Face-in-Palme d’Rauser | Universal Salvation? | And a Response to Matt Flannagan

Face-in-Palme-smallChristian apologist Randal Rauser has a fun occasional game on his blog in which he hands out Face-in-Palme d’Or awards (as he’s cleverly termed them) to remarks or arguments he finds exceptionally face-in-palm-ish.

He recently penned a series of blog articles exploring whether we should worship God in the event that mainstream Calvinist theology turns out to be correct. Though not a Calvinist himself, he concluded that yes, even if it’s the case that God chooses some people for damnation (as most traditional Calvinists believe is the case), we still should worship God.

This caught my attention, particularly because I was in the middle of writing my own piece about why we should hope that God doesn’t exist, which touches on similar issues. Rauser’s series prompted me to hurry up and finish my piece, which I then submitted to him for his consideration. And I was delighted when I noticed that he had taken the time to write an entire article in response.

And then I read his response.

He started out innocuously enough by restating his position that it’s a clear, straightforward, definitional kind of truth that if we ought to hope for anything, surely we ought to hope that the maximally great and morally good God of mainstream theism exists. Apologist Matt Flannagan argued this as well in the comment thread that followed, and I’ll return to address this point in a few more moments (which is to say, after roughly 1300 more words, now that I count them).

But then the bulk of Rauser’s response was directed at the thought experiment I had offered in my essay, regarding universal damnation. He proceeded to offer the following reductio ad absurdum: Surely it’s logically possible that a “perfect” spouse might end up hacking you to bits, or that you might be fired from a “perfect” job thus sending you spiraling into a morass of darkness and depression, or that a “perfect” vacation might afford a pack of rabid Smurfs an opportunity to ransack your vacant house [I’m not making this Smurfs part up!]. Should we therefore hope against such “perfect” spouses, jobs, and vacations? Surely that’s absurd.

As I read through this portion of Rauser’s presentation, my mounting puzzlement gave way to a swelling incredulity which itself gave way to a rising–shall I say–Palme smacking firmly against my forehead.

As I queried him, what part of “It’s [universal damnation] a stupefyingly implausible scenario. It’s certainly not a damning indictment of theism that this is a logically possible scenario on theism. Hell, it’s a logically possible scenario on atheism as well, minus the God component, of course. But what it does is to illumine certain lessons for the real world which we can draw from this hypothetical” didn’t he understand? His reductio was aimed squarely at an argument that I went to considerable lengths to point out was certainly not my argument, namely, that because universal damnation is logically possible on theism, we therefore should hope that God does not exist. To reiterate: universal damnation is a stupefyingly implausible scenario, the logical possibility of which is certainly not a damning indictment of theism. That thus reiterated, there’s not much else to say about Rauser’s article, as he completely overlooked the actual argument I had proceeded to erect from the bones of my fanciful universal damnation thought experiment.

A touch of levity thus inserted into this discussion by way of a few strings of really lame sexual puns, allow me to stroke my soapbox a bit more vigorously now. As cordially and lightheartedly as I could [and I am being genuine now], I pointed out to Rauser that he had rather bewilderingly misrepresented my argument, having provided a reductio to an absurdity of his own creation rather than mine. But, as I said to him, we’re all busy and mistakes happen, and I was happy to let bygones be bygones and get on with the follow up discussion, though I did expect a correction or retraction in the body of his original response. And why a pedantic correction/retraction in the body of his article? Because if someone else had penned my argument and my first exposure to it was Rauser’s response, I would presume that he had adequately summarized the argument, and I would further presume that the argument was therefore a very amateurish piece of work. I most likely wouldn’t devote any further time to reading the original argument itself, or even to delving into the associated comment section at Rauser’s site, and I would probably try to avoid the work of that writer in the future.

I politely brought all of this to Rauser’s attention and requested a correction, and he responded by saying he was perplexed by my argument. Now, he’s free to think all he likes that my argument is perplexing and wrong, but the salient issue is whether he had presented it fairly. So I asked him explicitly and repeatedly whether he really still thought my argument is that because universal damnation is logically possible on theism, we therefore should hope that God doesn’t exist.

“You ought to hope that God exists and he redeems everyone,” came his reply. “Presumably you mean that the distribution of evil in the world makes it unlikely that God’s purposes align with human flourishing,” he then added, demonstrating that he did indeed understand my argument.

Unfortunately though, he was no more willing to offer a correction in the body of his article, nor even a discreet apology in the comment section at his site, nor even (at the very least) a private apology by email.

[This is all the more bewildering and frustrating because the last time he and I had engaged in an extended conversation, he accused me of being an intellectually dishonest fellow, for–yes indeed–misrepresenting his work. And what was my crime? In summarizing one of his positions related to the problem of evil, I did not explicitly add the provisos [implicit in nearly all reasonable claims, I would think] that 1) unforeseen future developments might prompt him to someday change his position, and that 2) reasonable people might disagree with him. For reasons not at all apparent to me, he proceeded to level charges against me which I consider to be slanderous. If those are the kinds of “misrepresentations” of his work which elicit charges from him of intellectual dishonesty, then I can only find my palm hitting my face when he pulls absurdities out of thin air and attributes them to me.]

Anyway, that being the unfortunate case, his response was still an intriguing one: “You ought to hope that God exists and he redeems everyone.” What’s so intriguing about this is that it amounts to the inverse of the argument which he had just reductioed [that really oughta be a word]. Remember that argument he had placed on my pen, that because universal damnation is logically possible on theism, we therefore should hope that God doesn’t exist? His argument forwarded here amounts to: because universal salvation is logically possible on theism, we therefore should hope that God does exist (and that universalism is true).

Very odd that he could recognize the absurdity of the former but not of the latter. And so I offered this reductio of my own: “We should hope that a tornado sweeps through our town and leaves everything as is, other than re-arranging some of the contents of our landfill into a nice new public library.” Of course, if we’re correct to take it as a given that a tornado would have such a fortuitous effect, then we should hope that a tornado sweeps through our town. But does that mean we should hope a tornado sweeps through our town? Surely that’s absurd.

[The Palmes at this point were piling up faster than I could keep track, and the award was starting to lose its luster. So what if we instate a new, more prestigious award? Perhaps the Face-in-Palme d’Rauser?]

Rather than Rauser’s “you ought to hope that God exists and he redeems everyone,” the very most we can properly say is that “if and only if it’s a given that God’s purposes align quite significantly with human flourishing, then and only then should we hope that God exists.” And since that’s certainly not a given, we shouldn’t hope that God exists. Actually, if God exists, God’s purposes appear to be quite significantly at odds with human flourishing, and so we should go further and actively hope that God does not exist. Which has been my argument all along.

Here’s what’s going on, I think. It seems Rauser’s primary hope is for universal peace, prosperity, justice, love, happiness, reconciliation, and perhaps extended or eternal life, etc, (“universal salvation” isn’t a bad way to put it), which is certainly a fitting and noble situation to hope (and more importantly, to work) for. The problem lies in tying this hope to theism. We have every reason to suspect that God’s goals–should God exist–are very significantly at odds with this “universal salvation.” So, absolutely and by all means, hope and work for universal salvation, even if as a seemingly remote possibility. But leave God out of the equation. Hope against God’s existence, in fact, if indeed you truly care about universal salvation (or your own individual salvation, for that matter).

At long last and over 1300 words later, I’ll return now to the point Rauser made earlier in his article, which was echoed and expanded upon by Matt Flannagan in the comment section. I’ll actually just pick up with Flannagan’s comments, because he pursued this line of discussion quite a bit further than did Rauser. Responding to my universal damnation thought experiment, he said:

This must be a situation in which a maximally great moral being” which is morally perfect, omnsicent, and fully rational, decides that an eternity of unbearable and unremitting physical, mental, and emotional anguish possible, would be best. So in otherwords this goal would be one a morally virtuous person who was fully informed and rational would embrace as best.

But this makes it very difficult to justify the claim we “should” reject this goal, by definition the only way a person who was aware of the facts could rationally reject it was if he was putting his own self interest over what was virtous and just. But then it wouldn’t be one we “ought” to desire.

I’ll give Flannagan credit for not shying away from this implication of his position. He’s saying here, in other words, that even if we have good reason to think that God’s purposes are at significant odds with human flourishing–up to and including universal damnation in a state of profound ignorance as to God’s ostensible greater purposes–we still should hope that God exists. It’s a startling claim, but actually I can see where he’s coming from. In effect he’s saying, “sure that could be the case, but nevertheless on the cosmic picture God’s existence would still be a maximally good thing which we should hope for.”

Incidentally, it’s amusing to imagine what form theistic religions might take under these parameters. I can’t imagine too many people joining in on this rousing chorus:

When we’ve been roasting ten thousand years,
Torments bright as the sun,
We’ve no less days to hope these are God’s ways,
Than when we’d first begun

But in any event, there’s an even deeper problem with Flannagan’s position. He went on to further draw out the implications. Summarized and slightly restated, he said that if indeed God’s purposes (should God exist) appear to be at significant odds with human flourishing, then we still should hope for God’s existence and thus we should align ourselves against the primary goal of human flourishing. And now we’re really getting into troubling waters here.

If we could actually see which specific purposes–arguably greater than human flourishing–that God has for the cosmos, then we could perhaps align ourselves with those specific purposes, even if they were to carry a toll for us of tremendous human suffering and destruction. But so long as we can’t see what those specific purposes are, then we have no way whatsoever to align our goals, other than to actively devalue human flourishing relative to other possible and completely inscrutable goals. And such a situation would involve not merely a profound moral schizophrenia, but moreover a moral schizophrenia with strong sadistic and masochistic tendencies.

I pointed this out to Flannagan, and he never responded. I can only hope that indicates that he finally recognized these problems and recoiled from the implications of his position.

As I’ve argued now at considerable length, it absolutely is not a straightforward analytic truth–as Flannagan and Rauser have contended–that we ought to hope for God’s existence, if indeed we ought to hope for anything. The critically important piece of the puzzle for us (epistemically limited beings such as we are) is whether God’s purposes–should God exist–appear to align significantly with the flourishing of conscious beings such as ourselves. Or at the very least, whether we can specifically discern God’s ostensibly greater purposes, should those purposes appear to conflict with the flourishing of conscious creatures. In the absence of the former or at the very least of the latter condition, we ought not hope that God exists, even though God’s existence would presumably be maximally good from a (hidden from us) cosmic perspective. Moreover, if God’s ostensible purposes appear to be at significant odds with the flourishing of conscious creatures, as indeed they do, then we ought to be excited (sorta, at least) that God does not exist.

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