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Sceptical theism and divine lies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 June 2010

Department of Philosophy, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN46135


In this paper I develop a novel challenge for sceptical theists. I present a line of reasoning that appeals to sceptical theism to support scepticism about divine assertions. I claim that this reasoning is at least as plausible as one popular sceptical theistic strategy for responding to evidential arguments from evil. Thus, I seek to impale sceptical theists on the horns of a dilemma: concede that either (a) sceptical theism implies scepticism about divine assertions, or (b) the sceptical theistic strategy for responding to evidential arguments from evil fails. An implication of (a) is that sceptical theism is at odds with any religious tradition according to which there are certain claims that we can know to be true solely in virtue of the fact that God has told us that they are true. This result will render conceding (a) unattractive to many sceptical theists.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1. For the initial version in the contemporary philosophical literature of the evidential argument from evil see Rowe, WilliamThe problem of evil and some varieties of atheism’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (1979), 335341Google Scholar. For the initial version of the sceptical theist's reply see Stephen Wykstra ‘Rowe's noseeum arguments from evil’, in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.) The Evidential Argument from Evil (Bloomington and Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).

2. But see Wilks, IanSceptical theism and empirical unfalsifiability’, Faith and Philosophy, 26 (2009), 6476CrossRefGoogle Scholar for some suggestive remarks on divine deception.

3. The literature includes various ways of understanding sceptical theism. The construal of sceptical theism that I employ in this paper – the version that is the target of my central argument – is drawn primarily from Bergmann, MichaelSceptical theism and Rowe's new evidential argument’, NOUS, 35 (2001), 278296CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Michael Bergmann ‘Sceptical theism and the problem of evil’, in Thomas Flint & Michael Rea (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2009). The conception of God that is employed here is derived from so-called ‘perfect-being theology’; for useful discussions of this approach, see Thomas Morris Our Idea of God (Vancouver BC: Regent College Publishing), 35–40, and Peter van Inwagen The Problem of Evil (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 18–36.

4. Bergmann ‘Rowe's new evidential argument’, 284.

5. Wykstra uses the term ‘noseeum’ in idem ‘Rowe's noseeum arguments’.

6. Bergmann ‘The problem of evil’, 383.

7. Alvin Plantinga ‘Epistemic probability and evil’, in Howard-Snyder The Evidential Argument from Evil, 73; also see William Alston ‘The inductive argument from evil and the human cognitive condition’, in ibid., 119.

8. Bergmann ‘The problem of evil’, 377, emphasis added.

9. Idem ‘Rowe's new evidential argument’, 284.

11. Genesis, 9.11; John, 6.40. All scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

12. Bruce Russell ‘Defenseless’, in Howard-Snyder The Evidential Argument from Evil, 197.

13. See Bergmann ‘Rowe's new evidential argument’, 290, and 295, n. 27.

14. Almeida, Michael & Oppy, GrahamEvidential arguments from evil and sceptical theism’, Philo, 8:2 (2005), 8494CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 86–87.

15. Matthew, 22.39; Mark, 12.31.

16. Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 249.

17. René Descartes Discourse on Method and Meditations, Laurence J. Leafleur (trans.) (New York NY: Macmillan, 1960), 108.

18. For Kant's condemnation of lying see, for example, Immanuel Kant The Metaphysics of Morals, Mary Gregor (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 182–183. For a useful contemporary discussion of the morality of lying, see Sissela Bok Lying (New York NY: Random House, 1989).

19. Plato Republic, G. M. A. Grube (trans.) (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1992), 91.

20. John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, 2nd edn (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 2001), 23.

21. Thomas Morrow City of Truth (New York NY: Harcourt, 1990).

22. See Roberto Benigni (director) Life is Beautiful (film: Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, 1997), and Cormac McCarthy The Road (New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

23. See Bergmann ‘Rowe's new evidential argument’, 282.

24. Elizabeth Haldane & G. R. T. Ross (trans.) The Philosophical Works of Descartes, II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 78. Descartes's reply to this objection is disappointing. He simply asserts that it is ‘contradictory’ to assert ‘an intention to deceive on the part of God’ (78).

25. John, 7.8–10.

26. Thessalonians, II, 2.11.

27. Genesis, 22.1–12.

28. Unsurprisingly, the proper interpretation of these passages is a matter of debate. For a helpful discussion of the passage from John, see Giblin, CharlesSuggestion, negative response, and positive action in St. John's portrayal of Jesus’, New Testament Studies, 26 (1980), 197211CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a helpful discussion of the passage from Thessalonians II, see Harris, GeorgeDoes God deceive? The ‘deluding influence’ of Second Thessalonians 2:11', Master's Seminary Journal, 16 (2005), 7393Google Scholar.

29. W. D. Ross The Right and the Good (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1930), 19–20.

30. For similar remarks, see Rowe, WilliamFriendly atheism, sceptical theism, and the problem of evil’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 59 (2006), 7992CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 90–91, and J. L. Schellenberg The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 302–303.

31. David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd edn (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1998), 88.

32. C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain (New York NY: HarperCollins, 1996), 29. Richard Gale presses this sort of worry in the context of sceptical theism; see Richard Gale ‘Some difficulties in theistic treatments of evil’, in Howard-Snyder The Evidential Argument from Evil, 210–211.

33. Nicholas Wolterstorff Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), ix.

34. Ibid., 225.

35. Richard Swinburne Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 73.

36. Wykstra, StephenThe Humean obstacle to evidential arguments from suffering: on avoiding the evils of “appearance”’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 16 (1984), 7393CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 92–93.

37. The Book of Job is one good source of such passages; also relevant are Isaiah, 55.9 and Ecclesiastes, 8.17. For a brief discussion of other such passages, see Theodore Drange Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 193.

38. The basic idea of this paper was inspired by a remark I heard William Rowe make during a discussion of sceptical theism at an APA meeting; Rowe also provided comments on an early draft of the paper. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at a faculty forum at DePauw University in 2007, the Fourth Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference at Baylor University, and the 2009 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. I am grateful to my audiences on those occasions. For helpful feedback I am particularly grateful to Russell Arnold, Rich Cameron, Tom Crisp, Gregg Ten Elshof, Jen Everett, John Fischer, Michael Garten, Luke Gelinas, Renee Jorgensen, Klaas Kraay, Mark Krause, Jonathan Kvanvig, Sam Newlands, Michael Tooley, John Roth, Dan Shannon, Scott Spiegelberg, Brad Tharpe, Steve Wykstra, and various anonymous referees.