Whence Comes God's Nature?

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?

About Adam Lee

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

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m going to throw my weight behind the recluse God, because, then, I would have definitely been formed in his image.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    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

    Bloody Brilliant! I really wish I’d thought of that.

  • Ritchie

    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?

    Very clever indeed. But doesn’t that mean the rebuttals of the fine tuning argument would rebutt this one of yours too?

    Surely the great fallacy of the fine tuning argument is that it assumes the universe has been tampered with to suit life when in fact life has evolved to suit the universe?

    So surely a logical rebuttal of your argument here is that God made humans to suit his desires rather than God desires just happen to suit humans?

    Then again, just to scupper my own point, it seems that humans don’t ‘suit’ God’s desires very well if most of us end up in the fiery pit…

  • Scotlyn

    Really excellent argument, one I hadn’t thought of…but now that you mention it, when you really try to imagine how a non-physical God could have non-physical wants and dislikes it is quite difficult. He would have to base these on imagining what pain or pleasure might “feel” like without having any sensory apparatus to “feel” with.

  • David

    You know, I have never really thought about it in exactly the terms presented in this post.

    If one were to create a religion-as-social-constraint, which I would say Yahwism is, you would HAVE to say, “God wants this”, “God doesn’t want that”, “God gets upset at that”, etc.

    Why would a being who is utterly perfect and, more importantly, knows the outcome of every action ever to be taken, get upset? Would not God be bored rather than angry?

  • David

    “Then again, just to scupper my own point, it seems that humans don’t ‘suit’ God’s desires very well if most of us end up in the fiery pit…”

    Clearly, it upsets God to no end that some people are homosexuals, despite encoding it in their nature. God finds menstruation unclean, despite wiring women’s reproductive cycles to function in such a manner. It disturbs God that people like to have sex outside of marriage, yet he made humans with the desire to rut as often as possible, when it is clearly within his power to have made sex within marriage the only thing desirable to all humans.

  • http://jetson.wordpress.com Jetson

    Very nice! I will be using this piece with some progressive Christian friends who seem to think they have THE TRUTH about God and the universe.

    I wrote a small blog that touches on the idea of a perfect god.

  • Valhar2000

    Then again, just to scupper my own point, it seems that humans don’t ‘suit’ God’s desires very well if most of us end up in the fiery pit…

    Maybe humans suit this god’s purposes just fine; you know, the sadistic god.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com pendens proditor

    An omnipotent, omniscient being that has ever failed to get exactly what it wanted exactly when it wanted it is as much a contradiction as a square circle. We can reject it a priori. The Christian God appears to fail at this pretty regularly.

    I agree completely with the post, and I think it goes even deeper than desire. How could such a being be conscious? Consciousness (in a psychological context, not a philosophical one) is temporal. You think one thought, then another. Being conscious of something in particular implies that there are other things you’re not currently conscious of. It’s a bit like shining a laser pointer on a wall. The wall is all of the things you could be conscious of and the point of light is where you’re currently focused. Widening the beam to shine on the entire wall is doing the very opposite of focusing.

    Being omniscient, God couldn’t fail to be aware of something; his beam would have to be wide. Being non-temporal, he couldn’t focus on one thing and then another (in other words, think particular thoughts). In that eternal moment if he isn’t entirely unfocused, he fails the test for omniscience.

    A deity that lacks consciousness is even more alien to us than one that lacks desires, I think, but it seems to me that that’s the sort of deity a theist would have to believe in if he’s going to exile it from time and space. He’d be stuck with a Spinozan sort of deity instead.

    When I was still a theist I was a fan of the Conversations With God series. It was the first time I had encountered a description of a deity with no desires of its own. It clicked with me for the reasons you describe. But questions of consciousness came soon after, and that’s when theism lost its hold on me.

  • Brock

    Martin Gardner admits to being a believer in a god, but he says that that god must be so Wholly Other, that there is no way we could ever even begin to approach an understanding of it, let alone any sort of empathy. Maimonides said something similar, when he stated that whenever we attributed any quality to the deity, we were engaging in a meaningless activity, because the act of description limits the object described, and by definition, god is limitless. Example: I cannot refer to god as he because it also encomplasses the qualities of femininity, sexlessness, and any other gender, conceivable or not. Both men seem to be saying that god is totally inconceivable. So why bother?

  • http://1939to1945.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    Valhar2000 :

    Maybe humans suit this god’s purposes just fine; you know, the sadistic god.

    You know, a *really* sadistic god might publish a bizarre set of rules, open to much interpretation, and then laugh as his creations vainly attempted to follow them. Vainly because everyone winds up in the pit anyway, regardless of whether they followed the rules or not.

  • CzarGarrett

    I’ve often felt this way about the Judeo-Christian divine archetype. If Man was made in God’s image, then it stands to reason that anything Man is, God must be also. Which makes God homosexual, greedy, hateful, a rapist, a murderer, lazy, etc, etc.

    Should that be the case, then God him/her/itself is a sinner and should be sent into damnation.

  • Brock

    “a *really* sadistic god might publish a bizarre set of rules, open to much interpretation, and then laugh as his creations vainly attempted to follow them. Vainly because everyone winds up in the pit anyway, regardless of whether they followed the rules or not.”

    Not to mention giving some favored few a really cool out by promising them a get-out-of-jail-free card, and not requiring them to follow the rules, and then screwing them over anyway… Or by letting them into the Heaven he describes and then watching them go screaming mad with boredom.

  • paradoctor

    There are infinitely many ways for there to be one god, but only one way for there to be none. Therefore atheism is inherently more unified than theism, or even monotheism.

    And as for a god’s ‘nature’; a god is supposed to be ‘supernatural’, that is, above nature, and even above _having_ a nature. Asking after a god’s nature is to ask what rules govern the god; but the whole point of a god is to break the rules.

  • cello

    “Not to mention giving some favored few a really cool out by promising them a get-out-of-jail-free card, and not requiring them to follow the rules, and then screwing them over anyway… Or by letting them into the Heaven he describes and then watching them go screaming mad with boredom.”

    Yeah, I have asked Christians before how they know God doesn’t lie.
    Or that God can’t change his mind about the whole thing.
    For those who believe God is going to send billions to an eternal hell, it is no stretch to consider that God is also a liar.

  • StarScream

    According to research by Jason Slone and others (such as in his book “Theological Incorrectness”) even people who possess “sophisticated” theological beliefs such as non-temporality, etc still utilize the anthropomorphic template when contemplating God. It seems God is more constrained by human cognition than the other way around.

  • paradoctor

    Each of your five alternate gods sounds like a great basis for a fantasy novel. I figure that the Self-Sufficient God will wind up in a snowglobe on a shelf somewhere, Sadistic will learn that what goes around comes around, Relativist will despite himself care about his little pets, Recluse will wind up on the front cover of the tabloids, and Prankster will slip on a banana peel. Sure, we would have trouble with them, but they would have even worse trouble with us.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    This was a really good post. I had a similar conversation with my brother a couple of weeks back – he’s one of those Messianic Jews. I don’t know why – or, rather, the reasons I can come up with are all depressing and awful, like it’s a way for him to focus his OCD tendencies and be supported by a community for it, while still not giving up on the idea of Jesus. His whole belief structure, I determined after an extended and pointless conversation, runs on two fundamental premises: first, that God’s in charge, and so can do whatever he wants; second, that the world is the way it is because that reflects God’s nature.

    I can’t abide this shit! I mean, really?! My own damn brother, who has a degree in anthropology, who has studied other religions, who knows all kinds of history, he thinks that the fact that God made the world gives him total and irrevocable dominion over it, that a divine abuse of power is a contradiction in terms, and that anything we don’t like about the Universe is just a failure on our part to appreciate godliness.

    What a maroon. I’d show him this if I thought he’d listen, but I can tell you what he’d say: “Yeah, the world would be different if one of those was how God is. But God is this way, so things are like this.” In his view, God is primary: metaphysically, causally, morally. Everything else is an afterthought. Argh!

  • cello

    the fact that God made the world gives him total and irrevocable dominion over it, that a divine abuse of power is a contradiction in terms, and that anything we don’t like about the Universe is just a failure on our part to appreciate godliness.

    I think this view has a consistent internal logic but I find it the most fatalistic of all belief systems. Our behavior becomes completely irrelevant, God can do whatever God wishes.

  • David D.G.

    Obviously, many religious people would explain the seemingly human nature of God by simply pointing out the biblical claim that God created humanity in his own image, never allowing themselves to realize that the only thing that makes sense is that the process was the other way around.

    Also, pendens proditor at #9 wrote:

    An omnipotent, omniscient being that has ever failed to get exactly what it wanted exactly when it wanted it is as much a contradiction as a square circle. We can reject it a priori. The Christian God appears to fail at this pretty regularly.

    This is exactly right. Even if there could be some kind of creator deity, there is no way that it could be the Judeo-Christian-Islamic one. The sort of divine being posited by Martin Gardner (as referenced in Brock’s post, #10) would make much more sense, but it also would make even the notion of worship rather moot.

    ~David D.G.

  • Polly

    Why does god act all biological and stuff?

    He has no reason to feel ANY emotions, especially jealousy and love – which are instincts. Even intelligence is only exhibited in relation to problems. Why should an all powerful and lone god (or harmonious trio) even NEED or realize his own intelligence? How do you know you’re powerful when all there’s ever existed besides you is a void? What does a lone god need with love? It’s like having eyes in a universe without light. Even if you are technically capable of sight, it has no meaning, and you’ll never realize it.

    Where did his anger come from? Did he know anger before sin? How? And if not, then isn’t he’s learning from this experience, too?

  • lpetrich

    On the subject of “sophisticated” theology, I’m reminded of Metacrock, who never tires of wailing that atheists supposedly believe that the Xian God is “a being” and “a big man in the sky” instead of believing that the Xian God is “being itself” or “the ground of being”.

    Not surprisingly, he quotes his favorite theologians, but when it comes to the Bible, he has to do some proof-texting and translation-shopping, because the Biblical God is consistently pictured as something like a big man in the sky. He often slips into what he complains about, when he argues that atheists don’t want to be subject to God’s authority or when he compares the Argument from Evil to its arguers complaining that God won’t give them a triple fudge sundae.

  • chas

    he experiences emotions like anger, jealousy, love,

    And possibly absent-mindedness? Genesis 8:1 And God remembered Noah

  • lpetrich

    And in the Flood story, God regrets what he had done, as if God is subject to the flow of time rather than seeing all of time from the outside, as it were.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com/ EvanT

    Against these arguments from believers I like to use the epicurean opinion about a deity.

    In short: I want I desire I lack something and a God who aspires to perfection cannot lack anything, so he cannot want anything. Epicurus conceived the gods as purely hedonistic beings concerned only with their perpetual bliss (since any outward motion on their behalf would indicate they lacked something, hence they are not perfect, which is a self-contradiction, as gods have to be perfect by definition) Basically, this blows the “God as a creator” concept out of the water. Either a deity is perfect or a creator.

    (shameless self-promotion: I recently posted an article on this on my blog; for those who can read Greek :P)

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com/ EvanT

    Whoops… “I want I desire I lack something” had double arrows between them, but they got edited out…

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I really like this post. You make a good point that there are so many different gods that could possibly be imagined, and yet people believe in a very specific one.

    Altough I’ve noticed how Gods seem to resemble humans, I’ve never heard the argument the way you made it, by comparing the way we get our characteristics and the idea of God being eternal, etc.

    Thanks for another great post!

    Ritchie (comment #3) wrote:

    Very clever indeed. But doesn’t that mean the rebuttals of the fine tuning argument would rebutt this one of yours too?

    Surely the great fallacy of the fine tuning argument is that it assumes the universe has been tampered with to suit life when in fact life has evolved to suit the universe?

    So surely a logical rebuttal of your argument here is that God made humans to suit his desires rather than God desires just happen to suit humans?

    Then again, just to scupper my own point, it seems that humans don’t ‘suit’ God’s desires very well if most of us end up in the fiery pit…

    Yes, it does seem that God, if he exists, didn’t do a very good job of making us the way he wants us to be. It does seem rather odd that God supposedly created a situation in which most of humanity will end up in Hell. So much for a loving God, huh?

    I could be wrong, but the way I read the post was the other way around. I didn’t think of what you said about God making humans to fit his desires. I thought the point was, There are so many different gods that could be possible. How likely is it that this (fictional) God just happens to agree with his human believers and acts very much like a human? Isn’t it more likely that the description of God is this way because humans created him this way?

    That was just my impression, of course.

  • Scotlyn

    Polly:

    It’s like having eyes in a universe without light. Even if you are technically capable of sight, it has no meaning, and you’ll never realize it.

    What’s even more bizarre is the idea of a disembodied, non-material God being conscious. It would be like having sight with no eyes.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/26/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • John Nernoff

    Scotlyn: What’s even more bizarre is the idea of a disembodied, non-material God being conscious. It would be like having sight with no eyes.

    N: This is on the right track. Most theists start out (usually as children), many continuing on, believing “God” is a kind of man in the sky — a father figure, associated with similar anthropomorphic angels, choirs, and heavenly hosts. Some realize that this will just not do; they are embarrassed to defend such simplistic and childish notions. They shift to the “spirit” idea (as amply discussed here. But the spirit is invisible and its substance can’t be described. How does this “God” thing (if it is even a thing) *do* anything? How does it create? How does it uphold? How does it save “souls” (the same invisibility problem exists with the soul)?

    My conclusion is nothing works. The “God” idea is either silly or incoherent. There’s nothing to discuss. One can’t even be an atheist since to be one you need to formulate what it is that evinces an absence of belief or a disbelief. Hence non-cognitivism. Ted Drange has some good thoughts on this.

  • Jerome

    One of the best questions there is!

    Right along: why are some actions (morally) good? Because God says so or because they’re good by themselves? If they’re good by themselves then what is God needed for? If they’re not good by themselves then on what grounds does God declare them to be good?

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com/ EvanT

    why are some actions (morally) good? Because God says so or because they’re good by themselves? If they’re good by themselves then what is God needed for? If they’re not good by themselves then on what grounds does God declare them to be good?

    Aaaah… Euthyphron… Never goes out of style, does he? ;-) It’s amazing how the oldest and simplest of questions about God are the ones that elicit little response.

  • Mark C.

    Just recently I’ve become somewhat convinced that the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma and that the true situation is a “trilemma” (if that’s even a word)–either that or one of the horns of the dilemma means more than most atheists I’ve seen talk about the ED think.

    The horns, fully differentiated for clarity:
    1. God acts in accordance with a standard of goodness independent of himself.
    2. God acts in accordance with a standard of goodness dependent upon himself (this includes issuing commands):
    i. The standard is arbitrary and may be regarded as produced by God.
    ii. The standard is not arbitrary. This option has been presented by Christians as “God’s nature is the standard”.

    No matter how many options there are, I nevertheless think there are immense problems in the acceptance of any one of them, not the least of which is that an epistemology and ontology compatible with the existence of this god must be argued for prior to arguing for or accepting any of the horns of the dilemma/trilemma. Without that, I imagine the only argument could be something akin to the severely flawed Pascal’s Wager, which, of course, is entirely unconvincing to anyone with any philosophical sophistication who doesn’t already believe.

    (Sorry if some of the text is gigantic compared to the rest… I’m not sure how that happened.)

  • Mark C.

    And of course, option 2.ii makes us wonder what the nature of God is and why it happens to be such (and exactly how are believers to determine this, anyway?), which is the subject of Ebon’s post. Full circle–excellent.

  • Quath

    I have used this argument before on a Christian web forum to point out that Christians have a fine tuning problem as well. I point out that materialists can at least talk about other possible universes or other pockets of physics within the same universe. Creationists can’t go the same route because they are reluctant to suppose many different gods.

    But I like how this article focuses more on the “does it make sense” angle. I had not really thought of it in those terms before. (Maybe because I see the whole thing as not making sense.)

    So kudos on another great article.

  • Arch

    I highly recommend reading a copy of the Confessions of St. Augustine, which can also be read online: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1101.htm
    Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis is another good one related to some of the current topics. It can also be accessed online:
    http://www.philosophyforlife.com/mctoc.htm

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    And those answer the objections put forth how?

  • Nes

    Arch,

    I don’t know about anyone else here, but Ebonmuse has clearly read Mere Christianity and, well, didn’t exactly find much substance to it.

  • http://purpletempest.blogspot.com purpletempest

    It sucks coming late to the party. :(

    Can we vote, like in a poll? If there is a god, then I vote he is C) The Moral Relativist God.

    It’s been my personal opinion that any being that could qualify as a deity would have a mindset so far removed and alien to our own that it would just not comprehend morality as we do.

  • Tolerance

    I would just like someone to explain to me how it came to pass that God is presumed to be perfect, anyway? The first few books of the Old Testament is filled with instances where old Yahweh messed up, changed his mind, etc. Hell, he even admitted once that the whole damned venture of Creation was a bust and decided on a do-over, via the Flood!

    Fundamentalists make such a big deal about their literal translations of the Bible; I just think they should be held to their own standard. Any claim you make about God and Jeebus should have explicit backing from your Holy Book; no going off reservation with your own interpretations! (Something about jots and tittles, I think, and not adding or subtracting any of these from the Word, or some such.)

    Anyway, if the Bible itself shows that the Old Testament God was not “perfect” by his own actions, why do we define him these days as being perfect?

    Just wondering

  • Thumpalumpacus

    You can thank Tom Aquinas for that, iirc. Or was it Anselm in one of his proofs that planted this seed?

  • Kennypo65

    Great post. It reminds me of a quote: “Men rarely(if ever) invent gods superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”-Robert Heinlein

  • Larry

    No such thing as a “perfect” God. Perfection demands and begets perfection. Everything connected to this “God” is flawed.

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