It’s a game with a semi- serious point, about theology and whether people’s religious practices line up with what they claim to believe. But for now, let’s just start with the game.
The game: Design your own Christian theology.
And here are the rules.
A couple of days ago, I ran a piece here about how much more sense Christianity would make if it weren’t committed to the blatantly illogical proposition that God is all- knowing, all- powerful, and all- good. The comments have been smart and funny (I’m especially taken with Paul’s thought about “the problem of unfishiness,” and am already working on a post about that). And then Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism fame chimed in with this comment:
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.
Which immediately inspired the idea of the game. And which brings me to the rules:
If there were a religion in which God were any two of the following — all- powerful, all- knowing, or all- good — what would that religion look like?
I’ll get the ball rolling with my suggestions.
If God were all- powerful and all- good but not all- knowing? Well, I think I’m going to go with Ebon’s idea on this one. God would be like a smart and popular but absent- minded professor, or a mom with lots of kids — smart and cool, but easily distracted — and religion would mostly consist of trying to get God’s attention. Lots of loud noises, colorful outfits, sending up flares, setting off fireworks. (It might be a fun religion to belong to, actually, albeit one that would make you feel a bit small and helpless.)
Second: If God were all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good? That one’s a lot less fun. God would be like a really powerful dictator with spies everywhere, or like an abusive parent or partner. And religion would consist of trying to appease him: trying to figure out exactly what his rules are, and sticking to them as closely as you can; trying to keep track of his shifting moods, and walking on eggshells to adapt to them; trying to figure out what you did wrong — or blaming each other — when the hammer comes down.
And finally, if God were all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful? That one could be interesting. God would be like a smart and good- hearted mid-level bureaucrat in the office where you work. And religion would pretty much consist of looking after yourself. You’d praise him and express your gratitude for all his hard work, and you’d ask for his advice and counsel periodically… but you’d know that, when it came down to any real practical problems, you were pretty much on your own. He could give you guidance and emotional support, he’d be a good shoulder to cry on, but that’d be it. He’d really like to help you, but his hands are tied.
And now, here’s the serious part.
I think this is very much like what Christian religions are like.
Which brings me to my actual point: Most religious believers don’t act as if they believe their God is all these things. They may say they believe it; but their actual practice reveals a lack of faith in God’s perfect power, perfect knowledge, or perfect goodness… and in many cases, more than one of these.
Let’s look again at my made-up religions.
The one where God is all- powerful and all- good, but not all- knowing, and your religious practice consists of getting his attention? That’s Catholicism. Burning incense; lighting candles; loud choral music; huge ornate churches and cathedrals; religious officiants dressed in lavishly ornate outfits; repeating prayers over and over again. What is that but trying to get God’s attention? And if God were perfectly knowledgeable, why would you need to get his attention?
The one where God is all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good, and religion consists in tiptoeing around trying not to piss him off? There are elements of Catholicism there, too: the rigidity of the rituals and rules, the strictness of the authority system, the prayers that have to be said just so. But I’m going to go with Christian fundamentalism on this one. Fundamentalism is the ultimate “my way or the highway” religion, with a focus, not on how wonderful and loving God is — that seems almost like an afterthought — but on the extensive and rigidly strict rules that God expects you to follow, and the terrible fiery punishment that awaits you if you don’t toe the line. (Not to mention the focus on blaming people you don’t like for
natural God-created disasters.) It gives lip service to the idea of God’s perfect goodness… but it doesn’t seem very convincing, or very convinced.
And the one where God is all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful, and religion consists of saying how great he is and then taking care of business on your own? That’s modern progressive Christianity. The Christianity that doesn’t expect prayers to be answered, that sees prayers as a conversation with God and a way to listen to God in your heart but that doesn’t expect him to give you any actual practical help. The Christianity where God is a warm summer breeze, a smile on a child’s face, the love that we have for each other… but he doesn’t heal sickness or relieve pain, make the rain fall or the crops grow. The Christianity that acknowledges that the world basically operates by laws of physical cause and effect, but can’t quite let go of the idea that God has something to do with it all somehow.
This is something I’ve noticed before, and that a lot of other atheists have noticed before. Theists often don’t act as if they believe what they say they believe. The afterlife, for instance. Why would you grieve so terribly at the death of a loved one if you really believed you’d be seeing them again someday? Sure, it’d be sad — but wouldn’t it be like saying goodbye to someone who was moving to another country for a few years? Why do theists grieve every bit as hard at the death of the people they love as atheists do? Why do they act as if… well, as if someone died?
And take hell. If you really believed that anyone who didn’t think and act exactly right was going to be hideously tortured in a fire — not for a minute, not for an hour, but for centuries and millennia and into eternity — wouldn’t you feel morally obligated, and indeed emotionally driven, to try to stop it? Wouldn’t every single Christian who believed in hell be out there on the street corner, desperately imploring people to save themselves before it’s too late… instead of just a handful of crazies?
And it’s now occurring to me that this is true for the All- Powerful, All- Knowing, All- Good belief as well. Believers say they believe it… but when you look at how they actually practice their religion, it becomes clear that they don’t act like they believe it. They act like they believe in a religion made up in a game: a religion where they really only believe in one or two of these things, but have to pretend they believe in all three.