All-Knowing, All-Powerful, All-Good: Pick Two, or, How Christian Theology Shoots Itself In the Foot


There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in atheist/ theist debates in the blogosphere.

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And the pattern in this: Christian theology — specifically, the belief that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good — is making these debates a whole lot easier for atheists. The religious apologetics consistently founder on one of these rocks: God’s supposed complete knowledge, or total power, or perfect goodness. Or, as is more usual, some combination of the three.

You know the arguments; you’ve seen them a hundred times. If God is all these things, then why is there suffering, what’s the point of prayer, isn’t everything pre-ordained, why were we created with the propensity to evil, blah blah blah. I won’t get into them all here. And I’m not even talking about the logical conundrums, the “Could God create a burrito so big that he couldn’t eat it?” stuff. What I’ll say is this: Theists always have to either concede at least part of one of the Alls, some degree of God’s power or knowledge or goodness… or they have to cop out with some version of “mysterious ways” or “I know it in my heart.”

And if they weren’t so stuck on God being the All Everything, they’d have an easier time of it. I still think they’d be mistaken — I think the case against the supernatural is strong, even without the Omnimax Divine Theater — but the debates wouldn’t be quite so much like shooting the same slow fish in the same barrel, over and over and over again.

Or, as Eclectic has said in this blog: “All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good — pick two.”

Crowley tarot universe
Take my own now- abandoned religious beliefs. Back in my woo days, I believed in a World-Soul, a metaphysical substance that infused all conscious life forms with, well, consciousness; a being made up of all the souls of all the living things in the world, but that was more than just the sum of its parts, a being that had some sort of selfhood or identity.

It wasn’t a belief that was supported by any evidence. It wasn’t supported by anything, particularly. Except by my own personal vague feeling that consciousness couldn’t just be a function of the physical brain, because… well, because it couldn’t be. Because it just didn’t seem that way.

But at no point did I think that the World-Soul was all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. In fact, it was very clear to me that it wasn’t. I didn’t think it was any of these things, much less all of them. Actually, back in my woo days, I often said that the meaning of my life was to add to the learning and enlightenment of the World-Soul. I thought of the World-Soul as a powerful being, certainly wiser and more powerful and more knowledgeable than me… but I still saw it as limited, flawed, with room to learn and grow.

And this made my belief much easier to cling to… and much harder to let go of.

It wasn’t a tremendously defensible belief. But it was a lot more defensible than the belief in the completely perfect, completely powerful God who created, and regularly intervenes in, this profoundly flawed world full of cruelty and pain.

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In a way, I appreciate the desire to have one’s God be perfect. The old polytheistic pantheons weren’t much to admire or aspire to. Selfish, small- minded, mean- spirited, dishonest, backstabbing, gossipy. They were a lot like my junior high, actually, except with more incest and murder and devouring of body parts. I can see why people wouldn’t want their creator of their universe to be like that. I can see why people would want their creator to be… well, perfect.

But in many ways, the old, flawed pantheon made a lot more sense. It was certainly more consistent with the world we live in: a flawed, complicated, messy world of mixed motivations and conflicting forces. I love this world, I feel more passionate about it and connected to it every day… but it sure as hell doesn’t look like a world created on purpose by a perfectly powerful, perfectly knowledgeable, perfectly good being.

And every time a theist tries to defend and explain and rationalize that being, I feel like they’ve handed me a gift.

Comments

  1. says

    I once had a Christian friend tell me that she didn’t have a really good answer to this question, which she called the “problem of evil”. I was flabbergasted; it seemed that merely naming it was enough to keep its rhetorical force from having an effect.
    It’s like meeting someone who thinks that everything in the world is made of fish, but when you ask why things don’t feel like, smell like, or behave like fish, they say “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!”

  2. says

    Once again straight to the heart of the matter, Greta!
    I think the second problem is that an omnipotent deity doesn’t allow free will. If He already knows what you’re going to do and doesn’t stop you, then He’s endorsing your every choice. Also, if he knows what you’re going to do, how can you do anything else?
    Paul, I love your unfishiness comment! :)

  3. says

    Yay burritos!
    Does god like real mexican or tex-mex ya think?
    The problem is that a flawed “god” is not really worth postulating, interestingly enough. Today’s modern american christians live in a democratic republic where they don’t naturally supplicate to a “lord” type figure like a dictator or king or grande nachos.
    I think its difficult for most to put themselves on their knees for any being that’s not perfect in their eyes. An imperfect god is a real problem for monotheism, because if your god is not all knowing, all good, and all powerful, then how do you explain some of the bullshit going on around the world?
    A flawed god could be making mistakes! A flawed god might just be a big baby!
    -Q

  4. Kagehi says

    My single greatest bit of entertainment is when they always insist that their all powerful, all knowing, all everything phantom couldn’t or wouldn’t do X like that, so, for example, Evolution has to be false. Its like watching some idiot reenacting the episode of Bugs Bunny, where Daffy is yelling, “Mine mine mine!”, while jumping up and down on the gene of the lamp, to stuff him back in. Sadly, this, “Stay in there, you are not allowed to be more than I want you to be!”, mentality has failed to get any of them struck by lightning or hit by stray meteors, or anything else. Too bad, since as entertaining as it is to watch from a distance, it pisses me off when they do it in a conversation I am trying to hold with one of them.

  5. says

    Nice post again. I definitely agree that, while the big monotheistic religions are almost certainly wrong, there is something more satisfying about them than the warring, petty, shallow polytheistic religions.
    Then again, those “One Gods” can get pretty warlike, petty, and shallow as well.

  6. ErinM says

    Ah, Greta, I stopped hanging around atheist discussion boards because it was so much of the S.O.S., but you always manage to get me thinking about something new… gracias.
    I think there is something to people needing to worship a god that is perfect. Like how so many Americans need their President to be perfect — because it’s easier to cover their eyes to a flawed character than to admit their judgment was off when they voted for him, or to admit that they were taken for a ride.
    People insist their god is perfect because that makes them a good judge of character.

  7. says

    I like that comment about picking two – it could be the basis for some actually interesting religions. Maybe God is all-powerful and all-good, but just doesn’t realize human beings are suffering. The whole point of the religion could be to get his attention – blowing trumpets, banging pots and pans together, yelling at the sky, that sort of thing. I, for one, would find it amusing. :)

  8. says

    Today’s modern american christians live in a democratic republic where they don’t naturally supplicate to a “lord” type figure like a dictator or king or grande nachos.
    Don’t they heck. Ever walked into LAX airport? Hanging over the entrance are two framed photographs; rather shabby and tatty, but there, adorning the archway you have to walk under to enter America, are Bush and Cheney.
    America mooning the world, was my first thought, but my second was, ‘Wow, this is like walking into a third world dictatorship – democracies don’t usually put pictures of El Presidente up like that.’ I’m English, so the natural genuflecters down my way get to bow at a figure who has no executive authority, a useful separation of powers … but we generally don’t display pictures of the Queen as prominently as Bush was displayed.
    And have you heard Americans defending their president by saying, ‘Well, he is the President…’ in exactly the same tone Mia Farrow uses in Rosemary’s Baby: ‘Well, he is the Pope…’
    Even the Pledge of Allegiance is structured very much like a prayer. From an outsider’s perspective, a lot of religious impulses seem to get channelled into patriotism.
    Not all Americans, obviously, but every country has people with itchy knees who want to genuflect to something. It’s unlucky for all of us that so many of them direct their bowing-and-scraping impulses at someone who has the power to start wars.

  9. Ginny says

    Greta,
    I stumbled upon your blog last night and I can’t get enough of it. Your posts have helped to refine some of the threads of ideas that I have had floating around for a while. Your site has just moved to #1 on my bookmarks bar.

  10. John B Hodges says

    Monotheism with a perfect god is the natural result of competition among religions and sects- “my god is better than yours.”
    I’m interested (but ignorant of) the psychology of belief. I just observe that Jews worship a god that is horrific and vengeful, but every Jew I’ve ever met has been faultlessly civilized and compassionate; whereas Christians worship a god of love and mercy, but in my experience the more Christian they are, the more arrogant and hateful they are. I’m sure things are different in other parts of the world, but that’s how it is where I live.

  11. Eclectic says

    I’m flattered that you (again) found me inspiring, so let me liven things up by disagreeing with myself.
    There is an interesting fourth option, which seems to reflect Christianity as practiced: all-attentive.
    What if YHWH (or Aten, Ahura Mazda, Svayam Bhagavan, or whichever sole, unique, and exclusive god you happen to worship) is subconsciously aware of everything, but doesn’t pay attention unless entreated with prayer?
    This is applying human psychoanalytical models to a non-human mind, and implying some sort of limit on the god’s capacity for awareness, but it’s the closest I’ve come to understanding why an omniscient god would require me to organize my thoughts to make my wishes clearer.
    Of course, that is all trying to see the point of view of Christians. Viewing prayer as a form of meditation or self-hypnosis seems perfectly consistent to me.
    (“Couldn’t you have your balls cut off?” “It’s not as simple as that, Nigel. God knows all; he’d see through such a cheap trick. What we do to ourselves, we do to him.”)

  12. yoyo says

    one of the reason the polytheistic societies had a lot going for them is that they could let their gods be more human,lecherous, selfish, myopic, less or more powerful than other gods in the pantheon etc. All the montheistic gods seem to have this very obvious problem, they have to be everything, cause everything, control everything no matter how contradictory.
    It’s probably why catholics made up saints, to humanise an impossible divine.

  13. rationalista says

    Great post (as usual) Greta! I have a question for the Fundies out there: If god is all powerful, etc…, how is it that his/her/it’s will is misunderstood? In fact, I would argue that if there is a god, then it would be impossible for the Will of God to be misunderstood or confused. Since it is obvious that God’s will is not known universally, then we are left with only one choice – god is being “mysterious” on purpose! This leaves us poor humans in a dreadful state – not knowing which religion is correct, always wondering WTFWJD?, etc… Given this, a Fundie must admit that their God is being cruel and mean-spirited on purpose and is OK with all the bad things that occur in the name of “God”
    I actually had a chance to pose this question to some Fundies at a local Park the other day (they were taking a “survey” on spirituality – a thinly veiled excuse to witness for Jesus). And never got a good answer.

  14. Nurse Ingrid says

    Rationalista,
    Great questions! I had similar ones myself when I was much younger and made an attempt (quite unsuccessful) to believe in this stuff.
    I highly recommend this essay by Ebon Musings on the topic of the “hidden god.” It made me realize just how insane the concept really is.
    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/burningbush.html

  15. Iain says

    Rationalista — as often happens, Bill Hicks got there first. He once said something like, “Is anyone else here troubled by the idea that GOD IS FUCKING WITH US?”
    He then speculated about people who accepted the factual evidence for evolution wailing, “It seemed so plausible!” as they are cast down into hell by the prankster god…

  16. Ender says

    This seems a bit similar to what I just said on the other thread but:
    “Theists always have to either concede at least part of one of the Alls, some degree of God’s power or knowledge or goodness… or they have to cop out with some version of “mysterious ways” or “I know it in my heart.””
    Is simply not true. You say you’ve heard all the arguments hundreds of times before, but if that is your summary than it is clear that you’ve only talked to the least informed religious people out there, and are addressing them, yet referring to theists in general.
    It would be like me addressing some of the sophomoric arguments Dawkins makes, or even worse the ‘Rational’ Response Squad, and then declaring that atheism has nothing of value to say. Foolish in the least, deliberately ignorant at worst.

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