Problems with "A God Problem"

The "Western" idea of God is coherent

Posted Mar 26, 2019

Photo by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, CCL
Source: Photo by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, CCL

In an essay published yesterday at the New York Times, philosophy professor Peter Atterton claims that the idea of a morally perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful God is incoherent. If this is true, then those who believe in such a God are in a bad spot. It's not just that they don't have enough evidence for their belief in God. The problem is that the very notion of the God they say they believe in is contradictory. Given the law of non-contradiction, this means that it is logically impossible for God to exist. This is about as bad as it gets for any idea.

Fortunately for those who do believe in such a God, Atterton is wrong. The idea of God is coherent. It is not a contradictory notion. Contrary to the impression one might get from Atterton's essay, much work has been done by philosophers in the past 50 years on every single point he raises. Some of these points–such as the problem of evil–are perennial difficulties. But numerous replies have been given, many of which are excellent. Other issues he raises are simply not a problem for our idea of God.

Regarding the problem of evil, Atterton describes Alvin Plantinga's version of the free will defense. On Plantinga's view, in order for God "to create creatures capable of moral good, [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil." Atterton argues that this reply doesn't explain natural suffering, such as earthquakes or famine. But in one sense, Plantinga is not trying to explain the evil and suffering that exists in our world. He is making the case that evil and suffering are logically compatible with the existence of a perfect God. In fact, Plantinga argues that it is logically possible that other supernatural beings (e.g. fallen angels) could explain the natural evils that are a result of non-human causes. To be clear, he is not arguing that this is true, only that it is logically possible. There is nothing logically contradictory in such an explanation. And it is the logical coherence of theism that Atterton is rejecting.

Atterton makes the following claim at a few points, "If God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do." First, it is important to realize that if God is a perfect being, then that perfection will limit the traits God possesses or even can possess. Of course, a morally perfect being does not know what it is like to sin, to inflict pain on others out of malice and for the sake of pleasure. Of course, a morally perfect being does not know what it is like to lust, to be greedy, or to hate. Of course, a morally perfect being does not know literally everything, because a morally perfect being would not know what it is like to perform evil actions or have evil desires.

The biblical authors recognized such limits on God. For example, they observe that God cannot lie (Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Titus 1:2, Heb 6:18).

Properly understood, there is no incoherence in the notion of a perfect God. When understood with sufficient precision and detail, "the idea of God that most Westerners accept" is coherent. Does such a God in fact exist? There are good arguments in favor of the claim that God exists. There are important counterarguments that must be considered. But we should look at those arguments and replies, knowing that the idea of God at issue is coherent.

Belief in God can be reasonable. Blaise Pascal would agree. Pascal seems to have thought that the philosophical evidence was about 50/50 on the God question. The note Atterton describes–the one sewn into the lining of Pascal's cloak and found by a servant after his death–is not a repudiation of reason. It was a confession that resulted from a deeply religious experience Pascal had. He contended that he had personally encountered the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This God has the traits of the God of the philosophers, but many others as well. Pascal found wisdom in philosophy, in reason, in revelation, and in his experience. Together, these sources of evidence grounded his faith in God.

I have not responded to every point Atterton makes; that is not my intent. For those who are interested, there is a wealth of work in philosophy of religion dealing with these issues.1

For raising these issues in the New York Times, Atterton is to be applauded. For taking the time to do philosophy for a public audience, he is to be appreciated. But his essay falls short insofar as it fails to engage sufficiently with the vast amount of work done by religious philosophers and scholars over the past 25 years, and arguably the past 2,500.

We all have philosophical beliefs, not just about God, but many other things. Perhaps we can give reasons for them. As Pascal urged his contemporaries who thought religious faith was not a live option, there is a lot at stake when we think about God, ethics, and other philosophical issues. These questions are too important to ignore. They must be thought about deeply, and they must be thought about well. We must do our best to understand and weigh the evidence. Then, we go where it leads us. I hope Atterton's essay and my reply here spur many readers to do just that.


1. See the writings of Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, or Eleonore Stump, for example. See books such as Reason for the Hope Within, The Reason for GodReasonable Faith, or the classic by CS Lewis, Mere Christianity. For those interested in reading a contemporary atheist on these issues, I recommend the work of Erik Wielenberg. And to see why, contrary to Atterton's claim, the Christian idea of the incarnation, of God becoming human, is coherent, see The Logic of God Incarnate.