The Will of “God”
In this blog entry, David Rand considers a question which is at the very core of religious belief, specifically theistic belief: the claim of possessing knowledge – often exclusive knowledge – of the will of “God.”
Theism holds in its thrall huge numbers of persons, and not just believers, because many non-believers as well continue to display an attitude of servile deference towards religious institutions, leaders and practices. It is as a moral system that theism maintains that iron grip. By “moral system” I do not mean a system that is moral, but rather a normative system of moral and ethical prescriptions. The basis of that system is each theism’s claim to know the will of “God.” In fact, theists often argue that morality is impossible without god, or at least belief in god, because according to their worldview all moral principles have their origin in the divinity. This hypothesis is referred to as Divine Command Theory.
For example, many Christians, Muslims and Jews condemn various sexual behaviours, such as homosexuality, because they believe that they conflict with the will of god. Apparently their god cares deeply about what you do with your wazoo. Many claim that working or performing certain activities on special days of the week or special times of the year is against their god’s will. Some claim that their god wants them to wear specific articles of clothing, or to refrain from eating certain foods, etc., at particular times. Many positive and negative behaviours – compassion, love, hatred, violence, etc. – are claimed to be the will of some god. The list is endless.
But how is it possible to know the will of god? At least the following three steps must be followed successfully in order to do so:
- establish the existence of “God” – i.e. a theistic god;
- establish that god has a will; and
- establish some means of communication which provides information about that will.
Having clarified the question a little by dividing it into smaller pieces, it becomes obvious that there are some serious problems.
First of all, there is no evidence for (1). The classic arguments for the existence of god (ontological, cosmological, teleological, etc.) traditionally put forward by various theologians amount to little more than glorified hand-waving and have all been refuted countless times. The only argument which had any semblance of plausibility – the design argument – was challenged even before Darwin and is now utterly discredited. Every scientific advance, no matter how minor, increases our understanding of the world and constitutes yet another nail in the coffin of the god-hypothesis, because that hypothesis is only a gap-filler, and the gaps in our knowledge are getting smaller. Furthermore, since the burden of proof belongs to whomever asserts the existence of something and not to the critics of that assertion, and given that no serious, irrefutable, material proof of the existence of god has ever been advanced (trace, image, recording, shroud, etc.), it follows that hypothesis (1) must be rejected.
But even if (1) were established, (2) presents a different but equally serious problem: the god of each monotheism, such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam (listing them in historical order), is generally considered to be all-knowing, all-powerful, infinitely good, eternal, present everywhere and the creator of everything. How can an infinitely omniscient and omnipotent agent have any wants? Given that god knows what will happen, anywhere and everywhere, and given that he/she/it has the ability to do absolutely anything, any “desire” would be fulfilled instantly – no, way BEFORE the current instant: it would be accomplished at the beginning of time (assuming that time has a beginning), because god knows the future completely. The very idea of a “want” implies dissatisfaction with an existing situation, and that could not possibly happen. How can a perfect god be dissatisfied with anything which he/she/it created? Thus, the concept of willing anything is incompatible with the qualities which are normally attributed to god. Furthermore, why would such a being even care about those minuscule little creatures we call humans located on speck of dust we call Earth located in an unremarkable galaxy in a humungous universe?
As if that were not bad enough, point (3) is similarly intractable. Even if we simply assume that god exists and has a will, how can we know what god wants? What is the line of communication, the source of information? In the three major monotheisms, that source is provided by revelation as implemented in writings which believers consider to be holy scriptures. As a source of information, revelation is about as reliable as the dream of flying which I had last night. Someone’s claim that god has revealed a message to them tells us nothing about anything other than the mental state of the person making the claim. As for scriptures, they were written thousands of years ago – some a little more recently – by human beings, they are replete with contradictions (even within a single religious tradition) and are essentially pious legends of greater or lesser literary value. They give us a glimpse of the history, practices and culture of some ancient societies, but little beyond that. We certainly have no credible guarantee that their authors have any reliable knowledge to impart to us about the will of god.
Summing up, in order to ascertain the will of god we have a three-step process – the existence of god, the existence of god’s will, and knowledge of god’s will – each step presenting insurmountable difficulties. The bottom line is this: nobody has a clue what god wants. I, an atheist, know as much about the will of god as does any pope, imam, rabbi, priest or pastor, and I know absolutely nothing about the will of god. Which is exactly what everyone else knows, regardless of what they claim.
Since the will of god is unknowable, theistic morality is utterly baseless and arbitrary. Any bozo, sane or otherwise, can simply state whatever ideas come into his or her head – for example, “God forbids eating red fruits on Tuesdays” or “I must wear this tin-foil hat at all times or God will be angry with me” – and those ideas are as dependable a reflection of the will of god as the tenets of any religion. The famous statement “Without God, everything is permitted,” attributed to a character in a Dostoyevsky novel, turns out to be backwards. In reality, if morality is based on god, then anything can be permitted – or forbidden – arbitrarily and with no way of resolving disagreements, because there is no way to test any assertion about what god wants and no way to decide among competing assertions.
The arbitrariness of theistic morality makes it dangerous. Religious authorities may sometimes promote positive behaviour, but that does not solve the problem. If believers treat others in a friendly manner because they have been told that that is what god commands, then they are just as capable of behaving with hostility if someone convinces them that god so commands – or if they lose their faith. Furthermore, ostensibly positive behaviours are not always appropriate: love is not always a good thing, and hatred is not always bad. Rigid rules based on an absolutist moral system do not work well.
Whoever pretends to have knowledge of the will of god and to speak for god is either a comedian or a charlatan – or crazy. If furthermore the person claims to have exclusive or privileged knowledge, beyond that of anyone else – thus making him or her THE spokesperson for “God” – then such a person is a megalomaniac. The pope, for example, is a charlatan megalomaniac, unless he is joking or insane, which I doubt. But at any rate I am referring here to the papacy as an institution, not to the person who occupies that position. So charlatan megalomaniac it is! And the same goes for any religious leader who claims to be the preeminent spokesman for Allah or Jehovah or Yahweh or whomever.
Divine Command Theory basically amounts to the admonishment to do as Daddy says. But Daddy is silent and absent. Evidently, there is no Daddy. We are on our own. Theistic morality is completely vacuous.
- Divine Command Theory, Wikipedia