If God does exist, does it make sense to trust him? Most atheists would probably look at all the evil acts that God did in the Bible and say that it would be silly to trust a God like that. Most Christians would probably say that based on their personal experiences with God, they have come to trust him and that if he did everything the Bible says he did, he must have had good reasons. In a way this makes sense. If you trust someone deeply, you will give them the benefit of the doubt. And even if some of them sound implausible, Christians have come up with all kinds of different explanations for why God might have done the things the Bible says he did. So I think that any discussion of trust should start with how much trust God has actually earned. If there’s no reason to trust God to begin with, then you don’t even have to bring up his seemingly evil acts.
Suppose we know that God does exist. Suppose we know of good reasons why it was moral for God to do all those things he did. Suppose God communicates with us constantly and seems to do good things that make our lives better. Would it then make sense to trust God? Is it even possible for God to earn our trust? A while ago I probably would have said yes, but now I’m not so sure.
The first step is looking at why we come to trust people. It all starts with how much trust we have for people in general. If my experiences have shown that people are pretty trustworthy, I should trust a stranger more than if I thought that most humans were evil. But how much we trust someone depends on other things like the context that we met them in. We assign teachers, drug dealers, people in suits, and people who look like gang members different initial levels of trust based on what we think we know about the trustworthiness of these groups. While this can be a good thing, sometimes these biases are irrational. Many people are racist or xenophobic without any actual evidence supporting their biases.
What about God? For one thing, we have no experience with other all-powerful supernatural beings. Even if humans are trustworthy in general, that doesn’t mean that the same holds for supernatural beings. Given that there doesn’t seem to be any reason a priori to think a good God is more likely than an evil God, I don’t think we have an a priori reason for trusting him.
But as we get to know someone better, our level of trust changes. If someone tries to steal my wallet and is not a magician, I start trusting them less. But if I see someone giving up their time or money to help someone else, I start trusting them more. While this seems like a good way of figuring out whether someone is trustworthy, you have to be careful. If you ask an email scammer to send you $10 to prove he’s honest and he does, that doesn’t mean you should send him your life’s savings. While small selfless acts may cause us to trust someone, we still shouldn’t trust that person totally or we could be easily swindled.
So what has God sacrificed? Many Christians will say that he sacrificed his son/himself. But since God is all powerful, he could have brought about the same result without having Jesus die. It’s a little like if a judge stabbed himself in the leg with a pencil and then decided not to send someone to jail. The pencil has nothing to do with whether the act is benevolent. But also, if Jesus is God, he would be infinitely capable of dealing with pain and dying on the cross wouldn’t hurt him at all. Even if he could strip himself of his ability to deal with pain, his act would be no more benevolent than the judge’s self-mutilation. It would also raise the interesting question of whether God could take away all his powers and kill himself.
A Christian might say that it’s still benevolent because God forgave our sins. Laying aside the fact that most Christians think that this gift was conditional upon believing in God, this is still not the kind of self-sacrificing act that should make us more likely to trust someone. God is essentially giving up nothing of value, and then asking us to give up something we value very much: our ability to live our lives the way we see fit. So sacrificing to God would be worse than giving your life’s savings to the scammer. God has sacrificed less to earn your trust and is asking for more.
Certainly this isn’t the only way someone can earn your trust. If you get to know someone very well and you see what they’re really like, you might start to trust them. If you see someone at their most raw and uninhibited, you can get a better idea of whether they’re trustworthy. For example, if you meet a politician after he’s had a few beers you might get a better idea of what he’s like than if you listen to every single one of his speeches. While we can be easily fooled, this can at least give us some idea of how trustworthy someone is. This works because humans are not perfect at deception, as the success of poker players at reading tells demonstrates. But since God is all powerful, he is infinitely skilled at deception. So we could not tell whether our interactions with him show us what he is really like, or whether he is merely deceiving us.
One other good way of seeing whether we should trust someone is seeing what other people we trust think of him. At first this seems like it could be a good reason to trust God, but then you have to think about why other people trust God. If there is no good reason to trust God even in the best case scenario when God communicates with us constantly and seems to make our lives better, what basis do those people have for trusting God? If everyone I knew believed something but I knew that they had no good reason for believing it, that wouldn’t give me a reason to believe it. If everyone I knew trusted in the U.S. government, but I knew that the only reason they did so was they thought blind patriotism was good, that wouldn’t give me any reason to trust the U.S. government.
Yet even if you realize there’s no good reason to trust God, you could still say that if God rewards you for doing what he says, it makes sense to keep doing it. If God somehow demonstrates to us in an unmistakable way that he is rewarding us for our actions, then maybe this would make sense. If I gave a $10 bill to a poor person and then a $100 bill appeared in my wallet and God told me he’d keep doing that, I’d start giving out a lot more $10 bills. But God still wouldn’t earn my trust. I see trust as a confidence that someone is generally honest and a good person. There could be a practical benefit to doing what an evil dictator says, but that doesn’t mean you should trust him.
One final reason someone might trust God is for the psychological benefits. It seems like it would be disturbing to believe that God exists, but have no idea whether he’s good or evil. While there are probably cases where it could make you happier, trusting in people merely for psychological benefits can be very dangerous. Many people had a profound trust in Jim Jones and this may have made them happy, but this misplaced trust had disastrous consequences.
Even if God exists, and even if he does the things Christians claim he does, it still doesn’t seem like there’s any rational way to justify trust in God. God controls our reality, and if he wants to create a world in which he makes us think he’s nice in order to get us to do evil, he can do so without any effort whatsoever. So the question is not whether we can still trust God despite the genocide he ordered in the Bible. The question is whether there’s any good reason for trusting him in the first place.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 | 3 Comments
I just read an intriguing paper by Erik Wielenberg entitled Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. The entire paper is worth reading, but I’ll try to summarize his arguments and offer my thoughts. And judging by the stuff he has on his faculty web page, he seems like a pretty good guy overall:
In his paper, Wielenberg argues that people who try to get around the problem of evil by saying that just because we can’t think of a justification for a particular evil doesn’t mean that there isn’t one must also accept that just because we can’t think of a justification for God lying to us doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Although this would not disprove God, it would show that we have no good reason for thinking that God is telling us the truth. Of course a believer could instead reject skeptical theism, but that would make it very difficult to respond to the problem of evil.
Calling God’s honesty into question would cause serious problems for Christianity. Wielenberg quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff's observation that “deep in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the attribution of speech to God. To excise those attributions from those religions would be to have only shards left.” Wolterstorff also noted that the “traditional principles guiding biblical interpretation in the Christian tradition” is the principle “that God never speaks falsehood.” Wielenberg then quotes Richard Swinburne discussing how mankind needs God to reveal things like the atonement and heaven and hell. If Christians can’t rely on God to be honest, then how can Christians possibly know anything about God or the afterlife? The self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that apologist William Lane Craig loves to talk about might not be so self-authenticating after all.
But it would also be problematic to reject skeptical theism, as it seems to be the only half-decent answer to the problem of evil. Many non-believers argue that if there is an evil act that seems completely irreconcilable with an omnibenevolent God, then it probably is. At the very least, the great number of seemingly unjustifiable evils provides evidence against the existence of God. A skeptical theist would respond by saying that our knowledge is extremely limited and just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have one. Given how little we actually know, this seems like a somewhat reasonable response, though in cases like the Holocaust, it seems impossible that the good could outweigh the bad without the word good losing all meaning. But at least the skeptical theist response is logically coherent.
Wielenberg explains that one problem with accepting skeptical theism is that God could have a justification for anything. A Christian might believe that they don’t have to worry about global warming or a nuclear holocaust because God will protect them. But under skeptical theism, this would be irrational. God might have some justification for killing everyone on earth in the most painful way imaginable. He could even have some justification for then sending everyone on Earth to an eternity in hell. We have no reason to take God at his word, for he could have an unknown reason for lying to us.
Wielenberg’s core argument is essentially this:
Premise 1: If skeptical theism is true, we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about.
Premise 2: If we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about, then we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.
Therefore: Skeptical theism implies that we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.
So a skeptical theist must accept that they cannot know even core tenants of Christianity like the claim that Christians can get eternal life. Of course it’s hard to imagine how God could be justified in lying to us about something like that. But as skeptical theists say, just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Maybe there’s some justification for the Holocaust that we can’t even begin to understand, and maybe there’s some justification for God deluding us into thinking we will live forever when instead we will rot in the ground.
I was glad to see that Wielenberg addressed what I see as a likely response from Christians: “So what?” Why is it so horrible if God does lie occasionally? That was basically the reaction I anticipated some Christians having when I first heard about my friend Ben’s project of mapping a debate with a number of Christians on whether God is lying about hell.
A believer could still say that at the very least if God tells them something, they can know that God wants them to believe it. So divine revelation is not God revealing the truth, but God revealing what he wants us to believe. However, even this is uncertain. If we do not know God’s purpose for telling us something, we do not know how God wants us to respond. For all we know, he could want us to respond by being angry at God, for maybe this will lead to the most good in the end. So God telling us something gives us no basis for believing it or even for acting as if we believe it.
Another possible response Wielenberg addresses is that this argument does not show that God is morally imperfect, so at least everything will end up fine in the end. But since under skeptical theism there may be moral goods that God is trying to achieve which are beyond our understanding, we cannot know anything about our fate. For all we know, there is some overriding good that could be achieved by torturing all believers eternally and letting only atheists into heaven.
So while skeptical theism may enable Christians to escape the problem of evil, it ends up destroying mainstream Christianity. If Isaiah 55:9 and Ecclesiastes 8:17 really do indicate that God may have unknowable reasons for his actions, and Stephen Wykstra is right that skeptical theism “is not an additional postulate: it was implicit in theism (taken with a little realism about our cognitive powers) all along,” then Christianity itself is incoherent.
Overall, I think that Wielenberg presents a strong argument, one that all believers should carefully consider.
Saturday, October 24, 2009 | 14 Comments
Earlier this week, Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a piece on atheism for NPR entitled “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists.” In it, she describes what she sees as a major split between New atheists like Christopher Hitchens and old school atheists like Paul Kurtz. There certainly are differences of opinion within the atheist community, but I think she greatly exaggerates them.
There are no atheist dogmas that we are fighting over; the dispute she talks about is primarily about tactics. Just because people have different views about what are the most effective ways of promoting a positive atheistic worldview doesn’t mean that there’s a civil war going on. All groups have some disagreements over tactics. For example, I’m sure there are some people in the pro-life movement who see it as counterproductive to show people pictures of bloody aborted fetuses, but they’re all still united in their shared goal of reducing the number of abortions.
Personally, I don’t see myself as a member of either camp. I don’t agree with everything Hitchens says, and I don’t agree with everything Kurtz says. But I think they both have important points to make.
I disagree with some New atheists who think that all religion is inherently evil. Certainly some religions have done immense harm to society, and we have a moral imperative to prevent the severe abuse that is sometimes done in the name of religion. But there are other religions like Jainism that do not cause people to harm others. I think that they are still delusions in the sense that they are false beliefs, but they may be relatively harmless delusions. I don’t see any more reason to actively fight against them than I do against non-religious beliefs that I see as harmless delusions, like contra-causal free will and Platonic realism.
I also think that some of the arguments the prominent New atheist authors use are philosophically weak and are easy to rebut. For example, I do not think that Dawkins’ “central argument” in The God Delusion is very strong. This bothers me because I fear that someone who thinks that they should expose themselves to at least one atheist book may read The God Delusion and then come away with an even stronger belief in God after finding problems with a couple of his arguments. Dawkins does make some very good arguments as well, but when someone finds a couple flawed arguments, they may just assume that the rest are flawed as well. But despite their flaws, and we’re all flawed somehow, I think the New atheists have done a very valuable service by getting the atheist message out there. While I may think that people like Graham Oppy make stronger arguments for atheism than Dawkins or Hitchens, you don’t get your message out in the mainstream media by writing philosophically rigorous criticisms of theistic arguments.
But I also have strong disagreements with some of the old atheists. I do not think we should keep our beliefs to ourselves, and I do not think that religion should be accorded some special status as an issue that it is taboo to discuss. I also definitely do not think that science and religion should be treated as Non-overlapping magisteria. As long as religions make testable claims like saying that prayer works, science has a right to test those claims. I also believe that blasphemy really is a victimless crime. While there probably are conditions where it could be counterproductive, it can also be a powerful demonstration of the religious freedom and free speech rights that our country was founded upon, as well as sending an important message to believers that not everyone shares their views. Trying to avoid offending any believers would be a fool’s errand, for there are some people who are offended by the mere existence of atheists.
Yet, I do agree with some of the points Paul Kurtz makes in the piece. Atheism itself is simply a lack of belief in God. In order to make the world a better place, we need to go beyond simple disbelief and explore issues of morality.
While the people who get the most media attention are the New atheists and their strongest opponents, I think there are actually quite a lot of atheists like me who are somewhat moderate. I don’t think atheists should be shy about their beliefs, but I also think that bashing religious people for the fun of it isn’t the way to get people to take your arguments seriously. I like making people really think about what they believe and why. People should look closely at whether they have good reasons to believe that their religion is the one that happens to be true. There’s no perfect way to do this; sometimes it helps to be understanding, and sometimes it helps to show how silly their beliefs really sound to someone not brought up in the religion. For example, it’s true that the God most people believe in is a magical invisible being who grants wishes. If I realized that one of my core beliefs seemed silly, I'd really want to research it to see whether or not it’s true.
But it’s also important to be understanding. I’ve had plenty of false beliefs over the years, and it’s never fun to have your own ignorance exposed. However, I still welcome learning that one of my beliefs is false because that’s the only way I come to know what’s true and because it can be dangerous to act on false beliefs. Just because there is tons of stuff I’m wrong about does not mean I’m a stupid person, and the people I appreciate the most are those who point out my errors with kindness and humility. At least that’s what I think is the best approach.
Atheists are never going to agree on everything, just like theists are never going to agree on everything. But the two things atheists share are a lack of belief in God, and the desire to make the world a better place.
Saturday, October 24, 2009 | 1 Comments
The issue of morality comes up a lot in debates between atheists and Christians. Christians say that it’s impossible for there to be morality without God and we have no right to say a murderer did anything wrong, while atheists say that it’s impossible for God to be omnibenevolent when, according to the Bible, he has killed millions of people. As is often the case in formal debates, it becomes more about scoring political points than really investigating the issues. I think people on both sides should give a little more thought to the basis of their moral beliefs.
It seems to me that most people make moral judgments primarily based on intuition. Both atheists and theists intuitively feel that there is something deeply immoral about killing or raping someone. They also intuitively feel that things like kindness, honesty, and generosity are good. I think abortion polling illustrates that many religious people rely on intuition rather than their religion when it comes to religious matters. For example, in a poll from earlier this year, 50% of Catholics said that abortions should be legal in most cases and only 16% said it should be illegal in all cases, despite the Catholic Church’s clear stance that abortion is deeply immoral.
But some people do not merely go by intuition and end up adhering to a certain system of morality. Some theists try hard to behave as they think God wants them to, and some atheists try to behave as they think they should based on some variety of utilitarianism (or some other ethical theory). Of course, people may still be relying on their intuition when choosing a religion or an ethical theory. If a believer intuitively believes that it is wrong to prevent gay people from getting married, he will probably be less likely to join an extremely conservative church. If an atheist feels that people have a moral obligation to help the poor, he’s probably not going to adopt Social Darwinism. But I think that many people do not go further and try to figure out why God’s will or a certain brand of utilitarianism is the standard of morality.
I think that many atheists have a very weak foundation for their morality (of course, this does not mean that atheists cannot be moral people, as people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have been incredibly generous). Some atheists believe that something like happiness or preference satisfaction has intrinsic value and this serves as the foundation for morality. The problem with this is that there’s no reason to think that intrinsic values exist, and people’s behavior can be explained without resorting to a strange entity that we have no evidence for. I think that atheists who reject God because he’s a strange entity that we have no evidence for, but believe that intrinsic values exist without any evidence are being inconsistent.
However, morality is an even bigger problem for Christians. Atheism itself does not make any claims about morality and if there is no such thing as objective morality, that does not invalidate atheism. However, an important part of mainstream Christianity is that God is omnibenevolent. If God could not possibly be good in a meaningful way, that would pose a serious problem for Christians. The Euthyphro Dilemma asks whether God commands things because they are good or whether they are good because God commands them. If God commands things because they are good, then God is not the source of morality and Christians have the same problem of having to explain the foundation of morality that atheists do. But they also have the added problem of trying to reconcile this morality with God’s actions in the Old Testament (such as Numbers 31). If God is the source of morality, then God’s morality is arbitrary and God could have made murder good and love bad if he had wanted to (and he could have made us intuitively see murder as good). Most people try to get around this problem by saying that God’s nature itself is good, but then you have the problem of whether God is good because his nature has the properties of moral goodness, or whether the properties are good merely because God has them. There have been attempts to reconcile this problem, but I don’t think any of them work. Wes Morriston, although himself a theist, sees serious problems with the answers believers typically give to the Euthyphro dilemma. If you have a chance, I encourage you check out two articles that he has recently written on the subject: http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/GodGood.pdf and http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/WhatIfGod.pdf.
But even if all current models of morality do not work, that wouldn’t prove that morality does not exist any more than proving to ancient people that Zeus did not exist would have proven that there could not be a God that actually does exist. However, I actually do think there is a moral theory that has a good chance of being correct: desirism. It’s a relatively recent theory so it needs to be subjected to more scrutiny before concluding that it’s correct, but it seems to avoid the common pitfalls of other moral theories. Basically desirism says that desires are the only reasons for action that exist and that a good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. For example, a desire to rape is a bad desire because either the desires of the rape victim to not be raped are thwarted, or the desires of the rapist to rape are thwarted. We all act based on our desires. It’s not like there’s something intrinsically good about kindness that forces us to be kind against our will, we are kind because we have the desire to be kind (and that is a good desire). Divine morality would not prevent someone who desired to kill someone from killing that person if they did not desire to go to heaven or please God. Similarly, divine command theory does not somehow force someone to be moral regardless of their desires. However, there are means such as the legal system, praise, and condemnation which can give people a strong desire not to do evil acts. The threat of hell is not the only means of inducing someone to act morally. I’ll try to explore desirism in a little more depth in future posts, but if you want to read more about it, I suggest checking out this article on desirism.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | 1 Comments
Basically, I’m just someone who’s really interested in learning about stuff like religion and philosophy in his spare time. I’ve always been an atheist, so unfortunately I cannot regale you with any exciting deconversion stories. There’s no one thing that “caused” me to be an atheist, or one single barrier keeping me from believing; I simply have never found any good reasons to think God exists.
I was baptized Catholic, but my parents became less religious when I was very young and I stopped going to church. So I’ve never gotten to experience what it’s like to believe in God. I occasionally thought about philosophic or religious issues when I was growing up, but I generally focused on other things. When I did discuss religion with other people, no one seemed to have any good reasons for believing that God existed or that their religion was true. I wasn’t terribly passionate about my disbelief; I just saw no better reason to believe in God than in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
When I learned about agnosticism in high school, I started labeling myself as that because I thought that there was no real way you could know one way or another whether God exists. Then in college I started calling myself an atheist once I learned more about what it means. I had always thought that atheists were people who claimed to know with absolute certainty that there was nothing supernatural and that is why used to avoid calling myself an atheist. The definition of atheism is still controversial, but most people see it as either a lack of belief in God, or a belief that God does not exist. Although I think the former definition makes more sense, I am an atheist under either one. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that some supernatural entity exists because I know just a tiny fraction of all there is to know. But I don’t know of any good reasons to think that God does exist, and given the infinitely many possible Gods that could exist, I think the odds that any of the religions happened to get it right are extremely low.
I got more interested in religion in 2008 when my dad started talking to me about religion and trying to get me to become Catholic. I asked him why he believed and I looked into some of the reasons he gave. None of them were convincing. My dad had gotten very active in the church and got a lot of emails from right-wing religious groups. He would occasionally forward them to me and I would offer my take on them. Then there was one particularly dishonest email he sent me from Focus on the Family that really set me off. We ended up getting in a long discussion on religion and that led to me reading up on it a little bit more. I found the arguments for religion fascinating to read, but unpersuasive. Reading up on religion has caused me to learn more about a wide variety of subjects, from philosophy, to biology, to history, to physics, to psychology. I really enjoy exploring all the incredible aspects of our world. Eventually, I decided to take a stab at writing about some of these things, so I started this blog.
If you disagree with something I say in one of my posts, please leave a comment. I’m sure there are plenty of things I’m wrong about, and it’s always good to find out what they are.
Monday, October 19, 2009 | 1 Comments