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.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • Steve Bowen

    This sort of moral hypocrisy from believers can reach absurd levels. For example in the Sago, West Virginia mine disaster, at the time the relatives were mis-informed that 12 of the 13 miners had survived they were chanting “God is good, God is great” inside the church. Much as I feel for the losses they subsequently experienced when they found that actually their loved ones were dead, I heard no expression of the opposite opinion of God’s “goodness”.
    Mind you, many human authority figures can have interesting takes on goodness. Some parents beat their children because it’s “good for them”. Some countries bomb others because it’s “good for them”. I wonder how far you would have to look before you found religion lurking behind those attitudes.

  • Simeon Kee

    I recently had this almost whole discussion with my best friend who is a theist. His analogy to escape the obvious evilness of Yahweh in the OT – tell me about how things aren’t always wrong, like lying to your grandma to tell her that her turkey dressing is indeed good when it really is disgusting.

    I then pointed out moral actions are judged on their consequences – white lies are inconsequential while murdering innnocents always is highly and wrongly consequential. He then escaped into the same special pleading you describe in the post: “We can’t judge God” etc.

    If my friend is a good example of most believers and I think he is, we atheists can point out the inconsistencies, contradictions, etc to them all day and it doesn’t phase their belief. My friend told me so in almost the exact same words.

    It is the very defintion of delusion.

  • http://viva-freemania.blogspot.com/ Tom Freeman

    This sort of selective ‘mysterious ways’ approach can really make it hard to engage constructively with theists about issues like god’s goodness and the probelem of evil.

    The most staggering example of this I’ve seen was a couple of years back in the news. A woman and her 5-year-old daughter were driving in some remote area. Something caused the car to swerve off the road and crash. The mother died but the daughter survived with minor injuries. She was found only after several days, still trapped in the car, whereupon the girl’s aunt said: “I just thank God that some good came of this.”

    Understandably she was half grief-stricken and half desperately relieved, so one wouldn’t want to judge her too harshly on a remark like this. But the attitude it expresses only makes any sense on the grounds that you somehow disregard all the horror of this tragedy and treat the fact that it could well have been worse as a genuine plus.

    God manages to scoop up the credit for all the things that seem good (and the goodness of these things isn’t questioned), but the things that seem bad are either ignored, explained away or branded as somehow not properly understood in a way that lets us see their actual goodness).

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hear, hear.

    This particular apologetic seriously troubles me because it essentially renders the concept of good and evil meaningless. To quote myself (sorry for the self-linkage, but it really is relevant): If God behaves in ways that would be considered unspeakably cruel and brutal if any of us did it, and yet is still considered good — not just good, but the apotheosis of good — than what on Earth does it mean to be good?

    For God, or for us?

    If you’re going to say that God causes these sorts of suffering, on purpose and with the power and knowledge not to do so — if you’re going to say that he has the power to prevent or stop this suffering, and doesn’t — and you’re still going to say that he’s good, then what possible meaning does the word “good” have anymore?

    If you say that, then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other.

    Which I find very troubling indeed.

  • Paul Sheats

    I’ve been having this same debate with a theist on the Art of Smack forum. This person started a thread trying to explain why God allows suffering, along with the usual Biblical references and free-will excuses. When I called him on the logical fallacies of his arguments, his response was, “If you are looking for the solution to the problem of evil, I am not the guy for you, nor is any other theologian that I know.” I pointed out that his thread was, in fact, the Christian “solution” to the problem of evil. I further went on to explain that I wasn’t looking for any “solution” because there is no solution. It’s absolutely amazing that people like this will abandon all logic and reasoning when it comes to their own religious beliefs, yet at the same time attempt to logically pick apart someone else’s beliefs.

  • ex machina

    I think the labeling of God’s morally vacillating behavior as good, paves the way for humans to behave in the same way. Many Christians would love to see violence done on many groups of people: non-believers, homosexuals, or anyone with a viewpoint contrary to theirs. Reflection would show that those actions are not “good” but these Christians would label them as such anyway. What I mean to say is that while some Christians seem to have two standards for ethical goodness (one for humans and one for God), I think many have a single standard (as if the standard applied to God leaked through onto our own human standard): goodness meaning any behavior that supports those with similar beliefs or damages those with beliefs that differ from your own.

  • Mrnaglfar

    This is totally unrelated, but I was thinking about it last night. How does religion explain the vast numbers of different religions in the world?

    Presumable, using Christianity as an example, in the case of the Garden of Eden, the first people whom everyone is descended from (incestousily at that)had direct contact with god. One would think that this information would be passed from generation to generation, the nature of god, what he wants, how many gods there are, and so on. Yet we don’t see christianity, even in it’s early forms, arising until about a few thousand years ago. What happened inbetween the time of man’s creation and the time of the beginning of that religion to allow for a gap of information? Why would other religions even exist at all, let alone such large numbers of them; did adam and eve just neglect to tell some of their children (or many of them) about their origins?

    I do hope I got that out as I have it in my head.

    As for the morality of the god of the OT, you hit the nail right on the head. He’s can’t at once be ‘good’ (a judgement of him) and ‘beyond our understanding’ (unable to judge him). But then again, religions have always been uncomfortable with logic, so I’m sure that impossibility can be safely ignored with a simple ‘god has a plan – it might not seem good now but it will be, and as always, I’m basing this on absolutely nothing’.

  • Polly

    It’s the ultimate extreme in moral relativism. The “good” is whatever god wants to happen, whenever he wants it to, wherever he wants it, and for only as long as he wants it, after that it becomes bad.

    It’s like playing checkers with a spoiled 4 year old; he just makes up the rules as he goes along to whatever makes him happy.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hi Mrnaglfar:

    It sounds like you’re thinking along similar lines as EbonMuse did in his essay _The argument from locality_.

    Getting back to God’s ‘goodness. There is a short story _The Problem of Pain_ by Poul Anderson which is very relevant. Some humans & some members of an ET intelligent species the Ythri are on a joint expedition to a new planet, when an accident occurs than kills some of the members of the expedition & this leads to one of the humans, a devout Christian, to learning about the Ythrian conception of God. Not God the father or God the shepherd*, but God the Hunter, who rejoices in seeing his creatures joy, but in the end hunts us all down.

    *BTW have you ever noticed how different those 2 metaphors are? A father raises his children to become his equals, a shepherd raises his sheep for wool & meat.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Damn, it’s a bummer to be in line behind y’all. Between Greta, Polly, and Ex Machina, all of my points have been given voice but one: logically speaking, Christians can have an omnimax god, or they can have a good god, but given the existence of evil, they cannot have both…unless they demand that humans restrict their moral judgements to each other. They go further than that: they demand that no human has the right to judge at all. They demand that we forgo that which most makes us human.

    One more reason to reject religion.

  • Brock

    One more point that deserves to be reiterated, which Plato was the first to bring up. Is God good in relation to an absolute standard of Good, or is good what God decrees it is? If the first, then there is Something higher than God, if the second, than the concept is entirely arbitrary, and all the horrific actions of God are automatically good because they are in accord, not with his will, but his whim.

  • http://infidel753.blogspot.com Infidel753

    It looks like one of those Star Trek Mirror Universe type deals. The “goodness” of God is identical to that which, in our universe, is called “evil”.

    Remember, the suffering of others is “good” — from the viewpoint of a sadist.

  • http://interhuss.com Intergalactic Hussy

    Excellent post! I never got that. I never understood why so many thank their god for good but never say “F U” for the bad. You bring up an excellent point that I never thought of in that way.

    “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!”

    So, if we can never understand god or god’s motives and are in no place to judge (as theists always say) then how could god be anything to us? Then god is not great, after all! “God” just is: amoral, asexual, a-everything… Hmmm, does that make god an atheist? Hah!

  • Mac

    Something should be remembered as well, is that most apologists take the view that God “owns” us. ie He created us and can hence set any arbitrary standard he likes and we are indebted to call it “good”. I think it is assumed he has our best interests at heart – but ultimately even if that may not be the case, since they believe he created us he’s already shown to care for us.
    This then becomes something quite distinct from comparing God to an independent standard as “good” is simply defined as obeying God, evil is turning against him. God is good – is a relatively meaningless statement more designed to show fealty in this case.

    Personally I agree with most of the arguments laid out by Ebon and others – our standards of moral right are not based on biblical principles (even the apologist will not claim the Old Testament events were good – instead they defend them via other means), so the question becomes “where did our morals come from?”

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I have been reading Rodney Stark’s latest book Discovering God, and the line of argument he uses is something called “Divine Accomodation”, which means that “God reveals himself to humans according to their capacity to understand.” So, Stark asserts, revelations received by people thousands of years ago seem absurd to us today, but they were not absurd to people who received them at the time. This “baby talk” as he calls it, is analogous to teaching a 5 year old to memorize numbers, then teaching him addition, subtraction and so on instead of teaching him calculus right away. My response to that is that a god powerful and intelligent enough to create the universe should have had no problem creating humans with the capacity to understand advanced concepts in the first generation.

  • TEP

    The way that many Christians can defend the antics of Yahweh makes me wonder how they can criticise people like Saddam Hussein and still keep a straight face. How can they possibly know that Saddam was nasty? They don’t know what was going on in his head – how do they know that Saddam’s apparrently evil acts weren’t simply part of some grand plan by Saddam to bring about a greater good? Saddam’s actions might seem evil to us, but his motives are beyond our comprehension, and who are we to question the morality of what he did?

  • terrence

    You can take two approaches. One, start with the premise of an all-powerful, all-loving deity. Then, disregarding all the bad stuff humans do via their “free will,” just take a look at the workings of the natural world of which you are a part (look up E.T. Babinski’s excellent “Why We Believe in a Designer”). Now, tie yourselves all up in knots with one theodicy after another that never satisfies.

    Or, you can “start at the other end.” Take a look at the natural world around you, something we CAN see and CAN evaluate, and ask, “Does this state of affairs imply an all-loving, all-good deity?”

    Problem of evil solved?

  • http://panicon4july.blogspot.com/ Will E.

    Why should God be “good”? Why could he not be “evil,” since so much of what we see in the natural world is indeed cruel and painful? The fact that we assume God to be good implies to me that yes, we have an innate & evolved understanding and appreciation of “good” without any recourse to the supernatural, or some kind of “top-down” morality. God has not taught humans to be good; it is the other way ’round.

  • http://viva-freemania.blogspot.com/ Tom Freeman

    Given Will E’s comment, I’m reminded of a marvellous semi-spoof dialogue by Stephen Law, set on a world with a somewhat different conception of god:

    BOOBLEFRIP: It’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you! Witness the horrendous suffering he inflicts upon us. The floods. The ethquakes. Cancer. The vile, rotting stench of God’s creation is overwhelming!

    GIZIMOTH: Yes, our creator may do some evil. But it’s not clear he’s all-evil, is it? It’s certainly not obvious that his wickedness is infinite, that his malice and cruelty know no bounds. You’re deliberately ignoring a famous argument against the existence of God – the problem of good.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “This is totally unrelated, but I was thinking about it last night. How does religion explain the vast numbers of different religions in the world?” — Mrnaglfar

    Mr. N –

    Thanks for one helluva a question. When to Mormon missionaries stopped in last night to visit my neighbor [who was absent], I took the moment to ask them this question. The question, the answers it elicited and the respectful nature of our exchange led to about an hour-long conersation which was educational to me, for I’ve been little exposed to Mormonism. Thanks much for the seed to a useful harvest.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    That would be “two” Mormons, not “to”. Hmph.

  • Steve

    I think the whole “God is good” thing was more consistent before the universalization of the Abrahamic religions. God did horrific things, this is true, but it was (most of the time) beneficial to the Israelites. Thus, his actions were “good” because they benefited the authors of the Bible. When his actions hurt the Israelites, it was a deserved punishment for “wrongdoing” and, thus, still “good.”

    Now that religions try to pawn off their God as loving all people, it is, as you so eloquently stated, simply absurd.

    Great post, as always!

  • timtam

    It’s possible that they aren’t making an ethical evaulation on God at all!

    The actual thought process goes something like (logical thinking not required):
    “God is infinitely above me, so I cannot judge him.”
    “God tells the truth because He says His word is true!”
    “God says He is good.”
    “Therefore, God is good!”

    See, there can be no moral judgement on God’s “good-ness”. All you need is gullibi… blind belie… faith, I meant faith.

  • Harvard

    Hello Terrence !
    —-You said, “Take a look at the natural world around you, something we CAN see and CAN evaluate, and ask, “Does this state of affairs imply an all-loving, all-good deity?”—-
    I’m not sure what your point is.
    I look around at the people and animals and see murder, mayhem, predation, and gruesome death.
    I look at nature and see hurricanes and tornadoes killing innocent people, destroying their homes, causing more mayhem.
    I look at germs and viruses to see their deadly effect on humans.
    Does this state of affairs imply an all-loving deity?
    I can see no other answer but NO.
    Do you agree?-