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By David Madison, 03/10/2023
The vulnerability of god is the biggest mystery
In a few of my article here I have mentioned one of the worst mind games ever used to defend god. A few days after the 2012 murder of 20 children at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, a devout woman was sure it had happened because “God must have wanted more angels.” Clergy and theologians know better than to say anything so blatantly grotesque, yet they feel the same obligation to get god off the hook. Why is there is so much suffering, cruelty, agony on a planet supposedly under the care of an omni-god: all good, all wise, all powerful? “This is my father’s world”—so they say. Our awareness of the everyday reality disconfirms this suggestion—at least it disconfirms the idea that a caring father-god is paying attention.
Professional theologians work hard at devising excuses to explain the obvious absence of god, and secular authors come right back at them to puncture their arguments. In John Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and
Horrendous Suffering, there are two essays that describe some of these efforts, David Kyle Johnson’s “Refuting Skeptical Theism,” and Robert M. Price’s “Theodicy: The Idiocy.”
At first glance, skeptical theism might sound like a step in the right direction. Johnson points out that we may be tempted to assume that it means believers edging toward agnosticism, or those who “barely believe.” But No, skeptical theism is a clumsy attempt to rule out evil and suffering as a reason for denying that a good god is in charge. Johnson sums it up this way:
“The problem of evil suggests that the seemingly unjustified (i.e., senseless or gratuitous) evils that exist in the world serve as evidence against god’s existence. But since god is so much ‘bigger’ than us—more wise and powerful and perfect—he could have reasons for allowing such evils that we simply cannot see or comprehend. Consequently, no evil, no matter how gratuitous it seems, can serve as evidence against god’s existence.
“In other words, because we should be skeptical of our ability to fathom god’s reasoning (hence ‘skeptical theism’), the problem of suffering is no problem at all. For all we know, god has a reason to allow evil, and thus the existence of evil cannot bolster the atheist’s argument” (p. 212).
So the skeptical theist argues that we should be skeptical about our knowledge of god, who is assumed to be “more wise and powerful and perfect” than we are. But this is tiresome theobabble: theological assumptions—actually guesswork—the product of speculation for thousands of years, based on no hard data whatever.
Among devout believers there is a tendency to embrace possibilities instead of probabilities. Especially when they’re trying to defend miracles: because their god has such extraordinary power, it has to be possible that the many divine wonders reported in the Bible actually happened, whether it’s Jesus turning water into wine, or feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes. But what is more probable? That such things actually happened, or that such stories derive from magical folklore of the ancient world—about which most laypeople seem to be unaware? If critical thinking skills are locked in neutral, of course it’s easy to take these things on faith—as devout have been trained to do since childhood. But the laws of probability don’t go away. Johnson devotes six pages to a section of the essay titled, “Skeptical Theism Is Logically and Mathematically Invalid.” There you will find what he identifies as a Simple Version of the math, then the Bayesian Version.
The math may be daunting for many people, but the facts of evil should be even more daunting. But I suspect that the full scale of evil falls outside the horizon of awareness of most humans—except for evils that affect them directly.
A careful study of history can be a cure for lack of awareness.
The current issue of BBC History Magazine (Vol. 24, No. 2) includes an article by John Bulgin, titled, “How the Holocaust Began,” pp. 46-51. We read this:
“Within a matter of weeks, the targets of this mass murderer moved from military-aged men to include women, children, and the elderly. Children were spared none of the horror. Mothers were required to hold babies in their arms as both were shot, sometimes with the same bullet.
“By the end of September 1941 the massacres reached an appalling
apex at Babyn Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Over the course of two days, the Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators murdered more than 33,000 people in a single Aktion. Each consecutive group was marched to the murder site and forced to lie on top of the still-warm bodies of those who had just been killed before they were shot themselves” (p. 50).
Bulgin notes that “Senior Nazis became concerned about the emotional burden the killings were placing on their own men” (p. 50).
Clergy and theologians also are aware of the emotional burden on believers that acute awareness of evil and suffering would bring. So this becomes the strategy: divert attention, obfuscate, come up with shallow excuses that might convince those who have already been deceived by doctrine. John Bulgin has pointed out that more than 33,000 people were murdered in two days at a ravine on Ukraine. “Oh, but god must have had some greater good in mind—he’s much wiser than we are—so hold onto your faith no matter what!”
This provokes utter confusion, not clarity, however, as Johnson explains:
“…because people everywhere profess to have moral knowledge—to know that some things are morally good and others are morally bad. Indeed, if I can’t know that the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust was a morally bad thing, what can I know? If I can’t lament the 2004 Indian Tsunami which killed an estimated 230,000 people in one day (because, for all I know, somehow it inexplicably prevented even more deaths), then I can lament nothing. In short, my objection here goes like this: 1. If the argument of the skeptical theist is sound, then moral knowledge is impossible. 2. Moral knowledge is possible. 3. Thus skeptical theism is not sound” (p. 222).
Skeptical theism is based on deity inflation: god is so much bigger, better, wiser than we are—his ways, his ultimate goals, are beyond our understanding (but again, please show us the data to justify this claim).
Johnson drives home the point:
“If…god has different moral standards that make him conclude that genocide, burned fawns, and raped children are acceptable, our terms ‘loving’ and ‘moral good’ cannot apply to him—at all! Indeed, it would seem that the only words that would apply are those like ‘deplorable’” (p. 224).
“If god really is too big to understand—so big that we cannot even know whether he condemns child rape—then we really should profess to know nothing about him at all, including whether he exists” (p. 228).
“…the skeptical theist would not only have to admit that moral knowledge is impossible, but also that skeptical theism is hypocritical, irrationally unfalsifiable, and entails (at best) religious agnosticism and (at worst) global skepticism” (p. 229).
To even try to make a case that 33,000 people murdered by Nazis in two days can’t be called evil, because a god will see to it that a greater good will eventually emerge, is a foul mind game; it is just as grotesque as “God must have wanted more angels.”
It was a smart move by the editor of the anthology to place Robert Price’s essay, “Theodicy: The Idiocy” right after the Johnson essay. It’s an additional slam-dunk—in just ten pages. Price notes that theodicy was Gottfried Leibniz’s word (coined in 1710) to describe the attempt to “vindicate God’s supposed goodness in spite of all appearances.” Price says that “the real game is to protect one’s faith in God at all costs, and that cost is great indeed” (p. 233).
Theologians are up against the wild incoherence in Christian belief, and so many incriminating Bible stories. Price includes unanswered prayer in his discussion, since Jesus-script in Mark 11:24 presents a major challenge: does god keep his word? “I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and you will.” Don’t we hit a brick wall here in protecting faith? How can this not be awkward for sincerely devout folks? Price refers to it as “… a peculiar condition of having to deal with the failure of expected divine intervention. Why has not God blessed me as I asked? Did not Jesus promise that he would? You see, here we have an unstable combination of magic and religion” (p. 235). Oh, that the devout could see to what a sweeping extent their beliefs derive from ancient magic, e.g. eat this, drink that (the eucharist) to get right with god—these are magic potions. How could a good, wise god have invented or approved of such superstitions?
The apostle Paul was a master of bad theology, and Price calls attention to that. The Old Testament vividly depicts the wrath of god on those who disobey his laws. Paul savored the wrath of his god (I Corinthians 10:6-11):
“Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did, as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not engage in sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Paul was a master at mind games: if you put Christ to the test, you might get destroyed by serpents; shape up, maintain your personal purity—by no means should you eat, drink, and rise up to play—because the “end of the age has come.” Well, No it didn’t, and theologians and clergy who aren’t looking to the sky for the kingdom to come have to invent even more mind games. How tiresome, as Price notes: “It is so very ironic that the massacre stories present a stumbling block only to biblical literalists who are stuck believing that every story in the Bible must be true. Everyone else can breathe a sigh of relief!” (p. 241)
Yes, of course, many devout Christians don’t engage their minds with such issues. As Price kindly puts it at the end of the essay, “…they are too busy attending to good humanitarian works of mercy in the name of their faith to waste time with theodicy…” (p. 243) Unfortunately the incoherence of their faith falsifies the entire belief system. In a footnote at the end of essay, John Loftus notes the challenge that Christopher Hitchens presented to believers: “…come up with one moral action they could do that nonbelievers could not also do…” (p. 243)
Loftus also points to a stark, cruel reality: “If readers want a complete picture of the deeds of Christians then seriously consider the many morally atrocious deeds their faith-based morals have caused. Christianity is red with blood in tooth and in claw. Throughout most of its history violence was its theme, its program, and its method for converting people and keeping believers in the fold. Its history is a history of violence. There is no escaping this” (p. 243).
Which begs the further question: How can all of this grievous Christian misbehavior have been tolerated by a good, powerful god? It seems especially grotesque to argue that it has all been part of this god’s bigger plan that we’re incapable of grasping.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.