Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Double Standard of God’s Goodness

With the most morally praiseworthy people among us, when they acquire more knowledge or more power, their highest priority is to alleviate suffering in the world. Consider Jonas Salk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Bono. In these cases, as soon as they were able, when they become more influential in the world, accumulated more money, or learned more about the world, they dedicated their lives to employing that expanse of power and knowledge to achieve good in the world. They devoted themselves, sometimes with a great deal of associated personal risk and sacrifice, to eliminating any human suffering they could find. They worked tirelessly to learn more about the world, discover an AIDS vaccine, or find a cheap and efficient way to distribute necessary food to starving people, or achieve social justice against racism.

And we recognize their sacrifices. We praise them. We give them Nobel Prizes. We create awards and honors to acknowledge the great things they have done.

But with God, who has limitless power and knowledge, suddenly our sense of moral responsibility vanishes. Our recognition of human suffering evaporates. Our sense of right and wrong lapses. With God, we make excuses. Somehow, inexplicably, the moral sense that led us in the case of a multi-billionaire who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent the spread of disease in Africa disappears. It would appear that it is a priori that God can do no wrong; he can fail no moral duty; he can be held responsible for nothing awful that happens; he cannot be criticized for not doing those very same things that we would give a human the highest praise for; he cannot be faulted in any way for failing to prevent the same moral atrocities that we would imprison or execute a human for committed or allowing.

Our perverse double standard leads us to blame the victim when some horrible suffering happens. “It must be God’s will that that hurricane killed hundreds and made thousands more homeless.” “There must be some divine plan for all of this.” “It is human arrogance and sin that leads to human suffering—God is infinitely loving and just.”

How can we simultaneously praise the humanitarian efforts of selfless, hard-working rescue workers and philanthropists, while completely absolving a being with more power, more knowledge, and more goodness of any responsibility? How can a person praise God and be thankful to him for sparing them from death from a tsunami while simultaneously refusing to assign any blame to him for causing or allowing the disaster that killed thousands others? How can we imprison or execute child molesters and genocidal dictators for their crimes while simultaneously insisting that there is an infinitely powerful, good, and knowing being who was present but did nothing to prevent those same crimes?

Many people have argued that from the highest vantage of knowledge and power, God would have objectives that could not be clear from down in the trenches. They justify the double moral standard by arguing that God’s infinite capacities will fundamentally change God’s relationship to the world. So God could be infinitely good in light of the full span of history.

Perhaps an infinitely good being would wish that suffering unfold in the world exactly as it does in ours. But the double standard argument above should raise some substantial defeaters. It is profoundly difficult to see how it could be that God’s goodness resembles in any respect the real, concrete, and best examples of goodness that we see among human beings. It is so difficult, in fact, that there is an enormous burden of proof upon the believer to explain how it is that “divine goodness” that in every regard resembles what we would ordinarily call neglect, indifference, criminal culpability, cruelty, hatred, and evil can be goodness at all. It is also obvious that the confidence that believers frequently have about God’s goodness is completely unwarranted. At the very best, the reasonable believer ought to have a great deal of skepticism and caution about the claim that God is good.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

God or Gratuitous Evil?

The depth of the problem of evil is frequently not appreciated by either believers or, ironically, by non-believers. If someone believes that there is a God, then they are committed to the view that every single instance of suffering that any sentient being has suffered in the entire history of the universe is such that it could not be decreased, eliminated, or altered in any way without making the world, on the whole, a worse place.

An infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good being would not tolerate the existence of any truly gratuitous or pointless evil. So the believer can’t be satisfied merely with the possibility that there could be a God and that that God could possibly have optimized every instance of suffering in the universe. In order to be reasonable in believing that there is such a being, the believer’s sum evidence must indicate that in fact, there has never been a single instance of gratuitous suffering or an instance of suffering that could have been reduced, eliminated or altered in any way without making the world a worse place.

The irony here is that on a daily basis, we all operate with the view that there are countless instances of suffering that should be eliminated, reduced, or altered in order to make the world a better place. We see homeless people on the street that need help, there are countless people suffering from war, disease, famine, and starvation. There are animals that need to be protected. The examples of suffering that we ordinarily take to be gratuitous are countless. Call all of those cases the evidence for gratuitous evil. To believe in God reasonably then, one needs to have such compelling evidence that there is an omni-being that it eclipses and is more convincing that the evidence for gratuitous evil. That is, one needs to have better evidence for the existence of a divine being who would not tolerate any gratuitous evil than one has evidence for the existence of any gratuitous evil.

So here’s the crux: many people have argued for the existence of God, although the consensus among philosophers of religion is that no such arguments are successful. And many people believe that they have evidence for the existence of God. But does anyone think they have evidence for God that is more compelling than the evidence that we all have for the existence of gratuitous suffering in the world?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How the Surreal becomes Commonplace

Religious beliefs demonstrate that even the most outrageous and bizarre stories can come to feel perfectly normal and plausible when they have settled deeply enough into the background of cultural familiarity. When we hear something often enough because too few people are willing to speak up, the absurd becomes common sense. The terms of the discussion get set to a new default, and people who might have reacted critically are discouraged or diverted by the shifting baseline. We end up talking about how best to be religious rather than whether we should be religious at all. We end up debating pointlessly about whether or not we support our troops, rather than whether or not we should be at war. In time, if a story is repeated often enough and if it comes to be believed by enough people, raising fundamental questions about it are scarcely tolerated. It may not be overtly banned, but subtle social pressures evince self-censoring that we are scarcely aware of. Non-believers, skeptics, and doubters are made to feel as if they are doing something untoward, socially inappropriate, rude, or even dirty by even asking the simplest questions.

Sam Harris has made this point remarkably well: consider going to a public speech by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who is an avowed Mormon and going to the microphone and asking this question: “Mr.Romney, do you believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth very soon and build a temple near the courthouse in Independence, Missouri?” The question is a perfectly fair one: it’s a standard part of Mormon doctrine. But we all know that to even ask it in public would be remarkably embarrassing for the questioner, Mr. Romney, and everyone present. Most likely, even asking such a question would get one quickly thrown out of the meeting. The central question is, why would it be so embarrassing? And on the other side, we must also ask why no one was embarrassed at all at a recent Republican candidate forum where several of the candidates proudly stood up and announced that they do not believe in evolution.

The repeated complaints in critical reviews against recent atheist authors like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens about their tone, their hostility, and their intolerance, instead of addressing the real content of their arguments speaks volumes about how the baseline of accepted discussion of religion has crept up on all of us. The critics are either too blinkered by their affection for religion to even acknowledge the root criticisms of religious belief, or the part of them that secretly appreciate the atheist’s case has been eclipsed by their embarrassment that masquerades as personal indignation, and blustery, moral outrage.

We’ve all been blinkered by it. The prevalence of religious stories in our fiction, our stories, our schools, and our families has deadened our acuteness. And our affection and need for religious belief has a soporific affect on our common sense. Here’s how deep it’s gotten into our heads, and how comfortable the preposterous has become. Consider this first bit of Bible speak that will slide comfortably through most of our brains with hardly a hitch:

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, sacrificed himself on the cross in order to give us salvation for our sins. God loved us so much that he gave his only son so that we could have eternal life.

And consider this revision that captures the same ideas with terms that are not part of the familiar and mesmerizing dogma:

A magical being who cares about our welfare used his supernatural powers to authorize another, lesser magical being to come to us and arrange for us to have an eternal existence if we agree to perform certain acts. That lesser being was given a choice to either allow himself to be executed by some humans or not, and through the prior arrangement with the superior magical being, choosing to allow himself to be executed would authorize the agreement for eternal existence. But the option whether or not to accept this agreement still stays with the humans who can choose to be obedient and loving towards these magical beings or not. If they do accept the deal, then they get to go to a magical place after they die and live forever with the super beings.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

You don't Really Expect Us To Believe That, Do You?

In many cases, responding to a person’s belief by explaining the physical, psychological, historical, social, emotional, or biological causes of it misses the point if that response is somehow intended to refute or disprove the belief. The truth of the claim and the reasons given in support of it are completely independent of any of these other facts about the genesis of the belief. The genetic fallacy is making the mistake of thinking otherwise. Suppose Smith believes the Pythagorean theorem and some sneering critic points out, “Well, you just believe that because you were indoctrinated to believe it by everyone around you. Your teachers and parents and everyone else believed it and pounded it into you and now, just like a sheep, you believe it too.” Suppose Newton was driven to relentlessly organize and systematize everything he encountered by an obsessive, compulsive disorder. The fact that a psychological disorder contributed to his work wouldn’t affect whether or not g=9.8 m/sec2. The causal origin of the belief, it should be obvious, is irrelevant to its truth or its justification. So when people similarly sneer that religious believers are just obedient sheep who believe because it gives them emotional comfort and because they were indoctrinated, they are making the same mistake. The causal story about what may have happened psychologically to bring about the belief just has no bearing on whether or not it is true. Even if the description of the belief is accurate, it’s not therefore false. And even if the belief owes its origin in part to some neurological or psychological facts, the disbeliever isn’t justified in rejecting the view because of that. It would be fallacious to reject religious beliefs because of these causal accounts alone.

But there is a point of importance here. When we have good reasons to believe that there’s really nothing else supporting the belief besides the causal explanation, then we do have grounds to reject the truth of it. The Inuit Eskimos believed that the moon god, named Aningan, chased his brother, the sun, across the sky, and lives in a giant igloo in the sky. We don’t take such a claim seriously, and we know that there’s not much more to account for this belief in a particular Inuit Eskimo than that his mother and father believed it, everyone else around him believed it, they told him it was true, and it fits in well with the rest of what he believes is true about the world. Maybe the belief provides some emotional comfort. Or maybe there is a neurological disposition to believe such things. Here the psychological, social, causal explanation of the belief explains it away entirely. There are no good reasons for us to believe that the story about Aningan is true, and there are many plausible causal accounts of why the Inuits believe. That’s why you’re an atheist about Aningan.

What about Christianity? The early Christians were a small group of people embedded in an Iron Age world view. The world, as they saw it, must have been heavily populated with magical events and forces, supernatural beings, gods demanding tribute and obedience. They had been raised their entire lives to believe that a spiritual and political messiah would come and provide them with salvation. They were illiterate for the most part. Science as we know it wouldn’t be invented for another 1500 years or so. They had no general expectation that there were natural explanations for lots of the events that people often take to be of religious and supernatural significance. Religiousness and spiritual devotion to some sect or other was a normal way of life for them.

I won’t propose any particular alternative explanation for what might have happened surrounding the beginning of Christianity. I don’t think the non-believer needs to commit themselves to one natural explanation or another being true unless the evidence is really compelling. What should be obvious, even to the staunch believer, is that there are a host of possibilities that could explain why someone might have thought or said he was the son of God and why a lot of people might have believed him besides his really being the offspring of a divine entity who was the creator of the universe. People get confused, they make mistakes, they are enthusiastic, they have ulterior motives, they lie, they cheat, they manipulate, they get duped, they perpetrate cons, they have mental illness, they hear voices, they see things, or they succumb to social pressure. And then social, political, and religious movements can spread by historical accident, through social fads, by political mandate, and so on.

The firm believer must think that one of these alternatives or some combination of them give the real explanation for all the false religions that compete with Christianity. The mainstream Christian would need to conclude that Muhammad, for instance, and his prophecies and the rise of Islam can be explained away in this fashion. The Christian who thinks that the one, true, authentic path to God is through one doctrine or another, say Catholicism, or some kind of fundamentalist creed, they would have to conclude that the vast majority of religions that ever arose in human history are grounded on mistakes and some natural account like those above. There have been tens of thousands of religions in history, and thousands of those claim to be “the one, true religion,” while all the others are false. For them, the precedent is already set for many religions to based on a grand, historical mistake.

The book, The Secret has sold millions of copies. In it, a supposedly ancient secret is revealed that people who have positive thoughts will receive positive events in their lives, and people who have negative thoughts will have unfortunate things happen to them. That such a transparent, and ridiculous scheme could draw in so many millions of people with modern educations, college degrees, and a vast background of scientific knowledge compared to the people in the first century shows how strong the transcendental temptation is, and how easily people are suckered by preposterous metaphysical and supernatural fantasies. If millions of Americans, who have such a vast advantage in education and background knowledge, can be seduced by this sort of scam, then how surprising is it that the people in the early centuries of Christianity’s growth bought that farfetched story hook, line and sinker?

So now, consider what that “one, true religion” must look like to those of us on the outside. Sure, it’s possible that a magical, and divine super being decided to have a son, however that happens, and to send that person to in a tiny village in the middle east in the first century. And it is possible that the magical super being did it in order to tell people to be kind, loving, and forgiving to each other. And those people who believe that all of this story is true will be rewarded in a special magical place after death that no one has ever seen, while all the ones who have doubts and don’t believe will be tortured for eternity.

But doesn’t it really strain credulity for you to really take all that to be true, and for you to expect us to take you seriously? You’ve got to admit that given all the far-fetched, crazy metaphysical schemes that religious traditions have come up with over the centuries about giant igloos in the sky, crocodile gods in the bottom of the Nile, animal spirits, and positive thinking, it’s just common sense to look at one of these stories with a healthy amount of skepticism, and to suspect that the more plausible explanation is that some people who just didn’t know better got confused, or made some mistakes, and the whole thing managed to catch on and spread through a series of interesting historical developments. All of those thousands and thousands of other religions arose from just those sorts of mistakes, so how likely is it that Christianity didn’t?