The problem of divine goodness

In the philosophy of religion, the Abrahamic God is typically thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (i.e., all good). Of course, what it means, concretely, to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, is up to interpretation. But the three “omni”s are a good starting point for philosophical discussion of theism and atheism. My own atheistic convictions connect most fundamentally to the third “omni”–the claim of God’s omnibenevolence. And this isn’t surprising, since God’s power and knowledge are nothing without his (alleged) goodness. If God were bored, disinterested, or apathetic, being powerful and knowledgeable would be pointless as far as human beings and human affairs are concerned. And so God’s being good is very important. If God is not good, then God is not God.

As I see it however, God is not good. Or, to put the same thought in a different way, there is no good god (and therefore no “God”, as conceived by the major monotheisms). Or, in yet another idiom, I cannot make sense of the affirmation that God is good. Why not?

Well, God is first and foremost (if you believe the stories) the creator of all that is. God is the maker or architect of the cosmos. God’s goodness is therefore reflected in the goodness of “Creation”–of the world. But is the world actually good? In and of itself, I think not.

You see, goodness and badness are evaluative terms that have their home in a basically functional context. A watch, for instance, is defined by its function. Therefore a watch that performs its function well is a good watch, and a watch that does not, is a bad watch. So also a good friend is a friend who does what friends do (listen, hang out, whatever) well. A friend is functionally defined (which is not to say that there’s complete agreement about what friends are for–which is also why there’s disagreement about who counts as a good friend). At the outer edge of this perspective, we can also talk about good people. A good person is a person who does whatever it is we think a person ought to do, and does it well. At the most general level, many of us (humanists, at least) will agree that a good person is a person who is a good citizen, friend, lover, etc. (or whatever other social role we happen to think is important). There’s a decent amount of disagreement about what it matters for a person to be, and so we disagree about what counts as goodness in a person to the same extent. None of this problematizes my key contention that goodness is defined in, and is intelligible in, an essentially functional context.

What of it? Well, in order to speak of God as good, we must find a way to speak of the world (“Creation”) as good–insofar as God’s goodness is supposed to be revealed in the world. But the world revealed to us by the natural sciences (and evolutionary biology in particular) is notoriously amoral. It is neither good nor bad. The physical forces that “create” biological life care nothing for pain or pleasure, for goodness, cruelty, or anything of the sort. Those who survive survive, and those who don’t, don’t. That is all. And evolution is not guided. There is no point to evolution–no direction. And so talk of the purpose or function of evolution is meaningless. For these reasons, I cannot make sense of talk of the universe’s function or purpose. And so I can’t make sense of claims of the universe’s “goodness” either. The universe beyond the realm of the human is neither good nor bad. It just is.

The universe is amoral. What claim then does its supposed “Creator” have to “goodness”? None, as far as I can tell.

I suppose many theists sense this and for this reason claim that God’s goodness is revealed (most fully) not in Creation but in his “providence” or in the Incarnation. Of course, those claims are problematic for different reasons (there is no way to distinguish providence from luck; and there is no evidence for the Incarnation–just off the top of my head).

But anyway, there you have it. I suppose this is my version of the “problem of evil”. Except, my claim isn’t that the existence of evil makes the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God improbable. It’s that we have no meaningful basis for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe as a whole. And therefore none for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe’s creator.

And if God is not good, then God is not God. I conclude: there is no God.

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