November 30, 2007

Everything is Permitted

Posted in atheism, church, philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, theodicy, theology at 10:39 am by Jerry

I just finished reading Philosophers Without Gods (subtitled – Meditations On Atheism and the Secular Life) edited by Louise M. Antony. It was a good read. Funny thing, though, while I read it I couldn’t help but think about another book I read years ago (which I may have to visit again for old times sake). And speaking of re-reading, there may be a few chapters from the former book that I might have to give a second read as well.

One common subject discussed (and apparently written about in a novel I never seem to get back to), is the assumed non-existence of morality if God were not to exist. I was getting tired of hearing about this subject (especially from Christians) until I read the last line in the last chapter, written by Jonathon E. Adler. Adler turns the tired adage “If God is Dead, Everything is Permitted” on its head by writing: “If God is Alive, Everything is Permitted.” These words stood out to me more than anything else he wrote in the chapter.

Saying that everything would be permitted if God didn’t exist means that not only would you be able to do whatever you wanted, but everyone else would be able to do whatever they wanted to you. Really? Would anyone let anyone one else do anything to them? Come on, let’s be realistic here.

But on the other hand, does Adler have a valid point? If God exists, is God permitted to do everything? Now let me clarify. I didn’t ask – if God exists, doesn’t he permit himself to do anything? I’m talking about the human perspective, a perspective we can all acknowledge exists.

God is free to do anything without question from his followers. According to his followers, God is accountable to no one. Why would he be if he is believed to be omni-benevolent? His holy and perfect righteousness affords complete trust, doesn’t it? What could be considered by non-God-followers as evil committed by God will always be considered by his followers as a righteous act perceived as evil by non-God-followers, who need reminding of their human ignorance and fallibility.

For example, I have yet to find an adequate ethical justification for the genocide acts condoned by the God of the Old Testament. Why is it wrong to commit genocidal acts in the twentieth century, and yet permissible (and justified “for that time”) millenniums ago? Or, why is torture considered wrong by most of the world, and yet is accepted as a valid form of ethical reckoning in the afterlife for anyone who is not a follower of a certain religious creed?

I don’t see how the same evil behavior committed by human beings becomes “good” when it is committed by God. Calling inhumane acts “Divine Justice” doesn’t make them just. But no true follower of God would ever say they don’t permit God to do certain things.

And so, for God, from the perspectives of his followers, everything is permitted.

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15 Comments »

  1. Mike said,

    Good post.

    Of course, the standard theistic counter to the Argument from Evil is the Hidden Purposes Defence (so many capitals!) – that while something may be evil in itself, it permits a greater good to emerge, even if we puny humans are unable to fathom said greater good.

    After that, the counter-counter is that this is no defence for a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient being; if these omni-qualities hold true, then he/she/it could easily accomplish his/her/its aims without any evil at all.

    See also divine command morality…

  2. Doctor Jay said,

    Hmm, interesting. My sense of the argument hinted at in the Book of Job is that it’s because God is a superior being, and our Creator, and frankly, how dare we question his judgement.

    That is, suppose you are an author and you write a novel. You kill off some characters in your novel, because that makes it better. The characters might be really unhappy that you did that, but that doesn’t matter, you made them up in order for them to be killed in Chapter 9. Viz. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    I didn’t find this very comforting when I read Job, but I think it’s a fairer reading.

  3. Jerry said,

    Hi Doctor Jay,

    You said, “God is a superior being, and our Creator, and frankly, how dare we question his judgement.” Does this mean that you think ‘Might is Right’? I don’t because this principle justifies any totalitarian rule. And I think (in the words of Abraham Lincoln), ‘Right makes Might’, or at least it should.

    I also have a problem with your novelist analogy. I happen to be writing a novel myself. And if my characters literally came alive as soon as my descriptions of them were put to page, I would be more obligated to respond to their lives than a mere story line. Don’t get me wrong, story is very important and powerful. But stories are meant to serve life, life is not meant to serve story.

  4. It’s not so much that morality wouldn’t exist without God. Humans obviously have some kind of sentimental morality based effectively on an idea of “you scratch my back and someone else will probably scratch yours over the long term” biologically wired in (not that the wiring doesn’t go wrong at times). But any morality is not good enough, when atheists say they are as moral as Christians, they mean they follow their own morals, is it surprising that this doesn’t convince Christians who’s morality is (generally although modernism and post modernism has eaten away at it) quite different both in specifics (no homosex for instance) and in type (atheist morality usually, although this is not a universal thing, is some form of consequentialism or utilitarianism and has as its basis, again usually, either the minimisation of suffering or the maximisation of happiness – Christian morality on the other hand is based on effectively, loyalty to the Lord, who is himself perfectly good – as Anselm says, if it could be shown He commanded evil, it would not be right to obey the command, but because He is perfectly good he cannot command evil – but of course that begs the question of what the “good” is that is perfected in God).

    It is not just that God created man therefore can do what He bloody well pleases, again, Anselm talks about this quite a bit, according to Christian tradition God is good, not just good in the sense of possessing an attribute, but in the sense of being the fullness, the source and the totality of goodness. Now for someone who’s concept of good is borne out of a materialist-utilitarian view this will seem wrong, in some cases it results in direct contradiction of values, which is why I personally am pessimistic about the ability of pluralism to succeed in the long run.

  5. Oh but at the same time God’s goodness is in a sense demonstrated by our existence and His having created us. It’s not so much because He created us He can do anything to us without possibility of doing wrong (although I see how it might come off that way) as that everything we have is from Him, so we have no claim to it independent of Him, no rights independent of Him, if He takes something from us, all He is doing is taking what is His that He lent to us.
    When God kills He is taking His own. When I or anyone else kills we are taking what is God’s.

  6. Jerry said,

    Hi Sophia. Thanks for dropping by. I enjoyed your comment.

    You said, “according to Christian tradition God is good, not just good in the sense of possessing an attribute, but in the sense of being the fullness, the source and the totality of goodness.”

    Maybe you could answer a question that has been bugging me lately. How is it that God is ‘the source and the totality of goodness’ just because he says so?

    And as far as the future of pluralism is concerned, I think it will have a healthy future if national governments are entirely secular while wholly democratic in order to recognize the equal rights of all citizens. I don’t mean to infer a Utopian future here. I’m not so naive as to assume any type of spotless ‘perfection’ can be achieved in any ever-changing society and its government.

    You also said, “God’s goodness is in a sense demonstrated by our existence and His having created us.” This is, in its entirety, a faith statement. No one who requires more than faith, who requires sufficient evidence to repeatedly demonstrate a sound theory, can say God’s goodness is ‘demonstrated’ to us.

    You said, “everything we have is from Him, so we have no claim to it independent of Him, no rights independent of Him, if He takes something from us, all He is doing is taking what is His that He lent to us.
    When God kills He is taking His own. When I or anyone else kills we are taking what is God’s.” (italics mine).

    I find these words quite disturbing. First of all, it contradicts the anthropocentric value of nature communicated in the bible. Why create the entire universe for humanity and then destroy humanity? Second, I suppose you are one of the few Christians who believe that the human will cannot truly be claimed as their own, independent of God, and therefore is in actuality, not a “Freewill”. And lastly, if God is still ‘perfectly good’ while directly ending the material lives of his human slaves (I know ‘slaves’ sounds dramatic. But it is entirely realistic), can he still be ‘perfectly good’ by directly ending supernatural life he “owns” as well – like the spirits of human beings, angels, or even one of his “persons” in the Trinity (even if Trinitarian theology would inform us that destroying the existence of one person in the Trinity would in fact destroy God completely)?

  7. 1. No I am not a hypercalvinist. I very much believe in free will, but if I exist because of God and everything I can choose I can choose because of God, God is still the source of all I have.

    2. The way I see the God being good thing, you ask “just because He says so?” well… almost, but you have to see it from the point of view that there is nothing without God. Anything that exists at all exists because God gives it existence. If I value my existence, and existence at all, God is good, if I do not value existance then I might not consider God good I suppose, but I consider (and THIS is a faith statement) existence to be objectively valuable. Anything that exists is added to a neutral baseline by God, there was nothing and He built upon nothing, anything is better than nothing – evil is taking the goodness he has created and corrupting it and damaging or destroying it. God having absolute sovreignity over creation because it is the constant act of giving on His part (a giving He has every right to withdraw from, just as I have the right to stop giving money that belongs to me to an empoverished family member even if this causes them to suffer, it is legitimate, even if its not best – but if God does it, assuming He knows everything, which is generally the view held, it will be best).

    It’s the idea of the absolute sovreignity of God, derived from the fact that we and all of creation are absolutely dependent. The idea that man has any rights or sovreignity against God that God has not provided and God does not have the right to take away is the source of your complaints as I see it. Without a sense of gratitude for existence despite the abject dependence upon which our existence rests (again, this is the Christian view, we depend totally on God for our existence – Christianity is not deism, God is the sustainer as well as the creator).

    3. God will not destroy humanity as far as Christianity is concerned. I am not saying He would but that it is within His rights to do so, it would not be an immoral act for Him to do so. But he won’t because He loves man as shown by His longsuffering of us and our attitudes and His willingness to sacrifice for us.

    Are children slaves? I think the children metaphor is better than the slaves one (although many people I know would gladly affirm being slaves of God…) because a slave is used for the owners benefit (but God cannot benefit more than He has, His nature means there is nothing which could be added to it) where a child may well be coerced and told what to do, but for it’s own benefit.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to destroy angels or persons of the Trinity or souls, the middle idea seems absurd (although I was once told God could destroy Himself so totally that He never existed then bring Himself back into being) but I assume God could do it and remain perfectly good.

  8. Hmmm I thought again maybe you were not referring to hypercalvinism but the idea that I do not posses myself (I belong to God, although He has given me the liberty to disobey Him, I owe Him obedience and do wrong when I deny it Him) – but that’s the ordinary Christian view I thought.

  9. Jerry said,

    Wow, Sophia. You’ve dropped a whole lot of theological opinions in your comments – with quite the authoritative voice, I might add.

    “God is still the source of all I have.” And all we don’t have? Like freedom from God’s reign? Would God ever let humanity vote for a democratic leader to replace him?

    “..there is nothing without God. Anything that exists at all exists because God gives it existence.” Again, just because he says so?

    “If I value my existence, and existence at all, God is good, if I do not value existance then I might not consider God good I suppose,” There is no logic in this statement. The value of one’s existence does not prove God’s goodness. And are you insinuating that I don’t value my existence?

    “a neutral baseline”?

    “there was nothing and He built upon nothing” Does this make ‘nothing’ as old as God?

    “evil is taking the goodness he has created and corrupting it and damaging or destroying it.” Maybe you could answer some other questions that have been bothering me. Is evil as old as God? And where does the inclination to commit evil come from?

    “God having absolute sovreignity over creation [whether we want him to or not] because it is the constant act of giving on His part (a giving He has every right to withdraw from, just as I have the right to stop giving money that belongs to me to an empoverished family member even if this causes them to suffer, it is legitimate [although a sin of omission?],” (italics in brackets mine)

    “..if God does it, assuming He knows everything, which is generally the view held, it will be best.” (italics mine). A ‘view’ held by many doesn’t make it true or God’s actions the best.

    “It’s the idea of the absolute sovreignity of God, derived from the fact that we and all of creation are absolutely dependent.” This is based on what?

    Without a sense of gratitude for existence despite the abject dependence upon which our existence rests (again, this is the Christian view, we depend totally on God for our existence – Christianity is not deism, God is the sustainer as well as the creator).” (italics mine)

    Carl Sagan once wrote, “..if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?” (The Varieties of Scientific Experience). Your belief that our reality has an extra realm called the ‘supernatural’ does not make me less of a grateful person. And neither should you be considered less of a grateful person for not finding any reason to think it probable that leprechauns and ferries exist. I resent your accusation.

    “His longsuffering of us and our attitudes and His willingness to sacrifice for us.” This is no guarantee that God will not destroy humanity.

    “a child may well be coerced and told what to do, but for it’s own benefit.” When my two-year-old becomes an adult, she’s free to equally tell me what to do for my own benefit. It is then, as adults, we will BOTH be free to be mutually informed and decide on our own actions.

    “I assume God could do it and remain perfectly good.” Because you’re obligated to?

    I owe Him obedience and do wrong when I deny it Him) – but that’s the ordinary Christian view I thought.” (italics mine) This is not ‘ordinary’, but rather, downright scary. It’s ordinary (within the Christian ‘Bible-belt’ geographic) to be taught that God wants our obedience, but not-so-ordinary to be told we ‘owe’ God our obedience.

  10. LOL, democratically electing a God. Relations between man and God are ultimately feudal. This should not be so horrendous even to democrats (myself I think feudalism had much to be said for it, though in practice as with everything as a social system it was marred by sin) if one accepts God’s goodness.
    We can’t be free from God’s reign, its that whole total dependence thing again. And not because He says so, but because it is how it is.
    Yes you can argue it’s not how it is, but, you can accuse the Christian worldview of being inconsistent on that basis, because the Christian worldview accepts that it is how it is.
    If God exists and is the source of existence then to reject God is to necessarily reject the value of your existence, it’s saying that it would be better for there to be no God and no existence than existence if existence relies upon God.

    Nothing is not a thing, that is a semantic confusion not a real one.

    Evil is also not a thing, it is simply falling short of goodness. It doesn’t exist itself, just like “cold” doesn’t exist, cold is just what we call levels of heat that are lower than others or expected.
    I don’t know where the inclination to evil comes from. I know that Emil Cioran said that something must have been “off” even before that first sin, some primordial discontent, or we would not have done it, but I am not ceirtain. To say so I think smacks of determinism, the idea that every free choice is caused by something prior. It could just have been an isolated whim with no source which effected everything, or anything, I don’t know. Of course now the inclination to evil is concupiscence and comes from the corruption of nature including human nature brought about by the first disobedience.

    God withdrawing His support is not a sin of ommision because He does not owe us His support. If I fail to give to my neighbour in His hour of need, I commit a sin of ommision because I do not entirely posess all I own (rather to go back to the feudal metaphor, God has temporarily alienated some of what He owns to me by infeudination) and part of my duty on earth as a result is toward my fellow man. God has no such duty to omit.

    Well I can’t argue for why the Christian view is true, my reasons for thinking so are too personal, I am only arguing for its internal consistency and elegance. I am sure other people can do the former far more effectively than I can.

    The absolute dependence of man upon God is a core Christian tenet. To say otherwise is Pelagianism which is a heresy.

    Re: Gratitude. I am not saying you are ungrateful, you misinterpret me. But the fact is a lot of people cannot accept the idea of being dependent on God. They are quite satisfied with the idea of existing as independent agents, but would be horrified of an existence otherwise, this is ingratitude, it is a failure to appreciate quite how awesome it is to exist even under God. There are people who’d rather die than be subject to anything or anyone.

    God (according to Christians) won’t destroy humanity because He promised not to.

    In relation to God we are far less than children. We will never be equal to God in the way two adults are equal.

    I am fairly sure it is the mainstream Christian view that we owe God obedience, otherwise what is sin? I understand that the Eastern Orthodox have an interesting take on sin actually, that is somewhat different, but I think the basics are the same.

  11. Correction: but, you can’t* accuse the Christian worldview of being inconsistent on that basis, because the Christian worldview accepts that it is how it is.

  12. I guess Pelagianism is actually not exactly the same as saying we are not utterly dependent on God.
    But anyway, our total dependence is something that is certainly taken for granted in all the literature of at least the Catholic Church that I have come across.

  13. Jerry said,

    “LOL”

    I had a feeling you weren’t necessarily taking this conversation seriously. And although I do appreciate it very much when I happen to come across a theist who attempts to present a consistent view of their supernatural belief, I find it odd that arguing for the probability of their Christian view being true is not just as important or more so. Nevertheless, I’ll be ending our conversation with some less serious thoughts as well to display a commentary on the conversation itself…

    LOL, all but Don Quixote have left any nostalgic hopes for the return of the dark ages. Any democrat wishing for their nation to give up its democracy ultimately wishes every citizen to devalue their individual selves.

    “And not because He says so, but because it is how it is.” Ohhh, so it’s because YOU say so.

    “If God exists and is the source of existence then to reject God is to necessarily reject the value of your existence, it’s saying that it would be better for there to be no God and no existence than existence if existence relies upon God.” You may think that saying it is ‘the Christian view’ justifies you’re judging of me with an authoritative certainty, but it doesn’t. Look, you may have some bizarre sense of certainty in your faith (making all efforts to be correct instead of corrected), but it is unconscionable to inflict these judgments on others who don’t share your belief.

    Although I’m ending this conversation, I’ll still leave you with some questions…
    “Nothing is not a thing… Evil is also not a thing” Has God always known about these concepts? And if so, why would a supposedly all-powerful being have any need for these concepts in his reality?

    “[The inclination to evil] could just have been an isolated whim with no source which effected everything, or anything, I don’t know.” Yeah, that’s a good reason for condemning humanity to Hell. But wait! Here’s a lovely ultimatum: believe that a murderous and/or suicidal divine hazing, that includes a human sacrifice, will erase an unending supernatural destiny of the worst punishment imaginable because an isolated whim was committed by the first of your species! You’ll have to come up with something better, Sophia, if you’re wanting to argue for Christianity’s ‘internal consistency and elegance’.

    “If I fail to give to my neighbour in His hour of need, I commit a sin of ommision because I do not entirely posess all I own” No, the sin of omission is because we withhold the kind of love (Xenia, Storge, Agape) required for the human species to survive.

    “the fact is a lot of people cannot accept the idea of [not] being dependent on God. They are quite satisfied with the idea of existing as independent agents, but would be horrified of an existence otherwise, this is ingratitude, it is a failure to appreciate quite how awesome it is to exist [without] even under God. There are people who’d rather die than [not] be subject to anything or anyone [that obligates supernatural belief without a reasonable cause].” (brackets and slashes mine)

    “God (according to Christians) won’t destroy humanity because He promised not to.” – says a human biblical writer thousands of years ago.

    “In relation to God we are far less than children. We will never be equal to God in the way two adults are equal.” One adult may be older, more experienced, more powerful in affluence, influence and otherwise, but is still obligated to recognize the equal value of voice among other adults.

    Sophia, although I do appreciate you dropping by, I can see that our conversation is going nowhere. And I doubt either of us has learned anything new. Therefore, I struggle to see any value in continuing it.

    Thanks again,
    Jerry

  14. sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  15. Jerry said,

    Thanks Sandra. Come by anytime.

    Jerry


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