Free Will

Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. ~Mark Twain

One of the timeless questions of religion and philosophy is whether man has free will. Indeed, the topic has been cause for great divides in the church, with Calvinism/predestination on one hand and Arminianism/free will on the other. Both will pull out this and that biblical verse to support their case. But what about God? This topic is not debated as often. While the debate over man’s free will, which now spills over even into science, has been going on for centuries, nobody much poses the question about the righteous dude in the sky. I believe the first inclination would be, at least for those who fancy such lofty sky lords, yes. God must have free will. He’s God, after all.

But wait. God can do only good. In most Christian circles there is no chance of him performing an evil act. Ever. Even though by default he was the one who allowed evil to exist in the first place. So how can he have free will? As all-powerful as he might be, by the virtue of this definition of being incapable of an evil act (much as Christians say of man that he is incapable of any good on his own), God can not have free will. Just as it is said man is born to sin and in bondage to it, incapable of doing right since the Fall, so in like respect God must be a slave to “good.” What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Nothing, I guess. I reckon you could say that is a good thing, if true. But it’s not free will. It will be argued then that God has free will, but just lacks the desire to do evil. But it’s also hard to see how one can call God good in this sense. People are called ‘good’ when they do right when they could have done otherwise. Let me illustrate for further clarification: we don’t consider animals that kill and eat other animals to be either good or evil, that’s just their nature and what they do to survive. But that’s not the case when it comes to people killing people. If God is no different from those animals, that it’s just his nature, then likewise there is no reason to call him either good or evil.

But more to the point, if God can have free will and not be evil, he should be able to create us the same way–with free will but incapable of performing an evil act. After all, isn’t that what heaven is supposed to be like? At that point, your seat is secure, right? Because you’re not going from bondage to sin to bondage to God, right? So why all the drama and tortured souls to get there? If God can do only good, and is all-powerful, how can there be the possibility of evil, even in a passive sense? It thus seems to follow that the existence of evil, of an eternal place of torture and torment called hell, must be good, or such things wouldn’t exist under such a luminous being.

One of the common arguments against these questions and angle of reasoning is, “God doesn’t want robots. He wants people to freely choose Him.” As humans we can relate very well to this sentiment. We want our friends and loved ones, our children and spouses, to love us for who we are. But this reasoning simply cannot work with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God that Christians espouse. An all-powerful, all-knowing God, by virtue of being what He is, can create nothing but robots. There is no mystery, no lack of knowledge, in which a person’s choice of God would be giving him warm fuzzies. Christians will tell us that God loves us more than anything, that he is “long suffering…not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). That humanity is the crown of his creation. Despite this, we are to understand that God has known from all eternity that his favored creation would fall and that the majority of it (and, for an all-powerful God, I believe we can safely say that this, no matter your view on free will versus predestination, serves as a resounding fail) would be thrown into an eternal torment he created. But gosh, He loves us. At no point did this all-powerful, all-seeing God go, “maybe I should approach this differently, because gee, I’d like to save more than a handful of these cute guys.” No, it is quite clear that this God does not love everybody. This can only be the brutal God of Calvinism, the one who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). At least the New Testament Paul seemed to get it. Calvinists are okay with this, because it’s not like they are getting pitched into hell. They are the special elect. Sucks for you, though. Of course, a God that finds fault with a creation that He created to be damned is, of itself, problematic and Arminians interpret the verse a different way by jumping through a different hoop. It is complications such as this that have led some believers to what is called open theism, which posits a God that, in some sense, puts his power in his hip pocket or otherwise turns it off and that the future is not so predetermined. Ergo, it is open. Hardline fundamentalists regard this as heresy.

And what makes something Good? Another option is that an act of God is good by virtue of God being God, regardless of what the act may be–because God declares it to be so, and so by virtue it can be nothing less. Whether it is snuffing a race of people because he is angry with them or hardening pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power, it is all good, because God is the doer. That’s more problematic than it sounds, for either God creates good by virtue of what he decrees, or good exists extraneous from God. If something is good only because God says it is–ergo he creates good–then murder, rape, theft, it can all be good. God only need give the nod. And in Old Testament times, he did. If, however, good exists extraneous from God, if certain things hold true regardless and by which God himself is restricted, then it must be said something higher than God exists. And if God can only do good because that is so much a part of his nature he can do nothing else, then good is more powerful than God. If the former is true, all God has to do is declare everything good. Problem solved, we all go to heaven. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. God is bound, he can’t just say what is good and what is not anymore. There is a code that governs and which God must follow, even if we don’t fully understand that code. In defense one might say God IS the code. Which would also be to say, of course, God has no free will. He’s a program, a robot. And, again, a robot can be considered neither good nor evil, but only follow its programming. In this sense, God is no different from the robots he doesn’t want.

So it’s not a question of if God doesn’t, for instance, lie to us just because he’s such a great guy, but if God even has the capacity to lie. Consequently, if there is no capacity, there is no chance for temptation or desire. And how could a being with no capacity of choice possibly relate to the humans who face temptation and by whose choices they are judged? The concept of choice, of temptation, would be an alien concept. Some argue that is why God became man, to better relate to the human experience. But, generally speaking and definitely in fundamentalist circles, that’s not the reason given. That whole death and resurrection was also part of the program.

Which leads one to wonder exactly what heaven will be for those who make the cut. Heaven is most oft portrayed as a place of no suffering, no tears, no pain, and, of course, no evil. There is simply the adoration and bliss of being with and serving God (though I’m not sure what that service would entail). The Bible seems to make it clear there will be gradation or levels attained based on service/performance during your earthly existence, with the saints certainly being right at the top on Cloud Nine. But maybe you only make Cloud Five. Still, it’s heaven, and you’re perfectly happy right where you’re at, because there is no regret or envy, and certainly no sniveling. Given that you’re going to be perfectly happy no matter what cloud you land on, as the actor asks, “Exactly what is my motivation here?” Just get your foot in the door. To be honest, given one looses all desire to do anything but praise God, it sounds like a brainwashing program to me. And, to paraphrase a point made by Matt Dillahunty, I know such a heaven cannot exist, because it would make my beloved family who do believe sad to know I was not there. There is no way my grandmother is happy in heaven if she sees that I’m going to hell. If she is, or the memory of me has been wiped or altered or whatever it is God does against her will (because I can’t imagine someone wanting to forget their loved ones), then quit simply she is no longer my grandmother.

Such are the conundrums when your god is  elevated from a pleabian god amongst many to Master of the Universe.



Reasons To (Not) Believe

The struggle to believe and reason through faith is a constant battle for the faithful. Reasons To Believe is an organization that aims to meet this endeavor with a blend of modern-day science and biblical exegesis. It’s an organization I have more than a passing familiarity with. A younger, more faithful me once enrolled in their home study apologetics course. In a world where science and logic call metaphysics into constant doubt, it was the greatest factor keeping me tied to a tenuous belief as I grew older. The leading members of RTB aren’t just bible thumpers. They’re astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, and more. Unlike their interfaith rivals (the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis come to mind) served by young earth luminaries such as Ken Ham, RTB holds to a scientifically friendly old age creation date, the Big Bang theory, and some of them hold to a local (as opposed to global) flood. Their goal is to come up with scientifically testable models that support the bible. I have left my faith, but I still like to keep my toe in the theological swimming pool. So I still drop in on RTB now and again to see what they think they have up their sleeve.

There are some questions that continue to haunt the faithful throughout the centuries even while they bracket bible verses with scientific overlay to give hope. Such as why does an all-powerful righteous deity allow evil and suffering (aka the problem of evil). Fazale Rana, biochemist and Executive Vice President of Research and Apologetics at RTB, tried to answer this age-old question in regards to one example: earthquakes. You can read his original article here. Fuzz’s conclusion? It’s the fault of corrupt governments, not God. Seriously.

Fazale clearly seems to have his head out of the game in this article. At one point he writes “more deaths occur in poverty-stricken parts of the world” where, as one might expect, building codes aren’t the best and you get by with what you can, and then writes “yet, there’s another factor at play. Some countries experience more…deaths than expected based on the country’s income.” So, you live in ramshackle slums, your chances are better of dying in a severe quake. Kind of like if you don’t have a good health care system, that disease is more likely to kill you. Makes sense. But then Fazale wants to tie earthquake deaths to corrupt countries, quoting Transparency International as saying “It is in these countries that about 83% of all deaths from earthquakes in the past three decades have occurred.” The most “striking in comparison” for Fuzz are the two 7.0 quakes that hit Haiti and New Zealand, respectively. He says, in essence, that Haiti suffered casualties topping 300,000 because their government is corrupt and that New Zealand, being pillars of governmental virtue, had a death toll amounting to zero. His bottom line? “Quake-related deaths stem from, in large measure, moral failings and could rightly be understood as an example of moral evil, not natural evil. Blame corrupt humans, not God.”

Wait a minute. What?? Because God is punishing the poverty-stricken because they are subject to bad governance? Or God would stop earthquakes if governments would just straighten up? Certainly a case can be made for better architecture resulting in a lower death toll, but how does that play out historically under this notion? You know, before architecture reached this zenith. Under Fazale, I take it he believes we should be living under a nanny state government whose duty it is to keep us out of poverty and provide us with the best in quake-proof architecture. At no point does Fazale, besides leaving the definitions of poverty and corruption parameters undefined, scientifically demonstrate how governmental corruption is a better explanation for quake deaths than, say, this: Haiti is 10,641 square miles with a population density of 781 per square mile, while New Zealand is 103,734 square miles with a population density of 39 per square mile. Call me silly, but I believe where you have the most people crammed together, especially when that differential margin is extreme, is where your higher death toll is going to be regardless of how unpleasant your government is. So much for looking at this with a scientific bent.

This is what happens when believers stretch their “science” trying to make a case for or defend their God when they really don’t have a good explanation. So take the advice I give our ten-year old. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” One of the reasons I became disenchanted with RTB was their propensity for reading science into every passage of scripture they possibly could. Because at some point poetry and metaphor is just that, it’s poetry and metaphor. It doesn’t need a scientific underpinning to enhance it. By it’s very nature poetry and metaphor is subject to wide ranges of interpretation, and the Bible is far from western literature. So, much like people’s interpretation of their god, you pick the interpretation that best enforces your belief of what should be. That’s what believers do the world over, and RTB is no different.

Religious Atheism?

Atheism is a religion. ~Lisa Kennedy Montgomery

And with that quip above on the HBO Real Time with Bill Maher show Lisa Kennedy Montgomery unleashed a floodgate of irate replies from unbelievers across the fruited plain that atheism sure as hell is not a religion. Kennedy didn’t have much chance to defend her statement on Bill’s show, but she did get that chance within the pages of Reason magazine. So is Kennedy right? Is atheism a religion?

Kennedy writes in Reason “the problem doesn’t seem to be so much in pinning the term religion on atheism, but defining religion in the first place. No one really wants to do this…No one I spoke to…really wanted to take this cloud and pin it down in the examination tray.”  But that’s not true. I do. Certainly people have their own definitions of words and what “religion” (or atheism) means to them and, if you’re not careful, you can end up talking right past each other. For instance, Catholics and Protestants both talk about God’s grace, but grace operates differently under their respective doctrines. In Catholicism, God’s grace is dispensed by a priest with the Church; in Protestantism, God’s grace is granted freely to all who ask. After reading Kennedy’s article, I would say there is a good chance Kennedy and Bill were talking past each other. Not knowing what is bouncing around inside another’s head when it comes to matters like this can lead to much confusion, especially when one starts putting their own personal twist to what words mean.

My Meriam-Webster app defines atheism as 1) archaic: ungodliness, wickedness; 2a) a disbelief in the existence of deity; 2b) the doctrine that there is no deity.

You can see the prejudice in the archaic form from a day when being an atheist wasn’t simply a matter of not believing in god(s), but that meant you weren’t a very good person, either. For many people still, “atheist” remains more than just somebody who doesn’t believe. They’re instruments of evil. And so atheism is a term itself in flux, as it transitions to the later definition from the former.

Religion: 1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods; 2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; 3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

On 1 and 2 atheism definitively gets a pass. There is no belief in gods or ceremonies and ritual designed around such. But on 3, which I believe is close to the point Kennedy was driving at, atheism could be a match. I am reminded of a time when a group of friends was working out a good time for us to regularly gather to play games when one of them quipped, “Martin can’t play games on Sunday, he’s very religious. Religious about his football.” And atheists seem to forget that the word religion can be used in this fashion. You can be religious about your diet, religious about your studies, whatever. It’s just saying that x is a significant part of your life dance. And I will contend that Bill Maher’s heathen leanings are a significant part of what he is all about, so far that he went and made a movie about it, Religulous. You might say Bill, and many other notable atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, pursue their irreligiosity with religious fervor. That’s accurate, and there is nothing wrong with that. Dispelling belief in superstition is their mission.

Here’s the problem. When an atheist hears “atheism is a religion” they don’t hear “atheism must be very important to you.” What they do hear is, “Your position is no better or different from mine and takes just as much faith.” And, very often, maybe almost always, that is exactly what is meant. What atheists don’t like is the suggestion they are just like faithful believers–that their stance is one of faith. One of the kickbacks Kennedy received was “if atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel.” Kennedy goes on to reply “I contend that if your system is about God–or about the non-existence of God–God is still at the center of the argument’s ‘aboutness.’ In the spirit of that ‘off is a TV channel’ comment…God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he’s dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there’s a TV.” Later she tacks on “Atheism…is about God and proving such a overpostulated supernatural being does not exist.” It’s a decent metaphor, but it falls way off the mark. Proving that such a being does not exist is not what atheism is about. Theists can’t even begin to agree on an unambiguous, coherent concept of god for it to be disproved.

It doesn’t take faith to not believe in God. At least no more faith than it takes not to believe in unicorns, faeries, magic, and other mythological creatures.  These tenets are all held with equal candor. The only time a TV comes into play is when a group decides its time to “take America back for God” or want to legislate how the rest of us live. This is why religion gets more flak, why, as Kennedy writes, “[atheists use] the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against secular society,” and why disbelief in goblins, ogres, and Zeus is not considered being “religious.” So if God is the TV, or otherwise topic of debate, and talking about the TV makes us religious due to its cultural pervasiveness, fine.  But in no way is being religious about a subject matter in this manner equivocal to that of the religious faith variety.

The enemy is not religion, the enemy is faith. Believing something without proof is a fuck you to all the other people on earth. ~Penn Jillette to Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, quoted in her article.