Imagine you are a professor and you are renowned for your fairness. You have always upheld this as a central virtue because you teach a class that is of vital importance to the students. Your grading of the students in this particular class is highly correlated with their acceptance into top-tier graduate schools. As such, you take it very seriously that everyone has a fair chance and a level playing field. Your class eventually becomes so popular that you are given multiple sections of the same class to teach. As part of your effort to be fair, you make every reasonable attempt to provide the same level of instruction across different sections. We wouldn’t expect you to have everything be exactly the same, but we would expect it to be the same within reasonable limits. For example, class discussions might steer you in different directions, but you wouldn’t give one section a comprehensive study guide and not do the same for the other sections.
Reflect on this for a moment and see if you agree that it sounds plausible. What I specifically want to know is whether the professor’s attempt to provide very similar instruction across the board is a necessary condition of his/her being fair with respect to the students. If the professor did not make such an attempt, and consequently there were great discrepancies in instruction, then the professor would not be fair. Do you agree? If so, then there seems to be a compelling problem for many major religions.
Let’s take Christianity as our example. The Christian God is surely considered to be completely fair, among other things. It would not be possible to even conceive of a fairer being. I think just about every Christian would accept this. But does God act in a way that is analogous to the professor? Consider every human to have ever existed to be different sections of the same class. And at the end of this class, there is a very significant consequence based on how we performed. Yet, God has arranged things in such a way that people are judged according to vastly different scenarios. Consider how you own life differs from that of a disciple of Jesus. According to Christianity, these disciples got to walk and talk with God himself every single day for years. They witnessed miracles, had access to special teaching, and were surely transformed by the mere presence of God. If that isn’t one hell of a study guide, I don’t know what is. Or perhaps we could consider the miraculous encounter of Paul on the road to Damascus. Or the many residents of Jerusalem who witnessed miracles of Jesus, including healing and even resurrection! Or we could go back further in the Bible and consider Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden of Eden or Abraham, Moses and others having intimate relationships with God and receiving clear signs. Even if you are a somewhat liberal Christian and dismiss the latter stories as myths, you still have the former.
What do we have today? Well, we have a book that’s reliability is severely in question telling us about some (not all) of these events. Think back to the professor. Imagine he/she is a professor of history. For one section of the class, a time machine is built and they go back and witness the event in person. For all other sections of the class, the students are only given a book that seems very unreliable which gives seemingly sketchy accounts of the historical event. In fact, some people question to what extent the book describes a historical event at all. Are these different sections of the class in the same position? Surely they are not. But, if they are not, then the professor ceases to be fair.
The situation gets even worse when we look at other times and places in history. Imagine the vast difference between your ability to evaluate the claims of the Bible or other religions and the ability of a peasant living in the Middle Ages. Or imagine someone living in India during the time of the Buddha. They would have very good reasons to adopt the local religion gaining popularity and no reason at all to anticipate what religions are telling people thousands of miles away or in the future. It is simply inconceivable to me to try and maintain that God has placed these people in similar situations. And yet, we will all allegedly be judged according to the same standards. Such a God cannot be considered fair while maintaining anything like what we normally consider fair, as drawn out through the earlier thought experiment.
At this point, the common reply is to invoke some sort of response that uses God’s alleged middle knowledge. This will generally argue that God knows what each person will choose and that people who live in, say pre-Christ times, were placed there by God because they wouldn’t have accepted Christianity anyway. I don’t think that response is very successful here. I’ll explain why next time.
[Cross-posted from Foxhole Atheism]