God, Suffering, and Santa Claus: An
Examination of the Explanatory Power of Theism and Atheism
By David Wood
There are many good arguments for Theism—design arguments,
cosmological arguments, arguments from miracles, etc. Yet there is also an
argument against Theism that some find persuasive. According to the
“argument from evil,” the presence of natural evil (e.g. earthquakes, floods,
famines) and moral evil (e.g. murders, rapes, robberies) in our world shows
that Theism is false (or probably false). As the question is often put, if an
all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good Being exists, how can there be so much
evil and suffering?
Though there are many versions of the argument from evil, typical
formulations contend that Theism doesn’t explain or account
for the suffering in our world. Thus, the argument from evil is presented
as a challenge to the explanatory power of Theism. If Theism doesn’t
explain a significant fact about our world (the fact that it contains a great
deal of suffering), is Theism a reasonable hypothesis?
In this essay, I will not attempt a full response to the argument from
evil. Instead, I would like to address the idea that Theism should be rejected
because of some apparent lack of explanatory power. I will do this by briefly
comparing the explanatory power of Theism with that of Atheism. But first, some
thoughts on a more superficial objection to Theism are in order, as they will
help clarify my central point.
I. The Santa
As a child, a teenager, and a young adult, I didn’t believe in God,
angels, demons, ghosts, aliens, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa
Claus. Moreover, I placed all of these (non-existent) beings in roughly the
same category—the superstition/ignorance/fiction category. Like many atheists,
when asked why I didn’t believe in God, I would draw a comparison between
believing in God and believing in Santa Claus. I eventually saw the parallel
A child believes that Santa is the explanation for the presents under
the Christmas tree. Notice that this explanation does account for the data the
child observes. Why, then, do children eventually reject the Santa Hypothesis?
As they grow older, they realize that there’s a simpler explanation for the
data: parents put the gifts under the tree. This hypothesis accounts for the
same data, yet it does so without appealing to unknown entities. (The idea here
is that if there are two possible causes for some effect—one cause that is
known to exist and one that is not known to exist—it makes more sense to appeal
to the former.)
If the atheist’s comparison between God and Santa is to hold, we
should find roughly the same pattern of abandoning one hypothesis in favor of a
superior hypothesis when we examine the atheist’s move from Theism to Atheism.
Let us turn to the “God Hypothesis” to test this comparison.
II. The Explanatory Power of
Suppose we have a set of facts—symbolized as A, B, C, D, E, F, and
G—and we’re seeking an explanation that accounts for these facts. Let us
further suppose that Hypothesis X accounts for facts A, B, C, D, E, and F, but
that it’s unclear how Hypothesis X can account for G. Here it would be quite
easy for a critic of Hypothesis X to say, “This hypothesis makes no sense in
light of G; we should therefore reject Hypothesis X.” But is it reasonable to
dismiss a hypothesis when it accounts for nearly every fact we’re trying to
Atheists maintain that Theism is a poor hypothesis because it fails to
account for suffering. But surely Theism accounts for a number of significant
facts about our world. Let’s consider just a few. First, Theism explains why we
have a world at all: God has the power to create, and He exercised this power
in creating the world. We know scientifically that the universe had a
beginning, and we know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have
a cause. Theism posits a cause powerful enough to create the
Second, Theism explains why our world is finely-tuned for life. As
physicist Paul Davies has noted, “It is hard to resist the impression that the
present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations
in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought
Third, Theism accounts for the origin of life, as well as for the
diversity and complexity of life we see around us. The more we learn about even
the most basic living organisms, the more startled we are at their complexity.
Theism accounts for this astounding complexity.
Fourth, Theism explains the rise of consciousness. Human beings are so
accustomed to thinking, perceiving, contemplating, doubting, affirming, and
judging, that we fail to grasp how amazing such abilities are. For many
experts, it seems unthinkable that the human mind is nothing but neurons
firing. According to neurophysiologist John Eccles, the evidence constrains him
“to believe that there is what we might call a supernatural origin of my unique
self-conscious mind or my unique selfhood or
view fits in nicely with Theism.
Fifth, Theism accounts for objective moral values. If morality is
simply the byproduct of biological or societal evolution, there’s nothing
objective about it. If morality doesn’t have an absolute foundation, our moral
values are relative to culture, situation, and so on. Yet, if we’re honest with
ourselves, we must admit that people who rape, or use others for selfish gain,
or molest children have crossed a line that is more than cultural. Such
absolutes make no sense if man is the measure of all things, but they make
perfect sense if God is the absolute moral standard.
Sixth, Theism accounts for miracles. Throughout history, and in our
own time, people have claimed to have witnessed miracles. Skeptics dismiss
these events, but some miracle claims demand a more serious investigation. For
instance, according to all of the historical evidence available to us, Jesus
died by crucifixion. We also know, historically, that Jesus’ tomb was empty
three days later, and that both friends and foes were soon claiming that He had
appeared to them, risen from the dead. The only explanation that accounts for
these facts without strain (and without appealing to absurd phenomena such as
mass hallucinations) is that Jesus rose from the dead. Theism explains how such
miracles are possible.
Thus, when atheists say that Theism fails to account for suffering, we
shouldn’t forget that, even if they’re right, Theism accounts for just about
everything else. Beyond this, many theists would challenge the claim that
Theism can’t account for suffering. By appealing to religious doctrines such as
the Fall of Man and human depravity, and by appealing to philosophical
explanations such as Free Will Theodicies (which claim that God permits moral
evil because He values free will) and Soul-Building Theodicies (which claim
that a world containing suffering helps us grow morally and spiritually),
theists can show that the God Hypothesis accounts for at least some (if not
all) human suffering.
But can we say the same of Atheism?
III. The Explanatory Impotence of
Atheism explains, quite literally, nothing. Atheism doesn’t explain
the existence of our universe or the fact that our universe is finely-tuned. It
doesn’t explain the origin and diversity of life. It fails to explain the rise
of consciousness, or objective moral values, or the evidence for miracles.
Indeed, Atheism doesn’t even account for the evil that serves as the foundation
of the argument from evil, because for something to be truly evil, an objective
moral standard is required.
At best, an atheist might say, “Well, if we somehow end up
with a finely-tuned universe and diverse life, suffering won’t be surprising on
our view, since there’s no God to protect us.” But we can’t ignore the fact
that Atheism (even if we’re generous) explains very little.
Atheists can respond by suggesting that Atheism isn’t meant to be
taken as an explanation for anything. Rather, it’s just a denial of Theism. But
let’s return to the Santa objection to see why this response
As we’ve seen, people who believe in Santa as their explanation for
the presents under the tree eventually reject the Santa Hypothesis when they
realize that there’s a far more reasonable explanation of the data. But suppose
another person comes along and declares, “Santa didn’t put those presents
there, and neither did your parents. The presents are just there. Their
existence is a brute fact.”
The problem with this response is that, by taking away the
explanations (Santa and one’s parents) that actually account for the data, and
by offering no substitute hypothesis to explain the data, we’re left with data
but no explanation. Indeed, if we had to choose between “Santa put them there”
and “No one put them there,” I think most of us would find the former
explanation superior, since it at least accounts for the
The point here is that if atheists expect theists to take the denial
of Theism seriously, they must offer a hypothesis at least as powerful as
Theism. Yet Atheism can’t explain even the most basic facts about the world.
Hence, there is clearly a double standard at the heart of the atheist’s
thinking. If we’re going to reject hypotheses because they fail to explain the
data, we must reject Atheism long before we reject Theism.
IV. Epilogue on
We’ve been analyzing Theism and Atheism in terms of explanatory power,
yet we might just as easily have framed the discussion in terms of gratitude.
Children (at least, ideally) are thankful for the presents they receive, and
when they’re young, they thank Santa. When a child eventually rejects the Santa
Hypothesis, he shifts his gratitude from Santa to his
The real power of the argument from evil is that it can destroy a
person’s gratitude. If we focus all of our attention on the bad things in our
world, we come to see it as a place of nothing but misery, disease, and
bloodshed. (I’ve read many atheistic writings that describe the world in such
terms.) When we become, as G. K. Chesterton would put it, “Cosmic Pessimists,”
our gratitude doesn’t shift from God to something else. Our gratitude simply
How we view the world, then, can have a massive impact on our
religious views. I would say that a person who looks at the world and sees
nothing but pain and death has missed out on a truly amazing place. As a
blissful young pagan, Chesterton set out to found his own religion. He
eventually became a theist and a Christian, a process which had much to do with
his sense of gratitude:
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I
hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their
stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when
he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for
birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday
Theists see a universe full of gifts under the Christmas tree. Until
atheists offer a reasonable explanation of our marvelous world, it will always
seem to theists that atheists have much to be thankful for, and no one to be
Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster,
1983), p. 189.
Popper and John Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (New York:
Springer-Verlag, 1977), pp. 559-560.
iii G. K.
Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 52.
iv I should
point out that, if the proponent of the argument from evil happens to be, say,
a deist or an agnostic, my response would have to be modified. A deist does
have an explanation for certain facts about the world (e.g. its existence and
fine-tuning). A comparison of the explanatory power of Deism and Theism would
therefore require a somewhat different analysis (and I suspect that it would
come down to the evidence for miraculous events). An agnostic, by contrast,
would say that he is free to reject Theism without offering an alternative
explanation, since he doesn’t claim to know what caused the universe. However,
while an agnostic is certainly free to reject Theism, the purpose of the
argument from evil is to show that Theism is a poor explanation of things.
Thus, I think the same response would apply: If Theists are to take the
argument from evil seriously, the proponent of the argument needs to offer an
alternative hypothesis that accounts for the facts about our world as well as