[Cross-posted from the Teapot Atheist
Every Sunday, rather than offering commentary on a current event as I usually do, I present an argument, either against theism writ large or against some particular religion.
God is usually defined as having the maximized forms of certain categories of properties: power, freedom, goodness, etc.; he is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, perfectly free, etc. While I understand the concept of such a being and do not object to its usefulness as a thought experiment at times, I of course do not agree that such properties coexist in any entity that itself really exists. But I also think it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask why the God of the Bible, even if he existed, should be identified as omnipotent, omniscient, and all that? There is little indication in the Bible that God is all-powerful; his schemes, like the creation of a good universe, seem to constantly be getting foiled by Satan, and he seems to be very narrowly concerned with only one tribe of people over all the others, and for his omniscience he seems to know nothing that the Israelites writing about him did not themselves know. It seems likewise difficult to ascribe perfect goodness to the God of the Bible, what with all the genocide, child murder, utter disdain for women, casual racism, and all the rest.
An essay on this point by William Peterson appears in the 1991 Reason and Religious Belief: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
. There he takes up a line of argument that I think begins with St. Anselm but that is certainly a continuation of an argument advanced by Charles Findlay in his 1948 paper, "Can God's Existence be Disproved?
" from the philosophy journal Mind
. Findlay's argument, in a nutshell:
Plainly we shall be following the natural trends of unreflective speech if we say that religious attitudes presume superiority in their objects, and such superiority, moreover, as reduces us, who feel the attitudes, to comparative nothingness. For having described a worshipful attitude as one in which we feel disposed to bend the knee before some object, to defer to it wholly, and the like, we find it natural to say that such an attitude can only be fitting where the object reverenced exceeds us very vastly, whether in power or wisdom or in other valued qualities. To feel religiously is therefore to presume surpassing greatness in some object... [but] all limited superiorities are tainted with an obvious relativity, and can be dwarfed in thought by still mightier superiorities, in which process of being dwarfed they lose their claim upon our worshipful attitudes. And hence we are led on irresistibly to demand that our religious object should have an unsurpassable supremacy along all avenues, that it should tower infinitely above all other objects.
In short, the reason that the God of the Bible is identified as omnipotent, omniscient, and all the rest, is because the God of the Bible is worthy of unconditional worshipful praise and reverence, and the only kind of being that could
be worthy of unconditional worshipful praise and reverence would be one that shows things like power and goodness in a perfect, maximized way. (Findlay doesn't explicitly say that the God of the Bible is the only possible such being, but I don't think I insult him too much by reading it as an implication of his paper.)
For this week's Sunday Argument, I wish to address this worship-worthy God by continuing an objection to it raised by the brilliant Jordan Howard Sobel in his immeasurable Logic and Theism: Arguments for and Against Beliefs in God
. In short, his argument is:
- The religious attitude is one of unconditional worshipful praise and reverence.
- Unconditional worshipful praise and reverence is never an appropriate relationship for humans to enter.
Sobel advances this argument as what he calls "objective humanism," identifying himself as someone who thinks that God as conceived in religious tradition is impossible because such a being is defined as being worthy of unconditional worship, when "worthiness of unconditional worship" is as impossible as a two-sided triangle or a married bachelor; the very concept of such a being is totally incoherent.
At first blush, Sobel's response sounds more like a conviction than an argument, but the argument can be defended without supplying any additional premises. The argument I'll make in Sobel's defense isn't the one he uses in Logic and Theism
(you can read the book for his arguments), it's one of my own.
For now, I'll have to rely on an ordinary conception of worship- praise, gratitude, glorification, adoration. It isn't this word so much as unconditional
that I think trips up God here. Whether or not worship is ever an appropriate behavior for humans, I think it much clearer that unconditional
worship is certainly never right. But first I want to resolve some ambiguity on that word. As I see it, one's worship could be "unconditional" either if:
- one worships some being on no conditions whatsoever, that is, the worshiper will worship with no other considerations of the object.
- one worships some being and there are no conditions that, should they be fulfilled, will cause one to stop worshiping.
The first definition is patently absurd, and significantly undermines the point of the argument. If religious attitudes toward God are on no conditions whatsoever
, then clearly religious attitudes are not conditional on God's being good or evil, omnipotent or not, omniscient or stupid. They simply would be
. The argument then would fail here, since it would read into unconditional what it does not say.
Clearly the second is better, and I think that it describes an attitude that is incoherent, but is at least closer to what is generally intended supposed in religious attitudes. Its incoherence rests on a contradiction hidden between "worship" and "unconditional." Consider that "worship" can itself be broken down into a number of other behaviors, as indicated earlier: praise, adoration, gratitude, so forth. All of these behaviors have in common that they are responses to the actions of their object
: one gives praise for an achievement or for certain praiseworthy behaviors, one adores that which has through some like means earned being adorable, and gratitude only makes sense as a reciprocation of the good intentions behind some act performed by the party to whom gratitude is being shown.
All of these behaviors are also subject to future revision. I might show gratitude for your buying me a present, but that might be revoked if I later learn that it was only done to make my other friends jealous and so turn them against me. I might show praise or even adoration for a man who saves an infant from a burning building at great risk to himself, only to later revoke my praise or adoration for the man himself
(not to be confused with the act of the man
) if it turns out that he only wanted to save the baby so that he could eat it. These are all completely fungible behaviors, and so saying of the that they could ever be not subject to future revision
, that is, not liable to be revoked because of some future event
, is false in that such is a misstatement of the real parameters of worshipful behavior.
- For all worshipful behaviors , there are no objects of that behavior that could never lose their worship-worthiness.
- For all unconditional behaviors (x), there are no objects of that behavior that could ever lose their x-worthiness.
- From this it follows that if some worshipful behaviors are unconditional behaviors (y), or vice versa, then the objects of y both could and could not ever lose their y-worthiness.
The contradiction is found, and so the postulation by Anselm through Findlay seems to suggest that there is no God.
Perhaps a response could be offered along the lines of, "God's behavior might as well
be unconditional because, by definition, God would never do any of the things you say would disqualify him from worship-worthiness; since God is perfectly good, then he would never behave as the man who rescues the baby only to eat it later. Of this I would ask: if God's perfect goodness essential to his character
, as in, is God's perfect goodness 'hard-wired' into him such that it is a logical impossibility for God to do what is wrong? Or is God's perfect goodness merely a description of the fact that, whenever God makes a decision with some moral salience, it is always the most morally excellent option.
If it is the former, then God is not worship-worthy because he is doing nothing particularly impressive; he is mechanically ingesting problems and excreting moral goodness according to a code in his character. I would no more find God worthy of worship on this account than I would find a man who is allergic to alcohol worthy of praise for abstaining from alcohol: if he is praiseworthy at all, he is less
praiseworthy than the legitimate alcoholic who, through sheer willpower and with great effort, restrains himself. God is more like the former, and since God must maximize all of this good properties, God could not be less worship-worthy than any being, real or imagined, so both options are off-limits to an essentially good, unconditionally worship-worthy being
If it is the latter, then the same objection raised against the conjunction of unconditional
applies, because if God could possibly ever act contrary to what is best, then your worship is not unconditional! It would be conditioned on God's continuing to do what is best; your worship would cease conditional on God's not doing what is best. So the problem would still fail.
Sobel takes this argument to be intended to refute the possibility of God's existence writ large, but I think it is more an argument just against inferring God's other properties from the attitudes prescribed in the Bible. Either way, this is a problem with serious implications for the traditional theistic conception of God.