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Mar 23 2013

God as dog owner

Theodicy, the problem of how a benevolent and all-powerful god can allow suffering, is the fatal weakness of religion. There is simply no good answer that religious people can give even though theologians have grappled with this problem for millenia. That does not stop people from trying though, and I recently received the following email that offers one variant. I am posting it and my response because I think it may be of general interest. Here is the body of the email.

Not so long ago I was a Pentecostal Christian but thanks to blogs like yours I have abandoned faith altogether.

My brother is still a believer and in discussions we have about faith he comes up with the following comparison to illustrate that in his mind we cannot understand what god’s will is. He compares it to us being a dog and god being the dog owner. The dog is unable to understand that sometimes he has to go to the vet and experience pain and suffering for a greater good. Would you be able to find the fallacy in this?

First off, I would recommend that anyone who routinely gets into discussions with religious people take a look at an excellent book by philosopher Stephen Law titled Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole (2011) where he systematically addresses all the arguments that people come up with for all kinds of nonsense. As could be expected, he spends a lot of time on religious arguments, such as the above one, because they are the most common source of nonsense. It is a fun and educational read.

Law categorizes arguments of the above type as ‘playing the mystery card’ and says that it takes many forms. He says that at best this makes the case for an arbitrary and capricious god and rules out an all-powerful and benevolent god. While he does not deal specifically with the dog owner argument, he deals with a very similar one involving a toddler (p. 58-62) and I will adapt his answer.

It so happens that I have a pet dog whom regular readers know as Baxter, the Wonder Dog, so I can relate to the dog owner metaphor. When we have to take him to the vet for some treatment that might cause him some pain, we try as much as possible to cushion the blow. We pet him a lot, give him extra treats, talk in soothing terms, etc. We are there with him the whole time (unless it is surgery when he is under anesthesia anyway) and hold him during the procedure, so that he knows we care for him and are not abandoning him. In other words, we go to great lengths to indicate as clearly as we can that the pain he experiences is not something we desire.

But the dog-owner god does none of these things. The calamities that befall us may very occasionally be accompanied by good things but they seem purely coincidental. At most other times there is no compensating good. We are given absolutely no sign of why we are suffering this way. It all seems purely arbitrary.

Furthermore, in our dealings with our pets, we are limited in our ability to explain because we do not share a common language and so can only indicate our benevolence by gestures like the ones above. If we could talk to them and explain we would certainly do so. For example, when we had to take our young children for vaccinations, we explained to them why, in addition to comforting them the way we do with pets.

But god has no such limitations in communicating with us and thus has no excuse for not providing explanations. Religious people say they talk to their god all the time so he should be able to easily explain why the suffering is for their own good. Why doesn’t he? And it is no good saying that his explanations can be found in the holy books. Those are obscure, contradictory, have little relevance, and besides which those things happened to other people a long time ago. Why does god not tell us directly? Furthermore, what about the people who suffered before the holy books were written? Why didn’t they get the benefit of even these obscure explanations?

Of course, there are callous people who can’t be bothered to explain why they are inflicting pain and suffering on those they have power over even if they have a good reason. You can tell your brother that he is free to worship such a cruel god if he likes. But why would he want to?

17 comments

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  1. 1
    maddog1129

    The god-as-dog-owner analogy also fails in another important respect. Many people claim that their God is tri-omni: all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful. The reason we take our own dogs to the vet where they have to suffer some pain in the course of treatment is because we don’t have those qualities. IF we could just will our dog to be well, without pain, we would. IF we knew how to treat the dog without inflicting pain, we would. IF we could cure the dog without inflicting any pain or trauma, we would.

    God supposedly can cure anything without inflicting pain; we can’t. As our knowledge improves, we find better and less painful ways to convey treatment; the only pain the vet inflicts in the course of treatment is pain that we, without perfect knowledge, and without unlimited powers, must inflict. We can’t avoid it altogether, though we do our best to minimize it. God isn’t subject to those limitations. He could cure or prevent anything without inflicting pain. Why doesn’t he?

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    I think the point being made by these people is that god has a reason for us to suffer the pain and that is why he does not remove it. It is supposedly for our own future good (like surgery or vaccination) but that we are unable to comprehend it.

  3. 3
    tajparis

    Mano,

    But that also serves to illustrate that this god also set up the system that requires suffering as a component to whatever is his supposed end-game. So even using the Christian apologist logic, that still does not mitigate the fact that god created the need for suffering, not just the suffering itself.

    A dog owner doesn’t create the harmful parasites that necessitate the painful injection as a preventative.Their argument fails even using their internal logic.

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    tajparis,

    I get your point but let me try another tack.

    Suppose it is like your child learning to walk. The child tries it out and you know that they are going to fall at the beginning. Sometimes they may even hurt themselves and cry when they do. But you let them try and fail because if you prevent them from walking in order to avoid the pain of falling, then they will never attain the greater good of being able to walk.

  5. 5
    maddog1129

    And if we could invent a painless injection (like the “hypo-spray” on Star Trek) we WOULD.

  6. 6
    maddog1129

    And if we could invent a way to do it so the child could walk without hurting herself, we would do that, too. We can’t, but God can.

  7. 7
    Barnab

    But if you could will your child to walk without the pain of falling, would you? Or if you could had to power from ever having your child suffer physical or emotional pain, would you? I believe this is essentially the argument maddog and tajparis are making, if I’m not mistaken.

  8. 8
    Bruce M

    With tsunamis, god is like a dog owner who throws the dog to its death off of a high bridge for no reason at all. How is that “for the good” of the dog — which is the crazy religious apology?

  9. 9
    tajparis

    It’s all too much like a gangster shaking down people for protection money, while professing how sorry he is that it has to be this way, no matter how it’s characterized. The gangster set up the condition that requires the painful “cure.”

  10. 10
    PeteO

    This analogy brings up another issue which I think is even more troubling. There are things that a dog does that we find “wrong”. You can use your imagination on this one. We might be angry at the dog but most of us realize that they do not have the intellectual capacity to realize what they are doing or that they have some type of biological drive that basically forces them into their behavior.

    According to this analogy we have been created with this same mental capacity. God could have created us with any level of mental capacity that he wanted yet he deliberately choose to limit that capacity so that the inevitable result is that we are doomed to hell.

    Just apply this thought process back to the dog. It is deliberately created in a particular manner. It has no choice in this. It is nearly inevitable, even with the best training, that it will at least occasionally fail in its behavior. If the dog never learns to properly mind its master then the master will take it out, throw it in a pit of fire from which it cannot escape, where it will burn forever.

    A Mario say Christians just cannot escape the issue of Theodicy. If we are created in the ‘image of god” then we should share in that god’s sense of what is right and wrong. If our innate sense of this is completely opposite of what gods is or if our intellectual capacity is so limited that we cannot understand it then sending us to hell for violating these unknowable whims is truly the mark of an evil god.

  11. 11
    sailor1031

    In the course of the last thirty five years I’ve never known an instance of treatment by a vet causing pain to one of my animals – dog or cat – unless you include annual shots and that’s pretty minor if it’s anything at all. Depends on the animal.

  12. 12
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Strangely, the dog is never in any doubt as to whether or not his owner exists.

  13. 13
    MNb

    “we cannot understand”
    This implies that your brother’s belief system is unreasonable, as Herman Philipse showed in his excellent God in the Age of Science.
    In this special case another problem arises: how does your brother know that his dog worships him as if he were a god?
    Btw MS argues against your brother’s argument with the Problem of Hiddenness, which is equally devastating as the Problem of Evil. While in itself that is not satisfactory – if your brother knows his apologetics he will point this out – but it is important to realize that such problems are connected and reinforce each other.
    Another problem, which is less known, is a psychological one. If your brother is a christian he will be fond of the statement “God loves you and me.” That’s quite problematic. If we replace God by say a roof the statement becomes meaningless. Apparently the entity that loves you and me must be a living entity. If we look at the statement “Baxter the Wonder Dog loves MS” there are still problems, but they don’t seem relevant for the argument. Everybody will agree that “your brother loves his wife” is meaningful.
    Why? Because your brother has four ways to express his love: language (he can tell her), body language, facial expressions and behaviour. Thus his wife can know your brother loves her.
    But how can your brother know that God loves him and you? God doesn’t have a body and thus hasn’t the means I mentioned above to express his love. Of course your brother can claim that God answers his prayers and that he hears a voice, but we don’t accept that from serial killers either, who claim that a voice in their heads ordered them to murder.
    The conclusion is that “God loves you and me” is only an anthroporfism, with less meaning than the automofreak who claims that his car loves him. After all the car at least is material.
    You can find this in Herman Philipse’s book too, imo the most thorough rebuttal of theism around. There are still a few things I must think about, especially how the several problems with theism are connected. But thanks to this book I might very well grant me a 7 on the scale of Dawkins thanks this book. Of course that’s an extraordinary claim and as such demands severe scrutiny, but I simply don’t see now how any believer can answer to his book ánd claim to be reasonable.
    Summary: the concept of god is meaningless;
    if the concept of god has meaning it doesn’t have any predictive power;
    if the conept of god has meaning and has predictive power atheism has more predictive power.

  14. 14
    jamessweet

    The analogy actually works pretty well if the dog owner in question is Michael Vick… Arbitrarily drowning the ones he doesn’t like, even if they are babies; ordering them to tear each other to shreds for his own personal amusement, etc.

    Anyway, for me what ultimately defeats the argument is that it’s not an argument for anything in particular, not even a cruel and capricious god. All of the points that you raised can be “addressed” by doubling down on the mystery aspect, e.g. it only seems like God isn’t giving us extra petting and treats before a trip to the vet, because like a dog we are incapable of understanding.

    Fair enough, but that’s not a belief system, that’s pure unadulterated nihilism. If you have thrown in the towel on trying to understand or evaluate on any level, then why believe anything in particular? Personally, I believe in a (perfectly benevolent) god who, for reasons that will forever be beyond our understanding, demands that you all PayPal me fitty bucks, and for everyone who doesn’t, my god drowns a puppy. Does’t make sense to you? Of course not, that’s because it’s beyond your understanding! Don’t even try to understand it!

    Ultimately, we have can either use our deductive powers to try and make sense of the world, or we can become nihilists. There’s no philosophical reason why the former ought to work — it could very well be the case that we are incapable of understanding crucial points about the world we live in. But there are strong practical reasons to assume otherwise, because the alternative is an epistemic disaster.

    I have written in the past that faith is nihilism. This is yet another example of how that principle holds true.

  15. 15
    Paul Jarc

    We have not yet come up with a way to teach a child to walk without experiencing some pain. It does not follow that no such way is possible. If we find one, we will use it. And if we were to create someone, along with the world they inhabit, all from scratch, with the intent to love them, then we would not choose a design that makes pain necessary.

    Another problem with the brother’s argument: he says that the lack of this evidence is not a problem because even if his belief is true, we should not expect to see this evidence (due to limits of our comprehension). But there is a vast range of mutually incompatible possibilities that all share a similar lack of evidence, and so there is no reason to raise this particular possibility for consideration. The same argument provides equal support to Yahweh, Ahura Mazda, Zeus, Thor, and Vishnu. It supports prehistoric pantheons that have been long forgotten. It supports exotic non-theistic entities that no one has ever thought of, because they were not emotionally motivated to. This argument is a rationalization sought after the fact; it is not what caused the brother to believe, or else he would give equal credence to all these possibilities. Likewise, it should not cause anyone else to believe.

    Plus, as Mano pointed out, there actually is evidence we should expect to see if the belief were accurate.

  16. 16
    L.W. Dickel

    Many Christians believe that suffering and pain are necessary in life for some mysterious greater good.

    Although those same Christians believe in a magical place called Heaven in which there is no pain or suffering.

    If pain and suffering serve some important function in life, then why not in heaven also? And if suffering in not necessary in Heaven, then why is it in life?

    I’m sure that Christians have a fallacious argument for this. But not an intellectually honest one.

  17. 17
    Timothy

    Interesting essay, James. Thanks for sharing it. (Plus, I love the connection of cooking with atheism/religion.

    A thought that sparked from reading your posting:

    Faith may be nihilism, and the “Don’t try to understand” strategy appears to work pretty darned well for maintaining the power structures in this world.

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