Skeptical Theists admit defeat

Appealing to God’s ‘mysterious ways’ is nothing new. I’m sympathetic to the idea that skeptical theism is just a more dressed up version of appealing to God’s mysterious ways. Whether or not that is the case, I do not think skeptical theism is plausible in its own right. I think skeptical theists admit defeat.

What we see in the world is an abundance of horrific suffering. This isn’t the least bit surprising on naturalism, as I’ve argued in the past (in fact, it seems obvious to me). On classical theism, however, this isn’t what we would predict the universe to look like; we wouldn’t predict horrific suffering.

Skeptical theism comes in and says we shouldn’t expect to see God’s reasons for allowing evil. We can’t say whether theism predicts or doesn’t predict horrific suffering. That’s because, according to some skeptical theists, we have no good reason for thinking that the goods we know of are representative of the goods that there really are.

Some issues with Skeptical Theism

Firstly, at least pragmatically speaking, however, this (i.e. the above) is tantamount to admitting that theism doesn’t predict horrific suffering [1], and it is equivalent to saying theism doesn’t explain the existence of horrific suffering as well as naturalism (because we know naturalism predicts the data). Rather than coming up with an explanation or theodicy, the skeptical theist throws in the towel. One can only wonder if this is due to fact that most professional philosophers of religion find most theodicies to be implausible. If there were a good theodicy at the moment, one also wonders why any theist would be a skeptical theist. Saying that it is unknown whether (classical) theism predicts the data of evil is (for all intensive purposes) the same as saying that theism fails to predict evil. As such, skeptical theism should not be seen as some sort of sophisticated position. At least theists who give theodicies are trying: skeptical theists quit the game before it even starts. Appealing to mystery or unknown reasons is a strategy that can work with anything, save any hypothesis, and render a hypothesis useless/unfalsifiable; it’s a strike against a hypothesis, and we are still left with naturalism predicting the data of evil.

Secondly, appealing to our cognitive limitations doesn’t really help. On naturalism, there is nothing surprising about human ignorance. It’s arguable that human ignorance is way more expected on naturalism than theism. On theism, God can make creatures with way more knowledge than humans in the actual world. The upshot is that even if theism predicts that we will be ignorant about many of God’s actions, that doesn’t mean we will be ignorant about God’s actions when it comes to suffering. Particularly, there is nothing about theism that predicts us being ignorant about God’s reasons for the horrific suffering of animals [2]. On naturalism, however, there is no God to tell us his reasons for allowing suffering.

Thirdly, skeptical theism is a version of theism, which means it is incredibly less simple than naturalism. The reason is that skeptical theism is an auxiliary hypothesis of theism. In addition, theism is a form of supernaturalism; it’s possible to be a supernaturalist and not a theist. Not to mention, classical theism itself is just one form of theism [3]. Couple that with the fact that skeptical theism doesn’t explain anything, it’s quite easy to see how naturalism comes out on top. Thus, like with many theodicies, the skeptical theist’s move fares no better.

Fourthly, even if we grant that, for all we know, God has morally sufficient reasons to allow horrific suffering, it is also true-and antecedently no less likely– that for all we know, God does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing horrific suffering. Therefore, we are left right back where we started, which is that suffering is surprising on the hypothesis of classical theism.  Not to mention, for all we know God is able to accomplish all she wants without the existence of horrific suffering. Furthermore, for all we know, there are worse evils that are gained by the existence of present evils. Thus, if anything, appealing to unknown reasons makes it antecedently unlikely that God really does have a good reason. [4]


Thus, even if we grant skeptical theism, nothing changes. In fact, skeptical theism doesn’t even try to explain evil. The skeptical theist throws in the towel. They admit defeat.


[1] See Null Hypothesis:
[2] One also wonders why God, if God exists, doesn’t tell us his reasons for allowing horrific evil. Even if we can’t understand his reasons, God could at least assure us, if she exists, that there really are reasons. At minimum, God could always be present and make God’s presence felt to those who are going through horrific suffering.
[3] One also wonders how skeptical theism is supposed to fit in with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Bible, Yahweh does tell us his reasons for doing various things, and some of those reasons seem dubious.
[4] See Michael Tooley:




14 thoughts on “Skeptical Theists admit defeat

  1. You do not mention the “out” most Christians use in this discussion, the existence (sic) of the Devil/Satan/Lucifer, whatever. Recently retired SCOTUS Justice Scalia believed in the Devil and said so publicly. So, a lot of offloading of responsibility occurs in the actual world of religion.

    Of course, one is quite puzzled as to why a creator god, and all-powerful one, one who created Satan in the first place, allows opposition at all? Why should he when he can vanquish any foe with a thought. Plus, since he is all-knowing he cannot be deceived by Satan’s lies. Oh, but apparently He can … it is such a puzzlement.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      Appealing to literal demons to explain the existence of horrific evil is not a good explanation in itself. For one, any advantage this explanation has with regards to the consequent probability (even though there is little to no evidence that demons exist) is offset by the low prior probability. Secondly, this move appears to be completely implausible, ad hoc, and unfalsifiable. Thirdly, the debate here is about theism simpliciter vs. naturalism, not Christian theism vs. naturalism. Fourthly, appealing to literal demons will be of no help to theists who don’t believe in such a thing (or believe that demons have such powers, or that they’ve been given permission by God to inflict such suffering).

  2. Gary

    When a Christian starts using complex mathematical formulas and philosophical theories to defend his belief in first century corpse reanimation-transformation (aka: resurrections)…I yawn.

    I yawn because it is soooo silly.

    I know for a fact that if a Muslim attempted to use these same ploys to defend the veracity of Islam’s claim that Mohammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, the very same Christians would snicker and hand-wave away these arguments without giving them a second thought, believing that these tactics are nothing more than an obvious, desperate attempt to dress up a superstition as believable reality.

  3. Amen. I have encouraged theists in the past to just be quiet if the best they can offer is, “God is mysterious.”

    I would offer that the concept of “suffering” doesn’t come into play without theism. A tornado isn’t “tragic” until it destroys a building full of people. Calling it a tragedy implies that reality could (and should) have been different. Naturalism can’t predict suffering because it can’t even define it.

      1. “…a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.”

        Until there is a peer-reviewed paper explaining the naturalistic causes of “expectations”, your definition of suffering is philosophical. Naturalism offers no way to differentiate what “is” from “what should be”. Cancer is a naturally occurring event. Rainbows occur naturally also. On naturalism alone, there are no expectations regarding either.

  4. Pingback: Jonathan Garner: Skeptical Theists Admit Defeat – The Amateur Exegete

  5. Great post that really covers many different topics and issues. Let me just make a couple of points in response to the below quote:

    “What we see in the world is an abundance of horrific suffering. This isn’t the least bit surprising on naturalism, as I’ve argued in the past (in fact, it seems obvious to me). On classical theism, however, this isn’t what we would predict the universe to look like; we wouldn’t predict horrific suffering.”

    First, it is worth noting that all suffering in this world is limited in duration. We would expect God to create a world such that the suffering would be limited in duration. This would mean we would no longer be ignorant of suffering, but still not have to endure it more than what is required to achieve the good of knowledge.

    Second, I doubt Naturalism would predict suffering. I do not think naturalism would predict any sort of conscious experiences at all.

    Third, this topic sort of touches on the argument from ignorance. Is our lack of knowing the reasons for God allowing every evil itself evidence that God does not exist? Overall issue here is one of whether we would expect that we would know the reason for every sort of suffering if there was God. I tend to think we wouldn’t. Of course, if you thought that if God existed we likely would know why every sort of suffering exists in the world then it would be an argument.

    1. 1. Still begs the question of why it is allowed to exist to begin with.
      2. Maybe, but that’s debatable and in any case I think it is clear that naturalism is not the only option besides theism, (Schopenhauer and Hegel were idealist atheists), let alone Christian theism or skeptical theism (See finite godism).
      3. Just because we cannot know all possible reasons doesn’t mean we should try to reject our best guess based on the best information we have. Likewise God might have reasons we don’t know about for revealing the Koran to Mohammed and not letting us Christians have any idea. Just because we can’t think of one doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And I could ask, How do you know that there IS a reason or that there is no reason for Him NOT to do so? Just because you can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

  6. Pingback: Possible arguments and proofs about the existence of God #1 – Unmasking anti Jehovah sites and people

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