Science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson professes skepticism about the existence of God. In particular, Tyson points out the natural evil suffused throughout the world: “The ways life is made miserable by natural causes,” he says.
Given suffering, Tyson tells us that philosophers have maintained it must be the case that either God is not all powerful or God is not all good, otherwise God would prevent the suffering of our experience.
Tyson then goes on to state that if, in our scientific investigations, we suddenly bump into the “bearded man in the sky,” then so be it. But currently there is no evidence of such an entity: hence why religions are called faith; otherwise, Tyson says, they would be called “evidences.”
What are we to make of Tyson’s assessment? The answer, of course, is not much, but also quite a lot. On one level, Tyson has committed some very basic categories mistakes, such that the purported issues he raises are simply statements of personal confusion, nothing more. For example, to think God (even granting, hopefully, that Tyson does not literally think God would be a bearded man) is something science could “bump into” betrays his philosophical ignorance of what God is purported to explain. Science, of course, is concerned with etiological explanation; that is, how one physical process unfurls or relates to another physical process. God, however, is supposed to be an ontological explanation, particularly of why there are any physical processes – any physical world – to begin with. Properly understood, God is not something to be discovered within the world of physical causes, because God is supposed to be the reason why there is a world of contingent physical causes instead of nothing. To assume otherwise would be like trying to find J.R. Tolkien within the pages of The Hobbit and concluding that because Tolkien is not a character in the book, Tolkien does not exist.
Now, whether or not one thinks there are good reasons to posit a transcendent cause of the physical world is another matter (I happen to think there are quite compelling reasons to do so, many of which I detail in forthcoming book The Best Argument for God), but the point for now is that Tyson fails to understand why so many philosophers have maintained belief in the existence of God in the first place, which is to say, God is the reason why there is anything contingent –anything which is but didn’t have to be, including our physical universe – and not nothing instead. And while various scientific discoveries may indicate or confirm a creative and governing transcendence – i.e., big-bang or physical fine-tuning – the moment one thinks God is something susceptible to direct empirical discovery is the moment one has exposed themselves as having a kiddie-book conception of the divine.
What about the problem of pain, then? Tyson is certainly correct to say that some philosophers have argued – or attempted to argue, anyway – from the distribution of suffering to the non-existence of God. But only some. A great number of other philosophers, on the other hand, have shown fault with this line of attack. This debate, as one can imagine, is quite extensive, spanning literally thousands of years, so not every aspect can be covered here. Nevertheless, a quick response should be sufficient to show that the inference from suffering to God’s non-existence is, at best, hasty.
First, one must consider how things stand in light of our total evidence; a point I suspect any scientist should appreciate. Thus, even if one supposed the suffering of this world counted against the existence of God, they must weigh that consideration against everything else philosophers maintain counts toward the existence of God, everything from contingency to order and stability, consciousness and morality to knowledge (including scientific knowledge), rationality, near death experiences, mystical experiences, scientifically scrutinized miracle claims, and more. There is, upon serious inspection, a hugely considerable amount of evidence for the existence of God, once one properly understands what is meant by God. And by “evidence,” I mean something very simple: I mean the world exhibits just the sorts of features we would expect if God exists, features which themselves we would not expect to find if God did not exist.
As for the problem of suffering itself, it strikes me that the traditional response by theistic philosophers is still basically correct. For all we know, God has reasons (presumably good ones) for permitting the suffering and evil of this world. The burden of proof is on the skeptic here: if they’re trying to disprove the existence of God, they must exclude the possibility that God could have a morally justified reason for allowing the world to be as it is, and nobody has ever come close to demonstrating something like that. After all, if God exists, then surely God’s ways are not our ways, and the reasons encompassed by a divine mind must significantly surpass the reasons we are able to contemplate, such that even if there are good reasons for God allowing the world to be as it is, should we expect to be aware of those reasons, either some or all of them?
Compare: If I look at some theory in physics and fail to see the reason for the author to draw the conclusion that he does, should I infer that there is no reason? Almost certainly not. Not being an expert in the field, I would not expect to see the reason even if there was one. However, if I have other reasons to think I’m dealing with a credible expert, I should infer the reason is there and that I am just unable to see it. Another example would be chess: Should I expect to see the reason for any move a chess master makes? Again, almost certainly not, because I am a neophyte at chess. Still, I should expect the master has good reasons for making the moves he does, no matter if I can discern those reasons or not.
Same with God and his reasons for permitting suffering and evil. If I already have reason to think that God exists and is perfectly good, just, powerful, wise, etc., then I should take it that God has reasons – the best of reasons, in fact – for allowing the suffering and evil of this world, even if I am not able to discern what they are. Nor should I be surprised in my inability to discern such reasons, since whatever the distance is between myself and some respective chess master or particle physicist, that is surely infinitely less than the distance between any of us finite humans and God.
The question then is in which direction does the overall weight of evidence lean? Is there good reason for thinking God is back of everything? If so, then we have good reason to think there is a good reason for everything, including suffering and evil, which should inspire hope. I cannot adjudicate this dispute fully here, so I must rest content with the mere assertion that if one appropriately clarifies their conception of God and looks objectively at how well the existence of God makes sense of the whole of reality, there is a good chance they will come to reject atheism – as I did.
Pat Flynn is the author of The Best Argument for God (available from Sophia Institute Press Oct, 2023) and How to Be Better at (Almost) Everything. He is a re-converted Catholic, philosopher (MA), writer, musician, fitness and martial arts enthusiast, and husband and father of five living in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He blogs at Chroniclesofstrength.substack.com and hosts the Philosophy for the People podcast with Dr. Jim Madden.