XFiles: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Deny GOOD PEOPLEMay 30, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)
We’ve been listening to a fictional Christian, whom we’ve dubbed “Dr. Geistur,” as he tries all sorts of excuses for why God does not oppose evil in the kind of tangible and productive ways that would be consistent with the existence of a good and all-powerful deity. We’ve heard him excuse God on the grounds that God really has no choice, that somehow He lacks the power to prevent evil from happening one way or another. We’ve heard him criticize a Jewish apologist for making basically the same argument, on the grounds that all things are possible for God. We’ve heard him propose analogies like the Super Bowl, as illustrating how struggle can make victory sweeter (though he apparently fails to realize that it also illustrates the existence of alternatives that do not require resorting to sin and evil). And we’ve heard him try to sell the idea that evil isn’t really all that bad, and that it’s actually good for us, in the long run.
As if that hasn’t sufficiently made a general hash of his own religious beliefs, he next turns to this tidy morsel of misanthropy:
STRAW [the Atheist]: If God is infinitely powerful as you say, then why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?
GEISTUR: We’ve already pointed out that there are good outcomes for pain and suffering. But we also need to point out that the question makes an assumption that isn’t true.
STRAW: What’s that?
GEISTUR: There are no good people!
Charming, isn’t it?
Now in all fairness to Dr. Geistur, he’s not indulging in any personal antipathy towards his fellow mortals. He’s merely upholding an anti-human bias that’s inherent within his religion itself. As I mentioned before, one of the techniques that con men use to deceive their victims is the “Blame the Pigeon” strategy. People are more gullible when they’re afraid that they’re guilty of something, so to keep your pigeons from seeing through your scam, you just need to make them feel guilty.
Christianity takes this a step further by asserting that we are all guilty, by definition. There are no good people, according to the Gospel—just like there’s no naturally luxuriant and vibrant hair according to the marketing department of your favorite shampoo and conditioner. Even before you start, you’re inherently inferior and inadequate, and you need our product to make you socially acceptable. Even if we don’t have any actual product to deliver.
Dr. Geistur then gets the strawman atheist character to confess to having told lies and having stolen things. Mr. Straw protests that he’s not all bad, but Geistur retorts that he’s not all good either, and then broadens that to include all people, including babies who, in his view, are sinfully guilty of being selfish. Mr. Straw is judging himself to be more or less good relative to other people, but (Geistur argues) he’s failing to consider where he stands on an absolute standard of goodness.
The point of this whole little diversion is just to get to a point where Geistur can go back to Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and claim that Kushner is making incorrect assumptions about both God and man. As far as Geistur is concerned, evil in the world is not a problem for an omnipotent God because the victims all deserve to suffer. The only real question, according to Geistur, is “Why do good things happen to bad people?” In other words, he’s invoking the Rapist’s Defense (“She was asking for it!”) as yet another excuse for God’s failure to oppose evil in any tangible, real-world way.
Like I said: charming.
Let’s take a moment here to indulge in some of the thinking that’s sadly failing to happen in this little dialog between the Christian and the straw man. Is it really true that there are no good people? And is there an absolute standard of goodness for us to measure people against?
Obviously, the answer to the first question is no, it’s not true at all. But to explain why, we need to understand the answer to the second question, which is also “no.”
When Dr. Geistur accuses Mr. Straw of judging people by comparing them with other people, he’s making an astute observation. We do judge how good people are by comparing them with others. What Dr. Geistur fails to realize is that this is the correct way to judge goodness in a person’s life, because “goodness” is a social relationship whose existence is defined by the person’s interactions with others. If you don’t consider the person’s behavior in light of the other people they are interacting with, then you’re taking things out of context, and are not making a fair judgment.
When a person is part of a group, there’s a certain tension between the best interests of the individual and the best interests of the group. “Goodness,” in a social context, consists of finding a workable balance between behaviors that benefit the individual and behaviors that benefit the group. Ideally, we want to maximize the behaviors that are beneficial to both, and minimize the behaviors that are detrimental to one or the other. It’s “good” to be a positive example and a reliable contributor to the well-being of the group, but it’s “bad” to be too much of a taker/exploiter, or too much of a doormat. “Goodness” is that which maximizes the benefit to all involved.
Now, that’s a fairly abstract description because different groups actually have different characters, objectives, and priorities. “Good” as defined by a fellowship of stay-home, full-time, home-schooling evangelical moms, and “good” as defined by an association of activists working to promote First Amendment liberties, might not be entirely the same list of behaviors. Is it “good” to depend on a wealthier relative to meet your own financial needs? Again, in a third world culture, it might very well be good (and even inescapable), whereas in an affluent society like America it might be seen as a sign of moral weakness, or worse.
How about mandatory celibacy? Good or bad? Even within Christianity, you’ll get a different answer depending on which group is considering the question (and who’s being proposed as being subject to the restriction). Is gay marriage better or worse than promiscuous gay sex? Hmm, might be hard to get a consistent answer to that one too, and might lead the Christian to reconsider his or her answer to the question about mandatory celibacy.
I think you see my point. There is no absolute standard of goodness, because goodness exists relative to a particular person, in a particular set of circumstances, in the context of a particular group with a particular set of standards, expectations, constraints, and so on. If you were to write a book containing an enumerated listing of which actions were “good” for a particular person in a particular social/cultural/economic context, the table of contents alone would probably consume all of the world’s paper and ink!
But by and large, no such reference guide is even necessary. We know that there are good people, and bad people, and we judge them according to our own contexts, as we should and must. But more to the point—and to get back to the topic Geistur is failing to address—none of that has anything at all to do with deserving to be born with crippling birth defects, or deserving lifelong poverty and starvation, or deserving premature death due to natural or man-made catastrophe.
Rabbi Kushner originally asked (and tried to answer) a perfectly good question about why a supposedly good God fails to intervene in cases where the victims suffer evils that they have not provoked by any correspondingly evil deeds. Geistur’s diversion into abstract hamartiology is just that: a diversion, a hand-waving attempt to distract us from the fact that he has no good answers. Go ahead: argue about whether or not it’s inhumanly barbaric to seriously claim that babies deserve to be born with horrendous, life-shattering birth defects. At least if you’re debating hamartiology, you’re not asking why God allowed an innocent child to suffer, and the real question of evil has been successfully dodged.
I wish I could say that this was just a momentary lapse on Geistur’s part, but skimming ahead… no, sorry, there’s lots more where that came from. Stay tuned (if you can stand it).