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 Objection

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 break down.

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 Theism

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 explain?

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 universe.

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 out.”i

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 soul.”ii This 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

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 fails.

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 presents.

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 Gratitude

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 parents.

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 dies.

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 present of birth?iii 

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 thankful to.iv

i Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 189.

ii Karl 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 Theism does.


Published March 30, 2016