14 Jul 2013

It’s All Or Nothing When It Comes to Gifts From God, or Else We Hate Him

Religious, Steve Landsburg 42 Comments

The danger in my last post is that atheists will say, “OK fair enough, Steve Landsburg was a little off in his joke about Catholics. But c’mon, the 30,000-foot view is still fine: It’s absurd when religious people ‘praise God’ for miraculous cures. Why doesn’t He cure everybody, why pick and choose? And c’mon, what hubris to think that an omnipotent, omniscient Being is going to alter the course of the universe based on a few slogans uttered by a slug on a tiny speck of dust in the Milky Way.”

I did a decent job summarizing some standard atheist points in the above, right? OK notice:

==> Once again there is a contradiction. On the one hand, God is being criticized for not answering everyone’s prayers. Yet, on the other hand, God is being criticized for answering anyone’s prayers. Thus, the atheists seem to be OK with a God who would cure 0% of human misery, or 100%, but not an intermediate amount. Is this outcome because (a) it’s inconceivable an omniscient Being might have a good reason for picking a percentage in between those two extremes, or because (b) the atheists advancing these simultaneous objections don’t believe in a God at all, and so aren’t really thinking it through very hard to imagine what the existence of a God would imply? I vote for the latter.

==> Try using Steve’s technique when it comes to human benefactors. For example, suppose I say that my Uncle Fred is a really swell guy, because every year he gets thousands of letters from people explaining their need for financial assistance, and he sends total contributions of $500,000 to hundreds of people each year, helping them pay for medical treatment, start a new business, move their relatives here from abroad, etc. Then a critic says, “Let me get this straight. Your Uncle Fred still has some money left over, right? So he routinely denies people help, even though on the margin it wouldn’t really change his lifestyle to answer a few more of those letters. Further, if I understand the situation, he only sends money to people who officially suck up to him. And you expect me to agree that this guy is worthy of admiration? Huh?!”

I hope we can all agree that such a critic would be way out of line. Isn’t it interesting then that we afford less courtesy and benefit of the doubt to a stipulated Creator of the universe, than to my stipulated Uncle Fred?

42 Responses to “It’s All Or Nothing When It Comes to Gifts From God, or Else We Hate Him”

  1. GabbyD says:

    i think its (a).

    if i understand your argument via bullet #2, are you saying that god is facing a constraint like uncle fred– even a self-imposed one? what might this constraint be? will this constraint make sense given everything we know about god (or everything we’ve been told about god).

    • Andrew Keen says:

      God’s constraint is restraint.

  2. James says:

    Jesus said that we would do “any thing” asked in his name. The gospels repeat this same language many times. If I told you I’d do any thing you asked in the name of Rothbard, and you asked me, in Rothbard’s name, to do something you desperately needed, what would you think of me if I didn’t deliver? That I’m a fraud, a fake, a liar, or a fool? Or would you insist that I was someone whose teachings should be the organizing principles of your life? That’s where atheists are coming from.

    • Tel says:

      I would say that someone asking earnestly in Rothbard’s name would only be able to ask for the things that Rothbard stood for… that said, I don’t believe Rothbard was omnipotent, nor do I expect you to be omnipotent, which opens some grounds for legitimate excuses.

      • James says:

        Whatever caveats you have in mind, shouldn’t I be judged according to my performance in keeping the specific promise which I actually made?

  3. Tyler Kubik says:

    Along the same lines as the other comment, I feel like by nature of being an omnipotent being, God would necessarily be fully capable of being a benefactor to all humanity, unlike Uncle Fred. We would have to assume that it would be God’s omniscient nature that limits his benefactions (for whatever reason that would be incomprehensible to us) rather than omnipotence which would not by nature impose any restrictions (so far as I can venture).

  4. Tel says:

    On the one hand, God is being criticized for not answering everyone’s prayers. Yet, on the other hand, God is being criticized for answering anyone’s prayers.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an even handed overlord. I would expect as much from a judge, or a manager, or even a President. For what it’s worth, government of all sorts faces a similar problem, the moment you offer the slightest favour to anyone, you find the whole lot of them beating your door for free stuff.

    Thus, the atheists seem to be OK with a God who would cure 0% of human misery, or 100%, but not an intermediate amount.

    No, the Atheists are merely pointing out that the twin claims of being omnipotent and also the paragon of perfect goodness at the same time are impossible to fulfil in a self evidently imperfect world.

    I think it might also be fair to point out that lots of polytheistic religions are entirely comfortable with non-omnipotent gods. After all, Thor is guaranteed to beat all shades of sugar out of anything and anyone that gets in the way of that hammer of his, but has no cognitive ability. It makes sense because Thor is a convenient embodiment and mnemonic for the saying that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, or in other words solving problems by brute force.

    Shiva is both the destroyer of the universe (from time to time, when it needs doing) and also embodiment of all forms of self sacrifice, yogis and Asceticism. Mother Kali is the embodiment of the prisoner’s dilemma, because after all, someone has to be. Kali is consort to Shiva because when it comes to a PD problem, sooner or later someone must hit the big red button in order to win the game.

    The Christian God runs into the problem that by being the ultimate explanation to everything, all the time it is equivalent to an explanation of nothing at all. The world of the mind is about making distinctions, separating one idea from another idea and drawing a line between them. If all your ideas are in one big bucket and nothing more than that, then you have no idea.

    I’m being a bit unfair as I’m sure people will point out… God is the umbrella concept to Christians and underneath that they have all sorts of Bible stories, saints, parables, even a Pope of two, all operating under God but none of them embodying the whole of God. That’s still a way of looking at the world, but I think some of the Pagan religions do it a bit nicer.

    Anyhow, from the perspective of Evolution, the monotheists beat out most of the polytheists so by definition survival is fitness, and fitness is righteous, so every believer in Evolution should also believe in God.

    • Matt Tanous says:

      “No, the Atheists are merely pointing out that the twin claims of being omnipotent and also the paragon of perfect goodness at the same time are impossible to fulfil in a self evidently imperfect world.”

      Their mistake is in equating the “paragon of perfect goodness” with THEIR idea of what “perfect goodness” is. The parent analogy is rather apt in this situation – a perfectly loving parent will often, and NECESSARILY, allow some amount of harm to come to their children, even if they can stop it. Why? Because it is something that needs to happen – they need to learn to take care of themselves, to understand something, to recognize the consequences of their actions.

      Pain and suffering provide a remarkable growth experience. As they say, wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from foolishness. If I stop a kid from falling down and scraping his knee, he never learns to do without me taking care of him. Perhaps a similar rationale exists here. Who can know the mind of God? Such hubris to put yourself – a person who knows he is imperfect morally – in His place and declare His interventions improper.

      • Tel says:

        There’s stuff out there that is very difficult to rationalize as “remarkable growth experience”, I get it that people have free will and make choices, but the consequence of that is bad things will happen, often to randomly chosen people.


        • Matt Tanous says:

          If God were to withhold His benevolence from anyone who has done something evil, then… no one would receive it “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Again, you have the problem of sinful man deciding that sin A is worse/more evil than sin B. (Usually, we can see that the former is one the sinner in question didn’t commit.)

          • Tel says:

            I have a problem with stuff like that happening. Like I said the world is an imperfect place, no doubt there could be reasons for that, but the universal “God wanted it that way” covers bad, good and everything in between.

  5. Tel says:

    Slightly left field by Steve Kates threw out an interesting comment on the Cat:

    The last session I went to at Freedomfest was a debate on Intelligent Design (which is not creationism – ie no one disputes the planet is 4.5 billion years old give or take a billion, and there is no disputing that evolution has taken place, only the mechanism). Anyway, a Chinese scientist was quoted as putting an anti-Darwinian position which surprised someone else who pointed out how difficult it would be to say the same in America. Yes, said the Chinese. You can criticise your government but not Darwin. I can criticise Darwin but not the government. It was a funny line but with our ability to criticise the government under various kinds of threat, not really so funny after all.

    I kind of like the way Bob criticizes both Darwin and government, he just needs to criticize God now and then to get the trifecta. Don’t worry to much about God, if he was half the man he is made out to be, he could handle a bit of criticism.

    • Ken B says:

      Indeed you can’t criticize Darwin. That’s why Kimura was stoned.

  6. Ken B says:

    Pray, v.
    To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.

    –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

  7. Travis says:

    As others have already pointed out, it is possible to conceive of a god, even a view of the Christian God, that is not omnipotent. In fact, the Process theologians within the Christian tradition have done a lot of work on this very idea, but I don’t agree with them and I have a hard time calling them Christians. Like one of my professors at SMU, William J. Abraham, I’m an “unreconstructed supernaturalist.”

    That said, I think what’s at the heart of this question – why does God heal some people and not others – is ultimately the theodicy problem. The problem of evil has always been a headache for Christian theologians. The question is, “If God is perfect and all-powerful, then why is life filled with so many problems and hardships?” Some Christians chalk it up to “God’s will” and I think this is a mistake because that would make God out to be directly responsible for all of the horrible things that happen in this world, and this is not consistent with the nature of God, who we know is perfectly loving. Most Christians, including most Protestants and Catholics, would say that humanity had something to do with the problems we see in life – the Fall of humanity in Genesis is the reason for the existence of evil in the world. Whether you believe in the existence of a literal Adam and Eve or not, I think this is inadequate because it doesn’t really explain why the created order fell along with humanity. This is where I think Orthodox Christian theology, with its unique anthropology (in the theological sense) and conception of the Fall in Genesis, can help explain these problems. Western Christianity tends to be rationalistic and legalistic, but Orthodox theology is existential in nature and can more easily deal with new developments in science and critiques from people who are not Christians. What’s so fascinating to me about this is that most critics of Christianity want something concrete – they want evidence – and the best Orthodox response to critics is simply a warm smile and an invitation: “Come and see…”

    On a final note, Bob, I think you’re right in your earlier point about how atheists can be a bit lacking in their knowledge of Christian theology. While I, as an Orthodox, tend to favor the Eastern Fathers of the Church, I can still see a great deal of value in writers like Aquinas in earlier centuries or even more modern, popular writers like C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell. From what I’ve experienced, many atheists are not all that familiar with major figures in Christian theology and that is a shame.

    • Ken B says:

      “From what I’ve experienced, many atheists are not all that familiar with major figures in Christian theology and that is a shame.”

      I agree! True of Christians too. It’s actually remarkable how little many actually know.

      • Travis says:

        I should have added that as well. Far too many Christians are ignorant not only of the latest scientific developments, but also of intellectual history.

    • Tim says:

      Are you familiar with Muslim theologians? And yet you dismiss Islam with hardly a thought, don’t you?

      • Travis says:

        I do, actually, have some knowledge of Muslim theology and history. For instance, in Muslim eschatology, Muhammad and Jesus will return together at the end of time. We Orthodox Christians, however, believe that the universe will be transfigured when Christ returns in the fullness of time. Now, I know that questioning my knowledge of Islam in particular isn’t really the point. What you seem to really be getting at is that I haven’t studied, say, Hinduism or Buddhism in depth, so I must have chosen the one that I’m most familiar with and disregarded the rest with full knowledge that I am right – and I, and others who believe exactly as I do, have it Right. While it’s true that I am not an expert on every religion and its history, I don’t casually dismiss them. Quite the contrary. Most traditions, religious or secular, have something valuable and God-inspired as a part of their tradition and I know enough of each to understand that there’s a lot more nuance to each of them than meets the eye. So why not learn something new? Faith, after all, is an orientation of the heart towards God – not coming into accord with the “right facts” in your head.

        • Travis says:

          And I should hasten to add, Christians are commanded to not judge others. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and that if we focus on repenting of our own sins and being healed of our selfishness, then those around us would be saved. So in regards to other traditions, as an Orthodox Christian, all I can do is pray for them, learn from them and love them, and focus on becoming more like Christ each day through the life of the Church.

  8. Ken B says:

    Fred’s resources and claimed benevolence are finite and imperfect. You sure you want to make this analogy?

  9. valueprax says:

    How does God calculate?

    I hope better than socialists.

  10. Eli says:

    Consider natural evil as a call back from moral evil. Moral evil at root is a failure to seek and understand, and natural evil interrupts our thoughtlessness. it’s a call to stop and think about basic things; about God, and man, and good, and evil. extrinsic suffering is redemptive, not punitive.

  11. Egoist says:

    “I hope we can all agree that such a critic would be way out of line.”

    If Uncle Fred had UNLIMITED POWER to do the types of things you listed, but he only helped those who sucked up to him, and did not help the rest, I would say it would be reasonable to criticize him, assuming the highest standard of ethical behavior is altruism.

    But God is an egoist, not an altruist. Indeed, God is “the” egoist of all egoists, which springs from Earthly human egoism.

    God cares only for what is his, busies himself only with himself, thinks only of himself, and has
    only himself before his eyes; woe to all that is not well-pleasing to him. He serves no higher person, and satisfies only himself. His cause is – a purely egoistic cause.

    • Travis says:

      Unless, of course, God is the Triune God of Christianity, who, in His nature, is perfect, unselfish love and calls each of us to take on the divine nature of cosuffering love.

      • Egoist says:

        Not sure how “Unless” is justified, since what you said after that aptly summarizes my point.

        If God is love, and we are called to the cause of love, not our own, then God is to have himself as his own cause. That’s egoism.

        • Travis says:

          Except that ego would make the Trinity impossible. From eternity, each Person coexisted with the others in perfect love and harmony. Then, there’s the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and His subsequent death and resurrection for the sake of humanity and, indeed, the universe as a whole. Call that what you will, but I don’t see how conquering death for human beings is egoistic. It was ego that caused the fall of humanity in the first place. But then again, that’s the Orthodox Christian teaching of who God is and what He is like. You’re of course welcome to your own opinion, but I thought it was interesting that your view of God seems to be the exact opposite of the Christian God.

          • Egoist says:

            “Except that ego would make the Trinity impossible.”

            ….yes, and?

            “Call that what you will, but I don’t see how conquering death for human beings is egoistic.”

            We’re talking about God, not his offspring, nor God viewed as a finite, temporal, less than almighty man.

            “It was ego that caused the fall of humanity in the first place.”

            God is ego, so if ego is the cause for the fall, then God is the cause for the fall. This is actually not at all different from some strands of early Christianity: God as a pure, perfect and all embracing being, through the act of creation, brought into being less than perfection, in order for God to reflect upon his own perfection.

            “But then again, that’s the Orthodox Christian teaching of who God is and what He is like. You’re of course welcome to your own opinion, but I thought it was interesting that your view of God seems to be the exact opposite of the Christian God.”

            It isn’t the exact opposite. It is perfectly in line with the Christian God. The Christian God is pure Ego. Everything is for the cause of the Christian God. Even our own existence. This isn’t mere opinion. This is actual Christian theology, you just don’t see it because you name the Ego the Devil.

            • Travis says:

              I spent some time in a liberal Protestant seminary for grad school and I’ve read some stuff that’s pretty far out there – stuff that could barely qualify as Christian theology – and I assure you that what you’ve put out here in the comments is not even remotely Christian. As I said, you’re welcome to your own view of what God is like, but you have not articulated anything here that could possibly be considered Christian thought.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          I prefer helping other people, and this cause I selected myself, so therefore egoism.

          Such a truism is not a basis for philosophy, but merely a restatement of subjective preference. Egoism is pointless nonsense.

          • Egoist says:

            But you just made a point about egoism.

    • Travis says:

      Great questions – too much to cover here, but I think I found the inspiration for my next blog post! I will say, though, that I liked the point made towards the beginning of that link – better to provoke thought than anger.

      • Ken B says:

        “better to provoke thought than anger”

        Easier said than done. I pointed out problems with John 8 to Bob and he definitely got angry long before he got thoughtful (which he eventually did). I bet those questions will provoke anger in a lot of believers.

        • Travis says:

          I’m sure they’ll provoke anger in a lot of “believers” as well. Non-believers often have some powerful questions and insights and, sadly, many people who call themselves “Christians” get angry about it because their Narrative has been challenged. You should see the venom that traditional evangelicals have thrown out against Rob Bell, who is also an evangelical, for questioning the traditional evangelical view on hell. But, as Archbishop Lazar has said, faith is an orientation of the heart towards God. It’s not about subscribing to certain facts in your head.

  12. Mike C. says:

    What does it mean for God to be omnipotent?

  13. razer says:

    Does you uncle fred build an eternal prison where jails people for all eternity for such trivial offenses as not thinking he’s such a swell guy like this god guy you worship? If not, I’d say he’s a far better person than your god. Seems Fred gives out of his finite supply and purely out of the goodness of his heart. Your god demands eternal worship, denies people for no reason and punishes people for petty offenses in a more cruel and heartless way than any Pol Pot or Hitler could have dreamed about. Yeah, I’d say that makes him a dick.

    • Travis says:

      Rob Bell took up this issue in “Love Wins”. I can’t recommend it enough.

  14. DT says:

    Kirk Cameron just made a film about just this topic called “Unstoppable”, looks excellent.


    Funny, the “tolerant” media Facebook and YouTube have initially blocked it.

    Ultimately, I think people who say it is unfair that God doesn’t magically fix everything right away…are unfair and irresponsible. Man is 100% responsible for his actions and sin, which is why we are in a corrupt world. God has no requirement to fix what we had broken.

    But the AMAZING thing is that He DID decide to fix it and reconcile us to Him, which was done through payment on the cross of Christ, and now we are witnessing the manifestation of this reconciliation which is gradually nearing full completion until yes, one day, humanity will be reconciled 100% without pain or misery, except for those who unfortunately rejected God who will be sent to God’s prison (i.e. hell) for life (i.e. eternity).

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