – (St. Anselm’s argument)
1) God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”;
2) The greatest thing, to be the greatest thing, must exist; thus
3) God exists.

Version C
1) God is perfect;
2) Existence is a perfection;
3) God exists.

Gaunilo’s objection – According to this reasoning a perfect island exists. But this is silly.

Kant’s objection – Whether a thing is perfect depends on its properties. Existence is not a property, but a determination of whether a thing exists. Thus the definition of a perfect being tells us what a perfect being would be like IF it existed;  not that a PB actually exists.

These are the very best arguments ever advanced by theologians and philosophers, and a majority of contemporary philosophers believe these arguments fail. Maybe arguments don’t matter and one should just believe anyway, or maybe personal religious experience gives one a reason to believe, or maybe the gods are just imaginary. But we can say that belief in gods is not simply a matter of reason or logic.


** If you want to know the truth about evolution you can visit any of these websites:












If There Are Gods, They Are Evil

(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 28, 2015.)

[Here is a brief summary of a piece by B.C. Johnson, “Why Doesn’t God Intervene to Prevent Evil?” It offers a devastating critique of the possibility that there is an all powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god.]

Are there any good excuses for someone (or a god) not saving a baby from a burning house if they had the power to do so? It will not do to say the baby will go to heaven, since one suffers by burning to death. The key is the suffering.  If the suffering was not necessary, then it’s wrong to allow it; if the suffering is necessary, the baby’s going to heaven doesn’t explain why it’s necessary.

It doesn’t make sense to say that a baby’s painful death will be good in the long run, and that’s why the gods allow it. For that is to say that whatever happens in the long run is good; since if something happened it was allowed by the gods, and it must therefore be good in the long run. We could test this idea by burning down buildings to kill innocent people.  If we are successful, then we know that this was part of some god’s plan. But this is absurd.  Moreover, this doesn’t show why the gods allow babies to burn to death, it merely says there is some reason for this suffering, a belief we have since we assume the gods are good. But this argument is circular; it merely assumes what it is trying to prove. (That the gods are good.) “It is not unlike a lawyer defending his client by claiming that the client is innocent and therefore the evidence against him must be misleading—that proof vindicating the defendant will be found in the long run.”

In conclusion, we simply cannot excuse a bystander who could save the child but who doesn’t.

We might say that we ought “to face disasters without assistance,” so as not to become dependent upon help. But this suggests that the work of doctors and firefighters, for example, should be abolished. But if this kind of help is good, then good gods should help like this. But they do not. If this kind of help is bad, then we ought to abolish it.

Similarly, we could say that the gods would reduce the moral urgency to make the world better if they intervened in evil. But should we abolish modern medicine and firefighting since they help people, but thereby reduce our urgency to help people? Of course not.  Moreover, this argument suggests that the gods approve “of these disasters as a means to encourage the creation of moral urgency.” 85 And if there were not sufficient baby burnings, the gods would have to bring them about. But this too is absurd. We shouldn’t create moral urgency by burning babies.

Maybe suffering is necessary for virtues like compassion, mercy, sympathy, and courage to be exercised. But even if this is true, the non-believer is simply claiming that we could do without burning babies and still have plenty of suffering to elicit these virtues. Furthermore, we value efforts to improve the world, and we don’t consider the possible reduction in opportunities to practice virtue a good reason not to improve it. If we can’t use this as an excuse not to improve the world, then neither can the gods. Developing virtue “is no excuse for permitting disasters.” The argument that the gods allow suffering to humble us is open to the preceding objections.

One could claim that evil is a by-product of the laws of nature and the gods interference would alter the casual order to our detriment. But lives could be saved if serial killers had heart attacks before committing their crimes. Such occasional miracles wouldn’t necessitate changing the laws of nature.  How often should the gods do this? Johnson says often enough to prevent particularly horrible disasters like child torture.

As for the claim that the gods have a higher morality such that what seems bad to us (child torture) is really good, and what seems good to us (modern medicine) is really bad, it is hard to make any sense of this. You could say we just don’t understand the god’s ways like children don’t understand their parent’s ways, but as adults we might conclude that some of our parent’s actions were bad.

The main reason all these arguments fail is that they are abstract. None of them really explain why all good, all powerful beings watch helpless infants burn to death, since none of the excuses such being would offer seem convincing. One could claim that the gods just can’t prevent the evil, but it is strange to believe in gods less powerful than fire departments and medical researchers.

At this point one may retreat to faith, simply believing the gods are innocent, like you might believe in the innocence of your friends even if the evidence is against them. But Johnson argues that we don’t know the gods well enough to trust them like friends. In addition, we have good reason to believe the gods are not good, since in the past they have allowed so much evil.  You could still claim that you trust in the gods and nothing anyone can say will undermine your belief, “but this is just a description of how stubborn you are; it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of God’s goodness.”

Furthermore all the reasons offered as to why the world’s evil is consistent with good gods could be used to show why it’s consistent with evil gods. For example, we could say that an evil god gives us free will so we can do evil things. Or we could say that evil exists to make people cynical and bitter (instead of compassionate and courageous), or it exists so that we quite caring about others (instead of becoming morally urgent.)

In short there are 3 possibilities concerning the gods: 1) they are more likely to be all bad (a theist doesn’t want this to be true; 2) they are more likely to be all-good (but this can’t be true since any evidence for this thesis will also support #1); or 3) they are equally likely to be all-bad or all-good. But if 3 is true, then what excuses do the gods have for allowing evil? They have none. And the reason is because for any excuse for evil’s existence to be justified, it must be highly probable that the excuse is true. But note that option 3 rules this out, since according to 3 there is no more reason to think the excuse is valid than that it is not valid.

Why then don’t the gods intervene according to Johnson? Because they don’t exist.