Philosophy Word of the Day – Skeptical Theism

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.  In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.

If skeptical theism is true, it appears to undercut the primary argument for atheism, namely the argument from evil.  This is because skeptical theism provides a reason to be skeptical of a crucial premise in the argument from evil, namely the premise that asserts that at least some of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  If we are not in a position to tell whether God has a reason for allowing any particular instance of evil, then we are not in a position to judge whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist.  The remainder of this article explains skeptical theism more fully, applies it to the argument from evil, and surveys the reasons for and against being a skeptical theist. (continue article)

— Justin P. McBrayer at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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12 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Skeptical Theism

  1. Pingback: The Constant Battle Between Good and Evil. | God's Pretty Garden

  2. ‘ Rather, the idea is that we can’t limit God’s possible purposes by what we can individually or collectively think of. God may well have reasons for allowing evil that are completely beyond our comprehension’

    So your alleged god could have had reasons for allowing his son to remain dead.

    Just like your god might have reasons to allow you to believe in Heaven even thoygh it doesn’t exist.

    Just like we allow children to believe in Santa Claus.

    • Steven,

      If deism were true, we would only have our speculations about God’s purposes and desires. But God has revealed His will through Scripture, especially in Jesus (God incarnate), so we know a great deal about His plans and goals.

      There’s no evidence that Santa Claus exists, but plentiful evidence that God exists.

  3. Good to see you claim that being able to choose evil outweighs the evil that is done.

    I take it you are totally against locking up prisoners and imposing parole conditions – all things which cut down on their free will choice to commit crime.

    And your god will pass by on the other side when an evil is being done. A lesson for us all there about the importance of passing by on the other side when we see suffering.

    Is it objectively wrong to run the ball on 4th and 25 when backed up on your own 2 yard line in the first quarter?

    Obviously not, because football plays are subjective. nobody can say which football plays are objectively best (unless they are god of course)

    So why would a head coach be sacked for calling bad plays when the choice of which play to run is a matter of subjective opinion?

    • I’m actually totally in favor of locking up criminals, because they’ve abused their free will by making evil choices. But I’m still in favor of possessing free will, because it allows the possibility of making good choices.

      That’s interesting that you mention passing “by on the other side” when something evil is done. Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan that you shouldn’t pass by, but should help the person in need. That’s always been a central teaching of Christianity. Atheism, though, gives no foundation for moral values because on that view we’re simply matter in motion. All of reality reduces to physics, and physics can’t produce moral values.

      I agree with you about the football illustration. Football plays aren’t matters of right and wrong, but matters of practicality–doing what it takes to win the game. But that’s different from a question like, “Is murder wrong?” In cases like that, we’re talking about moral issues, not practical ones. We all know some things are objectively right (e.g., kindness, loyalty), and some things are objectively wrong (cruelty, prejudice). But this doesn’t make any sense unless God exists. Objective laws require an objective Law-giver.

      Chris

  4. Steven,

    I think abortion is, in most cases, an evil action. But it’s an evil that results from human free will. Apparently, God believed that the good of allowing free will outweighed the bad of evil moral choices that would sometimes be made. So, evil that results from free moral choices isn’t gratuitous, because there’s a compensating reason for allowing it–the good of free will, without which there can’t be moral responsibility at all.

    It sounds like the problem of evil is an important issue for you. One major problem the atheist has, in my view, is that he or she can’t explain why objective good and evil should exist, apart from God’s existence. Have you given any thought to that issue?

  5. ‘And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist. ‘

    Is abortion a gratuitous evil?

    Good to see Christians coming down firmly on the side of ‘There must be a good reason to allow abortion, as my God allows abortion, and he is clever.’

  6. Didn’t William Lane Craig patiently explain to Bart Ehrman that theists are entitled to assess the probability of their god raising Jesus from the dead as very high?

    As a skeptical theist, where did this knowledge of what his god is likely to do come from?

    • Hi Steven,

      I think Craig was right to point out to Ehrman that, if we have in our background knowledge that God exists, that does raise the probability of Jesus’ resurrection (versus a world in which we don’t have that background knowledge).

      By taking a skeptical theistic position, Craig and others aren’t saying that we can’t know anything about God or His purposes. Rather, the idea is that we can’t limit God’s possible purposes by what we can individually or collectively think of. God may well have reasons for allowing evil that are completely beyond our comprehension–just like human beings can have reasons for their actions that are incomprehensible to an ant.

      Jesus’ resurrection was predicted in the Old Testament (by prophets inspired by God), and by Jesus Himself, and that provides us with reasons for believing that God would raise Jesus from the dead.

  7. Pingback: The Constant Battle Between Good and Evil. - God's Pretty Garden

  8. Hey botogol,

    You make some astute observations. I agree, if one were a skeptical theist to a strong degree, it would essentially amount to deism. It’s interesting that that’s where Antony Flew came down in the last years of his life.

    I do think there is something to this approach, though, just because God is by definition vastly superior to us in intellect, knowledge, and moral virtue. In light of that fact, I think we should expect that much of what God plans and does would be inscrutable to human beings. It would be like an ant trying to understand nuclear physics. In regard to the problem of evil, I think God may have reasons for allowing much of it that are just beyond our ability to understand (although a great deal of evil is perpetrated by human beings against each other).

    Take care,
    Chris

  9. this principle, if correct, would also rather undercut the idea that god is be good, and that he deserves to be worshipped. A skeptical theist would say ‘well, how would we know?’

    it seems to me that sceptical theism is an essentially deist position: that there is a god, but he doesn’t (or no longer) interacts with our world. Or interacts in random way, which is pretty much the same thing (an animist type of God)

    That is the type of god that need not trouble us too much.

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