SECTION TWO: ARGUMENTS AGAINST A CHRISTIAN GOD.
A. Spinoza's taking Descartes' ontological argument and pushing it to its logical conclusion (pantheism) is a distinct problem for Christian theists. If God and the world are one and the same, then there is pantheism --everything is God. If everything is God, then there are no religious mysteries or Deity to pray to for extra help. The world simply is what it is and we are part of it whether we like it or not.
B. The problem of Creatio ex nihilo. Creatio ex nihilo means creation out of nothing. If in the Beginning, there is God and nothing but God, where does the world come from? Some Christian theists wish to say that God makes the world out of nothing, since in the Beginning there is but God and nothing. But, something is amiss here. Nothing is exactly that, nothing. God is all-powerful --He can do any action that is logically possible-- but not even God could produce something from nothing, for from nothing, nothing can come. Nothing is not some sort of stuff that God brings to order or informs with laws and designs. Nothing is pure nothing. Thus, if God creates the world, He must create it out of something, and the only something around is Himself. But, that puts us back into pantheism; God and the world are one and the same.
The problem could be avoided, so to speak, by saying that God created the world out of something other than Himself. The problem is, what is this "something?" For one, it must be co-eternal with God, for He did not create it. That could be a big problem for Christians who believe that God created everything. Moreover, this something is a medium over which God does not have complete control; it is there for Him to order or transform, but there is a recalcitrant nature to it which may resist His efforts just as a stone may resist the efforts of a sculptor. Such resistance could mean that God is not omnipotent. He can do the best He can with this something, but He can't make it perfect like Him, otherwise it would become Him.
C. Pantheism, in the above two objections, is not talked about much as a problem for theism. That's probably because the big problem, the Problem of Evil, is the one which ties up most of Christian theists' time. In our conception of God as being all-perfect, we mentioned three attributes that we would expect Him to have. They are omnipotence, omniscience and being all-good. The Christian God must have these attributes.
But, there is something else, not about God, but about the world that stands in stark contrast to these attributes. Evil. There doesn't seem to be any doubt that evil exists. It pervades the world and we are all affected by it, sometimes in horrible ways that cause terrible suffering. The problem of evil is that if God knows about this evil, if He is powerful enough to stop it, if He is a morally good person who realizes that evil ought to be stopped, then why does evil continue to plague us? Why doesn't God stop it? In fact, why did He create the world with evil in it?
Perhaps a science fiction story may help us introduce the problem.
INSERT THE STREETS OF ASHKELON ("The Streets of Ashkelon," by Harry Harrison, published in The Road to Science Fiction #3, ed. by James Gunn, Mentor book, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 78-070642, 1979.) Synopsis: A priest comes to a planet that has no religion and converts the inhabitants to Christianity. They take the priest as a prophet to be tested and crucify him fully believing him to return from the dead, which he doesn't. They end up in despair.
There is no question that evil exists. It pervades our world and activities. It takes lives, destroys beauty and causes suffering for no good end. Is it something that must exist? Take the inhabitants of Ashkelon. Their world was, for the most part, a good one. But, then it was inflicted with misery through religious fervor. Of course, on Ashkelon, there were events which we could call evil in the sense that they were part of the make up of the world. This kind of evil is called natural evil. It consists of things like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and the like, which cause incredible destruction and suffering. Then there is moral evil. This is the evil that is the result of a free choice. Actions which produce terrible harm (murder, rape, robbery, and etc.) are acts of moral evil. The inhabitants of Ashkelon were introduced to moral evil through the actions of a priest who wanted to produce good, but who, unfortunately, produced a world of misery. Is there a comparison to the Christian doctrine?
Let's take a look at the first few sections of the Book of Genesis from the Bible to see if there are parallels to the sci-fi story.
INSERT: BOOK OF GENESIS THROUGH CAIN'S BEING BANISHED.
I take these excerpts from Genesis to do two things. One is to announce that God created the world and He made the best possible world. The second is to explain how He could do so and yet there be evil in the world. Briefly, how could an all good, all powerful, all knowing God produce the best world possible, a good world, and yet there still be evil in it? Genesis tries to answer that question. But, let's look at related answers to get a more detailed perspective on possible solutions.
There are two traditional explanations that absolve God of responsibility for natural and moral evil.
1. How God is absolved for responsibility for natural evil. God, in creating the world, created the best possible world. That is to say, that God created a world which has as much order, harmony, beauty and goodness possible in it, given the materials and constructs with which He had to operate. For example, let us presume that man is a good thing to have in the world. Man cannot live without water. Water pools to form lakes and rivers. Persons drown in lakes and rivers. God could have made a world without lakes and rivers --without water-- but then, of course, that world would be devoid of man. We can take it that the greater good is to have man in spite of the consequence that there will be floods and drownings. In fact, the world is so made that to take anything away from it would lessen its goodness. It is the best possible world despite the occurrence of what seem to be evils, but are necessary natural events, not real evils. A real evil is an event that occurs, causing suffering, to no good end.
God, we have said, is all-good. He has created the best possible world which necessarily must contain evils as "double-effects." God does not intend that persons drown, but He foresees that were he to create man --a great good-- He must have water. It is an unintended, foreseeable effect that persons will drown because it is a natural property for water to pool and form rivers which sometimes flood. But drownings are not intended by God. Yes, there are drownings, but God does not intend that they occur; they are the unfortunate side-effects of having man on earth who needs, in fact is constituted mostly by, water.
Someone may reply, "But, couldn't God have made man and water so that man wouldn't drown. Such a feat is not logically impossible. Wouldn't such a world involve more good?"
Two answers. The first is that this new world which involved water and man, but no drownings is not truly a possible world. There would have to be something different about the chemical nature of water for such events or non-events to occur. And that would mean that man, whatever he would consist of, given this new chemical, would not be man, but something different. But, this would be a world without persons; it would have creatures, to be sure, but they would not be persons.
Along those lines, if things were exactly the same, water was really water and man really man, then each non-drowning would have to be a miracle. God would have to interrupt the normal processes of the laws of nature. But, in that case, the design of nature would be off, for He would be intervening on a considerable basis. Moreover, He would have to do it for oxygen, nitrogen (all the gases), all the other chemicals and so on. In fact, He would have to make the world a "safe-haven" in which nothing went "wrong."
What kind of world would a "safe-haven" be? It would be a "paradise" in which no matter what went wrong, nothing would ever produce harm or tragedy. One could get drunk, speed in cars, jump off cliffs, scuba dive without watching time limits --all without having to worry about hangovers, wrecks, smashed bodies, drowning. But, wait. Something is wrong with this picture. It would be a world of chaos and irresponsibility. There would be no meaning to the laws of nature, for nothing could be predicted with respect to what we would expect given the properties of the material world. Further, everyone would be a complete idiot with respect to personal virtue and care for others. We could do anything we wanted to without anyone getting hurt. This kind of world would be worse than the Wonderland Alice found herself in.
The second answer is that the way the world is made up (with the good and evil in it) is a world in which man can truly realize his own moral worth. That there are real dangers means that real virtues can be developed. Remember, in the "safe-haven" world, there are no dangers. Thus, no one would develop the virtue of courage, for he would never have to face a real danger from which he could be harmed. For man to develop virtue, real virtue, he must face real danger. We may have a sort of false fear on a roller-coaster and develop a pseudo courage with respect to that fear. Real courage, however, comes from facing much more than a fast roller-coaster ride. Life was not designed by God to be a "cake-walk."
Someone may reply, "But, are these real dangers really worth all the pain and suffering? Further, isn't it the case that man has done away with some of these dangers (smallpox, for example)? If man can do it, why didn't God do it in the first place? The world is better off without smallpox. Why didn't God start off the world that way?"
An answer to these questions involves introducing the notion that evolution is an integral part of the processes of the natural world. Let me define 'evolution' as "the process by which material constituents of the world organize into more complex orders." This definition is more than most scientists would wish to admit, for it contains a notion of teleology --that the world is progressing towards some end. For example, the world of biological entities probably started with very simple one-cell organisms that have over the millions of years evolved into the complex being known as Homo sapiens. For the most part, I think that the history of man is good. I do not think that this process of evolution was linear, but may have involved random or unexpected events that changed the overall course of things. Perhaps, we may have all ended up as thinking lizards had not some catastrophic event happened to the dinosaurs. And, I think that evolution will not necessarily always take a phyla-genetic direction. It may be that the next complex being will be a conscious computer or robot like Cutie.
What the hypothesis of evolution does is to emphasize the consideration that God made the components of a world to have the potential to progress towards a (good) end. Progression or evolution will require dead-ends, real obstacles, even chaos and time. The world was created perfect, but perfect as one which will become better as it emerges into more complex orders through time. This progress will necessarily involve the kinds of events that we experience in day to day existence. Put another crude way. God made the original building blocks of the world. He made them with powers which could cause them to associate or break apart (gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, thermodynamic and quanta principles, and etc.) given time. Essentially, He made the trillions of trillions of trillions of things that could over a period of time form the world as we know it. Moreover, this process is nowhere near finished. It may be that the world has a long way to go before it reaches anything approaching an orderly state of being.
What is of interest is the concept of goodness wrapped up in this concept of evolution. That a concept of goodness is involved in an evolutionary process does not mean, however, that the end result of the process must be better than the beginning trials. Only that the process of evolution involve as much possible complexity as the materials and natural forces will allow. In other words, evolution involves a good history, not necessarily a good ending. It may be that the world will go through many stages in which there are wonderful things, but may end in a cataclysmic collapse. The important factor is the goods achieved in that history, not the final end.
So, with respect to all this, God has made the best possible world. As we may see, this world retains within itself the possibility, probability and actuality of natural tragedies or evil. God is not morally responsible for these, for they are necessary to having this world at all. Let me put the explanation in other terms. Suppose you were creating a world. Suppose that you wanted as much richness and order possible in that world. But, in order to have the possibility for complex orders, you must create a world of constituents and forces which can, through time and activity, produce a myriad of possible combinations. Some of those combinations may be quite bad or disordered, producing pain and suffering in later stages of development. Nevertheless, without these stages, those stages which are good are not possibilities. So, for good things to happen in the history of this world, it looks to be the case that bad things will happen. At any rate, you are not morally responsible for the occurrence of these bad events, for your best plan of action is to produce the materials and forces that will lead to the possibility of the occurrence of great goods.
2. How God is absolved of the responsibility for moral evil.
a. Man has free-will. The answer to this problem has been around for a long time. In fact, take a look at the reading from the Book of Genesis. The answer is that God is absolved of the responsibility for moral evil for that evil is a product of the free-choice of man. God didn't do it, man did. That is, the free-will of man absolves God of responsibility of the actions done by man. Just consider. You have free-will. Suppose you freely choose to commit a crime and, in fact, you do the deed. Would it be proper for the authorities to arrest your father and hold him responsible for your action? Their argument may be something like this. "Your father brought you into the world knowing that you could do both good and evil. But, since he brought you into the world knowing that there was a very good probability that you would do evil, he is responsible for the existence of that evil which would otherwise not have occurred given your absence. Therefore, he is ultimately responsible for the evil."
Now in a peculiar sense, they are right; the evil committed by you would not have happened had your father and mother not brought you into the world. But, the mistake is to say that such causality is the proximate or direct cause of the evil you committed. The evil came from your freely chosen action. You could have done otherwise and the world would not be burdened with the harm of your action. To say that your father is responsible is to blame the wrong agent or cause. An agent who causes harm through his free-choice should be held responsible. Your father did not cause the harm by choosing to bring you into the world. You caused the harm which you could have avoided had you so chosen. Therefore, your father is not responsible. You are.
Likewise, though God creates man with free-will, though God knows that there is a good probability that wrong actions which cause harm will be freely chosen by man, He is not responsible for that harm. He is not the causal agent of the harm. Remember, it is entirely possible that every person will always, through a free-choice, choose the right action. A world of free-persons who always do the right action is clearly the world desired by God. Unfortunately, it is not this world. But, that is not God's fault. Persons who freely choose to do evil are responsible. We, like Adam and Eve, have the choice to have a moral paradise or not depending upon what we choose.
b. Is free-will worth it? A reply to the above argument may take the form, "Wait a minute. First of all, couldn't God create man who is free, but who has limited liberty? That is, man should have been created so that he would make free-choices only among right actions. Man would still be free, but would have a limited range of opportunity for realizing that free-choice; he could only choose among right actions. Secondly, is free choice worth all the suffering? Wouldn't the world be better if we didn't have free-will and there were no wrong actions committed? Isn't Heaven exactly this state of affairs? There is no crime in Heaven because God prevents persons from actualizing any wrong action or intention. Why didn't God create Heaven on earth in the first place?"
What would it be like to be a person who always did the right thing because he could only choose the right thing? First of all, one would wonder why there would be free-choice in the first place. OK, we can choose only from right actions. So what? The world may be too sugar-sweet to be able to stand it. Free-choice, for it to be meaningful, seems to involve the ability to choose and do evil. Only in that sense is it that power which makes us into persons who can be responsible for their actions. Consider. Suppose you saw me for my whole life do only right actions, even when those actions caused me much toil, trouble and hardship. You would probably say of me that, "Roberts is a morally good person, one whom we should try to be like as much as possible." Then you found out that I was a robot simply programmed to choose only right actions. Would your appraisal of my moral character be the same? No way. I shouldn't be praised for something I couldn't help but do. So, if there are free-will agents in the world who wish to be held responsible for their actions, they must be able to choose and commit evil. Now, God would hope that they wouldn't choose evil, but to make them into morally perfect robots would remove any sense of moral responsibility from the world. In a nutshell, then, something which only chose right actions would not be a person, but a robot. Robots cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, for they are programmed to do what they do.
Is free-will worth all the pain and suffering? This question is tough. Would you rather not have free-will or see your family die as a result of being gunned down in a robbery? I suspect that I would give up free-will rather than loose your family members. But, that answer presumes that they will be the same persons as they are now, which would most likely not be the case were they to be entities that didn't have free-will in the first place. The question would be, would I or could I care and love them as I do now? The answer looks to be, no. Why? Because there would be nothing to distinguish them from other things that are not moral agents. In other words, there is something so intrinsically valuable about being a person with free-will that the abundance of suffering and hardships in the world, terrible as they are, are not sufficient to justify a change of status from person to morally perfect robot. Having persons with free-will in the world is worth all the pain and suffering, though when that pain and suffering hits home, we may balk at this response.
SECTION THREE: FAITH
Let's assume that there are no arguments which successfully prove that God exists, that the problem of evil is a very serious one, that practical reasons for having a belief that God exists are not strong enough to justify having a belief that God exists, and that there is much about belief in a Christian God that is problematic. We have covered the arguments for God's existence, the problem of evil and Pascal's argument. Let me mention a few of the concerns about Christianity.
1. The Bible is full of contradictions. Take a look again at the selection from the Book of Genesis. There are some problems just with that small selection which are the subjects of great debate. For example, should the Bible be taken literally? If it is, then there are conflicting renditions of the creation of Adam and Eve. One account has them created at the same time. Another has Eve created later and from a part of Adam. Both can't be right if there is a literal interpretation. Or, when Cain is banished, he goes away to the land of Nod where he marries. Who is this woman that he marries? As far as been revealed, Cain, Able, Adam and Eve are the only existing humans around. Back to the Garden. If God is all-knowing, why does He ask where Adam and Eve are after they have hidden form Him? There are some far more serious problems about whether or not Adam and Eve can be held morally responsible for their decisions to eat of the tree of knowledge, but I'll leave it to you to ferret them out. (Here's a hint. How did the serpent get into the garden to tempt Adam and Eve? How could Adam and Eve know that it was wrong to eat the fruit, since the fruit was of the knowledge of good and evil?) The point to be made is that if we take the Bible literally, then there are contradictions in it which do not make sense. And, from a contradiction, any proposition whatsoever follows. Hence, it doesn't look to be a good idea for us to take the Bible literally.
2. Is the Bible the word of God? There is a conceptual problem here. If you were trying to communicate with an ant, how would you do it? Would you use a stick to shove it in the right direction when it made the wrong turn? Would you try to speak to it through synthetic chemical traces to which it would respond by instinct? How could you lower yourself to speak its language and deal with its limited intellect? It would be tough, no doubt. The same problem applies with God's dealing with us. Obviously, His thoughts and language are radically different from ours; He knows what truly is the case about everything whereas we only have representations of reality and tentative laws about the "reality" of those experiences. So, were God to talk to us, he would have to do it in ways that we would understand, which is, primarily, to use human language. The Bible was written by human authors who received the messages from God. But, the problem is, can we trust the translators to give us true renditions of God's messages? The old "traffic accident problem" arises. Suppose there is an accident and you are the officer first on the scene. Fortunately, no one has been injured. However, upon questioning all the participants and spectators, the stories become very mixed. Some accounts of the accident agree while others are radically different. Which source(s) should you trust? You might trust the overall average account --what most persons agree upon. However, that does not ensure that the truth of the matter has been reached, for there could be reasons for a group of persons to say something even when they saw something different. Suppose the driver of one car was poor and his car a running wreck, whereas the other car was a Mercedes and belonged to a local judge. There could be some bias involved if the spectators are all poor. In a nutshell, there is no way that we can know that what is in the bible is the true word of God, for that word is already corrupted by the humans who wrote it down.
It may be that accounts of the Word of God are the way most theologians want it to come out, not only back then but presently. The Bible was written by many persons and may have undergone revisions that reworded the text into meanings far different from the original. So, the text that we read today may not resemble the Word of God, as He would have actually given it. In fact, there is a current movement to change the text to make it gender neutral. The crux of the matter is that there is no way of knowing with certainty that what the human translators put in the Bible is a correct rendition of what God had in mind for us to know. That being the case, to take the Bible literally will end us up in great controversy about its meaning.
But, that leaves us with the problem of how to interpret the Bible. Suppose you read it as a science-fiction story. Were you to do that, there would be some central and some peripheral characters. In the "Old Testament," we find stories about the origin of the world and a group of people around which many of the stories center. Basically, the stories are about the relationship of this group of people to God. In many of the stories, the relationship is not a good one. In fact, it gets so bad at one period of time that God destroys practically the entire group with a great flood. Many of the stories have a lot of science-fiction and fantasy. In Genesis, a serpent talks. There is a paradise made for man out of which he is thrown for wrong-doing. There are stories of giants, men wrestling with an angle or God Himself and winning, a woman being turned into a pillar of salt, seas parted and persons walking across that sea bottom, a man living in a whale, and much more. The underlying message of this "Old Testament" is that the world is very strange and God doesn't put up with much in the way of wrongdoing. He is very demanding of his creatures. So demanding that the picture painted of Him is not altogether flattering.
The "New Testament" is an update on the "Old Testament." Here we find that God has "beamed Himself down" and become man. In the form of man, He is able to convey much more softly how he expects persons to live together. Basically, the life of Christ is the struggle to convey this message and the reactions of persons to that message. God, in the form of Christ, loses the short-term battle against evil, but wins, we are told, in the long run. Christ is an alien goodness which transforms into the shape of a man to save the world.
Reading the Bible from this perspective of science-fiction gives us a perspective of what we may want to think about the Bible. Fundamentally, it is man's coming to account for his existence and behavior, and the struggle of the forces of good and evil in the world. Man needs the help of God to have a good world. Without that help, he will probably succumb to the forces of evil and the world will be unlivable. Much of this theme is picked up in the Star Wars and Star Trek literature and movies. We should not be surprised to see persons turning more and more to those stories for guidance with respect to interpersonal relations and a duty to be a force of good in the world.
The gist of our finding is that we must read the Bible as stories which will give us reliable guidance for appropriate behavior and beliefs in many aspects, but not in all. For one, the science in the Bible is simply out of date. Contemporary science is much more in line with explanations of the world. It just will not do to say that the world was created in seven days and try to fit paleontology into that picture. However, though the Bible may be poor in its scientific content, there are other aspects of it from which we can gain. Those are the demands of social living, of doing the right thing and caring for others. Along these lines, much can be gained by relying on some Old Testament stories and much of the New Testament. Some of the Old Testament material emphasizes certain virtues such as loyalty (see the Book of Job). On the other hand, much of it doesn't seem to be morally consistent with our preferred moral principles. For example, in the Genesis selection, Eve seems to receive more punishment than Adam does, which is unfair. Secondly, she is arbitrarily made to be ruled by Adam, which is also unfair. Job, a very good person, is made to suffer for no truly good reason. The New Testament tries to update these inconsistencies by saying that what matters is a form of unconditional love which involves a mutual treatment of one person by another --in other words, fairness. All in all, however, the God in the Old Testament seems to be radically different from the one in the New Testament. Are the translators writing about the same God?
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