Rev. Steve Swires, pastor of Sunshine Community Baptist Church up in British Columbia, informed me quite some time ago that he had delivered an audio sermon (regrettably no longer available) critiquing my Tale of the Twelve Officers. I have been delinquent in finishing my response, and for this I apologize to Swires, who has been a friendly and sincere opponent despite the vehemence of our disagreement with one another. I hope my thoughts below will prove worthy of the maxim, “better late than never.”
Swires faults the Tale on two counts: first, he claims that the Tale undercuts itself, because it assumes that human life has value, but then (supposedly) goes on to argue for atheism, which (supposedly) strips life of all value. Second, he claims that the Tale falsely assumes an equivalence between God and man, ignoring the vast differences between the two. Every analogy, of course, contains disanalogies; the question is whether any of the disanalogies at hand are problematic for the Tale. Swires thinks so: he believes that a proper understanding of the nature of God yields several plausible rationales for why God fails to prevent things like the drawn-out rape and murder described in the Tale. With no disrespect to Swires, I believe his critique fails abjectly on both counts. The rest of this article explains why.
I. Does the Tale undercut its own presumption of human value?
According to Swires, the Tale argues for atheism. However, the Tale also seems to presuppose that Ms. K’s life has value, and that rape and murder are bad, and Swires thinks all assignments of value are inconsistent with atheism. Presumably, in an atheistic universe, life cannot have any inherent value at all, so atheists cannot say that rape and murder are bad. Thus, thinks Swires, the atheistic conclusion for which the Tale supposedly argues undercuts the assumptions the Tale needs in order to get off the ground in the first place. This line of counterargument against the argument from evil is common in popular apologetics, but fails for two reasons: (i) there actually is no inconsistency between atheism and value; and (ii) the argument from evil is not an atheological argument.
(i) There is no inconsistency between atheism and value.
The idea that there is an inconsistency between atheism and value vanishes with a moment’s reflection. Believers who think such an inconsistency exists appear to think so because they conflate atheism with materialism, or something very close to it. Atheism and materialism, however, are not the same thing.1 The only things ruled out by atheism are gods; this obviously still leaves room for acceptance of a very wide range of transcendental or even supernatural entities.2 It should be clear, then, that mere atheism does not rule out the existence of moral values even in their most mystical form.
(i-a) A digression on evolution and rape
Before continuing to the second problem with Swires’s accusation that the Tale undercuts itself, I need to digress to discuss Swires’s story about having heard an evolutionist (an atheistic one, we apparently are supposed to assume automatically) argue that rape is excusable since it is a good strategy for spreading one’s genes. One legitimately might wonder how Swires can first claim that atheism is inconsistent with the very idea of value assignments, and then turn around and claim that atheism gives positive value to rape; but let’s put that aside, and focus more directly on the story itself.
I am suspicious of the story, because although I have heard creationists say that evolution would justify rape, I have never heard an evolutionist say the same thing. Even Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, whose book (A Natural History of Rape) creationists jumped all over, never made that argument (see their reply to critics). I suspect that what Swires actually heard was an evolutionist like Thornhill or Palmer offering an explanation for the prevalence of rape, rather than a justification of it. Swires may even have read a second-hand account by a creationist who glossed over the difference. Such important distinctions, unfortunately, often are lost on creationists eager to demonize evolutionists.3
On the other hand, people do say stupid things all the time, so supposing some evolutionist somewhere actually did say exactly what Swires reports, what then? Well, suppose a Grand Dragon of the White Camelia Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Texas said
My racial beliefs are based on Scriptural teachings … Without them, how could I possibly justify [white] supremacy? (as quoted in Bushart et al. 1998:40)
Or suppose that the home page for the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan said:
What do we believe in our Church? We believe in the Bible before liberals translated it. We of the White Race came from Adam and Eve, not monkeys. The Bible clearly shows we are of one lineage, and makes reference to Beasts who walked on two legs. It also spoke of the wrongs of sleeping with these beasts. So we believe that blacks are not our Brothers and Sisters, but are beasts of burden. To accept evolution fully, is to say that we are equal with these animals, which history shows that we are not equal to, and in fact are superior to. While the Supreme Court has accepted animals to Vote and Marry with our race, we have not and never will accept this.4
I guess statements like these prove that if Christianity is true, then racism is entirely proper. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, it is unfair to condemn something, even something we are inclined to disagree with, because of the dumb statements of an unrepresentative few.
Enough of this. Let’s turn to the next problem with Swires’s contention that the Tale’s atheism undercuts itself.
(ii) The argument from evil is not an argument for atheism.
Atheists use the argument from evil frequently, and to great effect. But the argument from evil actually is not an argument for atheism. The classical argument from evil is an argument against a very particular kind of god: a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The reason atheists are able to use the argument so often and with such great results is because they usually operate in an environment where believers assume the existence of precisely that kind of god. However, rejection of that kind of god obviously is not enough to justify atheism since there are billions upon billions of other kinds of gods that might exist. True enough, the argument from evil presented by the Tale is not the classical argument, but a more evidential form which cuts through a wider swath of gods; however, it still is not an argument for atheism: a god that is not very good, not very powerful, or not very knowledgeable will not be touched by the Tale. Also, true enough, the Tale may bring us a step closer to atheism, but only in the same way that a refutation of the existence of all mustached gods does: by knocking one kind of god out of consideration.
So, when Swires depicts me as using the Tale to argue for atheism, he is mistaken. He probably has implicitly assumed that his god and atheism are the only choices. But they are not. One could accept the lesson of the Tale in its entirety and still believe in a god, just not in Swires’s kind of god. Since the Tale does not argue for atheism, the Tale would retain all of its force even if value and morality made absolutely no sense in an atheistic universe.
Let us move on to Swires’s second objection to the Tale.
II. Does the Tale presume a problematic equivalence between God and man?
At various points in his sermon, most notably when he offers his surgeon analogy, Swires critiques the Tale by offering what amounts to a rehash of the ‘Brainiac’ defense (the fifth officer in the Tale): God is far more powerful and intelligent than we are, therefore no matter how horrible His behavior seems, we should assume that there is a great reason for it that we are just too dumb, by comparison, to understand.
But Swires doesn’t leave it at that; he goes on to offer three suggestions for what God’s justification might be. Swires asks us whether it would have been better for Ms. K to have died of AIDS, or slowly of cancer. He suggests that perhaps Ms. K would have given birth to the next Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler. He places great emphasis on the suggestion that perhaps Ms. K’s rape and murder might have interrupted a chain of events that would have resulted in the damnation of more people to Hell than otherwise would have been damned. Uniting all of these proposals is the idea that God allows horrendous things like rape and murder to occur because it is the only way that he can prevent even more horrendous things from happening down the road.
Each of these defenses is as flawed as any of the defenses lampooned in the Tale. Below, I will first take on Swires’s version of the ‘Brainiac’ defense, and then move on to each of his three specific justifications.
(i) The ‘Brainiac’ defense revisited
Swires offers us his own parable about observers who know nothing of modern medicine (16th-century observers, if I recall correctly) witnessing a surgeon performing emergency open-heart surgery out on a street. Such observers would think they are witnessing an act of horrible malice and brutality, but only because their understanding is limited. According to Swires, God is like the surgeon and we are like the observers. Women being raped and murdered, then, presumably are like patients undergoing open-heart surgery, if only we could see rape and murder through divine eyes.
To assess this reasoning, let’s look back at the original Brainiac example in the Tale. Brainiac understands things that you cannot even begin to comprehend; in terms of knowledge, he stands to you as an adult to a child. So, when you hear about how Brainiac just stood around and watched Ms. K’s rape and murder, do you say to yourself that someone that smart surely must have had a praiseworthy reason for not intervening, even if he refuses to explain what that reason was? Or do you assume, in the absence of a solid demonstration to the contrary, that genius though Brainiac may be, he is at most an indifferent genius, and perhaps even a malicious one? Multiply Brainiac’s intelligence by a million; does that change your assessment? Multiply it by another million billion: any change? Assume that he is positively godlike in his knowledge. Any change? No more should you make such an assumption for an actual god.
If it needs to be spelled out, the amount of knowledge a person has implies absolutely nothing about whether or not that person is benevolent (imagine someone saying of Hitler or Osama bin Laden, “I know he seems like a bad guy, but he’s too smart for that to be true.”). The same applies, incidentally, to power. Without solid evidence to the contrary, you should assume that someone who appears to be doing something horrible probably is doing something horrible, even if the person in question happens to be omniscient and omnipotent. To put it back into Swires’s analogy: if you knew nothing about medicine, and saw an open-heart surgery being performed, you should be aghast until someone explains what is really going on.
As I mentioned, though, Swires does, to his credit, try to explain to us what is really going on: he offers us three potential rationales for God’s refusal to intervene in a situation like Ms. K’s. Swires does not claim to know which one of these is at play in any particular instance of God’s passivity, but he seems to believe that at least one of these must account for ordeals like the one Ms. K goes through. Let’s move on to those.
(ii) The “murder vs. cancer” defense
Swires asks us whether it would have been better for Ms. K to die of AIDS or cancer. This is just a variation on the eighth officer’s defense. The eighth officer was proud because although he allowed Ms. K to be raped and murdered, he prevented her from being tortured even worse. Swires is arguing that allowing Ms. K to be (let me repeat what the Tale said) “slowly raped and murdered over the course of one hour and fifty-five minutes” might have been merciful, because it is better than having her die slowly of AIDS or cancer. Right off the top of my head, I can think of at least five fatal problems with such a defense:
- Let’s put this defense right back into the Tale. What if one of the officers informs us that he knew Ms. K had cancer, or would have developed cancer sometime in the future, and that he allowed her to be raped and murdered as a mercy killing? I am not sure what the Baptist position on mercy killing is, but I am fairly confident few would applaud it when the victim does not want to be mercy-killed. And even if a deranged few did think it benevolent to murder cancer patients ostensibly for their own good, I doubt they would think it merciful to rape the patients as well.
- Swires asks whether it would be better for Ms. K to die of AIDS or cancer than to be slowly raped and murdered. Well, you tell me: if your doctor informed you that you had AIDS or cancer, would you welcome being raped and murdered over the course of an hour and fifty-five minutes? Even if you decided you wanted to die, wouldn’t you prefer to have an opportunity to say farewell to your loved ones, to set your affairs in order, to make peace with yourself? And, of course, when the time came, wouldn’t you prefer a quick and painless death to an ordeal like that which Ms. K endures?
- Even if the above were not fatal problems, such a defense could not account for many cases, unless Swires wishes to contend that a significant number of the people Hitler gassed were otherwise would soon die of AIDS or cancer. Do we really believe that war criminals and psychopaths seek out, like laser-guided missiles, those who are about to become severely diseased?
- The distribution of acts like rape and murder appears to have nothing to do with the distribution of disease. If God allows women to get raped and murdered in order to protect them from cancer, then why does he allow so many children to develop cancer? In order to protect them from rape and murder somewhere down the line?
- Finally, this defense places a strange limit on God’s power: an all-powerful god would not have to say, “Hmm, well if I don’t let Ms. K get murdered, she’s going to develop cancer, and I won’t be able to do anything about that. Yes, better let her get murdered. Oh, and might as well throw in rape, while I’m at it.” An omnipotent god would, of course, be able to prevent both the rape-murder and the cancer.
(iii) The “Hitler II” defense
Swires next suggests that perhaps God allows things like rape-murders because the victims would otherwise give birth to the next Dahmer or Hitler. This “Hitler II” defense suffers from some of the same flaws as the “murder vs. cancer” defense. Again, off the top of my head:
- An all-powerful god would not have to allow Ms. K to be murdered (much less raped and murdered) in order to prevent her from birthing Hitler II. Such a god could easily give her a miscarriage, or interfere with the initial fertilization. He could even let Hitler II be born, but then alter his experiences or his brain architecture to guide him into becoming not a new Hitler, but someone nice, like a new Carl Sagan (of whom we definitely could use more).
- Are we seriously expected to believe that a significant number of the people who Hitler gassed would otherwise have fathered or mothered a Hitler II? How about if we combine this defense with the previous one? Is it plausible to believe that a significant number of the people murdered on September 11 either was about to develop a serious disease, or else would have fathered/mothered a Hitler II? That still doesn’t seem remotely plausible.
- The fact that there are plenty of Hitlers seems to suggest that God doesn’t especially care whether they’re around. If we’re going to praise Him for preventing Hitler II, what should we say about him having allowed Hitler I?
(iv) The ‘less damnation’ defense
Swires actually seems to place a lot of weight on this one. The worst calamity that can possibly befall someone is to go to Hell, both because God, through his sovereignty, stipulates that salvation is the purpose of life, and (I reckon) because being in Hell is the most painful state of affairs imaginable. Therefore, things that interfere with salvation are vastly worse than anything else, including rape and murder. Swires’s suggestion is that if Ms. K had not been raped and murdered, the end result might be (in a chaos theory kind of effect, unpredictable by our finite minds) more souls damned for all eternity.
Now, aside from any issues one should have with the whole scheme of salvation and damnation that Swires has in mind, this defense still seems as weak as the previous ones, most notably because:
- There are more obvious ways of keeping people from being damned, like actually providing enough evidence to convince everyone.
- Divine silence in the face of horrendous suffering is a very strange way of trying to save people, given that it probably is the single most popular reason people have for rejecting the kind of god Swires has in mind.
- We have no evidence that points the other way: there is no evidence that the distribution of the saved and the damned is affected for the better by things like protracted rape-murders. To assume such an effect just to save one’s beliefs, which is all the believer can do, obviously is special pleading just as much in this case as in the previous ones.
I conclude that the justifications Swires offers for his god’s silence in the face of incidents like that painted in the Tale are as implausible as any other justification covered in the Tale. The only recourse Swires really has is to retreat back to the Brainiac defense; any attempt to spell out what good God supposedly accomplishes by permitting rape-murders is bound to degenerate into special pleading of the most transparent sort. But the Brainiac defense, as we have seen, has its own fatal problems.
As far as I can tell, Swires has failed to defuse the force of the Tale of the Twelve Officers. His case for inconsistency in the Tale rests upon a misunderstanding of what the Tale argues for, and his attempt to exonerate God ultimately requires us to assume without evidence that a benevolent justification lies shrouded in mysteries impenetrable to our minds. Mystery, however, works for devils as much as for gods; we should be leery of those who claim that the ultimate good wears a cloak of malice and indifference, lest we find, upon embracing it, that the supposed cloak was the true flesh.
1 The question of whether even materialism might be consistent with value is one I have no need to address for the purposes of this paper. However, for the curious, I think materialism is in fact compatible with notions of value sufficient for the development a coherent moral stance, even if these values cannot be absolute in the way that mystical or transcendental values are supposed to be.
2 It is also worth pointing out that materialism is not even a subset of atheism: it is possible that there are gods who are material beings, such as those posited by Lucretius. Even if one believes that Lucretius was not truly serious about such beings, the picture he draws is a consistent one.
3 Fortunately, some creationist writers recognize the distinction; they typically go on to argue that evolution justifies rape despite beliefs to the contrary on the part of evolutionists. Unfortunately, that point often seems to be lost on many of their readers, who translate what they read into “Evolutionists think rape is OK.”
4 (1 Nov 2014) The web site for this organization appears to have disappeared, but the quote (which is fairly well-known), is repeated at the website of the Kentucky branch of the organization. I have saved a screenshot of it, for reference.
Bushart HL, Craig JR, Barnes M. 1998. Soldiers of God: White Supremacists and their Holy War for America. New York: Pinnacle.
On the problem of evil: Drange TE. 1998. Nonbelief and Evil. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
On atheism and morality: Wielenberg EJ. 2005. Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
On evolution and morality: de Waal F. 2006. Primates and Philosophers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.