An alleged philosphy professor, Peter Atterton, wrote an article for The New York Times this week entitled, “A God Problem: Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”
Atterton has written quite a check with that headline — one that he is not able to cash. He sets the expectation that he will essentially disprove God by demonstrating that the very idea of God is logically impossible. This is, indeed, the best available tactic for atheists. Science can only show us the workings of the natural world. It can tell us nothing about what may or may not lie beyond it. God does not have to obey the laws of science as we know them, but He does have to be logically coherent. If God is like a married bachelor or a square circle, then He literally cannot exist. Atterton wants us to lump God into that category, but fails to make his case.
Let’s go through his arguments, one by one:
First consider the attribute of omnipotence. You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.
I can remember being stumped by this theological conundrum when I was in kindergarten. As an adult, I tend to find nonsense much more annoying than perplexing. The “unliftable stone” problem is only a problem because it makes no sense. If God is all-powerful, then all stones are by definition liftable. What’s really being asked here is this: “Can God create a liftable unliftable stone.” No, He cannot, just as He cannot make an elephant that is also a pine tree. God cannot do nonsensical things, precisely because He exists. Only non-existent things can be nonsense.
His next argument:
Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible. Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction. It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same. Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?
The standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will… However, this does not explain so-called physical evil (suffering) caused by nonhuman causes (famines, earthquakes, etc.). Nor does it explain, as Charles Darwin noticed, why there should be so much pain and suffering among the animal kingdom.
We have gone right from unliftable stones to the problem of evil. Professor Atterton is apparently not trying to win points for originality. But the greater problem is that he is debunking an argument no one is making. Nobody says that “evil is necessary” for free will to exist. Rather, the possibility of evil is necessary. This seems like a rather logical conclusion. If we have the freedom to do good, we must have the freedom to do bad. If I am free to pick up a man’s lost wallet and return it to him, I must also be free to keep it for myself and go on a shopping spree with his credit card. If my only choice is to return the wallet, then the act cannot be called a “choice” and it hardly can be called “good.” If we had no choice but to do good, then we would be puppets on a cosmic string, dancing to God’s tune without any agency of our own.
Suffering not caused by the direct actions of human beings presents a much steeper challenge to the theist. The professor mentions famines and earth quakes. We’ll leave aside the fact that free will does often play a role in famines, which can be caused by incompetent and corrupt governance (see North Korea) and other human failings. But earthquakes, like tsunamies and hurricanes, certainly do happen without human prompting. The Christian answer is that mankind fell into dischord when it rejected God and its harmony with the natural world was lost. The professor may not like this answer, but there is nothing logically contradictory about it.
What about animal suffering? In order to use the suffering of animals as an argument against God, you must first understand the suffering of animals, which nobody does. We know animals can feel pain because they have nervous systems. We do not know how much they suffer, because suffering requires a conscious awareness of your own selfhood. To really suffer, you must be able to say “I am suffering.” Are dogs capable of this sort of awareness? Until you can answer that question, this argument carries little weight.
What about God’s infinite knowledge — His omniscience? …If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection. Why?
There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect… But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.
This is absurd. Sin does not confer knowledge. There are no facts that we learn from experiencing lust and envy that God could not know without experiencing it. We do not say of a lustful, envious man that he is knowledgable. We are more likely to say the opposite. Sin is often the result of a lack of wisdom. If the lustful man could see everything clearly, and fully comprehend the futility of his actions and the consequences of giving in to his temptations, he probably would not be as tempted. It is because of God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom that He does not sin. It makes no sense to claim that’s God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom prevents Him from sinning and that, therefore, He is not infinitely wise and knowing. The only thing incoherent here is the professor’s reasoning.
That’s it. No other arguments against God are offered. We are supposed to find these potent enough to swear off our religion and embrace the emptiness of atheism. I must admit that I do not feel moved in that direction.