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In this post I will respond to Steven's case for why the Judeo-Christian God cannot exist.
The way I understand his argument, it is a variation of the age-old "problem of evil" argument in which it is claimed that it is unreasonable to believe there is a God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world. Steven calls his case a "moral argument," with God failing to act in a morally upright manner by letting evils like child abuse take place.
Before I delve into Steven's argument, there are two interesting details I'd like to point out.
First, Catholic thinkers like Brian Davies have pointed out that St Thomas Aquinas recognized that God is not actually a "moral agent" since morality is conditioned upon the existence of a moral law, and God exists independently of any moral law. Without creation, there would be no such thing as moral imperatives against evils such as murder or theft (since the very concept of murder and theft wouldn't even exist without someone else to kill or steal from). So any 'problem of evil' type arguments with God 'failing' the question of "Is God a moral agent?" doesn't actually touch upon whether God exists or not. If Steven grants the substance of this, then his entire argument is irrelevant to the question of whether God exists.
Second, I'd say a big irony about his whole 'moral argument' is that without God there would be no morality to begin with. We as rational creatures know that an action is morally wrong because we can deduce that it fails to meet some objective, perfect standard. But this only makes sense if there is a 'Divine Law-Giver' to begin with to encode this perfect standard into creation. Otherwise morality is purely subjective (e.g. many people say the abortion issue is a matter of personal option), which collapses into no morality at all. This is precisely why the more consistent atheists will say that morality doesn't really exist, and that 'morality' is actually an invention of the State, with these moral laws being created by human legislatures. At that point, 'morality' collapses into a Darwinian 'survival of the fittest' social battle. And from that view, there quite logically is no such thing as murder or abuse, but simply the weak naturally and inevitably being subject to the whims of the strong. So for Steven to base his case there is no God precisely because we have a moral law that God is violating is to unwittingly cut the very branch supporting him.
I will now go through Steven's argument quoting and commenting on the parts I have issue with:
Premise (1): If God exists, then any child that suffers will ultimately benefit from it.
I could grant this as true and it wouldn't disprove God's existence for the reasons I have specified in response to your Premise #2. (More on this later.) That said, I think you might have a wrong idea of what it means to suffer, as well as what it means to "benefit," which would cause your Premise #1 to be potentially improperly defined (equivocal) and thus invalid.
The subject of suffering can be quite complex, but I'll try to make a basic statement. Evil is a privation (lack or perversion) of good. Given that, evil doesn't exist on it's own: just as darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, we can say that evil is the absence or perversion of good. From this comes two categories of evil, moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil consists of sinful actions, when the human will acts in a way contrary to the moral law. Physical evil consists in bodily experiences of suffering, decay, and death. You could say that physical evil comes about when my body loses its health, particularly due to the fact my body is subject to the natural process of decomposition into dirt.
In acting contrary to the moral law and thus sinning (moral evil), there are negative consequences (i.e. natural punishments) that result which are the causes our painful lived experiences (physical evil). This abuse of our free will is the source of harm to ourselves and to others. Since our bodies naturally decay, this means death and suffering are a 'natural event' that takes place, but Christians believe God originally endowed our first parents with various divine gifts, one of which prevented the decay process and thus prevented death. Upon sinning, God retracted these gifts, and thus caused us all to experience the natural decomposition effects of nature. This was a fitting punishment in that it mirrored the fact that in sinning we turn away from God, Who is the one holding us (and all creation) in existence at every moment, which shows that sin is the ultimate act of insanity since apart from God we would cease to exist (i.e. decompose to nothing). This is why the Christian doctrine of Original Sin is the key for understanding our pain filled existence, since it explains how there can be suffering in light of the the fact we know God exists and is all-good.
With that in mind, man does not directly and positively "benefit" from suffering. Rather, suffering must be endured with the right dispositions (e.g. suffering out of love for God and neighbor) to reap a reward from God. The only "natural benefit" suffering automatically produces is a negative benefit, such as a painful reaction leading us to avoid the cause (e.g. burning a finger on a hot plate) and even limiting the amount of evil one can commit (e.g. physical ailments). Other than that, suffering is a (physical) evil and thus something we must reluctantly experience.
Given that overview of suffering and benefits, an innocent child enduring suffering derives no automatic 'ultimate benefit', except maybe the realization that on the Last Day we will see God restore everything back and undo all the injustice. So other than God Providentially restoring everything back, Steven's Premise #1 is not exactly true: the child that suffers will not automatically "ultimately benefit."
I submit that retributive punishment for a child is gravely questionable, and doing so by allowing it to suffer is morally forbidden.
Retributive punishment is not synonymous with suffering in general. This is because retributive punishment pertains to the one who commits moral evil (i.e. sins), while suffering in general pertains to physical evil, which is the consequence of either our own sin or the sin of another. So if someone punches me, their sin merits a retributive punishment (e.g. hellfire) but I only endure a physical evil of suffering. Thus, God can allow someone to suffer without being angry at them or punishing them. Two perfect examples of this are Jesus and the Patriarch Job, each suffered willingly to bring about a special reward, but God was not mad nor (retributively) punishing either of them. (God does not and cannot retributively punish an innocent person, but neither does he have to reward them.)
Premise (2): If any child that suffers will ultimately benefit from it, then no one ought to proactively prevent any child from suffering.
The fallacy in this argument is that not all "ultimate benefits" are or need to be equal. Instead, there can be different means and/or ends that don't require (the same form of) suffering, which would result in either equivalent or superior "ultimate benefits." Thus, your Premise #2 commits the false-dilemma fallacy, thinking that there's only one suffering and one ultimate benefit.
Take the example of eating. The "ultimate benefit" of eating is to give us health, but one can eat different foods towards that end. Plus, we know that some foods are not as healthy as others, so the more healthy the food, generally the better health (i.e. a superior "ultimate benefit") that will result. So I could rephrase your Premise #2 to say: "If a hungry child will ultimately benefit from eating popcorn, then we should only feed them popcorn." The problem here is that while eating popcorn is not a bad thing, there are more healthier things one can feed a child, such as fruit, resulting in better health. So if there is a good reason to, then God can and should prevent a child from suffering if it will bring about a greater good by not suffering. For example, God could providentially stifle a woman's attempt at an abortion because God wants that child to grow up to be a pro-life advocate.
[I]f there really was a greater good made available to every child through suffering, it would not be wrong to allow any of them to suffer for the sake of that greater good. Any instance of their suffering would just be like when we allow a child to feel the pain from a needle so they might ultimately benefit from a vaccine or surgery.
I agree with this, but I don't see how it supports your case. In fact it seems to refute your argument. If a greater good made available to the child through his suffering, then God can let the child suffer in that manner without undermining God's 'perfect integrity'. This would thus undermine and refute your Premise #3, since God should not "proactively prevent" something bringing about a greater good.
Premise (3): But, someone ought to proactively prevent a child from suffering. Our final premise is definitely true because someone should proactively prevent children from being sold into prostitution, from being mercilessly beaten to within inches of their life, or from being abandoned to a lonely and agonizing death like starvation.
Humans "ought to" proactively prevent a child from suffering for practical reasons, such as realizing that all people should make the most of life. But from God's perspective, when it comes to 'ultimate benefits', He could Providentially permit a child to undergo a troubling trial in life to bring about some greater good or prevent a greater evil. God allowed the Patriarch Joseph to be sold into slavery so that he could ultimately rescue his whole family (Gen 50:20).
[Nick] may concede that the premises are true, and therefore that God does not exist. As I mentioned earlier, this would not mean becoming an atheist, in fact I would hope to convince him of polytheism if he did take this route.
I know polytheism is outside the scope of this debate, but I'm curious to see how polytheism can provide a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering. If the entire multitude of gods were good, then I don't see how suffering of an innocent child would be permitted. This must mean suffering is due to some of the gods being "evil", and what we experience on earth is just a part of some continuous cosmic Cold War in the heavens. But I'm not sure how you'd even rationally come to know a single thing about these gods other than their plurality, and I know of no credible source of divine revelation which teaches anything about these gods. If innocent children suffering is so repugnant, and yet there are a plurality of 'good gods', then this means the 'good gods' are losing out to the 'bad gods', and at that rate it's a wonder why they haven't literally destroyed the universe yet. I don't think polytheism could pass this same 'moral argument' test you just put God through.
In your End Note #2, you said that if God were real then:
God would defeat the horrendous evils (roughly equivalent to the child-suffering I have in mind) which people endure. Defeating an evil amounts to integrating it into the person’s life so that the evil indispensably contributes to the person’s overall well-being. E.g. Think of evils that people have experienced but don’t regret having done so because they gained something valuable from that experience.
This ultimately supports my case though, because in the Christian view there will come a time at the end when God will make everything right, on the last day when "God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and the death shall not be any more, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor shall there be any more pain" (Rev 21:4). The question is not if, but when. Until then, God allows people to suffer for various reasons pertaining to a greater good, including so that they can gain "something valuable from that experience."