The question of whether a God character is “good” has continued for thousands of years. Since Epicurus, since Job. The position of the sceptic tends to assume the idea that humans have some idea of what morality is and approximate ways to benchmark it against God’s actions (either in Books or in nature), but the theologian doubts humanity has any idea what morality can look like. Theologians delegate their concerns on morality to God, being willing to make some conflation between God’s authority and Its morality. The sceptics are woolly and the theologians are messengers.
David Hume made some basic observations in A Treatise of Human Nature about how we face new situations: he observed that we are making moral decisions all the time, seem largely to be in agreement and people can comprehend our thinking. Hume pointed to that consistency as evidence that there is some principle or passion behind it, even if the principle is invisible to induction. Those principles are what we might call our “humanity”. Basic principles, which attempts have been made to condense―”do unto others…”, “first do no harm”―is an innate or a priori structure within us. We have ideas now that such prosocial ideas may be part of our genetic legacy, and we basically know what it looks like.
Morality looks like the intent to avoid harm and effect happiness; it looks like not acting solely for yourself and no inhibiting others ability to make informed decisions; it looks like affection and caring and it doesn’t look like a Semtex vest or an assault rifle. Sam Harris argued that another structure morality comes from is our brain, by being the parchment on which our wellbeing is written thus allowing us to read the effects of an action and talking about having safeguarded wellbeing. (Although, Harris seems to have abandoned his consequentialist moral framework to have far too binary a discussion with Noam Chomsky.)
These structures are easily overruled. We battle our selfish interests against our ethical ones, but we and those around us identify the difference. Selfishness is a separate and identifiable phenomenon. And by identifiying selfishness and uncoupling it from morality, we can avoid the confusion of ‘human nature’ and morality being the same. As we separate the elements of human nature we can start to extrapolate to see what the nature of morality really is.
The point here is that the sceptical and humanist understanding of morality emanates from us; we have structures that allow us to implement justice and evaluate actions. Although the exact nature of these structures is difficult to articulate and still under discussion, the idea that we rest at the core of morality is the point. We rest there, even if morality is relative to our existence or a construct as artificial as tax law. And that gives way to definitions of “good” that theologians just don’t engage with.
Theologians define good as irrevocably emanating from God. Unlike humans, who have core principles but wrestle with selfishness and self-interest and project an imperfect morality, God demonstrates perfect morality. God’s omniscience and perfection necessitates that God is absolutely good. More notably, that one must be perfect and omniscient to be absolutely good, that negates human’s ability to discuss goodness without reference to God. Human approximations to morality through “first do no harm” don’t even have to be close because all human efforts are immediately void. No matter how much God’s actions―known through natural phenomena or particular Books―offend our sensibilities, they are good.
Theologians recognise that it becomes nearly impossible to put content to morality through this definition. Holy wars are permitted and God can command rape, but only if the principles and the exact circumstance interact in such a way that permit it. But we have no access to the principles and so cannot make any judgements ever: we can not know what “good” will look like, we just have an authoritarian reason to believe it exists (based on bad assumptions).
What becomes apparent here is that sceptics and theologians are using the word “good” very differently. In fact, they are basically different words that share a spelling. And that underpins the reason the two groups talk past each other in discussions of morality and God’s nature. If we were to take the theologian definition of goodness―”God’s nature”―and append it to a new word, like “Divoodine”, the discussion would immediately become clear. Goodness and divoodinity clearly are not the same thing. And so the nature of the question becomes one of whether we should respect the good or the divoodine more.
Obviously, if there is no reason to believe in a God then there is no reason to pay any deference to the divoodine at all. But theologians talk on the assumption of a God, so I shall do them the favour of speaking from that perspective: even in a world with a God, why should we prefer the divoodine over the good? Most famously, the answers are to do with the carrot and the stick (Heaven and Hell), God’s immense power or God’s authority based on the fact It is our Creator. The first two are clearly born from fear, and I don’t see that it is worth spending our time on them. The latter is odd; it plays on our sense of goodness to see what deference we owe God for being our ultimate parent (else, it is just more fear-mongering about how a dissatisfied will assume the right to kill us. That also doesn’t warrant our attention when we are discussing what is good; only the attention we can afford it from fear). Even if we assume a God to be real, and our Creator, what respect do we owe this divoodinity, just because It is reflected in such values? Do we owe our parents’ ideas respect, regardless of what those ideas are? No. And trying to guilty us into disregarding goodness for divoodinity is an idea worth ignoring.
The human idea of good, that Hume observed we consistently share and understand of each other, doesn’t need to be respected; it is shared. We already have it and understand it. And we have long understood its benefit to us as a society and as a species.