the end of theism

In the early 18th century, Leibniz wrote Théodicée in response to the contentions of Pierre Bayle, a French religious skeptic who, among other things, maintained that reason ultimately led one astray and that a “proof” of the insufficiency of human reason was that compelling philosophical proofs could be offered which undermined the tenets of Christianity entirely – including the persistent presence of evil.

Bayle averred that no rational defense could be made for the existence of evil vis-à-vis a Christian conception of god. Leibniz, however, disagreed and offered a defense of god’s existence, goodness, providence, and absolute perfection despite his seeming toleration of evil. In doing so, Leibniz introduced and coined the term theodicy, which has since referred to any philosophical attempt to vindicate god qua god in relation to evil and [innocent] suffering.

I have written elsewhere regarding the origins and development of religious belief from animism to monotheism, and there I stated:

“…removing the possibility of multiple deities in conflict multiplied the already existing problems for monotheism. As we have touched on previously, a singular god is either deficient or immoral (or both).”

This, in a sense, is what I refer to as the “brick wall” of monotheism, i.e. that god cannot be either all-powerful or morally good – to maintain one, one must logically give up the other.

One common attempt to get around this logical impediment (viz. the “brick wall”) is to try and conceive of god as an impersonal force (much like gravity). However, this route presents its own philosophical problems since implicit in the identification of god with such a force is the admission that it cannot be moral (otherwise there would be no need to reduce god to a force). If god is not morally good in any sense that is relevant to humans, then he cannot represent our highest ideal(s), which necessarily negates any worship of or devotion to him. In fact, if god is neither moral nor all-powerful, and represents no human ideal, then it begs the question: “What good is god?”

Other attempts to sidestep such brutal moral atrocities as the Holocaust – or any intensely gruesome event marked by human brutality – include appeals to the divine will as “mysterious.” However, if the divine will is mysterious regarding the most violent and horrendous (i.e. the most obviously immoral) of human actions, then how are we:

(a) able to claim that we understand the divine will regarding any other act, since there seems to be no prime value to anchor a moral system based on theistic beliefs, or

(b) able to look to the divine will for moral guidance in any meaningful way? If no moral guidance may be inferred from god or a belief in his existence, then what purpose can religious belief possibly serve?

This seems to be the end of theism. Any path taken in effort to solve the logical conundrums presented by monotheism only leads to contradictions, begged questions, and conclusions which directly undermine the discussion of god in the first place.

morality without god, or testing god’s goodness

In Euthyphro, one of Plato’s Five Dialogues, Socrates presents a classic dilemma concerning the nature of morality:

“Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it considered the pious because it is loved by the gods?”

The word translated as “the pious” is the Greek phrase τὸ ὅσιον, which, despite its pagan and polytheistic etymology, may easily and properly be translated for modern discussion as “the moral.” Additionally, the number of deities is not important to either the strength or nature of the question being posed by Socrates, so it, too – again, for the sake of modern discussion – may reasonably be replaced by the singular “god.”

As such, a modern restatement of the Euthyphro Dilemma might be:

If we assume that morality is inextricably linked to the existence of god or is a result of his will as expressed in religious texts, then is moral behavior loved by god because it is moral, or is it considered moral because it is loved by god?

In other words, when someone does something that is considered morally good, how does a religionist assess why it is good? Is the action taken by said person a moral action because it is considered desirable to god? Or does god desire such action because it is morally good?

The entire dilemma is focused on whether morality is something intrinsic to a divine will or extrinsic. If it is intrinsic, as many maintain (viz. “if god commands it, then it is categorically good”), does this mean that rape, genocide, slavery, or theft can be good if it is entailed by divine will? If it is extrinsic, a position which most religionists would reject, does it not imply that what is morally good should obligate god as well? And if what is morally good for human beings does not also obligate god, then how can he be said to be categorically good?

Of course, the veracity of this dilemma has been challenged throughout history by religious philosophers and theologians alike. Most, if not all, of their arguments, however, are based on an a priori belief in god and a simultaneous imputation to him of various attributes which either excuse him from the dilemma or excuse him from acting morally from a human perspective. The existence of god on its own is an untenable proposition in the light of a proper metaphysics and epistemology, and attempts to rationally defend such a belief can be made only if both are subverted to accommodate it. In fact, such subversion stems from the medieval Christian tradition of philosophy serving as the “handmaiden” of theology (i.e. the latter is subverted for the sake of the former).

What the dilemma very strongly implies is that morality is not – and cannot – be contingent on the will or existence of god. This means that despite the faith claims of, in the words of Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “Christians and other nihilists,” it is not only possible to be moral apart from a belief in god, it is necessary to be so. The fact is, most reasonable people – even religionists – in our post-Enlightenment era regularly separate moral goodness from their belief in god, and do so almost as if from a sort of cultural instinct. Even attempts by religious believers to justify or contextualize, for example, the genocide routinely commanded by god in the Bible, is a tacit admittance that genocide is morally objectionable to the enlightened mind and its presence in the Bible is thus problematic.

I have written elsewhere about “giving god a pass” – a common (and potentially dangerous) reflex of psycho-epistemological disconnect on the part of religionists. A proper logical test for whether one should accept a particular behavior as morally good when attributed to god, is to simply replace god in the scenario with a human being. If one would not accept a given behavior or expressed moral sentiment from even the best human, then there is no basis on which to accept it from god either. Unless, of course, one is willing to admit that god is immoral (an admission that no theist can make while remaining a theist). In this way, god’s goodness may be tested for any given case and evaluated in light of ethics and moral philosophy with religious believers.

The next question is: since morality is necessarily separate from either the existence of god or religious faith, how is moral good determined or derived? And, prior to this question is: why does humanity need systems of morality or ethics in the first place? I will leave these for another time.

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.