What’s going on with philosophy at Notre Dame? First they give us Alvin Plantinga, the emperor with no clothes, and now Gary Gutting, an expert in French philosophy and the philosophy at religion at Notre Dame. In a piece published at the “Opnionator” in yesterday’s New York Times, “Does it matter whether God exists?“, gutting uses up a lot of dead trees to say essentially nothing.
His first point, which is bloody obvious, is that it matters to a lot of people whether the claims of religion are true. Responding to a BBC piece by John Gray that claims otherwise, Gutting argues:
The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.
If our hope is for salvation in this sense — and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs’ being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, it depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.
So what’s new? Nothing above, but then Gutting makes the equally obvious claim that even an all-powerful and all-loving God might not be able to prevent evil. That’s also bloody obvious, because there is evil. Gutting then offers up the same tired old theodicy: we’re not sure about why there’s evil, but maybe it has something to do with free will.
An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of this necessity.
Of course, an all-good God would do everything possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for all we know that minimum might have to include our annihilation or eternal suffering. We might hope that any evil we endure will at least be offset by an equal or greater amount of good for us, but there can be no guarantee. As defenders of theism often point out, the freedom of moral agents may be an immense good, worth God’s tolerating horrendous wrongdoing. Perhaps God in his omniscience knows that the good of allowing some higher type of beings to destroy our eternal happiness outweighs the good of that happiness. Perhaps, for example, their destroying our happiness is an unavoidable step in the moral drama leading to their salvation and eternal happiness.
There are five responses here. The obvious one is that the most parsimonious hypothesis is not a God who allows horrible suffering for some purpose completely incomprehensible to humans, but simply that there is no God, and evils are the byproduct of a physical universe containing evolved beings. Second, if there is a God who allows things like the Holocaust for the greater good, who would want to worship Him? Third, if God is really omnipotent, why is it not in his power to allow free will, but ensure that people only make good choices? If not, why not? Fourth, what about natural evils, like earthquakes and tsunamis? Couldn’t God prevent those? After all, they have nothing to do with free will. (Plantinga’s ridiculous answer is that there is such a thing as “natural” free will: we have to allow Earth to do its thing so that evolution can proceed smoothly.) Fifth, do animals need to suffer, too, even if they don’t have free will? Why couldn’t an omnipotent God prevent that, too?
Gutting then argues that if an omnipotent God allows suffering for reasons beyond our ken, then perhaps he might not give us an afterlife for equally obscure reasons.
I’m not sure why Gutting feels compelled to cover this well-trod ground, showing us for the elebenty gazillionth time that there’s no successful response to the problem of evil save appeal to a mysterious God. He concludes:
We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we need to find a better response to the problem of evil than an appeal to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to reconsider John Gray’s idea of religion with little or no belief.
Well, that’s a decent conclusion, but surely everyone knows by now that the problem of evil is the Achilles Heel of religion, but that plenty of people are satisfied with the answer that “it’s all mysterious.” Gray could have used tangible examples, though, to make this point clearer and more damaging to faith. And he neglects another alternative to consider: not “religion with little or no belief”, but no religion at all. Why doesn’t he say that? Has he been talking to Alain de Botton? In my view “religion with no belief” is like “a steak with no meat”: an oxymoron.