What is a Prima Facie Case against Theism?

There’s an interesting discussion going on at The Prosblogion about whether or not suffering constitutes a prima facie case against theism. To say that there is a prima facie case, in a legal sense, is to say that there are charges that need answering. As such, most theists, insofar as they offer a theodicy or defense, concede that suffering does constitute a prima facie case against theism. Even skeptical theism, which assumes that there are justifying goods even if we can’t know what they are, concedes that suffering is a prima facie case insofar as suffering requires justifying goods.

Although some theists, such as James F. Ross (see the Prosblogion link) deny that suffering constitutes a prima facie case against theism, I suspect he is in the minority. Insofar as theists consider a defense or theodicy necessary, they concede the prima facie case. Note that this includes those who don’t consider ‘positive apologetics’ necessary or effectual. Even those theists typically engage in ‘negative apologetics.’ In other words, they feel that in order to be considered rational in their belief, they owe the atheist a response to the problem of suffering. So I think that most theists concede that suffering constitutes a prima facie case against theism. Suffering amounts to a charge that needs answering, even if the theist thinks that an answer is available.

I want to relate this point to my earlier post ‘Theism, Naturalism and Antecedent Expectations.’   An objection to my argument that I’ve been anticipating goes something like this: “You’re basing your argument on your expectations of what God would or wouldn’t do. But why think that we would be able to predict a priori what God would or wouldn’t do? It seems arrogant in the extreme to say that we could predict with any certainty what God would do. Moreover, it seems foolish to conclude that God probably does not exist, simply because He does not meet our expectations.” I grant that the argument assumes that we can assign meaningful probabilities to antecedent expectations based on what God would or wouldn’t do. But I think that’s a fairly weak claim, and therefore, easy enough to defend. All I need to say is that suffering (or hiddenness) constitutes a prima facie case against theism. It isn’t even necessary to say that the arguments from suffering or hiddenness succeed in securing their conclusions. All I need to say — and get the theist to concede — is that the observation of suffering and hiddenness are unexpected on theism. That is to say, that these facts constitute a prima facie case against theism, or charges that need answering. Insofar as theists generally admit this, I think the argument goes through.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What is a Prima Facie Case against Theism?

  1. Tafacory

    The problem of evil; confounding theists since the origins of the God concept.

  2. Hi Tafacory,
    Thanks for commenting and liking the post. I agree that the problem of evil is a serious challenge to theism. Hiddenness is also particularly strong imho.

    • Tafacory

      I have not read much of the literature on hiddenness. Does that deal with disbelief and culpability? Something along the lines of there not being enough evidence for God’s existence, therefore the non-believer should not or cannot be punished?

  3. Yes, it’s very much along those lines. To say that God is hidden is to say that there is a lot of non-culpable unbelief in the world. This is odd on the assumption that there is a loving God who wants people to know him. If you’re interested in pursuing the argument, I recommend a philosopher named J.L. Schellenberg.

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