Some militant unbelievers resort to the suffering of children as their trump card in the argument from evil. The objection goes something like this: “If you were in a position to intervene in order to prevent a child from suffering, what would you do? If you would intervene, and God would not, then what does this say about God? Put another way, if you were God, what would you do in the same situation?”
There are several issues to sort out here.
1.The unbeliever is appealing to our instinctual protectiveness regarding the young.
Remember, though, that according to naturalistic evolution, we have been programmed to feel this way about children (especially our own) by a mindless, amoral process.
It’s no different than the way a crocodile feels about her young—assuming that a crocodile has any feelings. She’s just as protective of her young as any human mother—maybe more so (in the age of abortion).
And, from a secular standpoint, the fate of a human child has no more objective moral significance than the fate of a newly-hatched crocodile.
We can’t help feeling protective about our young, but unlike the crocodile, we are aware of our evolutionary programming, and we are therefore aware of the fact that our parental instincts are the product of a mindless, amoral process.
Hence, the militant unbeliever is bilking the moral and emotional resonance of a spectacle which, if he’s true to his own beliefs, is a genetic illusion. Our genes have tricked us into feeling this way to perpetuate the species. But, of course, there’s no moral imperative to perpetuate the species. Natural selection is a blind, indifferent watchmaker.
2.Why do unbelievers raise an objection that is inconsistent with their worldview? For a couple of reasons:
i) Some of them are simply unscrupulous. Their hatred of God is such that they will use any club to bash the Christian faith, even if they regard the argument as intellectually disreputable.
ii) Deep down, the unbeliever is conflicted. Deep down, he does believe in moral absolutes. He cannot escape the fact that he is living in God’s universe. So he constantly reverts to a moralistic position that is out of whack with his official creed.
It’s too tiring to play a role 24/7. You tend to forget the role from time to time and slip back into the real man behind the mask. You don’t have the energy to maintain your stage persona day and night, week after week.
3.The argument that if I were you, what would I do in your situation can quickly degenerate into a very unethical appeal.
For example, there’s a reason why we don’t think it’s a good idea for a judge to be related to the accused. If he’s related to the accused, he’s tempted to give his relative special treatment.
The judge is no longer impartial. He has a conflict of interest. That’s why a judge ought to recuse himself in such cases.
4.Suppose we were to use the atheistic argument in a judicial case. Your son shoots my son. Neither father is in a position to exact justice. I feel differently about my son than your son, and vice versa.
This is why such case should be turned over to a second party who has no personal investment in the outcome.
Now, suppose the atheist were to say, “ If it were your son, and if you were the judge, what would you do?”
Well, it’s quite possible, in this situation, that my personal feelings would, indeed, affect my judgment.
And it would also make a difference which father was the judge. The father of the shooter might be very lenient, while the father of the victim might be very harsh.
Is this an argument for why the judge should identify with the next-of-kin? No, to the contrary, this is an argument for why the judge should be a disinterested party.
5.Take another case. Suppose my brother is a junkie. The duty of a policeman, if he catches my brother in the act, is to arrest him. Is it also my duty to turn him in to the authorities? Not necessarily.
There are times when a family member does have a moral obligation to the common good. But maybe my brother’s addiction is mainly self-destructive, or harmful to his immediate family.
My concern is for my brother’s welfare, while the lawmaker’s concern is for the social welfare. What he’s doing is wrong. But it’s a family matter.
Suppose we were to ask the policemen, “What would you do if he were your brother?”
Once again, in a situation like that the policeman might try to cover for his own brother. But should that be public policy? Do we think that policemen should make exceptions for their own next-of-kin, and if they do so, that they should exempt everyone else’s next-of-kin as well? The result would be the complete abrogation of law-and-order.
6. Or, to take one more example, supposed I’m driving along and I see a car on the side of the road. I pull over and it turns out that Sophia Loren is in driver’s seat. Her car has broken down and she needs a lift.
Where she wants me to take her is way out of the way. But because she’s Sophia Loren, I’ll do a favor for her that I wouldn’t necessary do for just anyone.
Is that unfair? Maybe. Do I care? No.
Suppose an atheist were to ask, “If you were God, would you do her any special favors?”
Well, if I were God, I wouldn’t feel the same way about her. She wouldn’t have the same effect on me. Indeed, she wouldn’t have any effect on me. The face, the figure, the charisma would make no impact on God. The fact that she could charm just about anything out of the average man doesn’t mean she either could or should be able to charm anything out of God.
7.The unbeliever is attempting to trap the believer into a dilemma: “If you wouldn’t do what God did, then you’re a hypocrite!”
Yet, as we’ve seen, this pressure tactic is poised on the unethical assumption that that everyone has the same social role, that every has the same obligations to everyone else; that if I wouldn’t invariably do what you would in the same situation, then I’m a hypocrite.
But our duties are not interchangeable. Everyone should not always do the same thing in the same situation. Even if the circumstances are identical, the social obligations may vary.
A policeman or a judge does not have the same responsibilities as the family of the accused.
This doesn’t address every aspect of the question. But it does address the facile assumption that I either would or should do whatever God would do if I were God, or God were in my situation.
For there are many counterexamples wherein that superficially plausible appeal breaks down, and becomes a license for moral anarchy.