Isn’t a Deist God a little less troublesome?

I got this question from John:

Perry, I am a former Christian turned deist. I could not believe in the god of the Bible because of the Bible’s flaws and because of morality problems with how the Old Testament Yahweh is portrayed but I could not give up my belief that an Intelligence had to have jump-started all this and then put natural laws into place to guide it to where we are today.

I read your thesis and would like to comment on how much I enjoyed it. I think your strength is to take a basically simple message–cell design/replication is intelligently designed–and explain it in simple, no-nonsense, no-frills terms.

I liken what you say to the belief by some atheist biologists arguing that chance could explain billions of English letters floating in a giant bowl of soup and then spelling out the complete works of Shakespeare when it is poured onto a table, given enough time.

Just curious: have you ever been drawn to deism as a better explanation for the origins of life–an Intelligence that has no note of or concern about the unspeakable levels of suffering that goes on down here regardless of how many prayers are sent up to Him?

My Reply:

John,

I can well relate to the

disappointment that leads one to prefer a deist God over a personal one. And I can understand the scientific logic that nonetheless indicates a supreme level of order in the universe.

But even if I were to try very hard, I’m not sure it would be possible for me to be a deist. Because I have had too many direct personal spiritual experiences. Ignorance is bliss but you can’t un-learn a truth.

Just two trails you can follow for now, of my personal story:

www.coffeehousetheology.com/miracles

www.perrymarshall.com/34766/the-story-behind-the-story/

Re: the Bible…

I think the Old Testament makes a great deal more sense if you look at it from an evolutionary viewpoint. The pivot point is the modern notion of equality, which I describe here:

cosmicfingerprints.com/faq/#equality

The notion of equality of human beings simply did not exist anywhere in the human race before Jesus. I flesh this out in the link above.

I would argue that before Jesus the very possibility of equality didn’t even exist. It was a Darwinian world. Period. There was no law or rule that said when you fight your enemies you should not kill them dead and take whatever you want.

There was no equality between the Jews and the Canaanites. None whatsoever. Not in theory, not in practice. A person from 1000 BC listening to our horror at those wars would be utterly mystified.

The only reason that you have this notion of “Old Testament Genocide” is from New Testament equality and visions of peace.

For those reasons, you can’t hold Old Testament God to New Testament morality, because before 30 AD there was no basis for spiritual equality of human beings in the first place.

Human equality is entirely a metaphysical construct (it’s manifestly false from an experiential point of view after all), and it comes from Christianity. 

In Christianity, ALL men (not just kings and queens and religious figures) can be literally regarded as sons of God; which suddenly causes “evolution” to mean something incomprehensibly different than it ever did before.

Equality post-Jesus might even mean that we attempt to provide free health care for everyone on earth.

No one in 1000 BC would have begun to imagine such a thing.

76 Responses

  1. Tom Godfrey says:

    Michael Champion,

    A Facebook conversation reminded me that I should have included a comment on the following part of your previous comment, so let me try to squeeze in a response to it now. You wrote, “… So ideally, no parasitic relationships would need to exist and people wouldn’t harm each other at all. I can’t exactly know the entirety of how objective morality would work, but I can say many people would agree with that sentence and believe the world would be more ideal if aggression was not needed and cooperation was the norm. However, many Christians would say Christianity disagrees with this, and dictates that everyone must accept God or else burn in hell. This is something i think is pretty problematic about Christianity.”

    People can harm each other with or without a parasitic relationship and probably also with or without a functional conscience, but we do agree that this would be a better world “if aggression was not needed and cooperation was the norm.” Can you point me to any Christian who disagrees with us on this point?

    You went on to claim, “many Christians would say Christianity … dictates that everyone must accept God or else burn in hell,” but if this was supposed to be inconsistent with a the ideal of a world with less aggression and more cooperation, I don’t see the connection. Now we are talking about eternity and about hell, whose location is unknown and entirely outside of human control. In any case, Christianity is not an animate agent, so it has no power to dictate anything. I suspect you were speaking figuratively and really meant to refer to something that Christians dictate or to a required belief in Christianity. Please correct me if I guessed wrong.

    Christians have no power to dictate who goes to hell and, if there are degrees of punishment there, we also have no power to specify the degree of suffering to be endured by anyone who has to go there. One belief, associated with the kind of Christianity familiar to me, is that God has absolute, sovereign authority over both who goes to hell and what punishment will be experienced by each inmate. According John 3:16, God loves everyone in the world, and 2 Peter 3:9 suggests that God would rather not have anyone perish in hell, so, according to Eph. 2:8 and Rev 22:17, God freely and graciously offers everyone a way to avoid having to go there. Does God drive too hard of a bargain? If you still see something in this picture that is “problematic about Christianity,” please explain. I don’t get it.

    • Michael Champion says:

      I’m sending this because when I look at the 2nd page of newer comments, i don’t see an indicator that my Nov 25 comment is a reply to yours, and that you got an email notification that i responded. Not to this comment in particular but the one before it.

  2. Michael Champion says:

    “Thanks for answering with more clarity my old question about the reality and relevance of evil. Your new answer seems to be from the point of view of atheists, which I assume you share, because you said, “Yes, this part I agree with, most atheists think good or evil do not exist in any objective way, …” I think we agree now that the famous “problem of evil” cannot be presented from this point of view as a legitimate challenge to faith in God. This leaves the other side of the coin in the Bahnsen analysis.”

    It’s from the point of view of atheists, but I don’t share it, I do think objective right and wrong likely exist. I do think that regardless of atheists encountering a logical consistency error in their own beliefs, they can still point out errors in Christianity and its inability to solve the problem of evil.

    ” Does this issue really require a solution to the Euthyphro dilemma, as your comment seems to suggest? That dilemma may only confuse or complicate the issue. Christians believe that transcendent sense of ethics exists because God endowed mankind with a conscience at creation, and I think this is consistent with the teaching in Rom. 2:14-15. This seems both simple and satisfactory to me. ”
    But that doesn’t solve the problem. It just says God created mankind with some programming. I only see two options. One, God’s programming tells mankind what is objectively right and wrong, based on logical truth. Two, God’s programming is subjective and does not have a basis in truth. Euthyphro’s Dilemma still unavoidably shows up here.

    “Atheists would have to reject this belief, of course, but then they still need some way to account for at least a “transcendent sense of ethics.” Never mind how others do this. You have obviously thought about this deeply. If God is ruled out, what alternative makes sense to you?”

    I can’t know any exact answers, but I can at least make some observations here. For one, we all know many examples which should inevitably be seen as wrong in any good system of morality. Rape, murder, genocide, and etc. On the other side, morality should have some positive effect in promoting health. So curing disease, promoting social health, producing overall good physical health, and many other things should be seen as good. This may sound utilitarian, but usually, utilitarianism isn’t something people object to in itself, only when it crosses against their morality. Health in itself cannot be wrong. So while we can’t say that a society is good if it promotes what’s useful for the greatest number, we can probably say that this is good in general unless it’s proven otherwise in individual examples.

    Then the best solutions to public problems are ones that solve them for everyone or make the entire issue obsolete. For example the problem of theft is effectively solved in a post scarcity society where there is a resource abundance. Many diseases would be in effect, cured by high quality localized health care with frequent checks for illness or early signs, even without a direct cure found for the illness. For example cancer could largely be prevented if there were simply frequent enough check ups that any cancer was detected in its earliest stages and nipped in the bud. The problem with Christian morality is it doesn’t seek any actual solutions to whatever it thinks is a problem, and many of the things it sees as problems, like not believing in Christianity, simply aren’t problems, and the whole Christian idea of them being problems is disrespectful of individual freedom.

    “Moving on to questions you believe Christians do not answer well,
    let’s start with the age of the earth. Have you heard any Christian
    claim that the right answer is “5000 years old”? Okay, I should not
    quibble about the exact number, but really, how does anyone know the
    correct answer to this question? Never mind Perry’s argument about
    the speed of light and the various radiometric dating methods. I
    think every answer falls into one of at least three categories depending on its basis.”
    They don’t say that exact number but basically they say it was created recently by some divine act.

    ” Does it matter? If so, why? Would knowing this piece of information
    with absolute certainty have any impact at all on an invention,
    modern technology, living standards, or exploration of the Solar System?
    I say the answer is no, because this has nothing to do with ordinary science. It is purely a question in the realm of history, not science. It is essentially
    the same story with regard to the age of the universe.”
    It matters that scientists know the half life of radioactive materials like plutonium. This proves that the earth is billions of years old and that a nuclear war using materials like this could cause an unending nuclear winter. So i’d say it has pretty large practical significance.

    “The Flood of Noah is a case in point.
    This comment is no place to delve into much detail, but at least I am impressed with the evidence that Gerald E. Aardsma
    has uncovered related to the Flood and the Exodus. There is also the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which involves a body of evidence that has led atheists in the past to belief in God.
    I think if you look for evidence and honestly evaluate what you find,
    you might agree with me on the correct answer to this other question after all.”

    The only specific reference you made was this Gerald E. Aardsma. If you want me to listen, send me a link that leads to evidence that’s not behind a paywall. Or at least summarize the evidence and argument he makes.

  3. Tom Godfrey says:

    Michael Champion,

    Are you telling me that you “think objective right and wrong likely exist” but also think that, if it does exist, God has nothing to do with it and that Christians cannot “solve the problem of evil”? I will answer as though I got this right, hoping I have not misunderstood you. Your statement with “think” and “likely” in it suggests a lingering uncertainty that was underscored by your thoughts on well-known “many examples which should inevitably be seen as wrong in any good system of morality.”

    You insisted that I have not solved “the problem” of the Euthyphro dilemma, but how much of a problem is it, really? Have you solved it? Not counting people who studied philosophy, who has even heard of it? God created us with a conscience so we can recognize the reality and relevance of goodness and morality. Does anyone really need to know any more about its basis than this? If your answer is yes, please explain.

    You seemed to struggle to avoid an appeal to utilitarianism as an alternative to a God-given conscience. You gave me just a list of examples of things that you consider either good or wrong, rightly assuming that I and probably most normal people in our culture would agree, but you left me wondering where you ever identified an atheistic reason for the “transcendent sense of ethics” or our common judgments about right and wrong.

    You did say, “…while we can’t say that a society is good if it promotes what’s useful for the greatest number, we can probably say that this is good in general unless it’s proven otherwise in individual examples.” What is useful is clearly subjective. For example, murder can be highly useful to a murderer, and I suppose, in the mind of some, even genocide might be considered a good and useful thing that ought to be pursued with a vengeance. At the end of the day, I think you need to decide whether or not you believe that good and evil are real and relevant or totally imaginary. If there is no real evil, it follows immediately that there is no real “problem of evil” that Christians face. If evil is real, I think Bahnsen has explained well how the problem disappears when a certain presupposition is added to the famous syllogism.

    Next, let’s consider another one of your claims: “The problem with Christian morality is it doesn’t seek any actual solutions to whatever it thinks is a problem, and many of the things it sees as problems, like not believing in Christianity, simply aren’t problems, and the whole Christian idea of them being problems is disrespectful of individual freedom.”

    Let’s remember that morality isn’t an animate agent either, so it cannot think, see something as a problem, or seek an actual solution. These are all things that people do. Let’s not get confused. As I see it, morality is a set of rules for righteous living, so if a person has a problem that might have something to do with morality, the solution is always to follow the rules, not to seek a solution that might be invented out of thin air.

    I think a person could follow all of the rules associated with “Christian morality” without actually believing in Christianity. Rejecting Christianity could still be a problem anyway, depending on certain facts about an afterlife, assuming there is one. Those facts are facts regardless of what a Christian or anyone else believes or teaches. Your saying that something is not a problem does not magically make it not a problem, if in fact it is one, and vice versa.

    If something actually is a problem, the issue of respect for individual freedom may well be totally unrelated. If I tell you that you should not rob a bank, because stealing is wrong, and you could get caught and go to prison, am I disrespecting your freedom? No way! You are still as free as you can be to go rob the bank. Who is stopping you? Ignoring real problems can have real consequences regardless of freedom issues.

    On knowing the age of the earth, you changed the subject to knowing “the half life of radioactive materials like plutonium,” something that can be measured or observed by modern experts. We agree that this kind of information “has pretty large practical significance,” but my challenge involves a quite different kind of knowledge. Knowing the half-life of radioactive materials does not lead to knowledge of the age of the earth. It leads at best to speculation about its age, based on an interpretation of data under the assumption that currently measured half-lives have never changed, an assumption that may or may not be valid. If an assumption happens to be wrong, any conclusion based on it can also be wrong. So let me try again. If we could know the actual age of the earth with absolute certainty, would this knowledge have any impact at all on an invention, modern technology, living standards, or exploration of the Solar System?

    In your closing paragraph, you seem to be appealing for arguments based on physical evidence to support my belief that God has actually intervened in world events. That’s okay, of course, but we should understand that this is not the way we normally learn about what happened in the past. If you read Commentaries on the Gallic War by Julius Caesar, would you have to set it aside as untrustworthy testimony and rely entirely instead on the speculation of modern experts who study and interpret only currently available physical evidence? In my opinion, this would be no way to find out what could be known about the Gallic Wars, and the same principle applies even more clearly to questions about origins and the ancient history of life on earth. If you have been led to believe that atheist scientists should be trusted to teach you about this history through the more unconventional approach, I think you ought to consider the points in this article.
    //creation.com/its-not-science
    I like the section called, “A valid distinction,” but instead of recognizing two kinds of science, I prefer to sharpen the distinction by calling just “operational science” science, while calling “origins science” history.

    But back to Aardsma. It is true that most of what he has written is behind “a paywall,” but his latest book on aging is available as a free PDF download.
    //www.biblicalchronologist.org/products/Aging_book.php

    You can find quite a bit of additional information about his ideas there free of charge. Just explore. If you do read (or at least skim over) his book on aging, you might be interested in my testimonial.
    //www.biblicalchronologist.org/products/vitamin_MePA_testimonials_prostate_cancer.php

    As I said before, this is no place for me to go into great detail about the evidence he has found to support his interpretation of the biblical accounts of the Flood and the Exodus, but I am going to mention one that I found especially impressive years ago, just to give you a taste. If you had his book on the Flood, you would find this evidence covered in chapters 11 and 12, pp. 83-96. It is based on research published back in 1995 by Karen Molloy and Michael O’Connell, two scientists who did not recognize that their data might lend support to a Flood model, but this makes this evidence all the more impressive. Aardsma’s Flood date (3520 B.C., plus or minus 21 years) is about a thousand years earlier than the one commonly accepted by Bible scholars.

    Molloy and O’Connell studied the kinds of pollen found at different depths in a deep peat bog in Ireland and used radiocarbon dating to develop a chronology that traced a rise in the percentage of field pollens after a long initial period of about 98 or 99% forest pollens, presumably when the island was first settled, and the early inhabitants began to clear forests for their fields around 4100 B.C. Nearby, “a vast ancient field system” (Céide Fields) features stone walls and “a multi-million dollar tourist center” to show them off to the public.

    According to the pollen chronology, the field clearing continued for about 600 years and then stopped abruptly at about 3500 B.C., when forest pollens began to predominate again. The people who had built the walls evidently vanished without a trace, and forests reclaimed their fields, until the island was settled again hundreds of years after the Flood. If this were the only place on earth where Flood evidence is found, the Ireland evidence might be dismissed as due to any number of alternative causes, but it is not. Even if you do not want to buy Aardsma’s Flood book, you can at least look at the chapter titles and get an idea of some of the other kinds of evidence he covers.
    //www.biblicalchronologist.org/products/Flood_book.php

  4. Michael Champion says:

    I can’t tell if you purposefully ended the comment thread i was posting in or it happened to run out of space like the last one, although it seems more like you ran out of interest and ended the thread.

    “Obviously you’re not here to talk about chromosomes. You want to discuss theology and morality.

    There is no question whatsoever that Christian belief has a LOT of baggage. I’ll be the first to admit it. But I just don’t see any way to step away from the huge amount of baggage you bring into this conversation.

    I can only report to you that my personal spiritual experiences (yes, which include people being healed and the like) are quite far from your characterizations.

    I wish you all the best in your journey.

    Yes, i didn’t post in this thread because of evolution or biology. That would be going off topic after all, since the thread was originally about Deism and morality questions with the problem of evil.

    “But I just don’t see any way to step away from the huge amount of baggage you bring into this conversation.”
    It seems like what’s going on here is if I use an example that offends you you decide it is baggage. So I can’t make the comparison between God and someone directly threatening someone’s life, and get you to respond to it at all unless I was to mention it in a very abstract way. I could have used abstract reasoning, and said that I wouldn’t believe in God because the Bible threatens to wipe people out who are non believers, rather than giving you a direct comparison of what that would be similar to in real life, but to me that makes the argument less grounded in reality and less clearly understandable.

    Your personal spiritual experiences might be good but that doesn’t change the problem of evil I was talking about which you brought up originally in the thread. It would change it a little bit, since if true, it would mean God did something helpful, but it wouldn’t answer the problem. As you still think God is omnipotent and seemingly can’t directly answer the question of all the problems that brings up.

    Hopefully due to this conversation you will decide to not say with total certainty to other people that the problem of evil is solved and the God of the bible is definitely all-good.

    • Michael,

      You have fire-hosed me with all your frustrations… and when I do try to narrow down on one thing and parse it, you evade it. And then post more rants. I don’t see how I can possibly untangle this mess.

      At the end of the day you’re not even open to the possibility that God / Jesus etc is real anyway. So we’re at the end of the road.

      • Michael Champion says:

        I evaded it? It wasn’t supposed to come off that way. I was really doing my best to answer. Please let me know where I made a mistake or what was unclear or vague to you. And it wasn’t supposed to sound like a rant either, sorry if it sounded that way.

        I don’t really get what you mean by me not being open to the possibility. I just say I don’t believe, and I can’t see how it would be possible. If it was really true, maybe I’d believe it if you could prove to me how it’s true. I never said everything about Christianity is bad. There are clearly some good things, like Christians advocating mutual respect or not using double standards on other people, the Golden Rule idea Christianity promotes in some parts of the new testament. And some Christians take the good parts and mostly use them. So it’s not like it’s all bad, but that doesn’t make me believe Christianity to be actually true. Sorry if i made it seem like I thought there was nothing good about Christianity.

  5. Tom Godfrey says:

    Michael Champion,

    Perry evidently came to the end of his road with both of us, but he left us free to continue our discussion. Let’s see if we can still make some progress. We have been at this for a long time, but you still seem to be searching for a solution to “the problem of evil” as though evil is surely both real and relevant. Please refresh my memory. Have you ever explained how evil can fit this description in a universe with no God like the God of the Bible? How do you explain what Bahnsen called a “transcendent sense of ethics”? Never mind how others do this. You have obviously thought about this deeply. If God is ruled out, what alternative makes sense to you?

    Obviously, if evil is purely imaginary or whatever any individual wants it to be, “the problem of evil” would be equally imaginary or whatever any individual wants it to be. In this case, the believer has nothing to explain. We don’t have to explain the problem of tooth fairies either, right? On the other hand, if good and evil are both real and relevant, because the distinction was somehow established by our Creator, who endowed us with a conscience, then I think Bahnsen solved “the problem of evil” as explained in his article about it. If you disagree, please explain.

    I can’t really speak for Perry, but I believe I can understand his frustration. You presented a thought experiment that ought to frustrate any believer in the omnipotence of God, because it is too inconsistent with what we consider to be reality. Here is the scenario you wanted Perry to consider:

    “Let’s say that the Christian God was real, then. Omnipotent or not, or all powerful to whatever limited extent some variant of Christianity dictates, either way, if i followed him or not would depend on the situation. I wouldn’t believe God to be a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had some undeniable proof that I would be wiped from existence or tortured for eternity if i disobeyed, and had no effective means of resistance, I’d certainly hate God, but might obey some set of rules in order to not get utterly destroyed. For example if someone held a gun to your head and threatened you and/or people you cared about, and told you to say you worship some religion, I wouldn’t hold it against you or call you a bad person if you temporarily listened while waiting for a way to remove or evade the threat or for someone to help out. And that’s basically what Christianity says to non believers, it just does so in a way that tries to make up for lacking proof of the threat.”

    What “proof of the threat” does someone with a gun offer to the person being threatened? I think it would be rather strange for someone in this scenario to insist that the gunman show “undeniable proof” that the threat is real. We would gladly take his word for it, by faith, right? Why should it be any different when a warning comes from God?

    You explained that you “might obey some set of rules in order to not get utterly destroyed,” assuming you had “undeniable proof that [you] would be wiped from existence or tortured for eternity if [you] disobeyed, and had no effective means of resistance,” but what does this have to do with the claims of Christianity? The Bible teaches that everyone who is saved by faith in Jesus Christ has sinned or disobeyed God (Rom. 3:23; 1Cor. 6:7-11; 1John 1:8-10). We do not escape hell through our own righteousness by rather by means of the righteousness that is graciously offered to all as a gift from God (John 3:16; Titus 3:3-7; Rev. 22:16-17).

    It is not as though God is holding a gun to your head and demanding that you obey. You might better imagine that you are drowning due to your own carelessness or foolishness, and God has graciously thrown you a life saver. It is up to you to decide to grab it and be saved or to ignore it and drown. If you drown, why would this be a good reason for anyone to hate the one who tried to save you?

    No one can force you to believe in God. If you told Christians that you believe in God, just to get them to leave you alone, but in your heart, you still refused to believe, this would not make any difference at all in the end. God would not be fooled. Not even someone with a gun pointed at you can read your mind and know what you actually believe, but God can.

    You may be caught up in some circular reasoning. You believe God doesn’t exist, because you believe there is no evidence for God, because any evidence for God isn’t evidence, because God doesn’t exist, because … and so on, round and round, right? Or could it be like the reasoning described in this article?
    //www.truefreethinker.com/articles/atheisms-circular-logic
    Well, either way, you can break out of it at will. It is up to you to decide.

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