Either God Isn’t Great, or We Aren’t Free… “There Can Be Only One.”
Divine Command Theory
The idea behind Divine Command Theory is that when one is presented with an ethical dilemma, one should simply follow the mandate God has established. Indeed to many people, what God commands is absolute. After all, one of the Ten Commandments orders us not to covet our neighbor’s wife. This rule has no exception. It does not say, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife… unless she’s hot.” The problem with this ideology is that human beings greatly differ in what they believe God commands. George W. Bush believes God commanded him to invade the Middle East. Two of my students believe God commands them to travel to third world countries and pass out Bibles. (Unfortunately for the citizens of these countries, the Bibles aren’t edible… nor do they contain tuberculosis medication.) My neighbor believes he is following the will of God by reaching out to lost teenage souls “heading down the wrong path.” He will be busy for a while. (On a side note, between my neighbor and George W., who do you think is most likely representing God’s hypothetical will? With a choice between “start a war” and “help people,” the answer should be obvious.)
In order for one to assert that “Blow up a preschool” isn’t something God would order, one needs to know certain things about God Herself, specifically, God’s qualities. For example, if your mother is a distrustful, possessive person, you can be reasonably sure that the relayed directive, “Go ahead and take Mom’s car out all night. She said she doesn’t care,” is not something your mother is likely to declare based on your mother’s previously mentioned qualities. Likewise, the instruction, “Blow up a preschool,” cannot be a decree of God based on the qualities religious individuals believe God to possess.
In the Judeo-Christian conception, God is a perfect being. St. Anselm established in his “Ontological Proof for the Existence of God” that God was the greatest conceivable being (I’m paraphrasing). God is the greatest being we can think of and therefore, God is perfect. According to this standard, God would have to be omniscient, because to know all is greater than to know only some. God would also have to be omnipotent, because to be all-powerful is greater than to be very, moderately, or minimally powerful. God must be omnibenevolent, because it is greater to be all good rather than slightly good or almost all good. And finally, God must be omnipresent, because it is greater to be everywhere all the time than to be limited by time and space. Because of these qualifications, we can be sure that if God does exist, God would not command the destruction of a preschool, because this certainly would not be a good thing to do, and an omnibenevolent God would only do good things.
These established and also widely accepted divine characteristics present a significant logical problem however. If God is omniscient (all knowing), then God must be aware of everything you think, thought, and will think in the future, as well as everything you do, have done, and will do in the future. (If God is, for some reason, unable to do this, then God’s knowledge would be limited, and she would therefore not be all-knowing.) The problem is this. If God knows, because of Her omniscience, that when presented with a choice between “A” or “B,” you are going to choose “A,” then you are incapable of choosing “B.” If you chose “B,” you would prove God wrong, thus making God not only not omniscient, but fallible as well, and perfection does not allow for the possibility of fallibility. If God is all knowing, then God knows which option you will pick. God’s omniscience does not even allow for the possibility that you might pick “B,” because if it is possible for you to choose “B,” then God’s awareness that you will pick “A” is merely a guess and not knowledge, thereby undoing God’s omniscience.
Because of God’s knowledge that you will choose option “A” over option “B,” which renders you incapable of choosing “B,” the notion that human beings have free will is unfeasible. Naturally, human free will can exist if either God does not exist or God is not omniscient. However if God does exist, and followers insist upon Her perfection (which must include omniscience, because it is greater to know all than to know some), then logically, human free will cannot simultaneously exist.
Those bent set on holding on to the notion that God is omniscient and humans are free to make any choice they wish, might concede that perhaps God bestowed Her Earth-bound children with the “illusion” of free will. In other words, God knows that we will choose “A,” and we are in fact unable to choose “B” lest we prove an infallible being wrong, but God allows us to believe we can choose “B.”
Since God is often viewed and described as the eternal parent, perhaps this analogy is appropriate. After all, sometimes parents give their children illusions for their own benefit. The myth of Santa Claus is one of these illusions. Parents tell their children this tale for several reasons; to coerce them to behave, to give them a sense of wonder and whimsy, or perhaps in order to maintain a tradition. At some point, the child figures out that there is no Santa Claus, and his parents have lied to him. The child may feel betrayed, confused, angry, and in rare cases, appreciative for all the fun he had enjoying the myth.
The point is no matter how many presents under the tree read, “To Timmy, from Santa,” the fact is none of the presents were from Santa, and Santa does not exist. Likewise, the human belief that we have free will does nothing to establish that free will exists. Once an illusion is exposed, one can no longer believe in it. The religious retort that the godly gift of the illusion of free will allows for the simultaneous existence of an omniscient God and undetermined human choice does not undo the paradox. The very argument that free will is an illusion contains within it the admission that free will doesn’t exist!
Perhaps it is superfluous to point out that a god who deludes her children into believing they control the course of their own lives is a bit… well, mean. Certainly an all-good God would sooner give Her children actual control over their destiny than false control.
Logically speaking, we are left with three possible options:
1. God is omniscient, and humans do not have free will.
2. God is fallible, not omniscient, and humans do have free will.
3. God does not exist, and humans have free will… but no God to pray to when they make the wrong choice.
But I must admit that a fourth option may exist. If God does exist, then She would be the ultimate cause of everything in existence. To be capable of such a feat, God would have to exist beyond the realm of the physical, the laws of physics, and perhaps even logic itself. The logical conundrum and crisis of faith (in which readers of this essay may find themselves) can be rectified by realizing that a being capable of the kinds of deeds for which God is supposedly responsible may simply be beyond our understanding. Perhaps God is not restricted by the bounds of human logic, and perhaps our humble human minds are not equipped to comprehend a being of this magnitude. Maybe we lack the tools necessary for comprehending Her. (Perhaps attempting to conceive of God logically is like trying to build a rocket ship when your only tool is a spoon.)
But before the religious masses begin nodding their heads in agreement, let me say this. Man has been attempting to define, describe, explain, interpret and convey the commands of God since the dawn of coherent thought. If the notion that God exists beyond human logic is something religious folk can buy into, then they must also cease to venture guesses as to what God desires, commands, prefers, and dislikes. If God cannot be understood, then God cannot be described, and if God cannot be described, then one cannot claim they know what God wants, thinks, or feels. For example, claiming God hates homosexuals or condemns women who have abortions is the epitome of speculation, and when God’s thoughts are subject to conjecture, then one is sticking God right back in that nice little constraint called logic. So the religious masses amongst us simply cannot have it both ways. Either God doesn’t exist, isn’t omniscient, or we don’t have free will, or God exists, but She exists so far beyond our comprehension that we simply cannot restrict her to the inadequacy of our logic-bound brains. And if we cannot conceive of God in logical terms, then we cannot possible presume we know what is good or bad in God’s estimation.
There is also a theory I like to call, “The Pebble in the Pond Theory.” This means that God is omniscient, and we have free will, but God has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us, our lives, and this Earth. So God has absolute knowledge, but it is impotent. She simply chooses not to use it, thus making it useless. In other words, God created the Earth, but then just sat back and let everything unfold, without interfering at all. It is as if She dropped a pebble in a pond, but She has nothing to do with the resulting ripples. Unfortunately, this puts a little snag in the whole belief that some people have about maintaining a personal relationship with the Almighty. They might as well be praying to no one under this conception. And since this is unacceptable to many monotheists, I simply do not know what to tell them. Most of the time, in this life, we are just unable to have our cake and eat it, too.
(For the record, if God does exist, I do not believe God is a “she.” I merely used the pronoun because I am sick of the sexist assumption that God is male. However, it is very unlikely that God is a woman. If God was a woman, there would be no such thing as menstrual cramps, 18-hour labors, string bikinis, morning sickness, cellulite, stretch marks, menopause, yeast infections, UTIs, spousal abuse, female genital mutilation, fistula, episiotomies, mastitis, super models, underwire, and rape. Nor would there be such a high value put on chastity, virginity, breast size, and the presence of an in-tact hymen. Oh, and men would not rule the world.)