IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > John G. Messerly > FreeThought > Philosophy
If There Are Gods, They Are Evil
John G. Messerly   Jan 28, 2015   reasonandmeaning.com  

Here is a brief summary of a piece by B.C. Johnson, “Why Doesn’t God Intervene to Prevent Evil?” It offers a devastating critique of the possibility that there is an all powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god. Are there any good excuses for someone (or a god) not saving a baby from a burning house if they had the power to do so? It will not do to say the baby will go to heaven, since one suffers by burning to death. 

The key is the suffering.  If the suffering was not necessary, then it’s wrong to allow it; if the suffering is necessary, the baby’s going to heaven doesn’t explain why it’s necessary.

It doesn’t make sense to say that a baby’s painful death will be good in the long run, and that’s why the gods allow it. For that is to say that whatever happens in the long run is good; since if something happened it was allowed by the gods, and it must therefore be good in the long run. We could test this idea by burning down buildings to kill innocent people.  If we are successful, then we know that this was part of some god’s plan. But this is absurd.  Moreover, this doesn’t show why the gods allow babies to burn to death, it merely says there is some reason for this suffering, a belief we have since we assume the gods are good. But this argument is circular; it merely assumes what it is trying to prove. (That the gods are good.) “It is not unlike a lawyer defending his client by claiming that the client is innocent and therefore the evidence against him must be misleading—that proof vindicating the defendant will be found in the long run.”

In conclusion, we simply cannot excuse a bystander who could save the child but who doesn’t.

We might say that we ought “to face disasters without assistance,” so as not to become dependent upon help. But this suggests that the work of doctors and firefighters, for example, should be abolished. But if this kind of help is good, then good gods should help like this. But they do not. If this kind of help is bad, then we ought to abolish it.

Similarly, we could say that the gods would reduce the moral urgency to make the world better if they intervened in evil. But should we abolish modern medicine and firefighting since they help people, but thereby reduce our urgency to help people? Of course not.  Moreover, this argument suggests that the gods approve “of these disasters as a means to encourage the creation of moral urgency.” 85 And if there were not sufficient baby burnings, the gods would have to bring them about. But this too is absurd. We shouldn’t create moral urgency by burning babies.

Maybe suffering is necessary for virtues like compassion, mercy, sympathy, and courage to be exercised. But even if this is true, the non-believer is simply claiming that we could do without burning babies and still have plenty of suffering to elicit these virtues. Furthermore, we value efforts to improve the world, and we don’t consider the possible reduction in opportunities to practice virtue a good reason not to improve it. If we can’t use this as an excuse not to improve the world, then neither can the gods. Developing virtue “is no excuse for permitting disasters.” The argument that the gods allow suffering to humble us is open to the preceding objections.

One could claim that evil is a by-product of the laws of nature and the gods interference would alter the casual order to our detriment. But lives could be saved if serial killers had heart attacks before committing their crimes. Such occasional miracles wouldn’t necessitate changing the laws of nature.  How often should the gods do this? Johnson says often enough to prevent particularly horrible disasters like child torture.

As for the claim that the gods have a higher morality such that what seems bad to us (child torture) is really good, and what seems good to us (modern medicine) is really bad, it is hard to make any sense of this. You could say we just don’t understand the god’s ways like children don’t understand their parent’s ways, but as adults we might conclude that some of our parent’s actions were bad.

The main reason all these arguments fail is that they are abstract. None of them really explain why all good, all powerful beings watch helpless infants burn to death, since none of the excuses such being would offer seem convincing. One could claim that the gods just can’t prevent the evil, but it is strange to believe in gods less powerful than fire departments and medical researchers.

‚ÄčAt this point one may retreat to faith, simply believing the gods are innocent, like you might believe in the innocence of your friends even if the evidence is against them. But Johnson argues that we don’t know the gods well enough to trust them like friends. In addition, we have good reason to believe the gods are not good, since in the past they have allowed so much evil.  You could still claim that you trust in the gods and nothing anyone can say will undermine your belief, “but this is just a description of how stubborn you are; it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of God’s goodness.”

Furthermore all the reasons offered as to why the world’s evil is consistent with good gods could be used to show why it’s consistent with evil gods. For example, we could say that an evil god gives us free will so we can do evil things. Or we could say that evil exists to make people cynical and bitter (instead of compassionate and courageous), or it exists so that we quite caring about others (instead of becoming morally urgent.)

In short there are 3 possibilities concerning the gods: 1) they are more likely to be all bad (a theist doesn’t want this to be true; 2) they are more likely to be all-good (but this can’t be true since any evidence for this thesis will also support #1); or 3) they are equally likely to be all-bad or all-good. But if 3 is true, then what excuses do the gods have for allowing evil? They have none. And the reason is because for any excuse for evil’s existence to be justified, it must be highly probable that the excuse is true. But note that option 3 rules this out, since according to 3 there is no more reason to think the excuse is valid than that it is not valid.

Why then don’t the gods intervene according to Johnson? Because they don’t exist.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



COMMENTS

The question of evil is one of the longest standing debates. The book of Job is a retelling of a folk tale and tries to explain evil and ends up not explaining anything at all though it rejects the most common explanations - suffering as punishment for sin, suffering as pre-emptive punishment for sin not yet committed and on and one. Oddly, the explaination for Job’s particular suffering is that God and the Adversary have a bet on whether Job will abandon God with the loss of his wealth both material and family.

The argument you pose for the idea of any existing God being bad is similar to the gnostic argument that suggests the God of physical creation is evil. In your argument you presuppose that God is able to act in the physical universe. Yet, apart from the Creation myths themselves, there is no account of God’s action that doesn’t involve a human as the being to carry the action.

Thus, God exists as a transcendant being who is unable to directly act in the world. So what good is an powerless God? Keep in mind that the central story of Christian faith is of the rejection of power. The answer is that the transcendant God calls to us to practice our power to create change for good. Kant states that a man(sic) must practice good until good is the automatic reaction. That if we must stop and think about what action is good, we will act too late.

In you scenario of the fire and the infant, the passerby who unthinkingly acts to rescue the infant shows the power of good. People who make deliberate decisions to cause harm show that not all of us practice that good.

The power of the good God then, is not in direct intervention in the physical universe, but in the relationship with a person to create a more compassionate and empathetic person. Look at studies of prayer which change the brain in that exact manner. Other ascpects of religion act similarly to evolve human consciousness toward the good by reducing self centered thinking with community thinking.

There is mounting evidence in string theory and quantum mechanics that concsiousness and the need for the universe to be observed is built in. We, as partially conscious beings become part of that observation and the choices we make lead to us building stronger connection or weaker.

OK.. I’m gonna bite here, (not sure why exactly nor for what use)?

By the same token you must therefore agree that the Universe/Cosmos is evil or moreover contains such injustice as you deem evil? When in actuality the Universe/Cosmos by its nature is merely “impartial”. One must agree and cannot attribute morality as this is an entirely irrelevant and ridiculous projection upon the Universe/Cosmos. (This is an important point because you do not hold the Universe to account for perceived injustice, merely some “persona” of God by your own measure/rules - which you use to support your argument against)?

A potential “creator” may also be “impartial”, exterior, distant, unable or unwilling to participate in applying “justice” as measurable by Human morality. Or as previously suggested, such Creator could in fact be “dead” and long gone - literally?

Now the problem is One’s definition of God, the Creator, and Creation - so yes, a God of Abrahamic Monotheism does not sound viable because of these projections of archaic morality by Humans, (and Men in particular: pertaining judgment, vengeance, retribution, and other un-Godly misinterpretation and ignorance)?

Yet if energy/matter interactions manifest as creation/destruction/transformation, (of matter), are interwoven or moreover are reliant upon consciousness - there is still argument that this “Universal” consciousness is “totally” impartial and thus merely “witness” and as impotent to any intervention - and yet moreover, if so, this Universal consciousness has also indirectly given rise to the emergence of Human minds which display evolved intelligence and perceived injustice/morality.

So although this Creation and Universal consciousness is totally impartial, we Humans are not. And by the same measure that the Universe evolved to reflect upon “itself” to ask scientific questions, it has evolved to reflect upon it’s own ontological meaning and morality?

You may be right? God does not exist, or maybe not as yet? However, now the proverbial “Cat is out of the bag”, can you now negate the notions and aspirations towards God/Gods and towards their actual evolution in the future?

Man invents God, (Super ego), > creates Man (historically) > Man aspires to God/morality > becomes God, (was already God and is inclusive as part of the “Universal” body anyhoo)?


——

As a final note, and to state my position as agnostic - the entire arguments over the existence of God, First cause and Prime mover is moot! Human minds cannot rise beyond the ocean of consciousness that all of creation is absorbed within and are a part of - there is no disconnection?

Can Humans become Gods or Posthuman? Well that may well rely upon 1. your definition of God(s) and 2. your belief and faith towards the reality of God and morality, (and the eradication of perceived evil and injustice)?

#Brahman - indescribable and all encompassing (totally impartial) “potential” and source of creation (energy/matter transformation)?

 

 

 

 

CygnusX1 the universe is. I talked about creation myths for a good reason. They are explanations that God’s people told about their place in the creation and their faith that the creating God saw creation as good. The general trend in the universe appears to be toward more complex consciousness, but chaos theory tells us that to move from one level to the next we must add a great deal of energy and see apparent chaos before the complexity and pattern of the higher energy level becomes clear.

This is talking in general. In specific cases it is impossible to determine our position because we live in the chaos. Chaos is painful. If we are to believe that the singularity will be the next level in evolution, we can expect an ever growing chaos before it resolves.

The other point is that God, transcendant, does not break the rules of the universe. Those rules are harsh. Gravity works. The complex breakdown that leads to an appartment fire is inevitable given that it happened. A killer’s heart will keep beating because that is what it does barring damage from the body or a bullet.

If there is to be an agency for good in the universe, it must be us, because at this point we don’t know of anyone else to take the job. Through relactionship, God will form us to that good and make it possible for us to be better, but God isn’t going to do the job for us. When we ask “How could God allow such evil?” we are really asking. “Are we going to allow this evil?”

As you say arguments about the existence of God are moot, but arguments that lead to the refining of ethics may be useful. Is it not useful for us to realize that we must choose the good? No one else is going to do it for us.

instamatic
I studied the scriptures carefully for a book I’m writing to determine what they tell us about rights. The only translation to mention rights is the KJV and only in reference to inheritance, the rights of woman slaves to be treated as wives, and the rights of the poor to glean the harvest.

What does come up a great deal is the expectation that we, as God’s people, have work to do. We are given stewardship of the earth, and doing a bang up job of wrecking it. We are given the care of the poor and lonely. We are doing fine at creating more of them. We are given the command to love one another, even, and perhaps especially, our enemies and those who harm us. That one isn’t even one the table.

In terms of the offering plate. There is no record of Jesus ever giving away money, I’m sure he would have, but the writers didn’t record it. That plate is for the work of the church in the community and contribution is entirely voluntary as it everything else in the church. Half of it pays my salary, not because I get half, but the number work out that way. A quarter goes to the running of the building that is used every day of the week by community groups at a low cost or free. The rest goes to mission. That is food banks, summer camps, soup kitchens, schools, hospitals, programs for peace around the world and more.

I would suggest that you know something substantial about your religion, which is different from saying that you know something substantial about all religions.

I find it interesting that the scripture you quote most often is “Do not let yourselves be deceived.” which is Paul talking to the people about false prophets. There is a methodology given to determine a true prophet from a false one. Deut. 18:22. Basically it is to see whether what they say comes to pass, or as Paul says, you will know by the fruit they produce.

The flip side of refusing to be deceived is that often one is then closed to any truth that does not agree with what one already knows.  Or to state it plainly. Many people clutch to their half-truths, rejecting lies and whole truths alike, because they can’t tell the difference.

Professor Messerly:  You have written a masterful essay here.  All your points are well articulated and reasoned.

1. Any god which exists, and which is all-knowing (or very knowing) and all-powerful (or very powerful) must be at least partly evil.  There is no excuse for not saving babies in a burning fire or for not preventing these types of incidents during a creation.

OR

2. Such gods do not exist at all.  And this is more likely.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: The End of Religion Misrecognized

Previous entry: The Invisible Man: Jeffrey Sterling, CIA Whistleblower