[Book Review] God? : A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist

Dialogue with Sinnott-Armstrong’s God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist

Craig, William Lane, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. God? : A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, Point/Counterpoint Series. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Review by Mu-tien Chiou

  1. I.                   Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument against God’s existence

In God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, Sinnott-Armstrong cites the Christian assumption that faith can be immune from the standards of science “one of the central confusions about God’s existence” in the tradition, “because it lies outside the realm where evidence is possible”. He labels this argument under the rubric of “the argument from ignorance”.

He contends that in our everyday life we have been taught to adopt the scientific principle to not believe in entities for which we have no evidence. This rule especially applies to extraordinary things about which commonsense is not widely held. He gives vivid example to illustrate this point: if someone asserts to have ordinary clothes in one’s closet, in most cases others might not require evidence to believe in her, for most people can analogize their past experiences of closets to this individual’s particular claim. But if what is in view is an unprecedented entity such as “a perfect shirt” or “an invisible cloak”, then it is natural that the burden of proof falls on whoever makes such a claim to make belief of those things in her closet (p.101). According to Sinnott-Armstrong, the same standards apply to beliefs about God, “even if God were defined so as to remove any possibility of evidence against His existence” (p.102).

Relegating conventional “natural” evidence such as religious experience and miracles to “illusions” and “magic tricks” in terms of their epistemic status (p.103), Sinnott-Armstrong then concludes that the absence of epistemically valid evidence at best supports agnosticism rather than theism (p.102-3). Moreover, he calls into question the theistic argument that an all-good and Almighty God would hide Himself at certain times from certain people for the reason that less evidence could do good to human beings’ faith in Him. Sinnott-Armstrong offers an illustrative counterargument: the fact that he has faith in his wife’s love for him does not follow that this faith will benefit from less evidence about her love, let alone the absence of it. An all-good and Almighty God could have just revealed Himself to each individual to the degree that accords exactly with every person’s spiritual condition so that most people will turn to Him with their faith strengthened— yet God seems have not done so. To Sinnott-Armstrong this disproves the existence of such a God.

  1. II.                William Lane Craig’s response to the argument

Craig takes on the evidentialist challenge and thinks it is “fairly easy” to answer (p.107). One of his major theses is to first affirm Sinnott-Armstrong’s contention for agnosticism, while refuting “atheism.” He then dissects the evidentialist approach with a nuanced analogy: The absence of evidence for an elephant in this room is epistemically forceful against thinking there is one in this room, whereas the absence of evidence for a flea in the same room does not provide good epistemic ground for the disbelief of the presence of fleas there (p.108). The point of this analogy is that due to the limitation of human perception, hard evidence, while existing, may well fall outside of our reach. This allows faith to come in and play its role. Sometimes we have to trust the claims of those who have the “superior tools” to detect fleas in this room and stop begging for evidence to be shown before our naked eye.

Turning into the particularity of Christian worldview, in the next section Craig develops the thesis as to how an all-good and Almighty God would not reveal Himself more fully to the extent where the atheists would all be satisfied. Craig insists that God is much more interested in building a loving relationship with people than merely having them to believe in His existence. For in the Old Testament, God’s revealed-ness cannot be said of more conspicuous to the Israelites, “His chosen people”, yet those people “fell into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness” (p.109). According to James 2:19, “even the demons believe that there is one God—and shudder.” God purports much more than “demonizing” our faith in Him.

Indeed, from the believers’ perspective the lack of evidence is never an established argument. According to Craig, God’s handiwork in nature already made people’s unbelief excuseless (Rom 1:20), and the moral conscience in each individual that provides the basic objective ground for talking about ethics is also evident to a supreme Judge (Rom 2:14-15).

Craig then concludes this section with a charge reminiscent of the classical argument of theodicy (Théodicée) by Leibniz. According to Leibniz, the actual world must be the “best” among all the possible worlds if we are to assume an all-good and Almighty God. Along this line, Sinnott-Armstrong’s attempt to deny the best world assumption by postulating “a yet better possible world” (namely, such a God could have done much better) is purely speculative and not logically persuasive.

  1. III.             Assessment of the strengths or weaknesses of Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument

Before we begin to evaluate Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument and Craig’s response, we have to be clear about the argumentative strategies they are using. In the section of “the argument from ignorance”, Sinnott-Armstrong seems to employ the evidentialist criterion to reject the belief in an all good and Almighty God. Craig’s response to the challenge consists of two majors parts. On the one hand, he attempts to weaken the standard of evidence so as to allow for a broader definition of proof in biblical terms, including “affirming the watchmaker by merely seeing the watch” and human conscience, which are not “universally accepted” as legitimate proof for God (just like not everyone has the tools to observe ‘fleas’ in the room) but are some kind of proofs nonetheless. On the other hand, Craig alludes to Leibniz’s classical theodicy dilemma, concluding that the speculation of a better (if not perfect) alternative world does by no means nullifies classical theism.

Sinnott-Armstrong made a few good points in his argument. First of all, all of those who want to insist an all good and Almighty God in the philosophical sense must be asked to prove they believe so rationally. Religious experience and miracles are not accessible to everyone who seeks for evidence. Unlike in the case of flea, where a microscope may suffice it to wipe out all skepticisms, classical theism cannot be proven rational in the evidential sense. Furthermore, religious experience and miracles may only suggest a “mighty God”, as opposed to an “all good and Almighty” one. To negate such a God, one only needs to postulate one single “unrealized” factor that could make up a better possible world (Sinnott-Armstrong hits this point in his discussion about war in the section “the problem of evil”). When more evidence about and from such a God should have fostered better faith in Him (hence more people are saved and a better world), it is absurd that an all good and Almighty God still makes Himself ambiguous to many.

I think Sinnott-Armstrong’s strategy is partially successful, for I don’t subscribe myself to classical theism or the philosopher’s God, either. I am a Barthian critical realist who thinks Christology is the first theology, especially when it comes to understanding the problem of suffering/evil. But here I have to point out his drawbacks even as it applies to classical theism.

First of all, Sinnott-Armstrong’s use of ‘faith’ seems not consistent throughout. In C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, the Anglican theologian distinguishes between two usages of the word: « Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels … In the first sense it means simply Belief. » And he continues with the second definition: « Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. » [1] When Sinnott-Armstrong illustrated his evidentialist argument with his personal faith in his wife’s love, he seems to be talking about believing the evidence of her love shown toward him (p.105). But when Christians claim that rock solid evidence would wipe out the room for faith, this should be defined in the Lewisian term: “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). This resilient faith would benefit from its own anti-fragility. So while his wife’s loving acts may strengthen his belief in her love for him, it might not work for the good of his faith in her love.

        Another line of critique, commonly advanced by reformed epistemologists, is that Sinnott-Armstrong fails noticing that certain beliefs in our lives are just properly basic. Questioning them will simply lead to sheer skepticism (or agnosticism or sollicism). Indeed, this seems to be the route he chooses to go when he advocates that “we should suspend belief until we have evidence (even if this is a very long time)” (p.104). However, I do not get why those who think they have experienced an all-good and Almighty God should not take their belief and experience as properly basic.

His skepticism-driven argument becomes even more problematic when he insists that the traditional God is obliged to manifest Himself more evidently (p.105). Certainly, we grant that better evidence does help an individual like Thomas to make up his little faith (John 20:26-28), but there are also other instances when the plethora of evidence may fail (Craig mentioned the ancient Israelites in the OT) or rob the person of His reward (John 20:29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”). Whether we subscribe to Leibniz’s theodicy or not, we have to acknowledge that it is sheer arrogant on our part to think that we can initiate a better world than this one by tweaking any part of it on God’s behalf. The famous case of butterfly effect teaches us that the complexity of this universe is beyond us. So who is to say that more evidence will save more or achieve greater good?

Lastly, I hope to say that no evidence can proof an all-good and Almighty God, and it is not of my interest to defend such a God. The created universe reveals His relationship to us as a creator; our moral conscience may indicate His relationship to us as a lawgiver and ours to Him as image-bearers. Our knowledge and belief of these do not come through deductive reasoning but through the revelation of analogies. Ultimately it takes a leap of faith (in Kierkegaard’s term) or a sanctified imagination (in C.S. Lewis’ term) to arrive a full-blown biblical faith in Him.

[1] Lewis, C. S. (2001). Mere Christianity: a revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books, Broadcast talks, Christian behaviour, and Beyond personality. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco


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