According to the vast majority of religious believers (though perhaps not to the tiny minority of elite theologians), God is basically in nature like a larger and more powerful human being. He has plans and desires which he takes actions to fulfill; he likes some people and things and dislikes others; he experiences emotions like anger, jealousy, love, and forgiveness; he can be persuaded to act on another’s behalf; and so on.
The most peculiar aspect of this anthropomorphic theology is its claim that God has preferences: he likes and desires certain states of affairs, while he dislikes others and desires that they not come to pass. For example, in the Old Testament, we are told that God desires animal sacrifice; the text repeatedly says that the smell of burning animal flesh is a “sweet savor” to him. Conversely, the worship of idols or gods other than himself is something he strongly dislikes, to the extent of visiting dreadful punishments on people who do it.
Christianity, too, says that God desires to forgive humanity for its sins, but also desires a blood sacrifice before he will consent to do so, thus necessitating the death of Jesus. The Christian god strongly dislikes the vice of pride, and harshly punishes those who seek to attain equality with him. In Islam, God desires that human beings worship him alone, rejecting belief in any partners; and in the nastier strains of Islam, we’re told that God desires glorious martyrdom in battle and will reward anyone who does so with eternal glory.
The belief that God wants and desires certain things is a common thread in monotheism. But when you think about it, this is a profoundly strange belief. Most theists don’t recognize this, but that’s because the analogy between God and human beings masks the strangeness of it.
After all, we all understand how, and why, human beings come to hold certain desires. We have instinctual physiological drives, installed in us by evolution, for basic things like food, sex and companionship. We have more complex desires as a result of culture, upbringing and past experience for things that we think will add to our happiness or help fulfill the more basic desires. Every one of us has gone through a long, complex and contingent process of development that shaped our likes and dislikes.
But God, so we’re told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit – no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make human nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes? He did not undergo the process by which human beings acquire their preferences, so where does he get them from? Why does he prefer things one way and not another?
Some believers may find this question difficult to comprehend, so as an imagination-stretching exercise, allow me to propose a variety of different preference sets which it seems, a priori, that God could have had. I invite theists to consider these possibilities, and to ask themselves: why is it that God is this way and not one of those ways?
• Self-Sufficient God. This deity knows himself to possess all perfections and sees no reason to create any inferior sentient beings. Therefore, he sits alone in the void for all eternity, contemplating his own perfection, and never creates a world separate from himself.
• Sadistic God. His greatest desire is to see maximal human pain and suffering. He desires no worship, offers no opportunity for salvation, and answers no prayer, but deliberately creates a world as hellish as possible and peoples it with sentient beings just so that he can watch them suffer for all eternity.
• Moral Relativist God. He creates a world and peoples it with sentient beings, but has no motivation to care about what they do to each other, any more than a person who owns an ant farm would care about the morality of the ants. He gives no commandments and sets no rules, but watches us for his own entertainment, regarding both great acts of good and terrible acts of evil with the same bemused detachment.
• Recluse God. His greatest desire is to be left alone. Prayers, acts of devotion and other worship just annoy him, and he has an afterlife of punishment set aside for those devout people who constantly bother him. The people whom he’ll reward are the atheists, because at least they let him get some peace and quiet.
• Prankster God. His greatest desire is to do the opposite of what we expect (he finds it hilarious). Whenever people pray for something, he does the opposite. When people seek him, he hides from them; when people ignore him, he reveals himself to them. The people who are most certain they’re saved, he’ll doom to an afterlife of punishment, and people who don’t believe in an afterlife will be admitted to a blissful heavenly realm. He’s constantly leaving misleading clues and sending incompatible revelations to the world, just to keep us further confused.
Granted, some of these hypothetical gods sound bizarre. But how are they any more bizarre than a god who prefers one particular race of people above all others, or a god who demands the shedding of innocent blood to forgive sins, or a god who demands five prayers at specific times each day, or a god who desires that we ritually consume his flesh and blood each week? It’s only familiarity that makes these seem natural while the ones I’ve proposed seem strange.
There’s an interesting parallel here with the “fine-tuning” argument sometimes used by religious apologists. They ask how likely it is that a universe with physical laws conducive to life could just happen to exist with no prior explanation. But atheists can ask an analogous question in return: Out of all the billions of possible gods, each one with a different highly specific and arbitrary set of desires and preferences, how likely is it that there just happens to be one who’s benevolent and kindly disposed toward humans? What prior cause can explain that favorable coincidence?