Sunday, September 16, 2007

God and the concept of goodness

I would like to ask Christians the following question: what would God have to do in order for you to call him evil?

The God of the Bible, especially the one of the Old Testament, seems to do horrible things to people (see my post Following God’s example). I ask this question because apologists spend a great deal of energy defending the biblical actions of the Christian God; they would never consider him evil, despite what he has done.

My last post, Dear Father, highlighted the difficulties in reconciling the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God with the existence of suffering. The argument that God has to shoulder some, if not all, of the responsibility for evil in the world is an argument that many apologists tackle in earnest. No apologist would consider God evil for allowing the existence of evil, despite the fact that they believe he created everything, and that he knew beforehand the suffering that evil would cause.

I could be wrong, but it seems apologists believe that God is good, despite what we read in the Bible or experience in the world. If this is the case, then doesn’t the very statement ‘God is good’ loose all meaning?

George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God, writes on page 85:

. . . by what standard does the Christian claim that God is good? What criterion is the Christian using? If man cannot pass correct moral judgments, he cannot validly praise or condemn anything--including the Christian God. To exclude God from the judgment of evil is to exclude him from the judgment of good as well.

In other words, by defending the Christian God, apologists have created a situation in which we are unable to discern a good God from a bad God; because, whatever God does or whatever he allows – no matter how shocking it might be to human sensibilities – the apologist would still consider God as being good.

If there are no criteria to judge God’s actions, to discern good from bad – or if there are no conceivable actions of God that would count as contrary evidence of his goodness – then doesn’t the very concept of good become meaningless?

14 comments:

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

i think this is a confusing question for an atheist to be asking... so maybe i don't understand something...

if the point of the atheist is that God exists, only that he is evil - then... he's not an atheist anymore... he's a theist who thinks God is unworthy.

as a Christian, or a finite human for that matter, i would have difficulty putting myself in the place of judging an infinite God. i think i make a rather crappy measuring rod for morality - or goodness.

my perception of what the atheist finds unworthy is (the morality of) religion - not God.

(for this to be the case however, requires a differing view on the origins and sources of scripture than many traditionalist or literalist would have... something along the lines of Marcus Borg though would do nicely.)

grace & peace

Curtis said...

I would have to agree with P3T3RK3Y5 I am not a very good judge of the actions of God.

I do not believe that God is evil but that the absence of God eventually begets evil. If God is not part of life then life often leads to evil.

Jason Hughes said...

So everyone who is not a Chrstian eventually ends up being an "evil" person? Buddhists, pagans, atheists, agnostics, etc.?

That's pretty presumptuous, isn't it? Do you have some kind of facts or studies that point toward a progression of evil among those who claim a disbelief in the Christian god?

We can ask, is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?

If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist. So we must choose the second option: God is good because he has all the properties of goodness.

But this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God, and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. Hence there is no reason why a denial of God’s existence would necessarily entail a denial of the existence of goodness.

—Julian Baggini

CyberKitten said...

P3T3RK3Y5 said: as a Christian, or a finite human for that matter, i would have difficulty putting myself in the place of judging an infinite God.

Curtis said: I would have to agree with P3T3RK3Y5 I am not a very good judge of the actions of God.

So if we are unable or incapable of juding the morality of Gods actions - then how do we know if they are Good... or not? Surely that is the whole point of this post?

bint alshamsa said...

I, for one, do not believe the "absence of God eventually begets evil". That flies in the face of almost every personal experience I've ever had with an atheist person. I think that the majority of people who've come to have atheist beliefs do so because they want to base their interactions with others on something consistent and, sometimes, the actions of those who practice religion are not consistent with what they say they believe.

I don't know if I qualify as a "God apologist" or not but I suspect that, to some here, I might be considered one because I am not an atheist, I think. :)

How I see it, God is something grander than me. When I was younger, and I read those passages about dashing heads against the wall, war, et cetera, I just figured that there was some explanation for it all; I just needed to ask someone who knew more than me about the Bible.

Nowadays, I just don't see any way that these actions can be excused. It's not consistent with the God that I believe in. I can deal with death and cancer and hurricanes. My view of God accounts for those things in a way that I find satisfactory. However, when you get to killing babies and using rape as a punishment, I just have to draw the line. I can not believe those things are just.

I wrote a post on this very topic when I guest blogged at someone's site. You can take a look at it if you want. There were over a hundred people who responded to it.

http://feministe.powweb.com/blog/2007/06/19/christian-and-feminist-is-it-even-possible/

bint alshamsa said...

Why is it I can never get links to act right on here? Let me see if I can try to hotlink it.

Christian and Feminist: Is It Even Possible

Anonymous said...

Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not onmipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
--Epicurus

James F. McGrath said...

Perhaps if God spoke the words in Amos 3:6 and Isaiah 45:7, that would do it? :)

Jonathan said...

hi kevin; in an aside, just to say congrats for being rated the number one blog in the 'religious' category at amatomu.com...

seems you really have people thinking...

CyberKitten said...

James F. McGrath said: Perhaps if God spoke the words in Amos 3:6 and Isaiah 45:7, that would do it? :)

Huh?

Rodolfo said...

James F. McGrath said: Perhaps if God spoke the words in Amos 3:6 and Isaiah 45:7, that would do it? :)

If I turn on the television today and saw breaking news reports of a middle eastern looking man that came flying down from space and was wielding "magical" powers I think it would be correct to call that person god or HIM or HE. That's what I would call extraordinary evidence. There's nothing in the bible that convinces me that Abraham's god exists. It was probably more likely that he had a mental disorder.

Lui said...

"i think this is a confusing question for an atheist to be asking... so maybe i don't understand something...

"if the point of the atheist is that God exists, only that he is evil - then... he's not an atheist anymore... he's a theist who thinks God is unworthy."

I always find it peculiar how some Christians twist a question around to try to make it look as though the atheist is tacitly accepting God, when asked a question about concept of good and evil in the context of God as the ultimate moral reference point can be reconciled. The question, let me repeat, is about how YOU (i.e. the Christian) reconcile these things. Don't now play with words to avoid having to give a coherent answer, hiding behind the "we humans are too limited to comprehend God's plan" excuse, while at the same time (supposedly) basing your morality on this admittedly mysterious being that you can’t comprehend.

"my perception of what the atheist finds unworthy is (the morality of) religion - not God."

So naturally, we should find atheists behaving, on average, less morally than theists? Yet the studies don't show this, unless what you mean by "evil" is simply a lack of belief in God, which is a rather arrogant and arbitrary assertion.

Nick said...

Hey Kevin

I completely concur with where you're coming from. I am in an odd position. I am very good friends with some very wealthy, intelligent and NICE people who are also Christians. I am taking them on, but trying not to do so in a nasty way. Sometimes that's hard. Have you seen the DVD The God Who Wasn't There? I highly recommend it, along with The God Delusion. What is important also is a balance. While I loathe a lot of Christianity and blind faith, there is some good it does: it places us in a place of connection to each other, and if not God, then the sense of Everything. Andf that's important.

I am attending an Alpha course right now, and have been impressed how much was meaningful. That said, I remain an atheist and maintain that God is not the answer to finding meaning in our lives - we are.

Good to see there are blogs like this around. Thanks.

Christoff said...

Hi Kevin,

Great Blog! Keep it up!

I also went from being raised Christian to becoming a born-again atheist (aren't we all born atheists and then indoctrinated into some religion?)

What led me back to atheism were these same questions about God(s), Goodness, (absolute) Morality, etc.

Before the moment one makes the discovery that God is nothing but a concept, a metaphor, one can't answer these questions satisfactorally.

God is good because I define him that way.
God's actions (no matter how "evil" in normal common sense terms) are good, because I define God that way.
God is the ultimate bearer of "absolute" moral values, because I define him that way! Even if those moral values cause the dashing of babies' heads against stones, they can be easily defended by defining morality (and God) to suit my needs.
These "moral values" are usually defined against the current cultural backdrop one finds oneself in - that's why "God's morals" change over the centuries - because OUR morals change and we redefine God in terms of our contemporary cultural mileu.

Which is exactly why Atheists in general are MORE "moral" than religious people (as some studies have shown over and over). Atheists base their moral values on common sense, human rights, philosphy, etc, while a lot of religious people base theirs on prejudice, bronze-aged morals, etc.
NOTE: I'm not saying ALL in religion is bad, just that in general, religion is a bad thing to base moral values on.

Hope this also sheds some light on the issue...

Christoff
http://zavibes.com