The Atheist Bible
Chapter on the Abrahamic God
IntroductionThe Abrahamic religions all share belief in a single god. This god is called “the abrahamic god”, or simply “God”.This chapter discusses the following aspects of God:
- History of God: Discusses how God evolved over the centuries.
- Attributes of God: Discusses attributes that are commonly ascribed to God, such as omiscience, omnipotence, etc.
- The Loving God: Critically analyses the idea that God would love us.
- Interaction with God: Looks at prayers and other ways in which people interact with God.
- God’s Benevolence: Discusses how God can be benevolent.
- The Problem of Evil: Treats the question how there can be evil in this world if God is both benevolent and omnipotent.
This chapter complements the general discussion about gods in the Chapter on Gods.
The History of God
The origin of GodAs we have discussed before, the abrahamic god was conceived by the Israelites — the people of Israel. The Israelites originally worshipped 4 gods: El, Yahweh, his consort Asherah, and Baal. In 605 BCE, the area of Israel was conquered by Babylonia. Many Israelites were taken captives. Shattered by this event, the Israelites concluded that only one of their four gods was the right one, and that the captivity was the punishment for worshipping the other gods. They settled on Yaweh, and started workshipping him alone. This was the birth of the religion of Judaism.
In the 19th century, several prophets emerged in Persia, declaring that Yaweh was in fact the god of all religions. This belief became the Bahai Faith. Later, Spiritualism would evolve as a religion that worships God and believes in the spirits of the dead.
All of these religions trace their origin to the beliefs of the early Jews. Since Abraham was an important prophet in the Jewish stories, the god of these religions is nowadays called the abrahamic god. Although all abrahamic religions hold that the god is the same, the character has accumulated different contradictory properties throughout history, which we detail next.
How God became loving
The Jewish GodThe abrahamic god appears first in around 1000 BCE in the Torah, the scripture of Judaism. In that book, he is a revengeful character. We can hypothesize that this is because the writers of the Torah lived in a rather brutal society — with the law of retaliation, cruel punishments, and more premature deaths in general. Hence, the writers also imagined their god this way.
The Christian GodIn around 30 CE, Jesus of Nazareth entered the stage, as the founder of Christianity. He taught that God was a loving god. To do that, he could simply have declared the old god obsolete, propagating the new god as the right one. This, however, would not have earned him many adherents at the time. It would also have been punishable by death as blasphemy. Hence, Jesus preferred to use the existing god, and to give him a new face: that of a loving god. The god was now forgiving, generous, and gentle. This is how he entered the New Testament, the scripture of Christianity. This scripture was appended to the Torah, yielding the Bible.
The Muslim God700 years after Jesus, the Prophet Mohammed founded the religion of Islam. This religion took over some of the concepts of Christianity. For example, the Quran also mentions the loving god (Quran / 85:14). However, the main inspiration for Islam was probably Judaism: The muslim god is as brutal as the original one of the Torah.
The Enlightened GodHistory took its course, and the renaissance came. After some centuries, the renaissance gave rise to the Age of Enlightenment. Values such as the equality of sexes, the ostracism of brutal punishments, and freedom of religion found their way into the society. Hence, religions that were founded after that age had to accomodate these new values. The Bahai Faith entered the stage in the 19th century. To legitimize itself, it took over the existing abrahamic god from Shia Islam. However, given the progress of society, the Bahai Faith could no longer uphold the pre-modern values that were originally attached to the abrahamic god. Hence, the Bahai God rejects references to race (rampant in Judaism and Islam), rejects the superiority of one religion over the others (ubiquitous in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), and emphasizes charity, neighbourliness, and the equal value of all religions. Spiritualism is the latest of the major abrahamic religions. Since its founders lived in a Christian environment, they took over the Christian god. Much like the Bahai Faith, though, it had to accomodate the values of the Enlightenment. Therefore, Spiritualism supports also the equality of sexes, freedom of religion, and equal respect for all religions. The problem is, of course, that these newer religions still carry the baggage of the old god. Even in Spiritualism and in the Bahai Faith, God is the one who erased the whole of mankind in a flood (as told in the Torah). Thus, even these religions worship a baby-killer.
Vice versa, the age of Enlightenment did not leave the older abrahamic religions unaffected. Judaism has evolved markedly, and has renounced brutal punishments. Christianity, likewise, has recently turned towards freedom of religion. Some denominations have even abolished hell as a physical place. Islam as well is now portrayed by its liberal front-runners as the precursor of the Human Rights. Much like the newer abrahamic religions, though, these three religions still carry the baggage of the brutal god that was originally created for the Torah.
How God became universalGod was initially conceived as the God of the Jews. He was interested mainly in a single people and a single land (Bible / Deuteronomy 14:2; Exodus 19:5; Bible / Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Y. N. Harari: “Sapiens”).
Jesus liberated the god from his focus on the Jews and Israel. In his religion, God is a universal god, in which all mankind should believe. This is in tune with the general pattern that gods become more omniscient and more universal once a society becomes more complex The Economist: Big people, big gods, 2019-03-21.
Islam sits between the two: It also knows the universal god. However, since Islam originated in Arabia, the Muslim God takes a special interest in the Arab people. For example, he explicitly sent the Quran in the Arabic language (and not, say, in Latin or English) for the Arabs (Quran / 12:2; Quran / 44:58).
The conversion of the Jewish god into a universal god has led to awkward situations in history: Christians persecuted the Jews, even though their god considers the Jews the chosen people. Muslims and Jews, too, have their tensions. The Quran explicitly calls upon Muslims not to take Jews as friends (Quran / 5:51), and curses them (Quran / 5:64). The existence of Israel, in particular, remains a point of contention. At the same time, Islam inherited the special interest of God in the Jews from the Torah: God promised them the land of Israel (Quran / 5:21, 17:104).
How the Devil joinedWhen the abrahamic God was first conceived, he did not yet have the devil as his opponent. There is no mention of the devil in the Old Testament or the Torah.
The devil appeared only in the centuries before the common era. At that time, Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism. As a classical dualist religion, Zoroastrianism knows a good deity (Ahura Mazda) and an evil deity (Angra Mainyu). This idea was missing in Judaism, and it seems to have impressed the Jews. It is hypothesized that Judaism took up the idea of the evil deity, and incorporated it as the Satan into its theology Satan. He was identified a posteriori with the snake from the garden of Eden. Nowadays, the devil has his established place in the theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
One of the reasons for this late arrival may be that the Abrahamic God used to be a very human god, with characteristics such as anger, evilness, and hate. Let us not forget that it was God himself who chased humanity from Eden. Only later God became a loving god. When that happened, the evilness on Earth could no longer be explained by God's anger. Therefore, the devil was needed: He is the one who is the source of evil. (Never mind that since everything comes from God, the devil is no exception. God himself created the devil and gave him free reign over humanity.)
Y. N. Harari offers an interesting thought on the devil in his book “Sapiens” (p. 248): Monotheistic religions have the disadvantage that they cannot explain why there is so much evil in this world if there is only one power, and that power is good. Dualist religions, in contrast, cannot explain why there is order at all in this world (such as the laws of nature, which bind both the good and the evil god). The creation of the devil stroke a compromise in this respect.
When the Saints start marching inThe abrahamic religions are monotheistic, i.e., they know only a single god. However, both Christianity and Islam took inspiration from the polytheistic societies around them: Both religions know, in some of their flavors, patron saints. In Christianity, the saints are revered in several denominations. In Islam, the saints are called Wali Wali. These are spirits of deceased heroic men and women (i.e., spirits of the dead).
Saints are not gods, i.e., they do not have universal power. However, they are believed to be able to influence God by prayers. Hence, people sometimes pray to them, so that they influence God in their favor. In this way, the saints take the role of the gods in polytheistic religions (Y. N. Harari: “Sapiens”, p. 245).
How God became abstractThe abrahamic god was originally designed as a hero: he punishes the evil people, helps the good people, and is generally responsible for the working of the universe. The figure thereby satisfies man’s desire to obtain justice, to influence fate, to justify suffering, and to see a meaning in life.
In the pre-scientific times of the early abrahamic religions, this worked well: People could easily believe that their god answers prayers, punishes the wrongdoers, and explains the working of the universe. In recent times, however, critical thinking and scientific reasoning have become more commonplace. With this thinking, it became more and more clear that the God character does not really punish wrongdoers, and he does not always help the good people either. Furthermore, we now know more about other peoples, about other religions, and about historical events. With this knowledge, it is no longer so clear why the abrahamic god should be the only possible and most natural supernatural entity. Most importantly, the advances of science have put forward that God did not create life and people as originally imagined by the authors of the Torah. In all these domains, it became more and more clear that the pre-scientific character of the abrahamic god required an update.
Some denominations of the abrahamic religions have nevertheless stuck with the pre-scientific god — most notably the conservative flavors of Islam and Christianity. However, many mainstream flavors of the abrahamic religions have reacted by making God more abstract: He no longer intervenes physically in this world, he did not really literally create the first humans, and he is quite possibly not the only way to salvation either. Thus, the God character has changed from a physical hero to an abstract concept.
God over timeWe have seen that the image of God changed over time: God was first brutal, and is now loving; God was first local, and is now universal; God was first alone, and now has a devil; God is the only god, but people can now also pray to saints; God used to be a physical hero, but is now rather an abstract concept in many mainstream denominations; God is a single God, but became a godhead of 3 spirits in Christianity.
This change over time can be explained as follows: The scriptures of the abrahamic religions (Torah, New Testament, Quran, books of the Bahai Faith, Allan Kardec’s works) can be seen as a series of novels. The novels were written in different epochs, by different people, and with different audiences in mind. And yet, for practical reasons, the main hero of the novels is always the same (God). This entails that the hero of these stories has accumulated his contradictory properties over the past 3 millennia.
You can compare this evolution of God to the comic book hero Tintin: The Tintin books were written in the early 20th century. Hence, they mirror the society of that time. They contain occasional racist prejudices, animal cruelty, and an apologist attitude towards colonialism. These attitudes are nowadays considered outrageous. Therefore, the offending pages of the books were redrawn in the late 20th century The Adventure of Tintin / Controversy. The novels about God suffer from the same problems — even more so since the moral standards do not deviate by a mere 100 years, but by 3 millennia. However, the stories about God cannot be rewritten, because they are considered eternal. Therefore, the adherents of the abrahamic religions are stuck with the contradictions.
Attributes of God
RevelationThe abrahamic god was revealed to mankind through prophets. Judaism knows several prophets, such as Moses or Abraham. These prophets are usually dated to the millennia before common era. Christianity adds Jesus as a prophet. Jesus is assumed to correct the messages of the previous prophets. Islam recognizes the other prophets, and adds Mohammed as a prophet. Mohammed is considered the last prophet. The Bahai Faith acknowledges the previous prophets (also of non-abrahamic religions) and adds two more prophets, the Bab and Baha’u’llah, which override the previous ones.
According to the latest scientific theories, humans have existed for about 200,000 years. It is therefore surprising that God waited for 190,000 years before sending his message. Egyptians have been building pyramids and worshipping other gods for centuries before the abrahamic prophets appeared. Why would God deprive these people of the divine message, just because they lived too early? Furthermore, it seems strange that God would reveal himself through prophets. A prophet is arguably one of the most inefficient ways to send mankind a message. If the message is given to a single person only, it will never reach the entire mankind. Even under the best of all circumstances, a religion with a prophet will take centuries to expand from the place of the prophet to other societies, countries, and continents. This is indeed what we see: There are hundreds of religions on Earth, and none of them has reached the entire globe. Why would God deprive people in other places of the divine message?
Furthermore, the choice of prophets was clearly suboptimal: The prophets belonged to some enslaved desert people (Moses), lived in some occupied land at the periphery of an empire (Jesus), were illiterate (Mohammed), or lived in a country that persecutes his followers (the Bab and Baha’u’llah). Only the Bahai prophets actually had the idea of writing their message down in a book right from the start. All the others had their message written down after their death. In such settings, it is obvious that the message will be distorted or mis-interpreted. Indeed, most religions have formed several denominations, spin-offs, and sects, each with a different interpretation of the messages. Moreover, sending successive prophets is bound to lead to confusion and conflict. If all prophets came indeed from the same god, then each prophet should have announced and authorized the following one. Yet, the believers of each prophet can always show proof that the next prophet is a false prophet. Furthermore, each prophet usually claims that he is the last one, and that the other prophets are false prophets, or that their messages are obsolete or distorted. As a consequence, several religions have sprung up, one for each new prophet. This is certainly not what the sender of the prophets intended.
If you are omnipotent and omniscient, then the easiest and safest way to send mankind a message would be to implant it in their minds right from the start. Alternatively, you could print copies of your holy book and deliver it free to every household. However, God expects us to wait for, identify, and interpret messages he sent to individual people in the desert. This is rather implausible.
Atheists consider it more plausible that the prophets just made up their stories of divine revelation. Some did this out of good intent, others out of spiritual experiences, and again others out of a desire for power. Since the prophets grew up in an Abrahamic environment, they ascribed their stories to that god. They tried to legitimize themselves by claiming continuity from the previous prophets. Their stories were then picked up, mystified, enhanced, and written down by their followers. There were probably hundreds of prophets (and there still are), but only the most plausible, imaginative, or belligerent stories found enough followers to produce a religion.
Mohammed! Jesus! Hear thou me
The truth nor here nor there can be.
How should our God, who made the sun
Give all his light to only One?
The Abrahamic RevelationsRevelations are a very inefficient means to spread a message. To see this, look at the revelations in the Abrahamic religions: The Hebrew Bible announces a messiah (Bible / Deuteronomy 18:15), and Christians believe that this messiah is Jesus. However, the Hebrew Bible also says that the messiah will bring peace on Earth (Bible / Isaiah 2:4), that he will stem from King David (Bible / 11:1) (which Jesus does not, because he stems from God), and that he will unite the people of Israel (Bible / Isaiah 11) — all of which has not happened. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible states that God is unitary (Bible / Deuteronomy 6:4), that no-one shall contradict or amend God’s law (Bible / Deuteronomy 12:32), and that we should be weary of false prophets who do miracles (Bible / Deuteronomy 18:18-22). Therefore, the original chosen people, the Jews, believe that Jesus is a false prophet.
For Christians, Jesus is the messiah. At no point of time, Jesus talks about another God-sent messenger. On the contrary, he urges Christians not to take miracles by non-Christian prophets as proof of existence for other gods (Bible / Revelation 19:20, Matthew 24). He says that he himself will return, as son of God, on the clouds of Heaven (Bible / Matthew 24:27-31). This is why Christians do not see why would God send another messenger, Mohammed, out of the blue. Saying that God did not know this would be necessary is not an excuse, because God is omiscient. Muslims say that the verses of the Bible were corrupted, and that Mohammed has come to correct the word of God. But then, Christians do not see why God waited 600 years to correct the message. Therefore, Christians accuse Muslims of following a wrong prophet.
For Muslims, Mohammed is the last prophet. Hence, they do not believe that the Bab and Baha’u’llah (the prophets of the Bahai Faith) are real prophets. The Bab and Baha’u’llah say that the teachings of the previous prophets were valid for their respective times only, and that they are the new prophets. Yet, Mohammed was very clear that his message was for eternity. Hence, Muslims in some countries persecute the Bahais as heretics Persecution of Bahais.
All of this does not look like the work of an omniscient god. Rather, it looks like individual people deciding that they want to be prophets, and trying to legitimize themselves by the preceding prophets.
Omniscience and Free WillThe abrahamic god is omniscient. This means that he knows everything. This notion entails the problem of free will Argument from free will:
If God knows everything, he also knows what we humans will do. This means that our lives are predetermined. We have no way to do something that God does not already know we will do. This means that we humans are not free to do what we decide, but that we can only decide what God knows we will decide. This entails that we do not have free will. If we do not have free will, then our entire moral system collapses. A murderer is not free to choose to abstain from the deed, because he has to do what God knew he would do. If he is unable to abstain from the deed, then how can we punish him? Furthermore, most religions require free will in order to voluntarily adhere to the faith. If a person cannot decide out of their free will to adhere to the religion or to abandon it, then how can God punish those who abandon it? After all, they did not have the choice.
We may argue that God knows everything, but not what we humans will decide. But then, he knows basically not much. Most of the things that happen to us in life are due to some decisions by ourselves or by our fellow humans.
This is why omniscience looks implausible to many atheists. Personally, however, I do not find this argument convincing. The argument says that if God knows that a human will make a certain choice, then the human cannot act otherwise. Thus, the human does not have free choice. Theists can argue that God’s knowledge does not determine a person’s will. It just correlates perfectly with the person’s will. God knows that I will make a particular choice if and only if I will indeed make this particular choice. But this does not mean that I would not have the free will to make this choice as I wish. If God knows that I will not change my mind, then, as it happens, I will not have the desire to change my mind. Thus, free will and God’s knowledge are not in contradiction in my view.
This becomes even more clear with the notion of free will that this book proposes: For this book, human behavior is just the consequence of chemical processes in the brain. We call these processes “free will” only because they are so complex that we cannot predict them. However, the chemical processes are ultimately deterministic. Thus, God could theoretically know all these chemical processes. Then God would know how we decide, but we would still have as much free will as we have now. Therefore, the notion of divine omniscience and human free will are not contradictory.
There are other properties of the abrahamic god, though, that lead to contradictions. Read on.
Omniscience and God’s Free WillThe abrahamic god is omniscient and omnipotent. This leads to a contradiction: If God is omnipotent, then he should be able to change the future to an “alternate future” that is unknown to him. This, however, conflicts with his omniscience Argument from free will. Thus, the omniscient God cannot have free will.
In the Bible, God is actually not very omniscient. He did not foresee what men would do on Earth. When he saw what evil man did, he deeply regretted having created mankind:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thought of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
OmnipotenceThe abrahamic god is omnipotent. This means that he can do everything. It entails, however, some paradoxes:
If God is all powerful, then can he create a task that he cannot solve? For example, can he create a stone that is so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or can he create a being that is more powerful than himself? If he can create such a thing, then he is not omnipotent. If he cannot, then he is not omnipotent either Omnipotence paradox. Common answers to this conundrum say that God cannot create something that contradicts logic. For example, as C. S. Lewis has argued, God cannot draw a squared circle. Furthermore, he cannot do anything that goes against his own nature. This, however, makes him no different from us humans.
More interestingly, if even God is bound by logical constraints, then this lifts logical constraints and reasoning to an important level of power. If logic binds God, then we should study logic rather than God. This is, coincidentally, a central tenet of Humanism.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... Then he said, “Let there be light.” Which means he made the entire universe in the dark! How fucking good is that? He's brilliant.
The Loving God
The Accessible GodThe abrahamic god loves all people. However, as J.L. Schellenberg has argued, God is makes it very hard to find the way to him. Even some people who seriously try to believe in him, just cannot do it. Belief is not something that you can do like clapping your hands. It is something that you can try, but that ultimately has to come to you. To some people, it has not come, even though they have seriously tried. It just does not click. And then they become atheist. I, the author of this book, consider myself an example: I was brought up in a Christian environment, prayed regularly, was a Church boy, and believed what I was told about God. So I was in good faith. The conditions were favorable for a religious attitude. Yet, never could I establish a personal connection to God. It appears that God does not allow everybody to find his way to him. This, in turn, contradicts the idea of the ever-loving God.
We may argue that Christianity is possibly just the wrong religion. However, the same problem appears also in the other abrahamic religions Argument from non-belief.
We may argue that the atheists just did not try hard enough to find God. But then the question comes up why they should have to try so hard at all. If God is “loving”, then why do people have to try so hard to find their way to him? We may argue that God loves us, but makes it hard for us to approach him in order to educate us. This, however, is not what we usually mean by the word “love”. Consider, e.g., a loving parent. As Schellenberg has argued, the perfectly loving parent will, insofar as she can help it, see to it that nothing she does ever puts relationship with herself out of reach for her child. God, however, deliberately put himself out of reach. If parents acted this way, we would not call them ever-loving.
Therefore, God is not ever-loving in this sense of the word. Calling such a behavior “loving” is a hijacking of the term. “Love” is just the wrong word for this kind of behavior. It is a pumpkin word. “Apathy” is the word to describe God’s behavior.
I am eager to find thee, and do not know not thy place.
I desire to seek thee, and do not know thy face.
I was created to see thee and not yet have I done that for which I was made.
The loving GodGod is said to love us. Yet, there is little sign of divine love in reality. Many people suffer. In most societies, religious people have no better life than secular ones. Globally speaking, religious people suffer even more than secular people. Adherents have come up with lots of explanations for this, ranging from the desire to granting us free will to the idea of upholding higher principles.
And yet, if you love someone, you will behave very differently from the god. If, e.g., you see someone attacking your child, then you will do your utmost to help her. No talk of granting free will to the attacker, love for the attacker, or higher principles will hold you back. This is the basis of love: the unbridled desire to help the beloved. Yet, God shows no such behavior. In fact, God shows complete indifference. Some people do well in life, others do badly, some are hit by acts of God, others are not — independently of prayers, religiosity, or ethic behavior.
Therefore, the word “God’s love” is a void word. It does not mean anything. It has no consequences. If someone loved you the way God loved you, then you would not call that love. You would call it apathy. This may be the reason why the abrahamic religions insist so much that God is loving. Without this explicit insistence, nobody would believe them.
If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would.
That’s the difference between me and your god.
HellThe abrahamic god is ever-loving, benevolent, and good. At the same time, abrahamic traditions have it that God puts sinners into an extraordinary cruel place called Hell. According to common understanding, people suffer ostensibly in hell, they are deliberately tortured, and some will never be able to get out of it again.
While this idea seems just and plausible at first, it is much less so if we think it through. Imagine that we as humans tortured our criminals. We could, e.g., grill them on fire until they faint from the pain. Then, we would let them recover, and repeat the procedure (as is done in some North Korean concentration camps). While this may lead to initial satisfaction, this satisfaction quickly turns into horror. The cries of pain, the view of a bound human being subjected to cruelty, and the smell of burnt flesh will urge any but the most emotionally crippled to rush to help, and stop the horror. Indeed, torture is today widely outlawed and shunned. Even the most notorious criminal may not be subjected to torture.
Not so for God. God still enjoys torturing his enemies. This is not because he would be obliged to: God created hell in the first place, he created the rule that humans be tortured there, he decides the time they spend there. It would be easy for him to stop this folly with his omnipotence. But he doesn’t. Thus, God remains as cruel as the cruelest of us, just that his omnipotence and perfection allow him to torture his victims much more systematically than we humans could ever do it. This is in shocking contradiction to the assumption that he would be benevolent, loving, and moral.
Furthermore, God’s extraordinarily long lifespan allows him to torture people in eternity. There is no way these people will be liberated from their pain. While this seems just at first sight, it is much less so at second thought. Suppose that a criminal kills a person. We will put him in jail for life, i.e., around 50 years. Now suppose that he killed 1000 people (which is about what a single human can achieve with current technical means). Then 50,000 years looks plausible. But 1 million years, 1 billion years, or 100 billion years? These look completely out of balance. And yet, that is only a tiny portion of the infinite time this person will spend in hell.
We may argue that the sinner acted out of his free will. He deliberately chose his actions, and knew what he was facing. Yet, even if the sinner sinned deliberately, eternal suffering is a punishment that is out of proportion. Even the sinner is a human. He has made the wrong decision — as millions of us do every day. No matter what a sinner did during 80 years of earthly life, we would not consider it just to subject him to billions of years of suffering. That would literally be an overkill. In fact, most of our own criminals get free before their time. We call that “mercy”. This reminds us that God is supposed to be merciful, too — as well as benevolent, loving, and moral. Apparently he is less so than us.
We may argue that this description of hell is just symbolic. Most notably, some Christian denominations have recently abolished the physical fire of hell. However, the symbol of hell is unequivocally assumed to stand for something that is at least as bad as what the words tell us. The suffering is maybe not physical, but it is still a suffering, and it is still eternal. Thus, this interpretation does not solve the contradiction of hell and God’s benevolence. We may also think that hell itself is just a myth, and that God just threatens us with it so that we behave well. Yet, hell is depicted quite graphically in the Quran and also in the Bible. Hoping that all of this turns out to be invalid is a very lame strategy. It would also beg the question what else of our religious theories is invalid. Last, even just the threat of torture is a crime in our human legislations.
We may argue that God ultimately pardons the sinner. Yet, even that is not given. For Islam, the Quran makes it very clear that unbelievers cannot find mercy — ever (Quran / 4:18, 4:48, 4:116-117, 4:137, 5:72). The Bible, too, explains that the torment is eternal (Bible / Revelation 14:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus agrees (Bible / Matthew 25:46, Matthew 25:41, Matthew 18:8), and identifies in particular blasphemy as a sin that cannot be forgiven (Bible / Marc 3:29, Matthew 12:31).
This leaves us with the problem of hell as a substantial contradiction to God’s benevolence, mercy, justness, and love Problem of hell. To atheists, it looks as if the writers of the time just codified their imagination of eternal justice in the holy books. Since then, society has moved on. The holy books, however, have not.
How is the Christian hell in anyway different from a concentration camp for dissenters?
Mock executionsThe abrahamic god is revered as ever-loving, benevolent, and just. However, scripture tells us a different story of God. According to the Bible (Bible / Genesis 22:5), God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham brings his son to the altar, and ties him up. He puts him on the wood and brings a knife. He wants to slay him, and then burn him. In the last minute, an angel of God stops Abraham.
This popular story is in reality a disgusting cruelty: A father is asked to slay his own son. Nobody in his right mind would call such an instruction benevolent and loving. Assume that you see someone who is about to slay another person on an altar. Would we not immediately rush to help? Would the excuse “I am doing it because God instructs me so” make the act any more pardonable? Certainly not. We would declare such a person insane. This is indeed what has happened: a Texan mother who said that God wanted her to kill her children was jailed as insane. And yet, in the Bible, that person is not considered insane. On the contrary, he is a hero. He is so much of a hero that he became the eponym of the entire group of Abrahamic Religions. God, who gives the instruction, is revered as the loving lord of humanity. What an absurdity!
Now scroll forward by two millennia, to the 14th century. When another lord instructed a father to kill his son, the lord was not praised as the wisest and most loving being ever. On the contrary, people rightly concluded that this lord was insane. The story sparked a rebellion against the lord, and the guy was overthrown William Tell.
We may argue that God prevented the slaying of Isaac in the last minute. This, however, does not excuse him. How are a father and a son ever to trust each other again when the father tried to kill the son? Pretending to kill someone is called a mock execution. Usually the victim fears for their life, cries, makes uncontrollable movements, and pleads for their life Mock Execution. Hence it is used as a device of psychological torture. It entails severe traumata, anxiety, and stress disorders. When the CIA used such techniques on prisoners, it was not met with adoration. Nobody praised the CIA for not killing the prisoners, but only simulating their death. On the contrary, the practice was condemned all over the world — even if the victims did not die. This is because the threat itself is a crime. Thus, praising God for the story of Isaac is a glorification of violence.
People argue that God just wanted to make a point with Isaac, and say that he no longer desires human sacrifices. That, however, is not true. His prophets continued to make human sacrifices even after the story of Isaac.
Human SacrificesGod desires human sacrifices: After the story of Isaac, Moses sacrifices 32 prisoners as “tribute unto the lord” (Bible / Numbers 31:25-40). Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to him (Bible / Judges 11:29-40, Wikipedia / Jephthah). Human sacrifices are used to end a famine (Bible / 2 Samuel 21:1, 8-14). Priests are being sacrificed (Bible / 2 Chronicles 34:1-5). Finally, his own son is sacrificed (Bible / Hebrews 10:10, 1 Corinthians 5:7). In all of these instances, God is either apathetic or pleased with the sacrifices. In the 2nd Book of Samuel, God actually ends the famine in response to the sacrifices. Thus, he approves of them.
The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.
GenocideThe Bible tells us about the Great Flood, an event in which God had so much rain pour down that the entire world was flooded (Bible / Genesis 6-9). Only one family survived, because God instructed them to build an ark. This story tells us that God deliberately drowned the entire humanity along with all animals (except those who were on the ark). With that, God makes Hitler look like an amateur WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com.
We may say that God drowned humanity because humans were very sinful. Yet, that is no excuse. First, the death penalty is a highly disputed instrument of punishment, and the majority of countries have banned it today. Second, the flood drowned babies along with all the others. Babies are innocent beings. Killing babies is a crime called infanticide. It is widely shunned today Infanticide. Third, drowning is a particularly agonizing form of death Drowning: The victim struggles against being submerged in the waters, screams for help, swallows water, becomes unconscious, possibly conscious again, cannot breathe, breathes water, and finally dies. Hence, drowning is outlawed even in countries that permit the death penalty. Thus, whatever the ancient people did, there is no excuse for killing the entire humanity by drowning.
It is true that God gives humanity the rainbow after the massacre, and vows to never destroy humanity again. This can be seen as a sort of apology (even though God does not actually say that he is sorry). He goes on to presents himself as the god of love in the New Testament, and all the violent past is put behind. However, the destruction of humanity is nothing that can be swiped under the rock. His change of mind does not make God perfect or benevolent in any way. If Hitler said he was sorry for his genocide, would we revere him as a wise and just ruler? We should certainly not.
Kill a man one is a murderer.
Kill a million, a conqueror.
Kill them all — God.
Other killingsThe Bible tells us how Moses received the 10 Commandments from God (Bible / Exodus 32). One of these 10 Commandments is, famously, “Thou shall not kill”. And yet, right after receiving this rule, Moses does exactly the opposite, upon God’s instruction. When Moses discovers that the Israelites have been worshipping a golden calf, he orders them to kill each other: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. [Bible / Exodus 32:27-28] This is in blunt contradiction to the law that God just gave Moses. When Moses has a conversation with God in the follow-up of the massacre, the mass murder is not even mentioned. God cares only about the people who worshipped the calf.
God himself commits numerous other murders, killing children (Bible / Exodus 12:28), enabling genocides (Bible / Isaiah 13), drawing up plans where mass murders happen (Bible / Jeremiah 49:20), ripping open pregnant women (Bible / Hosea 13), commanding the killing of thousands (Bible / Numbers 31), killing dozens of thousands of people by his own hand (Bible / 2 Kings 19:35),
The book “Drunk With Blood” includes a separate account for each of God’s 158 killings. These stories fill the pages of the Bible, yet they are seldom read in Church. This is a shame because God is so proud of his killings: “I kill ... I wound ... I will make mine arrows drunk with blood and my sword shall devour flesh.” [Bible / Deuteronomy 32:39-42]
These cases are accompanied by a list of other stories where God retaliates against men with anger and violence Divine retribution. In all of these cases, God appears revengeful, brutal, and heartless. As Richard Dawkins opinions in his book “The God Delusion”: the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. And yet, this god is revered as the most loving being by more than half of the world’s population.
I don’t know whether God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.
BrutalityWe have now seen cases where the abrahamic god ordered mock executions, demands human sacrifices, committed a genocide, and committed other killings. He behaves thus in an extraordinarily violent way.
Since these stories are shared between the abrahamic religions, this image of God appears in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Spiritualism, and the Bahai Faith. Christianity adds the New Testament. In these books, God appears in a much more positive way: He makes a bond with mankind, and talks of love and forgiveness. However, this new image cannot clear away the brutalities in God’s past — in particular because he never apologized for them. The God that Christians worship as the loving ruler is the same god who once wiped out the entire humanity in rage.
We may say that the stories of the flood and the killing Isaac did not really happen, but that they are merely metaphors. But then we have to ask what these metaphors stand for. The metaphor of a god who drowns his own creation in the waters cannot mean something good. So no matter whether we see the story as symbolic or not, God is presented as a vengeful and violent creature. And even if he does not exist at all (which is what atheists hold), glorifying such a murderous being is still despicable. It says a great deal about those who admire such a being.
From an atheist point if view, the stories of the Bible are just mythical tales. The story of the flood is a recurrent theme in ancient myths. It appears in Greek mythology, in Sumerian mythology, and in Maya tales Great Flood. Maybe these people found seashells or fish fossils in inland areas, and thus concluded that the Earth was once covered with water. Or they experienced a flood in their history, and tried to explain and justify the calamity with reference to their respective gods. It is easier to live with a calamity if one can believe that there was a just reason for it. Apart from this, ancient value systems were based more on retaliation than they are today. This made it natural to ascribe a trait of revengefulness to the gods, and thus a flood appears as a perfectly understandable device. In the meantime, humanity has evolved, and drowning mankind is mostly no longer seen as a responsible option. The story, however, has stayed.
Why should I allow that same God to tell me how to raise my kids who had to drown his own?
Interaction with God
Thanking GodIn the abrahamic world view, people should thank God for all the good things in their life. Prayers regularly involve thanking God for life, health, friendship, or happy events.
Yet, this concept leads us to a conundrum: We can only thank God for something, if God was responsible for that thing. It would not make sense, e.g., thank our husband that the weather is sunny today. Thus, we conclude, thanking God implies that God is responsible for the good things in life. Now, if God takes responsibility for the good things in life, then he also has to take responsibility for the bad things in life: natural disasters, genetical deseases, and the misconceptions of nature. And he does: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” [Bible/Isaiah 45:7]. Thus, God explicitly takes responsibility also for the calamities. Therefore, when we thank God for the good things in life, we should also blame him for the bad things. And there are many such bad things.
Thus, we have the choice between two alternatives: Either God is responsible for things on Earth. Then we would have many more things to reproach him than to thank him for. Or he is not responsible for things on Earth. Then we should not thank him.
Therefore, the idea to thank God is absurd.
Dude. Why is it that your god gets the credit whenever something good happens, but when a roof collapses and kills a bunch of kids, it doesn’t get the blame? That makes no sense.
I mean I don’t believe it, but I might respect your stance if it were consistent.
Praising GodIn the abrahamic world view, people should praise God for his grandness. God explicitly asks us to praise him (Quran / 51:56; Bible / Mark 12:28-31; Torah/Deuteronomy 6:4-9). This is maybe most obvious in the Lord’s Prayer, which God himself prescribes for Christians (Bible / Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4): “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. ”.
We first observe that there are quite a number of evil things in life for which God does not deserve praise at all. But leave these things apart. It is still bizarre that people are required to praise God. If God is almighty, wise, and magnanimous, then why does he need the devotion of us humans? He should be above it all. Yet, he seems to ardently need our devotion and gratitude. He even explicitly asks for it. Thus, he cannot be as self-reliant and magnanimous as is commonly assumed. To see this, assume that there is a king, who grants you a job for life. You are very happy. Now also assume that the king comes to your house every day and asks you to worship him, praise him, and thank him for his great idea of giving you a job. Would you call such a person generous and modest? Certainly not! That person is insecure and self-obsessed. Therefore, we would never praise such a person. And it is the same with God.
If God were really magnanimous, he would not need our praise. If he were really modest, he would not ask for it. Therefore, the abrahamic god appears rather narcissist to atheists — and thus not worth our praise. As David Hume argued: It is an absurdity to believe that the deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause.
People can argue that the praise for God just serves our own well-being. Yet, this is a modern idea. It appears nowhere in the holy scripture. Besides, it does not work: The places that praise God most are actually the most misesable ones on Earth.
Honest grandness needs no praise.
La vraie grandeur méprise la gloire.
Wahre Größe scheut den Ruhm.
Ascribing attributes to GodIn the abrahamic religions, it is common to ascribe positive attributes to God. God is loving, just, wise, and merciful. These ascriptions are repeated in songs, prayers, and masses. People celebrate these attributes of God.
Atheists wonder why people do that. If God is loving, just, wise, and merciful, then why is it necessary to repeat this all the time? If it is so obvious, as the religions say, then why is it necessary to tell it to everybody?
Compare this to scientists. Scientists do not gather every Thursday evening in the laboratory, join hands, and sing “Yes, gravity pulls us down to Earth! Yes, her force is greater than ours!”. This is because these truths are obvious and accepted. They are obvious and accepted, because everybody who thinks otherwise is quickly proven wrong by the facts.
The attributes of God have no such advantage. I can assume that “God is merciful”, and I can assume that “God is not merciful”, and it will change nothing in my life. Hence, atheists suspect, people have to repeat the attributes of God just to convince themselves of them. This is because the physical evidence points against the loving god rather than in his favor.
Some people say homosexuality is a sin. It’s not. God is perfectly cool with it, God feels the exact same way about homosexuality that God feels about heterosexuality. Now you might say, “Whoa, slow down. You move too fast. How could you have the audacity, the temerity, to speak on behalf of God?” Exactly, that’s an excellent point and I pray that you remember it.
Praying to GodIn the abrahamic religions, people pray to God. People ask God to heal an illness, to protect them from misfortune, or to grant wishes.
Atheists wonder why people pray. First, if God is omniscient, then he knows their wishes anyway. So what is the purpose of asking him? Second, God has a certain plan for each of us. By praying for something, we ask God to deviate from that plan. This means that we do not trust God with his plan. Why do we not trust the almighty? As Thomas Paine wrote “For what is the amount of all prayers, but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does? As if [man] were to say: Thou knowest not so well as I.” [Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason] Third, by praying, we assume that God has an influence on Earth. This makes him immediately liable for most of the evil that happens on Earth. God would be himself responsible for much of the evil that we pray to be saved from. In the cases of diseases or natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis or volcano eruptions, God caused the evil in the first place. Then, it is unreasonable to expect that he would protect us from the consequences.
If we assume that God does have an influence, then it is still strange that humans are expected to pray to God. If you see a man hit in a car accident, you rush to immediate help. Everything else would be unethical, and probably illegal. Now assume that you rush to the site of the accident, and then first expect the victim to pray to you. That would be sadistic. And yet, this is the role that God takes in the abrahamic religions. He is almighty, omnipresent, and omniscient, and yet the abrahamic religions suggest to pray in order to earn his mercy. Now, back to car accident. Suppose the victim does pray to you. If you still refuse to help the victim, you would act outrageously arrogant and irresponsible. And yet, this is what God does. He does not help, even if is asked to. Despite billions of prayers, there is no evidence that they would change anything in this world. This makes the abrahamic god an arrogant and pitiless creature.
For every player who credits God for the win,
a player from the opposing team can logically blame God for the loss.
PerfectionThe abrahamic god is considered the perfect being. This means that he as well as his creation is without fault. Unfortunately, the world is full of fault. We have seen some examples in the Chapter on the Universe, and we discuss some more here Argument from poor design:
- Some species, such as the Neanderthal man or dinosaurs, came into existence, but then went extinct. If the design of the world were perfect, then a species would not have been created only to disappear.
- The recurrent laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx. Both brain and larynx are in the head. Yet, the nerve passes down the neck to the heart, then back up through the neck into the larynx. In a giraffe, this leads to several meters of nerves to connect two organs that are just a few centimeters apart.
- Nature is full of vestigial structures. These are structures that may have served a purpose earlier in evolution, but are now completely useless. The mole rat, e.g., has eyes, but these are completely covered by a layer of skin, so that the animal is blind (Wikipedia / Spalax, Wikipedia / Vestigial).
- Humans exhibit optional vestigial structures. These are structures that are present in some humans, but not in all. These structures do not serve a purpose — as is evidenced by those humans who do not have them. The Occipitalis Minor muscle, e.g., in the back of the head, serves no purpose. While all Malays have it, only 36% of Europeans have it — without suffering from its absence. Similar examples are the palmaris longus muscle, the pyramidalis muscle, the plantaris muscle, and supplementary nipples in males and females Supernumerary nipple.
These designs are not perfect, in the sense that they do not add functionality, but often cripple the beauty, health, or well-being of the organism that is concerned. Thus, God’s creation is not perfect, and hence neither is he. There are also some more serious examples of imperfection:
- If a baby’s head is significantly larger than the pelvic opening of the mother, the baby cannot be born naturally. Prior to the development of caesarean section, such a complication would lead to the death of the mother, the baby or both. This is hardly a perfect design.
- The human spinal cord is often malformed, leading to scoliosis, sciatica and congenital misalignment of the vertebrae.
- People suffer from all kinds of congenital diseases and genetic disorders such as Huntington’s Disease.
- Myopia is widespread and is a problem for people all over the world
- Humans have an extra pair of teeth, which serve no purpose and are prone to produce medical complications — the wisdom teeth.
- People have a natural disposition to love fat and sugar. While this was useful for cavemen, it leads to obesity today. Obesity is one of the main health problems in rich and poor countries alike The Economist: The caveman’s curse, 2012-12-15.
We may argue that some of these phenomena may just appear imperfect to us, but are part of a grander plan that is unknown to us, but perfect. Let’s go with this argument. Now if something is perfect, then it requires (by definition) no perfection. Then why do we perform caesarian sections, pull out wisdom teeth, wear glasses, and fight obesity? If the original is perfect, then it requires no further perfection. Let us not wear glasses, let us have the mother die at birth, and let us not pull out wisdom teeth! Obviously, this proposal is nonsense. Even believers wear glasses. Thus, they perfect God’s creation. Thus, God’s creation is not perfect.
We may argue that God is not “perfect” in the sense we would think. For example, for God, a human with supplementary teeth can be perfect. But then, “perfect” is just the wrong word. It is a pumpkin word: It seems to mean something, but it doesn’t mean anything. We should rather use another word (such as “arbitrary”), or abandon the claim altogether.
For my part, I am unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm.
Perfection and BenevolenceThe abrahamic god is considered perfect and benevolent. Unfortunately, the world is inherently brutal.
By nature, many species can only live if they kill other animals. This entails that the life of any carnivore is a continuous chasing, tearing apart, and guzzling of other animals. Every single animal chased means the fear of death, the pain of being killed — and a life destroyed. All carnivore existence continuously tortures other animals. As Robert G. Ingersoll said: In nature, every mouth is a slaughter-house and every stomach is a tomb.
But the food chain is not the only source of cruelty: Some spider species eat not just their prey, but devore also their mates. When lions take over a harem, they secure the dominance of their own genes by slaughtering the entire population of baby lions in the group. Some wasps lay their eggs in their prey without killing it, so that the larvae eat their host slowly alive. Malaria is a disease transmitted by mosquitos. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die an agonizing death caused by that disease Malaria. Until 1910, one percent of mothers in the US died in child birth. Giving birth was about as dangerous as having breast cancer today [Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 57]. It is perverse to call that design “perfect” and that God “benevolent”.
If God designed nature, then he designed it inherently brutal. If creation is as he wishes, then he cannot be benevolent. If creation is not as he wishes, then he is not perfect.
Whatever in nature produced the antelope, produces the tiger;
whatever produced the woman produced the [...] cancer;
whatever gave the child its beauty created the germ of diphtheria.
Most of us prefer not to ascribe intelligence to that creative power.
BenevolenceThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. We have already seen that the world is brutal by “design”. Yet, there are also individual instances of brutality.
William L. Rowe gives an example of natural evil: “In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.” (see picture). Other examples of natural evil include cancer, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. People and animals get injured, ill, or killed by such events. This causes a great deal of suffering not just for the victims, but also for their offspring and family.
If God is benevolent, then he wishes to prevent such suffering. If he is omnipotent, then he is able to prevent the suffering. He does not. Hence, he cannot be both benevolent and omnipotent.
What does it mean to “trust in God”
if I have to lock my car either way?
Benevolence and HumansThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. Humans, in contrast, are rarely benevolent. Humans commit murders, they rape and steal, they slander and lie. So we ask ourselves where this evil stems from.
In the abrahamic world view, there are several possible answers to this question:
- Humans have a natural predisposition for evil acts, and not enough force to control themselves. However, God created humankind with this predisposition. Thus, God himself put the seed of evil in us. In Christianity, this is also mirrored in the Lord’s Prayer. It says: “lead us not into temptation” Bible / Matthew 6:13. It is clear that God is the agent here, who leads people into temptation. Thus, he is the one who makes us do evil things.
- Humans are good, but are seduced to do evil by the devil. However, God created the devil (or he created him as an angel and allowed him to go astray). Thus, God himself created the source of human evilness.
- Humans are good, but became evil when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. However, God, in his omniscience knew that the two would eat the forbidden fruit. Yet, he did not do anything to prevent it. Furthermore, it was God himself who created the forbidden fruit as source of all evil. He could have simply abstained from this idea. Thus, God himself co-caused human wickedness.
God says do what you wish, but make the wrong choice and you will be tortured for eternity in hell. That’s not free will. It’s like a man telling his girlfriend, do what you wish, but if you choose to leave me, I will track you down and blow your brains out. When a man says this we call him a psychopath. When god says the same we call him “loving” and build churches in his honor.
God grants us evilnessThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. Yet, he also created man, and man is often evil. One possible explanation is that God had no choice: he wanted to give us free will, so he had to accept that this free will is sometimes misused. The evil in this world would be the price to pay for the freedom of decision.
Yet, that explanation is not satisfactory: In the Muslim world view, God guides some of us on a path to good. For others, he chooses not to guide us. Thus, he deliberately abandons some of us (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p.124). That is hardly benevolent. In the Jewish and Christian world view, God made man sinful by nature. Thus, he gave man both free will and a predisposition for doing evil. This is a recipe for calamity. It compares to a cock fight Cockfight. In a cock fight, the cocks are first put together tightly in a cage to make them aggressive. Then they are equipped with spurs to make the fight more violent. Then they are left to fight each other until one of them dies. Spectators bet on the winner. In the Jewish and Christian world view, God is the spectator: he puts us humans together on Earth, predispositions us towards doing evil, and watches us fight. To excuse the resulting brutality, he says that he gave us free will. Cockfights are widely considered cruel today. So would be this view of a god. If God is really almighty, he could make moral actions especially pleasurable, so that they would be irresistible to us; he could also punish immoral actions immediately, and make it obvious that moral rectitude is in our self-interest; or he could allow bad moral decisions to be made, but intervene to prevent the harmful consequences from actually happening Problem of evil. Yet, he doesn’t.
In general, it is not clear whether the explanation of free will accounts for the degree of evil seen in this world. While the value of free will may be thought sufficient to counterbalance minor evils, it is less obvious that it outweighs the disvalue of evils such as rape and murder Problem of evil. Both make an innocent person suffer from somebody else’s free will — hardly a setting that we would call just.
We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.
The Problem of Evil
The Problem of EvilGod is considered benevolent and omnipotent, but at the same time, he lets people and animals suffer. This contradiction has long bothered theologists. It is known as “The Problem of Evil” or “The Theodicy Problem”. Numerous attempts have been made to reconcile God’s benevolence with the evil of nature. We will look into these arguments next.
If God created man in his image, I have no interest in meeting him.
The evil as punishmentThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. One way to explain the evil is to see it as God’s punishment for human misbehavior. This line of reasoning goes that illnesses, viruses, and natural disasters punish people for being sinful.
The problem with this argument is that the evil of nature hits everybody regardless of their behavior:
- Innocent people
- Natural disasters and diseases do not differentiate between those who do good and those who do evil. A Tsunami may wipe out a city, and kill the rapist as well as the priest. A guy named Roy Sullivan did not do anything evil, but was stroke by a lightening 7 times in his life Roy Sullivan. Suffering and innocence are unrelated.
- Natural disasters and diseases also hit children. Children are almost always innocent. Babies are definitively so. AIDS, for example, can be transfered from the mother to the baby, and kill the baby although it never did anything wrong.
- Also animals are hit by natural disasters — even though they do not possess the concepts of good and evil.
We may think that the punishment is administered uniformly to punish an entire society, even if some people are innocent. Yet, that does not explain why animals suffer, too. Babies have no share in the evil the society produces — and still they suffer. Furthermore, the idea of universal punishment is in stark contradiction to God’s assumed justice. To see this, consider a city with violent dissidents. If we bomb the city and erase the entire population just because of the dissidents, that would be a humanitarian disaster. It is the same if it happens through an act of God. If God is all-powerful and just, then he could think of more precise ways to administer his punishment.
To test how plausible the idea of punishment is, let us do a thought experiment. Assume that you met a child, whose parents were just drowned in a tsunami. Would you be able to tell the orphan that the tsunami was a punishment of God for his parents? Would you be able to tell the child that his parents deserved to die — for a reason that you do not know? Or would you go and tell the president of the Asian country Laos that the deaths from malnourishment in his country are a punishment of God — possibly because most people in his country have, for the past 2000 years, never heard of Jesus or Mohammed? Such an argument would be considered completely absurd and even insulting. And it is indeed.
Moreover, if the evil were really a punishment, then we would act against God’s intent if we tried to counter it. Thus, it would be disobedient to God to give food to people who are hungry, to cure a person who is ill, or to help a person in danger. We should rather let these people die, knowing that God wants to punish them. This is a completely absurd line of thinking.
If you believe that God is specifically reaching down from heaven to answer your trivial prayer to remove a zit or to help you find your lost keys, while at the same time God is allowing 27,000 children to die of starvation each day by specifically ignoring their prayers, then your God is insane.
The evil for balanceThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. Religious people claim that natural evil exists to maintain a balance in the universe. Without the evil, the universe could not exist Natural evil.
However, if God is almighty, then nothing is impossible. A world without natural disasters can very well exist. A world without AIDS has existed for millions of years. So there is no reason why God should feel obliged to introduce this illness now. The argument of “balance” is just an attempt to justify what cannot be justified.
The explosion was now officially designated an “Act of God.”
But, thought Dirk, what god? And why?
What god would be hanging around Terminal Two of Heathrow Airport
trying to catch the 15:37 flight to Oslo?
The evil for a greater goodThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent and almighty. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. One attempt to bridge this contradiction is to assume that evil is just a means to an ultimate end, which is always good.
An example is given where a doctor amputates a patient’s leg, an “evil”, in order to prevent gangrene from spreading throughout the patient’s body, “the ultimate end”, which is “good”. Yet this example is only justified on the basis that the doctor has limited powers. With the limitations of medical technology at his disposal, he of course chose the lesser evil; since there was no way of saving both the patient’s leg and his life. However, this analogy cannot be applied to God and the problem of evil, since God, unlike the doctor, has unlimited powers. In fact, a more accurate analogy is a doctor who first actively infects the leg of his patient (God is the cause of all things), and then decides to amputate his leg when some antibiotica would have been sufficient (God is all powerful). We would call such a doctor wicked and mad. Why do we call such a God good? [Rejection of Pascal: God and the Problem of Evil, citing Knight, Humanist Anthology: p132-133]. In other words: God himself designed the universe and the rules that govern it. Therefore, he cannot escape the responsibility for what happens within.
Worse, if the evil in this world exists with a purpose, it would be disastrous if we humans attempted to fight against it. We should actually welcome it, because it leads to a greater good on the long run. Yet, this is a sick idea. The argument that there would be some “greater good” is nothing more than wishful thinking. It is an attempt to justify what cannot be justified.
Humanity has forgotten that it invented God,
and now it has to put up with quite a number of inconveniences in his name.
The evil does not aim to hurtGod is revered as benevolent. And yet, natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes kill thousands of people each year. We can argue that such disasters do not actually aim to hurt us. They just happen for natural reasons. Thus, God is not to blame.
For the victims of such calamities, however, it does not matter whether the earthquake “aimed” to kill them or not. The fact is that it does. Thus, whoever caused the earthquake is responsible for the death of these people. If not by intention, then by negligence. There is no way out of responsibility for God.
With a world that suffers so indiscriminately, God cannot possibly be a rational being.
We don’t know the big pictureThe abrahamic god is believed to care for us humans. Yet, humans suffer continuously. One way to explain this suffering is to argue that we, as humans, do not know the full picture. Quite possibly, the suffering of one human is necessary to prevent the suffering of thousands of others. As an example, there goes the story of the wise man. The wise man is on a journey with his companion. Suddenly, he reaches out with his knife and kills a bystander. Then he runs away. The companion follows, but does not dare to ask for reasons. After years he brings the story up. The wise man says: “Son, this man had an evil heart. He was to become a murderer. By killing him, I have saved the life of dozens.” Analogously, we can argue that what seems bad to us is in reality a small necessary evil that prevents much greater evil. God optimizes for millions of things at the same time, and what seems implausible to us may be very plausible if we only knew the whole picture. Compare this to our education as children. When we were children, we often suffered because our parents did not allow us something that we wanted. Only now that we see the big picture, we agree that this was necessary. It could be similar with the world: If we only knew what the big picture was, we would agree that the suffering is necessary.
Unfortunately, the analogy does not work: As children, we have never been beaten (I at least). However, humans suffer in the worst imaginable forms. Every year, millions of people die of hunger, diseases, and catastrophes. Malaria alone traps hundreds of thousands of people per year in agonizing deaths. Only a minority of the world’s population is living in wealth, health, and happiness. We cannot claim that a world in which millions of people suffer is a global optimization.
To see this, do a thought experiment: We go to Ethiopia, and talk to a woman with 8 children, 6 of which are undernourished. We tell her: Yes, your children are suffering, but this is all part of a big plan where the global sum is positive. Would that comfort the woman? Most likely not. On the contrary, the thought is absurd and heartless. In atheist eyes, it is a desperate attempt to justify the evil in this world. By saying that there is a big plan and that we just do not know it, we are effectively saying only one thing: That we do not know the reason for the suffering in this world. The argument with the “big picture” is just wishful thinking. It is an attempt to justify what cannot be justified.
Besides, God promises us a place where there is no evil: heaven. It is surprising that God is able to organize heaven, but not Earth. Why does God not send us directly to Heaven (or at least the believers, or the babies)?
If Hitler said he worked in mysterious ways and had a big secret plan,
would that be all the justification you’d need?
A perfect world is impossibleThere is a lot of evil and suffering in this world, and so we ask why a benevolent god would allow this to happen. One possible answer is that a perfect world is just not possible. Hence, we may not expect one.
That is a curious idea. For centuries, humanity suffered from smallpox. Finally, science gave us a vaccine against the desease. Today, the desease no longer exists. So then, we can ask, if a world without smallpox is possible, why did God not give it to us directly?
Furthermore, there is a world in the abrahamic view that is perfect: Heaven. In heaven, there is no suffering and no evil. This defies the hypothesis that a perfect world would not be possible.
In ancient times, the best minds were busy giving a meaning to our death. Today, the best minds are busy prolonging our life. They do so by investigating the physiological, hormonal, and genetic systems responsible for desease, and developing new medicines against them.
A perfect world is boringThe suffering in this world has long stood in contrast to the supposed benevolence and omnipotence of God. One possible view is that a perfect world is maybe possible, but would be utterly boring. If there were really no evil in this world, then there were no challenges.
We first observe that this theory does not justify at all the suffering in this world. If you meet a person who suffers from lepra, would you tell her that it’s good that she suffers, because otherwise this world would be boring? Probably not. This shows that the idea of suffering for entertainment is not sustainable. On the contrary, it is demeaning to those who suffer.
Furthermore, there is a place in the abrahamic world view where there is no suffering: Paradise. That place is usually not described as boring by believers. Then the question arises why God puts us through earthly suffering at all.
If you contract cancer this afternoon and die three months later, that is God’s plan for you. Praying to cure the cancer is just a waste of time.
God can’t do everythingThe movie “Bruce Almighty” describes Bruce, a man who is unhappy in his life and blames God for it. In a miraculous encounter, God gives him all divine powers to try out whether he can do better than God. The only condition is not to reveal his divinity, and to respect free will. Bruce fails miserably. He is overwhelmed by the task, and in the end, the world is not even slightly better. This seems to suggest that the task of keeping everyone on Earth happy is close to impossible. This could explain why God, even if benevolent, cannot prevent that millions of people die every year of hunger.
It is certainly impossible to take care of every human on Earth. However, that is not an excuse for someone who created the system. God created humans and the universe in the first place. He knew how difficult the task would be, and still he allows the world to become ever more and more complex. If he does not know how to handle it, he should not have created it. Even now, he could decide to create some helpers (angels) if he is overwhelmed with the task.
Still, there are a few very simple things that Bruce (God) could do:
- stop developing diseases that make humans suffer or die .
- stop causing tsunamis, earthquakes, and epidemics.
- give humans a stronger feeling of responsibility — for themselves and for others.
- punish people who wreck havoc immediately, as by a law of nature.
- reveal himself every year in a scientifically verifiable form as the god of one religion, so as to stop the wars between the religions. Yeah, it goes against the rule not to reveal his divinity, but who made that rule anyway? God, right?
He delivered Daniel from the lion’s den
And Jonah from the belly of the whale
And the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace
So why not every man?
The evil for spiritual growthThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent and almighty. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. One way to explain the evil is to assume that our suffering is required for personal and spiritual growth. When we undergo suffering, we become more mature, and learn to see life differently. As W.D. Niven has argued in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: “Where life is easy because physicals ills are at a minimum we find man degenerating in body, mind and character... Which is preferable — a grim fight with the possibility of splendid triumph; or no battle at all?” [Rejection of Pascal / God and the Problem of Evil, citing Angeles, Critiques of God: p213]
Today’s answer would be invariably: no battle at all is better. If there were a way to avoid the evil in this world (and there is, because God is almighty), then almost all of us would prefer evil to be eradicated. Even if the evil in this world promoted human empathy, it would still not justify the suffering of the innocent. We would never kill a baby just to make a point about empathy. Neither should God. If God is almighty, he should have found other ways to stimulate human magnanimity. God, being almighty, can surely find another way to ensure our spiritual growth.
Furthermore, some physical evil simply cannot be squared away with promoting virtuous actions. The outbreak of the ebola virus in Africa is a case to point. The disease kills within a couple of weeks and no cure is possible. What possible good could have resulted from that? Earthquakes volcanic eruptions, floods have been known to kill thousands people instantly, leaving the people behind to simply pick up the pieces. What good came out of those? [Rejection of Pascal / God and the Problem of Evil, citing Angeles, Critiques of God: p214-215]. The hope that the evil in this world would in any way lead to “spiritual growth” is just wishful thinking. It is an attempt to justify what cannot be justified.
Worse, if the evil in this world is there to promote human empathy, then we could actually help that endeavor by committing some mass murders. We would actually be doing good by doing evil. This is absurd.
If the suffering of even one innocent is the price of entry to God’s world of divine harmony, then I most respectfully return him the ticket.
Suffering is subjectiveThe question is why there is evil in this world, if God is benevolent. One possible argument goes that suffering is subjective: What may seem like suffering is actually not.
However, no matter how we turn this idea, undergoing a painful disease for years and then dying from it is suffering in all reasonable definitions of the word. Calling it anything else is just manipulating words. To see this, we can make the test: We imagine that we meet a person who has attracted cancer, undergone chemo therapy, and will die in the next weeks, leaving 2 orphans. We tell him: Don’t worry, your suffering is just subjective! It happens only in your mind!
Would that work? Probably not. There exists undeniable suffering, and calling it “subjective” does not solve that problem. On the contrary, it is demeaning to the victims. It belittles their suffering. It is an attempt to justify what cannot be justified.
Health, safety, literacy, and sustenance are the prerequisites. If you are reading this, you are not dead, starving, destitute, moribund, terrified, enslaved, or illiterate, which means that you are in no position to turn your nose up on these values — or to deny that other people should share your good fortune.
Heaven outweighs the evilThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent and almighty. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. One argument goes that all the evil in this world is nothing in comparison to the harmony and joys of the afterlife. The evil is just negligible.
However, no appeal to an afterlife can eradicate the problem of evil. An injustice always remains an injustice, regardless of what happens afterwards. Assume that a man rapes a woman. Since the man happens to be a billionaire, he offers a few million dollars to the victim in compensation. Yet, he does not want to see that he did something wrong. Furthermore, he is actually already on his way to rape another woman. We quickly see that no amount of compensation eradicates the evil nature of the original act Thoughts on Ethics / Formula. Nobody would praise the billionaire as just and loving. Yet, this is what the abrahamic religions expect us to do. (Rejection of Pascal / God and the Problem of Evil, citing Smith: Atheism: p84)
Furthermore, by pointing to Heaven, we are actually downplaying the evil in this world. We say that the evil is not important. Thereby, we are doing injustice to those who suffer. Who of us dares telling a mother who lost her child that her agony is negligible? That would be an outright slap in the face.
Worse, if we downplay the evil in this world, we can justify our own injustice and inertia. If it is negligible that thousands of people die in a famine, then it is also negligible that a man beats his wife, that a baby dies of malnourishment, and that a murderer kills a victim. All of these fade in comparison to the joys of the afterlife. If God does not care about millions dying, then why should we care about a man beating his wife? And yet, such thinking is despicable. No reference to Heaven can ever justify the evil in this world.
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
The evil as a testThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent and almighty. Yet, the world sees much injustice and evil. We may say that this evil just exists to test us humans. If God finds that we withstand the evil well, then we deserve going to paradise after our death.
Yet, God is omniscient. He knows who will withstand well. There is no need to have innocent people suffer just for the benefit of those who will go to heaven. Such an argument is just wishful thinking, aimed at justifying why the world is not as religion tells us it should be. Most importantly, justifying evil in any way is, by itself, despicable.
If an almighty god wanted you to be in some perfect world, you would already be there.
There is no need for him to test something of which he already knows the outcome.
God’s planThe abrahamic god is considered benevolent. A number of arguments say that the evil in this world is part of God’s grander plan. These arguments say that evil exists as a punishment, that evil is negligible in comparison to the joys of afterlife, that it is needed for natural balance, that it serves a greater good, that it is needed for spiritual growth, that it is part of a grander plan, that a world in peace would be boring, or that it is the price to pay for free will.
Evil as GoodNow assume that we follow these arguments, and that evil is a necessary and good part of earthly life. Then why do we constantly work to abolish evil from this world? We should rather be happy that evil is there, as it has so many good consequences. We should trust God with his plans. We should not help earthquake victims, because earthquakes are the punishment by God. We should not cure an ill person, because his illness is the destiny that God has planned for that person. We could actually support God’s plan by adding some more evil, e.g., by killing more children. That would increase spiritual growth for all of us. Also, it would be negligible anyway in comparison to the joys of the afterlife.
Absurd as it may seem, this is indeed the position that the Christian Churches held. As Paul Tobin explains: When inoculation was introduced in Europe in the 18th century to help against smallpox, theologians from all over Europe and America were condemning the life saving procedure. Diseases were sent by God as a form of punishment for sin, they argued. Hence, any attempt to prevent diseases was a diabolical attempt to thwart the will of God. In the 19th century, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Montreal, Canada. Almost the entire population was vaccinated, except for Catholics. They fought hard for their right to undergo punishment by their god, and in most cases received it. People actually died because they wanted to receive the punishment from God. In a similar vein, women were prohibited from using anaesthetics during childbirth in Edinburgh, because pain during labor was considered the will of God (Bible / Genesis 3:16). “What a Satanic invention!”, cried the Scottish Calvinist Church after the invention of painkillers. The battle lasted 400 years until 1853, when Queen Victoria accepted the use of anesthetic when she was giving birth to prince Leopold Rejection of Pascal / Medicine. In a world view where God controls and imposes the evil, the opposition to painkillers and vaccination is only logical.
But this is not what we do. Rather, we actively counter God’s grand plan. In recent decades, we have discovered the antibiotic, thus rendering a large part of God’s punishments useless. We establish governments and persecution for crimes, thus severely limiting the freedom of will of criminals. If God gave people free will, how do we as humans dare to curtail it? This shows that, if we accepted evil as part of a grander plan, incentives to fight it would be futile, and even disobedient to God. This is absurd.
Evil as NecessaryWe may say that only the evil that we humans cannot prevent is part of God’s grander plan. This evil would be, ultimately, a force for good. Now assume that you go to Africa and you see a family in poverty, whose child is infected by some virus and is about to die. You have no medical experience, so there is no way to help that child. Then, according to the theory, this death is part of God’s greater plan. When the child dies, it will lead to something good. Either it will test the parents and allow them to go to heaven or it will stimulate spiritual growth, or it will be for a greater good. Then, to stay in our thought experiment, would you seriously consider telling the parents that it is good that their child dies? That this will help them grow spiritually? That this will help you (as a witness) grow spiritually? That probably the death of their child is required to save some other (unknown) people? Such an explication at the deathbed would be outrageous. Yet, it is exactly what the justifications of evil do.
A Humanist ViewAll of this is the consequence of an image of God that was developed 3000 years ago. The God was developed to satisfy the human thirst for justice, redemption, and hope. This type of god appealed to the masses, and hence the god became popular. It also liberated humanity of the weltschmerz that any reasonable being must feel when it sees the suffering on Earth. How convenient. However, as humanity became more critical (and also more knowledgeable), the contradictions between this god and reality became more and more apparent. This has put believers in an uncomfortable position. Hence, theologians have spent much effort into squaring away the evil in this world with the supposed benevolence of their god. With this effort, they are more concerned about the contradictions in their faith than about the evil itself Rejection of Pascal / God and the Problem of Evil. They feel so obligated to some ancient fictional character that they do their utmost to somehow explain the evil in this world. This is not just foolish, but also dangerous. No attempt should be made to re-interpret the evil in this world as something good. Any such attempt belittles the misery that affects so many of us. Justifying evil is evil by itself.
The solution to all this is, of course, to recognize that the abrahamic god is nothing more than a character that was developed to appeal to the masses. While it is interesting to study this character, it should in no way be used to justify any action or in-action with respect to the real world. Humanists hold that people should concentrate on fighting evil rather than on worshipping a contradiction.