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The Problem of Good

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

In religious debate, much is made of the “problem of evil;” that is, if god is good, then why is there so much evil in the world. Personally, I think the problem of good is (or should be) just as important, especially to Christians. Let me explain.

Christians frequently claim that god is and must be the final arbiter of good. Skeptics then ask whether something is good just because god says or does it, or whether there is some other standard that even god must meet in order to be judged “good.” Overwhelmingly, Christians argue that god is the standard; he determines what is good and what is not.

But, we clearly have a serious philosophical problem here, an epistemological problem. How can we tell that what god commands is good, if there is no external measure for us humans to appeal to? How do we know that what god commands is not actually evil, or that god himself is not evil. There appears to be no way to prove the Christian assumption,because it simply proceeds from a definition; a definition which states, “That which god says or does is good.” End of discussion.

There are both philosophical and practical approaches to this problem, and I think it can be reasonably argued that both lead to the conclusion that we humans MUST ultimately judge what is good.

We have suggested that perhaps god is simply an evil god and what he speaks or does is evil. How could we determine this? We could use our intuition to tell us, but that would be putting no trust in the assumption that whatever god says is good or true. In putting the question to our intuition, we would be tossing that standard– if god says it or does it, then it’s good – by the wayside. So, if only god knows what is good, then how could we possibly recognize good and evil? By this standard,we are in no position to judge. So, how then can we say that whatever god says or does is good, if only he (and not us) can recognize good and evil.

Philosophically then, we have a dilemma. If god himself is the standard, then we have noway of knowing whether god is good - or evil and just messing with us in a perverse way.

Christians typically complain that unless we accept god as the standard of goodness, then we have no absolute standard; that the question of good becomes a relative matter. I think they are basically correct in this, but that their concern is misplaced. So what if good is a relative thing,at least to a degree? Beef is good, but only if you’re not a vegetarian. Any kid will tell you that getting an inoculation is bad, but public health experts will insist that it is good for kids to get their shots. “Good” is often a relative concept.

Let’s look at the practical side of this question. Christians often claim that because atheists and agnostics don’t fear god they have no reason to be good, to be moral. If this were true,then we would expect to find data to support the claim. So, are atheists and agnostics less“good” than Christians? Well, in a 1997 survey of federal prisons, 82% of inmates self-identified as Christians, while only 0.2% self-identified as atheists (http://www.holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm). But if atheists have no reason to be good, then why aren’t our prisons full of atheists instead of Christians? Is it just because there are far fewer atheists in the general population?According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 (ARIS), 2.3% of the adult population claimed no belief in a god (atheists). Thus, the prison population has only a tenth of the percentage of atheists as the general population. Clearly, atheists are far less likely to end up in prison. Granted, we’re using 1997 data for the prison population and 2008 data for the general population, but the difference here is far too great to be explained by 11 years of growth in atheism in the general population.

Some readers may object that those in the more educated segment of the population are more likely to be atheists, and that the prison population is typically less educated. True, but for whatever reasons, those godless atheists are still less likely to be in prison than Christians, so they obviously are able to be good without god. Their sense of what’s“good,” may be relative, but it obviously works.

Now, if we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, as Christians claim, then we have another problem of a practical nature. The Bible commands a number of things that virtually no modern person accepts as good, or moral, Christians included.

Notice that the Bible not only condones slavery, it even seems to recommend it! Some of the other moral "wisdom" of the Bible includes

  • Kill witches (Exodus 22:18) -- where it clearly implied that they DO exist and they should be sought out.

If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, as Christians claim, then we have another problem of a practical nature. The Bible commands a number of things that virtually no modern person accepts as good, or moral, Christians included.This last statement, in fact, led to the torture and execution of thousands, maybe millions, by the Christian leaders of the Middle Ages. See what has happened when the Bible has actually been taken as the absolute moral basis for humans? And, we might add to this the common burning at the stake of heretics (non-believers) during the Medieval Inquisition.

Clearly, regardless of what they might say, very, very few Christians accept the morality of the Bible at face value.They don’t really believe that if god says or does it then it is“good.”

Further, how can god be said to be the arbiter of good when in the Bible he is frequently portrayed as a despicable tyrant, even guilty of commanding child sacrifice

 (Ezekiel 20:25-26):“ I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the Lord.” (NIV)

In his his essay "A Moral Argument for Atheism" (also available in The Impossibility of God), New Zealand Philosopher Raymond Bradley argues for 5 “objective moral truths” that all sensible adults should agree are true for everyone in all places and times:

  1. It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.
  2. It is morally wrong to provide one’s troops with young women captives with the prospect of their being used assex slaves.
  3. It is morally wrong to make people cannibalize their friends and family.
  4. It is morally wrong to practice human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise.
  5. It is morally wrong to torture people endlessly for their beliefs.

Now, recognizing that Bible-god either commanded or permitted every one of these atrocities, it becomes absurd, from a purely practical standpoint, to claim that whatever god says or does is“good.” Any rational and truly moral person must concede that the god of the Bible is frequently immoral – and not “good.” (So, how do I explain the fact that the Christian apologist William Lane Craig has publicly defended the genocide and infanticide of the Canaanites ordered by god in the OT as moral? Simple; he is not truly rational,as his moral sense has been perverted by slavish obedience to fundamentalist Christianity.)

So, for both philosophical and practical reasons, we humans are forced to make ethical and moral judgments from our own intuitions. We MUST and DO determine what is good and what is bad, ourselves, regardless of the Bible. Now, when some prominent Christian publicly promotes and lobbies for execution ofhomosexuals and people who work on Sunday because that’s what the Bible commands, then I will be forced to rethink my stance. I’m betting this will never happen. And, if it did, I guarantee that 99% of the population, Christians included, would write off that individual as a nutcase who is dangerous to society.

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