Philosophers who defend theism by making use of the classical arguments or some variation thereof (like the cosmological argument, the teleological and fine tuning arguments and the moral argument) have always been realistic about what each of these arguments, if sound, establishes. The cosmological argument establishes that the universe has a cause with certain features (the features of being spaceless, timeless and if Bill Craig is right, personal). The teleological argument, if sound, establishes that there is a creator with intelligent intentions. The arguments are obviously and intentionally limited in scope, so it makes no sense to complain that one of them doesn’t establish, say, the Apostles’ Creed. This is a point sometimes lost on apologists for atheism. Richard Dawkins, for example, complained that the cosmological argument doesn’t also tell us that the one true God has the properties of omniscience, omnipotence, creativity, mercy and so on. But the answer to this complaint, as Bill Craig duly noted, is a rather obvious “so what”?
I was prompted by a recent comment by a visitor to have another look at what I take to be a related and more recent line of argument against traditional arguments for theism, this time an argument by Stephen Law (I was prompted further still when Stephen Law joined in the discussion himself). In his original and enjoyable article “the evil-god challenge,” Law explains:
[E]ven if most of the popular arguments for the existence of God do provide grounds for supposing that there is some sort of supernatural intelligence behind the universe, they fail to provide much clue as to its moral character. Suppose, for example, that the universe shows clear evidence of having been designed. To conclude, solely on that basis, that the designer is supremely benevolent would be about as unjustified as it would be to conclude that it is, say, supremely malevolent, which clearly would not be justified at all.1
This is not an objection to the arguments for theism, but it is correct nonetheless. There is no reason here to think that the arguments in question are unsound, this is no more than the uncontroversial observation that those arguments are limited in scope. An argument showing that atheism is false is not, of course, necessarily an argument for Christianity in all of its fullness. (I am assuming that arguments that the greatest possible being must also be perfectly good are arguments in addition to the basics of the classical arguments for theism.)
If this were the whole story, then the response could be a fairly abrupt “so what?” But this is only 99.999% of the story. The rest of the story is as follows: Law then says during the remainder of the article that actually, the statement quoted above is true, concluding that “Perhaps there are grounds for supposing that the universe was created by an intelligent being. But, at this point in time, the suggestion that this being is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally good seems to me hardly more reasonable than the suggestion that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil.” After all, the thesis that God is benevolent faces the problem of evil, but this problem would not confront the believer in a malevolent God. Law does provide us with an inventive and almost amusing (in a good way) account of how the believer in a malevolent God could provide reversed versions of arguments that believers in a good God now give. For example, instead of a problem of evil, we might have the problem of good. Why would a malevolent God allow so much good in the world, perhaps much more good than evil? But just as theists now do, the worshipper of the malevolent God can wheel in a free will defence. Or, just as theists now offer an eschatological defence: God will put things right in the end and an eternity of heaven will outweigh temporary evils, the believer in the malevolent God can say that any good done in this life will be cancelled out with an eternity of suffering at the hands of a malicious God.
There does seem to be a degree of feigned amazement on Law’s part at how serious a challenge the evil God hypothesis really is, however. In his closing paragraph he says, as though he has no idea how his challenge could ever be met: “While I acknowledge the possibility that the evil-god challenge might yet be met, I cannot myself see how.” But he has already indicated how the challenge might be met: via a moral argument. The argument that moral facts about what is right and wrong, facts that we are indeed aware of (such as the fact that killing and torturing for fun are wrong), could not obtain unless there were a God. This type of argument is not merely an argument for a very powerful being, or a being who is intelligent, or a being who created the universe or who is a person (as in some of the other classical arguments for theism). This argument is borne out of the recognition that certain moral facts exist about duties to do good, duties that are reflective of the divine will for human beings. This would involve, not just any God, but one who is good (in the non-moral sense i.e. benevolent). An argument like this, Law concedes, is the “most promising” way to tackle the hypothesis of a malevolent God. He therefore does see how the theist who believes in a good God might respond. Why then, is this response not enough? Law gives just two reasons and no more:
Firstly, Law says, “However, to date, it remains, even among theists, controversial whether any such argument exists.” But this surely cannot be all that relevant. For starters, my anecdotal experience is evidently not the same as Law’s, since I am familiar with more theistic philosophers who would endorse, rather than eschew the moral argument. But that hardly matters here. Secondly and more importantly, it is contentious to say that such an argument does not exist in light of the number of theistic philosophers (not to mention theists in general) who think that such an argument does exist. The brute fact of disagreement over whether or not a decent moral argument has been offered surely doesn’t weaken any moral argument that has been offered.
Secondly, other than the more sociological observation that there is not unanimity in the acceptance of moral arguments for theism, Laws does give a reason for rejecting moral arguments, by reaching, as many have done, for that familiar line of argument from Plato’s Euthyphro. This is the only actual criticism of the moral argument presented here. But whether or not the Euthyphro dialogue shows a genuine problem for theologically grounded ethics is much more contentious among philosophers of religion and ethics than is the moral argument among theists! In reaching for this argument, Law reaches for an argument that as far as I can tell is widely regarded has having failed. Contrary to Law’s very brief suggestion, both of the horns of the dilemma: that either God is not really the source of morality after all, or else God’s commands are purely arbitrary, are avoided by someone who, for example, holds to a sophisticated version of a divine command theory of ethics.
But if the fact that not all theists accept moral arguments is irrelevant, and if the only reason Law gave for rejecting moral arguments is widely discredited, he has done nothing to fend off the force of moral arguments against the evil God challenge. If we recognise moral truths that require benevolent conduct and shun malevolent conduct, and if moral truths only exist because of the will of God, then this must surely count heavily – perhaps even decisively – against the hypothesis that God is malevolent rather than good.
Stephen Law then simply hasn’t done enough. Given the fact that he recognises that, in principle, a moral argument might do the trick of responding to the “evil God challenge,” it is painfully inadequate to simply say that not all theists agree, and then to make a brisk appeal to the supposed problem generated by the Euthyphro dialogue, a problem that is seldom taken seriously in the literature. What he really needed to do was to lay out the moral argument in its best form and then show that it just isn’t sound, and therefore fails to do what some say it does, namely show that theism is true, and also that it points to a good rather than a malevolent deity. Unless he does this there is no reason to grant his point, and the remainder of the article can, like the comment of Dawkins, be dismissed with a resounding “so what?”
- Stephen Law, “The Evil-God Challenge,” Religious Studies 46:3 (2010), 353.