Thursday, August 19, 2004

Mangan's Argument from Atheism/Agnosticism

Dennis Mangan writes:

Very good post of yours-- well, they are all good-- about soteriology. I've wondered lately what it would take for a religion to be true. Wouldn't it have to be obvious to all mankind? I mean, if there were an omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent (and omnivorous?) God, wouldn't he HAVE to make the truth completely and obviously known to everyone? Transmitting a revelation in lower-class Greek and entrusting its distribution to a network of semi-illiterate apostles, missionaries, copyists, and conquistadors seems like a strange way to propagate information of world-shaking significance.

BV: I take you to be speaking of theistic religions and saying something like the following. An all-good God would want mankind to know the saving truth. An all-powerful God would be able to transmit this truth. And an all-knowing God would know the best way to do this. And yet it is far from obvious that the characteristic claims of theism are true. How then can the existence of a God possessing the 'omni-attributes' be reconciled with the existence of widespread doubt or denial of the truth of theism?

We could call this Mangan's argument from atheism/agnosticism. I've rigged it so that it is similar to a version of the argument from evil familiar from Hume. Part of my reason for so rigging it is to be be able to respond to it in a way analogous to the standard response to the argument from evil.

Like the argument from evil, your argument can be partially met by reference to human freedom. God creates free beings, beings capable of willfully refusing the divine revelation, and of choosing ways of living that make it almost impossible to apprehend divine truths. Now creaturely freedom limits divine power, in particular the power to get the divine message across.

Think of it this way. Creation is a supererogatory act of divine agape. God creates some beings in his own image and likeness. Being free himself, he creates free beings. A world containing free beings is better than one not containing them. But if a free being creates a free being, then the creator creates something that limits the creator's power, in this case, the power to transmit the divine message.

The idea, then, is that humans willfully blind themselves. A theist could buttress this by adducing the doctrine of the Fall, a doctrine which, by the way, your man Schopenhauer was quite fond of. Thus there is a certain 'structural' blindness due to the Fall, and in addition individual blindness. Sin has noetic consequences. Thus sin, both original and individual, does not merely affect the will; it also affects the intellect.

The theist could go on to point out that creating material beings will involve God in other limitations on his power. If God has good reason to create material free beings rather than just purely spiritual free beings (angels), then it is arguable that the materiality of these material free beings will interfere with their ability to grasp truth.

This is merely a sketch. Please feel free to poke holes in it. One central idea is that omnipotence does not imply that an omnipotent being can do absolutely anything. As I have argued elsewhere, there are both logical and non-logical limits on an omnipotent being's power.