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Who's worse, Hitler or God?
It's hard to imagine anyone who is more evil than Adolf Hitler. But think for a minute about why we consider him to be so bad. The worst things he did were also done or commanded by the God of the Old Testament. I should clarify that I think that Yahweh does not actually exist outside of the imagination, so this list is an evaluation of the Biblical concept of God and a condemnation of the ancient tribe who reportedly did these evil things while claiming that their god commanded them. I hope it will cause modern Christians think twice about saying that the God of the Bible is a loving and perfectly moral being.
|Advocated racial purity|
|Seized land that belonged to other nations|
|Cruel medical and genetic experiments|
|Tortures people even after they're dead|
(Click on the checkmarks to see relevant evidence.)
Before you rise to the defense of Yahweh, please consider this statement:
To devote one's moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.
-Elizabeth Anderson (The Portable Atheist, 340)
“I don’t assert that there is no god, but I live my life without a belief in god.” didn’t last very long :/
Comparing Hilter to God? Holy shit man, for someone who doesn’t believe in God, you sure spend a hell of a lot of time trying to convince those that do that they are wrong.
Facts? Here is the only notable fact I find in this discussion. Your are comparing someone who doesn’t exist to Hitler. There’s a fact for you. Whether God exists or not is irrelevant at this point. If he doesn’t than who gives a damn about his rap list? The guy doesn’t exist anyway man.
“I knew this would be a tough subject for some people to handle. That’s why I was careful to back up what I said with facts.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see any facts in your post. I see accusations.
God used the Iseralites to destroy other nations that were in sin, and take note that around 800 b.c. he also destroyed Isreal and allowed them to go into captivity because they sacrificed their children to Molec and allowed sexual impurity to run rampant. So I guess I’m confused on how He advocated racial purity when His chosen people were also destroyed.
Genocide? If by genocide you mean God used Isreal to destroy nations that were in sin, just as I stated above then yes, but I would hardly call that genocide. A war with a good cause isn’t genocide. Hitler chose the Jews as a target because he needed someone to blame for the economy crash in Germany after World War I debt so he could rise to power.
Cruel medical and genetic experiments? Outstanding statments require outstanding evidence, and in your post you gave nothing of the sort.
Of course I am only speculating your reasoning for some of these categories, as you have provided no facts to back up your statements, but I would love to discuss any these topics, yet so far I don’t see anything but accusations…
Thanks I didn’t see the hyperlinks…sorry lol
But anyway…All of your proof comes from Leviticus which is Old Tetsament law. You must understand that when Christ died Christians were no longer bound to the law, but to grace. Does this mean I, as a professing follower of Chirst, would kill a homosexual because it says so in Jewish law, nope. It means I do what Christ would have done, love the person for who they are. I think you confuse the Old Testament Law with Christianity, no one lives by those standards and it was a different time back then…much different. I don’t see Jesus saying, “kill all of the non believers and take other peoples land!” I see Jesus saying Love your neighbor as yourself.
So you used to be a pastor? Just out of curiosity, how did you do that? Was it all emotional, or did you at one time feel or experience God? I mean you devoted your life to God at one time, that must have been provoked by some experience, no?
I guess I’m still confused. On what basis can we presume to judge the actions of people who lived 6,000 years ago without transcendent morality. This question doesn’t help me in my struggle to reconcile my belief in a good God with His recorded commands to destroy man, woman, and child (even those, presumably, who were not yet old enough to participate in their “evil” culture), but aren’t you actually assuming some transcendent good when you say that the actions of the Israelites were bad? (Sorry to keep singing the same song, but I can follow your argument except on this point).
As I said before, my view of how to read the Bible is still developing. I believe it is inspired by God and everything in it is there for some purpose ("useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righetousness” if you like), but I think obsessing on irrelevant details is somewhat like correcting Aesop by saying that foxes don’t even eat grapes (or talk!). I’m generally willing to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, though, and am uncomfortable relegating pieces of it to the “not strictly true” category simply because they make me uncomfortable. All this is to say that while I don’t need the Bible to be literally true, the “genocide” passages are still a problem for me.
I’ve uneasily come to see them as part of a cultural context I don’t fully understand. It may be that if I had complete knowledge of everything that was going on 6000+ years ago, I would grudgingly admit that the God-ordained killings were the only possible solution. It’s hard for me to imagine that possibility, and I’m not sure it’s true, but I think I’m willing to suspend judgement.
The reason I think this comes back to the question of transcendent morality for you, though, is that, presumably, if the most literalist fundy told you he believed that God ordained genocide is always right, you’d think he was morally bankrupt. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether someone can evaluate whether it’s God or a chemical brain imbalance directing such violence. Even the literalist wouldn’t approve the latter, so let’s assume we know God has ordered the killings because we believe scripture is 100% inerrant. You argue from this that God is worse than Hitler because these killings are wrong, but to do so, you need a morality that exists outside of the current cultural context. The morality to which you appeal doesn’t come from the Christian God, but it’s also not part of the material world. I believe this transcendent goodness IS God (God is more than that, but I think goodness itself is some piece of God).
I think maybe I wasn’t completely clear in my post. I meant that I think in some cases there are irrelevant details which people get too worried about justifying. Like, who got to the tomb first (or even the number of literal days in a poetic account of creation) don’t seem to really be the point of the story. But, we are both agreed that the genocide in the old testament seems very much the point of the stories. Especially when the Israelites are punished for not completing the work.
My point is that I only feel uncomfortable with the genocide in the OT because I believe in transcendent good that is independent of cultures or situation. I don’t know why God commanded it in the Old Testament, but perhaps I would understand if I knew the situation more fully. It’s funny, sort of, that my faith actually tilts me more towards something like moral relativism in this case whereas your atheism seems to make you want to accept something like transcendent morality.
“Either morality changes over time, God is not actually good, or the Bible is not inerrant.”
–Or, the Biblical account assumes a fuller knowledge of the situation than modern readers have available to them.
Right. How would you respond to that statement without assuming transcendent morality?
That fourth option: “genocide and slavery are good actions at certain times.” I’m assuming you don’t agree with it, but how do you argue against it?
I think if you are going to use the genocide commanded in the Old Testament as an argument against literalist strands of Christian / Jewish theology, you do need to be able to explain why you think genocide is always wrong, because most hard-line fundamentalists will argue something like what you’ve seen above and in other comments. They’ll either say the people of Canaan and Moab were just so evil and corrupt they needed to be wiped out or something like whatever God says is good even if we don’t get it. In your previous post you condemned someone said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to slavery–which seems to me to indicate you have a belief in a morality that goes beyond survival of the fittest.
I think we’re both sort of stuck. I’m not a literalist and want to believe things like genocide are never right, so I have to admit I don’t know why the God I believe in seems to command it in the writings I believe are sacred. You seem to want to be a materialist, but so you have to admit you don’t know why you think genocide is always wrong (even, for instance, in the case of an epidemic that threatens to destroy the species). In this way I guess we’re both, in the most literal sense of the word, agnostic.
So, do you believe the genocide of the Old Testament was wrong (assuming for a moment, it’s historicity)? If so, why?
The science is still out on it… hmmm… “faith seeking understanding"?
No, just a joke. I like watching for times when I can apply famous Christian quotes to your points. It’s my own stupid kind of fun. Sorry for the confusion.
Well, it’s an interesting question, certainly.
My thoughts are this: We have two starting points in this discussion.
1. God doesn’t exist,
2. God exists, created this world and everything on in, and is generally omnipotent.
So, if God doesn’t exist, this question is irrelevant. That’s no fun, so let’s assume God is real, and He is God.
God creates world. He looks down upon His creation, seeing us humans frolick around like ants. Ants are probably too big, actually. In the eyes of an Almighty God, we’re like bacteria.
So, in the OT, God orders some of the good bacteria to destroy the bad bacteria. God makes the judgement as to who the good bacterium are, and who the bad bacterium are, because He created them. He knows what the future holds for these bacteria, and He knows what they are going to do. Again, He knows them, He knows that the bad bacteria are really bad, so He gives the destructive order. (Can I just go ahead and say that I don’t feel personally that humans are bacterium, and I’m not trying to minimize humanity …although Agent Smith compares us to viruses in the Matrix, tangent…moving on.)
Is God’s order immoral? To us, yes…because we’re the bacteria. However, if all lifeforms on this planet are equal, humans commit genocide everyday. Just ask deer during deer season, or ask mosquitos during the summer. In fact, we humans actaully create anti-bacteria/anti-viruses in labs to for the purpose of making other bacteria/viruses extinct. Is this immoral? To us, because these are lower life forms, absolutely not. If you asked those viruses, they would probably say that this is very immoral. I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.
Now, Hitler was awful because he pretended to be of a higher lifeform than Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of people. To Hitler, Aryans were the only real humans, while Jews were deer to hunted/slaughtered. The Jews were viruses to the nation of Germany, according to Adolf. Now, we know that Hitler had no right, Hitler had no jurisdiction, Hitler didn’t know if his genocide made the Earth better…he thought that it did, but of course, he was wrong, because Hitler didn’t know everything.
I suppose if we’re going to judge God for ordering the Israelite’s genocide of Canaanite nations, then we should judge ourselves with much prejudice for ordering anti-bacterium to kill hostile and dangerous bacterium. Same scenario, with one exception. Since we’re already assuming that God knows all, and is all powerful, we can assume that He knew that His order was the correct one to make.
However, when we “play God” with bacteria, viruses, or even hunting deer, we assume that we’re making the correct decision, but we don’t know for sure.
But, if God doesn’t exist, then Moses and Joshua were delusional, and are terrible war criminals. It’s all a matter of perspective.
How do you think Greg’s bacteria analogy breaks down? I may or may not agree, but it’s dangerous to dismiss something without explaining one’s reasons. (I have been guilty of this too…just want to hear your reasons).
I will definitively say that genocide, (humans killing massive groups of other humans) because of orders given by other humans is completely and utterly wrong. For example, the well known genocides of the 20th century, Armenia, USSR, Germany, Indonesia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and today in Darfur…they’re all wrong, they’re all really bad. Because much like Hitler, no human has the right to order the extermination of an entire group of people.
No human has that power, no human has that right, Hitler had no authority or power to do this.
Are you asking if I believe that God ordered Joshua to destroy Jericho and everyone in it, and whether this was wrong? Well, assuming that this event occurred, again we have only two options. Either Joshua was delusional, and a war criminal, OR he was doing what the Creator told him to do. Assuming that God ordered Joshua to do this, was the city worthy of the death penalty?
I don’t know. Perhaps Jericho was the bane of creation, a new Sodom, a plague on this earth, and God desired it destroyed, much like we try to wipe out a harmful strain of bacteria, as they are a plague on this earth. I can’t say exactly. Perhaps the king of Jericho was worse than Hitler. If Hitler had escaped in 1945, and was still alive today (somehow) I would argue (along with the rest of humanity) that he deserved the death penalty. So maybe that was the case with Jericho, and they were deserving of death. I’m not saying that’s the case, but no one can. The non-Biblical records are rather sparse.
I agree with Doug…how is the bacteria analogy unhelpful? Seems pretty dead on to me, but I wrote it, so I guess I’m biased. Am I missing a certain piece of logic?
First of all I’d like to know why you think genocide, slavery, racial purity, etc are all wrong. To know they are wrong, you must have some idea of what right is.
We all have our ideas of right and wrong and in general they tend to fall in line with one another… notice I say in general. There are things upon which we disagree whether they are right or wrong.
Let’s look at it this way, some people don’t think it’s a bad thing to steal something once in a while. Great! Let’s assume I’m one of those people. I’m ok stealing something from you but the second you steal something from me watch how angry I get.
The feeling that these things are right or wrong is built into us. There is a moral law/standard. Every law has a giver. I know with surety God exists and not just because some book tells me he does. But, let’s say for a second you’re right and he doesn’t. Then what holds us to the moral standards? Nothing. Then how can there be a moral standard? If there is nothing to hold us to a moral law then how can you possibly say what is right and wrong? How then do you define morality?
If you are right sir, then no matter what we do in this life, just like a game of monopoly, when it’s over it all just goes back in the box as if it never happened. So why does right and wrong even matter?
Now the very fact that humans recognize a moral code suggests that there is a code-giver. If that is the God that is described in the verses that you are in fact twisting to mean what you’d like them to mean, then who are you to decide whether what he is doing is right or wrong?
You say that the bacteria analogy devalues humanity. This strikes me as a curious objection for you to make. On what is your valuation of humanity based? How can you even arrive at a clear reason for valuing humans above bacteria? I would guess it’s only in-group, out-group evolutionary stuff? It’s an ingrained survival instinct of some sort?
If the value of humanity is based on the empathy of the observer, where is there room to judge the actions of others? You said yourself that the Nazis thought what they were doing was right. You say that God (or the tribe that used his name) thought he was right in commanding genocide. Just whose empathy should we follow?
Perhaps if we are going to go with an idea that says the broader, more inclusive the sense of empathy the better. But then why stop at the line between human beings and other species (which many are saying is more illusion than fact anyway)? But you think that comparing human beings to bacteria devalues humans. At what point does empathy end? Or, who then is my neighbor?
What I’m getting at is that if nothing happens when we die and therefore there are no consequences beyond this short life, then what’s to hold us to the moral standard? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? We get put to death for rape, murder, etc, and then nothing.
If you’re right, then there’s nothing stopping me from doing what I want, except a short jail sentence or a death penalty which leads to nothing.
“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” - Albert Einstein
Dan you and I both know that the fear of hell is not the only thing stopping me from doing those things.
What I’m trying to get out of you is an honest reason for wanting to do good. Obviously the desire is there and I commend that greatly, but for what purpose?
All the answer you’ve actually given is I think , or I feel, or some other reason derived from yourself. But should we all judge what we do based on how WE feel. I’m sure that if you ask the rapists and the thiefs, and the murderers that many of them, not all, would tell you that the didn’t see anything wrong with what they did at the time. What do you base right and wrong on?
I think the bible is abundantly clear on how we should live. Especially where Jesus gives us the greatest commands of “love the Lord your God with all your, heart, soul, mind, and understanding” and “love your neighbor as yourself” and then he says upon those laws hang all the laws and prophets.
I can’t think of a better moral code to follow than to love your neighbor as yourself can you? If God is who he says he is than what better authority to take a beautiful command like that from?
From where do you take your cues if not from yourself?
If you look at Danny’s empathy answer, it is in some ways a version of “love your neighbor as yourself.” There may not be a better moral code out there, but the real question is whether or not you need the first part about loving God in order to make the second part effective. And, given all the post lately on the Hebrew Scriptures, if all the Law and Prophets hang on those two commands, do you need the Law and Prophets at all? Why not just be done with them? I think Danny’s point is that morality would improve, not that loving others as you love yourself is a bad ethic.
Ok. Point taken. I was thinking about this comment and while I was going in a seemingly good direction, I confess I was a bit unfair in the way I did it.
Sorry about that.
The latter question remains though, if you aren’t taking cues from someone (whether it’s God, buddha, alla, or whoever) that’s holding us to this moral standard we seem to have, then isn’t it fair to say that you are taking them from yourself?
Eloquently put Dan. I can accept that as an answer readily. I was assuming that you were saying the bible is a bad place to take moral cues from.
You know what they say about assumptions! I am the king of open mouth, insert foot as I am a salesman at heart and just want to close the deal as quickly as possible. Please forgive me for my zeal.
Just to get back to the actual subject matter though, I’d like to offer up a couple of explanations that may apply to the questions you are asking. Now keep in mind I haven’t really researched these thoroughly and therefore they could possibly be picked apart under further scrutiny.
The first is the racial purity issue. Given that Jesus needed to come from pure bloodlines, the Israelites were bred, much like you’d breed dogs or horses, etc.
The next is the genocide thing. Think about Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of their evil ways, he took them out and no one even knew what happened. If he IS who the bible says he is, he created us, and if he sees his creation has gone bad, he reserves the right to destroy it correct? So, if he leads someone to do it, there must be a reason for it, whether we can wrap our minds around it or not. As someone pointed out earlier, if it was not God, then the people were just dilusional and it was absolutely wrong.
Again, I’m still formulating this thing as this is an argument you won’t hear in the church because no one dares touch these subjects. I just enjoy digging to reaffirm my faith. Since these offerings are still primarily speculation on my part, they could very well break down. I am just interested to hear your take on it.
Hope you don’t mind the new nickname. Also… racial purity? What? I don’t know that there’s good, direct support in scripture for the idea that Jesus needed to be racially pure. I would think the inclusion (or even celebration) of Ruth would be a point in the opposite direction. Add to that the undignifying comparison of Jews to dogs/horses, the possibility for Christological heresy, and the highly inflammatory history of the term “racial purity,” and I think you have a good candidate for early theological retirement.
Inerrancy is really just one position on authority and hermeneutics, so getting rid of inerrancy does not necessarily mean that scripture no longer has authority for the (less Fundamental) Christian. And if I have some other formulation for understanding the authority of scripture, then you and I will never be doing the same thing when we approach the Bible. Add to this the fact that you also interpret scripture according to some authority that you deem higher than the Bible. This authority changes the method of interpretation, as well as its starting and ending points. We are certainly not doing the same thing, whether I believe in inerrancy or not.
A preoccupation with inerrancy also misses the fact that ridding ourselves of the “doctrine” of inerrancy does not really get rid of the problem of God’s questionable behavior. Perhaps you can back someone into agreeing that God did not really order genocide, but something else will always come up, whether in scripture or in life. Sorry to be a naysayer, but I don’t see how we’re at all closer to agreement.
Perhaps it’s progress in a way, but at some point there will come a non-negotiable point and the point of contention will be the same–the conflict has only been postponed. I am stuck because although scripture tells me to be prepared to give a defense for my reasons for faith, I am not supposed to become so arrogant that I pretend to be able to defend God himself (one of the reasons I so dislike apologetics as I have typically seen it done). Do you want to make me uncomfortable with some of God’s decisions? Well, I was there a long time before you wrote this post, and a long time before you became an atheist. And long before I was uncomfortable, Job wanted to sue God for negligence and divine malpractice, and in that way it is a book that is more about justice and morality (divine as well as human) than it is about suffering and misery. This is part of a conversation that has always happened within the faith, even if those outside the faith are now piping in.
But you’re stuck too, as Doug has pointed out. (Where the hell does Doug go every time I start commenting? Well, if I embarrass you, Doug, then I’ll just leave–my mom taught me that little ploy.) Even if God doesn’t exist, you’re still talking with people who have a moral authority outside themselves, and your only point is that we can all be moral authorities ourselves. And you seem optimistic that 6 billion moral authorities can come to agreement on, well, anything at all–an optimism that has not been widespread since probably the beginning of the 20th Century. I’m still not convinced that beginning as a materialist you can come to call anything good or evil, let alone hold people morally responsible for their actions if there’s no way to establish freedom of choice.
Just to be clear, I was trying to be a bit humorous with the racial purity thing, and my suggestion was to retire the idea. It was not a hint that you should retire, either from theology in general, or from this board in particular.
Thank you Peter, you said what I was trying to get at but couldn’t seem to do coherently and you did it beautifully. I do appreciate the points that you guys have made. Like I stated earlier, these are things most christians are afraid to deal with, so I’ve never been challenged like this and it helps me to weed out weak arguments to what I believe.
Danny, very nice way of putting it with the airplanes. That is great way of putting it into perspective.
There again though, the question still remains that as the creator, (looking from that viewpoint) doesn’t he reserve the right to destroy his creation if it goes bad. He did it without the use of people with Sodom and Gomorrah.
Any thoughts on that?
BTW, I do like the nickname, it’s much easier than typing that whole thing out :-)
I don’t think 6 billion different moral determinations is more a problem for me. I think that a healthy understanding of sin keeps me from seeing moral disagreement between people as a sign that God’s justice is contradictory. Further, Jesus’ non-retaliation ethic is predicated upon faith in a God whose justice can be trusted, if not always understood or well-liked. For you, the only way to see to it that good prevails (whatever that can even mean to you) is through the application of power. Hopefully, it will be a nice kind of power in the influence of persuasive arguments. But when it comes right down to it, the will of the powerful will be the law of the land, and who’s to say that’s wrong? If everyone in the world thought genocide was perfectly fine, you could not be sure that you were morally right–only that you had come to a different conclusion.
Picking up your comment about natural disasters, I agree with you. It would also be inappropriate to call a flood or storm evil. The flood only did what floods do–there was a causal chain that brought about the effect of a flood. There were no personal forces at work, so however you will describe a flood it cannot make much sense to say the flood was evil. Perhaps the flood was destructive. Perhaps it took human lives. Yet there is no moral category to assign.
From a materialist perspective, all phenomena are necessary effects of prior causes, even if the processes are almost infinitely complex. People do what they do because of the convergence of a great many causes. And if moral choice is really only the blind interaction of forces at the convergence of a multitude of natural causes, then the net effect of that event is determined by the interaction of forces, not the personal decision of a free moral being. It is no more appropriate to label human beings or their actions as good or evil, any more than it is appropriate to label natural disasters as such. It happened because it had to. It’s not just that you’re in no position to question God’s justice, you’re not even in a position to question anyone’s moral system. Or, summarizing what MO was saying earlier, you have no moral arbitrator and therefore no means to solve moral disagreement (which, keep in mind, is an illusion anyway) except through the application of one or another form of power.
Good gravy Peter, I thought I was being harsh. That almost felt painful from where I’m sitting, even though it is accurate from my viewpoint. Again though, spoken more coherently than I managed to do it.
You make a good point though. Danny - you made an observation that you know what wrong feels like, I don’t remember your exact words, but it was something to that effect. That is YOUR perception of what feels wrong though. This is a terrible analogy I know before even saying it, but let’s say you and another person are sitting there smelling really badly because you’ve never heard of a shower. Now, someone forces the two of you to take one. One of you feels like very wronged by the shower and thinks it feels wrong. The other thinks the shower feels great and wants to do it again. Who’s right? Who knows? No one’s ever heard of a shower and they’ve never been enforced so who knows if it’s good or evil for someone to force you into a shower? The only person who seems to know whether they are good or bad is the enforcer and he’s only human so how can you trust that?
Guys, if I’m rambling again, feel free to tell me to be quiet :-). It is after all very late and I am quite dilusional right now.
Not meaning to be harsh–trying to be brief and trying to be unequivocal in the problems of the position Danny is taking, not the person Danny is. Just to be clear, Danny is one of the kindest people I know, and that can obviously be consistent with any number of worldviews, including atheism.
Sorry for any offense.
I’m not gone. I just felt like I more or less said what I have to say. That, and my pacificist tendencies as a new pseudo-Mennonite start to fret when I feel like it’s 3+ against 1. Seriously though, there were some other atheists at the beginning of this thread. Where did they all go.
One point Peter brought up, though, hasn’t been much discussed in this thread and I am increasingly beginning to feel is related–whether there can be any source of any action or energy outside of the prime mover of the Big Bang (or else pick your materalist initial event). Chaos theory suggest we can’t always predict what infinitely
complex systems will do, but, presumably, all action and thought is still somehow the result of a combination of early physical interactions (such as chemical responses to stimuli). If we have free will at all it must come from outside this system (note, of course, that even many theists doubt free will).
Danny (or any other non-theist who wants to jump into this gentle fray), are you comfortable with saying morality/empathy/etc. more than just a response to stimuli generated by chain of reactions going back to the explosion of a singularity?
I would say B. Or rather than God is Good and Good is God and when we describe what is good we are actually describing characteristics of God. This doesn’t do a whole lot for me in this argument because, as you say, the knowledge of good and evil has not been wholly revealed to humans (we can occasionally distinguish the two thanks to an event, whether historical or allegorical I do not know, that is said to have happened in a garden long ago). What my understanding of good does do is what I still hear in even your discussion of “goodness,” that is, locates it outside of the material world.
Well Danny, the idea here is primarily going on the assumption that God exists (and I believe he does). With that assumption in mind, if he is who says he is in the bible, then he is all-knowing. That would mean he would know what right and wrong is. Now, given that he created us, he could have created us as robots to slave away to him with no choice. Because of his love, he created us with a choice.
I think it genuinely pains him when we make a choice against him.
It sounds as though you are trying to measure him through OUR methods. That is a poor measure indeed.
Just to give you an idea, I’ll attempt another analogy. Guys, please don’t assume because I use analogies, that I am reducing humans to the objects used. I am only comparing us to the things we know and comparing humans to humans is pretty well useless in making a point like this. So here it is: A painter knows what his painting should look like. Let’s say this painting is alive and after creation the colors change places. It still looks good to itself, but the painter knows that it is wrong. He loves his painting though and wants his painting to do what he wants because it loves him, not because he tells it to, but because he is relational.
Now don’t pick on my inability to come up with something better than a magical painting and a clingy painter. Just try to see the message I am trying to convey.
So, in a roundabout way Danny, I suppose your B explanation is closer to what I am trying to get at, not exactly, but close.
Also, I think he has clearly defined the basis for morality in the bible. I don’t see anything morally reprehensible in the ten commandments, the beatitudes, or ANYTHING that ever came out of Jesus’ mouth.
I think it’s time I come clean on my view of the old testament so as not to cause confusion here. Do I believe in the old testament? Sure. Do I seek wisdom there? Not often. Given that a great deal of the old testament is prophecy (and not clearly defined prophecy at that) it is sometimes hard to discern what is being told as prophecy and what is being told as actual fact of what happened. I am not comfortable with a lot of things said there, but I dare not tell God he is wrong. It’s not my place to do so. Again, I am just part of the painting and not the painter.
All that said, I’d like to remind you of one of your latest statements, “But the funny thing is that if you stop and think, God (if he exists) is able to dictate moral issues because of his . . . power! Might makes right. So, the flaw in materialist morality shows up in God’s morality, too. Only it’s worse, because God didn’t bother to tell us his rules for morality in an unambiguous way.”
God is not able to dictate based on his power, but based on his RIGHT as the creator of it all. Also, what is ambiguous about “Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal,” etc? I know, that is old testament, but it still stands as a wonderful example of morality. How can you possibly disagree with that? Oh yeah, I’m talking to a human. We can rationalize anything away :-).
Geez, that was long. I didn’t know I was that long-winded.
What makes free will a complex illusion, rather than a corrupt delusion? I would guess that the development of life as we know it is actually more complex than one moral decision in the mind of a human agent. Where is there grounds to see no personal forces at work in the more complex situation, but then assume that in the lesser case personal forces must be present? With regard to free will, how are you any different than the creationist who looks at the universe and says, “I just can’t see how this is all chance"?
I think you’ve moved on in assuming that the Bible is an unreliable, inconsistent guide to morality. I would agree that in some respects it can be, but many of those are worked out through careful hermeneutics within the faith community. I haven’t gotten into hermeneutics too much here, mostly because I don’t really think it’s the core issue.
You’re right that my view of morality is ultimately enforced through the application of power. As you may guess, however, I will want to draw a distinction between divine and human power. This distinction is not just in the trustworthiness of its agent, but also in its very essence. Of the three classical attributes of God, I believe omnipresence is the ground of the other two. If God is intimately present to every part of creation at once, then it is no stretch to also believe him to be omniscient or omnipotent. In that case, the application of divine power, since it can act at every point at once, need not be anything but gentle in every instance in order to be powerful overall. Although over-simplified, this would at least point us in the direction of the qualitative difference between our power and God’s. It also leads to understanding the weakness of the cross as divine power at its greatest expression.
About the Big Bang stuff (getting way off topic)–
I worded my sentence hastily and poorly. I meant to call the Big Bang the “prime mover” for my example in order to show that even in one of the most widely accepted theories of origins, all energy originates with a single happening which sort of rules out free will. Unless something exists outside of the material system, everything MUST be determined and predictable (if we only had a way of accounting for every variable). This is true whether the Universe is forever expanding and contracting as a sort of cosmic yo-yo with equal amounts “positive” and “negative” energy, or in the case that a single, unexplained pulse of energy exploded a singularly and it will continue to expand into infinity.
If free will is not an illusion, it must mean that something other than predictable electric and chemical responses to stimuli can drive our actions. I call this the human spirit, created to be inexorably tied to and yet distinct from the body.
I want to comment on the main point of Dan’s post—namely the “trilemma” he poses for the theist: roughly, EITHER God is not good/loving, OR genocide (etc.) is good/right, OR scripture is not completely authoritative (in whatever sense of ‘authoritative’ a Christian might wish to claim). Clearly none of the horns of this trilemma are very attractive to a Christian that takes the scripture to be authoritative, so if Dan is right that these are the only options, then many Christians have a problem. I should also say up front that I am a committed Christian that holds to the authority of scripture (roughly the moderate position on scripture that Peter pointed toward several posts back, not inerrancy).
However, first I wanted to comment briefly on what seems to be a prominent side-thread in this discussion, namely whether Dan is entitled to make objective moral judgments about the actions of God or the Israelites toward the Canaanite peoples, etc. I think he is. I don’t think it will do for theists to claim that God’s command defines, or is the basis for the objectivity of, right/wrong or good/bad actions. Rather, I think we want to say that God commands for various reasons (e.g., because some action would be ultimately harmful for some people, where ‘harm’ is taken in a pretty ordinary sense), and that such reasons are what make the things he commands objectively good/right, and that such reasons are also available to the reflection of ordinary human beings, whether they believe in God or not. Think about the last sermon you heard on the Ten Commandments. It probably consisted of something like an explanation of the reasons why these commandments are good for people. These reasons (i.e., why the Ten Commandments are good) are the sorts of reasons that I think are available to everyone on some level, whether or not they are Christian/theist. If God doesn’t command for a set of reasons like this, it looks like we are calling God’s commands arbitrary. If they are not arbitrary, then we have to say there is some sort of pattern to them, and that (at least in principle) this pattern is available to the human mind apart from God’s command. In other words, it is possible (I think likely) that human beings can pick up on some of the objective reasons that God commands things like “Don’t commit adultery” and “Don’t murder” without needing the commands. Now, this is not to say that God’s command couldn’t help us track good/bad actions, i.e., help us know about them, but then this is just to say that God’s command is an epistemological help and not the metaphysical basis for goodness/rightness of action. So, all this to say, I think Christians do have the advantage of an authoritative source (i.e., scripture, God’s commands) that helps with our reflection on ethics (though it requires much difficult interpretation), but that theists by no means have a lock on access to objective morality. So, I think Dan is right that he can do some reasoning about harm, etc., and get some objective moral standards, though he may have an epistemological disadvantage as an atheist.
Okay, a second preliminary: I’m not sure I think Christians should attribute the property of “moral perfection” to God as Dan seems to think Christians do in his post. I don’t think you find that in scripture. In fact, I think it is something of a category error. I take the word ‘moral’ to bear on actions between humans and not necessarily between God and humans. Of course, this nit-picking doesn’t get me very far: I still have to deal with whether the actions Dan points to in the OT are consistent with a loving or good God (which characteristics, of course, I do want to attribute to the God of the Bible).
Okay, so I reject all three of the horns of Dan’s trilemma, though perhaps he will interpret me as embracing a modified version of horn number two (i.e., genocide, etc., is good/right). I actually think my view is a fourth option. My first point is something like the bacteria analogy, though I won’t use an analogy since I think Dan is right that the analogy breaks down in important ways. So, I do think that human beings are special and valued by God: his relationship to us is not like my relationship to bacteria since I don’t care much about bacteria (unless they are making me sick; then I hate them), but I think God does care about us. Nevertheless, I think God’s obligations to us in the way he treats us are very different from the moral obligations we bear to fellow human beings (this gets to my quibble about whether God is properly said to be “morally perfect”; I just don’t think he has the kind of moral obligations to us that we bear to each other). God is our creator, he holds a special kind of authority with respect to us, and I have no problem saying that this authority extends to the question of whether I live or die. My life is in his hands very literally. This makes me uneasy, but it is just true, so there isn’t much to be done about it. Moreover, despite my uneasiness, I don’t think there is anything wrong or unjust about his holding such authority over me. Such authority just comes with being Author. So, I think if God wants to snuff out a human life (including mine), or many human lives, he is perfectly within his rights to do so. Of course, this doesn’t get to the point about God caring about human beings, or loving them, but I think it is important to set the discussion against the background of God not really owing human beings anything.
Now, since God loves us, I don’t think he commands things like genocide lightly, but if he commands them I do think such commands must be construed, somehow, as good or loving by Christians. I’m not going to try to rehearse all the sorts of speculative ways Christians have tried to construe them as such, but I will say that the God of the OT does seem to reflect a penchant for a kind of consequentialist reasoning about actions—i.e., acting for the sake of some consequence the action will produce—that makes for (I think) bad reasoning about human actions toward other humans. In other words, God will often take seemingly extreme measures (e.g., killing lots of people, demanding extraordinary sacrifice, etc.) to accomplish some good/loving goal (e.g., religious/devotional purity, ultimate salvation, etc.). While I think this kind of reasoning is not a good model for human-human relations, for an all-knowing God with the authority of Yahweh, I see nothing “morally” wrong with it for the reasons I expressed above (though this may be very hard for human beings—including myself—to accept at times). And insofar as God is, indeed, driving at some ultimately good or loving end (which I think he is in the scriptural cases Dan cites), such actions can be construed as good or loving in an extended sense. And I don’t think speaking of an “extended sense” is cheating when it comes to talk about God and his actions. Indeed, everything we say of God has to be in some sort of extended sense since God is so far beyond us and different from us (i.e., holy). If you are going to do any positive theology at all, you are going to need to talk in an extended sense.
I think it is also worth pointing out that just because God might command some surprising and scary (though still good/loving) things from time to time, this does not mean that such commands are to form the basis of human moral reasoning in general. So, to construe the command to wipe out a Canaanite people as an eternal principle of morality that all humans everywhere and at all times should live by is to badly misinterpret scripture. In this sense, then, I reject the option of claiming that genocide is good/right, full stop. I think there are instances of principles in the Bible that are good candidates for unchanging principles of morality that should always direct or constrain human moral reasoning (e.g., love your neighbor, second table of the Ten Commandments, etc.). But, we see that these are principles of this kind by the scriptural context in which they are given. The OT context of (e.g.) the commands to destroy Canaanite peoples suggests pretty clearly (at least to me) that they are focused on particular historical events and particular historical goals that God had for his people. God is not here trying to impart principles to live by, but rather is trying to accomplish a good goal, and the means by which he chooses to accomplish it are well within his rights (despite their being scary and harmful for people).
So, I guess this last point is a way of saying that I’m not really worried about the quote by Elizabeth Anderson that Dan uses at the end of his post (i.e., “To devote one’s moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.”): the context of God’s command to the Israelites at that time is so radically different that I just cannot foresee a parallel occurrence in the contemporary context. Of course, I am committed (by what I’ve said) to the view that it is at a least a possibility that God could command such a thing again, but I think it is only a remote and theoretical possibility, and not one worth worrying about (I could say much more here about why I think it is remote re. the trajectory of biblical ethics, the way Jesus used the OT in his ethical reflection, etc., but this is far too long already). So, I think I ought to worry about Anderson’s point about as much as Dan worries about not knowing about the basis for his moral views.
And for the record, I think people that claim to hear commands like this from God today (e.g., al Qaeda) are crazy. It is never right for humans to initiate genocide (etc.), and that, it seems to me, is what is happening in contemporary cases in which people commit genocide in the name of God. They have missed God’s will in a radical way. Of course, the rejoinder here is “How do you know when God has commanded such actions and when he has not? What if the Israelites were wrong about God’s command too?” Reply to the second question: I know the Israelites got it right because scripture tells me so. The first question is harder: it is difficult to know when God commands something these days, since he doesn’t seem to be speaking in the same way as when the canon was forming. However, given that difficulty/uncertainty, I will need blazing writing in the sky or an audible voice that many people hear and record, along with a good argument for why it is consistent with the trajectory of biblical ethics before I would entertain the idea that God had commanded genocide here and now (again, none of which I see as very plausible/likely to happen, and hence not worth worrying about). A still small voice in my prayer time just ain’t gonna to cut it here.
Thanks for your challenging and interesting post.
“I know the Israelites got it right because scripture tells me so” - not a good reason. I believe in these things too, but not because the scripture says it is. If you are really going to attempt objectivity in this case, you can’t use the bible to prove the bible. Yes it works for you and me Aaron, but consider those who don’t believe in God’s existence (i.e. Dan). Since he doesn’t believe in God or in the validity of scripture, that logic doesn’t prevail.
Also, while we’re at it, you swing the opposite direction in your comment. In one breath you claim that God spoke to the Israelites, but not to us. If you believe that, then that means God changed, which goes against everything the bible claims him to be.
I thoroughly believe that God called me back to the state I dislike living in the most, to help rebuild the church I’m at. I didn’t know at the time what exactly my task was other than to go. Why do you think he didn’t reveal the whole plan to me? Answer, I most likely would not have come to do what He has asked me to do here. He kept me up not getting more than an hour’s sleep here and there for over a month with visions of this church being bulldozed in one moment, then being filled to capacity the next. I know now what that meant, but not then. If I were to tell you what happened when I got here, it would blow your mind. All I know is, he was telling me to go. I kept hearing that still, small voice in the quiet of the night revealing to me where to go. Do you think I’m crazy?
I think you miss Aaron’s point in the last couple of paragraphs. I understood Aaron to be saying that if God commanded him to do something that seems patently wrong (i.e genocide), he’d need a lot more that the more usual prompting of the “still small voice.”
That said, often it seems like it’s only the prophets in the Old Testament who heard the command to commit genocide. Maybe they heard it as a still, small voice. No one but Abraham seems to have heard the “go kill you’re son” command. I do think it’s too easy a rhetorical & theological move to relegate the genocide thing into the “God doesn’t do that any more” category.
Aaron, thanks for joining the conversation.
Just to be clear, when I earlier said that Danny has no room to critique any other moral system, whether divine or human, I meant only that his explicit basis for moral judgments seems to rule out the possiblility of a kind of “one ring to rule them all” moral code. And also that the atheist perspective he occupies puts him logically on a trajectory to exclude moral categories altogether in the absence of free will.
But believing that we have a soul (i.e., some non-material yet essential part of human being) and at least some degree of free will to act in accordance with divinely-inspired morality, I believe that he has a right to it. The point is that we do not gain this ability (only the illusion of it) if we begin from materialism. In other words, his very involvement in this conversation presupposes a state of reality that is not directly supported by his worldview.
Danny, you said something earlier about going along with the illusion of free will, which is fine as long as we’re just talking about moral reflection and not moral enforcement. As Mitch Hedberg says, alcoholism is the only disease you can get yelled at for having: “Dammit Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Dammit Otto, you have Lupus.” One of these doesn’t sound right.
If freedom of choice does not exist, then moral categories cannot be meaningfully assigned by us, and any punishments or rewards become unjust (or equally just). The murderer has not chosen to murder, and the pacifist has not chosen peace. In this kind of world, the objection to genocide is unfounded–it is equally just to kill a murderer as it is to kill a baby.
From a materialist perspective, I would think this is easy to support. If matter is all there is, everything around us is just one particular manifestation of the stuff. Smashing one pile of molecules with a sledge hammer is no different than smashing another pile, except that if the piles are named “rocks” and “puppies” obviously one causes a different kind of emotional response (or should). But delineating different kinds of treatment for different kinds of molecules seems strange to me. The value is not in the molecules themselves.
It’s not that God DECIDES something is immoral, it’s that something is immoral because it is not a part of God. I think of goodness like the scent of the flowers outside the house I grew up in. I still don’t know what they’re called, but I recognize their scent from time to time. I believe goodness is something like the scent of God, yet even more intrinsically a part of him than the scent of the flowers is to its source. When we recognize goodness, we recognize God.
And 1 Corinithians 11 is another topic for another day.
Danny, that was certainly a lot of meat to digest in those last few posts and they happened very quickly.
That said, I agree with you that this makes my analogy weak at best. I don’t have to remind you that the bible also says that there is a time for those things (though it would seem I just did). The thing is I don’t have all the answers, and neither does anyone else. I think though that what is commonly accepted as truth is done so because we have convinced ourselves beyond a reasonable doubt.
We know all people eventually die. How? No one’s ever observed every human being that ever lived dying. We know through observation of the available evidence. Who knows? Maybe there is someone out there who’ll never die. Even though that is improbable, it is still possible. So we can only be (just throwing out a random figure here) 99.9% sure that everyone who lives will die. This makes it true beyond reasonable doubt.
In order to even examine the text from a standpoint of whether it is valid or invalid, you must first look at the source. The bible attributes it’s own existence to the existence of God, therefore we are back to the age-old question of whether he exists or not.
Now that we have made another complete circle, where do we go? :-)
I think you may be misunderstanding me. Materialism leads necessarily to determinism, not to free choice. But morality would seem to require free will. The very fact that you recognize moral choices means you believe in free will. I know you like free will and don’t want to part with it, so you’re willing to say you don’t know how to support it scientifically but you’re pretty sure it exists. How is this different from any experiential account of something spiritual? If I said that although science does not lead me to validate my religious experience, I am fine believing the experience is true, or at least a convincing enough illusion that I ought to go along with it–would you not disagree? Isn’t that what this whole thing is about anyway?
Not only does materialism not validate free will, it in fact supports a conclusion in the opposite direction. Really, I’m not trying to tell you to shut up. I am just trying to show a place where your basic assumptions simply do not match the worldview you are espousing, and I think for good reason–materialism is an incomplete picture of reality. And it is for that reason that perhaps only in the last 200 years has any serious philosopher argued from a strict materialist perspective, independent of whether or not they were religious philosophers.
On the hermeneutics topic, I didn’t mean to claim that I was the source of “careful hermeneutics,” and I know that I have been dodging that as much as you have been dodging the challenges to free will. Like I said, it doesn’t seem to be the core issue, and assuming for the time that God did command genocide in the way that you denounce still produces a good discussion on ethics without tripping our way through historical and literary context, processes of canonization, ancient Hebrew, and the like (not that I know these off the top of my head, but they would certainly all be required at some point). But you’re right that I am dodging that one (and will not continue to do so).
But thanks for the bonus points. Does that mean I am winning?
Wait, so you think the body created consciousness that exists outside of the usual chain of causes and effects? Even if that’s the case, you’re still espousing a sort of natural supernaturalism, aren’t you?
Okay, a few points to clarify in response to responses to my (all too long) post earlier, now that I have a moment.
First, for those claiming that it is not open to me to cite “because scripture tells me so” as a reason, I actually think it is open to me. Dan is making what I would call an “internal” critique of the Christian worldview. In other words, he is pointing out what he takes to be an inconsistency between several things that Christians should affirm, namely the three options of his purported trilemma. To respond to this sort critique, all one needs to do is to show that in fact the Christian view is internally consistent. I don’t need to use reasons that will convince Dan to adopt the view I hold. That sort of argument has a different purpose. All I’m doing here is repelling the claim that my view is inconsistent or incoherent in some way. To counter that claim I have all the resources of my worldview at my disposal. If I can show it consistent on the basis of those resources, then the charge of inconsistency/incoherence that Dan is making fails. At least that is what kind of challenge I took Dan to be making (correct me if I’m wrong Dan). So, I don’t need to convince Dan that the Israelites got it right when they claimed to be responding to God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites. Rather, all I need to show is that my worldview provides resources for thinking so (which it clearly does).
Second, I should clarify that my point was not that God cannot or does not command things in the present. To the contrary, I think he does this kind of thing all the time. I just don’t think he is commanding genocide in the present. Why not, given that he did so in the past? Because I think something significant has changed with the advent of Jesus. Prior to Jesus, you might say the ethic for God’s people did not reflect God’s highest ideals. God has never taken genocide (etc.) to be the highest and best way of treating people, but people are sinful and God had stuff to accomplish, so he had to work with what he had. I think the visions of the exilic and post-exilic prophets (lions laying down with lambs, swords into plough-shares, etc.) better reflect God’s ideals, and indeed that is where things are ultimately headed in heaven, on the Christians story. With Jesus, you might say God started that heavenly project. It is no mistake that second and third Isaiah are on Jesus’s lips more than any other OT books. He doesn’t spend his time quoting Joshua, but rather the idealistic strands of the prophetic books. The resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the end, the beginning of the Kingdom, and also the beginning of this new Kingdom ethic. God’s ideals have moved to the fore-front and he has given his people new power to live up to them. Now, of course, the ideals are not always reached (in fact, perhaps never this side of heaven), but I do think God’s ethical expectations of his people have gone up with the Jesus ethic. So, that shift in the explicit ethic for God’s people that took place with the advent of Jesus is the main reason I don’t think God would command genocide in the present: we are in the Kingdom age, and that age has different (and I would say higher) moral standards.
So, to address another worry people had about my post, I do think the things that God does and says over time change. He says one thing back then–given the circumstances and people/culture he was working with–and he refrains from saying that here and now. This is not to say that God is contradicting himself now–i.e., he is not saying, “Oops, what I did back then was not the right thing to do, but now I’m going to get it right.” Put another way, Jesus is not rejecting the Pentateuch as wrong. Rather, he is merely claiming that the Pentateuch was for yesterday, and the exilic and post-exilic prophets offer a more developed and ideal ethic for today and tomorrow. The commands of the Pentateuch were appropriate then, but now we have a different context and so not all of them are appropriate. God is doing something different and he is using different means. Just because someone does one thing one day and then chooses to do another some other day does not mean that she is contradicting herself. Perhaps both actions are good in their context, the best that could be done given the situation. I do subscribe to what we might want to call “absolute” moral principles, but they are not on the level of particular actions (e.g., “Never lie", or “Never kill") but rather on the more general level of “Love your neighbor as yourself". It is plausible to think that there is never a context in which it would be wrong to love your neighbor, but I don’t think it is plausible to think there is never a context in which it is right to lie or kill. If we have moral absolutes they have to be more general than that (in my view). So, yes, that means I don’t think the Ten Commandments are “absolute” in this sense. I think they are fairly general principles, but that they must have exceptions in certain contexts. Indeed, I think God had such exceptionality in mind insofar as the general Ten Commandments are worked out in a bunch of particular case law that follows in Exodus and other parts of the Pentateuch. There are clearly many exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill", particularly in the punishment department, just as there are for work on the Sabbath (think of the priests), and I would say for lying (think of Ann Frank in your attic with the Nazis at your door). Indeed, in many cases I think God would find it immoral if we did not go against the general commandment in some of these contexts. This is not to say that there is no right or wrong, true or false, about moral judgments, but only to say that action is VERY complicated and very sensitive to context. To say that everything God commands has to apply in every situation at every time (the notion of “absolute” that some of you seem to want to apply) seems to me to misunderstand the very notion of speech and context.
I also don’t think that God’s choice to command one good (but hard) thing one day and his choice to command a different good thing another day mean that his character is changing. It just means he did something different then from what he’s doing now. Can’t I go to work today and then go to school tomorrow and still be a person with the same character?
Peter, I like the direction you are pushing regarding the free will stuff. However, I think Dan can still objectively say that something is good or bad with respect to how it bears on human life (i.e., morally good or bad) without being committed to free will. If it’s harmful for people, it’s just bad, whether the person causing the harm is choosing to do so or not. But, where I agree with you is that I don’t think there is a good case for moral responsibility or just punishment without free will. If someone is not choosing their actions in some robust way, why think they are responsible or should be punished? Perhaps restrained, yes, but not punished. This seems to me a weak point of materialism.
Aaron, I would want to defend the stance that materialism not only provides no ground for moral responsibility and just punishment, but also that moral categories as classically defined are emptied of their traditional meanings. Maybe if we use terms as bland as ‘good and bad’ we still get to make some judgment, but doesn’t it have to be different.
What are your thoughts about this quote from Husserl between the World Wars?
“A change has set in at the turn of the past century about what science means for human existence. Science excludes in principle precisely the questions which human beings, given over in our unhappy times, find the most burning—questions of the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of this human existence.
“Given that knowledge has been limited to the hard sciences, it follows that all of the questions that are really important to people, which fall outside empirical verification, are no longer regarded as questions for which there can be answers that are known to be true. It was a short step from there to a population of people who no longer had the conviction that there was any real difference between right and wrong, and what was meaningful and meaningless, and who would instead be easily led by a powerful public orator where reason gave way to rhetoric, and we would start elevating the rhetorician and the arts over cognition and thought.”
Looked back at the original post, and just thought it deserved some recognition that the cool little feature comparison box (so common in computer hardware and software marketing) was a really funny (if probably blasphemous) touch to your post.
And um, the platypus as God’s cruel genetic experiment…tee hee…
By supernatural I just mean outside of the material. What I mean is that free will ultimately means the ability to act in ways not wholly determined by previous events. In a completely materialist universe this seems impossible to me. I think it’s consistent to say (as you have allowed for) that free will is an illusion, but it doesn’t seem like that is your operating principle.
Dan, I just thought of something. Is the ultimate point you are trying to reach, that if God is so inherently good, then why does he allow, even seemingly condone so much evil?
Also, we do have the freedom to choose whether to do good or evil. I would call this free will. If you are coming from the standpoint of no god and no satan, none of the supernatural stuff, then couldn’t free will itself be to blame for the presence of evil actions in this world. Because, after all, if we were robots with no choice, we would always choose the same course of action, rendering good and evil non-existent because of the lack of varying action. One choice becomes the only choice so we would know no other actions. Because we have the ability to choose our actions, we have the ability to choose to do harm or good to each other.
That said, let’s bring God back into the equation. One might ask “if God does exist, and free will could be to blame for evil, why would God allow free will? Why would He create us knowing that many of us would choose against him, and wind up going to hell?”
My response is this: Your photos and about section indicate you have children. Why did you have them knowing that someday they would disobey you?
I don’t think lack of free will means we would always behave in the same way. The weather, for instance, is presumably not free, but is even more variable than humans (thanks to butterflies flapping their wings in Tibet and all that).
Chaos theory rocks!
Yes, but for us to react in different ways if we do not have a choice in the matter, requires someone outside of us to dictate that choice (i.e. the butterfly in tibet flapping it’s wings eventually resulting in bad weather here). If that’s the case, then who’s pulling our strings?
To the materialist the question is not so much who but what (where the what is plural). That is, just like the weather, an unknowable number of factors could combine to direct each choice. My genetics, the people around me, what I ate for dinner, the air quality, and even the weather (itself unpredictable) all combine to cause a the specific chemical and electrical situation in my brain that directs my next action. You’re right in saying that if those exact circumstances arose again, I would behave in exactly the same way, but it’s impossible that such a duplication would ever happen (because, after all, the first event presumably shifted the state of my brain somewhat and added to the history that informs the next decision). I’m ok with saying we have an illusion of free will. Certainly even Paul, at times, seems to assume we are predestined in at least some significant ways. But I think if we do truly have free will it MUST come from outside the physical system.
That could be true Dan, but then who entered the programming?
Evolved from what? Unless you get to the bottom of how we came to be, then we really cannot answer any of these questions beyond reasonable doubt.
There is undeniably a beginning to everything that exists now. You have touched briefly on the law of causality and how if God is the prime mover, then who made him and if he is infinite then we’ve come in a circle. The thing is, the law of causality simply states that everything that “comes to be” needs a cause. Since God didn’t come to be and always existed he didn’t need a cause.
Now the materialist would say that if we christians can have an infinite God then what’s to stop them from having an infinite universe. You would be right to make that assessment. That is one of only two possibilities, either the universe is infinite, or something outside the universe is infinite. So why couldn’t God be infinite? It would certainly be a good explanation for all this mess (and to me makes the most sense).
I know, I know, beating a dead horse. No one seems to get the point though.
I think the normal usage of the phrase “free will” means that we are able to chose without being completely constrained by external forces. The wikipedia entry begins “The question of free will is whether, and in what sense, rational agents exercise control over their actions and decisions…” and Princeton’s wordnet defines it as “the power of making free choices unconstrained by external agencies” (these were the first few definitions from with Google define: free will). That’s the definition I’m using. To me it seems like your algorithm version is the definition outside of normal usage.
Sorry Dan, I wasn’t trying to drift off topic. However,it makes perfect sense to assume God in that situation, because if he is who he says he is in the bible, then he is not constrained by any laws that we know of and exists outside of time, space, and matter.
Good grief, me and my run-on sentences.
I will try to keep things applicable to current conversation from here on out though. Which reminds me, is it just me, or is hermeneutics a funny sounding word?
John Searle at Berkeley
“Our conception of physical reality does not allow for the existence of freedom of the will.”
William Provine, Cornell
“Free will as it has been traditionally conceived simply does not exist. There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived could produce a being that is truly free to make choices.”
I mean ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ in the same way these biologists do:
“The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” ~ National Association of Biology Teachers
Here’s an interesting article:
In the article Daniel Dennet tries to find a way to affirm free will, I suspect because he wants to avoid the same unsavory moral implications as others I know do. But awe at and enjoyment of the complexity of human life is not the same thing as the freedom to direct that complexity, only to perceive it in a satisfying if incorrect manner.
Danny, I think we should co-author a book called Careful Hermeneutics.
Okay, finally back in the ring here.
Peter, I think the Husserl comments may capture philosophical sentiments between the wars better than they capture the atheistic philosophical picture today. There are many ethicists today that are atheistic and yet still think moral claims admit of truth and falsehood. Granted, such claims cannot be verified by empirical science–the goodness or rightness just doesn’t exist out there in the world as an independent quantifiable property–but many ethicists today still think there are things they call “normative facts", i.e., facts about what ought to be, or what we ought to do. As Christians, I think we need to be committed to there being such facts, and to the idea that such facts are not simply dependent on God’s will in an ordinary sense (like, God said it, so it’s right), otherwise we end up with an ethics that is arbitrary (as I suggested previously). Rather, God commands in accord with the moral facts about relations between human beings, which are ultimately dependent on what kind of creatures we are, and what makes life good or miserable for us (in an objective sense, not some weaker sense of what I happen to like here and now). Of course, insofar as God is the Creator, he has set the whole system up, created our natures, etc., so you might say that morality ultimately derives from him as does everything else, but as an atheist you might also tell a naturalistic story about “creation” and still get the same moral facts, since the facts depend on human nature and human life, and atheists (of course) can observe these things too. Anyway, the bottom-line is that I (and many atheistic contemporary ethicists) don’t think knowledge must be limited to the empirically verifiable (as Husserl seems to think the culture of his day did), so the quotes seem a bit out-dated. And more importantly, I think someone can hold that moral claims admit of truth/falsehood without a belief in the existence of God.
All that free will stuff is too hard. Needs more careful hermeneutics.
Okay, one more thing for Peter: I’m not sure what you think my “bland” (and very sketchy, to say the least) account of moral goodness/badness is lacking? What exactly do you want out of a moral theory? I’m not being cheeky here; I’m genuinely interested to hear what you feel is lacking.
Sorry to keep you waiting.
I don’t know that Aaron’s comments are quite as favorable toward an atheist perspective as you are hoping. And I think that the points Aaron and Doug have made, including especially some of the really good stuff Doug has said before on other posts, are good indicators of directions to go here.
Many deeply religious people think of justice as primarily retributive–does each person receive what they deserve? Moral responsibility for freely chosen actions is clearly important in scripture, but that is by no means the highest form of justice.
When God confronts Job from the whirlwind, it is in response to Job’s oft-stated desire to take God to court. Job has not gotten what he deserved, and he cannot imagine that the world is supposed to work any other way (and neither can his friends). God’s challenge to Job is that he explain how a simple view of retributive justice could do the big work of running the universe, keeping the forces of chaos at bay, etc. This fits with what Doug has said before about scripture–that God permits or sometimes commands according to what will limit evil, not necessarily what promotes the happiness and self-actualization of every human being.
Deeper still than this is the ethic or justice that Jesus often points to: self-giving love. The Kingdom of God is an alternative society, even a revolutionary one, for self-giving love eventually runs counter to the other kinds of justice.
You want to say genocide is always wrong, and based on your comments about being appalled that innocent babies are killed, it seems that your primary justice is retributive. But the only real sense of justice I would think you could subscribe to would be the second type that would govern the whole universe. The third type I don’t see as necessarily supportable from an atheist perspective. Maybe there is a desire for it because it actually does exist, but I am not sure you can say it’s worth anything from a purely materialist perspective.
So we continue to disagree, I am sure. I believe God can still be good even if he ever did command genocide. Constraining evil can be in itself a higher good. Genocide is bad because it generally runs counter to other operative ethics in the universe. The Bible is true, but has unfairly been subjected to many pet interpretations, mostly by those who believe it is true. In general, though, I agree completely with Aaron that genocide is not really a temptation for most Christians. Are you less tempted to commit genocide now that you are an atheist? The interpretation of scripture is something that has to be held by the community as a whole.
Those are some very quick thoughts–mostly blanket statements without much support.
I think that we can also discuss this stuff in light of evolutionary theory. In terms of biological evolution, an action is right if it increases the chances of survival of one’s offspring (think grandchildren here). Yahweh in the Old Testament made a great rationalization for wiping out rivals for scarce resources in a hostile land. So, if we accept that for the Hebrews, genocide increased the chance of the survival of Jewish grandchildren, then God made one hell of a story to justify one’s evolutionary survival.
For Hitler, it’s a similar story. Hitler promised his people a 1000 year reign of power for the Germans. Don’t tell me that didn’t tickle a few German evolutionists’ fancies.
One caveat though, I’d like to add. Modern warfare doesn’t seem to increase the chances of survival for our offspring.
“If God did exist, I guess he would have the right to destroy humans.”
Dan, you made this statement before.
So, God can destroy humans if he wants. After all, its his creation. OK.
Is there a difference between God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gommorrah and God ordering the Israelites to destroy the city of Jericho?
2 cities, hated by God, destroyed by God, but using different methods? Is there a difference?
You seem to be missing the point, dan.
Assuming that there is no God:
“When a natural disaster kills people and the religious say god was punishing the people, that’s stupid. When the religious person kills someone and claims that they are meting out god’s judgment, that’s murder.”
Indeed. That’s fine, if one assumes God does not exist.
However, assuming God exists & created all:
He can do whatever he wants, to whoever he wants, however he wants. Correct? Well, you already said he could, and you’d be fine with it, so that’s not in dispute.
So, if God doesn’t exist, Joshua was very bad. And if He does exist, then God can do whatever He wants.
So what’s the issue?
Dan, the problem I have is that I don’t see GOD breaking any moral laws that he set, I see MAN breaking the moral laws.
Now, maybe some of these things happened in the old testament, but didn’t God make covenants with these people afterward?
AND again, you miss the point that if God does in fact exist that He would have the right to destroy his creation if He so chooses.
I am not reducing humans to writing in this example, this is just what I know so it’s all I have to compare this to. As a songwriter, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written songs and then crumpled the paper and thrown them away. If those writings were alive are you now saying that suddenly because the writings had thoughts and feelings, that it is wrong of me to destroy them? Especially if they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing I think I should be able to do that.
I can see why God set laws on us as even our forefathers recognized that all men are created equal. God treats us all as equals from the best I can tell. He doesn’t discipline because of the person committing the sin, He disciplines based on that persons unwillingness to let go of those sins. So, I don’t see God hating anyone.
It’s humans that twist these things and commit hate crimes and things like that, not God.
If we go on the assumption that allah is the true god and creator, then he would have that right.
I don’t happen to believe that he is the true god and it makes more sense to me to follow a God that sent his Son to die for me rather than asking me to die for him.
If there is no god, you are right, it makes complete sense. I’m not saying that it doesn’t. Your points are not bad. If you’re right, humans have made up a god, made up religion, and then did things based on that religion. Many of these things were terrible. Many of these things are good.
If there is a god, then God is allowed to do what we believe to be indecent and a-moral…i.e. he is allowed to do whatever he wants.
“How would I tell the difference between the people he is using to bring about the higher good and the people who just want to do something evil and are using God as an excuse?”
That’s a fine question. And I see why you ask it. If you had the absolute proof that God told these people to do this, then there wouldn’t be a problem. The only proof that we have to offer is the writings of the Bible. Much like the only proof we have of most ancient history is because of Herodutus. Many parts of the Bible can’t be absolutely proved, just like many parts of Herodutus’s writings can’t be proved. However, the answer lies in the Bible, which I know your not a big fan of, but believers are.
Thus, we’re at an impasse over the Bible, again, but after a good discussion.
I’m trying to to step into your worldview, dan, I truly am. I’m looking at religion as a human phenomenon. And when I do this, I see what you see. From the atheist point of view, God doesn’t exist, so he can’t really be like Hitler at all, since he doesn’t exist. However, the people that killed in his name are very much like Hitler.
However, I constrast that with the believer point of view, which I think you understand, but you do not embrace.
From the believer point of view, God exists, and it doesn’t matter if he’s like Hitler or not, b/c we’ve established that its his creation, and he can do what he wants. Furthermore, he can tell anyone to do anything, including telling the Israelites to kill all of the people of Jericho, b/c it’s his right to do so. How do we know that the Israelites weren’t working alone, without God? Well, in this point of the view, the Bible is true, and God told them to do that, thereby making it okay, because God wanted it done, and he can do whatever he wants. He can use fire against Sodom, earthquakes against Korah, people against Jericho, Bears against young people who mock bald people, etc.
I see the potential for serious abuse from the atheist worldview. But I don’t really see how the other side is problematic either. I suppose a big problem that you mentioned is God setting a bad example for us…i.e. genocide is okay. BUt MO addressed that above. And I don’t think I’m any more tempted than you to commit genocide.
Maybe if I was omnipotent and omniscient, I’d be more tempted. But since I’m not, it’s not a “struggle” for me.
Well, I understood that was where you were coming from to start with. But, since we seemed to be theorizing, I was just throwing my hat in the ring so to speak.
“If God is allowed to break the rules of common decency and morality in order to accomplish some perceived greater good, and humans are supposed to imitate God, then can you really blame Christians for standing in the street shouting “God hates fags"? If you’re making excuses for God’s bad behavior, then you’re helping to make that scene possible.”
Why think “humans are supposed to imitate God", full stop? I think this sort of view is more a function of watered-down (and erroneous) “WWJD” drivel than of scripturally-sound Christian ethics. Just because ignorant popular Christianity blows it here doesn’t mean all Christians must. Christians are under no obligation to imitate God. In fact, to do so would be highly unethical and prideful in many (most?) cases. Things get more complicated with Jesus (for those with high Christology), but then you don’t have scriptural examples of Jesus committing genocide, so there really isn’t a worry here. The “God-is-a-bad-example” argument should have no traction for Christians.
Good point Aaron. Reminds me of Augustine’s analysis of the pear tree incident. He essentially concludes that he stole some pears, not because he wanted them (he threw them away), but because he actually wanted to be like God in His omnipotence.
I take the strongest objection to your linking “careful hermeneutics” with “other excuses.” I would say I am morally opposed to it, in fact. And I think God will follow my lead here. Or at least Allah will.
My much touted, oft-misapplied phrase goes more in the direction of Aaron’s comment above, which is why I asked Danny if he was less tempted to commit genocide now that he’s an atheist. I just don’t think genocide is a serious temptation (not to mention the fact that defining genocide and deciding whether it can even be applied to the conquest of the Promised Land has largely been overstepped in this discussion–certainly a point where we have met you where you’re at). There may be people who could use the account as justification for atrocities, but that’s really more about attaching supposed divine authority to human decisions. Careful hermeneutics is all about going in the opposite direction. Would someone read the Jericho account and decide they needed to go to war? I can’t see that happening unless they were itching to go to war in the first place, but needed a convenient way to sell it to the people.
So Danny, I think we’re opposed to the same thing, but from different perspectives. You said you now have less justification to hide behind if you were tempted toward genocide. I think with a careful interpretation process within a faithful community, I as a Christian also lose that justification. What’s really at issue here, then, is human brutality and which worldview not only exposes it for what it is, but also provides a remedy.
One final note: We have also been assuming (at least through silence) your implication that examples like the Inquisition and Crusades characterize the ambition of the church throughout history.
One bonus note: Some Christians were actually critical of WWII, which would seem to be the easiest war to justify from any perspective. The complaints of Thomas Merton and others centered on the vilification of the Nazis, Japanese, etc. as evil and the assumption of our moral superiority, and therefore divine mandate to annihilate them if necessary (or where possible).
I think you are operating with a woefully impoverished view of Christian ethics. It seems like your experience of Christian fundamentalism has locked you into a very rigid approach to biblical interpretation that did not serve you well when you were a Christian, and does not serve you well as a critic of Christianity.
You say: “Are you tempted to deny equal rights to women and homosexuals? Would you be ok with a woman being appointed as an elder in your church? If not, then you’ve already succumbed to the temptation of misogyny. You didn’t recognize it as temptation because your book spells out that women aren’t allowed in church leadership.”
I say: no, I’m not tempted to deny equal rights to women and homosexuals, yet I do take the teaching of scripture to be authoritative on all matters of faith and practice. You seem to be assuming that Christians must take on board every law of the OT as a law that ought to be in effect in our current culture; but that is just a terrible way of thinking about Christian ethics. If that is how you think it is supposed to work, I’m not surprised you’re an atheist. Large-scale universal principles clearly intended to be applicable beyond their cultural context (e.g., 10 commandments) are fair game for Christian moral reasoning, but other stuff is more delicate, particularly since Jesus came to announce the kingdom of God, and that kingdom has a particular kind of ethic–I think exemplified in 3rd Isaiah (which was constantly on Jesus’s lips) and the Sermon on the Mount–which differs markedly from much of the specific law (though, I would argue, not the over-arching principles) in the Torah. So, I don’t think that Christians are obliged in any way to take their moral cues from the specific laws in the Torah that you seem to have in mind. Those were for then, not for now. I don’t have time/space to say more here (though I could say much more), but the bottom line is that if you don’t account for some sort of profound change in ethical practice brought about by Jesus, then you have missed much of Christianity and you and I are just not talking about the same worldview.
Now, setting aside (for the reasons I just noted) the OT passages that might (erroneously) make you think Christians should oppress women and homosexuals, there is nothing in Jesus’s teachings or the NT in general that would make one think Christians should deny the rights of women and homosexuals. Denial of rights is a legal issue not a moral issue, and the NT gives us next to no guidance as to how we ought to legislate. So, why not think Christians should advocate rights-denying-legislation on the same basis as most other thoughtful westerners, i.e., on the principle of harm to others (as J.S. Mill taught us)? The main point here is that Christians should NOT advocate the denial of rights because they think someone is doing something sinful (e.g., homosexual practice). If sin was the criterion for rights-denial, every Christian (every human) would have their “rights” denied (rights would make no sense at that point). So, any Christian who says we should deny the rights of homosexuals just hasn’t thought carefully about the distinction between legal/political issues and moral issues. I think the bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but I reject the claim that Christians must therefore advocate the denial of the rights of homosexuals.
Now, regarding denial of the rights of women, I just disagree that the bible teaches the things you think it teaches about women in church. We have two female teaching pastors in our church and I strongly support their ministry and believe it is God-given. I won’t do any specific interpretation here (no space/time), but suffice to say I reject the simplistic readings that you seem to be operating with, and I don’t think Christians are obligated to take those on board (though I do think Christians owe non-Christians good interpretations of those passages).
You say: “If God commanded his people to execute homosexuals, then on what grounds can you blame the “God hates fags” crowd? You might think that their methods are a little harsh, but can you really disagree with their core point?”
I say: I blame the “God hates fags” crowd for the reason that they have a bad view of Christian ethics, as I have suggested above. Nowhere in the ethic of the NT, or the universal principles of the OT, does the Bible teach Christians to treat homosexuals and women in the ways you are suggesting. So, yes, I really do disagree with their core point (and I really do hold the Scripture to be authoritative). I think your challenge might be a more difficult (though still not insurmountable) one for orthodox Jews who deny the change of ethic brought by Jesus.
Final (bonus?) point: Dan, I commend to you a book called Kingdom Ethics, by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. I think this is an excellent treatment of Christian ethics that would fill out your picture of what a respectable Christian ethic looks like. I think a careful reading of this book would make you a better and fairer critic.
If you could even consider that God is worse than hitler, or that he tortures people after death, or say we need to think twice about God being a loving and caring God, you need to rethink your belief system! I have only read two of these “Blog” things and i can promise you that i will never revisit this site again!!!!!!
I just wanted to come by an say that this is the most civil discussion EVER on the internet. I am duly impressed!
how do compare god and hitler
Isa 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
Re: Secular humanist (non-theist) morality: See Steven Pinker’s excellent book: “The Better Angels of Our Nature” for a bunch of reasonable hypotheses re how natural morality evolved and how it is (in its current state) vastly superior to that described in any of the three major authoritarian religions’ “holy” books.
Re: “Respectable Christian Ethics vs Fundamentalist Biblical ‘ethics’". Respectable Christians are generally good people because they adopt and respect humanist morality. They pick and choose Biblical texts to support the morality that generally prevails in western democracies. Religious people are good to the degree that they can ignore vast swaths of their abominable “holy” books. This applies to liberal sects of all three major authoritarian religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).