Why do theologians and sceptics talk past each other on the question of God’s “goodness”? And which have a better point?

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.

19 thoughts on “Why do theologians and sceptics talk past each other on the question of God’s “goodness”? And which have a better point?”

  1. Clarification of terms’ meanings, tedious as that may be, is essential to productive discourse, and this effort invariably gets neglected. I like the idea of creating new words for baggage-heavy terms to forward a discussion, and I approve of, “Divoodine.” 🙂

    How did believers determine that divoodine is good, in the first place?

    Still writing good articles. Thanks Allallt.

    PS, how frustrating and weird was the Harris-Chomsky exchange?

  2. As usual, the atheist has completely missed the point.

    If God, the Creator, exists then all of creation originates in his wit and wisdom.

    That means it is God who defines morality.

    On the hand, if God does not exist, then it is man who must define morality for himself.

    And since all men are equal by nature, any morality defined by is merely person opinion.

    The choice then is morality which is true for all men, since God defines morality for all men…

    …or morality which is merely personal opinion because it was defined by a men.

    The rational choice is morality that is true for all men and not only for those men who are powerful enough to impose their personal opinion upon others.

  3. Re “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.”

    They would have a possible argument if any of their premises were true.”God demonstrates perfect morality” is the conclusion. This is apparently derived from God’s omniscience and perfection. I say “possible” because perfection does not guarantee goodness. A god could be perfectly bad, for example. An omniscience means God is a know-it-all, and morality is not about knowledge but choices.

    The premises of “perfection” and “omniscience” are not supported by scripture, so they have been made up by fallible mortals. How can Yahweh be omniscient when he is often surprised, upset, angry, and disappointed, all of which require a failure to meet expectations. He begins with Adam and Eve and then repeats his failures of omniscience many time thereafter. This also argues against God being perfect, unless one’s definition of perfection includes creating Adam and Eve only to have them disobey His commands immediately or having made human beings, erasing 99.999999% of them in a great flood due to a mistake.

    If one group of people defines morality as “whatever God says” and an other through introspection and science, on what basis could they even have a discussion? They can’t even agree on what they are discussing. They have different definitions, one being impossible to test either scientifically or through discourse as it is an unsupported definition. Defining what one wants as an outcome is the simplest way to get that outcome.

    1. Steve,

      If God is the Creator of all, then He is the one who gets to make the rules.

      If God does not exist then it is man who makes the rules based merely upon his own personal opinion.

      If you define morality for yourself, who are you to impose it upon me or anyone else?

      Rationally than, morality that issues forth from man is worthless because it is merely one man’s opinion.

      1. Hi SilenceOfMind,

        IF there is a God that created this universe, then you’re correct. It gets to make the rules and decide the reward and punishment for agents that follow or break said rules. If God deems it moral to punish people who are unaware or honestly mistaken, then we’d be forced to say it’s moral by God’s standard (divoodine), if not by our own. The strong man with all the power gets to call the shots, right?

        To say however that, “God does not impose [his morality],” and that, “we are free to accept his standards, or not,” is silly now, isn’t it? There is no freedom of choice when the mob boss threatens to break your knees.

        Given the stakes involved, I’d certainly like to know if I’m in such a relationship, so I can make informed decisions. But if it’s demonstrated to me that the Christian God is real, I’d like to believe that I would rebel. God is wicked by modern moral standard. I’m afraid, however, that I’d be a coward and beg for mercy and try to worship God as genuinely as possible, in the hope that I can convince myself and God. But God is not evidently real, thank God.

        However, even if the Christian God *is* real, and there really is an objective moral standard, we have to accept that this standard has been poorly communicated and is limited in scope. Meaning that we’re still required to make our own moral judgements. We’re stuck to make the best of things ourselves, either way.

        We’re in this position where we live and share space with each other and other animals. Having a moral *system* (not just a finite standard) is a necessity to survive and flourish. We create our own moral system. That it evolves over time, and that it is flawed, is evidence of that fact.

        No moral system will ever benefit everyone, but we can aim for it to benefit as many people as possible—because, you know, we have empathy and shit. I’d argue that we’ve made moral progress overall (and Steven Pinker makes a strong case of that in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature). There’s no guarantee that this trend will continue, but there’s reason to be hopeful, and there’s reason to keep improving our moral system further still.

        Morality goes beyond the personal opinion of one individual, and it’s certainly not worthless, evidenced by the fact that humans have flourished, and that more and more people live better lives.


  4. I generally loathe the morality “debate.” There are so many conclusive behavioural psychology studies to render the discussion (in which someone posits a supernatural agent) moot. It did, however, occur me a few nights ago that we are all overlooking one very simple fact: a general state of good behaviour exists in every expression of life. We do not, for example, see animals in the wild purposefully doing ridiculous things. They keep to themselves as best as they can, minding their own business. They do not kill for the thrill of it, and none purposefully torture. An elephant does not kick a passing gazelle for no reason. Birds do not dive bomb passersby for simple shits and giggles. Order is cherished by all.

      1. Yes, i have 5. They do seem to be the exception, but perhaps we can blame that behaviour on us. In the wild it would have been a helpful learning tool for the young one’s to watch.

  5. Nice. From an ethical standpoint – how do our valuations work in the world – it does seem to come down to decreed vs. agreed bases. And, there is a problem with decreed values. They are vulnerable to the real complaint at the heart of Moore’s open question: there cannot be moral reasons for conforming to them. That appears to be why an agreement is always in order regarding the ‘real meaning’ or application of decrees, i.e. the ‘killing’ part of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ receives a moral interpretation which allows or prohibits behavior which would seem to violate the decree as such. Agreed is what everybody gets to.

  6. One of the most difficult concepts in the whole debate is attempting to apply human views to a much more advanced being. Lets go the other way. I think all of us would agree that for a person to set out a $20 bill, and when another person goes to pick it up, belting them across the back of the neck with an iron bar would be immoral. Yet, if I set out a rat trap to catch the pack rat eating my car wiring, most people would not consider me immoral. I’m sure the rat, who is just looking to fill his belly, thinks its pretty immoral though. Because I don’t want my car wiring eaten, I don’t care about the rat’s opinion.

    Since God and His environment is mostly beyond our comprehension, we cannot make assessments of Him which have any validity.

      1. Sorry, this comment got lost among other notifications. You can look up humane rat traps, suffice to say they are non-lethal.

      2. That sounds good on the surface, but it seems to me there are problems. 1) they must be inspected regularly, or the rat might be trapped there in fear, exposure to predators, and starvation/dehydration. 2) What do you do with a live rat? It was trapped because it was not wanted. If it is let go, it will still be there. If taken away, it will either find its way back or bother someone else..

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