After my recent article about Jehovah’s Witnesses, I found myself imagining a debate with actual Witnesses, out of my shame at not having engaged with those who brought me this wonderfully juvenile little pamphlet in the hope of bringing them a broader way of engaging with their faith.
As a pantheist, I don’t have to worry about the ideas of theodicy that other theists might have to. I believe that there is an intelligence to the universe that is awaiting us awakening, developing into broader beings, conquering our primitive instincts. It can’t aid us and wouldn’t even if it could, because we must grow on our own.
But a proper theist who believes in a God that can miraculously intervene, that actively judges human affairs, has some serious problems.
First, let’s consider the idea of science and Christianity.
Those Christians who want to believe not just in the literal truth of the Bible but an incredibly ignorant literal read run headlong into plate tectonics, evolution, tree rings, DNA evidence, etc. that indicates that their astronomy, history, geology and biology are just laughably wrong.
Okay, so God just basically planted all this disparate evidence, from radiological evidence to tree rings, to mislead people. Fine.
But why do human beings bother asking questions about the cosmos in the first place?
It’s not just that He made us that way. That alone is pretty bad. He made us to be curious, inquisitive, to want to ask questions. Isn’t it pretty unfair to do that then ask us to ignore that curiosity?
But no. It’s that if you’re not curious, you die.
Humanity being curious and scientifically-oriented let us develop tools to survive. It lets us see when there are liars, con artists and frauds. It lets us figure out when we might be being poisoned.
Plenty of religious leaders throughout history used religion to wage wars, to enrich themselves personally, to shore up their own power. Even if Christians can’t admit that some Christian leaders did so, certainly they can recognize that pagan leaders did.
So God made a dangerous world where our curiosity and intellect was how we survived and protected our families… Then he makes a series of illusions to mislead us, acting like Descartes’ demon, and then gives us the answer only in a book that also happens to justify slavery.
Why would someone worship a God like that? What could possibly justify all of the two-faced and deceptive behavior?
But it gets worse when we think about the idea of war.
Okay, so human beings need free will, right? We need to be able to grow, to make choices for ourselves. God lets us make choices and then punishes us if we make bad ones. That’s actually pretty fair. And one can even argue that God gave people a set of precepts to live by… Well, after millennia, He gave several different ones over time, finally clarifying the whole thing by sending His Son… Well, maybe he actually clarified it to some Arab prophet… But, okay, whatever, somewhere there’s a set of rules now.
But God didn’t just make it so we could wage war. He made it so that we wanted to. He made it so that we have aggressive, violent urges. He made it so that we fear each other, and so that we can be whipped up into a frenzy.
Moreover, the Biblical Yahweh proved that it was willing to give people choices then punish them with miracles for making bad ones. Moses warned the Pharaoh over and over again, and the Pharaoh was punished for enslaving the Hebrews. (Of course, Yahweh didn’t stop slavery at any other time in Egypt’s history, but hey).
So in World War II, or Rwanda, or when Americans were killing Native Americans, why didn’t Yahweh send floods and poxes?
Here’s a subtler point, and it goes beyond war. Free will means that one is able to make choices. In a limited universe, free will gives you latitude to decide amongst competing options which are inherently finite. Fine.
What would be the threat to free will if God, or an angel, appeared and warned a person each time they were going to do something morally reprehensible?
That wouldn’t threaten free will. It’d be providing every person with the chance of hearing a divine argument for a better and more conscious position. They would still be perfectly capable of proceeding forward.
See, the idea of Yahweh as limited, as being like other gods in the region with a finite extent to His powers (even if it’s greater than the other gods), which I believe is implicit in the Old Testament, that doesn’t run you into any contradictions. And if you’re a pantheist, you face no problem either. Spinoza and Einstein could accept a God that did not do these things on account of accepting a God that did nothing aside from be everything.
But when you try to take an interventionist God who has proven both willing and able to perform miracles, then graft on the ability to perform those miracles any time and at any place, the “free will” argument no longer cuts it.
Hell, even that whole idea, “Worship me or be sent to hell”, sort of loses steam after millennia where there haven’t been whole nations stricken with the death of the first born child or unexplained bolts of lightning. Surely it wouldn’t hurt the whole faith idea to have God show up on occasion in some unambiguous way, aside from the Bible. After all, in Revelations we see that even as divine punishment rains down that the wicked still scorn God!
Now, the idea that there’s some plan that this is all building to, some better world that could exist as a result of all of this sacrifice and God is with all of the heavy-heartedness in the world waiting (in a timeless sense) for that drama to work itself out for the happy ending is sort of a response to these limitations. Sort of. (But an omnipotent God should be able to create any universe, and Leibniz’s ideas don’t work here because It would be able to create universes we can’t imagine or think of as consistent, and could even full well create an inconsistent universe and keep adjusting it as needed).
See, that’s why I think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had such facile answers to the idea of war’s ending. To really think about anything but the endgame would sort of ruin the whole enterprise.
Again, my goal is not to bully or pick on Christians or Muslims or anyone else. My hope is for us to think really deeply about tragedies, and always think that our free will means we can do something about it.
Waiting for divine justice has kept us from making the genuine article on our own.