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William Rowe

William Rowe is a professor of philosophy at Purdue University. Though an atheist, he spends much of his working life thinking about God. Nick Trakakis recently chatted with him about God and evil and other such theological hot potatoes.

Professor Rowe, you are perhaps best known for defending atheism on the basis of the problem of evil. It may therefore come as a surprise to some people to learn that you were at one stage a Christian on the verge of entering the ministry. Would it be possible to tell us something about your time as a theist – for example, did you undergo a conversion experience, and how long did you remain a theist?

While growing up, my brother and I were required to attend Sunday school at the nearest Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian Church. At the age of sixteen I was converted in an evangelistic service in the Baptist church I occasionally attended. The next year, again in an evangelistic service, I decided to devote my life to some form of Christian service, and, upon graduating from high school, enrolled in a five-year program of study at the Detroit Bible Institute. However, in my second year there, my favourite teacher was accused of ultra-dispensationalism. A trial was held in which the trustees of the School were to determine whether he should be dismissed or retained. As the newly elected president of the student body, I helped organize some support for him among his students, spoke on his behalf at the trial, and was deeply disappointed when he was summarily dismissed. Although my fundamentalist faith was not weakened by this episode, I felt I could no longer stay at the Bible School, and instead enrolled in Detroit’s Wayne State University. At Wayne I happened to take a philosophy course, saw that philosophy sometimes dealt with questions having a bearing on theology, and decided to major in philosophy so as to best prepare myself for the study of theology. The teacher in philosophy who impressed me the most was George Nakhnikian, a Harvard Ph.D. whose father was an Armenian priest.

Nakhnikian was an atheist. In retrospect, it seems odd that my favourite teacher was an atheist and his favourite student was a fundamentalist Christian. We were oceans apart, but we became friends for life. During my senior year at Wayne I applied to Fuller Theological Seminary, a theologically conservative seminary where two theologians whose work I was familiar with had developed interesting arguments in support of Christian beliefs. Also, along with two other students interested in studying theology, I accepted an invitation to visit Chicago Theological Seminary, one of four seminaries that were affiliated together as part of the University of Chicago. Although I preferred attending Fuller Theological Seminary, Fuller was unable to offer me financial support. When Chicago Theological Seminary offered me a three-year scholarship, I put my reservations aside and moved to Chicago. Although it was only many years later that I realized I had slowly travelled a long road from protestant fundamentalism to atheism, it’s clear in retrospect that when I began my theological studies in Chicago I was also taking the first step on that road. Of course, one can cease to be a theist, and not be an atheist. For agnosticism (neither believing that the theistic God exists nor believing that he does not) is also a viable, if somewhat indefinite, position. Indeed, it was not until 1969 that I finally came to the realization that I had come to hold the belief that the theistic God, an all-powerful, allknowing, perfectly good creator of the world, does not exist.

Were there at this early stage in your career some specific philosophical or scientific considerations that greatly influenced your move towards atheism?

My religious convictions were based largely on my conversion experience and my simple acceptance of the Bible (in its original manuscripts, of course) as the revealed word of God. What led to the erosion of these convictions was not any specific argument, philosophical or scientific, that tended to show the convictions to be false. Rather, it was the lack of experiences and evidence sufficient to sustain my religious life and my religious convictions. I knew that it was wrong and arrogant to ask for some special sign from God. But I longed for a sense of God’s presence in my life. And although I spent hours in prayer and thirsted after some dim assurance that God was present, I never had any such experience. I tried to be a better person and to follow whatever I could glean from the Bible as a life of service to God. But in the end I had no more sense of the presence of God than I had before my conversion experience. So, it was the absence of religious experiences of the appropriate kind that, as I would now put it, left me free to seriously explore the grounds for disbelief. Only recently, by the way, have I learned that St Anselm of Canterbury, a wonderful man and a brilliant thinker, longed for but, apparently, never experienced God’s presence. In an age of faith, disbelief may not be a rational option. Fortunately or unfortunately, we no longer live in an age of faith.

Turning to the Bible, it was my learning something about the dates at which the manuscripts were written and the process by which, among competing manuscripts of dubious authorship, some were selected to form the canon resulting in the various bibles now accepted as the word of God, that provided me with reasons to think it unlikely that the Bible is the revealed word of God. It would be nice but simply untrue to say that my loss of faith in theism was compelled by the discovery of reasons showing that theism is false. For as William James reminds us, “In the great boarding house of nature the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.” In my case it was chiefly the lack of genuine religious experiences, as well as some reasons to be sceptical about the Bible being the revealed word of God, that led to the erosion of my belief in the existence of God. Positive reasons for disbelief came later.

Turning to the problem of evil, you have consistently defended for many years one version or other of what is known as ‘the evidential argument from evil’. Stated very briefly, this argument runs as follows:

Consider two particular evils: E1, involving the suffering and death of a fawn trapped in a forest fire caused by lightning; and E2, the rape and murder of a fiveyear- old girl. Now, it is very likely that evils such as E1 and E2 are pointless, for we fail to see any good reason why a loving God would wish to permit these evils. But if there were a God there would be no pointless suffering. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that there is a God.

Your defence of this argument has generated various criticisms, but which of these criticisms do you think has the greatest degree of plausibility?

The most important criticism of the evidential argument from evil is that, given the range of goods that God would know, we simply are in no position to make any judgment at all about how unlikely it is that there is a good that justifies God (if he exists) in permitting E1 and E2. So, the fact that we simply cannot imagine any good that could be God’s reason for permitting E1 and E2 is, for all we know, just what we should expect to be true if he does exist and has a perfectly good reason for permitting those two evils. Theists who have advanced this criticism are now called ‘sceptical theists’. For they are very sceptical about whether we are in any position to discern the goods for the sake of which an omnipotent, omniscient being would be justified in permitting the horrendous evils like E1 and E2 that occur daily in our world. So, they say that the fact that we have no clue about what goods might justify God in permitting E1 and E2 not only fails to be a reason to think it unlikely that God exists, it is just what we should expect to be true if he does exist, given that his knowledge and power infinitely transcend our own.

There is, I acknowledge, some force to this objection. There just may be goods beyond our wildest dreams, goods we are unable to imagine. And, for all we know, bringing about such goods requires God, if he exists, to permit E1 and E2, as well as countless other horrendous evils occurring in our world. And this means that the inference from ‘no good we know of would justify an omnipotent, omniscient being in permitting E1 and E2’ to ‘no good at all would justify an omnipotent, omniscient being in permitting E1 and E2’ is not as strong as I originally believed. Of course, if the goods we know of are really a representative sample of all the goods there are, and we have good reason to think this is so, my argument would be successful. But it is not at all easy to show that the goods we know of are a representative sample of all the goods there are.

Yes, the inference from ‘No goods we know of would justify God in permitting E1 and E2’ to ‘No goods at all would justify God in permitting E1 and E2’ has proven to be quite difficult to defend from the kinds of criticisms offered by sceptical theists.

But perhaps the nontheist may respond as follows: If there were some great goods that justify God’s permission of terrible evils such as E1 and E2, we would expect to at least know that there are goods of that kind, even if (due to our cognitive limitations) we could not comprehend or grasp the nature of these goods. In other words, we would expect a loving God to at least not hide from us the fact that he exists and thus has good reasons for permitting evil, particularly if we cannot understand his reasons for allowing some suffering to befall us. And yet many people, as you often point out, undergo intense and prolonged suffering without having any conscious awareness of God’s presence and love. This gives rise to what has come to be known as ‘the problem of divine hiddenness’. Do you think sceptical theists have any plausible way of responding to this problem?

Yes, you have anticipated here the response that seems right to me. Early on in the discussions with sceptical theistic philosophers, the most forceful replies to the evidential argument emphasized the enormous gulf between the goods we are capable of knowing or imagining and the goods knowable by a necessarily existing, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good being. We were said to be like small children in comparison to their loving parents. Just as the small children suffering from some illness cannot understand why they are suffering, or what good their parents hope to bring about by confining them to bed and forcing them to swallow bad-tasting medicines, etc., so too we humans are simply unable to understand the goods for the sake of which God may permit all the apparently pointless evils that afflict human and animal life. God is to us, then, as loving parents are to their children.

It is a pleasing analogy for sceptical theists, but it is an analogy that leads into a black hole. For what happens when children come down with serious illnesses, suffer from them, and are sometimes taken from their homes and confined to hospitals. Do their loving parents use it as an occasion to take a holiday in Bermuda? No. They make every effort to be consciously present to their suffering children, giving them special assurances of their love and concern. But countless numbers of human beings go through periods of horrendous suffering without any awareness at all of God’s being consciously present to them, loving them, and enfolding them in his everlasting arms. It is as though God has been on holiday for centuries. Indeed, this problem, ‘the hiddenness of God’, shores up whatever weaknesses may attend the evidential argument from evil. For while the limitations of human reason concerning goods that might justify a divine being in permitting the horrendous evils he obviously permits, if he exists, may leave an opening for a sceptical defence of theism, it doesn’t make much sense to think that God would take a long holiday while his creatures undergo extensive suffering and painful deaths.

Moving on to some of your most recent work, and in particular your book, Can God Be Free? (which is due to be published by Oxford University Press in May 2004), you discuss a very interesting but much neglected topic, viz., divine freedom. One of the ‘paradoxes of divine freedom’ arises from the traditional conception of God as being necessarily or essentially good. If God is thought of in this way, then he must always choose what he sees as the best course of action. But if God must always choose the best, then he can be said to be free only in some very constricted sense, if at all. Would you agree with this, and if so, do you think this effectively disposes of the theistic conception of God as incoherent?

I agree that there is an incoherence in supposing both that God is free with respect to creating a world and that there is a best creatable world. For his nature is such that when there is a best act for him to perform it is simply impossible for him to refrain from performing that best act. So, given his perfect nature, he would, then, create the best world of necessity, not freely. Moreover, if it makes no sense to praise or be thankful to a being for doing what is impossible for that being to refrain from doing, it would make no sense for us to be grateful to God or to thank him for doing what is best. For it simply is not in his power to refrain from doing what is best. Of course, if God were somehow responsible for his nature being what it is, then, in some derivative sense, he would be responsible for doing what his perfect nature requires him to do. But God does not create himself, nor does he bring it about that he has a perfect nature. So, given a best creatable world, God would create it of necessity, not freely.

Does this effectively dispose of the theistic conception of God as incoherent? Well, it certainly does require some serious revision of that conception. For it would no longer be possible to hold that God was free not to create the best world. Nor would it make sense to be thankful to God, or to praise him, for creating that world.

There is a connection that can be made here with the problem of evil. For if we assume that God must always choose the best, then our world must be, as Leibniz infamously stated, the best of all possible worlds (or the best world creatable by God). But this leads to the idea that our world, with all its holocausts and innumerable other evils, is the best that an infinitely powerful, infinitely wise and infinitely good being could do. And this idea, as you put it in one of your publications, seems to be an absurdity that merits the ridicule heaped upon it by Voltaire. Do you think, however, that the theist can avoid this outcome by rejecting the initial assumption that there is a best possible world (or a best creatable world)?

Yes, provided there are good reasons to think that instead of a best world, there is an unending sequence of increasingly better worlds. The other possibility is that there are a number of equally good worlds and none better, or perhaps worlds that are incommensurate in value. Consider what seems to be the favoured option to there being a best world, an infinity of increasingly better creatable worlds, and no best world. Since there is no best world for God to create, some claim he would be free to create any good world in the series, even the least good world. I’ve argued that it is impossible for there to be such a series, given the necessary existence of a being who is necessarily perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful. For, given an infinite series of increasingly better creatable worlds, no matter what world a being might create, it would be possible that there be a being whose degree of goodness is such that it simply could not create that world given that there is a better world that it could create instead. If this principle is true, and I believe it is, then if there necessarily exists a being than which none better is possible, it cannot be that for every creatable world there is a better creatable world.

Finally, Professor Rowe, what are your plans for the future? In particular, which topics or issues would you like to delve into in the near future?

I would like to get back to the current literature on the problem of evil. In recent years my preoccupation with the problem of divine freedom has prevented me from keeping up with the ever-growing body of philosophical literature on evil. I would also like to read and think some more about the problem of human freedom. For I continue to think that if our decisions and actions are causally determined by earlier events or states of mind over which we had no control, then we are not significantly free in the way required if we are to be moral beings.

Professor Rowe, thank you very much for this interview.

[Nick Trakakis is a PhD student in philosophy at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), where he is on the verge of completing a dissertation entitled, ‘The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe’s Evidential Arguments from Evil’.]


A brief beginners guide to some of the many ‘-isms’ in philosophy of religion.

Theism. (from Greek theos god) The belief that there is a personal god who has supernaturally revealed his/herself to humanity.
Atheism. The belief that there is no personal god.
Agnosticism. The view that we can’t know whether there is a personal god or not.
Deism. (from Latin deus god) The belief that there is a god, but without believing in any divine revelation.
Antidisestablishmentarianism The view that the Church shouldn’t be separated off from the state. (I only included it here because it is the longest word in the English language!)

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