Monday, January 5, 2009

The Cruel God

People say the God of the Old Testament is cruel and if you read it, it seems so.

It's really a matter of perspective though. Writers of the Old Testament ascribed everything in life to God, and since life can be cruel God comes off as cruel sometimes too.

If a city like Sodom is destroyed by a volcano, they felt compelled to come up with a reason so they said the people in the city were sinful and that's why God destroyed them.

I don't know if the people in Sodom were any more sinful than people anywhere else, but there have been several cities destroyed by volcanoes through the ages and people of faith want to know why.

It's hard for people to accept that we don't know why cities are destroyed by volcanoes: probably because they are built near a crack in the crust where magma can force its way through to the surface, but that's not a reason to say God is cruel.

The Old Testament, particularly the Torah, covers a vast period of time and these disasters stand out. It doesn't mean God is cruel though. There are other parts where God is shown as kind and merciful, but those parts aren't nearly as memorable as the more painful ones.

What's missing from the Old Testament is the Jesus message that all things work for the good, and even though life is cruel, it's not the end of the story--there is another life that comes after this one where justice and mercy reign.

If that message were clearer in the Torah and the Old Testament, then God would not seem so cruel. That's why it's so important that Jesus came when he did to give us this message of hope.

Children too think their parents are cruel when they don't get their way and it can take many years for them to understand how much their parents really loved them, especially in the dark times.

God is our parent and the bible is the story some of us wrote along the way of our life with God. There are parts of the story we didn't get exactly right because then and even now our perspective is that of a child and like a child we can't always see how much our parent loves us no matter what happens.

God isn't cruel. God loves us. That doesn't mean things will always be pleasant though. It does mean that we will make it through the unpleasant bits, then and now. There is love and there is hope, no matter what happens.


Jerry said...

Hi Mr. Boyd,

I read through this diatribe on God and cruelty. I take it to be a general argument about the nature of suffering in the world as relates to the presence of a caring God? Which is a pretty old argument. Gilgamesh struggled with it, the character in the book of Job, Thomas Aquinas tried to justify it, etc.,etc.

But, I thought I would comment on your essay because it reminds me so much of the rhetoric of all the Desert religions. The logic is always flawed and usually provides very few real answers, much less asks any useful questions about suffering.

My goal is not to insult or be one of those obnoxious self-righteous atheists. I myself used to be a person of faith. I think however, the longer one lives on this earth and looks critically at things, the less possible it is to believe these document-revering modes of thinking.

Rather, I wanted to just share how hollow these arguments always leave people who are not people of faith, and perhaps it will assist you or others in understanding why we think this stuff is nonsense.

First you suggest that God is NOT cruel nor is he to blame for suffering. You cited natural disasters, human perspective on the causation for suffering, and the concept that "life is cruel," as evidence for this argument.

I think we are 100% in agreement on these points, but for different reasons. I also do not think GOD is to blame for suffering or is cruel, because I see no evidence to suggest he exists at all, particularly in light of this concept religous persons call God's love. The results do not match the so-called intent. I further believe life is cruel because we have often made it so.

Where we differ is on the point of the purpose for suffering. You suggest that good things come of adversity, and that life lessons are learned. We thought our parents cruel when "we didn't get what we want," and that these things were for our own good. They were being cruel to be kind, so to speak. If what you say is true then you are unwittingly stating a logical fallacy.

You are saying 3 things:

Our parents were cruel to teach us lessons.
God is our parent.
Therefore God is cruel.

Yet, in the beginning of your essay you said god is NOT cruel, not responsible or to blame for suffering (nature and our perspective are to blame), which is the opposite of your main argument no matter what justification you give for the cruelty.

I think many of us who admire logic and reason over faith have a very hard time with faith-based approaches to life. We prefer to see things critically and on evidence rather than believe something that is the opposite of what is apparent.

I can see no explanation in your essay or in any other religious text to justify the cruelty that has occured in the name of God. For example, the killing of innocent women, children and even livestock in the days of Joshua and Caleb under scriptural orders from God or the present behavior of people of faith in the Middle East suggests that the whole biblical pretext for how we should live our lives in relation to our fellow human beings is faulty to the core.

I do not believe as you suggst that suffering is god's great teacher and that our hardships are meant to improve us in any way. I think they drain our spirits, that from generation to generation we still haven't found the courage as human beings to be moral, but instead timidly and weakly chase a phantom god to make everything better: to improve that which we can but refuse to improve ourselves.

So basically I think your thinking is completely wrong.

A. Boyd C. said...

Either you didn't read my post very well or I didn't write it very well. My point was not that God is cruel to teach us anything. My point was that God isn't cruel at all.

Sometimes children think people are cruel when they're not. When children don't get what they want they try to blaim somebody, usually their parents, even if their parents had nothing to do with it.

Compared to God, we humans have a child-like perception even as adults, so we too sometimes think God must be cruel when he's not.

My point was that if you ascribe everything to God, good and bad then there's a problem because then you have to come up with a reason why God gave you bad stuff, even when you were good and why he gave somebody else good stuff, even when they were bad.

There isn't always an ethical reason things happen. God doesn't micromanage the world. If he did I probably wouldn't want to live here.

God's love doesn't mean God is some sort of celestial santa claus who you can ask of things and you might get them depending on whether you were good or not.

If that's what you want, then it would probably be best if you didn't have faith at all because you're either going to always be mad at God or always afraid God is mad at you.

God's love emminates from our very existence. It comes not from protecting us from suffering but by giving us comfort, mercy, forgiveness and grace while we are suffering.

You can't make God into Santa Claus because there is no causal relationship between the good and bad things you do and the good and bad things that happen to you. That doesn't mean there is no God, it just means God isn't what you wanted him to be.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking if they can't get what they want from God then there must be no God and they become atheists.

That's kind of a childish argument though because you're basically saying if you cant have things your way then you're going to take your ball and go home.

You have to seek faith on its own terms, not yours, otherwise you'll never find it, or if you do, don't trust it because what you found isn't real.

I have no problem with athiests, because many people have to start from a position of not believing any of it and seek it for what it is, not what you heard it might be or what you were told as a child.

Some people try to say the bible is God's rule book. They're wrong. The bible is a written account from scores of people over thousands of years doing their best to figure this out.

People want a rule book because rule books make things a lot easier, but it's just not that easy. That doesn't make it worthless though, there's a lot of really amazing stuff in the bible, but you still have to do the heavy lifting yourself.

Jerry said...

No, I think I understood your post very well, and I believe you wrote the best you could from a faith perspective. In my opinion, your premise still suffers from a lack of logical coherence because it leans on the invisible and not the tangible.

Recharacterizing the argument to suggest that people believe God is a celestial Santa Claus who risks upsetting immature minds is moot to an athiest. For example, I DO NOT believe in God any more than I do Jolly old St. Nick.

I think you are reconfiguring the image of God in a way that absolves the deity of responsibility for suffering. I find this also an unnecessary concept AND a logical fallacy. Throw out the idea of God all together and you will see how simplified the argument becomes. There is no need to expect anything, good or bad from God, because there is no evidence to suggest he exists at all.

It simply makes more sense to recognize that we are actors each charged with an individual duty to act morally in the real world, a world by the way that is still in the process of cooling. Earthquakes, tidal waves, etc. are completely understandable side effects of living on a planet that experiences cyclical upheaval. That IS the world that YOU AND I live in, which I think we can both agree.

Humans however, who persist in believing in a loving but benign, invisible man in the sky is the very definition of "child-like perception," and such a person would naturally be afraid of, or have expectations of God, yes.

When we graduate from believing in nonsensical fairy tales into a world view that requires empirical standards that are open to scrutiny, debate and individual reproducability - the mileage should not vary.

As far as the NEED to "seek faith" it is also irrelevant. I found that faith did not answer my questions anywhere so well as logic and reason do. People of faith spending thousands of years "trying to figure it out" as you suggest, have done far less effective research about the nature of reality than scientists. In their fear of the uncomfortable silence that comes with the uncertainty of life they have blurted out an answer of their own choosing into that vacuum.

It takes greater courage to embrace ambiguity and paradox, than it does to accept the comforting ideas of a supreme being. Unfortunately, the price for this security is ignorance, division, violence and warfare.

We could do without that divine "love", I think this hypothetical God loves us so much he would allow himself to diminish so that we could increase.

As you said, the "rule books" were written by people trying to figure it out. People, not God. When we look back over our history we will see that people, and not God have been the ones hammering out the rules for how we should rightfully treat each other.

It has been us all along...

Thanks, it's been pleasant debating with you.

A. Boyd C. said...

I think it's dangerous to set up science as an alternative to religion, not because it's bad for religion, but because it's bad for science.

Science maintains its integrity best when it does its own thing and ignores religion. Trying to have it serve both purposes puts a burden on science that shouldn't be there if it's to remain pure.

Science looks for proof because that's its purpose, religion doesn't because it's not its purpose.

Going way off topic here, the thing that worries me about what guys like Richard Dawkins are doing with atheism is bad for science. His own books suggest that one shouldn't evangelize science, that science isn't a meme, yet that's exactly what he's doing.

In the end, he'll probably remembered as an evangelist for atheism rather than as a scientist, which sucks because as a scientist he's brilliant, but as an evangelist he's only so-so.

You're absolutely right there is no proof for God. None, none, none, no matter where you look. What you're missing though is that for people who have found or are seeking faith, it doesn't matter. They're not looking for proof and arguing with them about it is rather like arguing with a vegetarian whether steaks should be rare or well-done.

I'm not an apologist for religion. If you feel complete without faith, then you probably are, but there are millions of people who don't feel complete without faith and, for them, you can't offer science as a substitute because it's a square peg for a round hole.

I hate when people try to make a religion of science or a science of religion. I hate it when religious people do it with their intelligent design nonsense and I hate it when scientist do it with their god delusion nonsense. The two simply are equivocal.

Anonymous said...

Sorry jerry, you are trying to be intelligent but it’s really not working for you. ;)
You have taken bits and pieces out of this guys blog (completely out of context),then twisted them all around to suit your own argument.