Thursday, February 15, 2007

It matters who God is

I was following some links today and came across a controversy between PZ Myers of Pharyngula and Vox Day of Vox Popoli. A questioner on the latter blog challenged Christians about whether they would follow God’s order to kill all children in sight under the age of 2, if it were beyond question that this is indeed God’s order. Now this is not a new idea. For centuries Jew and Christians have been discussing the obedience of Abraham when God told him to sacrifice Isaac and the obedience of Israelites when God told them to commit genocide in their conquest of Canaan. I don’t hear theists saying about those examples that they would disobey God. I myself doubt that anything in Genesis is history, so the story of Abraham and Isaac is a parable for me, but not necessarily a parable from God. In part it is a parable contrasting the God of Israel with those gods who did require child sacrifice. In part it is reassurance that one could follow God blindly, and He will make things turn out right. But is that reassurance from people who didn’t know that God exercises no power over the physical world? It is not beyond question that the God of the Bible is not the real God. If the real God can’t save or resurrect Isaac, it makes Abraham’s understanding of the situation more critical.

If the God I know told me to sacrifice my son, I would ask questions why. The God I know never has asked me for blind obedience. If He did, I can see myself saying, “I don’t understand.” I never disobey God, why would I need to, but I am always honest with Him. My experience is that God knows all of my consciousness. That makes it easy to be honest with Him, since I can’t hide anything from Him anyway. So that means if it doesn’t make sense to me, that’s what I’d say to God, even after whatever questions I had about this being an imposter. Maybe that means that I’m not worthy. Maybe instead that means I’m exactly who God wants to talk to. Who was the source of the biblical view that values blind obedience? Was it God? Was it men? God tells me here and now that it was men. This is the God I know, not a God who is only words on a page or the God of a tradition that I see to be corrupt in many ways.

Now if the God I know told me He has been holding back from showing me just how much physical power He has and that it’s His intention to stop some religious strife by killing everyone on one side, and needed my help for some reason, I would help Him. Kill all Muslims, all Hindus, all Christians, all Jews, all atheists, or everyone of a particular ethnicity, whoever His target is, if I understand it, I would help Him. It would be moral because God finds it to be necessary. However many billions, if I understood why and that it’s God without any possible doubt, I would help Him. It would take me more than a minute to understand, and if God would ever do this, I can’t imagine why He hasn’t done it already. This is a big part why I don’t believe in a traditional God, because a traditional God would have ended all this strife long ago. There are good reasons why the real God hasn’t done that with His limitations.

I think about this need for me to understand on more issues than this one. When I first heard from God directly, in that road-to-Damascus experience, I questioned Him. As I wrote before, his response blew away my doubt. It hasn’t been so dramatic since then, but the process has been similar. I need to understand. I need to trust, too, since I can’t understand things perfectly, but God never once has objected to helping me trust Him more. Why should He? Why should blind obedience be a virtue? Isn’t it love to respect each other’s needs? Why should God need blind obedience? Yet my need to understand is obvious. I need to have faith in what I do, or I won’t do it well.

Vox Day takes the approach Abraham took. Of course he would do what God says, with the provision that there is no doubt. Vox believes in the traditional God. That God can be trusted no matter what. Communication from Him can overcome any imperfection I have in hearing Him or understanding His morality. Real communication isn’t so easy. The God of my understanding might turn out to be who atheists say He is, a creation of my imagination. I don’t think that’s true. There are too many aspects of my relationship with God that I think are beyond my imagination. Yet in the end I would do what God says, too, as long as I understand. I doubt I could understand killing babies. I doubt the God I know would have a reason for that. The God I know could convince me if He does.

So it’s close between Vox and me. Vox believes in a different God than I do. I assume we’re not both right, but what do I know? I trust the God I know. He’s explained to me how I’m wrong before.

On the other hand PZ Myers seems to think that killing is immoral even if God says so. I’ve heard atheists say this multiple ways. Some say that if God is immoral, they will not follow Him. I certainly don’t deny that there can be morality without God. I agreed when I read Bertrand Russell reason his way toward saying that the ultimate good things are benevolence and knowledge. These have good consequences. That’s generally true.

I also agree with evolutionary psychologists who argue for evolution having given us an innate morality because of the selective value of cooperation. One might describe the basic message of this morality as it’s wrong to hurt people like oneself. Cultures have worked to extend this natural principle to all people, even beyond human beings, and extend it to helping people in various ways as opposed to just not hurting people, but the basis of all this is just that it’s more competitive for natural selection, even if the cultural extensions of our biological morality might not have a competitive advantage.

So how does that make God immoral if He wants to kill some people? That’s the problem, isn’t it? If we want to make the world better for people, and God decides that’s not good for Him in some way, by what principle is God immoral? Just because we say so?

I suspect that principle is that atheists are sure God is imaginary. So it’s not God deciding people need to die. It’s a kook deciding people need to die. Then one at least could say that the kook is heavily outvoted about what is moral. I didn’t see that in the hundreds of comments on Pharyngula, but I was skimming. PZ Myers’ comments are easier to understand if that’s the case. If the premise is that one can be sure of the supreme being’s orders, and you can’t accept the possibility of that, then of course the whole thing is ridiculous.

Vox Day makes a different attack, “If you are going to debate the legitimacy of a belief system based on the potential danger it presents, secular scientists are vastly more vulnerable than Christians.” With the God I know, there’s certainly more chance of mass killing in the absence of God’s morality than from those following the real God. I think that’s true for any kind of false faith, theist or atheist. People have shown considerable capacity to come up with reasons to kill others, just as people spend a lot of time saying some other group is the bad one, often in a reciprocal way.

Lost in that is who is God? Atheists have a simple answer. There is no God. Those who believe in the God of the Bible have a simple answer, too. I think they’re both wrong, and I’m glad that I can have a relationship with God that doesn’t involve any of them. Neither God nor I have asked each other a question as hypothetical as the one that got all this started. It’s the practicalities that matter. I asked God for help, and I got help. I needed direction, strength, and comfort, and that’s what God gave me. I wanted some physical miracles, and God showed me He doesn’t do that. Instead of learning about all that, some who hear that God speaks to me in words wonder if I’m God’s assassin. Well, I haven’t killed anyone for God yet. I don’t expect to kill anyone. But those who think it’s always wrong to kill someone might better think that through again. I haven’t known God to tell me anything that made me say, “Why didn’t you do that before?” so I doubt God is planning mass killings for the future that He could have ordered today.

It is a strange controversy. If there is a God who is in charge, He doesn’t seem to be raising assassins. If there is no God, then no one has to worry about how they will respond to his orders. It’s really all about the possibility that those who believe they follow God’s orders aren’t. But that’s possible whether there is a real God or not. It’s clear God doesn’t prevent murders falsely made in His name. I would say that’s because He can’t control those who don’t know Him, but however it happens, there have been murders committed in God’s name. So what? Does anything either PZ Myers or Vox Day says make a difference to that?

Atheists want to find some magic words that make God go away. It’s not going to happen.


elbogz said...

I was raised that the bible was filled with a lot of nice stories. We read then and relate them to our lives, and from that we get to understand God. But as I though about this, there were still a few questions that came up. One was from the fundamentalist point of view, that if Adam and Eve weren’t real, and the bible wasn’t the compete history of the world then Jesus sacrifice on the cross to atone mankind of the sins of Adam was a farce. He would have sacrificed his son to correct something that happened in a fable. I could never fall for the fundamentalist line, because there were too many bitter pills to swallow.

I had been really thinking about this. Another debate at some ‘other’ blog was about whether God was a God of human sacrifice. When I was a kid, my church sang songs and told stories about the old testament and we all were happy and sang along. It wasn’t until much later in life that I actually read the Old Testament and had a few “Holy ****” moments. Especially in my heart was the story about the Joshua and the walls of Jericho. We all sang and skipped happily to that song and then I read the “rest of the story”.

Jos 6:17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent.

Jos 6:21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.

But then, this story was thrown out from the book of Judges,

Jdg 11:30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,
Jdg 11:31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering."
Jdg 11:32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand.
Jdg 11:33 And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Jdg 11:34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
Jdg 11:35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow."
Jdg 11:36 And she said to him, "My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites."
Jdg 11:37 So she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions."
Jdg 11:38 So he said, "Go." Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains.
Jdg 11:39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel
Jdg 11:40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

I asked the question, ok, wait, aren't we all the children of God. I know in the old testament it was the ones that came out of Egypt, only, and all the rest were heathens. I thought, God, both sides of the wall are your creation.

Anyways, I never got any answers, and the question is still racing around my head.

DavidD said...

I had forgotten that God didn't save the daughter of Jephthah as He saved Isaac. I bet that's traditionally explained as it being Jephthah's vow and not God's order. There certainly was child sacrifice to other gods at the time, so I guess the intended audience for this weren't expected to be puzzled by the child sacrifice, but warned to be careful of what they vow.

Just as I suspect all of Genesis to be myth, I suspect the real God did not order the deaths of Israel's conquests to make room for the Israelites or whatever other reason there was. That might have been someone's guess at the time or maybe it was made up later to the glory of God as people saw gods at that time. I also don't think God is going to solve any current strife by killing everyone on one side. If He were inclined to do that, He would have done so already, I think.

Still I think the story of Abraham and Isaac is worth thinking about. It's good to trust God, but how? As I wrote I don't see the virtue in blind obedience, and I've never had resistance from God to my asking questions. So I think we can get what we need from God to trust Him, even for things that sound implausible. It does take time.

I'd like it if everyone were children of God, but there sure are a lot of people who seem determined not to be, from many parts of the political and religious spectrum. Nature will kill them eventually. I don't see God pushing that to happen faster. I guess it is somewhat silly to talk of God ordering deaths, but the point is to talk about trusting God for the worst possible situation.

Maybe it's better to answer the question with which Vox Day was challenged with, "God never would do that". That would be a lot shorter.