Questions Concerning God, Man and Faith  

Howard Ferstler  

The following short essay is designed to both challenge and possibly strengthen the faith of those with a religious approach to life and perhaps allow skeptics to better understand just why they are skeptical. After all, some skeptics are not informed well enough about either philosophy or theology to specifically know why they are doubters. They just do not like religion and religious people, possibly due to unsettling childhood experiences. 

Ironically, the questions, themes, and paradoxes outlined below may concern nonbelievers more than believers. Indeed, there it is likely that nonbelievers are often more involved with the nature of belief than those who have happily and securely embraced religion and have stopped asking really serious questions. Why ask questions when your religious canon has already outlined all of the answers for you? More importantly, why ask questions, when doing so involves the risk of coming up with answers that are disquieting? 

In any case, the ten points below involve questions and paradoxes that any individual who has a professed and hopefully solid faith should be both willing and able to deal with, in spite of their potential to undermine beliefs and shatter a few illusions. The most profound faith is the one that can conquer skepticism from both within and without. 

Regarding faith as it applies to nearly all religious systems, I realize that having it makes the vicissitudes of life easier to handle – which may be one reason why religious people have a tendency to outlive their skeptical counterparts. Being in the presence of God (real or imagined) certainly does calm the soul. On the other hand, a mature attitude says that believing in something transcendent in order to feel better or safer, or be more able to cope with a world that seems chaotic and unjust, is not preferable to knowing and living with the often demoralizing facts. Adults face facts, whereas perpetual children create fantasies to cope with them. Philosophers revel in questions, even those which are unanswerable, whereas those with religious sensibilities are more interested in often pat answers (the simpler the better, no matter how complex the issues) than in dealing with difficult questions. Skeptics (at least real ones) face facts, whereas believers resort to faith as a shield against pain, and, well, facts. The opinions of believers notwithstanding, non believers are often as aware of life’s injustices as any religious person, but a serious non believer is not willing to shut down his rational faculties in order to rest better at night. 

For many skeptics, satisfying curiosity, searching for large and small truths, and simply thinking about reality and learning more about it every day by any means available is more intellectually (and even spiritually) satisfying than embracing irrational and doctrinaire beliefs – especially those that continue to be disputed and even fought over by people around the world. Remember, historically those opposing beliefs have often resulted in wars, murder, and devastation. Being a “true believer” (with a nod to sociologist Eric Hoffer) may not be as ultimately beneficial as it is cracked up to be. 

Note that for simplicity’s sake I will sometimes use the pronoun “him’ or “he” when referring to God, even though it makes no sense at all to assign gender to a spiritual entity. (Cynics might prefer the pronoun “it.“) In addition, when referring to the concept of god, as opposed to discussing “the” God, I will omit capitalization. 

First question: Is God really benevolent and fair minded?

To one looking in from outside of a faith, and in terms of rational behavior (and this is clearly evident throughout scripture), the God of Abraham (who is worshipped by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but in different ways) appears to lack self-esteem. At least it seems that way if we apply human standards of decency, fairness, and probity – standards that God has supposedly given to us as part of his creative work and which he should have in more emphatic form than any human. 

For example, why is God so obsessed with having people worship him? Why does this supposedly all-powerful being fixate upon having humans pay him homage? Is God, as Anselm indicated in the 11th Century, seeking conformity to his seigniorial honor? This seems odd, and basically makes God adhere to early medieval human standards of behavior towards vassals. However, if he is indeed all-powerful he certainly would not need to be worshipped to be fulfilled. Indeed, by most civilized standards, a need to be idolized denotes weakness, not strength. A genuine god would be satisfied completely by just being God. 

The Bible also indicates that God is “jealous,” meaning that his wrath will descend upon those who either have other gods before him (note that this comment from the Bible implies that there are indeed “other” gods) or simply ignore him. God appears to be slighted if he is not the center of attention – which would be character flaw in a human being. A god that needs this kind of attention comes across as an entity that is anything but strong in character. 

Obviously, believers would say that he is God, and, jealous or not, he obviously makes the rules. He is king, and as kingship evolved in the later Middle Ages, God requires devotion suited to subjects rather than to vassals. In many ways, the modern view of God has evolved from this medieval approach to power and leadership. 

However, why didn’t this god just build a good, trouble-free and just world to begin with; a world in which happy and healthy people could live comfortably and then give them a decent afterlife as a reward for living well? Why create such an unbalanced situation? Why allow people to be punished for being victims of a botched creation job? 

If a human being had this approach we would declare him to be a borderline sociopath and obsessed with power for its own sake. For some reason, certain Christians (and Muslims and Jews) actually celebrate this kind of behavior in their god, as if it is somehow the way a god should behave. However, a truly just and good god would be more magnanimous and would cut people some slack. The last thing this god would want would be for his intelligent, free-thinking, independent, and precious creations to grovel at his feet, and then be punished forever if they did not comply with his often vaguely outlined and sometimes downright confusing demands. 

A proper god certainly would not see his creations punished for simply ignoring him, any more than a human parent would allow someone to punish their children for doing the same thing. 

Second question: does God want people to be his servants?

God has the power to allow people to go to either heaven or hell – or, shall we say (for Christians, at least) that he makes it possible for people to opt out of hell by accepting his gift of grace. However, in order for anyone to receive his grace and escape the fires of damnation they must first declare their love of him (love based upon what, a fear of going to hell?!) and also declare that they realize that without his allowing this option they are headed to the fires of damnation after they die. In other words, in order to get on the good side of God one must become his servant and by definition his slave. Assuming this is the case, is this approach proper behavior for a god? I mean, a human mother or father would not allow their children to receive such punishment for minor infractions, and yet we see no problem with God doing that sort of thing with his adult children. Again, why doesn’t he just cut people some slack and let them be judged by their deeds? Why is God so extreme in his approach to human behavior? 

Third question: why hasn’t God given humans a level playing field?

Unfortunately, the situation with God’s grace is even worse than what we have outlined above. For it appears that God has also arranged to make it easier for some people to obtain grace than others. For example, those who were raised in the faith, those who attended Billy Graham crusades or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell rallies, or those who watch televangelists, etc., have many opportunities to hear the Christian “word” and become saved. And, needless to say, many of those who lived during the time of Jesus (or Mohammed or Moses), and were of course in the right locations, certainly had opportunities that nobody who followed later on ever had. Well there is the exception of, perhaps, Saul of Tarsus, who was given a free pass like no one else in history. 

On the other hand, God (the Christian god in this example) has made it nearly impossible, or even absolutely impossible, for others to obtain similar grace. For example, all of the Chinese and Indian peoples, central Asian peoples, and Sub-Sahara African peoples, and North and South American, and even European peoples who lived prior to Jesus showing up or even for centuries after he showed up are at a huge disadvantage. Ditto (if we digress to the Muslim point of few for a moment) for those who failed to get the message prior to Mohammed’s preaching. They did not have radio or TV in those days, so televangelists could not get the word out over a large area, and the disciples could not possibly reach all of them after Jesus was resurrected (or were out of range of Mohammed’s faith-spreading horsemen). Millions of people have apparently gone to hell simply because they were either too far away from assorted apostles and preachers after the resurrection (or after Mohammed’s elevation) to get the news, or lived and died before Jesus or Mohammed were born. They were victims of being in the wrong places at the wrong times. Note that I am ignoring the Jewish issue for the moment, because most members of that religion seem to have been singularly uninterested in picking up converts. 

Yes, I realize that some people say that God has taken this into account and that those people did (and will) indeed, in some way, have a chance, but to the best of my knowledge there is no mention of this in the Bible or Koran. (In the old days, Quakers had a solution for this dilemma: God makes himself known to all through an inner light. However, I still see this as wishful thinking and not as a solution to the dilemma, given the lack of its mention in the ancient Holy Books.) And even if those in distant lands or who were living during the wrong time period still had some way to hear the word, so to speak, it is still obvious that many people have had better chances to “get right with God” than others. The playing field has been anything but level. 

On top of that we have scads of people who were able to hear the "word" during their lifetimes, but were in such dire straits or had had so many bad things happen to them during those lifetimes that they would be inclined to think that no "good" god would allow something like this to happen to decent people. 

For example, while some Christians thank God for not letting one thousand people die during some natural catastrophe when, say, only five hundred actually did (or for losing only one arm during an accident instead of both arms), a more rational person would be inclined to think that no "good" god would have something so terrible happen in the first place. If God is good, why is the world in such sad shape? Why did an all-powerful God allow the world to devolve into such a mess and let people be put into such outrageous situations? Why do we have South American, Middle Eastern, and African tribal people often living in isolated and abject poverty, with violence sometimes all around them, while at the same time so many North American and European people are living in first-class (by world standards) luxury? Is it possible that God really is not all powerful? Yeah, I suppose we could blame Adam and Eve for getting things off to a bad start (original sin), but why should everyone who followed them be punished for that couple’s foolishness? 

Another interesting paradox involves Noah’s Ark. Prior to the Flood, God obviously realized that he had blown his initial creation enterprise and to solve the problem he decided to flood the world and kill off all the bad people. (Where he got the surplus water to do this is another, science-related issue, of course.) To save a few humans, he had Noah build the ark and then God arranged to have animal pairs get on board to be spared drowning. (We will pass on commenting upon obvious problems with inbreeding that would result from brother and sister animals copulating to repopulate the planet from just two starters.) That way, the planet could continue to soldier on after the water receded. 

Yes, I realize that this story is supposed to be a parable, at least as interpreted by more liberal believers, although this is not demonstrated as such in the Bible. However, parable or not, it is interesting to note that rather than save a huge number of innocent children, God chose to save a multitude of animal species and let those innocent children sink into the water right along with their supposedly evil parents. Now, I love animals as much as the next liberal, but this parable seems to be a bad example of a benevolent god. 

Yes, I also realize that a typical religious answer to why bad things sometimes happen to good people is that in the long haul, as long as faith is maintained, they will be rewarded – in heaven – by God. OK, this says that we can understand the misfortunes or even the torture of people or the drowning of innocent children during the flood, because later on those same people will be with God and glory. I find this to be rather weird, actually, given that other people (most of us here in North America, for example) are never tortured this way during their lifetimes, live happily, and then go smoothly to heaven after they die. The excuse comes across as an apology for a flawed theological construct. 

Fourth question: does God reward ignorance and favor it over intelligence?

Why is it that God has made it possible for anti-faith, secular ideas to be discovered and embraced by intelligent, curious and scientifically minded people, who would then be inclined to doubt the existence of God? 

Here I am talking about things such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, assorted geological discoveries that peg the earth as being billions of years old, the big-bang theory, the existence of other worlds circling distant stars, the creation and extinction of animals and whole species before man ever showed up on earth, etc. At the same time, God rewards less curious types who think that scientific evidence was put on earth by God (or perhaps Satan, with God’s permission) to fool intellectuals and scientists and put them on the path to hell. 

Why does God make it so difficult for intelligent and well-read people to gain the faith and so easy for naïve and less well educated individuals to obtain his grace? It looks like God prefers that people stay dumb and submissive. Those with a more intellectual approach need not apply, because their innate skepticism and scientific curiosity act as a barrier to faith. Ironically, this almost makes the case for not letting one’s children go to college, particularly if they would be inclined to take science and/or philosophy courses. The experience could corrupt them. 

Fifth question: is God truly just?

Rather than simply cause people who were bad when they were alive to cease to exist after death, in other words, die and be genuinely dead, God appears to have arranged for sinners to remain alive after death and go to hell and burn there forever. Yes, I realize that Christians will note that God does not send people to Hell; rather they send themselves to Hell for not accepting his grace. However, if God is all-powerful why has he allowed this kind of situation to come to pass in the first place? Why not sweep Satan aside and allow the world to become a full-time paradise right now, with people living happily forever right here on earth? 

Instead, what we have is a situation where there is no straightforward "no afterlife" or "you are dead" punishment for those who thwart God. They continue to live on in the afterlife but become theological pot roast forever. And remember (to again outline the Christian theological view) you get this treatment even if you only sinned a little bit but still rejected god's gift of grace. The big sin is not being a monster; rather, the big sin is rejecting God’s grace. Hitler and Stalin get the same after-death treatment as some rather nice person who still rejected God’s gift. 

Actually, as I see it (with a nod to Friedrich Nietzsche), the real vindictiveness comes from the theologians who, over the centuries, have dreamed up this mythology. If one cannot become a great military leader and conquer societies by force or become an enterprising captain of industry they should consider becoming a theologian and then gain power by preaching fire and brimstone – in addition to love, of course. After all, the best a general can do is command an army and maybe conquer physical land areas, and the best an industrialist or lawyer or accountant can do is amass great wealth. On the other hand, a theologian can gain ultimate power (assuming people believe him) by promising eternal punishment in hell for disobedience. 

Another irony involves the concept of predestination, which says that, your existential free will notwithstanding, God knows what you are going to do all your life long. He knows if you will eventually embrace what he offers and he knows if you will ultimately reject it. This means that he ultimately knows from the moment of your birth whether you are going to heaven or hell after you die. Given that many obviously might be headed for the latter because they reject God‘s grace, one wonders why God allowed them to be born in the first place. Seems like such a waste. 

Sixth question: what does it mean to know that God is real?

Regarding any evidence that God even exists, we have to first realize that there is a philosophical discipline called “epistemology” that deals with how we know.  (Every college student should be required to take a course in this discipline.) That is, while a believer may claim to “know” that their redeemer or god lives and offers salvation, that kind of knowing, while perhaps psychologically satisfying, is not really “knowing” at all. At best, it is wishful thinking. 

Of course, for Christians one theological explanation for the ability to gain true knowledge involves having the Holy Ghost enter the willing individual and bestow faith and knowledge upon them. By believing, the individual then is allowed to understand the basics. This is a conversion artifact that believers say permit an individual to know God and know their faith without having to go through the rigors of conquering skepticism and evaluating various contradictory artifacts within the canon. The paradox of epistemology is defeated by the intervention of an outside power. The problem with this explanation is that it denies the supposed theologically importance of free will (something that is basic to religious belief if people are supposed to be free to choose to believe in God) and basically turns the recipient into an automaton that is being manipulated. They embrace the faith by means of something other than their own rational faculties. 

Interestingly, religious individuals, particularly those who embrace “creation science” or “intelligent design” will claim that their scientific theories (for example, procrustean data regarding the not so ancient age of the earth or disproving the theory of evolution) are as valid as those put forth by secular scientists. However, there is an important characteristic of a scientific theory or scientific hypothesis that differentiates them from an act of faith: a genuine scientific theory or hypothesis should be falsifiable

That is, there must be some experiment or possible discovery that could potentially prove the theory or hypothesis untrue – in other words, a workable version would have to have the potential to be empirically disproved. For example, Einstein's “Theory of Relativity” made predictions about the results of experiments done many decades later to prove it valid. Potentially, those experiments could have produced results that contradicted Einstein, so that theory had the potential to be proven wrong. 

In contrast, a “theory” stating that Mars is populated by aliens who can read minds and will disappear into underground caves whenever a space probe with a camera flies over is not falsifiable: these aliens are postulated in such a way that no one can ever detect them. Their status cannot be rationally validated, which means that this particular “theory” is not a scientific theory at all. 

Similar arguments apply to abominable snowmen, Bigfoot, flying saucers, the Loch Ness Monster, and, shall I say it, God. Tell a religious person that drinking a 50/50 blend of prune juice and stout will make them bulletproof and they will no doubt require the person making that statement to come up with proof (yuk). However, tell them that their primary theological reference book was indirectly written by a currently invisible deity who will force (or at least allow) them to be punished for all time if they fail to accept its sometimes confusing and even contradictory primary assertions and they will probably require no validation at all. 

A frequent criticism made of the scientific method by seriously religious people (at least those who aggressively push the “intelligent design” or “creation science” agenda) is that it cannot accommodate anything that has not been proved. The argument then points out that many things thought to be impossible in the past are now everyday realities. However, this criticism is based on a misinterpretation of the scientific method. When a hypothesis passes the test and is adopted as a theory it correctly explains a range of phenomena it can be proven wrong by new experimental evidence. When exploring a new set or phenomena scientists do use existing theories but, since this is a new area of investigation, it is always kept in mind that the old theories might fail to explain the new experiments and observations. In this case new hypotheses are devised and tested until a new or updated theory emerges. One example of this was the modification of the Newtonian theories of the universe by those put forth by Einstein. 

There are many types of “religious-scientific” theories that supposedly embrace experimental evidence. However, when examined closely they turn out to be nothing but statements of faith. For example, the argument, cited by some religious creationists, that science is “just another kind of faith” is a postulated stance that ignores the basic character of science. One theory of gravity, for example, explains why people and objects don't float off the earth. All you have to do is jump to verify this theory – no leap of faith (pun intended) is required. On the other hand, a belief in a transcendent God involves faith, and while one might think that this is somehow self-evident, there is no way to prove that it is anything but wishful thinking. 

Of course, for certain 19th century existential theologians like Søren Kierkegaard (as well as many of today’s evangelicals and fundamentalists) one attraction of the Christian religion was (and remains) it’s seeming absurdity – its absolute separation from the realm of rational analysis. It was the self-mandated, anti-intellectual nature of the faith (yes, Kierkegaard was indeed rebelling against the rational theology of his day, as well as the secular rationalism of Hegel) that, for him at least, made it appealing. For him, any rational analysis of either spiritual or material reality would always lead to an absurd dead end. For Kierkegaard, what was required was a leap of faith that both transcended any rational approach, and rejected any application of logic. The problem with this path to salvation is that it leaves the door open for all sorts of other irrational leaps of faith. We now see this in various forms in both Christianity and other faiths like Islam, where the more militant members believe that becoming a suicide bomber gets one a fast-track ticket to paradise and lots of girlfriends. In the secular realm, the “faith before rational analysis” approach resulted in the Nazi and Fascist monstrosities during the 1930s and 1940s and results in the irrationality of North Korea today. 

Seventh question: is there a danger with having faith-based ethical systems?

The seventeenth century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, like the later philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and John S. Mill (and even, shudder, Karl Marx), noted that religion helps to keep confused and/or weak people in line. They saw it as a necessary evil – well, admittedly, not Marx, who saw it as a noxious opiate, while coming up with his own secular version of true belief. They would probably say that it would be nice if people had the backbone to admit that the world and reality are basically unjust, with chance often dominating on the existential level, and with no redemption (and with everybody dying at the end), but most people are just not up to the task. They need religion (be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.) to offer up a simple, and ultimately happy, analysis of a complex and often unfair world. 

Believe it or not, if we are talking about society in general, I tend to agree, and I believe that Spinoza would be in agreement, too. I think that many individuals are just not able to deal with the vicissitudes of reality – and they need a mythology of some kind to stabilize their lives and give the whole situation some kind of balance and meaning. That the universe is just outwardly random and amoral chaos (at least if we are talking about an everyday common sense analysis not to be found in a physics laboratory or at a Hegelian metaphysics seminar) will not do it for them. 

Perhaps most importantly, the majority wants to happily live forever, which may actually be the bottom-line primary motive for having faith. On the other hand, atheists are in the not altogether enviable position of having nothing more than personal integrity and courage to fall back upon in the long haul. No afterlife rewards for them: rather, it is a drop into blackness at the finish line. It is scary being an atheist, because philosophically, theologically, and rationally they are all alone. However, being an atheist also requires genuine courage, unlike what we have with those who embrace an all-powerful deity. We will deal further with religious courage up ahead. 

Walter Kaufmann, a philosopher who taught at Princeton years ago, said that while there may be no external god to keep us in line and offer up rewards (or punishments), a nonbeliever could still live an ethical and courageous life. I think he was correct, as evidenced by the fact that many nonbelievers do indeed live ethical and courageous lives. (The philosopher Aristotle even authored a book dealing with ethics that showed that people could be noble and moral, based upon practical and socially related considerations.) However, on the macro (as opposed to the micro) level, Nietzsche noted that if God were eliminated from existing, theologically centered societies all hell (pun intended) would break loose. The great Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky also was aware of this. On the micro level, most people need a belief in God to keep their lives stabilized, and on the macro level society itself needs such beliefs to prevent wider chaos. Kill god, which Nietzsche said we had already done, and everything is permitted. Morals go out the window. Some modern philosophers, with a bow to Nietzsche, think this is responsible for the growth of atheistic fascism in the 20th century and the monstrous wars and concentration camps that resulted. 

Of course, some individuals, including Nietzsche (and perhaps Sam Harris), believe that religious systems have created this predicament. As a result, the status quo must be maintained in order to keep the created situation from getting out of control. (Harris would no doubt feel just the opposite, with the status quo eventually leading to disaster.) If religion or the religious frame of mind had never come into existence it would be possible to have ethical societies that base their social behaviors on feelings for the value of man and the need for order and justice. (This reflects Aristotle’s approach, for example, and even parallels the ideas of the novelist and admirer of Aristotle Ayn Rand, as well as the much more cynical and admirer of Nietzsche Henry L. Mencken.) However, because religion was created and refined by theologians for hundreds and hundreds of years, societies have built ethical systems based upon a sense of belief and coercion. That is, one behaves sanely and correctly because God (as defined by the theologians) desires such behavior, and not necessarily because of practical or humane considerations. Consequently, take away that belief in God and all bets are off; anything goes. Theologians have essentially built a system that depends upon afterlife rewards (Heaven) and punishment (Hell) to function, and without those qualities society would go off the deep end. 

Interestingly, while Nietzsche thought the situation was untenable he still worked to solve the problem in many of his book-length essays. On the other hand, Dostoyevsky, who was fully in favor of the religious status quo, wrote powerful novels that illustrated just what might go wrong if people turned their backs on the existing faith and started treating God as a myth. Both men were fully aware of the social impact of a belief in God (independent of any discussion of whether or not God actually exists), but both came up with different approaches about what should or should not be done. Nietzsche wanted a re-evaluation of values and proclaimed the “death of God” in order to free man, whereas Dostoyevsky wanted society to renew its faith in God, which he felt would be the only way to make man truly free. 

My take on this is that it is preposterous to believe that the main reason people are good is because they want to win favor with God. Being “good” is far more complex than that, and from a historical perspective does not require a belief in God at all. There have been plenty of good atheists throughout history, just like there have been many confused and even vindictive religious zealots who have been anything but good. 

Eighth question: do religious people need courage?

Religious people often comment on how it requires courage to be a member of their faith. However, being a devout Christian (or Muslim, or Jew, or just about any other kind of religious adherent) should not require courage at all, theological arguments to the contrary. Why would anyone need courage when they are backed up and supported by (and on the team of) the most powerful force in the universe, namely God? If a Christian exhibits fear of anything in this world it is proof that their faith is not solid. A real Christian, or Muslim, or Jew would and should fear nothing – ever. No doubt, this approach to courage stiffens the backbones of suicide bombers worldwide, just as it allowed early Christians who were thrown to the lions to sing hymns as the beasts closed in. 

Ninth question: do outwardly religious people really believe in God full time?

Ask any believer if they would do a "bad" thing while their mother or father were watching them (assuming the parents were still alive). Usually (and hopefully) they will say, "no." OK, now ask them if they sometimes do "bad" things when nobody is watching. They will almost certainly have to admit that they do, even if those bad things are as minor as exceeding the speed limit and putting pedestrians and other drivers at risk, or stealing pencils from the office. At the very least, they will still have sinful thoughts at times, even if they behave. 

However, point out to them that by the very definition of their faith God is always watching them (and also knows their thoughts) and so when they do sinful things (or have sinful thoughts) God immediately sees it and is saddened. Indeed, God even knows the deed before it is done. The believer should obviously know this is the case, and yet they still often, or at least sometimes, do those sinful things (and have those bad thoughts). The logical upshot appears to be that they doubt the existence of God when they do bad things and have bad thoughts. Yep, their very faith in the existence of God is not 100 percent, because if they really, really believed in scripture they would behave correctly all of the time. If they are so sure about their faith that God exists why do they behave (or think) sinfully at times? 

The philosopher Plato touched on this characteristic in his writings (although he was not referring to religious belief, but rather knowledge of good and evil), and pointed out that if you really, really believed something you would not do anything that would compromise that belief. If you believed that doing bad things was bad you would not do bad things. Medieval and Reformation-era theologians often capitalized on this approach when they were interpreting proper Christian behavior. It justified inflicting terrible punishments upon wrongdoers. 

Actually, an interesting spin-off from this topic involves the story of Abraham and his son Isaac as recounted in the Bible. In that biblical tale, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham dutifully takes his son up onto a mountaintop and goes through the preparatory motions as instructed. However, at the last second God has an angel intercede and stop Abraham from doing the deed. The supposed moral to this story involves the beauty of true faith and true obedience. It certainly has to appeal to authoritarian theologians, and even to religious liberals who see it as a parable. 

However, on second thought the story borders on the perverse. I mean, if we accept the existence of a good god, it is obvious that Abraham should have rejected God’s command, simply because he would assume that it was a ruse put forth by Satan. He would presuppose that a benevolent God would not have a father sacrifice his son. On the other hand, if we do not accept the existence of a god (good or bad), we would have to presume that Abraham was deluded. This is a parable that would be embraced by suicide bombers and those who bushwhack abortion doctors and not people of proper faith – or skeptics. 

Tenth question: what if God were visible?

Actually, things are even more problematical for the believer than what we just discussed. Ask them about whether, if God were actually visible and watching them all the time and even reading their thoughts, they would do those sinful things that they sometimes do, or even think about doing. They almost certainly would say "no." (A deity surrounded by angels and looking down from the sky would be both intimidating and terrifying, and if Jesus were standing nearby and very visible the believer would obviously behave.) Then point out that their sometimes sinful behavior with an invisible, but still very real God looking on is an indication that they really do not believe in God a hundred percent of the time at all. Rather, they use him in their daily activities as convenience requires. OK, let’s be fair here and admit that people like Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, and St. Augustine, among others, were serious enough about their faiths to most of the time behave as if God were always on hand – and watching. But they were exceptions. 

The usual theological excuse is that even the most true of believers are human and weak, and will occasionally succumb to temptations. Aristotle, writing a counterpoint argument against that of Plato discussed above, even embraced this phenomenon in his ethical writings. (An interesting discussion of these two approaches towards ethics can be found in the fourth part of Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528.) Sometimes, emotions get the better of us, no matter what we believe. Aristotle was not writing about religion, of course, and was instead outlining reasons why it is necessary to have codified laws to keep people in line when they let emotion get out of hand. In the seventeenth century, Spinoza (who was born a Jew but was precocious enough to get himself booted from the synagogue at a young age, and was also certainly no Christian) also embraced this approach to social law. 

With a nod towards the views of human weakness put forth by Aristotle and Spinoza, and with the views of Plato notwithstanding, we can at least admit that even the most profound believers vacillate at times. What believer hasn’t at one time faltered? After all, an acknowledgement of personal weakness is one of the foundations of most faiths. However, this still does not explain just why they would behave differently and not succumb to temptation if God were a visible presence that was right there looking at them all the time. 

It is likely that truly religious people are rare, as well as perhaps a bit confused and deluded, with many even having the potential to be dangerous. Fortunately, most go about their daily lives and do no obvious harm. They also appear to at least have the potential to be quite happy. 

Me? Well, while I basically agree with Thomas Edison, who dismissed theology and felt that at bottom religion is “all bunk.“ However, I also happily acknowledge the subtleties of Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Einstein, who, in addition to their real-world expertise, each had profound ethical and theological views that went well beyond the uncomplicated dismissals of Edison. I even admire Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard for their insights into the religious mind. I see God as the defining principle of energy that allows the universe to both exist and function. I admire God intellectually as manifested reality, a reality that makes the world real and to the mind of a rational man who works to understand its nature, makes it rational, even if chance makes the rules at ground level. 

And this god is a reality that has zero interest in the day-to-day affairs of men.


Posted by: Brian Worley     October 2, 2009   All rights reserved

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