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On the Existence of Barbers and God

James R. Henderson



There is a video circulating on public media purporting to undermine the argument from evil that needs to be addressed. An older friend of mine recently posted it on his Facebook page, and, as it is of a religious nature, I hesitated to comment on that forum because this would very likely have resulted in hurt feelings. To avert this dolorous possibility, I will make my case here. The video tells the story of a man who goes into a barbershop for a haircut and winds up in a discussion regarding the existence of God. It is entitled "The Barber (Part 1)."[1] Go ahead and watch it; I'll wait. (The video is in Spanish, but fortunately for me there are subtitles. My command of Spanish, such as it is, is limited to not-very-useful phrases learned in high school like "¿Es un elefante en su jardin?")

As the barber cuts his hair, the customer, presumably a Christian, reads his Bible. When the barber is finished, he rather abruptly tells the customer that he doesn't believe in God. The customer, surprised by the complete lack of business sense exhibited by the barber's willingness to offend his clients, asks him why he doesn't believe in God. The barber says that all one has to do is walk outside and look around. There are abandoned children, there is sickness, and there is suffering on a massive scale. Though he doesn't go into all of the details, the barber is invoking the argument from evil in support of his disbelief.

The customer appears to want to argue, but thinks better of it and pleasantly bids the barber farewell. He walks outside, and upon seeing a long-haired stranger, gets a smile on his face that says either "I've got him now" or "I find long hair amusing." The customer re-enters the barbershop, long-haired stranger in tow (hilariously accoutered in an Angry Birds T-shirt), and proclaims that he doesn't believe in barbers. After all, if barbers exist, how is it that there are people with long hair?

First, we should note that (in a narrow sense) this is a perfectly legitimate way to argue. The customer seeks to show that the barber's argument is invalid by reasoning in a directly analogous fashion to derive a conclusion that all parties agree is false. This would show that the line of reasoning, if based on assumptions that both the barber and the customer agree are true, must be incoherent. Logic jockeys call this "arguing by analogy." The customer, we should observe, is not arguing that God does exist, merely that the barber's argument does not show that God doesn't exist.

The barber, obviously having aced all of his logic courses in barber school, recognizes that all that he must do is show a significant disanalogy between the contexts of the arguments to undercut the force of his customer's point. He says that barbers do exist; it's just that people with long hair don't come to them. Seizing on this, the customer says that God exists, but that the reason why there are so many problems in the world is that people don't come to Him. The coup de grace is thus delivered, the music swells, the barber's soul is saved, and the video comes to a close.

I'm not sure whether the video's creators were trying to make a logical point or an emotional one, but I will proceed on the assumption that they were aiming for the former. That being the case, we should review the argument from evil. It goes like this:

  1. If God is omniscient, s/he/it knows that there is suffering in the world.
  2. If God is omnipotent, s/he/it is capable of ending the suffering in the world.
  3. If God is omnibenevolent, s/he/it wants to end suffering in the world.
  4. There is suffering in the world
  5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Strictly speaking, this doesn't demonstrate that God doesn't exist; but that's not the point. The argument seeks to show that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God doesn't exist, and it doesn't conclusively show even this. Perhaps allowing some suffering in the world is necessary to make the world a better place than it would have been had the world been free of any suffering. Still, the scope of the suffering that we see is troubling. Why allowing children to contract bone cancer is necessary for a maximally good world escapes me, but I freely admit that I do not have access to a God's-eye view of the world (which is good since I don't deal well with heights). I also wonder about the Holocaust. Why did six million Jews have to die? Wouldn't a "mere" five million deaths have been sufficient for God's purposes? What about the last Jew murdered by the Nazis? Was his or her gassing required to "make the world a better place"? In any case, this point about the scale of suffering is one that theists must address, and to my knowledge none have done so (at least not in a satisfactory way).[2] The argument from evil, then, while not conclusively showing that the God of the three major monotheistic religions doesn't exist, appears to have cast doubt on such a God's existence. Or has it? Maybe the barber's customer has shown the argument to be invalid.

Has the customer undone the argument from evil? If there are no important disanalogies between his argument and the barber's, then he has. The first objection one may raise is that we have direct evidence of barbers, while we have no corresponding direct evidence of God. The barber actually does this in the video, though obliquely. "What am I?" he asks when the customer declares his disbelief in barbers. I will ignore this objection to the customer's position for the present essay, though I think that it is worthy of consideration.

A second line of argument that I will only mention and not pursue is that of the character of the (Christian) God defended by the customer. Barbers do not generally run around tackling long-haired people as they walk out onto the street and hand out haircuts to resisting hirsute citizens. The reason for this is simple: having long hair will not, as a rule, ruin one's life. On the other hand, I can easily imagine a barber tackling someone (long-haired or not) to keep him from walking in front of an onrushing bus (something that would surely put a damper on any plans for the afternoon that our inattentive pedestrian may have had). We don't have to approach these heroic barbers and ask for their help in such matters—they just go around doing it. But consider God as portrayed by the barber's customer. You must come to her/him/it in the appropriate way to avoid evil in your life, whether it be cancer, a building collapsing on your children, or being framed for a murder that you didn't commit. God simply lets these things happen if you don't offer to turn your life over to her/him/it. All things being equal, barbers seem to have a better grasp on compassion than God does.

Now, given his statements, the customer is committed to the proposition that if more people turned to God, there would be fewer problems in the world. Sadly, until some kind of problem-metric is developed to objectively measure the level of suffering in the world, this must remain an unprovable proposition. However, there is another way to attack the problem. Consider that when a person employs a barber, he will necessarily get his hair cut. We know for a fact that if everyone in the world approached barbers in the sense of the video, long hair would be totally eradicated. We do not know that if everyone approached God in the assumed sense, suffering would end. This dissimilarity is a problem for theists unless or until they can show that a large-scale increase in the acceptance of God's existence (and presumably a large-scale increase in the worship of God) would eliminate some or all of the suffering that we see around us.

One way for theists to attack this problem would be to show that individuals who come to believe in God (and accept her/his/its rulership in their lives) have fewer problems than they did before such acceptance. We know that people who approach barbers have shorter hair than they did before they went in for a trim. My own experience of walking out of my (ironically, long-haired) barber's shop with shorter hair settles the case as far as I am concerned, but do believers come to have less sorrow in their lives to match my shorter tresses?

This is not just a simple before/after, two-treatment-test-related problem that relies on statistical analysis for a solution. There are facts available to all that may be checked on this account. The children of people who approach God in the relevant way suffer from cancer in exactly the same percentage as those who do not.[3] Presumably believers catch the flu just as often as atheists, and family tragedies afflict the godly in precisely the same numbers as nonbelievers. Rain falls, as Jesus said, on the just and unjust alike[4], and believers don't seem to have umbrellas of a sort any different from those of unbelievers.

There are many questions here that one could ask. How do fewer problems manifest themselves—in the lives of believers, or in that of all people generally? Is there a critical mass (short of the entire population) of believers that would effectuate a change for the better? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is apparent that the scope of suffering-elimination does not coincide with national boundaries. In fact, it appears to be quite the opposite: by almost any conceivable measure[5], increased levels of secularism correlate with better quality of life in nations around the globe.[6]

In short, there seems to be no reason to think that the customer's claim that the reason there is suffering in the world is because not enough people worship God. I am open to an argument in its favor, but until one is given, it is just an assertion—and an implausible one at that. Compare this with the barber's claim that the reason that there are long-haired people in the world is because they do not go to barbers. This is clearly true. (Note that to end the scourge of long hair in the world, every single person capable of growing their hair out would have to visit barbers regularly; it is unclear as to whether the customer is making an analogous claim.)

Has the customer met the challenge of refuting the barber's argument? No, or at least he hasn't until he can show that widespread acceptance of God as the ruler of the universe will mean less suffering in the world. Failing this, if you have recently contracted Foreign Accent Syndrome, you can't count on relief by becoming religious. Crikey!

Notes

[1] Christian Vision, "El Barbero Parte I" ["The Barber Part I"] [Video file] (November 4, 2012). YouTube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rutt7dEOoKc>.

[2] As one of the referees for this essay points out, the number of deaths (and accompanying suffering) due to any particular human genocide is dwarfed by the at least fifty billion childhood deaths, almost entirely due to natural causes like disease, since the dawn of humankind. This "Holocaust of the Children" denied an enormous number of human beings who never reached the age of mature consent the free choice to decide their presumed eternal fate after death, while simultaneously maximizing the suffering of children in this life, effectively refuting the classic free will defense for how an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God could allow such suffering to occur. The immense scale of this suffering is exacerbated by targeting innocents—nonhuman animals no less than children—for no good reason at all. Any particular human atrocity spanning less than a decade is about 1,000 times smaller than this "Holocaust of the Children," which has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years and continues to this day. See Gregory S. Paul, "Theodicy's Problem: A Statistical Look at the Holocaust of the Children, and the Implications of Natural Evil for the Free Will and Best of All Possible Worlds Hypotheses." Philosophy & Theology Vol. 19, No. 1-2 (2009): 125-149.

[3] S. P. Yadav & A. Sachdeva. "Linking Diet, Religion and Cancer." Journal of Clinical Oncology Vol. 25, No. 18 Supplement (June 20, 2007): 21172.

[4] Matthew 5:45.

[5] Gregory S. Paul, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies." Journal of Religion & Society Vol. 7 (2005): 1-17.

[6] Phil Zuckerman, "Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies" (October 13, 2014). Psychology Today web log. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-secular-life/201410/secular-societies-fare-better-religious-societies>.


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Published:
  2021-06-19

Categories:
  Atheism, Believers, Christian Apologetics, Existence of God, Philosophy

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