Saturday, March 14, 2009

Richard Carrier Commits the "Pet Analogy" Fallacy

My friend William Lane Craig will be soon debating Richard Carrier on the resurrection of Jesus. Knowing nothing about Carrier, I decided to read one of his essays. I chose "Why I Am Not a Christian." Among the many things I find unconvincing in this piece is that, amazingly, Carrier commits the "pet analogy fallacy," based on a famous piece by the British philosopher John Hick. The "pet analogy fallacy" is a variation of the straw man fallacy. What Carrier does is set up a characterization of Christianity and proceeds to knock it down. What's humorous and tedious to me is that he succeeds in knocking the straw man down again, and then again, and again and again ad nauseum.

Hick, in his essay, states that the atheist's mistake is to view God as creating a hedonistic paradise, like a pet owner creates a perfectly safe environment for his dog or cat. In the following quote we see that Carrier seems to look at things this way.

"The God proposed by the Christian hypothesis is not a disembodied, powerless voice whose only means of achieving his desires is speaking to people, teaching them to do what's right. The Christian God is an Almighty Creator, capable of creating or destroying anything, capable of suspending or rewriting the laws of nature, capable of anything we can imagine. He can certainly do any and every moral thing you or I can do, and certainly much more than that, being so much bigger and stronger and better than we are in every way. All this follows necessarily from the definition of mere Christianity, and therefore cannot be denied without denying Christianity itself. It's a simple fact of direct observation that if I had the means and the power, and could not be harmed for my efforts, I would immediately alleviate all needless suffering in the universe. All guns and bombs would turn to flowers. All garbage dumps would become gardens. There would be adequate resources for everyone. There would be no more children conceived than the community and the environment could support. There would be no need of fatal or debilitating diseases or birth defects, no destructive Acts of God. And whenever men and women seemed near to violence, I would intervene and kindly endeavor to help them peacefully resolve their differences. That's what any loving person would do. Yet I cannot be more loving, more benevolent than the Christian God. Therefore, the fact that the Christian God does none of these things--in fact, nothing of any sort whatsoever--is proof positive that there is no Christian God."

There's much more than this in Carrier's essay. But this is one point he raises again and again, and is one of his reasons why he is not a Christian. Carrier's reasoning goes like this.

1. The Christian God is all powerful.
2. The Christian God is all loving.
3. Any loving person would eliminate all needless suffering in the universe.
4. There is needless suffering in the universe.
5. Therefore the Christian God does not exist, and Christianity is false.

Examples of P3 for Carrier include: a school killer's bullets would be turned into popcorn; all guns and bombs would turn into flowers; and there would be no need of fatal or debilitating birth defects. In other words, if the Christian God should exist, we would expect the kind of hedonic paradise Hick mentions.

My problem with this kind of reasoning is that it is a straw-man caricature of Christian theism. In all my Christian years I have never thought of actual Chrisitanity in the way Carrier presents it. I conclude that Carrier is presenting something I will call "Christianity2," which is "Christianity" as Carrier thinks it should be. Perhaps Christianity2 includes some forms of Calvinism that take the "absolute sovereignty of God" to its logical & extra-biblical limits.

Since I have never, ever, believed in Christianity2, his argument does not provide me with a "proof positive" reason to abandon Christianity. I'd say, at this point, Carrier has a good reason to reject Christianity2, not Christianity. Carrier, at most, may be arguing against that relatively small band of Christians who hold to strong Calvinism. Perhaps a few fundamentalists would be included here, too.

Whether or not an all-powerful and all-loving God should allow for needless suffering is interesting. But in Christianity there is, precisely, needless suffering. "Needless suffering" is denoted, e.g., by the idea of "sin." Because "needless suffering" is part of the noetic framework of Christianity one cannot refute Christianity by pointing out that needless suffering exists. That would be like rejecting tennis because there's a net dividing the court. In my view one can accept P4 but reject P3. That brings in the whole philosophical problem of evil, the free will defense, and things like Greg Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil.