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Jul 20 2009

Blessed If You Do, Blessed If You Don’t

Blake godWhy is it that when good or lucky things happen, they get used as proof that God exists… but when bad or unlucky things happen, they get pawned off as “mysterious ways”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a certain kind of argument for the existence of God. It’s not the “Something has to have made all this, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not the “Something has to have come first, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not even the wide assortment of “I don’t want for there not to be a God, therefore there has to be a God” arguments.

It’s the “Look at the wonderful things that happen — therefore there has to be a God” argument. When someone recovers from a serious illness, when someone gets the perfect job right in the nick of time, when someone finds the earring they lost… it’s given as proof of God at work.

BlessedThe argument always has a certain “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” quality to it. When good things happen, it’s a sign of God’s love. But when bad things happen… well, God works in mysterious ways. He must have some lesson to teach us, some larger plan that we’re not aware of, and this bad thing must be part of that lesson/ plan. And who are we to question him? He knows what’s right better than we do.

So here’s what I find interesting about this argument. (Apart from the obvious circular reasoning and massive logical holes, of course.)

It assumes that the speaker knows the ultimate divine definition of good and evil. Despite the “mysterious ways/ we don’t know what’s right and wrong as well as God does” cop-out, it assumes that the speaker knows God’s intentions, and knows what God thinks is good and bad.

God hates fagsLook at it this way. What qualifies as a good or a bad event varies, at least somewhat, depending on the believer. Take gay people dying of AIDS. If you’re a progressive, gay- positive Christian, gay people dying of AIDS is a terrible tragedy: and if you believe in an all-powerful loving God, it’s a tragedy that has to be chalked up to mysterious ways and a larger divine plan that we can’t understand. But if you’re a homophobic right-wing fundie, gay people dying of AIDS is an obvious example of God’s justice, a righteous punishment for sin. (Why lesbians don’t get punished in the same way as gay men, or why some “sinful” sex acts spread the virus more readily than others… well, that’s just mysterious ways.)

So when someone says, “X is a clear sign of a benevolent and just God’s active presence in the world, but Y means that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t question his plan” — doesn’t that assume that they know what qualifies as obvious benevolence and justice, and what qualifies as a troubling but presumably necessary part of God’s plan? Doesn’t that assume that they know God’s plan… at least well enough to identify which parts of it are clearly and self-evidently part of that plan, and which parts are a gray, question- mark area that’ll have to be filled in later?

Popper- Logic of Scientific DiscoveryMy main problem with this argument, of course, is the obvious logical one: namely, that no matter what happens — good, bad or indifferent — it gets used as evidence of God’s existence. Thus rendering the God hypothesis unfalsifiable… and therefore utterly useless. (If any outcome whatsoever can fit into your hypothesis, it has no power to explain the past or predict the future.)

But this pride thing has been bugging me a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of theists accusing atheists of being arrogant, when we’re the one who (on the whole) are saying, “Hey, show me evidence that I’m wrong, and I’ll change my mind,” and they’re the ones who (on the whole) are saying, “No argument or evidence could ever convince me that my faith is mistaken.” But the more closely I look at religion, the more I see the supposed deadly sin of pride all over it like a cheap suit.

And the “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” view of God’s plan is just another example.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Leo

    A corollary to your main point, that really pisses me off when I hear it (which is practically all the time on 24/7 news nowadays), is what I call the “Lone Survivor” syndrome. Whether it’s a plane crash or a tornado or a swine stampede, the media will interview the lone survivor of the tragedy, who will invariably thank the lord for saving them. But unless you’re willing to claim that all of your dead fellow townsfolk or dead fellow air travelers were evil people doomed to hell, then it would actually be more logical to assume that the others were all good people who god harvested for heaven, but YOU are not ready yet, so it left you alone alive to give you time to mend your ways. Your surviving under these circumstances shouldn’t be seen as a reason for happiness, but should be interpreted with shame that you weren’t good enough to be taken to your eternal reward. There is also of course the absurdity of an all-powerful god who could just as easily have brought the entire plane down safely, not just you, which I call the “Small god Syndrome”, a subset of which, the “Small jesus Syndrome” shows up regularly in the New Testament. If an all-powerful god took the trouble to completely overlook a couple hundred other people just to save me, I think I’d be asking “Why me?”, but with worry and fear, not gratitude.

  2. 2
    Paul Crowley

    You’re not applying the mind-bending logic of moral absolutism. In that world, right and wrong are facts. It’s not that God is good in the sense that God agrees with them on important moral matters – it’s that God is in 100% correspondence with the True Standard of Good, and therefore anything you don’t like that he does is just your moral mistake.
    Of course, as far as I can tell, in that world it could turn out that the right thing to do was to roast all children on spits and we’re all simply mistaken in thinking of that as a bad thing.

  3. 3
    Jeffrey

    Well stated. I always come away from your posts thinking ‘why didn’t I write that?’ I’ve actually been known (much to my wife’s dismay) to credit Jesus with good happenings just to prove that, even though I’m atheist, he still cares.

  4. 4
    miller

    I think people confuse prior certainty with evidence. When you’re already certain of God, everything is evidence.
    Flip a coin. If it’s heads, God meant it to be heads. If it’s tails, God meant it to be tails. Either way, God exists! And we never even needed to look at the coin.

  5. 5
    random atheist

    Oh Greta, thank you for this. I was just recently reading a writer’s guide some friends of mine recommended, and while it had some helpful advice, it had all this reaaally annoying woo stuff in between the advice, so I had to put it down in the end. The bit that finally got too much for me was when the author started going “oh, look at all these favourable coincidences that have happened to writers/artists I know! This is proof that not only is there a God, but *God really likes artists*!” Ooo-kay… and presumably God must really hate young children in Rwanda, then, what with the way so many of them got been raped and impressed as child soldiers and stuff in the civil war. Oh, but I suppose that’s just “mysterious ways”.
    So, yeah. This blog post is exactly what I needed right now. Thank you.

  6. 6
    Claire B

    Ah. Damn. That comment above was me. I also post as random atheist on a different blog, and it seems I forgot to switch. Sorry.

  7. 7
    Donna Gore

    I hate it when rich Christians say “I’m blessed, I’m so blessed!” Like “Look at me, I’m God’s favorite!” If you have all this money cause God loves you…..well, what does that say about poor people???

  8. 8
    Creepy

    I am always particularly amused when god intervenes on behalf of someone during an event that takes the lives of others (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7234842.stm). One person was worthy of sparing but the others not so much.

  9. 9
    Fargus

    Greta,
    This post reminds me a lot of a little bit that I wrote on a plane a few months ago and had been meaning to post to my blog. If you forgive the long comment, I’ll just post it here instead:
    “God works in mysterious ways,” we often hear. It’s a curious non-rebuttal; a deflection rather than an answer, which comes in myriad forms. “It is not for us to know the mind of God,” goes a more serene formulation. A more indignant one goes, “How dare we presume to know the mind of God?” Regardless of the level of anger, condescension, or disgust with which the argument is voiced, its intent is clear: to act as a trump card that shuts down argument (often coupled with a soft incredulity that the argument is even being waged in the first place).
    The impulse is an understandable one. Some arguments are difficult and uncomfortable, and our natural preference, if it were at all possible, would be to find a way not to have them. Among those who don’t simply value argument for its own sake (most of us, I’d wager), reconciliation and understanding are preferable defaults in our interactions with others.
    But the aforementioned argument only satisfies those concerns for one party. To the party on the receiving end, it almost always feels and sounds like a (slightly) more polite version of a request to forcibly insert the argument into one’s own posterior. Again, it is an attempt to shut down any debate on the issue as illegitimate by asserting a new axiom.
    If the assertion that God works in mysterious ways, that His mind is fundamentally unknowable, is indeed axiomatic, is not the entire basis of theology completely undermined? If, despite the profusion of scripture, scriptural commentary, prophecy, etc., the whims of the Creator are not merely unknown but unknowable, then on what basis — and by what authority — do we engage in pursuits like theology?
    This argument is shoddy enough on its own terms, but when we realize that it most often comes from those who loudly tell us at every opportunity exactly what God does and doesn’t want for individuals, society and the world, it becomes downright perplexing. Consider the following: contemporary evangelical Christianity, presented with a book of law that they claim was divinely authored, simultaneously tells us that God disapproves of various sins, cherry-picked from the Old Testament; ignores vast swathes of other Old Testament laws governing things like diet, clothing and slavery, despite their undeniable inclusion in the text; claims not just divine authorship of the Bible, but also that it is literally true in every particular; and dodges fundamental questions with the claim that not only can we not know the mind of God, but that it is a sin of pride to even attempt it. They do all of these things apparently without cognitive dissonance: Tell us teh entire Bible is literally true, and then ignore huge portions of it; tell us what God approves and disapproves of, and then tell us that we cannot possibly know anything of the mind of God. It is, in a word, nonsense.

  10. 10
    Naked Ape

    I find that folks who dish out that sort of simpleminded godblather usually get rather indignant when I quote a little Ben Franklin at them: “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.”
    Nothing pisses of a puritan more than the thought that somewhere, out there, someone is actually having fun. (And of course, pissing off puritans is fun in it’s own right…. it’s a twofer!)

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