Friday, April 25, 2008

The Believer's Moral Double Standard for God

For the non-believer, one of the most stultifying phenomena is watching the gross double standard that believers apply to their ordinary lives and God. In a thousand day-to-day interactions with other people, the believer’s actions and words reveal a normal sense of moral decency. They know what fairness, respect, kindness, and goodness are and they act on them without hesitation. The believer (we hope) helps someone in desperate need, expresses outrage when they see moral neglect, and strives to make the world better, or at least not worse. But with God, all of these moral sensibilities get jettisoned. God is given a free pass on behaviors or negligence that would invoke moral outrage in any other human case. Many believers hold themselves and the rest of humanity to a stern standard of moral behavior, but it would appear that no act, no instance of neglect, and no omission on the part of God can produce a similar sense of moral outrage. God, it would seem can do no wrong, even when what he does is blatantly wrong. Over and over God is absolved for behaviors that we would never let another person get away with.

Suppose a serial murderer testified on his own behalf and said, “I know that my brutally murdering dozens of people seems wicked, but in the cosmic scheme of things, what I did actually works out for the greater good—in ways that we can’t see, the tortures and deaths of all of those people will actually create greater goods in the world and avoid worse evils. So I should be judged as doing something virtuous and praiseworthy.” We would never buy it—we wouldn’t even consider it seriously as a defense of murder for a minute. When David Cash stood by and watched his friend rape and kill a little girl in a Nevada Casino without reporting it or doing anything to stop it, his fellow students at Berkeley, and the California State Legislature rightly concluded that he had done something profoundly wrong. Standing by and doing nothing when you can easily stop a horrific crime is gross negligence. If you saw thousands of people in a primitive village in Africa dying of typhoid or cholera, and you knew that all they needed to do in order stem the outbreak and save thousands of lives was to clean up their water supply and separate it from contaminating sewage, but you did and said nothing. Instead, you stood by watching while thousands of them died in ignorance. If you did that, you’d be an immoral monster. Any minimally decent person would be haunted by guilt and sorrow for the rest of their lives if they had seen such a thing and not been able to stop it. If you knew about slavery, child abuse, and child rape, and if you were able to do something to stop it, but you didn’t, you’d be an immoral monster.

Suppose someone thundered, threatened, cajoled, and extorted a group of people by insisting that they believe in him, acknowledge his superiority over all beings, and demanded that they devote their entire lives to worshipping him, he’d obviously be a selfish, vain, petty, and vile person. If he demanded that people believe in him and worship him, and then subjected them to unimaginable torture for not complying, he’d be one of history’s most fiendish villains. When Pacific Gas and Electric knowingly put cancer causing chemicals into the town drinking water in Hinkley, CA and then conspired to hide the evidence, a jury found them guilty and awarded the residents hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution. Knowingly inflicting, directly or indirectly, cancer on innocent (or even guilty!) human beings and then doing nothing to help is immoral. Surely God knows more and has more power than P.G. and E. Surely if P.G. and E. is guilty of killing the residents of Hinckley, God has been just as reckless with his toxic dumping. If someone knowingly injected or exposed millions of people to polio, bubonic plague, or malaria, and then insisted that the suffering was deserved, or the suffering would develop their moral character, you’d conclude that their crimes against humanity were worse than Josef Mengele. If someone hid from you by concealed all empirically manifested traits of their existence, yet insisted that you believe in them on pain of eternal punishment, you’d think they were insane. If someone claimed to be able to perform miraculous tricks, raise the dead, or levitate, but refused to demonstrate, you’d conclude that he was a liar or delusional.

If a doctor wants to perform a new procedure on you that will save your life, especially one that is painful, or has serious side effects, they have to obtain informed consent from you. Even if I plan on doing something to a person that will benefit them enormously in the end, I have to tell them what I am doing and why. And it would be wrong to do it without getting their voluntary, informed permission to do it no matter how great the possible benefits to them. The offense would be even worse if a doctor or a politician or some social engineer inflicted some harm on one person against their will in order to benefit people in some other place or time. If God is subjecting some sentient beings to horrible suffering for the sake of some unseen good that will result to future generations, or for other people, his justification can be no better than Josef Mengele in Auschwitz who offered the same justification. Achieving some good, even a greater good, doesn’t justify subjecting innocent, unwilling beings to horrible suffering.

The response to this moral double standard argument will be that in all of these cases God’s actions or God’s omissions are not analogous to the human cases. Humans don’t have an excuse in any of these cases that would absolve them of moral responsibility. But God, since he’s God and has a grand plan, or because he is infinitely good and loving, can be excused because he’s operating on a different level. Imagine some fanatical Megele devotee making the same excuses. You’d never buy it there.

The objections to the atheist’s problem of evil argument fail in the end, but what’s also important is that for many believers, it never even occurs to them that their God might be guilty of some moral offense in such cases and that some justifying explanation needs to be given to get him off of the hook. Their affection for the God idea, and the distorting lens that God belief imposes on reality for them prevents many believers from even seeing that there’s a problem here. They might offer up some objections when the curmudgeonly atheist like me complains, but otherwise, they seem to be untroubled by the cognitive dissonance that these double standard examples should bring about. It just never seems to occur to many believers that there’s anything out of whack here—and nonbelievers find that demoralizing. It seems like lots of believers can’t even be brought to acknowledge that there’s something prima facie out of alignment here. The double standard problem seems to be completely invisible or undetectable to them. The nonbeliever feels like the little boy trying to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

One irony is that through the moral gymnastics to justify why a good God behaves worse than the most vile criminal in human history, the believer maintains that God is still the one and only source of moral goodness in the world. So the believer, like most normal people, has a highly developed and sensitive capacity for recognizing goodness and moral obligation, but they systematically refuse to apply that capacity to God. If they did, the obvious result would be that God’s a moral monstrosity, and yet they maintain all the while that God, despite his failure to live up to any of those obvious moral truths, is the real source of goodness. Their infatuation with the God idea has rendered them unable to see something that would be starkly obvious in any other ordinary case; if a person behaved like God is alleged to, we would think that he was guilty of the most awful moral crimes in moral history. Orwell’s ministry of truth has done its job: down is up, right is wrong, and all of God’s vices are virtues.

What the examples above show is that at the very least there is a substantial burden of proof on the believer who even wants to claim that God is as good as a minimally decent, normal human being. No minimally decent human being would engage in any of those acts or omissions. So a fortiori, the claim that God is infinitely good is outrageous seen in this context. Importantly, in the most ambitious theodicies that we have been given from philosophically minded believers have pressed that it is possible that God has a plan whereby all suffering produces a greater good or averts a worse evil. Given the argument illustrated by these examples, the claim is laughably implausible. It’s logically possible, perhaps, but patently false: “It’s possible that what Hitler did was really a good thing, we just can’t understand how with our limited intellects.” “It’s possible that every single one of the 240,000 people who died in the Thailand tsunami deserved a violent, wrenching death by battery and drowning.” “It’s possible that child rape is actually good when we view it inclusively enough.”


mikespeir said...

Like you say, whenever some catastrophe strikes, Christians will haul out the "higher good" defense. But when you ask them what that good might be, they can't tell you. Well, I can easily tell you what good would have come from not letting it happen!

Anonymous said...

I really don't want to get into it, but I just got arrested for intervening in what I thought was something immoral. Now I have a record, some misdemeanors, probation, and all sorts of difficulties. When should one intervene, and at what cost to themselves?

Matt McCormick said...

Sorry to hear that W. I hope it's settling down. Everything good?

I don't have a good answer to your questions. Complicated business.


TheStreetPreacher said...

How can God be equated with Hitler or any of these other evils in society, simply because He lets evil happen? I would find that fallacious. God is just, and if you want Him to stop evil, then He would have to stop all evil. That means that no one would have the will to choose evil, we could not have a choice in the matter. I find it okay to want God to stop evil, but if I want Him to do that, then I have to be fine with Him stopping me from lying, cheating, stealing, etc. If I want God to stop evil, then I must accept that I will no longer have free will...

Philipp Blau said...

"If I want God to stop evil, then I must accept that I will no longer have free will... " - what has a tsunami to do with free will??

Anonymous said...

What is the value of "free will” to a child who is raped and killed?