Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Good God.

Contention: That we are both morally superior to and much more powerful than any God who is completely and only good — no matter what your definition of good happens to be.

Theism tends to take the free will path as opposed to the fatalist path; for if it is fatalist, it concludes that we are doomed to our fate by God and that any evil we perform or suffer is his fault. If we have free will, however, theology attempts to explain precisely why. Some have fared better than others; the strongest position, to my mind, is the one espoused by J. L. Mackie. It basically holds that there is no merit in being good if one cannot do otherwise. If a man is not free to do evil, ought he be rewarded for doing good? After all, he had no choice in the matter, especially if you take the common Christian angle that evil is the defiance of goodness, only existing in reaction to it. One might as well reward an arrow for hitting its target. So we have free will, and thus the capacity for evil, so that our good deeds may have meaning and merit. Free will (or per se freedom if you prefer) becomes, in a way, the ultimate good.*

So far, so hoopy. But then we run into a problem. God, by his very nature, cannot do evil. He is completely and only good, isn't he? (This argument of course does not apply to gods who might not have this particular characteristic, but there are many who do.) You could argue that the past is not a reliable indicator of the future, that just because God happened to do the ‘right thing’ the last 10 million times doesn't mean he necessarily will next time, does it? But many want to believe in a God who is ‘good’ in and of his very nature, rather than a Supreme Creator who merely happens to be good so far. (Of course, if you take most of the stories told about him, the moral dissonance between his behaviour and what we now consider to be good does you no favours if you want to hold this belief.)

However, we have already established, in trying to explain why God would give us free will, that a being that is good of its very nature does not possess a free will. God is therefore inferior to us, because we have the power of choice, and so our acts, when they are good, are much more so than the same acts were they to be performed by God.

One might pick out that I claimed freedom as the ultimate good (because it is that which gives all other goodness meaning) and choose to use this in his definition of God, so that “completely and only good” becomes “completely (and only) free”. That seems a lot more attractive; but it’s a case of equivocation, and it winds up making God no less capable of or inclined to malice than anyone else.

*Even as an atheist I find this argument useful to my own worldview, but in the opposite direction. Rather than deciding that I have free will because otherwise my actions are morally meaningless, I decide that my actions are meaningful because I have the freedom to do so. Even on fatalism this holds true, because even on fatalism I make my own meaning; I was merely fated to do it, and I ought to act as though I am free because that way I am never responsible for making the wrong choice.


  1. Or, rather, it feels as though you've skipped a paragraph or seven which would have helped with the flow of this post and helped the end make sense.

  2. Ah... you remind me of a young me


    Earlier this year I wrote about Jesus as a physical extension of God:


    To me, it's the ultimate paradox of Christianity. A good God who sent a human to earth (who was actually God) to suffer and die. Was it choreographed? Did Jesus have free will? Did Jesus have God's abilities/knowledge, or was he a free and independent man?

    To paraphrase you at the beginning of this post, Jesus would be far greater as a non-divine human than as the fate-bound pawn of God.

  3. I actually have a post on that subject coming up. This post, as well as a few others, was largely composed a few years ago, before I started WTA.

  4. Aw, that's cute. Trying to pretend like you didn't learn everything you know from me.

  5. [suitably witty remark about things she's taught Oolon]