Continuation of: Comments on Letters From a Skeptic, 1: The Preface
Follow up to: My List of Theodicy Responses
“Letters from a Skeptic” is a book, fully titled Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles With His Father’s Questions About Christianity, by Christian apologist Gregory A. Boyd. It attempts to provide a case for Christianity while answering a variety of objections, all in the style of the Christian son responding to his once-atheist father, ending up with the letters successfully converting his father to Christianity.
It’s been many months since I started reviewing this book, but now it’s time to get back. The reason for the delay was that, well, the book starts off with a bunch of questions about why god would allow suffering, aka the Problem of Evil, and at the time I was in the middle of a debate on the subject and hadn’t yet updated my views.
Now that my views on the Problem of Evil are close to re-settled, I wanted to pick up where I left off. (I promise that these sections of the book are going to be one of the last things I write about the Problem of Evil!)
The Harms of Christian Believers
Edward Boyd, the father, writes that he doesn’t have much of a positive worldview of his own, but knows why he disbelieves, and starts right off by asking why Christians themselves have done a bunch of harm throughout history, citing the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition that involved killing the Jews and Muslims. Edward asks “How could an all-powerful and all-loving God allow the church to do so much harm to humanity for so long? Isn’t this supposed to be His true church, His representation on Earth?”
Gregory Boyd, the son and professional Christian theologian, responds that God is one of love, and doesn’t “think God can be held responsible for what the Catholic Church — or any church, or any religion whatsoever — has done or shall do”. He invokes a Free Will Defense, suggesting that holding God responsible for the evil committed in his name is “to assume humans are robots who simply act out a divine, preplanned program”.
A Bit of a Response
But in the spirit of corresponding with what I think Edward should have said (had he been better trained in philosophy and not so clearly outgunned), this response doesn’t explain why God adopts such a policy of non-interventionalism. It would be easy to watch alleged Christians go on these Crusades, but then intervene mid-Crusade and personally point out to them how un-Christian they are being. Or perhaps educate these alleged Christians in how Crusades are a bad idea, or at least not made a habit of commanding Genocide in the past…
Such a response is pretty commonsensical (no need appeal to how God could create people with free will who still always refrain from Crusades), so I’d say the discussion is not easily dismissed in two pages like Gregory Boyd does. Yet, this is still not where I would hang my hat in the Problem of Evil — perhaps it’s too easy to bite the bullet and say that the Crusades brought about more net benefit for humanity, or dive back into Skeptical Theism, or what not.
Genuine Christians and True Scotsmans
Also, note my use of “alleged Christian” when discussing those who participated in the Crusades and Inquisition. Gregory here says that genuine Christians always have”a saving and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ”, and this relationship is the origin of all the good Christianity has done (and I don’t deny that the religion has produced much good as well!), while those committing harms in God’s name are apparently not genuine and don’t have this relationship.
Of course, this genuine Christian sounds a lot like the “true Scotsman” from Antoy Flew‘s work:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton [England] Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man [Scottish] whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”
Thus, if “genuine” Christians can be identified by whether they do good works, it’s no wonder that only those who do good works end up being “genuine” Christians. So this is a circular argument to just dismiss the complaint, without actually addressing it.
Suffering, Writ Large
In the second letter, Edward gets further into suffering — how an all-loving God could allow a girl to get raped and mutilated by a sicko? Edward gets creative with Free Will here, noting that while the sicko has free will, the girl’s will to not get raped and mutilated is being violated. Here, Gregory takes a bigger view of Free Will, worth quoting in full:
So why doesn’t God intervene every time someone is going to misuse his freedom and hurt another person? The answer, I believe, is found in the nature of freedom itself. [...]
Look at it this way: If I give Denay five dollars, can I completely control the way she spends it? If I stepped in every time she was going to spend this money unwisely, is it really her money at all? Did I really give her anything? [...] So too, if God really gives us freedom, it must be, at least to a large extent, irrevocable. He must have, within limits, a “hands-off” attitude toward it. God creates free people who can do as they please, not determined instruments who always end up doing what he pleases.
When Intervention is Actually Necessary
But this too is still beside the point. Imagine Denay decides to spend her five dollars to buy a knife with the intention of stabbing the next door neighbor, or uses it along with some other funds to buy some recreational drugs. Is Gregory Boyd going to see this purchase and go “Oh well, it’s her money, she should spend it however she wants…”? Of course not. He is going to intervene as a father and put a stop to this. Indeed, fathers who wouldn’t are often deemed negligent and unfit to raise children.
It’s one thing to control your child down to the last detail, making sure she avoids spending it on candy and instead saves it to eventually buy an SAT prep-book. It’s another thing to let her do whatever she wants, even if it is to physically injure other people or do recreational drugs.
And this is analogous to much of the evil from human actions that God allegedly gives us a blank check to do whatever we want with. It’s one thing for God to control the nitty-gritty and make us all prep for the SAT, but another thing to not intervene at all when sickos rape and murder other people. Indeed, us humans spend a large amount of money creating a well-equipped police force specifically so we can intervene and stop this sicko’s free will ourselves.
The False Dilemma
Gregory poses the problem as “God creates free people who can do as they please, not determined instruments who always end up doing what he pleases.” Yet this is a false dilemma — God can create instruments who are free to choose, and even be self-destructive or destructive to others, but have this destruction be within a certain range. Whenever someone would actually rape and mutilate someone else, for example, that crosses the line and cues intervention.
And I think Gregory Boyd himself admits that this logic is sound. He says that God “must have, within limits, a ‘hands-off’ attitude”.
I don’t offer my criticisms to this book as the “last word” on the subject. I’m definitely aware that there are counter-responses to my responses, and a whole complex web of possible theodicies and Skeptical Thiesms to work through to really get to the bottom of it.
What I instead offer is that Gregory Boyd’s presentation is rather incomplete. It represents just the bare minimum of a response that you get, and Edward Boyd just accepts it and moves on. This is the difference between academic philosophy and the works in popular books, and you see it on both sides — here and in The God Delusion. You get the intro argument and maybe bits of a first response, but don’t anywhere close to the counter-responses, counter-counter-responses, etc. And nor could you with just one book that intends to focus on a wide variety of topics.
All that aside, it still remains that Gregory Boyd presents us with a false dilemma of either “total slave robots” or “people able to harm others with reckless abandon”. If Edward Boyd saw into this dilemma and asked a bit more about possible interventions that don’t destroy our own ability to make decisions for ourselves, then we would have an interesting conversation.
But Edward takes this into a different direction — what about suffering that has nothing to do with people at all. This so-called “natural suffering” — comprised of earthquakes, famines, and other stuff — is the subject of the next letter, and my next essay for review.
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