More on Objective Morality

I’ve been involved in a discussion of objective morality recently, and I’d like to open up my most recent thoughts on the matter to comment. What follows is the argument I’ve laid out for a system of morality based on objective measurements of actions as they relate to a shared value (although it goes without saying that a number of greater minds than mine have made similar arguments). If you’re not familiar with how the term objective varies within the scope of philosophy, I’d urge you to read my previous article on the matter. If you’re interested in a more developed account of non-theistic moral reasoning, you can’t go wrong by reading this book.

To construct our moral system, we require no god, nor any other supernatural claim. We begin with a single goal, which is a subjective value, and build a network of objective standards on top of that value statement. With this goal clearly identified, we can objectively establish whether any given action furthers or impedes that goal. The initial premise does not need to be universally supported, but we can use something that almost everyone would agree with. To demonstrate how this works, I’m going to suggest the most selfish value possible: “I want to be happy.”

This may not be the strongest ethic upon which to build a society, but it’s entirely sufficient. (Indeed, I think we can and should choose better goals, and it’s not actually necessary to restrict ourselves to just a single value, but I’m trying to illustrate a point here.)

What kind of world would be compatible with this end goal? Is a society that allows murder/theft/rape going to make us more likely to be happy? Superficially, if you’re the kind of person who wants to do these things, you might think you would be better served by answering in the affirmative, but if you consider the implications of your being unrestricted, it quickly becomes apparent why your freedom to do these things would not be more likely to lead to your happiness. If you’re permitted to commit atrocities on other people, they are also permitted to inflict them upon you. The standard applies to all people equally, so the only options are either 1) X is okay for everyone or 2) X is okay for no one.* Since having our property stolen and our dogs murdered would not make us happy, the goal is objectively better met if we outlaw theft and at least one form of canicide. So what happens in the case of aberrant behavior?—what obligation is there in this system to prefer law and order over chaos and mayhem? Well, if someone criminally victimizes you, you will be less happy, so you have an active incentive to discourage criminality; an objectively efficient way to do this is to have a fair, strong, and consistent legal system. And so on.

Again, the goal of self-happiness is not the strongest possible example, but I’m just trying to demonstrate that even selfish values can be used to create “good” systems of morality. Once that goal exists, the moral system is objective in its evaluation of actions by judging their relationship with that goal.

In anticipation of the (ridiculous) question of why someone should be obligated to be moral even if the system isn’t founded on philosophically objective values, I offer this explanation: it’s for the same reason that we would desire a legal system in the “I want to be happy” system of morality; the rest of us are not obligated to let you abuse us. We are and should remain capable of defending ourselves against violation, and it would be self-destructive to allow outside threats to torture and kill at their own discretion.

Believers often profess a desire for a moral system to be immutable, and it’s possible for the kind of moral system I’ve outlined here to maintain its goals indefinitely, although there’s no reason to demand that to be the case. As societies develop, new problems also develop. Even within the scope of a single goal, we may be forced to alter our perceptions of how that goal can be best achieved over time. Thus, it is absolutely vital to maintain an element of flexibility. Unless the “perfect” moral system** has been achieved (and I think such a thing is factually impossible given the influence of time), a system whose rules are incapable of being changed would be undesirable because it would permanently crystallize any inequities in that system.

I believe this sort of moral system is far closer to what we see in reality than any of the claims made by religious texts. If there were really an all-powerful god concerned enough with the world to establish a set of absolute rules and demand obedience, we’d expect to see widespread (or at least 50%!) adherence to those rules. As it is, the world’s largest religion is actively disbelieved by two-thirds of the world’s population. That does not strike me as a statistic that supports the claim that an omnipotent entity wants our obedience, but it is the kind of statistic you’d expect to see if people form their moral values in communities.

 
 * Although we can safely constrain both of these possibilities to say "X is okay/forbidden in situation Y."
** I actually think the notion of a perfect moral system is not even coherent. Is it possible to have a society
in which nothing can be improved? I doubt it.
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23 responses to “More on Objective Morality

  1. “In anticipation of the (ridiculous) question of why someone should be obligated to be moral even if the system isn’t founded on philosophically objective values, I offer this explanation: it’s for the same reason that we would desire a legal system in the “I want to be happy” system of morality; the rest of us are not obligated to let you abuse us.”

    Well, of course you are not. Since neither of you have any obligations, you might as well do what you like. You might not be obligated to let the person abuse you, but if the person wishes to and is powerful enough to, he can do what he likes.

    “If there were really an all-powerful god concerned enough with the world to establish a set of absolute rules and demand obedience, we’d expect to see widespread (or at least 50%!) adherence to those rules.”

    What makes you say that. How does the statement “God commands people not to steal” lead to the conclusion “at least 50% of human beings will not steal”?

    At first, couldn’t figured out what bothered me about your post but then I spotted it. It is the notion that we can ‘create’ our own moral system, that we can say ‘this is wrong’ and ‘this is right’ of anything we choose. I can’t help thinking that we can say it, and such distinctions can be useful and widely accepted, but they still have no validity because they’re made up. The reason we disagree is simply that I do not think moral values are preferences but you do. Piece of cake.

  2. “if the person wishes to and is powerful enough to, he can do what he likes.”
    Of course he can, but the point is that in doing so, his choice constitutes an active harm to society and an additional threat to everyone else, signalling that he will further refuse to prioritize social cohesion in the future. All you have to do is look at war-torn countries in the less developed areas of the world as proof of this. People with power can abuse it. When they do, they damage their societies.

    Presupposition: There is a god.
    Proposition 1: That god is all-powerful.
    Proposition 2: That god cares about human behavior.
    Conclusion: Because that god is all-powerful, that god can alter human behavior. If that god chooses not to do so, proposition 2 has been proven false. If that god cannot alter human behavior, proposition 1 has been proven false. Therefore, these two propositions are not compatible.
    That’s the conclusion that leads me to claim that if a god wanted people to act within a certain set of guidelines, the basic condition of the world would be such that the vast majority would act within those guidelines. The statistic of 66% of the world’s population actively disbelieving in your religion alone should be enough to demonstrate that no god with these attributes exists.

    “It is the notion that we can ‘create’ our own moral system”
    Indeed, we can and always have. Until the 1960s, “miscegenation” was a crime in many places in the United States. It was seen as immoral for people to enter into intimate relationships across perceived racial boundaries. Now it isn’t. Thus, the moral landscape of the nation has shifted. You can surely think of a number of other examples of this. Relationships between people of the same sex. Polygamy. 18 year old women with 80 year old men. Marriage at 13. Jaywalking. Female circumcision. Each of these things has a moral judgment associated with it entirely depending on the culture in which you grew up.

  3. Okay. First, you asked the question “why would anyone be obligated to follow your moral system”
    Then you replied to it, not by saying that they would, but by saying that the others are not obligated to let them violate it.
    Then I followed your argument to its conclusion and said that nobody is obligated to do anything, everyone can do as they like and the strongest person wins.
    You reply that by doing this, he damages his society.

    I don’t think we really have anything to disagree about there.

    I think your argument is incomplete
    I’ll grant, for the sake of argument, that God can alter human behavior and that he cares about human behavior. The missing premise is that he will alter human behavior. It is perfectly possible that God does not want us to do the wrong thing, and can change our behaviors, but he does not because doing so is not in line with his end goals.

    For instance, in altering their behavior, he denies them their free will and in Christian theology, we cannot truly love and serve God unless we freely choose to do so because forced love is no love. Since God’s plan for us is to bring us to lasting joy by in him by teaching us to freely love and surrender our wills to him, and violating our free will does the exact opposite, he won’t do it. That bring us to this:

    God cares about human behavior (granted)
    God can alter human behavior (granted)
    God won’t alter human behavior
    It does not follow from all that that at least 50% of the population would keep God’s laws.

    That’s just an example, though.

    You misunderstand me. I never said that people can’t declare stealing to be right. People can say ‘stealing is right’ and adopt that in their moral system, but it seems to me that still is still wrong. That’s what I mean when I say I have issues with the idea that they can create their own moral system. They can, in a sense, but it is invalid unless it conforms to the true one. But you disagree with that. You think these are merely preferences.

  4. 1) God cares about human behavior
    2) God can alter human behavior
    3) God won’t alter human behavior

    I don’t see how 3 can possibly be consistent with 1 as written. You could modify it thusly to make an argument for coherence:

    3) God won’t alter human behavior, but because of 1, he will make his preferences known.

    This is a defensible position, but it doesn’t match reality. If this god wants its preferences known, it could do so by imparting those preferences on the minds of all humans regardless of place or time. Such a thing would be within the capabilities of an all-powerful god, and it would be in accordance with the three principles here. If a being with these qualities existed, I contend that all humans would have a uniform sense of its desires.

  5. As to morality and the strongest person winning, social groups are inherently more powerful than individuals. When people group together, they can exert more influence to constrain antisocial behaviors. This accurately describes the state of morality as it exists in the world. A bully can abuse others for personal gain, but in doing so, he gives up any sort of expectation that those he bullies won’t band together against him.

  6. 1. God cares about human behavior
    2. God can alter human behavior
    3. God will not alter human behavior because doing so would be counterproductive

    1 and 3 are consistent when stated that way and it is what I said.
    As for God making his preferences known, the answer in Christian theology is that he has done so and those who do not believe it do so simply because they do not wish to.

    “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1: 18 – 20

    Doubtless you have encountered people who simply do not wish to believe what you tell them, as so they don’t . Of course God can tell people what he wants, but if they refuse to listen, he can fix it, but that’ll take us to the free will thing again.

    In summary, it is true that if God wished us to follow his laws, he would tell us about them. But it does not follow that we would believe them, much less follow them.

  7. “3. God will not alter human behavior because doing so would be counterproductive”
    This makes no sense. If 1 is true, altering human behavior would directly accomplish the goal of having people act in accordance with that god’s preferences.

    If the Christian god is all-powerful, he has the ability to make people believe him. To say that people can disbelieve God suggests that God either does not care whether people believe him or that he cannot force belief, which would be evidence against either the argument that he cares about human behavior or the argument that he’s all powerful, respectively.

    I don’t really care what the Bible says about the obviousness of God’s existence. I don’t see it, and if you try to tell me that I have seen it and I’m somehow suppressing knowledge of him, this conversation is so incredibly over.

  8. “If 1 is true, altering human behavior would directly accomplish the goal of having people act in accordance with that god’s preferences.”

    True, but it would not accomplish the goal of having people freely act in accordance with God’s commands. And since, in Christian thought this is what God wants for us because this is what will give us the most joy and fulfillment, God’s forcing our belief would not produce what he wants for us.

    I did not say that God cannot force people to believe him. You said that he ought to tell us what his commands are if he wishes us to follow them. I responded that this is so. However, the mere fact that he tells us does not mean that we believe them or follow them. He can force us, but that brings us back to the objection in my previous paragraph.

    I used the quote from Paul as an example of a situation in which God tells us what he wants us to do but people freely reject it and I supplied a different example from our experience of people refusing to believe because they do not want to. You do not need to believe it. You simply need to see that such a scenario is an objection to your previous argument.

  9. But those three qualities we’ve listed don’t include any sort of reference to “freely” acting in accordance with that god’s commands. Do you see the absurdity of it now? We can create a list of qualities a god could have, but when you try to attach a specific religion’s god, it just doesn’t fit. The Christian god and the attributes here so far are mutually incompatible–to make any sort of argument for God’s qualities, you have add on an ever-increasing list of attributes. When you add in an element of “freely,” that god begins to look terribly inconsistent.

    The Christian god cares about human behavior, but not enough to change it, and he wants humans to act in accordance with his wishes, but only if they do so freely? But how can humanity freely choose to do so when he’s threatening eternal torture for disobedience? That’s the most textbook case of coercion I’ve ever seen–in the Christian worldview, the idea of free choice is impossible.

    I don’t think it’s possible to enumerate all of the Christian god’s hypothetical qualities in a logically consistent manner; they’re frequently self-contradicting. Not if you intend to keep the qualities we’ve suggested here, anyway. If you replace them all with “That god is capricious and enjoys tormenting humanity,” then I think you’d be closer to a more accurate depiction of the god of the Bible.

  10. Maybe we should go back a bit. You said that if God (1) cares about human behavior and (2) can change their behaviour, we ought to see people acting differently.

    I said that your argument was missing a premise.
    (3) that God will/ wants to alter their behaviour

    I argued that it is perfectly possible that God both cares about human behavior and can force a change in it, but he won’t because doing so won’t achieve his goals. This should be easy to see.There are often situations where you would like something and you have the ability to get what you want, but you won’t because you understand its implications.

    Now, for your response:
    There is a difference between (a)putting someone in a position where they have to choose between two options, one of which is terrible (note that they are choosing) and (b) making it impossible for them to choose, making them do what you want to do, so that even if they want to/would choose a different option, they cannot. God can do (b), but people without the capability to choose, cannot actually choose to serve God, they can only be made to. This was the reference I made in my objection.

    God can also do (a), in fact, as you have pointed out, he has. But people can always choose the other option and, more importantly for this discussion, they can refuse to believe that those are their only options. Note that I am granting for argument’s sake that hell is what you have portrayed here, and it was God’s choice to make it that way, something a lot of people would reject.

    In conclusion, (b) is what God can do and has not done and I have explained why. (a) is the other option and it does not lead to the conclusion that at least 50% of the population would do the right thing.

    I have tried to handle your objection only as it pertains to the discussion at hand i.e. the question of whether God can make people do what he wants. You talked about God’s attributes being contradictory but I was unable to see how it pertains to this issue. If you want to talk about that, or the morality of the existence of hell, it can be arranged, but I suggest we focus on one thing at a time.

  11. “You said that if God (1) cares about human behavior and (2) can change their behaviour, we ought to see people acting differently.”
    No, this is an instance where capitalization matters. I was deliberate in avoiding referencing specific gods. A god whose qualities were 1 and 2 would use 2 to influence 1. The point is that arguments for a god with these qualities are not compatible with a third attribute–namely: 3. That god does not use its all-powerfulness to influence human behavior. If you attempt to describe a god with 1, 2, and 3, you must also include 4: “That god is arbitrary and inconsistent because it does not (always?) act to further its own desires.” None of this particular issue requires any reference to any particular theology.

    If a god cares about human behavior (1), then it seems fairly obvious that that god’s goals include having humans behave in accordance with that god’s desires. Suggesting that “he won’t because doing so won’t achieve his goals” is nonsensical if trait 1 is included in the description of a given god. The only possible exceptions to this that I can think of are these two:
    4: That god is arbitrary and inconsistent because it does not (always?) act to further its own desires.
    and/or
    5: That god is capricious because it engineers situations in which humans are made to fail.

    If you want to talk about the Christian god, God, then you can argue that some other goal comes before “God cares about human behavior,” but then I’d like to see two things: 1) a hierarchy of God’s desires, and 2) a demonstration of how you established and verified that hierarchy.

    I’d also argue that attributes 4 and 5 are absolutely required in any description of the Christian god’s personality.

    Arguments about free will existing in a metaphysical system like that suggested by Christianity are internally incoherent. As we’ve discussed before, voluntariness cannot exist in the presence of coercion. If I am holding a gun to your head and demanding your money, you are not “voluntarily” giving me your wallet. You’re right to point out that you can choose not to give me your money, but when I pull the trigger, only a moral monster would suggest that the blame for your death falls on your shoulders instead of mine.

    In Christian mythology, God is the mugger, and hell is the gun. There is no escaping this without inventing a Christianity that does not include punishment for nonbelief.

    If a god is all-powerful, then there’s no discussion to be had of whether it “can make people do what he wants.” It can. By definition. If it cannot, then it is not all-powerful. See again attributes 4 and 5 in this reply.

  12. “A god whose qualities were 1 and 2 would use 2 to influence 1. The point is that arguments for a god with these qualities are not compatible with a third attribute–namely: 3. That god does not use its all-powerfulness to influence human behavior. If you attempt to describe a god with 1, 2, and 3, you must also include 4: “That god is arbitrary and inconsistent because it does not (always?) act to further its own desires.” None of this particular issue requires any reference to any particular theology.”

    I understand what you are saying. That a god (perhaps my capitalization does not help you) who wants humans to do something and can make them do something will make them do it. That is similar to the claim that if I want a cupcake and I can make a cupcake, then I will make a cupcake. That is obviously false, because I could have other reasons for not making the cupcake. For instance, I’m on a diet that does not include cakes. I still want the cupcake, and I can make it, but I won’t because there’s no one to eat it.

    The bottom line is, a god who can make people do what he wants and wants them to do it, does not necessarily make them do it. It is perfectly reasonable that he has reasons for restraining himself.

    “In Christian mythology, God is the mugger, and hell is the gun. There is no escaping this without inventing a Christianity that does not include punishment for nonbelief.”

    I’m taking this on against my better judgment since I don’t really think it’s part of the discussion at hand. Look at your analogy.

    1. The mugger wants something from the victim that he is not entitled to
    2. He threatens to forcibly take her life unless she gives it to him.
    I would argue that in that situation, she does not freely give him her money because it is coercion, but she freely gives him her money because she can choose to do differently. That’s an important distinction, because it is a distinction of she can and cannot do, as opposed to what she will/ will not do and what she would like/ would not like to do.

    Now, I’ll explain why your analogy has nothing on Christianity. In Christian theology,
    1. We are sinners, we have broken the law, God’s law and justice demands that we be punished.
    2. God, because he loves us so much, sends his son to save us.
    3. Jesus does this by taking our sin on himself, becoming the guilty one, our substitute, and making us legally innocent and free from punishment.
    4. This substitution thing only works if both people agree to it, so each individual has to accept Jesus’ sacrifice.
    5. Those who refuse to, do not believe they need the sacrifice, do not believe that God even exists, in the first place obviously cannot benefit from it. So, they face justice just like they would have done without Jesus.

    This is a far cry from a mugging, don’t you think?

  13. Wow, I’m not sure how I managed to miss your comment here. Sorry about that! Hopefully you’ll see this at some point.

    “For instance, I’m on a diet that does not include cakes. I still want the cupcake, and I can make it, but I won’t because there’s no one to eat it.”
    But at that point, you want something else more than the cupcake. That’s entirely fine, of course, because in the real world, priorities are a great deal more complicated than the few attributes laid out here. The difference is one of hierarchy. You don’t eat the cupcake because while you do want it, something else is more important (namely your diet). Applied to a deity, one who could alter human behavior but does not is clearly not primarily concerned with human behavior. There must be something else taking precedence. The “he wants people to freely choose for themselves” argument is entirely without merit because of the blackmail situation of “believe or or else.”

    “It is perfectly reasonable that he has reasons for restraining himself.”
    Perhaps. I find it far more likely that he simply doesn’t exist. Are you aware of any recorded, verified instance of any god’s interference in the world outside of tales in storybooks? I’m not. The gods in holy books are said to have been universally great beings capable of awesome power who frequently exercised that power in myriad ways. Why don’t they anymore? Because they have other priorities? Feh!

    I’d still like to know these two things:
    1) what these priorities are
    2) how you know

    “she freely gives him her money because she can choose to do differently.”
    I know you do not believe this. You cannot. A thinking person simply cannot. She freely gives her wallet … under duress? Absurd.

    “1. We are sinners, we have broken the law, God’s law and justice demands that we be punished.”
    Also absurd. The idea of “sins of the father” being passed on to their children is disgusting at best. In the Christian worldview, God created mankind broken and commanded them to make themselves better, an impossible charge. You cannot reconcile the idea of original sin with an omniscient god who honestly wants humans to be without sin. He would have known that sin was coming, and in allowing that to happen, he would have been endorsing it. I do not accept “human free will” as an excuse for this; all-powerfulness means the ability to create a scenario where suffering and sin are absent.

    “This is a far cry from a mugging, don’t you think?”
    I agree, but I take this in the entirely opposite direction. In the Christian mythos, a supposedly omnipotent God engineered a Catch-22 situation for humanity, and then made the punishment for their inevitable failure infinite. In a mugging, you might get hurt (or even killed), but the suffering caused by that is temporary. You heal and then move on. In God’s punishment, the suffering never ends. It lasts forever. An eternity of pain. And God does nothing to stop it. Ever.

    The common response to this is that it only happens to those who reject God. Bullshit. That’s just blaming the victim. I’m not consenting to neverending suffering by rejecting clearly false claims. This notiong is no less reprehensible than saying “she deserved to be raped, officer, because she was wearing such revealing clothes!”

    There is no good evidence for God. If he existed and cared, there would be. All the rest is self-deception.

  14. Please look kindly on mistakes in the following comment. I intend to think with my fingers.

    Firstly, I’m glad we agree that the fact the God can do something and does not do it is not absurd. I see that you took issue with my defining the word ‘freely’ in two different ways. Your problem is obviously not that you think she could not have done otherwise, but that you disagree with my calling her choice ‘free’. Well, why don’t you give it whatever name you would like? My point was that in the Christian view, since true devotion cannot be forced in this way, God will not use it.

    I’m trying to figure out how the existence of hell is a counterargument against this view and so far, I’ve come up with this: If God created hell solely (or maybe even partly) as a weapon with which to threaten those who refuse to serve him, he would be attempting to coerce belief. I’m sure we can both agree with this. This seems to line up with your analogy of God as a mugger and hell as the gun a little bit. My counterargument, which I have already made is that God did not create hell as a weapon with which to to force belief. The only statement on the purpose of hell I know in the Bible is that it was created “for the devil and his angels” and as far as I know, God isn’t trying to get them to serve him (not that he wouldn’t like that, of course). Rather, I argued, Hell is a just punishment for our offenses against God and only for those who cannot be convinced to accept the salvation that is offered in Jesus.

    Your response, which I think was perfectly reasonable, was to attack the concept of sin. However, you’ve picked the wrong fight. I’m not catholic. I do not believe we inherited anyone’s sin. I cannot find that teaching anywhere in my Bible. In fact, one of my last two blog posts was on the topic. When I say we have sinned against God, I mean that we, on our own, have made decisions that were wrong – lying, stealing, and countless sins of omission. Even those who believe in original sin probably reject the idea that God made us that way. They usually argue that God made the first of mankind perfect.

    Finally, I suspect I should have addressed your view of omnipotence a long time ago. Here we go: God’s omnipotence, is not his power to do literally anything (square circles included). Here:

    “Omipotence is maximal power. Some philosophers, notably Descates, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible. Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened, and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie.” [Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “Divine Attributes”]

    “It would appear to be a minimal requirement for a being worthy of worship that he be greater than any otehr being. No other being exceeds God in power, knowledge or goodness. But this requirement is indeed minimal, since theists usually hold that God is not only greater than any other being as a matter of fact, but that it is impossible that there should ever be a being greater than God. God’s power, knowledge and goodness are therefore seen not merely as very great but as maximal. God is omnipotent; he possesses all the power a being can have. God is omniscient; he knows everthing which it is possible for a being to know. God is morally perfect; his goodness is unsurpassable.

    Another way of expressing God’s greatness is to say that he is infinite, or unlimited. These terms must, however, be understood in a qualified sense. To say that God is infinite in power does not mean that he can literally do anything. It has usually been held, for example, that God cannot create a square circle or a person with a morally free will who is determined always to choose what is morally right. The reason for this is not that God lacks some power or ability he might have had, but that these conceptions are logically contradictory and therefore impossible or even meaningless. God’s power is the power to do anything which is logically possible. In addition, most theists hold that there are certain things God cannot do because of his nature. Being morally perfect, he cannot commit an act of senseless cruelty, for example. God’s omnipotence must then be understood as the power to do whatever is logically possible and consistent with God’s own essential characteristics. Similar restrictions may have to be placed on the concept of omniscience.

    Even with these qualifications God’s power is still infinite in the sense of being unlimited by anything outside himself.” [Philosopy of Religion, C. Stephen Evans, IVP:1982, p.33f]

    “I find it far more likely that he simply doesn’t exist. Are you aware of any recorded, verified instance of any god’s interference in the world outside of tales in storybooks? I’m not.”

    Doubt no more! Craig Keener has a new book (new in the sense that I haven’t read it) where he explores modern day tales of miracles. I do not know if they are verified in the sense you want, but they should be interesting. The abstract reads:
    “Most modern prejudice against biblical miracle reports depends on David Hume’s argument that uniform human experience precluded miracles. Yet current research shows that human experience is far from uniform. In fact, hundreds of millions of people today claim to have experienced miracles. New Testament scholar Craig Keener argues that it is time to rethink Hume’s argument in light of the contemporary evidence available to us. This wide-ranging and meticulously researched two-volume study presents the most thorough current defense of the credibility of the miracle reports in the Gospels and Acts. Drawing on claims from a range of global cultures and taking a multidisciplinary approach to the topic, Keener suggests that many miracle accounts throughout history and from contemporary times are best explained as genuine divine acts, lending credence to the biblical miracle reports.” The link is here: http://www.amazon.com/Miracles-Credibility-Testament-Accounts-Volume/dp/0801039525

    I don’t want to go on. Please tell me if I skipped anything you want me to address. And have a wonderful day (or night, depending on which hemisphere you’re currently residing in).

  15. “Well, why don’t you give it whatever name you would like?”
    Because we already have words for these ideas? A decision made under duress is not “free.”

    “My point was that in the Christian view, since true devotion cannot be forced in this way
    So your god is not omnipotent (and I accept the definition of omnipotence as “the ability to do anything which is logically non-contradictory”). Are your beliefs about God’s power based on Biblical verses? The God of the Bible had absolutely no problem using his power to interfere with free will (see: God “hardening hearts”).

    (As an aside, that definition’s inclusion of “omnipotence means an inability to lie” is completely idiotic. If we include that as a measure of omnipotence, then again, the Biblical god is not omnipotent: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/god_lie.html )

    “God isn’t trying to get [the devil and his angels] to serve him”
    I find this a curious thing. As I understand it, humanity is supposed to have free will. Angels are not. Granted, this may be a distinction that does not appear in the Bible but solely in secondary texts (and Hollywood). What justification is there for God’s not “rewriting” the devil and his angels?

    “I’m not catholic. I do not believe we inherited anyone’s sin.”
    I’m troubled by the appearance of ignorance in this statement. Inherited sin is not even remotely a solely Catholic dogma. http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/charts/denominations_beliefs.htm

    “They usually argue that God made the first of mankind perfect.”
    I don’t see any merit in this argument. I’d say more about it, but since we agree on original sin’s nonexistence, there’d be no point.

    “Craig Keener has a new book (new in the sense that I haven’t read it) where he explores modern day tales of miracles. I do not know if they are verified in the sense you want, but they should be interesting”
    I know a number of pagans, most of whom actively practice magic, and each believes their spells to work. Indeed, they can often provide eyewitness testimony of their own powers. They would tell you that they’re performing miracles on a daily basis–without the assistance of God as a crutch. Do you really want to use anecdotes verbal accounts of events that haven’t been externally confirmed by dispassionate verification in this kind of discussion?

    “Please tell me if I skipped anything you want me to address.”
    These two questions:
    1) What are God’s priorities?
    2) How do you know?

    I realize that asking you to provide a list of all of God’s priorities is an impossible request, so I’ll settle for the biggest ones. Specifically, what is more important to God than human behavior (i.e., Why does God prefer to have a minority of humans following him “freely” instead of the entire world? If God wanted the entire world to follow him freely, he could perform an amazing worldwide miracle. Why does he not do this?), and what sections of the Bible inform your answer? (And how would you know if you were wrong?)

    “And have a wonderful day (or night, depending on which hemisphere you’re currently residing in).”
    Thanks! It was nighttime when you replied, which makes me suspect it’s nighttime where you are now. If so, I hope you’re sleeping well!

  16. Seeing as we agree that omnipotence does not include the ability to do the intrinsically impossible, your statement to the effect that God is not omnipotent strikes me as odd. True devotion cannot be forced in that way because true devotion is by its nature given by someone who can choose to do differently, but doesn’t. Forced true devotion is therefore an oxymoron and God’s inability to do it does not affect his omnipotence.

    “Are your beliefs about God’s power based on Biblical verses? The God of the Bible had absolutely no problem using his power to interfere with free will (see: God “hardening hearts”).”
    Yes, but I did not say he cannot/does not use his power to compel actions. I said that he does not use his power to compel devotion because true devotion is unforced by nature. I think whoever made the SAB should update it. They need to provide context to their quotations when used in arguments. Quotations without context are usually a bad idea – even when the context won’t change the meaning. Here you go: http://christianthinktank.com/godlies.html

    “Inherited sin is not even remotely a solely Catholic dogma. ”
    Nor do I think that it is. Of all the Christian denominations whose teachings I’m fairly familiar with, the roman catholic church is the only one that teaches inherited sin (or its equivalent). So it’s the one denomination that comes to mind whenever I think of inherited sin. It has also been my experience that those who complain about the Christian doctrine of original sin got it from the catholic church.

    Umm, I don’t see how pagan miracles function as evidence against claims of miracles. You asked for “verified instance of any god’s interference in the world outside of tales in storybooks?” I offered Craig Keener’s book, you dismissed as not being dispassionately verified without even reading it. I’m not in the business of trying to convince non-theists of miracles so I’ll just let this one pass. I doubt most of them would even accept video footage and medical documentation (which Keener claims to have by the way) as good evidence. If you do wish to get some feel for the book without reading all 900 pages, there is one article about it here: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2012/07/landmark-study-of-miracles.html

    “What justification is there for God’s not “rewriting” the devil and his angels?”
    I am not nearly well read enough to attempt to offer an opinion on that. Of course, with a few hours of thinking and reading time and the almighty google, I could probably come up with something. I don’t know of angels not having free will. I haven’t read that in my Bible or seen it anywhere besides hollywood so I don’t really accept it. It seems to me that they can’t have fallen in the first place if they don’t have free will.

    “Why does God prefer to have a minority of humans following him “freely” instead of the entire world [un-freely, for lack of a better word]?” (modification mine)

    I already answered that.True devotion cannot be forced. God can make everyone bow down to him and fill their mind with thoughts of how much they love to serve him, but they won’t really be serving him. That would require a willing submission of their desires to his, saying “your will, not mine be done”. Like Jesus in the garden (Luke 22:42). That is true devotion. Furthermore, God wants us to serve him partly because we can find lasting joy and fulfillment that way (John 11: 25, 26; 15: 4 – 6; 16: 19 – 22 ). This is as a result of his love for us. Making us robots won’t achieve that goal. As robots we can be made to experience the emotions that accompany joy, but we won’t be truly happy or fulfilled. We would have no wants of our own that we could have fulfilled. From Genesis through Revelation, God asks people to serve him. He begs, he entices, he makes promises, he disciplines, he warns of the unpleasant consequences. He uses his power to influence decisions, but he does not use it to coerce devotion.

    “If God wanted the entire world to follow him freely, he could perform an amazing worldwide miracle. Why does he not do this?”
    No. If God wanted everyone to believe he exists, he could perform a worldwide miracle. That would convince them of his existence. (maybe. I’ve heard some atheists say even that won’t convince them) But it would not make them serve him. The devil and his angels know God exists and they know of his power (James 2:19, Mark 5:6 – 13) . Their refusal to follow him is not due to a lack of knowledge, obviously. Some people might decide (like Adam and Eve and every other rebel) that they want to do their own thing, not what God wants from them. Likewise, the Biblical position is that a lot of people reject God, not because they don’t have enough evidence, but because they don’t want him (John 3: 16 – 20, Romans 1:18 – 20)

    How would I know if I’m wrong? Well, a Bible verse that says “God hates us and cares not for our ultimate fulfillment” or something of the sort. Preferably a very clear verse. And preferably not from Paul. Paul’s writings are terribly obscure. Or alternatively, an argument (philosophical, theological or otherwise) to the contrary. Those things would be indication of falsehoods in my arguments.

    “It was nighttime when you replied, which makes me suspect it’s nighttime where you are now”
    No, I think we’re in the same hemisphere.

    Thank you fro giving me reason to test my memory and lecture you. And remember: Always read in context.

  17. The definition you provided included an inability to lie as part of omnipotence. God obviously can lie, although the article you’ve linked suggests that he restricts himself to lying to other liars and to people who don’t want to hear the truth. Basically, I think a definition of omnipotence should not include the characteristic “cannot lie” because this is just an idiotic thing to include. That criticism isn’t terribly important to the larger discussion.

    “True devotion”
    I’m sorry, but this just seems to be moving the goalposts. “God can’t force people to worship him. … Oh, well, I guess he can, but then it wouldn’t be ‘true’ worship.” What is “true” devotion? Devotion that occurs in the absence of direct mind control? Even if we accept this as a separate class of devotion (which I disagree with, but let’s pretend I don’t), an omnipotent God would be able to manufacture an environment in which everyone could “freely” choose to devote themselves to him. If, after all, the mugging victim is freely giving the mugger their wallet…

    If we walk back the definition of true devotion to instead be established only through faith (i.e., without direct evidence), then none of the characters in the OT were truly devoted. (Wouldn’t that mean they all ended up in hell?) With this interpretation, anyone who claimed to have witnessed a miracle would be incapable of true devotion (or at the very least, any nonbeliever who saw one would then be forever barred from true devotion).

    Also, how does this square with Adam and Eve? They seemed fairly robotic until they’d eaten from the tree of knowledge. They certainly had no choice about their belief before eating the fruit! Thus, was their devotion “true” before then? (As an aside, it’s not clear to me that Abram was a worshipper before God spoke to him. It doesn’t seem to be addressed, although perhaps it is meant to be assumed. Are we to assume that merely being descended from Noah would have been sufficient to guarantee belief in and devotion to Yahweh?)

    People like Charles Manson are amazingly adept at manufacturing devotion. Indeed, that’s the only reason he was particularly dangerous to begin with. Was the devotion of his “family” true?

    “Umm, I don’t see how pagan miracles function as evidence against claims of miracles.”
    If pagan magic is possible, then how does one verify that any so-called miracle (including the ones in Keener’s book) is God’s doing? Mind you, I don’t believe they’re performing miracles or even doing anything at all. (As I’ve written in another blog post, I attribute these to overactive imaginations. If you’re interested: https://subjunctivemorality.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/on-religious-experience/) I’m a bit surprised that you seem so ready to accept the possibility of pagan miracles, to be honest. If you believe in the existence of non-godly magic, I don’t see how it’s possible to believe anything in the Bible, for it could all be explained away by sorcery. Even Jesus.

    “It seems to me that they can’t have fallen in the first place if they don’t have free will.”
    That’s always been my take on it. One of the things I think I like most about Islam is that its equivalent of Satan is actually working for Allah. This always seemed far more plausible than the idea of one of God’s angels successfully defying God’s will. (On the whole, however, my impression if Islam is certainly no better than Christianity.)

    “God can make everyone bow down to him and fill their mind with thoughts of how much they love to serve him, but they won’t really be serving him.”
    Accepting your distinction of “true” devotion being God’s only concern, would a telepathic message of “I AM GOD, AND I WANT YOU TO OBEY ME” to everyone on the planet, without actually removing the ability for people to decide freely make true devotion impossible? The answer to me seems a clear “no.” It would not make us robots, but it would be an unambiguous message (far better, I would argue, than the Bible). In fact, this would give me far more reason to believe than any old book ever could.

    “As robots we can be made to experience the emotions that accompany joy, but we won’t be truly happy or fulfilled.”
    I am incredibly uncomfortable with this claim. It strikes me as a True Scotsman fallacy. “Sure, you can be happy like that, but you won’t be ‘truly’ happy!” Happiness is happiness.

    “But it would not make them serve him.”
    Seems to me that if everyone knew for certain that he existed, the vast majority would convert and obey. I proportion my belief in any given thing to the evidence for the thing. Without definite evidence, no definite belief is possible.

    “the Biblical position is that a lot of people reject God, not because they don’t have enough evidence, but because they don’t want him”
    I know that the Bible says this, but I find it deeply offensive. If I knew God existed, then I would be a Christian. That’s pretty straightforward. I possess no such knowledge, and I get thoroughly frustrated when people I discuss Christianity with adopt that position. It’s nothing less than an accusation that I am lying. When someone quotes Romans at me, they are telling me, “I do not believe you when you say you do not see evidence of God because the Bible says you already know he exists, so you are lying.” I don’t see any reason to have a conversation with someone if they think I’m lying about my position. (I’m really a very honest person!)

    “How would I know if I’m wrong?”
    That’s actually why I like resources like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. Things that aggregate contradictions form a good resource for checking an argument for consistency. (Of course, I tend to see a lot of the apologetic attempts to explain away contradictions as, well, less than effective. Still, I can imagine resources like this being good tools for believers too.) Here’s a related question: why do you believe your interpretation is correct while the majority of other Christians’ is wrong (at a minimum, by virtue of belonging to different denominations)? Each denomination has a comprehensive explanation for why it’s the right one, after all…

    “Always read in context.”
    Of course I agree with this sentiment, but I find some of the lengths people go to to explain away inconsistencies or criticisms a bit staggering. When one has to cite distant parts of the Bible to justify (weakly, I would say) an extreme position, this does not strike me as reading “in context” but rather a contrived instance of motivated reasoning (i.e., cognitive dissonance reduction).

    You gave me a very satisfying explanation of your beliefs regarding true devotion/happiness/etc., but I don’t see where you answered the question of “How do you know?” as it pertains to God’s preferences about “true” devotion and the like. Where is your interpretation grounded in the Bible? Even if he wants us to have supreme happiness out of love for us (and thus declines to soften our hearts), he would surely prefer that we have only half happiness or whatnot instead of eternal suffering. Wouldn’t it be better to have a world where 50% of the people are only a little happy instead of one where that same 50% actively suffer? I would certainly rather be compelled to believe and have “untrue” happiness than to experience neverending torment.

  18. I don’t think you get what I mean. When I say “true devotion cannot be forced” or “God cannot make people truly serve him” I mean the same thing. Devotion freely given has this quality that makes it different from others. I am at loss as to how to explain this. It’s right there. I just can’t seem to grasp it. I’ll have to sleep on it and get back to you.

    “an omnipotent God would be able to manufacture an environment in which everyone could “freely” choose to devote themselves to him. ”
    Perhaps. This does not mean that they would. Obviously.

    “If we walk back the definition of true devotion to instead be established only through faith”
    Now, why would we do something like that?

    “Also, how does this square with Adam and Eve? They seemed fairly robotic until they’d eaten from the tree of knowledge. They certainly had no choice about their belief before eating the fruit! Thus, was their devotion “true” before then?”
    We’re talking about devotion – love, service, etc – not belief. I made the distinction earlier. I do not know if/how belief should be free, but their devotion was freely (and it seems wholly) given), yes.

    “People like Charles Manson are amazingly adept at manufacturing devotion. Indeed, that’s the only reason he was particularly dangerous to begin with. Was the devotion of his “family” true?”
    Let’s see. It was manufactured, probably built on falsehood, brainwashing. I don’t know if it was true.

    ““Sure, you can be happy like that, but you won’t be ‘truly’ happy!” Happiness is happiness.”
    No, I think joy, is something more than the feeling. And that while we can manufacture the feelings, we can’t manufacture the thing itself. You can disagree, of course.

    “I’m a bit surprised that you seem so ready to accept the possibility of pagan miracles, to be honest. If you believe in the existence of non-godly magic, I don’t see how it’s possible to believe anything in the Bible, for it could all be explained away by sorcery.”
    The Bible teaches that there beings besides God with power greater than we have. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think they can perform miracles. That there are miracles not performed by God won’t make it impossible to tell which is from God any more than the fact that there are dresses made by different people would make it impossible to tell which dress is made by a specific person. There will be differences, ways by which to distinguish them – result, motive, relevance, etc.

    “Seems to me that if everyone knew for certain that he existed, the vast majority would convert and obey.”
    What reason do you have for believing that?

    ‘when someone quotes Romans at me, they are telling me, “I do not believe you when you say you do not see evidence of God because the Bible says you already know he exists, so you are lying.”’
    I don’t really think of it like that. I think of it more along the lines of, the evidence is there for those who wish to see it. It is there even for those who don’t want to see it, but they suppress it. I find the teaching believable because it is the state of humanity in general. You don’t like something? Jump through hoops to keep from believing it. And also because I’ve met atheists who wouldn’t believe in God if bit them on the nose. So, you are not necessarily lying when you say you do not know God exists. The question is whether you want to know. I’m not inclined to argue about the topic, of course. You know yourself better than I do. I just think of it as something to keep in mind.

    “I don’t see where you answered the question of “How do you know?” as it pertains to God’s preferences about “true” devotion and the like.”
    What qualifies as true devotion is not a strictly biblical question. It pertains to other aspects of life as well. I do not know of any Bible passage that addresses it. It’s more like a question of “If you had control over someone’s mind and you made them think, feel and act like they love, you, is that love *real*?” It seems that the answer is obviously no, but I’m having a hard tie pinpointing the reason.

    “Wouldn’t it be better to have a world where 50% of the people are only a little happy instead of one where that same 50% actively suffer? I would certainly rather be compelled to believe and have “untrue” happiness than to experience neverending torment.”

    I don’t know about the “a little happy” part. I don’t know what kind of happiness people can have when they cannot think their own thoughts or feel their own feelings. If they couldn’t feel happiness at all, how would that be different from hell. I don’t have a solid concept of hell, so I can’t really tell.

    I don’t think you could escape hell even if you were compelled to believe. Refusing to admit God as creator, sustainer and God, and give him his due might be morally wrong. And if that were so, even compelled to serve God, we might still be doing something wrong.

    I’m sorry, I’m sleepy. That last sentence will have more clarity if I edit it later on. I should never write at night. I’ll have to do whatever I missed tomorrow.

  19. “Devotion freely given has this quality that makes it different from others.”
    I do understand what you’re trying to say. I think you are inventing a distinction that does not exist.

    “Perhaps. This does not mean that they would. Obviously.”
    Obviously, but since it is possible, that suggests that God is either unable or unwilling to do so. If you believe him to be omnipotent, then you can’t really get around the fact that God has the power to create a situation where everyone (or at least a majority, which we do not see now) would freely choose to worship him, but he refuses to do so. This does appear to demonstrate that he does not primarily care for the eternal well-being of humanity.

    “Now, why would we do something like that?”
    I have heard it argued like that in the past. I was attempting to save time by addressing it, in the event that you chose to take that route. If you do not, then my comments simply stand alone for posterity, irrelevant to this discussion but perhaps not to a future one.

    “We’re talking about devotion – love, service, etc – not belief.”
    So if we have established that devotion can be freely given regardless of whether a person possesses a gnostic belief in God, what is the justification for God’s not revealing himself?

    “It was manufactured, probably built on falsehood, brainwashing. I don’t know if it was true.”
    Since Manson lacked the ability to directly control his followers’ minds, wouldn’t it be possible for them to have “truly” devoted themselves to him, perhaps even in the presence of lies? After all, God can lie to nonbelievers, but it’s still possible that someone lied to in this fashion could later convert. (I also suspect it’s possible to brainwash someone without using lies. Can’t say I’ve ever tried, nor do I have any interest in doing so…)

    “No, I think joy, is something more than the feeling. … You can disagree, of course.”
    And I think I do. If it isn’t just the feeling, what else is it?

    “There will be differences, ways by which to distinguish [Godly from non-Godly miracles]– result, motive, relevance, etc.”
    How do you know? Since people are so easily fooled, surely a large number of people could be made to believe and repeat a lie (such as a pagan pretending to be the incarnated son of God…), and after the miracle is performed, there’s no way for future generations to verify its source.

    “What reason do you have for believing that?”
    Certain knowledge of a deity would probably make me convert. I guess it depends on the specific deity, though. (If Tiamat manifested in front of the world, I probably wouldn’t worship her.)

    “It is there even for those who don’t want to see it, but they suppress it.”
    This is exactly the kind of attitude I have a problem with. In saying this, you are actively implying that I am somehow suppressing an inner conviction. This is nonsense. No such obvious evidence exists.

    “You don’t like something? Jump through hoops to keep from believing it.”
    I could turn this right back around on a number of Christians, though. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say something like, “If there were no God, nothing would stop me from raping and murdering anyone I wanted to! That’s why I’m glad there’s a God!” In that case, the person making the argument is suggesting that they’re too afraid of a godless world, so they refuse to even consider changing their beliefs. They want to believe that they’re objectively “right,” so they use God as a justification for this feeling, suppressing the obvious truth that there are no gods. (Although perhaps you’d already seen how pointless this kind of argument is?)

    “I do not know of any Bible passage that addresses it.”
    Then why believe it?

    “I don’t think you could escape hell even if you were compelled to believe.”
    Perhaps not without divine assistance. God being omnipotent would be entirely capable of granting second chances to anyone who repents in hell. If the soul is eternal, why should its fate be ultimately and finally decided on Earth?

  20. I wrote about the free will issue, a least as much as I could. http://ferlans.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/love-devotion-and-free-will/

    You said that “an omnipotent God would be able to manufacture an environment in which everyone ,b>could “freely” choose to devote themselves to him. ” (emphasis mine)
    I said perhaps. It is not an issue I have thought about at length. But that even if they could, it does not mean that they would. (At least, that was what I was trying to say. Most of my sentences were in half. Forgive me).
    Your response is that “since it is possible, that suggests that God is either unable or unwilling to do so.”

    Your response reveals that you think that God has not created a world in which everyone *could* choose to believe in him. But you have not told me why you think this is the case.

    “If you believe him to be omnipotent, then you can’t really get around the fact that God has the power to create a situation where everyone (or at least a majority, which we do not see now) would freely choose to worship him, but he refuses to do so. ”
    Back up. Did you mix up your c’s and w’s?

    “So if we have established that devotion can be freely given regardless of whether a person possesses a gnostic belief in God, what is the justification for God’s not revealing himself?”
    I do think you have to believe God exists to serve him. How can you serve something you do not think exists? Are you asking why God does not reveal himself in a more obvious way? Is so, it is necessary to think of whether such an action would lead anyone to devote themselves to God. If it is, then absent some other purpose, it is unnecessary. Do you have reason to think that this is necessary? The response “If I had more evidence, I would serve God” might be of use to you, but it is sadly, not to me because it reflects your opinion, not an established fact and it does not take into consideration the fact that the revelation might make some other people like God less.

    I’ve only partially thought it through, but here’s my line of thinking right now.Say, my parents give me a surprise visit for my birthday and bring presents. I love seeing my parents and I love presents, so this will give me joy. You know joy – it’s that state of mind n which you are happy, carefree, and generally light-hearted. Now, say someone were to somehow make me feel carefree, happy and light-hearted. The first is a product of loving, giving, actions, an accurate (more or less) representation of my well-being, and it comes from me. The second lacks all those things. What I am saying is that they are different in source, truth (as a representation of one’s mental state, well-being, status in life, etc) and in effect (afterwords). That’s as far as I’ve thought it through. I’d be happy to get your input.

    “How do you know? Since people are so easily fooled, surely a large number of people could be made to believe and repeat a lie (such as a pagan pretending to be the incarnated son of God…), and after the miracle is performed, there’s no way for future generations to verify its source.”
    We can take one criterion. A miracle that teaches supports a teaching that is in clear contradiction with the teachings in the Bible is not from God. The Bible also gives its own criteria – if the person invites you to worship other gods, for instance. Those two are obviously ways for verifying a miracle worker who is not from God. The basic principle is to figure out what a messenger from God would or would not do and check the person against that list. Even future generations can do this if there are records. So, it is not impossible to tell.

    “Certain knowledge of a deity would probably make me convert. I guess it depends on the specific deity, though.”
    This does not mean that certain knowledge of a deity would make most people convert. You still need evidence for that.

    Why do I believe something that the Bible does not address? umm… Why do I believe there is a place called vancouver in a country known as Canada despite the fact that the Bible does not address it? When a question isn’t strictly a Biblical issue, I can form reasonable, opinions about it from outside sources. I can even do the same if the Bible does address does address it with the caveat that my belief must be in line with the Bible’s teaching, else I can hardly call myself a Christian. If your question is why I think it is true, I hope you find my post helpful.

  21. I can’t edit. The beginning of the second paragraph should read: “You said that “an omnipotent God would be able to manufacture an environment in which everyone ,could “freely” choose to devote themselves to him. ” (emphasis mine)”

  22. “Your response reveals that you think that God has not created a world in which everyone *could* choose to believe in him. But you have not told me why you think this is the case.”
    For many hundreds of years, Christianity was limited to a very small geographic location. The word of God, thus, was entirely absent from huge populations of humanity. With our present technological marvels, we’ve enabled the worldwide spread of people and ideas, but this is a very recent innovation. (I also note that this only came about thanks to scientific advancements which were not revealed in any holy text.)

    Even if you don’t think of that as a problem in the Christian argument (which I obviously do), there are so many deeply rooted religions around the world, many of which are older than Christianity. Why would, for example, India give up their Hindu gods en masse in favor of a relatively young god who does nothing to improve their lives? Why would a tribal group reject their ancestor worship in favor of a god that teaches their ancestors are eternally damned by virtue of not having converted? I suppose you’ll argue that this is an issue of human free will, since humans are free to invent and worship their own idols, so…

    If you believe him to be omnipotent, then you can’t really get around the fact that God has the power to create a situation where everyone (or at least a majority, which we do not see now) would freely choose to worship him, but he refuses to do so.

    I hadn’t realized that I had switched from “could” to “would” in that section, but I’ll stand by it completely. By directly revealing himself, I posit that far, far more people would freely choose to worship God. (Indeed, even Tiamat could pick up some followers this way!)

    “This does not mean that certain knowledge of a deity would make most people convert. You still need evidence for that.”
    This is a bit much. No definitive evidence can be offered to support this because no direct evidence of any god exists anywhere in the world. I can only offer the inductive example of self-identifying skeptics who reject god claims because they all lack evidence. The existence of this kind of direct evidence (such as meeting a god in person and witnessing an undeniable cessation of normal physical laws) would surely result in a significant boost in conversion.

    The Biblical Adam and Eve were devoted to God because they knew him personally. Everyone God spoke to in the Bible had absolute knowledge of God’s existence. In that scenario, there’s little reason not to follow him. To these characters, the issue of “doubt” did not exist, yet it is precisely because of doubt that most atheists do not believe.

    “I do think you have to believe God exists to serve him.”
    All the more reason for a god who’s concerned with human devotion to reveal himself to humanity at large instead of merely a miniscule subset of medieval peasants.

    “Do you have reason to think that this is necessary?”
    Yes. I cannot believe obvious lies. The Christian god is no more plausible to me than the Norse or ancient Egyptian gods (actually, he’s less likely–at least polytheistic religions have the “multiple gods have competing interests” argument to justify the problem of evil). The fact that God has more modern followers than Anubis or Loki adds literally nothing to the plausibility of the religion (see the fallacy “appeal to popularity”). I conclude, based on the total lack of evidence for gods, that religions are primarily lies constructed to maintain social control. I would obviously reject this conclusion if a god revealed itself to me in such a way that no reasonable person could doubt its divinity. You may not find this persuasive, but a high percentage of atheists would, and so too, no doubt, would adherents of other religions need this kind of direct proof to reject their parents’ religion. (Think about the “outside observer” test for evaluating religions.) Childhood indoctrination is an insidious thing, and it’s quite difficult to overcome.

    “… the revelation might make some other people like God less.”
    Why should this matter? God isn’t concerned with having people like him; he only cares about their devotion. (Job, much?) Anyone who currently likes God at X-level probably does not have an accurate impression of God if God revealing himself would cause their liking to drop below X.

    “Say, my parents give me a surprise visit for my birthday and bring presents.”
    I don’t really understand your analogy. Are you analogizing God to your parents? This would be pretty horrible because you’ve already met your parents in person and you know they exist. Even an adopted orphan can know with certainty that he/she has parents. Yours can only give you a surprise party because they meet you bodily, even if only occasionally. God does not do that.

    “We can take one criterion. A miracle that teaches supports a teaching that is in clear contradiction with the teachings in the Bible is not from God.”
    I think you’ve misunderstood my argument. The Bible is the OT and the NT together. The NT directly contradicts or alters the OT in almost every possible way. The OT says belief in God is necessary; the NT says one must also (instead?) give devotion to Jesus. This seems rather idolatrous; the only way you could say with certainty that it’s not idolatry is if you know that the NT is authentic, but you can’t know that for certain because only the NT says the NT is authentic! With belief in magic, how can you know the NT is authentic? (Or the OT for that matter?)

    “The basic principle is to figure out what a messenger from God would or would not do and check the person against that list.”
    Does the Bible include a list of things messengers from God must do?
    If not, you cannot figure this out with reliability.
    If so, compliance can be forged–false messengers can follow those guidelines (or come very close, at least).

    “Why do I believe something that the Bible does not address? umm… Why do I believe there is a place called vancouver in a country known as Canada despite the fact that the Bible does not address it?”
    Don’t be obtuse. You know what I mean. I asked you about something that informs your own personal religious beliefs. Vancouver has nothing to do with that. You cannot claim to follow the Bible if you invent your own beliefs that are not represented there. (That’s fine, of course, because most Christians don’t actually follow the Bible so much as follow small parts of it and claim to follow the whole thing, but don’t pretend that your beliefs are any more “accurate” than those Christians if you adopt extrabiblical sources into your personal religion.) If you first establish an opinion outside of the Bible and then use some obscure passage to justify that opinion, all you’re doing is committing a post-hoc justification. (See also: the Gnostic heresies? The Westboro Baptists?)

  23. My, this is getting really broad, isn’t it?

    Your argument seems to be that God has not created a world in which everyone can choose to serve him because some people did not have evidence about him. But Paul does address that in Romans (Romans 1 again and another verse I don’t know by heart). He says that even those who do not have the law can know about God from what he has made and from the moral law he has given us which we intuitively know. I learned about God this as a child – by looking at the world around me and inferring that it must have been created. I learned that we are sinners and in need of God’s mercy from watching myself and seeing how I acted where morality is concerned, before I was able to understand the Biblical teaching about the issue. So, even those without the Bible and Christian missionaries can know about God.

    “I can only offer the inductive example of self-identifying skeptics who reject god claims because they all lack evidence. The existence of this kind of direct evidence (such as meeting a god in person and witnessing an undeniable cessation of normal physical laws) would surely result in a significant boost in conversion… Everyone God spoke to in the Bible had absolute knowledge of God’s existence. In that scenario, there’s little reason not to follow him.”
    Like I previously said, an atheist saying that they would worship (not just believe in, but wholeheartedly serve) God if they knew he existed is not evidence that they actually would. It is only evidence that they think they would.
    Knowledge of God is necessary for service to him, yes, but it is by no means sufficient. There are other necessary things. The willingness to subject one’s will to his, an understanding of our status as sinners and the hope offered in Jesus, a willingness to accept the gift, etc. In order to argue that a clear revelation from God would increase devotion to him, you have to show either that the revelation would produce these necessary things, or that these necessary things are already present. Do you have evidence for any of that?

    Firstly, knowledge of God did not stop angels from rebelling. Secondly, as human beings are committed to having our own way, like Adam and Eve, even when we know God disapproves. Thirdly, the Christian doctrine of salvation: “I am a sinner, deserving of God’s judgment, unable to save myself and in need of God’s grace” takes more than just knowing God’s existence to accept. Serving God is more than just bowing down to him. I’m willing to bet even Satan bows when he wants to ask for stuff, but in reality, he despises God.

    If these other things are not present, then a clear revelation of God would make no difference. It might get people to pay lip service to him, but that is not devotion, I’m sure, even by non-theistic standards.

    “Why should this matter? God isn’t concerned with having people like him”
    You misunderstand me. People who do not like God would be less likely to serve him. This is relevant to the issue of whether God making himself absolutely clear to us would actually bring non-believers closer to him as opposed to farther away. I’m talking about believers here, not non-believers.

    Using my parents as an illustration is irrelevant to the analogy I was drawing. I’m comparing joy as produced by different means, not the people.

    “The OT says belief in God is necessary; the NT says one must also (instead?) give devotion to Jesus.”
    The old and new testament believe that sin must be atoned for. The old testament has it being done with animals. The new testament brings Jesus in as the atonement. The NT still requires us to worship God, but also says that one must accept the permanent atonement for sins which the OT predicted as opposed to the temporary ones. It also expands our understanding of God as ‘echad’ one, yet, made up of parts, something that is attested in the old testament. In these cases, it is in line with, even predicted by the old testament.

    As for forged compliance, it is absolutely possible for a false messenger to abide by God’s rules – not leading is to other gods, etc. but then he would merely have helped us draw closer to God. How can he fulfill his evil mission without actually doing the wrong things he came to do?

    About your final point, I think we must have lost each other somewhere. You seem to be saying that on issues like “what is true devotion (commitment, service to another)?” “What is true love?” “What are the implications of free will?” which are not strictly biblical issues but are of importance in biblical matters, if the Bible says nothing about the matter, I cannot form opinions. I must remain ignorant. What did God give us the rest of the world for? If we cannot use it to learn more about serving him? I do believe I can learn about God from what he has created as Paul so famously said in his letter to the Romans, but I have a responsibility to make sure those things are in line with Biblical teaching, that the Bible informs by judgments. How do I go wring there?

    Like the lady in Perelandra said, although in different words (if in words at all), I have had my fill of this conversation. Take heart, you knew it couldn’t go on forever anyway. You have the last word, of course.

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