How good is your god?

If I didn’t know that this post was from a Christian missionary’s blog (via), I probably wouldn’t have guessed it from the opening:

I feel weird when things work out for someone and they tell me about it and then they sum it up by proclaiming that “God is good!”

I always want to say something like, “Well, what would He be if things had turned out different?”

Or, “Do you think the people that were, like, IN the fatal accident that barely missed your car think God is good, too?”

And, this one time, I almost said, “And if it had been cancer, then what would God be?” I came so close to just blurting it out, but you can’t go around messing with people like that. They’ll stop hanging out with you. Trust me.

This is a sentiment I’ve expressed many times before. Of course, the point that Jamie (the “very worst missionary,” according to her blog’s title) is making here is pretty much the opposite of the point that I would make. Whereas I would have used these examples to point out that the Christian god can’t be good because of all the clearly terrible stuff he must be in charge of if he were to exist in the first place, Jamie is trying to explain that God’s goodness persists despite all this apparent badness. So close, and yet so far.

Yes, it’s hypocritical to proclaim God’s goodness whenever something fortunate happens to you, and ignore the implications of unfortunate events happening to you or anyone else. But the proper conclusion isn’t that God’s goodness must obviously trump our human understanding of right and wrong. There’s just no basis for making that leap, as Jamie does:

[God] is good when the house burns to the ground, and He is good when the accident is terrible, even if it happens to me. He is good when the report says “cancer”. God’s goodness simply can’t be measured by what my stupid, human heart deems satisfactory. So I guess what I’m getting at is that we got our car back and we can still afford to eat because it was all payed for by cool people who are really good at acting on (what I would call) the urging of the Holy Spirit, and, of course, that God is good. Just like always.

That “just like always” gave me chills. Jamie and many Christians like her — undoubtedly many other religious people of other stripes as well — have decided that their god is good from the outset. It is an axiom. There is nothing that could happen that could possibly change Jamie’s mind. No disease epidemic, no natural disaster, no gruesome crime, no nasty story pointed out in her supposedly holy scriptures. God is good by definition, so whatever God says or does must be good. If it seems bad to us when we apply our own moral reasoning, well, that must be because we’re “stupid” by virtue of being human.

Jamie’s approach boils down to:

  1. Make a set of assumptions about the nature of reality
  2. Ignore or arbitrarily discount all evidence suggesting that your assumptions might be wrong
  3. Confidently state your belief that your initial assumptions are true

This may be a rosy way to view the world, but it’s obviously not a sound or reasonable one.

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24 Comments

  1. There’s just no basis for making that leap, as Jamie does.

    I don’t want to claim to speak for Jamie or anyone else, but I think that there is a basis. The fact that we’re debating whether God is good or not in the first place says to me that we have an idea of what good is and is not; given that, I have to ask where that idea comes from, and I think I would agree with C.S. Lewis in eventually concluding that we have a sense of good and bad because there is an absolute good, i.e. God. Why is there “bad” then? In my mind, the answer in large part is “abuse of free will.” If you, as an absolutely good power, give me the ability to act contrary to your desires, you have to consider the possibility that I will do so, and that badness will exist in some form in the world. The existence of that badness doesn’t imply that you’re bad, it just implies that I’ve chosen something that you wouldn’t have chosen for me.

    As usual, I am essentially ripping off much better thinkers and for this particular line of thought I am turning toward the first couple of chapters of Mere Christianity, although The Abolition of Man and The Problem of Pain have interesting things to say on the topic as well. This is also a pretty slimmed down treatment of the topic (I am trying to get better at not being wordy :-P). I think there are other reasons for coming to an understanding of God as Good as well. Have you considered asking Jamie hers?

  2. The last time I commented on one of the interesting posts Wes linked to on a Friday, I got some flak for opening up a discussion that was several days (gasp!) old. I guess that’s why I didn’t comment on this one, or on the article I wrote a post on for tomorrow morning. I don’t know … this sort of attitude isn’t that unusual, and I was more interested in using Jamie’s post as an example of how many people really do think, rather than as anything personal about Jamie herself.

    I can’t quite figure out whether you are defending the same position as her, though. You say we have a sense of good and bad, of right and wrong. Presumably that means that you feel justified in looking at a news story about a serial killer or about a tornado that ripped apart villages and saying, “That’s some bad stuff.” Jamie and others advocating her position seem willing to override their (God-given?) understanding of good and bad with a default to whatever God does (or oversees the doing of) automatically being good. If God praises killers or commands people to commit mass murder, murder must be good! If God sends a weather pattern that kills people and destroys property and livelihoods, then death, destruction, and suffering must be good!

    I can almost buy what you’re saying, logically speaking, about free will and acting contrary to God’s desires insofar as we are talking about criminal and other bad acts perpetrated by humans. It’s conceivable that free will itself is such a moral good that it outweighs the child molestation, cheating and stealing, genocide, etc. that has resulted. It’s still pretty hard for me to swallow the idea that an omnipotent, omniscient being would make people and give them free will knowing that that would result. (You don’t have to hand a baby a small piece of a toy, and then be like, “Oh well, they choked to death on it, but I was just respecting their free will!” It’s not so hard to just refrain from giving them the toy.)

    I really don’t think your answer addresses the question of natural disasters, diseases, and other seemingly uncaused instances of suffering and badness. Did someone make some wrong choice, going against your god, that caused there to be volcanoes, earthquakes, malaria, and polio?

  3. Aristarchus

     /  May 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    @Mike:

    …because there is an absolute good, i.e. God.

    I see what you did there. In one abreviation and a word, you made a huge jump with no logical justification and thought no one would notice. The existence of objective morality does not imply the existence of God. Yes, you could just define God to be that existence of moral good, but that would have a lot of problems. First, it’s dishonest to talk about “God” when you just mean “goodness” because everyone will hear you will use the standard English definition of “God”, which is something much more specific. Second, it wouldn’t support any particular religion, and definitely isn’t consistent with the kind of Christian evangelism referenced in this post. There are more problems, but that should be a good start.

    There are plenty of atheists that believe in objective morality. That is not religion.

  4. The fact that we’re debating whether God is good or not in the first place says to me that we have an idea of what good is and is not; given that, I have to ask where that idea comes from…

    Yes, you might well ask that – except you’re not asking it, you’re just introducing it as an excuse to jump straight to your preferred answer without considering any alternative. Secular thinkers have devoted countless books to this topic, such as Sam Harris’ just-recently-published The Moral Landscape, and provide more than satisfactory answers as to where an atheist might find a basis for objective morality.

    Religious answers, meanwhile, will always be unable to overcome the Euthyphro dilemma: Is an act good because God decrees it to be so, or does God decree it because it is good? If the former, there’s no real morality at all, just God’s whims from moment to moment. If the latter, then there must be a morality which exists independently of God’s preferences, and he’s simply telling us what it is.

    Why is there “bad” then? In my mind, the answer in large part is “abuse of free will.”

    This is offensive nonsense, because a good person, whether they value free will or not, doesn’t permit one person to cause another to suffer. If I’m a parent and I see one of my children hitting or bullying another child, I don’t idly shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but it’s the cost of having free will.” The defense you propose would never be accepted if it were offered on behalf of any human being.

  5. Jojo the hun

     /  May 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    It’s still pretty hard for me to swallow the idea that an omnipotent, omniscient being would make people and give them free will knowing that that would result.

    I don’t get this. It’s a fact that people create other people all the time, knowing full well they will experience plenty of suffering in life, and also that they will misuse their free will, causing harm to themselves and others. If a prospective parent had the choice of creating children either with or without free will, it doesn’t strike me as strange at all that one would choose free will for their child.

  6. @Jojo: Perhaps there’s a good argument to be made that it’s immoral to have children, then. Personally, I think there’s a meaningful difference between a parent deciding between whether their child will exist (in exactly the way humans are, with a lot of happiness and some mistakes and pain) or whether they won’t, and an omnipotent being creating a species and granting it certain qualities or granting it different qualities. In the former case, the question is whether you think the net good of a human life is positive (do the happy parts outweigh the painful parts?) whereas in the latter case, the possibilities are supposedly infinite. Couldn’t an omnipotent being have given people free will but made sure that no one had the desire to, say, sexually assault anyone else? If “God gave us free will” is somehow so narrowly defined as to mean “God was unable to shape our desires so as not to lead to bad outcomes,” he stops being quite so omnipotent.

  7. @aristarchus, ebonmuse: Easy guys, it wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive defense of supernaturalist natural law theory (not a technical term). The “i.e.” took about four chapters in the book to flesh itself out; I didn’t mean to make it seem like I was just glossing over it but I wasn’t going to try to go through the whole argument there, hence the “eventually.” I guess I just worded it wrong, so I apologize. I would be curious as to learning more about the non-supernaturalist natural law theory that y’all mention. Would you educate me?

    WRT Ebonmuse’s free will example: I agree with the action you should take in that situation, but I guess I didn’t make the distinction I wanted to clearly enough to make it understandable. In the bullying example, you would intervene because you understand your child to be acting against the moral law that you both find yourselves under. What I’m talking about is more akin to a parent giving a child allowance: the purpose of the allowance is to give them something they can use at their own discretion, and your own purposes are thwarted if you swoop in every time the child wants to make a poor purchasing decision. As applied to God, I think that God’s purpose in giving us free will was to create beings who would freely choose to worship him, but obviously that stipulates that they can freely choose not to worship him.

    @NFQ: That’s a bummer, sorry to hear you were given flak. And yeah, I definitely wasn’t trying to imply you were attacking Jamie personally. I just think that it’s probable that she didn’t arbitrarily set “God is good” as an axiom when she became a believer – the reason I suggested asking her is because she could probably dialogue about her thoughts and reasons for her conclusions better than I can.

    I think the typical Christian mindset is “I know enough about God to believe he is good even when immediate circumstances seem to say otherwise,” a la “Faith and the Electron.” I think that I am defending the same position as Jamie (guess I can’t know for sure), which I would state as : “Yeah it sucks that these things happen, but I understand enough about God to be confident that he is good despite me not being perfectly satisfied at all times.”

    WRT natural disasters: it’s an interesting problem. I think there is a point to be made that not all pain is evil (e.g. volcanoes, though definitely painful to those who choose to live near them, don’t necessarily reflect an evil intent), though I’m inclined toward the Plantinga-esque view that those sorts of evils are evidence of a universe that has gone awry, ultimately due to free will abuse. Again, I would point to The Problem of Pain for a much more thorough walkthrough.

  8. Jojo:

    The point is precisely that we, as humans, do not have a choice concerning whether our children will be subjected to evil or good. What we do have, that God seems to lack, is a strong will to intervene whenever our children are subjected to evil.

    Parents will do anything for their children, even give up their own lives (with God it is just the opposite: his child had to make that sacrifice).

    To this day, then, God’s creation continues to claw and strike at itself, causing untold suffering, and the creator – the one person able to do anything about it – just sits back and watches. God is good indeed.

  9. Jojo the hun

     /  May 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    @Keith & NFQ: Those words “omniscient” and “omnipotent” tend to flow past me. I took the essence of NFQ’s point to be that, given all the negative aspects of the human condition, it is a strange, foreign, unreasonable thing for one to want to subject people to it. Sort of seems like you’re on the road to the absurd when you get near to saying that it’s immoral to have kids.

    But that wasn’t your real point. After an embarrassing amount of rereading I believe you’re both really saying that the flagrantly unreasonable part of it is in leaving the “given” part alone, if one has the power to do so–and that we largely do not, but God, supposedly, does.

    And, okay, I’ll buy that logic.

    In my many years of attending a mainline church I don’t recall ever hearing any of the “omni” words. People throw around the idea that God knows everything, and can accomplish anything, but it seems to be on a pretty human scale when brought up, and I’ve never heard anyone get carried away and take these ideas to an extreme. The first time I was hit by the omni words was on a game forum when some guy fulminated against the existence of the “Omnimax” god. The Church of Omnimax, lol.

    The omni ideas come across to me as pinheaded theology, grossly needing to be tamed the way “infinity” was tamed by the mathematicians. My point then, NFQ, is that perhaps God is not so omnipotent, as you say, and Keith, that perhaps God cannot easily “do anything about it”. This seems to me to be a more realistic, and more interesting, approach to the real issues you bring up.

  10. As applied to God, I think that God’s purpose in giving us free will was to create beings who would freely choose to worship him, but obviously that stipulates that they can freely choose not to worship him.

    I can grant that point for the sake of argument, Mike. Even so, this doesn’t explain why God would create a world where free-willed beings could inflict horrible suffering and evil on each other, when the only thing God really cares about is whether they use their free will to worship him.

  11. @Ebonmuse: I’m actually having a somewhat difficult time imagining this set of circumstances. Is the idea that I could presumably think and come to the conclusion that I think God is dumb and that I hate him, but that I somehow could NOT come to this conclusion regarding, say, my next door neighbor?

  12. grizzlybaker

     /  May 16, 2011 at 6:49 am

    @Jojo the hun

    I personally attended many years of Catholic schooling, and I heard those words a lot. While they might not come up during a sermon, they are intrinsic articles of faith it describing exactly who the God Christians are worshiping is.

    While the God of the Bible isn’t always described thusly (walking in the Garden like an immanent physical god, defeated by iron chariots, surprised in various instances) it is generally accepted that the adherents of Paul’s religion (i.e. modern Christianity) describe their god as such.

    Many would argue that a being lacking, at the very least, omniscience and omnipotence, is hardly a god at all.

    As an example, this reminds me of Dan Simmons’ Illium, a retelling of the Illiad where the Gods are actually nanomachine-powered future-humans. Once you leave the infinitely powerful/knowledgeable level, it is conceivable that a human might one day be as powerful/knowledgeable. And that certainly isn’t god.

  13. @Jojo:

    If we jettison the ‘omni’ properties and agree that God cannot intervene to help his creation, then I am left to wonder why we should feel compelled to worship him in the first place.

    @M!ke:

    It’s possible to choose whether or not to worship God without having to hate him, as you imply. Hate doesn’t have to come into it at all- indeed no emotion does. Rather, the decision to worship God should be made rationally and impartially, with knowledge of all the relevant facts. Such a decision could very easily be made by creatures who had no capacity for hate, jealousy, anger, and all the other emotions that so often lead to human-inflicted suffering.

  14. @Keith: Okay, could you walk me through the “relevant facts” as you see them, then? I’m still having trouble understanding how, having been just created to worship God, and understanding that that is my purpose, I could choose to walk away without being irrational. It seems to me to be similar to a self-aware robot somehow choosing not to follow its programming. How would it even happen?

  15. M!ke:

    If it is irrational to walk away from God, then why did he give us the choice to do so? Are you now saying that God thinks it’s important for us to have the freedom to make irrational as well as evil choices?

    The idea of a self-aware robot choosing to abandon its programming is, indeed, nonsensical, because robots are automata. If we were automata, and somehow programmed to follow God, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, and I’d be in church praying. Clearly that’s not the case.

    Besides, it’s a non sequitur to suggest that simply because I’m created by a particular being, I’m somehow obliged to worship that being. If it turned out that we were all created by an evil God who simply wanted to enjoy watching people suffer, would you still feel obliged to worship him simply because he made you? I doubt it.

    As to relevant facts, that’s something God could actually help us out with a bit more. He left us with a rather odd, sometimes conflicting set of second-hand writings about him that are now getting on in years (a few thousand) and come from a suspiciously superstitious culture. It would be nice to have a more convincing presentation of the relevant facts about him: who he is, what he really thinks about morality (he could start with abortion and homosexuality) and why he lets suffering persist. Because God knows, his believers aren’t presenting a very cohesive picture of him.

  16. Jojo the hun

     /  May 17, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    @Keith: Perhaps God cannot intervene, or perhaps as I said God cannot easily intervene. And then again perhaps God is intervening but not to the extent you’d like. Perhaps God has priorities to balance. Perhaps something else.

    I don’t know what the criteria are for qualifying an entity as deserving of worship. If creating the universe that we inhabit, for example, doesn’t automatically qualify, then your standards are higher than mine. Likewise, grizzly, if such an entity doesn’t even necessarily qualify as a god.

  17. @Jojo: That’s a whole lot of perhapses. Why are you confident in giving your deity that much leeway in explanation (up to and including anything contained in “something else”)? It seems as though you begin by assuming God exists, and then try to work out answers to questions about God’s nature, handwaving away whatever questions seem impossible to answer. What basis do you have for that assumption?

  18. @Keith:

    Are you now saying that God thinks it’s important for us to have the freedom to make irrational as well as evil choices?

    Yes, more or less, which I think is where Ebonmuse and I were headed above. I’m claiming that truly free will necessitates that certain constraints on choice do not exist. Eg. if I put you in a room with two levers and say that you can choose either of the levers to pull, I need to make sure that I don’t impede your ability to pull either of the levers. As you pointed out with your automata thought, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to give you the two levers but not the ability to pull one of them. As you point out, there needs to be nothing obligating any particular person to worship God. Hence, truly free will means God does not constrain the choice toward or away from him.

    WRT “relevant facts”: I think you may be unintentionally conflating two separate issues. Strictly speaking, the Biblical record doesn’t play into the discussion we’re having, since ostensibly all of the Bible was written after humans had already pulled the wrong lever. If we’re truly speaking only about God’s purposes in creating free-willed humans who may or may not choose to worship him, I think the discussion can’t go further than the moment at which the lever is pulled. Not that what you bring up isn’t an important issue, but it seems to be a separate discussion. What I was asking was more along the lines of: given our position in the room with two levers, what facts would you consider relevant toward the decision to pull one or the other?

  19. M!ke:

    The relevant facts that would inform my choice of which lever to pull are precisely the sorts of things I mentioned before. If I want to know whether it is worthwhile worshiping God then (assuming I actually believe God exists) I want to know what type of person God is. Is his character worthy of worship? For instance, I certainly do not want to worship an evil tyrant, even if I do owe my existence to him.

    If, as you suggest, the Bible cannot be used as a guide to God’s character, then I’m afraid I have exactly zero information on this matter, so I cannot make an informed decision about which lever to pull.

    I’d also like to repeat my earlier point that having the free will to pull the accept-God lever or the reject-God lever does not also require us to have the ability to choose evil acts completely unrelated to those levers.

    Perhaps I can illustrate this with an example: When I visit a dealership to choose a new car, I have complete freedom as to which car I want (assuming for the moment that I’m disgustingly rich). I do not, however, have any say in how the dealership is run, or how the cars are displayed, or who gets hired as salespeople. What theists are essentially saying is that in order for me to choose a car, I also need a say in all of these other, unrelated choices. This doesn’t make sense.

    (Ebonmuse has pointed out other problems with the free will argument, which you can reach via his Daylight Atheism blog.)

  20. Jojo the hun

     /  May 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    @NFQ: Yes, I think you’ve described my thinking fairly accurately and concisely, and I thank you for doing that.

    I do feel confident at starting from the assumption, or premise, that someone or something we call God actually exists. It seems to me the most likely explanation of the existence of this universe. If you don’t assume that it was created by something or someone, you have a lot of assumptions to make that don’t seem reasonable to me. I also base my belief on personal inner experience, and on the witness of others who describe their personal inner experiences. And while I see problems with taking everything in the Bible as literally, inerrantly, and comprehensively true, I see much in it that rings true and seems sophisticated and inspired, enough so that I have some confidence that God has at least some real interest in us.

    I don’t claim to have any comprehensive explanation of God’s nature. There do seem to me to be a lot of perhapses, or possibilities. I don’t mind living without answers to all questions. There seems to be a bias on these topics toward coming up with some answer to all questions, and getting others to agree, rather than admitting that there is much we don’t know, and trying to build smaller structures on firmer foundations.

    I wouldn’t characterize offering possible explanations as handwaving, though. If someone says “P cannot be true if Q is true” and I offer a few ways A, B, and C that both P and Q can be true, then while none of A, B, or C may actually turn out to be the case, we do know that “P cannot be true if Q is true” is not true, and so we’ve learned something.

  21. Jojo:

    “There seems to be a bias on these topics toward coming up with some answer to all questions, and getting others to agree, rather than admitting that there is much we don’t know…”

    I think you might be confusing two different scenarios. In the first scenario, a person takes no firm position on a particular question because no evidence, or no logical justification, exists to support any of the available hypotheses. For example, I take no firm position on the question of how the universe started, because there simply isn’t enough evidence favoring one hypothesis over the others. I agree with you that in this scenario, it is dangerous to settle on an answer simply for the sake of having one.

    In the second scenario, a person takes a very firm position on a particular question even though they admit, when pressed, that there is no evidence, or no logical justification, to support their view. And I feel as if your views on religion fall in this scenario: you’ve taken a firm position on various questions (such as the nature of God’s character) even though, when pressed, you admit that there are many uncertainties, and few explanations.

    The overall impression I get, then, is that because your religious beliefs make you feel good – they provide you with valued personal experiences – you’ve decided to take a leap of faith and assume that they’re actually true, even though you have no rational justification or explanation for many of them.

    So, I’m not encouraging you to find answers simply for the sake of having answers. I’m encouraging you to avoid adopting beliefs that you can’t justify rationally.

  22. Jojo the hun

     /  May 25, 2011 at 1:10 am

    Keith, you’re within your rights to have whatever feelings or impressions you wish, but it would be a more interesting exchange of views if you’d respond to what I actually wrote. If something’s not clear, just ask.

    I like your description of those two scenarios, but those scenarios don’t cover a lot of the ground. Much more frequently we’re faced with scenarios where there is some evidence, usually conflicting evidence, of a range of reliabilities, and the best we can do is make some sort of probabilistic conclusion–likely, unlikely, highly unlikely, like that. In addition, while sometimes we can be detached and take the stance that we don’t know for sure, sometimes we feel pushed to make a decision, and form an opinion or judgement. So if we’re careful we hold this as provisional knowledge, which is subject to change based on new evidence. In my opinion the large majority of what we think we know should best be considered as provisional knowledge if you really start to analyze it.

    I referred to three kinds of reasons that support my belief in the existence of God. I didn’t really describe them–I assume people reading this are more familiar with the genres and typical arguments than I am, but I will try if there’s interest. I also referred to a reason for why I think God has some interest in us people. You may not find my reasons compelling, but you’re really making something up when you say I admit there’s no evidence or justification for the beliefs I mentioned.

    Likewise, I don’t see that I’ve taken much of a “firm opinion” on the nature of God’s character. I was trying to argue the opposite, in fact–that people tend to assume way too much about the nature of God. From there on in your post, it’s kind of funny–I think you’re just making up a story, a little bit like the bias to filling in unsupported answers I was talking about before.

  23. Jojo:

    I apologize if I misconstrued your views. I was assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that you held some of the conventional religious ideas about God, such as his goodness, mercy, compassion, etc., all of which describe his nature. Obviously, if you only hold these things provisionally, then you’re in a somewhat more defensible position than most believers, and you should be commended for that.

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