Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Regarding Right and Wrong


In a response to a recent post, Michael Ejercito said:
I find nothing wrong with the idea of God ordering Israel to do genocide. God determines what is right and what is wrong.

A lot of people seem to share this opinion, in particular some of my more intelligent friends(nudge nudge). So without a whole lot of rigamarole up front, let's discuss this.

My first question for Michael (or anybody else) is:

Are "right and wrong" things every god gets to decide, or is that a privilege unique to Yahweh?

The reason I ask is this: a few months ago I was walking across the parking lot between my office and the mall, and a dark-suited, middle-aged man stopped me and handed me a full-color tract about this god named Ishkabibble. That tract said that Ishkabibble, not Yahweh, gets to decide right and wrong, and to make things worse, it also said that lots of things that Yahweh says are right are actually wrong, and vice versa, and if I didn't do all the things that Ishkabibble instructed, then I would burn in hell for eternity.

So I'm kind of flummoxed on this one, really. Am I still safe following Yahweh? 'Cause it seems like I'm ... um ... damned if I do and ... er ... damned if I don't.

48 comments:

Michael Ejercito said...

The best way to decide is to find out who has the power to grant you an eternity of pleasure in Heaven or an eternity in torment in Hell.

Jacob said...

Micheal: I disagree with you entirely and completely. Check out my blog if you want to see my full answer (which I wrote mostly in response to your comment on Matthew's LAST post, hah).

The Christian Heretic said...

It's really very simple. There is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" (or "good" or "evil") as far as morality goes. As I've said on my own blog, there is actually no such thing as evil because "evil" is really nothing more than an English word we use to label an action or experience which we perceive in a negative way. If nobody had emotions or the ability to feel discomfort or pain then nobody would believe in evil. This goes for good as well, by the way.

Matthew said...

@Michael: They both claim to have that power. How can I find out which one is telling the truth?

@Heretic: So what *does* exist?

If your rule is, "the only things that exist are things that could still be perceived even if there were no one to perceive them", I don't see how anything could possibly exist.

The Christian Heretic said...

So what *does* exist?

If your rule is, "the only things that exist are things that could still be perceived even if there were no one to perceive them", I don't see how anything could possibly exist.


That's a very good question. We'd have to first ask what it means to "exist" in the first place, I suppose.

Perhaps a better way of putting it is that "evil" exists, but only as a negative reaction to an action or event. This means that evil is relative to the one interpreting the action or experience negatively.

Connor said...

You and that guy should of squared off in an altar building contest. First to get fire from heaven wins!

Matthew said...

The RIP-ROARINGEST altar-building contest this side of the Pecos!

sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!

Matthew said...

@heretic: "evil is relative to the one interpreting the action or experience negatively"

That seems OK, but there's a big difference between saying there's no such thing as evil - that our word "evil" doesn't refer to anything in particular - and, on the other hand, saying that the word "evil" describes something abstract and in some way dependent on a person's perception.

I think I'd like to define evil in terms of harm to persons - that is, anything that harms people is evil, regardless of who is responsible. What constitutes "harm" is going to be situational and kind of squishy, but the overall idea of evil still seems pretty coherent.

Mystical Seeker said...

It is bad enough that some people think that God would order people to commit genocide (this is the moral corner that one has to paint ones self in if one takes the Bible literally), but I do have to wonder why anyone would actually want to worship such a capricious deity.

Interesting question about power determining what is right and wrong, though. If you have to constantly rely on Yahweh, or whoever the most powerful force in the universe is, to tell you what is right and wrong, then one can never really be certain about morality unless it is spelled out for at the moment by that powerful force. Left to your own devices, you are lost, unable to know what to do at any given moment, since morality is totally situational and subject to Yahweh's (or whoever's) whims, which are clearly arbitrary and can change at a moment's notice. So Genocide is bad when Hitler does it, but good when Yahweh tells you to do it. And you can't really ever feel moral outrage at anything terrible that anyone else ever does, since no act, no matter how horrible it might seem, is inherently evil in and of itself--after all, that same act might be ordered by Yahweh if he feels like it that day.

Michael Ejercito said...

It is bad enough that some people think that God would order people to commit genocide (this is the moral corner that one has to paint ones self in if one takes the Bible literally), but I do have to wonder why anyone would actually want to worship such a capricious deity.
The threat of eternal torment in the lake of fire is a good enough reason.

Jacob said...

@Micheal: So it's ok to commit atrocities if you're only doing it so you won't be punished? Basically, if the devil DID beat God, you'd do his dirty work because he could set you on fire if you didn't?

The Christian Heretic said...

The threat of eternal torment in the lake of fire is a good enough reason.

It's a good thing that's an empty threat. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

The threat of eternal torment in the lake of fire is a good enough reason.

So here we have a case of worshiping a God not for his/her goodness but out of sheer terror of what the Deity will do to you if you don't go along.

That isn't loving worship of a good and loving God, but fearful worship of a Deity who has you under their thumb. Under this model, God is basically an insane, out-of-control fascist dictator. I prefer to worship a God for positive reasons, based on his/her virtues, rather than for negative reasons. But hey, that's just me.

Matthew said...

@jacob & seeker & michael:

I have to admit, I find the argument at least a little compelling - suppose the universe *were* ruled by a deity who *would* torture you forever if you didn't do what it said ... regardless of whether this deity were actually capable of defining good and evil, I think I'd probably do what it said.

My problem with what Michael is saying is that I've now got these two or three competing deities who all say that if I don't worship them in particular, they're going to torture me forever. That being the case, how do I know which deity to pick?

Michael?

connor said...

"regardless of whether this deity were actually capable of defining good and evil, I think I'd probably do what it said."

I have to agree. It may not be a good ethical decision but most humans will do some crazy stuff for survival. It would be like having a gun to your head but infinitely worse.

Jacob said...

"regardless of whether this deity were actually capable of defining good and evil, I think I'd probably do what it said."

Being human, I'd have to admit that there's a large chance I'd do what it said. But I hope I wouldn't. The freakishly idealist part of me hopes that I would sacrifice myself to an eternity of pain to save someone else. I can't claim that I would, because that's definitely something you "don't know until it happens." But I can certainly claim that I hope I would.

paul maurice martin said...

This thread is too interesting - I could go too long.

So I'll just add that it's possible to come to a place where one's personal pleasure or torment, even conceptually protracted for an eternity, falls off the map of one's concerns.

paul maurice martin said...

It got quiet in here – hope it’s coincidence and not what I said.

I could put it in traditional terms:

When Jesus gave his life it was for this world’s sake – not for the sake of getting to sit at the head of the table at the right hand of the Father.

When God sent his only begotten Son into the world, it wasn’t so he’d have himself for company forever at the head of the table after the ascension. It was because He so loved the world.

If our focus as Christians is on something so narrow as scoring points for our own salvation, it seems to me that the Christian God must be somebody else’s God. We’re supposed to have been made in God’s image. To my mind that doesn’t mean nose, mouth and white beard. Besides, not that many of us have white beards.

Matthew said...

But wouldn't it be cool to have a white beard?

I agree with what you're saying, Paul: if a person claims to be following the example of Jesus, he should probably place a pretty low premium on saving his own skin.

My objection - the one that continues to go unanswered - has less to do with practice and more to do with thinking. In my opinion, fundamentalists need to let their imaginations work for just a minute and try to consider things from the perspective of the person they are proselytizing, whether she is atheistic, agnostic or attached to some other faith.

The thing that jumps out first to me is that most evangelizers have never considered that their god is actually competing with other gods, and that a potential convert has every right to demand to know why the Judeo-Christian god is preferable to any of the others.

paul maurice martin said...

Wouldn't a fundamentalist just say their God is the real God because the Bible says so and it's the inerrant Word of God? Doesn't the fundamentalist approach assume that no other god could possibly be real?

So to the fundamentalist, his/her God is preferable because all other gods are false gods.

I don't honestly have much of a sense of how this wins converts. Maybe if someone doesn't know about circular logic - ?

I'm not much of a devil's advocate for this I guess...

Connor said...

I think I'm going to try to play devil's advocate once I get to think through the situation. Of course, that is if your smarter friends don't chime in beforehand. I'm pretty sure that I know of at least one that could rise to the occasion and maybe destroy any intellectual pride that I have.

Come on Scoots, where are you!!!

I hope that isn't to obvious.

Matthew said...

@paul:

I think a lot of fundamentalists would respond with answers that seem to be illogical - your circular argument is a good example. But so much of rational argument hinges on having good definitions ... I wonder whether the fundamentalists might actually be saying something meaningful that they just haven't figured out well enough to explain. What I'm really hoping for is a fundie that can put a positive spin on what (to me, at least) appears to be circular logic.

@connor:

Yeah, where is that guy?

paul maurice martin said...

Trying to Zone in on Fundamentalism:

Jesus Christ is God’s decisive and saving intervention in human history. This was revealed by the resurrection. The New Testament records the good news. Its words were written by authors guided by the Holy Spirit and so were the decisions of early church councils on what writings would be included/excluded from the canon.

What’s the difference between a fundamentalist and a mainstream Christian? Maybe it’s the former’s self-proclaimed knowledge, or at least professed tremendous certitude and virtual knowledge, that all this is true. At U of Chicago, I met plenty of Christians who subscribed to this basic belief system but had no problem stating that they weren’t certain – that their “faith in things unseen” admitted doubt.

So maybe to pinpoint the problem we need a fundamentalist or fundamentalist devil’s advocate who can explain the apparent sense of certitude experienced by the far right.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the explanation may be more in the domain of psychology than religion.

connor said...

I think Paul is right with the psychology bit. While backed into the corner many people might say "do what god says or you end up in hell", but I think in most instances their moral behavior is not based on this idea.

In fact, most people that I know who might on some level agree with the "do what God says or else" would actually give reasons for following God that were based on the 'good' things that God has done or will do. What makes Jesus compelling to the fundamentalist? The fact that he is God or all that 'good' stuff that people associate with him.

ulogtwo said...

Is there a definition of "FUNdamentalist" earlier in this blog? I've heard that Fundamentalists may share more in common with other Fundamentalists than with others of their particular faith group. But if belief in the Bible as "specially inspired by the Almighty" is your definition of Fundamentalist, then I'm one.

I was thinking that faith was involved in the choice about what's right. By faith, I choose to believe in Jesus rather than Mohammed or Joseph Smith. Lacking a contest of altars (ala Baal/Yahweh) there is no certitude. And even with an answer of fire from heaven, I'd suggest that the matter is still based on faith. There's a story in philosophy of religion suggested by a man named Pearce. Let me look that up and I'll post an excerpt.

Michael Ejercito said...

I think Paul is right with the psychology bit. While backed into the corner many people might say "do what god says or you end up in hell", but I think in most instances their moral behavior is not based on this idea.
That is no different in principle than obey the law or go to jail.

Mystical Seeker said...

That is no different in principle than obey the law or go to jail.

That is not a correct analogy, since in a human legal system punishments are proportionate to the crime, and not everyone who breaks a law goes to jail (who gets jailed for jaywalking?). The principle being touted here is that, whether you are caught exceeding the speed limit or you a convicted mass murderer, the punishment is exactly the same--the most extreme imaginable, a torture chamber worse and longer lasting than anything any human society could ever perpetrate. This is so lacking in any sense of proportionality that is an important part of the higher standards of human justice, that it is frankly absurd to draw any analogy between hell and going to jail.

connor said...

"And even with an answer of fire from heaven, I'd suggest that the matter is still based on faith."

I agree, but I'm sure that you have your reasons for your faith.

Do you decide on faith to believe that Jesus is the son of God and that the bible is God's revelation and then talk about all the 'good' in it or was Jesus and other good things in the bible part of what brought you to faith?

If Jesus had been a vile nasty person would you still become his follower?

shane said...

Here's my piece:

From a theological perspective, it is tough for a true polytheistic deity to make exclusive claims of destiny (Greek mythology is full of deities screwing someone's life up, even killing them, but there are many stories where one could in theory run to a different god, suggesting no one deity had universal scope and power.)
So in you case, two deities both claiming universal control is really two separate groups claiming monotheism (or perhaps monolatry or henotheism.) This happens all the time in the modern world, where "I am the LORD your God, the LORD is one," "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet" and "I am the way, the truth and the life." come into conflict.

While I like the altar building contest connor suggests, maybe a conversation about religious ends (heaven or hell) and religious means is appropriate. The problem is, you have to spend almost all of your life practicing religious means to see if the religious ends are really valid.

Definitions of right and wrong, is one of the many means to justifying a religious end.

Michael Ejercito said...

Eternal torment in the lake of fire is divine justice.

Mystical Seeker said...

Eternal torment in the lake of fire is divine justice.

If you believe that, that's your privilege, but then don't make analogies with human justice by equating it with going to jail. You can't have it both ways by claiming that it is the "same principle" as human justice and then turn around say that it is nothing like human justice.

Fortunately for me, the God I believe in is not an out of control, insane barbarian, so I don't believe that there is an eternal lake of fire.

The Christian Heretic said...

Eternal torment in the lake of fire is divine justice.

LOL. That's funny.

paul maurice martin said...

Wait! What about this!

(Parenthetically, where someone says they "chose to believe" - seems to me that's another strand in the fundamentalist perspective. I get the impression people feel good about themselves for this choice. Yet people generally have a way of just happening to choose to believe the tradition they happened to grow up with...)

Anyway... Is it possible that fundamentalists sound so self assured because their beliefs include believing that believers will be saved but unbelievers will go to hell? To admit any doubt, in their minds, may detract from their status as believers and endanger their souls.

They need to give a strong impression of firm belief at all times just in case God might be listening...

Matthew said...

@ulogtwo:

No, there hasn't been a definition, and there should be. I'll have to do that in another post. I think paul's gotten us started, but I want to refine what he's said.

@michael:

I notice that you still haven't answered my question.

It looks like the productive parts of this discussion are tending toward a working definition of fundamentalism ... let's continue that after another post.

Matthew said...

@shane:

In this case, though, it seems like practicing the faith one's whole life isn't enough ... you also have to somehow be able to see beyond death/the eschaton to find out which group is telling the truth. And that seems pretty difficult.

Why don't you write something about religious ends and religious means, cause I bet that would be an interesting framework for us to look at. I'll post it here if you want.

ulogtwo said...

Apparently I wasn't very clear earlier. Let me try again with a bit of hyperbole:
"Life's a crapshoot."

William H. Davis - a professor of philosophy at Auburn University - suggests the following encounter in his booklet, Philosophy of Religion (pp. 39 - 43):

An "awesome" being appears and tells you that he has been given special power over you. If you will follow his instructions he will grant you a most wonderful existence. But if you don't . . . he will make sure that you are tormented greatly after your death. He then instructs you to go to a certain tall building on the 5th anniversary of this appearance and leap out of a window. You will be rescued and taken to a glorious paradise.

As proof he offers to perform any miracle - provided that no one besides yourself can know about it. You ask: "Remove my left arm and leave only smooth skin . . . let me feel it to make sure it is gone, and then replace it as it was."

It is done. After you check, the arm is restored.

Davis goes on to say:
"For in the case of the man in our story the revelation given to him was as clear and certain as one could ask for. Yet that really did not solve the man's problem of whether to trust it or not. . . . The man would still have no guarantee [emphasis mine] that he would really be rescued if he jumps . . ."

-----

AND, I was wrong about Pearce. The fellow's name is Peirce. He is not the author of the story listed above, but he is worth a looksee:

Wikipedia article on C. S. Peirce

Matthew said...

@ulogtwo:

Sure, I don't think anyone here would disagree that following a deity requires belief or faith - even if you witness miracles.

In fact, I think we'd probably all agree that belief or faith is the strongest knowledge we can have of anything; as Hume famously observed, even scientific observation doesn't actually *prove* anything. It simply establishes a pattern that seems to hold true most of the time.

But the scenario Davis describes is substantially different from what most of us experience. So in the absence of (or even in the presence of) direct experience of a deity, the question becomes: how do we sort out all the competing claims of Baal and God and Allah?

I would suggest that we begin by assuming that God is good, and see where that takes us.

Frank said...

A key point here is the nature of revelation. If we're going to believe in a God, we probably would like some evidence, whether its evidence to our senses ior in our heart. SOMETHING. We all believe (or not) for a reason. This is revelation, i.e. how God reveals God-self to us.

Looking at the Bible as a chronicle of revelation in a particular culture, there was a real incarnational feature of revelation: Its clear that that Bible authors spoke in the language of their own day, using symbols and concepts that were known to them, yet struggling to reach beyond that. Their understanding and presentation of revelation is very limited. Even if the revelation itself is "true" or "pure" (whatever that means), its tangled in a web of humanity. (I find this to be very beautiful, as God respects us as we are rather than reducing the Biblical tradition to mere robots doing the divine will).

People talk about a God of genocide because it was the best (albeit clumsy) way for them to get at truth. God the liberator freed them from the Egyptians, yes, but God also drowned the Egyptian army. Well, God helped them overcome adversity. The truth here is that God liberates. This is an oversimplification of the Exodus, but its an example to show how the story is trying to get at truth but is terribly clumsy, at the same time. The truth is still there in all its nuance and beauty, but you gotta wade through some of the crap, too.

I've been astonished as I've been reading the psalms lately how you can literally see the psalmists discovering God right in the words of the psalms... 'God is our creator, God must be Lord of all generations, too, in fact, God is also Lord over the wind and waves, which means God is really Lord over all the earth and all peoples, too, so there is really is just one God, and there is a universiality to God...'

Its amazing to see the Israelites going from a tribal diety to monotheism, and you can read it right in the pages of the Bible.

Red Beard said...

"Are 'right and wrong' things every god gets to decide, or is that a privilege unique to Yahweh?"


What does right and wrong have to do with God?

Oh, and I like what Frank said. I think that has to do with God... the second to last paragraph anyway.

Matthew said...

@red beard:

Obviously you didn't read the discussion leading up to this point.

Frank said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank said...

Matthew,

I have to give you credit for a paper I'm working on regarding suffering in the book of Job. You made a comment on Mysticalseeker's blog about the "narrow" path of discipleship (the post is "Bart Ehrman").

There is a narrow path of discipleship in the book of Job, too. Jog walks the tightrope. He stands between despair and angry resignation on one side (recommended by his wife), and the giving in to the simplistic religious absolutisms (recommended by his friends) on the other. In the end, he is the one who ends up with a vision of God.

Your comments helped me along the path to understanding this, as well as the outstanding books on Job by Gustavo Gutierrez and Daniel Berrigan.

(I would have sent this by email, but I don't see a place on your blog to contact you privately.)

Matthew said...

Hi, Frank. Thanks for the heads-up, but you're going to have to point that attribution in a different direction: a different Matthew posted that comment.

Here's his blog profile: Matthew

Frank said...

Sheesh! There's two of ya! How'm I supposed to tell you apart??

Funny thing is, I think it is still another Matthew who talks about the "narrow path" as well.... the Gospel of Matthew, that is!

red beard said...

@matthew:
*gasp* How rwwude! Aren't we a bit snippy today :) I was attempting to address the trunk issue. (not that the tangent branches aren't flowery and beautiful) However, I admit, my bad for coming in as a newb and posting a question that could be taken in a lot of different ways. Truth be told, I was trying to set my own spike, but your "Obviously" was like round of buck shot blasting it out of the air. So, I'll leave the nebulous questioning lying limp on the court and try again with a direct statement.




(Mr. Martin touched on this attitude a little with his first post on this thread)

The only way of measuring right and wrong is through cause and effect relationships. If any god says something is wrong, s/he can only do it by a)pointing out the natural negative effect, or b)creating a direct negative effect. So, it seems to me, the god who can do either of these to a satisfactory degree is the one you should follow...Obviously.

(See you on the ides Matty)

Matthew said...

@red beard:

Didn't mean to gun you down, just answering a short ambiguous comment in kind. =)

"The only way of measuring right and wrong is through cause and effect relationships."

That seems a little dubious. I know lots of people who would say that 'good' is defined to be 'what God says to do'. And if this is so, then surely God doesn't have to justify her actions, regardless of their effects.

See you on the ides!

red beard said...

And I say 'good' is defined by the little elves living in the tree in my front lawn. However, they do have to justify their actions or I cut their tree down and burn them all alive. I would leave two though, male and female, to repopulate a different tree in the back yard, so they could tell me if what I did was 'good'. I hope they can justify it, or there goes my moral compass.

jeez...talk about dubious.

Matthew said...

Hm. In that case, I guess we have to decide who gets to decide what 'good' means.

I think I'd be more inclined to let a superpowerful deity decide a definition than ... say ... the gnomes in your backyard, particularly if a person could show that said deity actually exists. But in the absence of a clear definition from a clearly present deity, I think I'd be inclined to define it as "anything that leads to human flourishing". Since that's basically what I mean when I say "good".