On God’s Goodness

It has often been pointed out, by myself and by other atheists, that the traditional monotheistic religions depict God as acting in shockingly violent and cruel ways on numerous occasions. Despite the texts that say this, every week millions of believers attend church where they pray prayers and sing hymns that praise God’s infinite love, benevolence, and goodness. Yet when atheists point out that religious texts and tradition attribute actions to God that seem anything but good, these same believers swiftly fall back on saying that God is infinitely above us, that his ways are not our ways, and that we human beings are in no position to stand in judgment of him because we cannot know the reasons why he does what he does.

The logical contradiction between these positions never seems to occur to them; for what is saying “God is good” if not an ethical evaluation of God? How could we possibly call him good unless we’ve judged the morality of his actions and decided that they are in accord with what we call goodness? But if we have the ability to do that, then we necessarily also have the ability to judge his actions as evil. On the other hand, if God is not within our ability to judge, then we have no right to say either that he is good or that he is evil. After all, we’re not in a position to judge! In such a case, we could only say that God is morally ambiguous, or amoral, or that we don’t know whether he is good or not. One cannot have this both ways.

If we cannot grasp God’s reasoning, if we cannot see the end toward which his actions are leading, then how do we know that that end is a good one and not an evil one? In such a scenario, we might hope that God is good, or wish that he is good, but to say that he actually is good requires knowledge which these believers have already claimed that no person has. Making the determination that someone is good requires at least some understanding of a person’s reasons, some comprehension of why a person does what they do. By their own argument, they have no such understanding.

The usual resolution to this dilemma is for the believer to claim that we have no right to judge God, but rather that he has told us that he is good and we must simply believe this by faith. But even so, the notion of “goodness” as applied to God seems to be a very different pattern of behavior than that same word as applied to humans.

The human actions usually labeled “good” include things such as showing compassion, being merciful, expressing love, easing the suffering of others, and so on. On the other hand, the actions attributed to God which believers call “good” can include: creating infectious diseases that spread indiscriminately and inflict vast amounts of pain on their victims; causing or allowing natural disasters which kill thousands of people at a stroke; standing by when people are suffering and in need without assisting, even though he could do so at no cost to himself; and sending people to an afterlife of unimaginably horrific eternal torment. When atheists point out that no human being who did any of these things would ever be called good, the usual response is simply a blanket denial that such analogies can be relevant. For instance, here’s a comment that a believer once made to me in e-mail:

I agree that for a human being to drop ‘coy hints’ of his love for another without ever actually revealing himself, would be ‘irrational.’ But that’s a human being… God is not a human being. He’s God.

According to theists like this one, the moral universe can be divided into two sets labeled “good”. One of these sets contains God, and the other set contains everything else. What’s more, the two kinds of goodness embodied by each set are completely different and incomparable. What would be good for a member of one set to do would not be good for a member of the other. Yet religious believers carelessly use the word “good” to refer to both sets in the same way, creating a misleading impression of equivalence.

Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
Atlas Shrugged: Too Much of a Good Thing
Atlas Shrugged: Horseshoe Theory
Atlas Shrugged: Full Disclosure
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.