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Faith, Good and Evil

from-camille-flammarions-latmosphc3a8re-1888In The Atlantic, Crispin Sartwell writes refreshingly about his atheism as a faith position.

Atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

It seems to me that both atheists and Christians need to recognise this truth. The Dawkins-style New Atheists are such logical positivists that they shift the whole argument onto an extremely rationalistic footing. They decry "Faith Heads" as fleeing all rationality and define faith as "belief in the absence of evidence."

In response, many Christians spend their time correcting this false view of faith (and it is false). But all of a sudden the Christian position becomes an insistence that faith is belief because of evidence. The trouble is, it's not evidence in general that calls forth faith. In the Bible it is 'the Word', 'the gospel', 'the grace of God', 'the preaching of the cross' that causes faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. You can call that "evidence" if you like but I think both the Christian and the atheist have good reasons to dislike that equation!

Rather than insist that Christianity is also evidence-based, I think it's much more fruitful to show that atheism is also a faith position. This article does a great job of that - do read it.

What fascinated me was Sartwell's conclusion. He gives reasons for his 'faith position' - the suffering of the world:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I've experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don't—I can't—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world's indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I'm here, and I commit. I'm perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

I'd love to chat with Crispin because it seems to me that belief in the evil of evil is a great reason to be a Christian. It's the Christian who can love beauty, hate suffering and think of those things as "perfectly real." It seems to me that the materialist account of the world does not see beauty and suffering as "perfectly real". I write about this in my upcoming book 321 - check out the pre-order page here.

Why are we outraged by evil and suffering? We are outraged. We should be outraged. But why? This question is easy to answer for the Christian but difficult for the atheist. Remember what Dawkins said: ‘at bottom ... [there is] no evil, no good.’ For him evil and good are surface-level experiences, not deeply connected to the way things actually are. The nastiness of this world might be unpleasant, painful, grotesque or maladapted to survival. But if, at bottom, there is no evil and no good, then for Dawkins those things are not wrong – not on the deepest level.

Yet when we experience the horrors of this world, we experience them as evil; we feel that they should not be; we cry out for a solution, for justice; and we grieve them as realities that don’t belong. Therefore, even as suffering strikes, the Christian view is not disproved but upheld. For the Christian, evil can never be ‘one of those things’. It is a profound violation of the way life ought to be.

When Christians say ‘God is love’, they don’t then conclude that ‘everything is lovely’. It’s not. But the God of love makes sense of our outrage at everything that is unlovely. He gives us the right to call a bad world ‘bad’. There is much more to be said about suffering in chapters 4 and 8, but for now the point is simply this: the God of Jesus helps us to understand our experience of both good and evil. This God allows us to make sense of the goodness of good and the evil of evil.


Check out Sartwell's article here

Check out 3-2-1 here

14 thoughts on “Faith, Good and Evil

  1. Paul Wright

    I always find the "atheism's a faith position too" argument from apologists a bit odd, as it amounts to saying "as you like believing stuff without evidence, why not try Christianity?" Well, OK, but why not try Paganism or Islam or Scientology? To distinguish Christianity, you end up looking at evidence about Jesus. I'm a bit puzzled that you think an apologist telling me things about Jesus is not offering evidence: what are they doing, in that case?

    I'd say that saying atheism is a faith position is a bad argument, because the possible meanings of that statement are either trivial or false. I'm a naturalist because I see no reason to add more to my ontology than the bits which are common to theists and atheists, not because I have some kind of conviction that there must be nothing else. Sartwell seems to have run into trouble because he can't distinguish certainty from the balance of probability.

    Onto the Argument from Evil: again, to state that atheism implies moral relativism and so atheists cannot make the Argument is false on two counts. Firstly, it assumes that atheism implies moral relativism in a way which theism does not (which at least needs to be argued rather than just stated), and secondly, even a moral relativist (like the Dawkins of your quote) can make the Argument by showing an internal contradiction within Christianity, which certainly does claim that there a moral absolutes which at least partially track our notion of morality, per C.S. Lewis, and that God is good. Again, I've written about this in more detail.

  2. Glen

    Hi Paul,

    We all believe things for good reasons (or at least the reasons ought to be good). I think Sartwell might say (I certainly would) that "evidence" needs sifting and nobody is neutral in the sifting. We all have "totalizing worldviews" (his phrase) as we approach the evidence.

    You say you're a naturalist cos you see no reason to add to anything not common to both theist and atheist - but we disagree about what's common, so we can't even have that in common. As far as I'm concerned you believe in something that does not exist: a Godless universe. As far as Christians are concerned, God is not the extra bit, we are. As far as you're concerned God (if he exists) would be the extra bit. We just don't agree - even on what's common. But here's the thing - if God exists then he can't be considered as the extra-bit. If you're only open to a god who is extra to the universe you're not considering the Christian God. The troubling thing there is that you have excluded this God from your reckoning from the outset. Just another pointer to the fact that you're not neutrally reasoning about theism/atheism. You're coming at it from a prejudiced position which, from the outset, cannot accept any god but a contingent god (which is no god).

    All of which is to say, there is no neutral ground here and I don't think you've in any sense "played it safe" epistemologically.

    On the morality point - I'd like to hear about an ethical system that can affirm goodness and evil as real features of the universe to the same degree that Christians can. I believe that the moral realm is prior to and gave rise to the material realm. The materialist believes it's the other way around. I don't want to argue for a second that materialists can't have *a* morality. But I would argue that it can't be as "perfectly real" (Sartwell's phrase) as the Christian's.

    (NB: I haven't read your linked articles yet, but would very much like to when I get a minute).

  3. Paul Wright

    I have prior notions of what sort of things there are out there. I at least have a world view which is the sum of those notions, plus of course I generalise from the specific. What I try, not always successfully, to do is avoid ruling out things on the basis of my allegiance to a general view, that is, if someone claims a supernatural entity exists, say, it'd be a poor argument for me to say "but that can't be true, because naturalism is true, dammit": naturalism is a conclusion, not a starting point. (On the other hand, if this entity looks a bit like others I've looked into before and been unconvinced by, that'll weigh against it).

    What Sartwell seems to be doing is the opposite, which I think is weird. He also doesn't seem to have a notion of probability, because he starts off saying "well, it doesn't look like there's a God" and ends up buying this massive package of other stuff wholesale (what he calls his "leap of faith"). He doesn't seem to realise that the parts of that package are user-servicable: you can take it to bits and have different levels of confidence in each part.

    By the things we have in common, I mean that we presumably both think that a bunch of everyday things exist (other people, chairs, cars, trees, grass) and unless we're both logical positivists, which I guess we aren't, even stuff like atoms and electrons which we can only see by their effects and mediated by instruments and theories and all that good Kuhnian stuff. Whatever grand explanations we come up with had better allow for the fact that those things exist, i.e. it all adds up to normality.

    I'm interested to know how I've excluded God from the outset merely by pointing out that both Christians and atheists believe in the existence of chairs but disagree about gods. (Actually I excluded God from the position of being a Christian from more or less the outset, chronologically). If you're going into the sort of Kuhnian paradigm talk that was popular in CICCU back when I was last in a mission (the author rambles a bit about the good old days, pw201 there is me), are you saying that our worldviews are incommensurable? That puts a bit of a crimp on evangelism, I'd've thought. As with morality, there's no persuasion possible without some common starting point.

  4. Brian Midmore

    'By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering.'

    This is surely self contradictory. How can the world contain both beauty and suffering yet be indifferent? Evil only makes sense if we believe in a God who will judge evil and righteousify the world in the End. God is not content with the world the way it is. But God is merciful so does not righteousify the world just yet 'but commands everyone everywhere to repent' and so avoid judgement.

  5. Glen

    Hi Paul,

    Sorry - busy weekend.

    I'd say that naturalism is perhaps even more properly an epistemological method than it is a conclusion. The first two sentences of your last comment are a good summary of that method. And that method had great success and value in certain contexts - scientifically assessing natural phenomena for instance. But if that's your method in toto then it does, from the outset, exclude revelations from 'above'. I've never meant to imply that you are deliberately excluding God from your thinking, only that your naturalism does.

    We certainly have enough agreement on what's 'out there' to be able to collaborate and communicate on a whole bunch of stuff (common grace). But it seems to be the nature of the case that if we're trying to comprehend the Source of being then - being good scientists - we ought to comprehend a thing according to its nature. If it all begins with God and His Word (John 1:1), then so should our reasoning. And if our methods don't begin there then we're not actually dealing with this God.

    I'd say that evangelism is not crimped by this insistence, I reckon it's the properly scientific method (not to mention the one faithful to the God it proclaims). Even with this particular stance in apologetics, there's all sorts that can be said evangelistically - the stuff about good and evil being perfectly real for instance.

    Gotta dash but really appreciate your comments

  6. Paul Wright

    The first two sentences ("I have prior notions of what sort of things there are out there. I at least have a world view which is the sum of those notions, plus of course I generalise from the specific.") don't seem to be unique to either ontological or epistemic naturalism, unless you're claiming that you don't also have notions of what sorts of things are out there and a worldview.

    But anyway, I said I was an ontological naturalist (in the sort of sense I explained, where this is a position to be reasoned to, rather than clung to and reasoned from, as it is written, the third virtue is lightness). I didn't say that much about epistemology, other than saying I didn't seem much reason to go beyond chairs to gods. On epistemology, I wouldn't say that science is the only valid way of knowing (saying that is another bad argument, or at least, an over-broad meaning for the word "science")

    I'm not sure what you think to "begin with God and His Word" would mean. I've run into presuppositionalists of the Cornelius Van Till sort before (never in real life, only on the Internet, for some reason) and not been that impressed, so I hope it's not that :-)

  7. Brian Midmore

    Glen you are right Christianity is not evidence based but it is however reality based: the reality that Jesus is LORD of the heaven and earth. Now we might say that the evidence that Jesus is LORD is the resurrection which itself has evidence. But this evidence is not the basis for Christianity but it might show that Christianity is true i.e. that Jesus the Messiah is LORD. Thus my faith that Jesus is LORD is based on evidence to some extent.

  8. Glen

    Hi Paul,

    Perhaps I over-read those sentences but to me "generalising from the specific" is a characterstic of bottom-up epistemologies. Not everyone proceeds that way. If you believe in revelation then you have a preference for a top-down approach.

    Beginning with God and His Word is basically that for me. With the important qualifier that this Word has come down to be investigated (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-4).

    I have a soft spot for Van Til but I'm (even more infuriatingly) closer to Barth on the topic of apologetics. Essentially I think evangelism is inviting people over to the Christian house for the grand tour (not building bridges from the sinking sand). At times I think there's a place for pointing out the sinking qualities of sand (as in the post where I point out the unreality of beauty and evil on Sartwell's worldview), but essentially I think evangelism is proclaiming the Word. This does not have to be reductionistic, after all this Light illuminates the world. And I'm content to talk about the whole world illuminated by Christ. If you want to see how I evangelise from this point of view, I'd be happy to send you my book when it's out.

    Hey Brian, I don't reject "evidence" I just think a) we're no good at reading it and b) that which corresponds to faith in the Bible is not "evidence" in general, but God's Word more specifically.

  9. Brian Midmore

    'But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews...proving that this Jesus is the Christ' Acts 9.22. Paul' approach to evangelism (at this stage at least) is evidence based. Presumably he took the evidence of the Person and life of Jesus and with the OT proved that he is the long expected Messiah. The resurrection would have figured strongly I expect. Of course not many of the Jews were persuaded. Paul had met with the resurrected Jesus, and this is the crucial difference that evokes faith. To hear the arguments why Jesus in the Messiah is not enough but is an important precursor to believing that Jesus is LORD or else Paul would not have bothered.

  10. Paul Wright

    I'm still not sure what "beginning with God and His Word" (by which, in quoting John 1, I assume you mean Jesus rather than the Bible) actually means in practice. You've explained it in terms of another metaphor ("inviting people over to the Christian house for the grand tour") which again I'm not sure of the meaning of. If this means telling people a lot about Christian claims about God and Jesus, I'm not sure why that should work. As a commenter on my blog discussion about faith wrote a while back: "It’s often seemed to me that a surprising amount of Christian proselytisation ... tends to skip lightly over the question of whether the facts being asserted are accurate, and instead jumps straight to the stage where you supposedly already accept that God exists and has the specified nature and are only arguing about the appropriate response to those facts." Which is more or less what I found when going through Two Ways To Live with someone I trying to evangelise as a Christian, in fact: they said "well, if I thought this story was true, I'd act on it, but I don't". It maybe that trying this people in STEM fields gets you a different result from the general population, I suppose (both Simon the commenter and my intended convert were computer scientists), and people do convert as a result, but I'm not sure why they ought to!

    I was interested in the top-down/bottom-up distinction, though. If accepting revelation is a valid way of knowing, how do you decide which claimed revelations (Bible, Koran, say) to accept? Or is that knowledge part of a direct revelation, in your view? If the latter, it's not quite clear to me why human evangelism is needed.

    BTW, you have not demonstrated the unreality of beauty and evil on Sartwell's view (or indeed the reality of it on your own, since your view seems to be that it relies on a personal opinion, that of God). Typically, a Christian apologist will just state that that there's some incompatibility between saying that "moral facts exist" and "there is no God", but as William Lane Craig likes to point out (when talking about the statements "Suffering/evil exists" and "there is a God"), that incompatibility isn't obvious and has to be shown. (As I also observed earlier, one can make the Argument from Evil without being a moral realist, by framing it as a reductio, so saying that suffering is evidence against God's existence is not self-contradictory even for moral non-realists).

  11. Glen

    Hi Paul,

    If Jesus is *the Truth* then there's no higher truth by which He is verified. If He is the Light then He's not illuminated by other lights, He is Himself the Illuminator of all else. Therefore He must encounter us in a self-authenticating way. This is not special pleading, everyone faces this. If anyone seeks to have an ultimate standard of truth they encounter this issue - that standard must be self-authenticating or it isn't ultimate.

    E.g. rationalism recommends itself because it is the rational way to proceed. If you follow rationalism because - ultimately - it *works* then, deeper than your rationalism, you're really a pragmatist, etc, etc.

    The good news is that - as CS Lewis noted - there are two ways of studying the Light. One is to look at it and appreciate its brightness, the other is to see the world as illuminated by *this* light-source: "Isn't *this* Sun the best explanation for the sparkle we all see?" kinda thing.

    So as the evangelist tells you the Jesus story they are, on the one hand, hoping you'll look and "see the Light" - that you will have a self-authenticating experience of ultimate reality (IOW "conversion"). On the other hand, they are hoping you'll see the world differently too - a kind of "Ohhh, so if *this* were true then that really would explain the shadowy nature of evil and the sparkling wonder of beauty, (not to mention the ultimacy of truth, goodness, love, etc, etc). Nothing else explains the world like *this* Light, I think Jesus must be Lord."

    The question of whether the Quran is the word of God is an interesting example of what I'm saying. Neither of us think the Quran is God's word - and many of our reasons would be similar. But if you asked for my *ultimate* reason I'd say that it doesn't proclaim Christ, the Son of God. Your ultimate reason would be different, but we both have an ultimate reason or at least a set of foundational commitments that inform our reasons. If such foundations are truly ultimate then there won't be further reasons beneath them. The child that keeps asking "why" will eventually receive the answer "Because it just is!" All I'm saying is that we all have those kinds of bedrock truths. I happen to think that Jesus - the eternal Word of God - is the most compelling of those contenders for the title of Ultimate Truth.

    You say:

    BTW, you have not demonstrated the unreality of beauty and evil on Sartwell’s view (or indeed the reality of it on your own, since your view seems to be that it relies on a personal opinion, that of God).

    I don't deny that a materialist can differentiate beauty and evil on some level, but I do claim that a Christian can make a far more profound differentiation because a moral and aesthetic realm has predated and produced the material. It's not simply that there is a God who has a personal opinion about ethics, it's that there really *is* a moral realm above and beyond the ebb and flow of matter and energy.

  12. Howard Nowlan

    "a moral and aesthetic realm has predated and produced the material. It’s not simply that there is a God who has a personal opinion about ethics, it’s that there really *is* a moral realm above and beyond the ebb and flow of matter and energy".

    That really bears some considered thought, especially with regards to the relationship between the nature from which this originates (when all things were good) and the manner that these qualities were to be expressed in what the Father, Son and Spirit made. Aiming, in my case, to look at the relationship we have to the arts in the near future, so this has certainly sparked a few thoughts already. Many thanks.

  13. Paul Wright

    If you’re literally suggesting that the abstract concept of “truth” = Jesus (in a “water = H2O” identification), that looks like a category mistake: Jesus is not an abstract concept (unless the people who say he never existed are right, I suppose). Even if the identification of one thing with the other is correct, it is not a first sight obvious that it’s correct (the words don’t mean the same thing, even if they in fact refer to the same person). Just as we need some chemistry to know that water is H2O, even if in fact truth = Jesus, we need a reason to think so, a reason which is lacking thus far.

    Perhaps you don’t mean to make the odd identification of a person with an abstract concept and instead mean that you take certain claims about Jesus as foundational commitments. I don’t think that all epistemologies are equivalent in the way you suggest when you say that “everyone faces this”. A coherentist wouldn’t agree that they had an ultimate standard of truth in the sense I think you mean, for example (I think you’re some sort of foundationalist and what you’re calling “ultimate truths” are basic beliefs).

    But more importantly, I don’t think many other epistemologies rely on a pre-commitment to certain things existing and having certain properties in the way that yours does when you say that you don’t accept the Quran because it doesn’t proclaim Jesus, for example. This seems like attempting to draw a map of a new city by sitting in your armchair and declaring that there is a statue in the city (of Jesus, say), and that all maps which do not show it are inaccurate, all without actually visiting the city (or speaking to anyone who has been there, or looking at pictures of it or …).

    There’s a move that some apologists like here which I’ll forestall by quoting Chris Hallquist, who writes: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated(sic) by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions.”

    Can you explain why God doesn't just give everyone the self-authenticating experience? That would seem like a good way to settle a lot of debate.

  14. Glen

    Hi Paul - no Jesus isn't an abstract concept, but I'd say that neither is truth. Or at least that the abstract concept we identify as truth is the reflection of an original truth: the Word of God.

    I'd say that a coherentist does face this problem of ultimate truth - from where do they get the idea that things should cohere? And on what basis? The logic required for this seems to be a good candidate for a "pre-commitment".

    By the way - I'm some sort of foundationalist because I believe in an eternal Truth and source of all truths. I'm also a sort of coherentist, because I believe that this Truth has always existed relative to its world (of Father, Son and Spirit), and is opened out to us in personal communication. I also feel the problem of correspondence very deeply - that the truth must match reality as we experience it - but I also think that the incarnation solves that problem.

    For me, the map example would have two ways of proclaiming (and of verifying) Jesus. On the one hand, I'd say the whole city is Jesus-shaped, and the layout only works because it has been designed in that way. The bird's eye view (in which we see how truth, beauty, goodness and love go "all the way down" in our experience of the world) shows you Jesus. But, secondly, there is also a tourist information centre at the heart of town (I'm stretching your analogy to breaking point, I know!). There is a place where you can go and investigate in Christian epistemology (you don't just reason your way towards truth, as the Greeks thought), there is Jesus who showed up in history - investigate there.

    "Can you explain why God doesn’t just give everyone the self-authenticating experience? That would seem like a good way to settle a lot of debate.

    I think "what may be known about God is plain" to all people (Romans 1). At the same time I think we are all naturally truth suppressors (also Romans 1). The problem is not on the revelation side but on the reception side.

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