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There are many ways for an argument in favor of theism to go wrong. The most common problem, though one that frequently goes unrecognized, has to do with the ambiguity of the term ‘God.’ To demonstrate this problem consider the following: Suppose that scientists, after years of trying to discover a mechanism that explains the origins of life on Earth, finally throw up their hands and conclude that we are never going to find a naturalistic explanation. We can even suppose, though it may be difficult to imagine what such evidence would look like, that they have positive evidence that life cannot have originated on Earth via the known chemical and physical processes.

Would this conclusion be reason to believe that God must have had something to do with life’s origins? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If ‘God’ simply refers to that process that gave rise to life on Earth, then the answer is yes. But, of course, this is not what anyone means by ‘God.’ The conclusion of the above imagined scenario is, properly stated, that we shouldn’t expect a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. But this negative conclusion tells us next to nothing about the actual explanation (assuming there is one). It does not tell us that that which gave rise to life is a being, a conscious being, a loving being, an all-loving being, an all-powerful being, an all-knowing being, inspired the Bible, created the universe, created the planet Earth, spoke the universe into existence, cares about human life, or has any of the other myriad features that those who believe in God believe that he possesses. All that this imagined scenario would license us to conclude is that that which gave rise to life is of an unknown and probably non-natural process. And even if (a very big if) we had evidence that there was a conscious entity involved in the creation of life, this still would not be evidence that God exists, because, for all that we would know, this conscious entity could be less than all-powerful, not the creator of the universe, not all-loving (may not even be loving at all), less than all-knowing, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible or any other religious text. So, to put it mildly, it would be a huge leap from the conclusion of the above imagined (and not very plausible) scenario to the further conclusion that God exists.

At the Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs has posted an article, “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence” that contains a version of the teleological argument and which he thinks establishes that belief in God is more reasonable than disbelief. He argues that since there is currently no viable naturalistic explanation for how life originated on Earth, and since there is reason to doubt that we are anywhere close to finding such an explanation, we ought to conclude that life is the result of the intervention of some non-natural conscious intelligence. Jacobs sums up:

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

This argument suffers from the exact flaw I mentioned above. Notice, first, an interesting move: Jacobs says that some of us call the super-intelligent being who created life on Earth God. Fair enough. But I would venture to say that if it turned out that the super-intelligent creator was also uncaring, not omniscient, not omni-benevolent, not the inspiration for the Bible or any other religious text, and not even very interested in humanity, that very few would continue to call this being God. That some of us call the supernatural intelligence responsible for creating life “God” is really quite irrelevant to the question of whether Jacob’s argument proves that God exists. What we choose to call that force(s) through which life originated on this planet is neither here nor there with respect to the question of whether there is a all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful creator.

On the traditional monotheistic understanding, God is a being that is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • loving (perhaps even omni-benevolent)

We could add to this list, but let’s leave it at that. By way of contrast we’ll compare this notion to a related one of my own invention, that of a being who I have previously called Asura:

Asura is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • evil, nearly omni-malevolent (that is he despises almost everyone)

What Rabbi Jacobs’ does is take the first two characteristics of this list and argues that there is something that satisfies certain aspects of these characteristics. Jacobs’ argues, in effect, that there is a non-natural creator of life. But being non-natural is not the same as being transcendent and being the creator of life is not the same as being the creator of everything. So, his conclusion, if it were true, would not even establish that there is a being that satisfies the first two items of the list of God’s characteristics. Despite this, Jacobs takes this to be an argument for the existence of God. This is completely unwarranted. If it were warranted, then, since Asura is just as capable as God of creating life, it would also be an argument for the existence of Asura, and I doubt that he would be willing to grant that.

We can put this in the form of a dilemma. Either Jacob’s argument makes belief in God reasonable or else it does not. If it does make belief in God reasonable, then it also makes belief in Asura (an evil deity) reasonable. And, since belief in Asura entails the belief that God does not exist, Jacobs’ argument would also make disbelief in God reasonable. If it does not make belief in God reasonable, then it is not relevant to arguments concerning the rationality of belief in God.

There are other problems with his argument. I am sure that there are scientists who would strongly disagree with Jacobs’ assessment of the prospects of discovering a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. However, I am not an expert and will not offer an opinion on this matter. But I would like to point out one more philosophical flaw with the argument. To simplify, we can boil  Jacobs’ argument down to the following: There is no naturalistic explanation for life’s origins. Thus, the only viable explanation is that God is responsible.

This argument suffers from a pernicious double standard. Scientists have been at work trying to explain how life originated but, says Jacobs, “the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.” Again, I’m not an expert so I am not qualified to determine whether this is an accurate depiction of the state of the scientific investigation. However, I would like to note that theologians have not really offered much of an explanation of their own. Rabbi Jacobs explanation seems to be little more the claim that God did it. But perplexing phenomena are not made less perplexing merely through the supposition that God did it.

The theological explanation offered by Jacobs is nowhere near as rigorous as he expects the naturalistic explanation to be. And there are at least as many gaping holes in his explanation as any naturalistic one. For example, How, exactly, did God create life? What did He do? When did He do it? Was there a process involved? If so, what was it?

Perhaps it is meaningless to ask such questions of a non-naturalistic explanation. But, if so, then how does it qualify as an explanation? Explanations are supposed to shed light on some heretofore inexplicable phenomena. But “God did it” sheds no more light on the origins of life than the claim that is was magic.


In response to the question that I posed at the end of my last post we might point to the (alleged) inherent contradiction in supposing that a God would issue commands for us that he himself is not willing to fulfill. It would not be reasonable for God to expect us to love our neighbors if he is cruel or callous. From a Christian perspective, at least, the message of universal love found in the gospels is incompatible with the supposition that God does not love all of humanity.

I think that this response is hopeless. Even granting that the gospels do contain exhortations to universal love of mankind, I don’t see this as evidence that God himself exemplifies this expansive benevolence. There are many reasons that a cold and callous despot might want his subjects to love and respect one another: it is more conducive to internal peace which is a necessary condition for a well-functioning economy, not to mention the fact that a loving polulace might be less likely to revolt. Obviously and all-powerful being need not worry about revolution and perhaps would not be overly concerned about economics, but he may be worried about the fact that constant fighting between his peoples means that fewer people will be focused on worshipping him.  It is often man’s inhumanity to man that causes us to question God’s existence (e.g., Elie Wiesel began to lose faith because of his experience in the Holocaust).

In short it is not a contradiction to suppose that God might exhort his creation to love each other while he is himself unconcerned with our individual welfare. His reasons may be completely self-centered; he wants a stable population to worship him and fulfill his wishes; and a populace that is committed to trying to live up to the ideal of universal love will be more likely to satisfy God’s desires.

The supposition that God’s commands should match (or flow necessarily from) his nature is, I think, unmotivated. It is reasonable on the assumption that God is good; since a good being would not expect things from us that contradict his own nature. But in the context of this investigation, specifically the attempt to find reasons for believing that God is good, this assumption begs the question.

Those that believe tend to believe in a God that is good. Why?

Well, the Bible and tradition have said that God is good. God created us, why would he hate his creation? God loved the world enough to send his son to die for our sins.

I’m sure there are other answers. But they all reveal a troubling lack of imagination. Of course the Bible says that God is good; because the Bible was inspired by an evil God who wants us to believe that he is good. Of course the Holy Spirit inspired the Church fathers with an image of divine love, because God wanted them to transmit a false message. His only interest was to get people to believe in God to bring about the inevitable power struggles and wars that would be fought over the correct characterization of this belief. He knew that people would be reached by a message of divine love and redemption. Once the ball got going, he could just sit back and enjoy the chaos.

Of course he sent a man to earth who preached a revolutionary message of love and forgiveness and of course he wanted this man to die. He made sure that people would believe that this man was their savior and the their sins could be forgiven so long as they believed in him. Isn’t it so obvious that this emphasis on belief as the defining element or religious faith would facilitate the coming battles between groups that had different understanding of what that belief must consist in? -“We believe that Jesus is both the son of God and also identical to God.” -“But that’s not possible. We believe that Jesus is God’s son but then he can’t literally be God.” -“Well, you’re a heretic.” And God knows what we do with heretics.

A good God would not make it a condition for avoiding eternal torment that we believe that a man born 2000 years ago was both the son of God and also God and that he died for our sins.  This is just too much to ask of a person who could not possible know any of these things directly. It is much more likely that this is the work of a divine troublemaker.

Alright. This is only partially facetious. I do believe that positing an evil God who has been systematically deceiving humanity since the beginning is at least as consistent with the facts as the supposition of a good God. So what decides the matter? Why believe in the good God rather than the bad one?

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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