Skeptical theism – quick primer for the uninitiated

May 8, 2015

Heard of skeptical theism? Perhaps not. But it’s all the rage in certain religious circles. So, to get you up to speed, here’s a quick primer.


For those who regularly engage theists in discussion: There’s a good chance your religious opponent will be familiar with skeptical theism and will use it against you in arguments about the existence of God.  So it’s wise to be prepared.


The argument from evil


Perhaps the most powerful challenge to belief in a God that is all-powerful and all-good is the evidential argument from evil. That argument is often presented like so:


If gratuitous evil exists, God does not exist.

Gratuitious evil exists.

Therefore God does not exist.


Evils fall into two categories. There are ‘moral evils’: the morally bad things that we do of our own free will (we start wars, steal, etc.). There are also ‘natural evils’: natural diseases and disasters, for example, that cause great suffering. So what’s a gratuitous evil? It’s an evil that God has no good reason to create or allow.


It’s widely acknowledged that God will allow some evils. But only for a good reason. I’ll allow my young daughter repeatedly to fall off her bike and graze her knees, but for a good reason – that’s the only way she will learn to ride that bike. Being able to ride her bike, and having the sense of accomplishment that goes with that, is an important good that my daughter can’t have unless she goes through some pain and suffering. But then, just as I can have a good reason to allow those I love to go through pain and suffering, so can God.


But surely God won’t allow gratuitous evils? Being all-powerful God can prevent any evil there’s no good reason for him to allow. And being all-good he won’t want there to exist such evils. So it seems the first premise of our argument from evil is correct: God’s existence may be compatible with the existence of evils, but not with the existence of gratuitous evils.


What of the second premise of our argument: that gratuitous evils actually exist? That there are evils for which there’s no God justifying reason strikes many of us as obvious. What possible justification could there be for God to bring about hundreds of millions of years of appalling animal suffering before we even show up, for example?


However, theists typically reject that second premise. Here is the skeptical theist’s reason for doing so.


Skeptical theism


According to the skeptical theist, we suppose the second premise is true because we reason like so: I can’t think of a reason why God would allow a certain evil, therefore there probably is no such reason.


Skeptical theists challenge this inference. Here’s an analogy they often use.


The Garage. Suppose you look into your garage from the street. You can’t spot any elephants. So it’s reasonable for you to conclude there are no elephants in there. But now suppose you look into your garage from the street and can’t spot any insects. Is it reasonable for you to conclude there are no insects in there? Clearly not! There could still easily be insects present. You shouldn’t expect to spot the insects even if they are there.


Now according to the skeptical theist, much the same faulty inference is involved in justifying premise two. For all we know, there are many goods and evils (and also entailment relations between goods and evils) that are unknown to us and that may justify God in allowing the evils we see around us. Just because we can’t think of such reasons for God, if he exists, to allow those evils doesn’t give us good grounds for supposing that those reasons aren’t there.


But then the second premise of our argument from evil is unjustified. The argument argument from evil collapses!


The Pandora’s box objection


This ‘skeptical theist’ response to the argument from evil is currently very popular. It’s been developed by some of the world’s leading philosophers of religion, including Alvin Plantinga and Michael Bergmann. If you use the argument from evil in a discussion with a theist, it’s quite likely that opponent will respond with skeptical theism. They’ll say: ‘But how do you know there’s no good God-justifying reason for the evils we see? For all you know, there is a good reason. Just because you can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean the reason isn’t there!’


How to respond to skeptical theism? Here’s my recommendation: point out that the skeptical theist’s argument proves too much.


According to skeptical theism, we can’t conclude God has no reason to do x just because we can’t think of a reason for him to do x. For all we know, such a reason exists. But if skeptical theism is true, then, for all we know, God has reason to lie to us and deceive us in all sorts of ways. If skeptical theism is true, we can no longer reasonably trust anything God says, or might seem to reveal!


Suppose, for example, that God says that all who believe in him will have eternal life. As the philosopher Erik Wielenberg points out, if skeptical theism is true, then for all we know God has a good reason to lie to us about that. So, given skeptical theism, it’s not reasonable for us to believe him.


In fact, once we accept skeptical theism, we can no longer reasonably trust our memories and senses at all. If skeptical theism is true then, for all we know, there’s a God justifying reason for God to deceive us about both the external world and past.  For all we know, God has an excellent reason to dupe us about almost everything!


Or, if a Christian skeptical theist believes that Jesus’s resurrection is good evidence for the truth of Christianity, point out that if skeptical theism is true, then for all they know God has a good reason for starting a false religion by raising Jesus from the dead. How do they know God doesn’t have such a reason? And if they’re in the dark about whether God has such a reason, then they’re in the dark about whether God’s deceiving them about Christianity. For all they can tell, Christianity is a divine lie.


In short, skeptical theism opens a skeptical Pandora’s box, unleashing forms of skepticism that are downright absurd; in addition, skeptical theism, applied consistently, should lead Christians to give up their Christian belief.


The Pandora’s box problem places the Christian skeptical theist in a bind. The argument from evil is a very formidable argument against both theism and Christianity. If the Christian employs skeptical theism in order to try to deal with that argument, the skepticism generated by their skeptical theism then runs riot, with the result that they can no longer reasonably believe anything about the external world and past, or indeed that Christianity is true.  That’s a consequence your Christian opponent will be unwilling to accept. Point it out to them. But of course, if they drop their skeptical theism to deal with that consequence, they again face the problem of evil. Whichever way they jump, their theism and Christianity face a very significant threat.


For a much more detailed explanation of the issues and arguments sketched out here, see my paper ‘The Pandora’s Box Objection to Skeptical Theism’ forthcoming in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Copy on request. This is also excellent.