God vs Knysna fires and Vegter vs Vegter

Earlier this month, as a runaway fire was claiming many lives and many houses in Knysna, Ivo Vegter* wrote a Daily Maverick column that lamented the fact that essential communication channels for disaster-relief were being used to offer prayers and other religious homilies.

Given that Ivo was himself dealing with the same threat to home and safety, and assisting with the relief efforts, it’s understandable that he thought the “emoticons of praying hands, or even entire prayers” shared over WhatsApp were getting in the way of more essential communication, and many Christians will agree with him on this.

His column went further than criticising inappropriate communications. It also addressed the “problem of evil” (why does a good God allow suffering?); and the apparent hypocrisy of believers, where they are sometimes quick to thank god(s) for “putting out fires” but never blame those same god(s) for starting them in the first place. Why won’t God heal amputees, in other words.

The column attracted a response from another Vegter, Onne, who is Ivo’s brother and a Christian, and who tells us that Ivo’s column

reveals some of the typical straw-man arguments, flawed philosophy and poor understanding of the nature of God that is common among atheists.

It’s a dangerous gambit to start a rebuttal with such bold claims, tossing accusations of argumentative weakness and a lack of understanding at someone, especially when arguing from a faith-based perspective, because as wrong or right as Ivo (or any of us non-believers) might be, there is still a point at which our arguments can collide with fact and reality, whereas there is no religious argument that can’t be solved or reconciled via appeal to “interpretation” or “faith” (often in some judicious combination).

So I’d far rather see columns like Onne’s saying “that’s not how we, as Christians, understand God” by contrast to “you’re wrong about God” because, well, none of these god(s) likely exist, and any careful analysis of arguments for them, and justifications of what they allow to happen, collapse under secular (which doesn’t mean anti-religious) scrutiny, as is the case here.

Onne’s column is long, so I won’t address all of it, but instead just offer a few examples of why its defense of (his version of) God is entirely circular (in that it depends on a certain definition of God and its virtues to define God and its virtues), and also unpersuasive in other respects.

On the problem of evil, Onne says

We can start by pointing out that there are two kinds of evil in the world. Death and suffering can result from either of these, or a combination of the two. Let’s call them human evil and natural evil.

We’re told that God could prevent “human evil” (bad things we do to each other), but doesn’t, because that would “violate our free will”. This is a good example of the circularity spoken of earlier, in that the Christian understanding of free will is “libertarian” or “contracausal” free will, where agents could decide to do X or Y regardless of their circumstances (leaving aside mental illness).

But that perspective on free will is not held by many people whose job it is to think about such matters (a mere 17% of professional philosophers think this sort of free will plausible, according to the PhilPapers survey). If you’re a compatibilist or a determinist, you’d be hard-pressed to explain “human evil” as a free choice if, for example, someone was born and grew up in an environment that encouraged such “evil” (for whatever reason).

Such a person would (even on a compatibilist view) never get the chance to exercise the sort of free choice that makes that evil their fault, rather than the fault of whoever set this chain of events into motion, namely God. The Christian “free will” defense relies, in short, on a very tenuous conception of what free will is, and assumes that we have a degree of agency that we might well not have at all. Basically, it’s a poor attempt to evade the question posed by the “problem of evil”.

What about “natural evil”? How do we explain fires, floods and landslides?

The answer is found in the Scriptures. The book of Genesis explains that everything God created was “good”. There was no death, suffering and destruction before the fall of mankind (the moment we chose evil over good). But after we sinned, everything changed. Since the fall, all of creation is under a curse because of sin, because mankind chose evil and opted not to trust and obey God.

Onne goes on to remind us that this Earth is a temporary home, where we make the choice to accept or reject God, and option A gets us into the permanent home of Heaven.

The problem with this account of “natural evil”, from a secular perspective, is that when”all of creation is now in a state of decay, suffering the consequences of sin”, those fires and floods don’t do any discriminating between wiping out Coldplay fans or kittens.

More to the point, they don’t discriminate in favour of cute little orphans either, who have had no chance to exercise their (perhaps nonexistent) “free will”, and who haven’t done any sinning themselves yet, either. (But aha! They were born into sin, we’d now be told, which is again an example of the kind of circularity you are forced to rely on when defending arguments that make no sense.)

The basic problem here is that if we need to redefine God’s “goodness” to accommodate all this apparent “badness”, while relying on a tortured chain of argument, it becomes fairly clear that when you claim that God is “good”, the claim can only make sense if “good” means something quite alien to us humans. But if we stick to “good” in our sense of the word, God becomes a rather unworthy recipient of that label.

Onne then goes on to misrepresent both the debate about the historicity of Jesus, as well as atheist views on that debate, but I’ll not address that here. (I’m not personally a “mythicist”, i.e. someone who disbelieves in the historical character “Jesus”, but it’s not a wildly implausible hypothesis.)

The next section, I realise now on re-reading it, is perhaps the most egregious bit of reasoning in the entire column. I’ll leave you with a quote from it, and the stated intention to return to this discussion in the next day or two.

The presence of evil in this world does not argue against the existence of God. In fact it confirms the existence of good, because evil is the absence of good, and the constructs of “good” and “evil” require a standard, an absolute moral code that allows us to call something good or evil. This is a contradiction often overlooked by atheists. They use the terms good and evil, but in a true atheist understanding of the world, there is no such thing as good or evil.

*Disclosure: I was previously a colleague of Ivo’s at Daily Maverick.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.