Robin: Look, I get it, Jaime. As an atheist, you think that God’s wisdom is foolishness, that God’s righteousness is wickedness, and that the bloody death of Jesus on the cross is hateful and ugly rather than the epitome of love and beauty that Christians like I think it is. The Bible makes it very clear that the world simply cannot understand the way of the cross; those paradoxical ways that God uses the small to humble the great, makes the poor spiritually richer than the wealthy, chooses a finite fleshly body to manifest his spiritual limitlessness, and makes a symbol of death and isolation like the cross into the most transformative symbol of love and solidarity the world has ever known. God’s ways are just beyond ours and we cannot judge them by the world’s paltry standards of goodness, beauty, or truth. The difference between you and me is that I accept that there are some things just beyond all human understanding whereas you demand that everything make sense to human reason.
Jaime: I know you think all these supposed paradoxes make you sound deep and thoughtful and humble, but they don’t. My criticism of the evil in the Bible has nothing to do with some shallow inability to see how the materially poor could sometimes have more meaning in their lives than the rich, or how the formally uneducated might sometimes be wiser in important ways than some Ivy League alumni. Such banal paeans to peons could be made as easily by secular humanists as by Christians. They require no unique revelation from your god. My case that the god in the Bible inverts good and evil is based on the alleged genocides, slavery, misogyny, homophobia, racism, exclusivism and other nastily barbaric institutions and characteristics attributed to him right there in your Bible itself. There’s nothing sublimely beautiful and “beyond human understanding” about any of these things. If a modern day person tried to sell me on the idea that a god had told him to commit genocide, enslave people, and to force women to marry their rapists, and told me that I had to simply accept the goodness of all these apparent evils on faith that his god’s knowledge of goodness was simply beyond mine, then I would judge him to be both wicked and deluded to inordinately dangerous degrees.
Robin: You have an awful lot of faith in your feelings about Good and Evil, such that you think you can judge even God according to your standards of Good and Evil. But you have no basis to believe in Good or Evil if you don’t believe in God. So you’re just arguing incoherently. If there is no God, then there is no such thing as true Goodness or true Evil. There are just accidental states of affairs and subjective human preferences for some of those states of affairs and aversions to other states of affairs. And these preferences and aversions not only vary person to person but can be exactly opposite of each other from person to person. So one person calls a preferred state of affairs “good” and another, repelled by that very same thing, calls it “evil”—and vice versa with some alternative state of affairs. With no moral law giver there is no absolute basis to say anything really is good or really is evil. So when you try to judge God using these absolutes, you assume a moral law which requires God to give it in the first place. So you can only judge God immoral if you implicitly assume God exists in the first place!
Jaime: No, that’s absurd. But before I get into why, let me quickly note that even were you right and only God could create good and evil, it is still possible that God could be evil as it is clearly possible for any lawmaker to violate his or her own laws.
Robin: It wouldn’t be evil for God to not subject Himself to the laws He gives us any more than it would be evil for a pair of parents not to go to bed at 8pm just because they make a rule for their young children that they must go to bed so early for their own good. And if moral law derives only from the will of God, then that will cannot itself be immoral when it makes exceptions for itself.
Jaime: Oh, I see, genocide and slavery, et al. are only immoral for us but for God they’re totally cool because He’s—what? More mature than we are? Or just more powerful and, as such, entitled to abuse people at will with full moral authority?
Robin: But God does not abuse people. He is a God of love.
Jaime: Did someone rip the entire Old Testament and half the New out of your Bible?
Robin: No, God was working with imperfect people. The immoral things they did were not things he commanded.
Jaime: Yes, they were! He explicitly commands the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, and animal, and goes out of His way to punish them when they do not! And the Deuteronomical and Levitical law codes are brutal. Your alleged god orders the stoning of disobedient children and gays and people who do as little as pick up sticks on a Saturday!
Robin: Look, these were already barbaric ancient peoples, God was civilizing them one step at a time. The Old Testament laws were comparatively more humane than others from the same time.
Jaime: I’m sure ordering these people to keep slaves and commit genocide in more “godly” ways than their neighbors did had a “comparatively civilizing” effect that made them relative models of humaneness. But how is this the evidence of a God who establishes an absolute Good and Evil? Can I be like your god and use this “absolute” Good and Evil to command genocides as long as they’re slightly less barbaric than Stalin’s or Mao’s?
Robin: Trying to outdo those models of consistent atheist morality, are you?
Jaime: There is nothing “consistent” about the moralities of Mao or Stalin and nothing about atheism that either logically or practically necessitates their violence and authoritarianism. It is your conception of goodness—which has it as a matter of assertion of raw might—that would justify their oppressiveness, not my conception of goodness as intrinsic.
Robin: I don’t believe any humans have the right to impose tyrannies!
Jaime: No—you only believe the entire universe is one big cosmic tyranny and that it rightly is one.
Robin: No, it’s not a cosmic tyranny. God is a legitimate authority, who rules benevolently through love and justice. Dictators usurp power and set themselves up as gods. That’s the antithesis of God’s authority. It is the hubris of willful humanity at its apex!
Jaime: Right, when humans commit genocides and enslave people it’s ghastly hubris—unless they did it several thousand years ago and claimed a perfect being made them do it. In which case it is totally copacetic. Godly even! And the alleged god behind their violence is a paragon of moral virtue.
Robin: Again with the bold moral judgments from someone who has no basis for believing in Good and Evil at all.
Jaime: Look, either goodness is a concept knowable a priori, by reason alone or not only can’t I know good from evil but neither can you.
Robin: What do you mean?
Jaime: When you make claims about what does or does not allow for the creation of morality, you implicitly rely on beliefs about what makes a norm authoritative or not. You seem, for example, not to think that human feelings which differ from person to person are sufficient for creating a genuine moral norm. You seem also to think that there are some criteria which you think the god you believe in adequately satisfies to give him the rights to legislate legitimately where mere human dictators may not. Now, you might claim that your god specially revealed to you the ability to discern the conditions by which his true authority could be validated—in which case it is humorous that you keep trying to convince me with reasons that your views are sounder than mine and trying to get me to understand rationally why your god has legitimate moral authority. Or you think that investigating the intrinsic and rationally knowable nature of moral authority itself leads you to your belief in a god who is a legitimate source of moral norms.
But if you believe you can rationally assess, and rationally prove to me, the ontological necessity and moral legitimacy of your morality-giving god, then apparently you think you know the essence of morality and of moral legitimacy on rational grounds that could be communicated even to a non-believer like me. And if that is the case then apparently morality and moral legitimacy are not only graspable a priori but they are more fundamentally real and knowable than your god since your god is subject to, and could only theoretically gain legitimacy from, a moral order that is both more basic to reality and a more fundamentally understandable reality than he is. So, if we need to understand moral categories in order to infer your god’s existence and to legitimate claims that your god is morally good and authoritative, then apparently we must know these moral categories logically prior to any beliefs or lack of beliefs in gods.
In this case, I would necessarily be able to intuit these moral categories as an atheist, without any need for learning of the existence or dictates of your god. This means I do not need to believe in your god either to understand or accept the legitimacy of morality. In fact, since grasping and applying moral categories is the prerequisite for determining whether your god is moral or immoral—independently of his arbitrary, self-serving alleged claims about himself—I am perfectly in a position to judge that he is in fact disproven as a candidate for existence. Yahweh cannot both exist and behave as described in the Bible and be perfectly good, given the wickedness he is purported to have carried out and commanded throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
Robin: But you can’t know any such essential moral truths. It’s not that you can know moral good from evil and then either infer God must exist to make them possible or assess that God is good or bad by moral standards. Rather, discovering and understanding Goodness is identical with discovering and understanding God since God is Goodness. It is because of this that only the believer in the one true, perfectly good God adequately understands Goodness.
Jaime: Ah, and so those of us who think genocide is evil and that it has nothing to do with goodness just don’t really understand goodness. Only if we add an entirely superfluous concept to goodness—that it is a personal being—and then add an entirely contradictory concept to goodness—that this personal being of goodness itself commands evil actions like genocide—can we finally understand what goodness itself really is. The normal human a priori grasp of goodness is inadequate for this task.
Robin: If we start with your atheistic, non-believing perspective all we can say is that the allegedly “a priori grasp of goodness” made by ordinary humans is just a confusion and an error. It’s just a projection of feelings of preference for some things that treats those things as though they have an intrinsic quality of “goodness” when they really don’t. Only if we intuit that there is an absolute lawgiver who creates things to be intrinsically good can they have a real intrinsic goodness which can be thought about in some correct a priori way and not be just a mistaken trick of the mind whereby a reification of our feelings is confused for an intrinsic property.
Jaime: But you still need to know then that a god has the moral authority to make things good and bad by an act of will. In that case you need to already know that an adequately deputized being has such moral legitimacy.
Robin: No, all I need to know is that an omnipotent creator can create things with intrinsic properties. I don’t have to know that any moral absolutes preexist the creation of the moral properties. God does not create moral absolutes because He has prior absolute moral authority. God creates moral absolutes because He creates everything, including moral absolutes and (with them) the whole idea of moral authority itself.
Jaime: Then that contradicts what you said before when you claimed that your god is goodness. Goodness would be just a property your god creates but not a part of your god itself. Your god would be beyond good and evil the way it is beyond being any other specific created thing or kind of thing and beyond having any of the properties which it arbitrarily creates after existing itself.
Robin: Yes, God is completely unlimited by any of the properties of His creation.
Jaime: Including good and evil then.
Robin: Well, yes, I guess. God could not be involuntarily bound by anything. But God would be perfect and so He would voluntarily be good anyway even though He does not have to be.
Jaime: Except when he isn’t good at all—like in the Old Testament.
Robin: In the long run God can bring good even out of evil, His ways are mysterious.
Jaime: And God, being beyond good and evil, can reverse the properties of good and evil radically, on a whim.
Robin: Yes. I mean, I guess.
Jaime: So then there is no absolute Good and Evil, after all, on your view since your god can reverse the properties at any time. So, how is that a basis for belief in a true and absolute morality?
Robin: Well, He could—but he wouldn’t any more than he would switch the essence of being a dog with the essence of being a cat even though He could do that too.
Jaime: How does it make any sense that the essence of dogs could become the essence of cats or vice versa? If a dog changed its features and the DNA which causes them, that’s not a dog taking on a cat essence, it’s a dog being replaced by a cat! The kinds of beings are still totally distinct. Properties cannot be made into their opposites in any rationally coherent way.
Robin: But God cannot be constrained. He must be able to do even what we think is impossible.
Jaime: If that’s so then the existence of such a being makes all human reasoning impossible since there are no essences that God cannot be surreptitiously flipping around and make into their opposites at any time by arbitrary, unannounced, and unrevealed whim.
Robin: But God wouldn’t do that.
Jaime: But how do you know that?
Robin: Because He’s perfectly good and not capricious! He does not just reverse good and evil like that!
Jaime: Except for when he told his “original” chosen people to commit genocide and keep slaves but started telling his modern ones that those things are evil?
Robin: He loves us, He wouldn’t deceive us.
Jaime: But he could and in principle is unconstrained by morality, since it is his invention and not something that he is subject to in any binding way. By your own logic, he created it and can dismiss it whenever he wishes. He can be systematically deceiving us all and having a good laugh at Christians like you who simultaneously believe in, first, his supremely malignant Old Testament deeds, second, his absolute independence of morality as its total creator, and thirdly and most hilariously naïvely, his “perfect moral goodness”. He might just be the most mischievously wicked tyrant of all time. Maximum evil with maximum praise for his “goodness”. I admit, this is a much more plausible prospect for a real god given the world we live in!
Robin: No, God cannot be malicious. If His nature creates the kind of goodness it does—the kind we find in the world, then this goodness must be a true and necessary expression of God’s own nature. And therefore God must be inclined to do only what that same goodness requires.
Jaime: So then God can only be identical with the goodness we can intuit in nature and any alleged evil actions must not be attributable to God?
Jaime: Then we can prove the god of the Bible is false, a fictional character and not the real god, by pointing out all his wicked deeds unbecoming the god whose goodness we can understand a priori.
Robin: Are you seriously claiming there is a God now—just to try to refute the belief in the Christian God? Is your atheism really just anti-Christianity? You’ll believe anything if it leads to the Christian God being false?
Jaime: No, I just think Goodness is a basic, a priori discoverable feature of the world. If you want to rename it “God”, then be my guest—as long as you don’t ridiculously claim it is a personal being with a Son, a thing for the smell of blood sacrifices, and a creepily excessive interest in consensual adults’ sex lives.
Robin: But again, if there is no personal God, then there is no true goodness or true evil, just human feelings!
Jaime: No, if there is your imagined highly willful personal god, then morality and goodness are just subject to arbitrary assignations of properties by that being. But if we do not confuse ourselves by invoking your metaphysically and scientifically baseless being, we can rather look for goodness right here in the natural world as one of its intrinsic discoverable features.
Robin: But how? How can you say anything is truly good and not be simply be saying you merely like that thing?
Jaime: Goodness is a matter of effectiveness relationships in the natural world. When I say that vegetables are good for me, I do not mean that they have an arbitrarily assigned property granted to them by an invisible supernatural super-being that makes the statement true independent of empirically and a priori analyzable real world functions. Instead, I mean simply they are good at effectively keeping me alive. And this effectiveness is wholly independent of my feelings too. Personally I hate vegetables, but they are good for me. I don’t even feel any special love for this fact that they are good for me—I rather begrudge it, truth be told! But it’s just true. And unless a god changed their effectiveness potentials to harm me in objective ways, no simple ascription of “properties of badness” by any god would make them bad for me.
Robin: What if it is God who set up those effectiveness relationships in the first place? Then God is the one who gives them those properties of effectiveness that makes them objective. And then, again, God is the source of goodness.
Jaime: If that is all you mean when you say that your god creates goodness, then we can dispense with worrying about whether or not he exists altogether and can certainly ignore your holy books. We certainly don’t need him or Christian churches for knowledge of goodness or morality.
Robin: You would need him to create goodness itself so there could be morality at all!
Jaime: No, because the objective effectiveness relationships would exist and be subject to rational investigation independent of any reference to the being that set up such relationships. Such relationships need no such intelligent design to come about or to be maintained and there is no evidence of such a creator behind them. They just are. And even were they set up by some super-mind in the first place, as long as they are rationally investigatable (as they are) then that is our best route to truth about them. The arbitrary (and often wildly wrong) hunches and fantasies of ancient nomads and modern egomaniacs who are bad at statistics provide no extra help in figuring out the differences between good and bad or right and wrong. Frankly, they can only be expected to hinder any progress on this score.
This debate was a continuation of the one begun in the post Hell As An Absence of God.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.