god is testing us?

I have heard many religious people claim that when bad, unfortunate, or tragic events befall us in life, it’s because god is “testing” us. Testing us how and for what reason? The religious answer: to see if we will hold on to our faith in difficult times.

For the psyche of a believer, this answer often makes a bit of sense, especially when one’s individual faith (viz. beliefs disconnected from and/or contradicted by either logic or reality) is threatened by the implication of what is happening around them. If examined critically and objectively, however, such a stated goal is completely ridiculous. Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful being need to “see what happens”? And if the canned religious response is that he doesn’t, but that the devil does, then I refer the reader to my previous post regarding the inescapable dilemma posed by positing a cosmic battle between god and satan.

The fact is that such information is completely useless and seems to be nothing more than the human projection of piety onto the idea of god. Like a figmental cult leader or dictator, god apparently wants to know just how far people will go to hold on to their loyalty toward him; how much cognitive dissonance, intellectual dishonesty, and suspension of reason it will take to drive a person from faith in him. Again, critically speaking, such an enterprise is absolutely bizarre and absurd. What possible purpose could such information serve, especially for a god? Once again, we find that god is either mentally deficient or immoral – or both.

Two classic examples of divine “testing” are found in the biblical narratives of Joseph and Job. Joseph confidently attributes all the abuse, injustice, and suffering that he experienced directly to God (Genesis 45:8), and Job’s suffering was a direct result of god’s apparent need to prove something (Job 1:8-12). In the former case, god is directly responsible while in the latter he is complicit in the destruction and torture of an admittedly righteous man; god accepting the devil’s wager is at human expense. I mean, in the story god willingly allows many human lives to be taken, just to see if Job will crack, like an experiment. That is serious. If a human being did these kinds of things, we would certainly condemn such a person as immoral, and rightfully so. Why, then, does god get a pass? Isn’t he at least as wise and as loving and as decent as we are? Or supposed to be?

In saying this, I am not railing against the presence of bad, tragedy, or negativity in the world (although I do firmly believe that moralizing natural disasters is a mistake; “evil” can only rightly apply to human actions and interactions). Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned through the course of life and the “hard knocks” we receive. In fact, the survival of a species in the world as it is (rather than how we wish it to be) depends on navigating difficulties. However, if what I experience is god “doing” something to me, my family, or my property, then in my view that is even more problematic than if perpetrated by a human being because god is supposed to be better than us. If, however, the environment in which I live presents challenges to me because I am human and because learning is a process, then no moral questions arise and “that’s life.” But if a cosmic being is barraging me directly or by proxy via the devil, then why should I maintain any devotion to him? That seems like an abusive relationship.

A similar line of reasoning is often used by religious people to defend the fact that god never just shows up to make sure people believe in him and choose the right religion, or perhaps to stop all the fighting over which religion or sect is the “true” one if they really are all just fine. Why would god keep us all in suspense? To what end? To “see” what we will choose, or to “see” if humans can figure it out from a murky set of clues? This is a sort of “Russian roulette” with religion being the gun and the bullet being eternal damnation. There is no good, beneficial, coherent, or logical reason for god to demand correct belief while not supplying the means to it.

faith claims: a war between the devil and god?

Over the years, I have found that religious people, Christians in particular, will readily and enthusiastically affirm the idea that the forces of good and evil (usually personified in “god” and “the devil,” and/or “angels” and “demons”) are locked in a constant cosmic battle with one another. Those who espouse this idea will often say that the goal and prize of such a battle is the human soul. Imagining such a battle between invisible forces is a classic religious attempt to explain the presence of evil in the world. This idea is not new, however, and represents the adoption of a central tenet of Zoroastrianism by Christianity.

My response to this contention has always been that it inevitably results in an intractable dilemma: either god is not almighty or he is immoral. The reasons for this dilemma are as follows:

If we assume that such a cosmic battle truly does take place, then we have one of two choices:

A. god is really fighting, or

B. god is merely pretending to fight.

If he is really fighting, then he cannot be almighty or all-powerful since the battle is continuous and does not always win (this, of course, is the occasion for this explanatory device in the first place). If god were all-powerful in this case, then the devil would never be able to best him, for even a single moment. For this reason, most Christians reject this option and opt to defend the second option, i.e. that god is only staging a battle at present.

If god isn’t really fighting, but only feigning a battle – allowing the devil to run amok among humanity – then he is decidedly immoral. Why immoral? Because it means that he is playing games at the expense of human suffering and loss of life.

This comes back to a common problem that keeps true believers under the sway of faith claims: getting god “off the hook.” Intellectually, most people give god a set of special privileges to act in a way that one would not tolerate from even the greatest human being. If god exists and is perfect, then he must be at least as smart as we are, at least as compassionate as we are, at least as righteous as we are. To explain away all standards of decency and wise action from god is to essentially conceive of god in the same way that members of cults view their leaders: as categorically good. Such a view of any being, real or imagined, is dangerous.