Unjustified Agnosticism: Micah Edvenson’s case for skepticism (part 2)

This is the second reaction article to Micah Edvenson’s case for agnosticism. Our last post focused on explanatory power with a particular focus on the arguments from divine hiddenness and religious disagreement. You can find that post here.

In this article, we’ll look at Edvenson’s second argument for atheism: evil and animal suffering. I recommend reviewing his post to get the most out of this article.

Brief Summary

Although it may be possible that God and evil should coexist, it seems unlikely that God would allow so much evil, doesn’t it? We seem to encounter evil in our world of a type and quantity that just seems unreasonable if an omnibenevolent and all-powerful God runs things.

Indeed better worlds are possible, says Edvenson. It is simple to conceive of a world with one less rape or one less cancer diagnosis. No serious person would deny that the world could be better than it is. If it could have been better, why didn’t God make it better? Since God didn’t make the best world, we reasonably suspect that God did not make the world at all.

Even if one makes the argument that wicked humans deserve what they get, what about animals? Edvenson asks about a fawn who survives a forest fire to endure several days of pain and then die. The fawn hasn’t sinned against God, right? Does the fawn deserve a painful death?

Edvenson points out that humanity’s fall can’t be blamed for animal suffering because animal suffering came first. What about all of the prehistorical animal suffering?

Indeed, says Edvenson, the evil and suffering in our world gives us reason to doubt God’s existence.

Response

Edvenson’s article is helpful because it forces us to consider what we mean when we say God is all-powerful. Theologians use the term “omnipotence” to mean that God has the power to do everything possible. No one thinks God can do the impossible. This means that God is subject to design constraints.

For example, God cannot force you to freely choose something. God may force your hand, but you will need to cooperate for your choice to be free. God will need to bring about the circumstances in which you’ll make a choice if he wants you to do something freely.

This sort of thinking gives rise to the doctrine known as “Molinism.” Molinism is the view that God brings about an individual’s salvation by bringing about the circumstances in which they would freely accept his offer. The Apostle Paul says this most clearly in Acts 17:26-27, “… he marked out [humanity’s] appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands…so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…” God chose to bring about our world because it had the optimal circumstances for people to find God.

We have a stark contrast here between Edvenson’s critical assumption and the theistic account. Edvenson assumes that God’s goal is to alleviate suffering. None of the world’s religions would agree. On the Christian conception of God, his chief purpose for human history is to redeem the most people into a relationship with himself. It may be that only in a world saturated with evil will the greatest number of people see their need for God.

This brings up another issue that appears in Edvenson’s article. He thinks that if a world is conceivable, then God can bring it about. As discussed above, this may not be the case. It may be that a better world than ours is possible, but if God tried to bring about that world, none of us would go along. Surely a world in which everyone loves their neighbor would be better than the current world. Even so, many of us will not go along with God in trying to bring about that world. The issue isn’t whether a better world is possible. We need to know if a better world is feasible, given human freedom. In short, for Edvenson’s argument to go through, he would need to show not only that God could do his part in bringing about a better world; he would need to show that we would all do our part as well.

Let’s consider Edvenson’s argument from animal suffering. Michael Murray of Reasonable Faith claims that self-awareness is necessary for real suffering. [1] Animals feel pain, of course, but without an awareness of themselves, it is an open question whether animals suffer.

This sounds strange, but Murray cites a phenomenon known as “blindsight” as an example. Some blind individuals can avoid obstacles using their sight as they walk through a room. They can see, but they are not aware of their ability to see and thus have no firsthand sensation. From their firsthand experience, they don’t see anything.

Since animals lack the capacity for higher-order thought, it may be the case that they lack the ability for firsthand experiences of suffering. Since their consciousness does not rise to the level of self-consciousness, they may lack firsthand experiences. We observe them reacting to pain just as we see the blind person avoiding objects, but we can’t know what they experience.

If Murray is right, then the weight of animal suffering is mostly alleviated. As we have seen earlier, however, even if Murray is wrong, it may still be the case that God has morally sufficient reasons to permit animal suffering. If more people would come to know God in a world where animal suffering is common, then God may be justified to create that world.

What about the claim that the fall can’t cause animal suffering because it existed before the fall? We’ve considered the possibility that God created the world that is best suited for the redemption of mankind. Since God foreknows the future, it doesn’t seem to be any problem to think he has planned ahead for humanity’s fall.

Conclusion

I am not convinced that Edvenson has a case against God. He cannot show that humanity would cooperate in bringing about a better world, and God may have morally sufficient reasons to create our world with all its flaws. Since neither evil nor animal suffering can give us good reason to doubt God’s existence, Edvenson’s agnosticism remains unjustified.

In my next article, I will review Edvenson’s third argument: determinism. If you found this article helpful and would like to read the next one, remember to subscribe.

[1] Murray, M. (2014, February 2). Animal Pain Re-visited: Reasonable Faith. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/animal-pain-re-visited


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