A vengeful God is no paragon of morality
Michael De Dora
Posted on April 27, 2011
Take a look at this letter to the editor in the Irish newspaper The Independent:
I refer to Nick Folley, who states, “we need a higher moral compass, namely God”, (Letters, April 25). I would ask Mr Folley which ‘god’ we should look to for guidance, as there are thousands to choose from?
I would further ask Mr Folley how he can reconcile asking his god for moral decisions when his god, probably the Christian one, is himself guilty of many questionable actions and decrees. Should I follow the teachings of a god that considers homosexuality punishable by death? Or how I, an atheist, am doomed to eternal torture and suffering because I have the strength of will to question not only God’s existence, but also his right to tell me what to do and how to act?
No, I would rather live by laws and my own moral code.
For reference, here is Nick Folley’s letter.
I would ask the reader to suspend whatever prejudices they may have on the question either way, and at least have the generosity of spirit to read through to the end of this response before coming to judgement.
I. The philosophical dimension –
Interesting reply by Jay Penn. He would live by ‘laws’ and ‘his own moral code’. Very well. Are all ‘laws’ moral? Germans codified the persecution of ethnic groups, most notably Jewish, into law in the 1930s. Would Jay accept living by such ‘laws’? If not, why not? How do we decide if such laws are moral, since self-reference is useless? A civil law clearly is not ‘moral’ simply because it is a law.
His ‘own moral code’ – well, clearly that could mean just about anything. There are plenty of people who are all able to justify all kinds of behaviour to themselves according to their own criteria, but again we return to the problem of self-referencing. At one end of the scale a secretary may feel entitled to pinch some petty cash or office supplies from her boss ‘because I don’t get paid enough for all I do’ and at the other end of the spectrum a rapist may justify his actions to himself by telling himself ‘she asked for it’ or ‘I’m increasing the genetic advantage for my genes’ (he may not consciously think it in so many words).
Clearly, our actions are not ‘moral’ simply because they are ‘ours’ and because we tell ourselves so. That is the trap of moral relativism.
That is why we need some moral compass that transcends human existence, something more objective.
II. The ‘religious’ dimension –
Jay says in his letter there are ‘thousands of gods’ to choose from. The number is a bit exaggerated, but I get his point. Maybe he is not so far off if we include that ‘gods’ that people make of money, social status etc.,
But just because there appears to be thousands of gods does not make the question “should God be our moral compass?” invalid. First of all, an interested and discerning mind would ask ‘are we sure – are all those gods real? If so, are we sure that all gods have moral codes that we would wish to follow?’ If so, are we sure we are following that ‘moral code’ as God asked, or are we interpreting it to suit ourselves?
Jay’s response is classic lazy agnosticism in one sense – like saying ‘the answer is too complex and would require too much inquiry to bother giving it any thought at all’. But that still does not invalidate the questions, as it is not an answer in itself, rather, an avoidance of the question.
I would argue that there are many ‘gods’ but only one ‘God’. Jay has posited a vengeful, capricious God, but I would argue this is a gross caricature and in essence a strawman god. Since he probably intends the Christian God, he might also have added in his examples “a God who tells us not to kill each other, not to steal, to honour our parents, not to commit adultery or lie about each other, to love our neighbour as ourself, give to those who have nothing, visit those in prison and so many more worthwhile and good things” He could point to the myriad of ways in which this God took care of those who turned to Him for help – feeding the 5,000; bringing the Israelites our of slavery; healing the blind, sick, paralytic; sending His son on our behalf to free us from the bondage of sin (a metaphysical topic that’s too complex to go into right now, just roll with it for a moment, if you can).
Of course Jay may not believe in the Christian God, or any of the above accounts in the Bible, and that is his prerogative. But then what is the logic in him quoting the supposed actions of this non-existent god from a book he doesn’t give any credence to, in order to support his objections?
And in common with many who criticize Christian beliefs, he does so out of a misunderstanding of those beliefs. For example, on the question of atheism, he posits a God that angrily condemns him to hell because of his non-belief. If he understood Christian theology properly he would know that Christians believe that God does not desire or want any of us to go to hell in the first place, He even sent His son (Christ) to die on our behalf in order to free us from the debt of hell (a complex metaphysical question on which there is not enough space here, and for the moment, not necessary for the purpose of the point I am making).
In fact, it is we ourselves who choose to go to hell, by rejecting God (for example, through atheism). Hell, by definition, is the absence of God, since God is the source of all truth, love and light. Who in their right mind would wish to reject that for the opposites?
This is very different from the picture Jay paints of a vengeful and spiteful God, and a point atheists often fail to grasp.
Christians believe that God does tell us how to act, and as our Creator and the originator of all matter, He literally has a ‘God’s-eye view’ of the world and its affairs, and advises us to do the things that are in our own interest in the long run. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if we truly did many of the things He asked, the world would be a much better place – not lying to each other, stealing from each other, honoring our parents (and parents not provoking their children), not killing each other, not wrecking each others’ homes and families by sleeping around. And as to breaking God’s laws, God tells us to ‘love the sinner and hate the sin itself’. Christians should – as God does – see the sin as the problem, not the person who commits it. He loves the person and commands us all to do the same.
Of course, again, Jay may not believe any of this Christian theology, he may regard it as a load of rubbish; and again that is his prerogative. But he ought at least understand what it is he is actually criticizing, rather than create his own incorrect model and set it up to criticize it. And if he does not believe in God, then none of that theology ought hold any ‘terrors’ for him.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make this reply. Newspapers often squash these discussions as soon as there has been a single exchange. Such complex questions also require complex and sometimes lengthy answers which are also an anathema to newspapers only interested in catchy soundbites.