June 13, 2006

Choosing the god we want

The series of postings on the burden of proof in relation to the existence of god (see part 1, part 2, and part 3) produced some very thoughtful comments by readers that explore many facets of the issue, and I would urge those interested to read those comments.

What initiated that series of posts was Laplace's comment that he had no need to hypothesize the existence of god to understand the workings of the universe. I agree with that point, that whether or not one believes in god is a matter of choice and that there is no evidence for the existence of god that is compelling in the way that science requires in support of its hypotheses. In the absence of such compelling positive evidence, I simply proceed on the assumption of non-existence of god.

But the issue of choice is not just between the existence and non-existence of god. Religious people who personally feel that there exists evidence for the existence of god also have to make a choice, except that in their case they have to choose what kind of god to believe in. Believing in a Christian god means rejecting a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or other vision of god.

But the need for making choices does not end there. Even if one has chosen to believe in a Christian god, one has to make further choices. The fact is that there are many different kinds of god portrayed in the Bible - vengeful, loving, murderous, merciful, just, capricious, cruel, generous, and so on. A god who can order every living thing in the world to be drowned except for one family and two representatives of each species (in Noah's flood) is revealing quite a different attitude to life and death from a god who tells Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) that he cannot bring himself to destroy the wicked town of Sodom because of the possibility that it might contain even as few as ten righteous persons who did not deserve to die. It is impossible to make the case that there is a single vision of god in the Bible, unless one also asserts that human comprehension is too weak to understand and resolve the different portrayals into one non-contradictory whole.

It is clear that what most religious believers have done is chosen what type of god they wish to believe in and what type to reject. In the contemporary political context, some Christians have chosen the gay-lifestyle hating god, while others have chosen a gay-lifestyle accepting god, and so on. Depending on what choice was made results in each person having to explain away those features that seem to contradict the view of god they have chosen. This partly explains why churches tend to splinter into so many different denominations and why there are so many disagreements about what god expects from people and how god expects people to behave.

If you want to believe in a kind and loving god, you have some stiff challenges to overcome, not limited to the appalling massacre of people in the great flood. For example, take the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those not familiar with this story (Genesis chapters 21 and 22), Abraham and Sarah did not have children for a long time and finally (when Abraham was 100 years old) she gave birth to Isaac. But then god decides to 'test' Abraham and asks him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys, making all the preparations for this horrendous sacrifice until at the very last moment, just as he is about to kill the boy, god stops him. God is impressed by Abraham's unquestioning obedience and rewards him.

This story is disturbing on a whole host of levels. What kind of god would ask a parent to kill his child as a test of faith? And what kind of person would be willing to kill his own child to prove his faith? If we knew of anyone today who was planning to sacrifice his child to prove his worthiness to god, would we not feel justified in labeling that person as dangerously hallucinating and do everything we could to stop him, including forcible restraint and even incarceration? So why is Abraham's behavior seen as somehow noble? And why is god given a pass for asking someone to commit murder? Even if one were to assume that god and Abraham were engaged in some monstrous game of chicken, not believing that the sacrifice will be actually carried out but simply playing mind games, waiting for the other to relent first so that the murder is avoided, this episode still does not reflect well on either party.

Or take the tsunami which killed hundreds of thousands of people in South East Asia in December 2004. I moderated a discussion of faculty members from the major religions to discuss the question of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, or understanding why bad things happen to good people). But the very topic of theodicy assumes that what we think of as bad (such as the deaths of children) are in fact not deliberate acts of god. Why should we think that? How do we know that god did not deliberately kill all these people out of a sense of whimsy or out of callousness or because he was bored or because he likes seeing people suffer?

The answer is that we don't really know the answers to these questions or to the ones raised about Abraham and Isaac because we have no way of knowing the true nature of god even if we believed in god's existence. What most people have done is choose to believe in a god who would not casually murder people. They are not compelled to make such a choice by anything in the Bible.

This illustrates a paradox. Believers in a god will often explain away disturbing facts by arguing that we mere mortals cannot really understand god's ineffable plan, but at the same time argue that they know god's nature. The reality is that people are choosing a god that is congenial to their world-view.

Choice is always involved whether one is a believer or not. While believers choose one vision of god and reject all others, atheists go just one step further and reject all visions of god. It is not such a big step.

POST SCRIPT: Update on net neutrality

As I wrote earlier, the net neutrality amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives. The issue now goes to the Senate, which is where there is the best chance of writing it into law. The excellent website Talking Points Memo is maintaining a list of which way each senator is leaning on this issue for those of you who want to try and exert pressure on your own senator.

For more information on this issue, updates, and contact information to take action, see


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God's actions in both the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are actually quite consistent. If you read Genesis 6:1-8 it shows that, like Lot in Sodom, Noah was saved because he was the only righteous man God found.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

As far as Abraham goes, it's believed that child sacrifice was common in that era to any number of gods. In the story of Abraham and Issac it is not remarkable that God asked for the sacrifice, it is remarkable that Issac was spared.

It's important to remember when reading any text created in a different culture that our modern paradigm of morality does not always apply. Different cultures have different ideas of what is acceptable. Even ideas of what is acceptable in US culture have changed significantly in the last several decades.

Posted by bob on June 13, 2006 11:29 AM

a cheeky 'open letter' a friend posted a link to on his blog today. I thought you'd guffaw at it.

On the subject of biblical interpretation. Apropos to bob's comment too, actually.

Posted by Marie on June 13, 2006 02:07 PM

Marie, great link that brings up some very good questions.

In some ways I think that brings up greater challenges to the Christian faith than some of the topics Mano brings up here. How does a person reconcile modern morality with things like owning slaves and eating shellfish? Where is the line between right and wrong?

Posted by bob on June 13, 2006 02:21 PM


I quite agree that people's sense of what constitutes morality changes with time. But presumably god is unchanging so we cannot explain god's command to Abraham as reflecting an outdated morality, unless we say that the people of that time chose to believe in a different god than what people do now, which was my point.

The flood deaths are still problematical. People are not simply good and bad. There is a continuum. There were also presumably babies among those who perished. It seems unlikely that the only good people were those in Noah's family.

In other Biblical stories, the prophets (Amos, Jonah, etc.) were sent out to warn people first, and ask them to repent. The flood story seems to indicate that god simply got ticked off about something and decided, without warning, to start afresh, kind of like a gardener who gets frustrated with an overgrown yard and kills everything off with Roundup (destroying even the good plants) prior to planting a fresh garden.

It doesn't sound humane to drown everyone, animals included, which is a ghastly way to die. If we accept that god killing everyone in the great flood was ok, then we should be able to accept that the recent tsunami was a deliberate act of god to kill the people who died. I don't know of anyone who accepts that. (Maybe Pat Robertson, who seems to go in for that sort of thing, said something like that, I don't know.)

Marie's link provides humorous examples of what happens when we try to base our morality on Biblical verses. We either have to be selective or tie ourselves up in knots trying to figure out some coherent basis for all these actions, while still sustaining our own idea of what god's nature is.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 13, 2006 02:32 PM

Ok, so Man was bad, and God decided to rid the world of both man & beast as a result. How can animals be thought of as wicked? I thought the whole religious difference between man & beast was that of freewill.

Man is bound to God's will because he has given us the gift of reason, intelligence, and morality. Without such traits, why would animals be destroyed alongside the wicked Man?

And why was God was unwilling to destroy Sodom for fear of killing as few as 10 righteous people? Shouldn't He have known exactly how many righteous there were? Couldn't He have warned them, and then destroyed the city? Where did those righteous go when it was time for the flood?

More importantly, how did an infallible, unerring and perfect God create a race of Man that was so awful, they needed to be erased? Why hasn't it happened since?

This is all ignoring the scientific question of: where did all that water go?

Posted by Barry on June 13, 2006 03:08 PM

The reality is that people are choosing a god that is congenial to their world-view.

And if they don't like the god of their world view they change it to fit.

Say you are a member of a group that says, 'We will accept the vision of God that Jesus postulates' that of a loving god whom he calls 'Abba' and who sees his people like the Father who rejoiced at the return of his prodigal son' We will call ourselves Christians.

What do people do when it becomes inconvenient to have a loving God, because you really WANT a vengeful god, or a gay hating god to match your internal hate and that loving Jesus just isn't working for you? Do you say, "I'm rejecting the God that Jesus said is the real deal and now I'm going to believe in the Old Testament God. Yep. I guess I better stop calling myself a Christian because that isn't the God that Jesus said exists.'

Does that happen? No. They simply incorporate the gay hating, vengeful God into their world view when they want it. I say this because of all the pro-war Christians I see. The Pro-Death penalty Christians. The Pro-hate "the others" Christians.

Jesus said some RADICAL and specific things about God and how to be in the world. But they didn't always match with the Old Testament God. Now some ignore those views by using the comments that were put in Jesus' mouth by the first century church and by people like Paul. (And a LOT of stuff was put into his mouth because the tape recorders didn't work very well in the desert.)

These people can also say that what Jesus said did NOT supersede what was in the inconsistent OT view of God. So when someone wants a vengeful God you just go to the OT and use that God. THERE IS NO PENALITY FOR IGNORING THE NT View of GOD that Jesus postulated.

Let me give you some examples. Say that Robertson or (who call them selves Christians) call for the Assassination of someone or say that God struck down NY for having Gays.

There is no higher authority in the over-aching Christian faith who says. 'Okay, that's it. You can't call yourself a Christian anymore. Call yourself something else, but that Is NOT the teachings of CHRIST and the view of the world he demanded of us and what he said of God.'

Because since both Falwell and Robertson have set themselves up as "Christian" leaders, then can say what ever they want as to the media and still get called Christians.

"Yep. What I said is what Christians believe. How do I know? Well I'm the head of a bunch of people who agree with me. I even started a "University' that tells people that, so it must be right." (Falwell) or "I'm very popular I have millions of viewers (followers) so I must be right.

They have justified their own view of Jesus and then God. And since they are the boss of their religion and there is no "Über" ruling body that will Yank their right to call themselves Christians, they just go out to the world and say, "This is what Christians are about."

Your post reminded me of a comment that a priest once made to a man who said, "I don't believe in God." The priest asked, 'What kind of God don't you believe in?" the man told him a bunch of stories about the vengeful, hateful God of the OT. The Priest said, "I don't believe in that God either."

Posted by spocko on June 13, 2006 03:33 PM


So is it immoral that God commanded Abraham to kill Issac, even though he stayed Abraham's hand? Is the request immoral, or the action? My comment concerning the morality of the culture was more directed at your statement about what kind of person would consider sacrificing your child and your comments about labeling anyone who would do this today.

As for the flood, the story is about God deciding that the people are good or bad. Obviously you don't agree it's possible, but as in the case of Sodom, God decided that everyone was bad. This may make him cruel in your estimation, but the stories are consistent. The logical conclusion to the other biblical stories where God warned of the coming catastrophe is that the people were not wholly wicked and some were worth saving in these cities.


To my knowledge little consideration is given to the welfare of animals in the Bible. God doesn't make a big deal about killing or not killing animals, so why would he go out of his way not to destroy them in the story? Again, doesn't fit with our moral paradigm, but it is consistent.

If you read the story of Sodom, God wasn't unwilling to destroy Sodom for the fear of killing as few as 10 righteous. Abraham pled for the city with God. Abraham started by requesting the city be spared for 50 people and worked his way to 10. God sent angels that couldn't even find 10. It's reasonable to think that God did know how many righteous there were, he just wanted to prove it to Abraham.

Finally, as to your question How did an infallible, unerring and perfect God create a race of Man that was so awful, they needed to be erased?

That statement is at the root of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity. God created a race of man that was given free will. That free will caused mankind to make bad decisions and ultimately become wicked. The Bible outlines the process of redemption for mankind.

Posted by bob on June 13, 2006 03:35 PM


Good questions! I am assuming that the reason god asking Abraham to kill his son was considered a good 'test' of his faith is because he knew that killing your child is a big deal and would be a major source of sorrow to him. Recall that Abraham hid the nature of the sacrifice from his son, suggesting that no one was taking this lightly, as some kind of everyday event. Abraham even hid what he was going to do from the two servants who initially accompanied them.

Human sacrifice may have been done on occasion, but even the Bible does not suggest that it was a trivial event. The story of Isaac is the first human sacrifice mentioned in the Bible. And asking a father to kill his only son, at a time when lineage was traced through male heirs, was probably highly unusual, if not unique.

So I suggest that god just asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, knowing the sorrow it would bring him, was a cruel thing to do, even if god never intended to carry it out. As I said before, this story is not a problem if we choose to believe in a capricious god who can be cruel.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 13, 2006 03:55 PM

This is unrelated but I stumbled upon your blog online and wanted to say thank you. I quite liked your recent book on the achievement gap and referenced it for my recent undergraduate thesis on classroom-level segregation. Thanks for a quality publication on a very misinterpreted problem.

Posted by sarah on June 14, 2006 04:21 AM


"God created a race of man that was given free will. That free will caused mankind to make bad decisions and ultimately become wicked."

Maybe those that were wicked had planned on confessing their sins and looking for redemption in the eyes of the Lord, but he didn't give them a chance.

What kind of free will is it if God can just eradicate you from the Earth because you've chosen to be bad?

Posted by Barry on June 14, 2006 02:45 PM