Saturday, June 25, 2011

Atheism: It Kind of Makes Sense

Why are we (Christians) so willing to let God off the hook when terrible things happen but give Him the credit when things go well? We see bad things happening to godly people all the time and even hear it described as God's will. (Yet, if it were anyone else who desired to see tragedy and suffering befall the innocent or defenseless we'd consider them sadistic psychopaths.)

The atheists are right. It doesn't add up.

One 'simple' but inadequate explanation: God gave us (humankind) free-will and we (Adam and Eve) chose to turn away from Him (sin) so now we live in a fallen (imperfect) world (because that one sin was actually a gateway sin that opened the door for an evil disease to infect all life) and He (being the gentleman He is) doesn't force His will on us so we are left to decide for ourselves if we want the cure. 

The cure consists of accepting/following Jesus, the only son of God, who was sent for us to kill as a perfect sacrifice so that the evil curse would be broken. There is a catch however, the curse is only broken for those who worship (the raised-from-the-dead but now invisible) Jesus and acknowledge what his death on the cross represented (a substitute death penalty because we all deserve to die).

But wait, even if we accept the cure we won't be immune to future infections. At least not in this world. Presently the cure can help, but it doesn't take full effect until the World to Come. Someday, probably long after we're dead, God is going to restore His Kingdom and everyone who accepted Jesus' cure will be healed of their sin-infestation forever.

So you see, God has a perfect plan to fix this big mess which is all our own fault to begin with. Get it? And yet I have to ask, if God really has the power to transform this war-torn world into a Kingdom of Paradise then what is He waiting for?

I guess the (typical) Christian response to Epicurus' questions is that God is both willing and able to prevent evil; just not yet and He won't do it for everybody.


Anonymous said...

this has always been my biggest question about the whole god thing and i hate to say it but i still don't feel like anyone has given me an answer i'm comfortable with. all the bad shit is mankind's fault and all the good stuff gets credited to the big man in the sky??? come on... seriously?

Brian said...

I don't think we should be so willing to "let God off the hook". Certainly the writers of the Old Testament were not so comfortable giving God a pass and I think that's something to imitate.

The Text, I think, also seems to say that the Cure is for everyone, not just those who follow Jesus. I think the Text actually teaches that those who want the Cure will follow Jesus whether they know they are or not. Your description if very evangelical but not thoroughly gospel.

I definitely agree the Kingdom has come and yet isn't fully here. But I think, in part, it's a little like complaining that the house isn't built when the contractor has delivered the land, the blueprint, the construction material and money in the bank for additional expenses and we're sitting on lawn chairs waiting for it all to happen.

Love, contrary to evangelical propaganda, won't force us to behave but rather weather us to the point where we want what love is. Little by little the Kingdom comes as we love our children, our spouses, the stranger, even ourselves more than we did yesterday.

I think the answer to the Greek Philosopher is that God, at least the one of Jesus, is unwilling to stop human evil because without the choice we are not capable of love. If every time we were about to do something evil - like telling a lie - and we were forced to tell the truth or not allowed to lie - our truth telling would not reveal a heart that loves the truth but rather only a machine that is compelled to give the "appropriate" answer.

I'm not crazy about the evil men do but I'm supremely grateful for the free will that allows me to choose what I will do.

Sandra said...

I have to agree that a logical observation of the god of the Evangelicals (and most other Christians as far as I can tell, but not all of them) leads to the same conclusions that you come to. And as long as that was the only god I could accept, as long as I thought it was the Evangelical god or no god, no god made a lot more sense to me--logically, emotionally, and in every other kind of sense. But then as I began to look deeply at the world around me and the world within me, I found a wholly different God. I could worship that God easily because these questions of "willing but not able", "able but not willing", seem just irrelevant to the God I've found.

When Otter at Riparian Church raised this same issue several months ago, I used an analogy to a tree by the sidewalk. Man lays down a sidewalk on the ground under which grows the roots of a big tree. We know that the tree CAN interfere with the sidewalk (growing roots so that the sidewalks buckles and cracks); we also know that the tree CAN accommodate the sidewalk (growing under and past the sidewalk to throw up new growth on the other side). But we never ask why the tree doesn't always do one or the other or something else because we recognize that analyzing the behavior of the tree in relation to the sidewalk is NOT THE PURPOSE of the tree. The analogy, like all analogies, is not complete: God is not a tree, humanity is not a sidewalk. But I think maybe we have limited our possibilities of who/what God is/can do with our questions. The God I have experienced is bigger than all dualities.

I admit readily that I could never have come to this acceptance of the mystery without an experience of God. Simply trying to work out the logic of my position without the certainty of my experience of a God of Surpassing Love, I would have given up in despair. I fully and completely sympathize with atheists who have not had my experiences and who find themselves caught on the logical dilemma.

Michelle said...

I hear ya Lisa. I've got the messiest theology of anyone I know and this subject (God good; man bad) still haunts me.

Admittedly, I was playing the Devil's Advocate in this post (perhaps I should have made that clear) because I want to highlight just how bizarre all of this sounds to those who are agnostic or atheist. (And rightfully so).

So yes, I was taking a strong evangelical stance as my "Christian" perspective because it seems to me that these are the beliefs that define Christianity for non-Christians. And, like you mentioned Sandra, if God doesn't look like THAT then He must not exist at all is the premature and faulty conclusion they often reach.

I think these kinds of questions are ones that we, seekers, need to ask again and again until we no longer feel threatened by the possible answers. I want people to be uncomfortable with what I've written.

I think you're right Brian, most of us are sitting on lawn chairs waiting for it all to happen. I also think the whole "saved by grace not works" theology has been misunderstood and misrepresented. It is our works that build the Kingdom.

And I'm VERY interested in what you just said about the cure being for everyone, not just those who follow Jesus. I hope I'm understanding you correctly. If so, I wholeheartedly agree but you might find yourself in hot water with quite a few people if you keep talking like that. Haha. Remember the whole Love Wins fiasco?! It seems you aren't allowed to drift left of centre if you plan to lead. But hey, we're a fairly motley crew so it might not be as risky as I'd imagine. However, if you ever plan to get up front on Sunday and talk about this subject I'd hide the large wooden cross just in case.

Seriously though, I'd like to have a conversation sometime about this subject.

Anonymous said...

That "winning since 33AD" quip in the graphic implies that the atheist argument is 'clinched' by Golgotha. That's just wrong. Probably designed by an ex-evangelical who has sadly imploded into atheism, not knowing he never actually had a religion that Jesus would call “Christianity.”

Don't forget Epicurus lived almost 400 years before the crucifixion and the written gospels. He had no idea what Christ was to reveal but was convinced of the obvious omni-impotence of Zeus and the rest of the Greek deities.

Epicurus was obviously smarter than any evangelical I've ever read or talked to, so I'm thinking he would have been able to see past the bad theology and carefully read all 4 Gospels (rather than mistaking Christ’s religion for some rare comments in Paul’s epistles). If so, he is likely to have taken his argument off the boards or at least seen that since Pentecost the question cannot logically or ethically be about prevention of evil any more, but must be about overcoming evil with good.

-John A.

Michelle said...

Excellent thoughts John. This post was spurred by the above graphic which I found posted as a friend's Facebook profile pic. I have to admit, I can sympathize with their (athesists') common criticisms of Christianity (I realize this quote by Epicurus wasn't a commentary on Christianity but a lot of atheists express similar complaints) although I don't reach the same conclusions obviously because my theology isn't represented in mainstream Christianity.

Reason's Whore said...

That is the biggest bunch of nonsense I've ever read. The comments make it even more bizarre. I can't really make heads or tails of what people think they're talking about.

If a benevolent, omnipotent god existed, it would not allow the kind of suffering to go on in the world that happens every day. Every day tens of thousands of little children die of starvation. Every day, people die of natural disasters. You can't blame either of these things on "free will" even if you accept that as an excuse for evil.

Moreover, Xians typically believe that people in heaven will have bliss and free will without sin, so it's unclear why a benevolent god would create a universe of suffering now.

Finally, blaming evil on Adam and Eve is the most idiotic idea of all. If god created man and gave us our nature, then blaming man for his actions would be ludicrous. It would be like blaming the tree for growing leaves, to continue that analogy.

So, far from undermining Epicurus, all you've apparently done is claim that you've moved away from a strict Xian theology into some kind of nebulous undefined belief in a good god who doesn't have to take responsibility for evil, for reasons that are not clear at all.

Brian said...

@RW. I think you missed the entire point of this post. The focus was on human evil rather than bad things happening to people in general.

Starvation of thousands of children every days is directly related to free will. In our day and time the only thing that allows starvation of this magnitude to continue is that you and I don't make it stop. The food is plentiful, we and others just don't do what it takes to get the food to those who are hungry. Which takes us back to the problem of human evil and free will.

Natural disasters are definitely bad things that can happen that can destroy or damage lives. The Christian story suggests this isn't the way God wants it to be but rather what we get when we prefer to rule the world rather than giving God the position. It's not punishment but rather like a child who insists on doing it "his way" when building a fort, a new toy or a lunch for himself. As a parent you can see where it's all going wrong but as long as they insist on their way or they'll walk away they build to the inevitable disaster. Still, we shouldn't just roll over when bad things happen, we should wrestle with God, argue with God, challenge God.

I think you're right about people's perception of heaven but it's not a biblical view. We'll still be able to choose against God. That's the story the Bible tells. We, however, will be changed by a relationship with Jesus, pregnant with God's seed is the expression the New Testament uses, into something different than we are now. This process begins now, not when we get to heave, and is evidenced in the changing lives of people who have chosen to follow God and turn control of their life over to a higher power.

I don't understand your point about Adam and Eve and trees and leaves. I have produced children. I have given them their nature. Is it unreasonable for me to hold them responsible for the evil, free-will acts that they commit? If they had no choice that would follow, but they do have choice, as do I, as do you. Trees don't. Adam and Eve, in the story, represent all of us, they are just given the first place, a starting point to understand how our abuse of freedom has caused others to become imprisoned.

I think if you're really going to be reason's whore you should spend more time with reason. And it seems unreasonable to troll a blog about which you consistently have only negative, non-constructive comments.

BenYachov said...

OTOH there is Brian Davies solution to the so called "problem of evil".
My ruff summery of it.

The problem of Evil presupposes God's Goodness consists of perfect moral goodness. Or more accurately that God is a perfect moral agent.
Some attempts to defend God based on this presupposition mostly consist of showing how it is logically impossible for God to give us some goods without allowing some evil. Father Brian Davies thinks these arguments thought powerful ultimately fail(but might have some small validity). But don't waste your time.

(side note the Thomistic view of omnipotence tells us God cannot do the logically impossible. Example: Can't God do anything? So why can't He make 2+2=5? Answer: God can do anything 2=2=5 does not describe anything. It describes nothing and gives new meaning to the phrase "There is nothing God cannot do". Same applies to to Rock so heavy blah blah blah)

Brian Davies argues OTOH given a Classical understanding of the nature of God instead of an anthropomorphic Theistic Personalist one.

God's Goodness cannot be conceived of coherently as moral goodness. God is not and cannot by nature coherently be conceived of as a moral agent unequivocally the same way a human might be conceived thus. That is not to say God is not in some sense the same as what a morally good human person is but He is not unequivocally the same.

We might ask since God contains all Perfections does it not follow God has perfect muscle tone? Clearly not? That would be incoherent. Since God cannot have perfect muscle tone without having muscles. But if God had muscles he would be composite not simple in substance and thus not perfect. Also Muscles have potency that become actual while God is purely actual. If God had muscles He could not be purely actual. We can say God is Perfection Itself. Being Itself and Existence Itself. Since His existence and Essence are identical He can be the metaphysical source of perfection in perfect muscle tone without himself having muscles or perfect muscle tone.

In a like manner given the Thomistic Definition of Goodness. God can be the source of the Goodness in moral agency without being a moral agent Himself. We can't say coherently God is sober, temperate and Chaste they have no meaning given His Nature. Moral Agents share a moral community and God is not a member of a community with us given His wholly Other nature. Thus God cannot coherently be called a moral agent. Thus the problem of Evil becomes a non-problem.

As Davies says people who argue the Problem of Evil on both sides, Atheist and Theist have largely been wasting their lives. It's like arguing about wither or not Tennis players should be able to run the mile in under 10 minutes. A Tennis player is not the sort of athlete concerned with running the mile but playing tennis. God is not a moral agent. God's Goodness is not moral Goodness. Though he is the source of the Goodness in morality. God's goodness is something else. Being the First Cause and the Final Cause and goal of all things.

But someone else will have to go into that later.

We don't let God off the hook. Rather it seems God isn't the sort of Thing that can coherently be hooked in the first place.

Thus I yawn at the Problem of Evil.

BenYachov said...


Morality requires obligations. God coherently doesn't and cannot have obligations to us. Morality requires sharing a moral community under a moral law. God doesn't and cannot coherently be said to share a community with us. God can be said to be the moral law by nature but God is not under the moral law since it is logically incoherent to claim God can be under Himself.

It doesn't mean God can do anything He wants to us given the Classic understanding of His nature this is impossible but God has no obligations to us.

Thank God.

Michelle said...

@RW, I find you don't stick around for conversation but I think Brian expressed my sentiments quite well. You have some good point... thoughts that you should follow through on and develop but it seems you hit a wall of negativity and can't see beyond it.

Ben - Wow, lots to think about there! I don't even know where to begin. I have to reread all that a few times and let it stew. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation! Now, I'm off to google Brian Davies and Thomism...

BenYachov said...

Thank you Michelle.


Another good paper on the subject is

Against theodicy : a response to Peter Forrest
By N.N. Trakakis,

I found a copy online and download it but for some reason when I google it I can no longer find a free copy.

Anyway God bless!

Michelle said...

Excellent. I'll do some hunting myself and see if I can come across it. Thanks!

Reason's Whore said...

Clearly there is a vast difference between you having children and god creating Adam and Eve.

When humans reproduce, we don't have any control over our children's innate natures. You don't get to choose whether your child will be smart or retarded, curious or autistic, athletic or crippled.

God is omnipotent and can create whatever kind of being he desires, according to your theology. He also knows exactly how his creation will act. Therefore, it would make no sense for god to create humans and give them curiosity and intellect and then damn them for exercising those faculties. This would be like creating a tree and blaming it for producing leaves, or creating a sheep and damning it for its herd mentality.

Sure, people do evil. I accept this, as an atheist, even while I deplore it and try to change it where I can. But what I do not understand is why someone who believes in a benevolent, omnipotent god also thinks that god would allow "free will" to outweigh the importance of keeping little children safe from rape and murder, or starvation. It does not sound very loving to me.

Michelle said...

Your questions are ones that theologians and philosophers have tried to make sense of for thousands of years. No easy answers, but that doesn't mean we stop searching. Labeling something as nonsense is an easy way to sweep the whole issue aside but fails to address anything.

Personally, I wonder if God (as we understand Him) really is omnipotent. But that's a whole other discussion.

As for your first comment, you're right I have "moved away from a strict Xian theology into some kind of nebulous undefined belief in a good god" which has kind of been the point of this whole blog... questioning all that "strict" theology. My goal in this post was never to "undermine Epicurus" but to acknowledge the questions his comments raise.

Brian said...

@RW - Repeating what you said doesn't make it any more reasonable than it was the first time. Your point is that to create something knowing it will do what you don't want it to do and then holding it accountable for that which you knew it was bound to do is wrong. Again, this is precisely what we all do when we create children. And it is clearly not wrong to hold our children accountable for the choices they make even if we knew they were bound to make they choices when we conceived them. This is NOT the same thing as trees or any other thing that does not have a concious will and the power to choose.

BenYachov said...

As the Agnostic Theist and Thomistic Expert & critic Anthony Kenny said "Morality presupposes a moral community, and a moral community must be of beings with a common language, roughly equal power, and roughly similar needs, desires and interests. God can no more be part of a moral community with them than he can be part of a political community with them."

Aristotle said, we cannot attribute moral virtues to divinity: the praise would be vulgar. Equally, moral blame would be laughable.

This I copied from a blog post that no longer exists.

QUOTE"God As Morally Deficient
The point for now is just to indicate how different the classical theist’s conception of divine goodness is from that of the theistic personalist – and, for that matter, from the conception taken for granted by atheists who suggest that the existence of evil shows that God, if He exists, must in some way be morally deficient.

While God is not a Platonic Form, for the classical theist, to suggest that God is in some way morally deficient nevertheless makes about as much sense as suggesting that Plato’s Form of the Good might be morally deficient. The suggestion is unintelligible both because characterizing the God of classical theism as either virtuous or vicious is unintelligible, and because characterizing Him as deficient in any way is unintelligible. An atheist could intelligibly deny that such a God exists at all (just as he could intelligibly deny the existence of Platonic Forms), but to suggest that the God of classical theism might be morally deficient merely shows that such an atheist does not understand the view he is criticizing (just as an opponent of Platonism who suggested that the Form of the Good might be unloving or vicious would only show thereby that he doesn’t understand what sort of thing a Form is supposed to be)."END QUOTE

BenYachov said...

The theistic personalist or neo-theist conceives of God essentially as a person comparable to human persons, only without the limitations we have. The idea is to begin with what we know about human beings and then to abstract away first the body, then our temporal limitations, then our epistemological and volitional confinement to knowing about and having control over only a particular point of space and time, then our moral defects, and to keep going until we arrive at the notion of a being who has power, knowledge, and goodness like ours but to an unlimited degree.
Theistic personalism or neo-theism also rejects divine simplicity and its implications; indeed, this is the motivation for developing a conception of God by abstracting from our conception of human persons, for the theistic personalist objects to the notion of God as immutable, impassible, and eternal – finding it too cold and otherworldly, and incompatible with a literal reading of various biblical passages – and typically has philosophical objections to the notion of divine simplicity. Davies identifies Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne as theistic personalists.

As a Catholic 7 based on the Tradition of the Church I reject Theistic personalism. Indeed I am a total Strong Atheist as to the existence of any Theistic Personalist view of God...

But Classic Theism OTOH

BenYachov said...

Classic Theism as defined by Philosopher Edward Feser

QUOTE"God is not an object or substance alongside other objects or substances in the world; rather, He is pure being or existence itself, utterly distinct from the world of time, space, and things, underlying and maintaining them in being at every moment, and apart from whose ongoing conserving action they would be instantly annihilated. The world is not an independent object in the sense of something that might carry on if God were to “go away”; it is more like the music produced by a musician, which exists only when he plays and vanishes the moment he stops. None of the concepts we apply to things in the world, including to ourselves, apply to God in anything but an analogous sense. Hence, for example, we may say that God is “personal” insofar as He is not less than a person, the way an animal is less than a person. But God is not literally “a person” in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, has moral obligations, etc. Such concepts make no sense when literally applied to God."

The above view is what I would call God.

Michelle said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to explain all that Ben. I have very little knowledge of philosophy but I do find it interesting.

What you said about morality, how its definition is dependent on the community from which it springs, makes me think of the OT and how violent and horrible much of it seems to us today. I'm not saying God was in favour of infanticide, etc. but perhaps it makes a case for God being present in the community in a way that meets them and interacts with them as they were. Does that make sense? But then God's morality is only as 'good' as the people He 'leads' which renders Him basically impotent.

The differences between the theist personalist and classic theist are interesting. I waver between the two. As my concept of God matures I risk being left with a vauge, unrelatable energy and that scares me so I pull back and cling to the Good Father, the superhuman-like God who knows, loves and protects. But perhaps the two need not be mutually exclusive? Oh, the trials of trying to fit a Big God in a little brain...

BenYachov said...

>I'm not saying God was in favour of infanticide, etc. but perhaps it makes a case for God being present in the community in a way that meets them and interacts with them as they were.

OTOH maybe God is not the sort of Thing/Being Itself we can judge morally for either allowing infanticide or commanding it in certain rare cases?

Anymore than we can judge nature or evolution as "immoral" for allowing infant death or cause it.

We are under the Moral Law but God is either the source of the Good in the Moral Law or is the Moral Law Himself in his nature. But how can the Moral Law be under itself? Logically it can not.

Persons that are unequivocally like us are under the moral law but we must resist the urge IMHO of thinking of God in this manner. I personally find it a tad idolatrous (I don't judge others who think differently. I leave that to God).

BenYachov said...

BTW I don't want to take any credit for what I have written here.

I only steal from the best!:-)

Michelle said...

Ben, that just blows my mind. I can't come to grips with it yet!