It's Like Admitting to Apathy About Suffering

I did a post the other day talking about what a real savior would look like.  Well, Davis S. didn’t think it was very good.  He thought I was making a straw man.  When pushed to defend that he said…

I guess it depends on what perspective you’re evaluating the morality of it all from. This is a pretty good post from a humanist perspective, but from the Christian theological perspective, whatever God does is the very definition of good. It’s not necessarily good from our perspective, but it’s at least internally consistent.

And a little bit of vomit crept into the back of my throat.  God killing people isn’t immoral because nothing god does can be immoral!  Brilliant if you’re fucking two.

Forget for a moment that there’s not even a smattering of crumbs in the pile of evidence for god.  Think for a moment and try to come up with any moral proposition so horrid, so unbearable to even hear of, that it cannot be deemed moral by that defense.  It cannot be done.  The concept of evil becomes meaningless in this case.

Recall Abraham, the man willing to gut his son at god’s command.  This story is held up to children in Sunday school as an example of perfect faith, due to his willingness to obey god no matter what.

Now consider the atheist.  We are the ones saying Abraham failed the test.  We’re the ones saying that if a being, no matter how wise or powerful, instructed us to murder our children, we would say “Go to hell.  I would rather die myself than kill my son.”  To people like Davis S. though, we would be immoral to do so.

By saying that whatever standards we use to determine the evil men and women among us actually contribute to god’s goodness, you display utter contempt for the well-being of others.  How do you expect others around you to trust you when at a word from god you’d feel morally justified slitting their throats?  Do you not think the 9/11 maniacs felt the same way about morality?  This mindset is the engine driving the sum of religious fiendishness throughout the ages.  Slavery?  God commands it, and his commands are always morally good.  Jews into ovens?  It’s the will of the good LORD (who, I’ll remind you, is good).  Slaughtering the infidels and their children?  Why would god desire it if it weren’t good?  For those possessed by this mindset, they are necessarily separated from their humanity.

I hear this positively lunatic defense of god’s wickedness so often, usually accompanied by an insufferable haughtiness so distasteful it would make a billy goat puke, that I have to comment on it.  If you utter this idea that god is morally good no matter how greatly he acts against the interests of humanity, you lose all rights to be trusted by humanity and you look like an absolute buffoon if you ever claim Christianity makes people better.

Hell, it’s not like admitting that you’re apathetic about human suffering, it is admitting that you’re apathetic about human suffering.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Greta Christina

    Yes. This.

    The sort of thinking JT is referring to here essentially renders the entire concept of good and evil meaningless. It says that if God does something, it’s good by definition. Killing your own child; slaughtering people (including children) by the thousands; torturing people to death (famine, drought, tsunami, pediatric cancer, etc.) — all of it is good, by definition, simply because it’s God doing it. Even if it’s something that would be monstrously, irredeemably evil if a person did it.

    Therefore, what “good” and “evil” mean for God are entirely disconnected from what “good” and “evil” mean for people. The concepts literally bear no relation to one another.

    Which, if you believe that human goodness emanates from God, is entirely incoherent.

    And I, for one, do not want the concepts of “good” and “evil” to be meaningless and incoherent. I want them to bloody well make sense and mean something.

  • SabsDkPrncs

    A little OT: The story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son is the basis of Eid al-Adha, which I’ve been told is the “holiest fucking festival” on the Islamic calendar. The obscenity is not my addition, it’s a quote from my friend Yacine who was woken up from a hangover by the sunrise chanting this year to rush to mosque.

  • John Eberhard

    I copy and pasted this from Scott van Hoosen yesterday and it fits so well here:

    Does God do what is Good because it is Good? Then we don’t need God to know what is Good and even God is bound by it.
    Is something Good because God does it? Then we live in a authoritarian regime where Goodness has no meaning.

    It is thus important to evaluate a given god-concept according to some external standard. Here’s why.

    If God is held to no standard than his own, then Goodness is meaningless. To say God is Good is just to say God is God. He could order contradictory things and we would have to say they are both Good. And he could torture children and we would have to say it was Good. Goodness has no meaning in authoritarian, unaccountable regimes. You end up following mere Power.

    So, we have to hold God to some standard, or we give up Goodness itself.

  • Dan L.

    This is the usual attempt to save God from Euthyphro. It works at the cost of completely redefining what is meant by “good.” When we use this word in an everyday sense it’s easy to get an intuitive handle on what it means: killing or torturing people is bad, helping people get enough to eat and helping to keep roofs over their heads is good.

    But when you define “good” explicitly as “the preferences of God” and then concede that “God works in mysterious ways” you can no longer conclude that killing and torturing people is bad. If God WANTS you to do those things then they are, by definition, good. Likewise, if God wants a particular person to starve to death then feeding that person is bad.

    They always skip the step where they need to somehow relate the redefinition of “good” and “bad” relative to God’s will back to the common sense varieties of “good” and “bad”. They do this intentionally because it just reopens the problem of evil: if God’s version of “good” and “bad” look a lot like ours and he is omnipotent, why do so many (common sense) bad things happen?

    Davis S., how do you know that good and bad as defined by the preferences of God are similar at all to good and bad as defined by everyday usage of these words?

  • greglammers

    The Euthyphro dilemna: Biting Divinity in the Ass since (at least) 2300 BCE.

  • trisstock

    Let us not forget Jephthah, who actually carried out his vow and killed his daughter! Judges 11:31-39

    31Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

    32So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

    33And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

    34And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

    35And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.

    36And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

    37And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

    38And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

    39And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,

  • kagekiri

    As a former believer who utilized this concept to stave off cognitive dissonance, I have to disagree with you. It’s not merely being apathetic about suffering; it’s being basically PRO-human suffering as long as you think it’s God’s will, which all suffering is by definition of God’s total sovereignty.

    I could only justify God’s biblical actions and apparent apathy to evil with this kind of Stockholm syndrome: “we’re all sinners and deserve it”, “God merely not killing us all right away is mercy and love”, “even if God is doing something I see as totally evil, he’s still creator and can do what he wants with us so I might as well obey him lest I suffer worse” and so on. Those are all beliefs that are pretty much straight scripture: the basic “none are righteous” verses, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the story of Job’s torment and God rebuking him after, respectively.

    I started longing for punishment and justice for my own mistakes, because suffering is obviously what we deserve, and the horribleness of human suffering was only the precursor to Hell (Hell being true justice, as God is just and wouldn’t send us there otherwise).

    So basically, Christianity made me into a self-hating and physically self-abusing masochist who thought human suffering was heavenly justice. Not that I liked suffering or seeing it affect others, but it was righteous and deserved.

    Now, you don’t have to go that route as a Christian…you could try to brush suffering off as finite (assuming you’re saved) and thus insignificant in the long run of eternity, but I think the Bible’s writings better supported my own self-abusive submission to God’s sadism, not the equation of finite suffering divided by eternal Heaven.

    • kagekiri

      Er, on second thought, I suppose some verses do directly support short pain on earth as nothing compared to eternal bliss in heaven, but that’s not really a remedy to cognitive dissonance if you’re worrying about the people who suffer on earth before burning in hell.

  • Dave X

    If the suffering in the deaths of Baby P., Nyia Page, and innumerable other children is somehow “good” in some mysterious way, it really changes what it means to say that god is “good”.

    Is it “good” to use the suffering of an innocent child to make some sort of a point to the living?

    • Dave X

      Er, on second thought, I suppose that torture and death of the innocent is the whole point of Christianity.

  • julian

    To people like Davis S. though, we would be immoral to do so.

    I’m not sure Davis S. would agree with that. While hir comments seemed a bit all over the place and not very specific xe did use ‘we’ when mentioning a humanist perspective.

    Anyway, spot on on why that sort of circular thinking is so harmful. It should be enough that the entire system not resulting in absurd amounts of human suffering depends on this otherworldly entity who (because of how removed it’d be from human experience, emotion and thought) would be incapable of empathizing with us not turning out to be a manipulative, greedy and controlling monster. (Which both the Old and New Testament make him out to be.)

    • Jurjen S.

      I have to second that; I got the impression that David S. (no relation, btw) was representing the Christian apologist argument as he understood it, rather than making the argument himself.

  • Greta Christina

    Oh, and I want to add this:

    It’s not necessarily good from our perspective, but it’s at least internally consistent.

    Really? It’s not good, but at least it’s internally consistent? What kind of twisted ethical system puts “good” next to “internally consistent,” and decides that “internally consistent” is more important?

    Christianity. Twisting human ethics into unrecognizability since 33 A.D.

    • Jurjen S.

      Nah, 33 A.D. is too early; Christ hadn’t even been invented by then. On the other hand, Christianity did borrow heavily from Judaism, which had been “twisting human ethics into unrecognizability” for at least 1,200 years by that point.

      Because let’s not beat about the bush: the Exodus is as fictional as Jesus is. At the present time, the most plausible scenario, based on archeological evidence, is that around 1,200 BCE, in the approximate geographical area referred to as “Palestine” or “Israel,” a bunch of hill tribes banded together under the name “Israelites” and ethnically cleansed the confederated lowland tribes (known as “Canaanites”), and then tried to justify their genocidal behavior by cooking up some story about divine fiat and assistance. That’s Abraham through Joshua right there.

      Of course, having attributed the success of their genocidal land grab to Yahweh being the most powerful entity in the universe, they then had to come up with explanations why they got their collective ass handed to them by subsequent opponents who were better organized and/or more vicious than the Canaanites. Thus came about the stories that begin with “the Israelites having become naughty in the sight of the Lord, the Lord did deliver them unto their enemies.”

  • Mark

    I recommend Soren Kierkegaard’s treatment of the topic of Abraham’s actions in his book Fear and Trembling.

  • Janee

    I actually have a question about this.
    Is it immoral for the person to commit the act, but not immoral for God to ask it of them?
    People consider murder immoral and bad and wrong, so is it still wrong if he does it, because he’s human, and not wrong or immoral for God to request it because God can do no wrong?
    Good and bad/evil are different concepts because we’re human, and we don’t become less human because we think God asked us to do something.

  • Sastra

    Not only is God “good” in a way that human beings cannot understand, God is also pink — but “pink” in a sense that is unfamiliar to us. Trying to use the secular humanist understanding of “colors” and “pink-ness” on God is futile, because God’s way of being pink is infinitely greater and different than anything we can imagine. It may look orange; it may look blue; it may be an immaterial entity which logically could not interact with light diffusion in any way. We have no right or ability to judge.

    This approach just opens itself to the reductio ad absurdum.

    Now consider the atheist. We are the ones saying Abraham failed the test. We’re the ones saying that if a being, no matter how wise or powerful, instructed us to murder our children, we would say “Go to hell. I would rather die myself than kill my son.”

    No; I think we would the ones saying “I’m hearing voices telling me to kill: I must be crazy.” As well we should. We’re not characters in a book reading along with the author and thus knowing that “it’s really God.” Abraham failed the test because he didn’t get himself to a doctor — or at least a good rest in bed.

    I think this is the ethical dilemma which is often overlooked: God wants Abraham to be sure he can tell God apart from mental illusions — even when He’s telling him to kill his son. Furthermore, God wants the reader to think that such breathtaking self-assurance and confidence is exactly what a humble, flawed, modest sort of person ought to have. Believe you can know God as well as God knows you. Borrow a little omniscience. That’s unethical.

    Davis S. can’t really be asked what he’d do “if God told him” to kill, or give away his money, or jump off a cliff, or anything else. That’s because technically in a real life situation he CAN’T know that he’s dealing with God — it has to be assumed true as part of the question. We do not however live in hypotheticals or lives which come with a cheat sheet from the back of the book.

    Apparently his religion expects us to live as if we do. Not good.

  • Patrick

    Liberal Christians will sometimes admit that one of the things they struggle against is the ease with which one can interpret Jesus as having come to save us from God.

  • Casimir

    I have to believe this sort of rationalizing requires acceptance of two fundamental tenets of religious belief:

    1. That we are the products of a creator, and, in effect, the property of this creator. Therefore, the creator reserves the right to treat its property in any wishes without return judgment.

    2. That any experience in this life, no matter how good or bad, is the “lesser” experience compared to another “real” life—Heaven. There is no comparison between this life and the next, and our experience in this life will be rendered null and void upon ascending to the next life.

    I think if a person can accept those two (equally absurd) propositions, then it’s not hard at all to rationalize the tyrannical, destructive nature of a so-called deity. Nor is it hard to ally with the tyrant since, naturally, allegiance to them would assure you a place in the ‘heaven’ that is promised.

    This is why I think religion is truly the most perverse of supernatural beliefs. It completely removes a person from the reality of human experience.

  • Jurjen S.

    Well, don’t I feel silly, having just left a reply to David S.’s original post without noticing that the points I made had already been made here.

  • anthonyallen

    The Abraham story, which I had heard in Sunday School from a nun, was what originally planted the seeds of doubt about god in my head. I couldn’t imagine that any father would kill his own son, just because someone said so.

    I was 5.