In The New York Times, Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, has an opinion piece titled, “A God Problem.” The subtitle: “The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”
You can read the article here:
Dr. Atterton starts his article, as philosophers have been trained to do, by defining his terms.
If you look up “God” in a dictionary, the first entry you will find will be something along the lines of “a being believed to be the infinitely perfect, wise and powerful creator and ruler of the universe.” Certainly, if applied to non-Western contexts, the definition would be puzzling, but in a Western context this is how philosophers have traditionally understood “God.” In fact, this conception of God is sometimes known as the “God of the Philosophers.”
He then raises the central theme of his essay:
As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?
Let’s consider his arguments in turn.
Professor Atterton first examines the concept of ‘all-powerful’ (also called ‘omnipotence’).
The first argument he considers is ‘the paradox of the stone’:
Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.
Dr. Atterton recognizes that this argument only works against a clumsy definition of omnipotence. Christian philosophers have worked out much more careful understandings of God’s attributes. Dr. Atterton acknowledges the response, from Aquinas: “God cannot do self-contradictory things… God can only do that which is logically possible.”
The second argument he considers is a variation on the paradox of the stone: can God create a world in which evil does not exist? Atterton points to Alvin Plantinga’s work. Atterton says, “the standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will.”
However, this is a slight misrepresentation; the “standard defense” is actually that free will is necessary for moral good and for love, and therefore, evil must be a possibility. However, the moral good of free persons, and of the love they choose, is greater than the evil they do.
Dr. Atterton then asserts that this explanation does not address (a) animal suffering or (b) physical evil.
He does not provide any indication that Christian philosophers have addressed these objections.
In this section, Dr. Atterton approvingly draws from Michael Martin, who argued,
if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.
Dr. Atterton adds to the examples of lust and envy by discussing the problem of God knowing what malice is like. The conclusion? “God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.”
While the space in any newspaper’s op-ed column is always quite tight, it is surprising to see how quickly he sweeps away the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The reason is that this idea has “its own formidable difficulties”:
Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?
Finally, the piece concludes by citing Pascal. According to Dr. Atterton, these kinds of logical inconsistencies led him to “reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation.”
Analysis and Discussion
As Dr. Atterton is a fellow image-bearer of God, it is of the utmost importance that we treat him with kindness and respect. Further, he has earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a professor at San Diego State University. We also need to respect that he had a very limited amount of space to make his case. So I do hope we will be quite careful and gentle in responding to how he has presented his argument that the very idea of God is incoherent in The New York Times.
That said, the piece is published as a starting point for serious thought.
How would you respond to his arguments?
- Can Christians offer a logically coherent explanation of animal pain?
- Can Christians offer a logically coherent explanation of physical suffering (“natural evil”)?
- Can God know everything, including the human experience of lust, envy, and malice, and does he thereby lose his moral perfection, or does he not know these experiences, and therefore is not omniscient?
- Is the Incarnation also logically incoherent?
a. Was Christ really and fully human?
b. Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil?
c. Can God die?
I look forward to your respectful, substantive engagement with this essay!