Background Beliefs and an Internal Criticism of Christianity Based on the Problem of Evil

I'm having a discussion with a Christian named Drew, who has a B.S. in philosophy, which can be read here. Let me summarize some of the main arguments so far concerning what I've previously called The Most Asinine Christian Argument I've Probably Ever Heard...

I have argued that the more often Christians have to resort to background beliefs—the more often they have to resort to their overall religious worldview to defend a particular tenet of faith—then the less likely their faith is true. I realize we all retreat to background beliefs here and there to support a weak plank in our worldviews, an anomaly, so to speak. But the more one has to do this then the weaker his whole position is. And I claim that on any given issue I wrote about in my book, one after another, a Christian cannot defend that issue on its own terms. Instead he must resort to his background beliefs to do so, time after time, after time. THAT'S why I say my case should be judged as a whole. It's because it will become crystal clear that the Christian cannot fall back on any background belief since I attack each and every major background belief he has, one after another, from the existence of God, to miracles, to the resurrection of Jesus.

When it comes to the problem of evil I made an argument that a Christian must deal with based upon what he believes, not upon what I believe. Based upon what he believes about God and this world he must reconcile the two on its own terms. It’s an internal problem to his belief (not mine) about the existence of a perfectly good God given the massive amount of suffering there is in this world.

Here is my argument:
If God is perfectly good, all knowing, and all powerful, then the issue of why there is so much suffering in the world requires an explanation. The reason is that a perfectly good God would be opposed to it, an all-powerful God would be capable of eliminating it, and an all-knowing God would know what to do about it. So the extent of intense suffering in the world means for the theist that either God is not powerful enough to eliminate it, or God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is just not smart enough to know what to do about it. The stubborn fact of intense suffering in the world means that something is wrong with God’s ability, or his goodness, or his knowledge. I consider this as close to an empirical refutation of Christianity as is possible.
Is this a logical argument? Yes, even though it's written for the average college student and not for the professional philosopher. Is it an evidential argument? Yes, since I'm looking at the evidence in this world. This whole distinction between a logical and evidential argument is blurred.

The way Drew describes an "internal critique" means I must show his beliefs to be logically impossible by use of deductive logic based solely on the things he believes. And he maintains that an "external critique" depends on my having ultimate standard for objective morals (a separate problem I have dealt with head-on without skirting the issue). So Drew thinks he has me choosing between two horns of a dilemma where I reject BOTH horns. It's a false dilemma. On the one hand, I reject the claim that my logical argument (above) must show his beliefs to be logically contradictory. That's a near impossible standard that isn't required of most ideas we reject. On the other hand, I reject his notion that by offering a so-called "external critique" of his present beliefs means I must have some sort of ultimate standard for objective morals to do so as an atheist, since my argument is not an atheist argument at all; it doesn’t led to atheism. It's an argument that Drew needs to consider in reconciling all that he believes, since he believes God is the author of all truth. Regardless of whether as an atheist I press this argument against him or not, and regardless of whether he agrees with me or not, he must still consider my argument to reconcile his beliefs. This is evidenced by Christian thinkers who have become process thinkers.

This stuff is elementary to me. I think he's been informed by ignorant people who feel the need to justify ignorant beliefs.

Drew said: While both approaches can be affirmed by a single atheist, they are separate critiques and cannot logically be combined into one argument.

Yes they can! I use a cumulative case argument that uses both approaches to come to the same conclusion. As I said, it’s one argument, a comprehensive one, utilizing many other arguments, both logical and inductive. Yes, each one is separate argument. That’s correct. But since no single argument can topple your whole worldview, or anyone’s for that matter, these separate arguments, while seemingly defective on their own terms, present a comprehensive and cumulative whole case.

Drew said: Note: If the atheist says of the Christian’s definitions, “Those definitions are just wrong. Christians have defined God (evil/gratuitous/greater good) incorrectly,” then the atheist has entered evidence outside the Christian worldview, and has therefore switched to an external critique.

What you must remember, is that the argument from intensive suffering is not an atheist argument. An atheist uses it, of course. But since it does not lead to atheism, it’s not an atheist argument at all. Process theologians, deists and pantheists can look at that argument, agree with it, and conclude that the Christian conception of an Omni-God is improbable while retaining some belief in God.

And it's just false to say that as an atheist I’ve entered into an external criticism of your faith by arguing with you about the correct definitions of God and evil. Because every single argument I offer has been considered by a thoughtful Christian who wants to reconcile his own conception of God based on the evidence of suffering. Some of these thinkers will remain Christians after having thought through this, while others have become process thinkers and/or atheists.

As I’ve argued on page 58 in my book, it is a solid Christian principle that “all truth is God’s truth.” Experience, for instance, has always been a check on Biblical exegesis and theology, whether it comes to Wesleyan perfectionism, perseverance of the saints, second coming predictions, Pentecostal miracle workers, and so on. While experience is not the test for truth, the Christian understanding of the truth must be able to explain personal experience. The whole science/religion discussion is an attempt to harmonize the Bible with what scientists have experienced through empirical observations of the universe. My contention is that other disciplines of learning, including experience itself, continually forces the believer to reinterpret the Bible and his notion of God, until there is nothing left to believe with regard to either of them. Is this external? It cannot be. For according to a Christian “all truth is God’s truth.” He's supposedly the creator, so he must be the author of all truth! No Christian can possibly say that all truth—all truth—is found in the Bible. Is rocket science found in the Bible? So my argument is neither an external one, nor is it an atheist argument.

What exactly is an external argument given the Christian view of truth? If an external argument is merely one that the Christian doesn't accept at the present time then that’s irrelevant, for Christian theology has adjusted itself numerous times by arguments and evidence that the previous generation did not accept. Christians should adjust their views here too, just like they’ve done with a rigorously literal view of the Genesis creation accounts in the light of modern science. They should adjust, just like they've adjusted to liberal views on women when compared to Christians of earlier centuries. They should adjust, just like they've done by condemning racism and slavery, unlike Christians who justified these things in the American South. They should adjust, just like they do with their liberal views of hell when compared to the Middle Ages. They should adjust, just like they do with regard to their liberal and heretical ideas of a free democracy when compared to earlier times of the divine rights of kings. They should adjust, just like Christians have done who no longer think the Bible justifies killing people who disagree. If these previous Christians replied to the evidence, as you do now, that such arguments are external to their faith, you'll see my point. Since Christians have historically changed their views based on this so-called “external evidence,” what they believe is now considered to be internal to their faith.

Drew said: If the atheist is making an external-evidential critique, then the atheist’s worldview must account for that evidence.

At some point, yes, and I think I have. But I do not need to make that argument before I make my case based upon the suffering in this world.

Drew said: Overall, it looks like the internal critique, but he refers to the “extent of intense suffering”.

If I cannot force the believer to look at what we find in the world itself to show his beliefs wrong, then that believer lives in la la land. You might as well be a solipsist. You MUST look at the world that exists and reconcile it with your beliefs about God. This problem, even though I point to the world that exists, is still an internal one for your beliefs.

I am distinguishing what I think about evil from what a Christian thinks. I’m claiming intensive suffering is a problem for the Christian theist. This is not my problem. It’s yours. I’m arguing that this kind of suffering is what you should consider an “evil.” That’s what this debate is all about at this point. I’m trying to argue that it is an evil from YOUR perspective. What counts as a moral evil from MY perspective can and is much different. For instance, the law of predation is not considered by me to be a moral “evil” at all. This is what I expect given evolutionary biology. But I’m arguing that it is an evil from your perspective. I think it’s you who is confused here about that which I’m arguing about.

If I cannot convince you that your faith is improbable then that does not matter. I claim it is. I use your standards to do so. Why you don’t see it is strange to me. As I former Christian I became persuaded of these things, so why is it impossible for you to do so? The answer is that it is not impossible for you to see that you’re wrong, just like I did. That’s how we change our minds, and we all do. Who knows, you might end up a panentheist after further considerations of these arguments. Who knows, right? THEN what will you say about my arguments? You will say they helped you to see the improbability of your prior beliefs.

You cannot answer YOUR problem by skirting the issue. You cannot say “you too” when you must answer an argument that you must deal with even if NO ONE pressed it against you! You must think about this problem for your faith on your own. The beliefs of a person who makes this or any argument are absolutely and completely irrelevant to the problem you yourself face. Again, if you believe all things can be reconciled by your faith then you and you alone must do the reconciling. You can say you have done so all you want to, but since human beings have an overwhelming tendency to intellectually defend those beliefs they have been brought up in, and since they treat those things they believe with an insider perspective, they must come to grips with the arguments of outsiders just to test what they believe.

I’ll have to admit Drew is tenacious, something that’s both annoying and at the same time rewarding. It’s annoying that I have written so much about the internal/external problem without any success with you. It’s rewarding because it forces me to go deeper and deeper with him.

Drew responds by saying…
An internal argument assumes the truth of the worldview, position, or argument in question in order to derive a contradiction from that assumption. Loftus is completely incapable of supporting [his arguments] with anything other than either (1) evidence of evil that is external, or (2) some other evidence against God that is unrelated to the problem of evil. If Loftus chooses option (1), then he must account for that evidence on his own worldview. If he chooses option (2), then he’s making a tacit admission that his position is weak [per what I, John, argued above with regard to retreating to background beliefs supporting a weak plank in what we believe]. The point is, explanation of how the Christian worldview accounts for certain facts is not in any way “presupposing” what one is trying to prove. If it is, then Loftus is guilty of the same thing every time he explains some feature of his worldview in order to defend it.

Loftus then argues against hell, attempting again to do it internally. His basic argument is that the “punishments don’t fit the crimes”. (p. 256) He also says that the reality of the majority of people suffering in hell is “incompatible with the theistic conception of a good God.” (p. 256)

I had to read that statement a couple times. The Christian theistic conception of God holds that He does condemn some people to hell. What “theistic conception of a good God” is Loftus talking about here? It’s not the Christian one. If the Christian conception of a good God conflicts with Loftus’ conception of a good God, or anyone else’s for that matter, so what? I know he’s trying to make it an internal argument by claiming there’s an incompatibility, but he keeps jumping outside the Christian worldview when he says things like, “the punishment doesn’t fit the crimes.” I have to ask, “by what standard?” Not the Christian one, so which one? And why is that standard true?
Here’s the problem Drew.

My particular argument in chapter 12 is not directed at the Calvinistic conception of God, per se. As I’ve already admitted, I dismiss such a Calvinistic conception of God. And it’s not supposed to be a defeater of the whole Christian worldview, since my case is a cumulative case, even if I say it’s an “empirical refutation” of such a God (which is rhetoric, although I believe it). Nor is it a logical disproof of the theistic God, although it is a logical argument. Therefore, your criticisms of my arguments are not aimed properly against that which I am arguing against. In that sense there should be several occasions where you would be found saying: “Yes, John is absolutely correct, given the nature of that which he’s arguing against.”

Even at that, I take a swipe at your conception of God when I shared John Beversluis’s argument:
“If the word ‘good’ must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If on the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that ‘good’ in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards.”
As I said, there is no real distinction between an internal and external criticism given that you believe all truth is God’s, for you must still account for the external evidence of intense suffering in this world. Besides, in any deductive argument ABOUT THE WORLD (in contrast with abstract entities) there is always an appeal to induction from the evidence found in the world, while in any inductive argument there is always some deduction that must be concluded from the evidence.

Reductio ad absurdum arguments can either be used to show what you believe is logically impossible or they can be used to show that your beliefs commit you an improbabilities. I’m saying something like this, “Let’s suppose you are right. If so, these are the absurd consequences. My argument is that your beliefs commit you to accept improbably absurd consequences. I’m not arguing that your beliefs are internally contradictory. Now let’s say you deny or reject the consequences that I point out. Okay. Fine. That does not mean I haven’t used a reductio ad absurdum argument. It’s clear that I have. But in order to reject my arguments you must retreat into other background beliefs to do so, and that’s when I say “the more you retreat into background beliefs the less likely your faith is true.” When it comes to the problem of intense suffering I maintain this is just another example of you retreating to these background beliefs. Once I make this point let’s move on to the next chapter, and the next and the next, until I make my whole case that you have no probable background beliefs from which to fall back on.

And so I find it completely ignorant for you to still maintain that the force of a particular argument depends on the beliefs of the one making it. Just show me one other argument that depends on the beliefs of the one making it. There is a widely accepted strategy called “the Devil’s Advocate” in which the arguer merely argues for the sake of seeing how someone responds. It would do absolutely no good once it’s realized that someone was playing the devil’s advocate to dismiss his objections at that point, for his arguments must still be met and dealt with.

Finally, as I have said, no single argument can debunk a whole Christian worldview. Yet you claim that “an internal critique must assume one's worldview at the outset for the sake of argument.” The argument I’m making in my chapters about suffering is narrowed to this problem alone. I am not taking on your whole worldview at this point. Given the nature of worldviews I can’t do that…no one can. I’m dealing strictly with one aspect of your worldview. Other chapters, such as the arguments for the existence of God, are dealt with elsewhere. If I had to abide by your rule and assume your whole worldview with everything in it, then you have given me an impossible task when dealing with any single belief in your worldview.

Worldviews, anyway, are almost but not quite incommensurable, if you know what I mean. They are elusive to an outsider’s criticisms. They account for nearly everything within it as insiders. That’s why I also argue for the “Outsider Test for Faith.” To use the insider language of a whole worldview would make it near impossible to offer any outsider criticisms of that worldview. Have you ever tried to critique pantheism as an insider? Try it. In the meantime read what Christian philosopher James Sire said about it in his book The Universe Next Door. Here’s a snippet:
“What can Westerners say? If they point to its irrationality, the Easterner rejects reason as a category. If they point to the disappearance of morality, the Easterner scorns the duality that is required for the distinction. If they point to the inconsistency between Easterner’s moral action and amoral theory, the Easterner says, ‘Well, consistency is not virtue except by reason, which I’ve already rejected.’…If the Westerner says, ‘But if you don’t eat, you’ll die,’ the Easterner responds, ‘So what? Atman is Brahman. Brahman is eternal. A death to be wished.’ It is, I think, no wonder Western missionaries have made so little headway with committed Hindus and Buddhists. They don’t speak the same language, for they hold almost nothing in common.”
That’s exactly how I feel with you. We live in different worldviews. I cannot critique your whole worldview by criticizing one issue, and we don’t speak the same language. You must simply “See” things differently. If I cannot help you to see things differently then I’ve still done the best I can. I do the best I can to bridge the worldview gap between us that I think is possible, despite your insistence that my arguments are not consistently internal (or inside) to that which you believe. I maintain they are the best that an outsider can do (they are the best I can do anyway).

Let me put this into perspective, Drew. You say God is sovereign and can do whatever he wants to with us as human beings because we’re sinners deserving of hell. This does not make him less than perfectly good, you maintain. He’s perfectly good. We deserve what he sends our way as punishment. We have done this to ourselves.

That, in brief, if I understand it properly, is your Calvinistic position…your theodicy. Granted there is much more to it, okay?

I have already argued that since we cannot behave differently, or desire to do to differently, or even believe differently than what we do, this defeats the whole notion of the God you believe. But leaving that insurmountable problem to the gerrymanderers, since it seems perfectly clear we do not deserve the treatment God punishes us with, there's more to say about this.

How then can I make you see the improbability of your beliefs? It reminds me of James Sire’s discussion above with a pantheist. You see the problem now? We see things differently. To assume this whole explanation of yours as a basis for my argument about intense suffering in this world is to assume too much for one argument. I dispute these other assumptions of yours in other parts of my book. I dispute the existence of God. I dispute the claim that we alone are responsible for our sins because God supposedly created us. And I dispute the whole notion that our sins deserve punishment in such draconian ways as we experience on earth and later in hell. I dispute the concept of hell. I dispute the concept of Satan. I even argue that you should approach your faith as an outsider.

All of these arguments converge against you when attempting to dispute my rejection of Christianity, plus more.

It’s the best anyone can do. It is certainly the best I can do.

So it’s simply false that I must assume your whole worldview (an impossible task) when disputing any single tenet insider your worldview. Such a task cannot be done when looking at any single tenet inside your worldview. But I have examined each major tenet you believe in the many other chapters in my book, all which converge to make the over-all case that your faith is delusionary.

As I said, you must continually retreat, over and over, on each and every issue I write about, to background beliefs to defend a weak plank in your worldview. You must do it for each chapter I write about. You’re doing this here on the problem of suffering. You will do it when it comes to the resurrection (since you will say miracles are not impossible if God exists). You will do it when it comes to the existence of God (since I cannot prove God does not exist). You will do it with regard to my chapter on miracles (since if God exists this would not be impossible for him). And so on and so on.

Have I made my case about the problem of suffering and the existence of God? I think so, as an outsider. But whether you think so will depend on what you think of my whole over-all case against Christianity. As I said, you must deal with my book as a whole. Maybe you’ll do that, I don’t know. But what I’ll look for is how many times you must retreat to background beliefs to support the each and every chapter in my book, beliefs which I debunk in subsequent chapters, one after another. The more you do this then the more circular your approach becomes and the less likely it has explanatory power in defending what you believe.