I Don’t Get Monotheism

In the wake of the Bill Nye/Ken Ham pseudodebate that happened last week, there’s been a wave of discussion in webland. Specifically, a set of questions asked by Creationists have been doing the rounds along with a variety of attendant replies.

I found this whole piece of public dialog made me feel awkward. And it reminded me that there are elements of the monotheistic worldview that I just simply don’t get. Most notably, the things that people seem to like about monotheistic religions appear to be functionally excluded by the very features of the belief systems that people maintain. Here are some of my main problems.

1: How can a religious belief system that includes heaven and hell ever be moral?

If people take actions based on a payoff system that rewards or punishes them after they die, then how can they make choices based on whether they’re actually the right thing to do? At the very least, the presence of an afterlife payoff muddies the moral waters. At worst, it completely invalidates the value of human decisions. Good behavior can’t be its own reward if someone’s going to slip you a metaphysical fifty bucks for making up your mind one way or the other. That’s accepting a bribe, not being moral.

The fact that an old book purports to tell you what’s moral so that you don’t have to worry doesn’t seem to me to help much. After all, if a person makes a choice by recourse to looking the answer up in a book, doesn’t that also invalidate the moral process? That’s not moral reasoning, that’s machine-like reasoning. Moral reasoning requires introspection and moral courage. And courage doesn’t come with a cheat-sheet.

2: How can an omniscient, omnipotent god be anything but a mindless machine?

Thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Thinking is something you do when you’re trying to make choices or plan actions. An omniscient entity knows all outcomes and has nothing to plan. So how can it possibly think? For such an entity, there simply can’t be anything worth thinking. An all-knowing god is therefore, by definition, an unthinking god.

One might retort that the kind of thinking that this god is doing is different from the human kind. That it’s somehow ‘infinite’ and ‘unknowable’. But what is it then? What is it for? It’s functionally so different from actual thinking that it strips all meaning out of the word.

3: How can life in a universe that has an all-powerful creator be anything other than meaningless?

For a god who has the option to set the universe up any way he likes, and do it over again whenever he wants, all choices are arbitrary. There is no useful end state that’s worth running a universe to obtain, because that same state could just be arrived at without effort any number of times. This means that a universe with an all-powerful creator is, by necessity, a pointless one.

One might argue that this god didn’t set the universe up for himself, but for us, somehow. But this doesn’t make sense either. Why bother? Why not just skip to the end state and create humanity having learned its lessons already? If human enlightenment is the goal, then anything other than skipping to that state is a deliberate waste of effort. Unless, of course, human pain and confusion is the goal, in which case you’re talking about another kind of god completely.

One might try to argue here that jumping to the rapture without us having actually learned the lesson for ourselves wouldn’t be the same. But that’s self-contradictory. It presumes that the omnipotent god isn’t omnipotent, otherwise these two outcomes would surely not be different.

Recourse to the notion that we have a god that can’t be understood and so shouldn’t be challenged doesn’t get us anywhere either. Are we supposed to just accept that the universe is somehow golden and ordered because of information we can never have? That’s like being told to imagine that you ate a cake, rather than getting to eat one, because someone with better tastebuds than you is eating it for you. It’s only satisfying so long as you don’t hunger for any actual cake, or in this case, meaning.

4: How can you possibly have a meaningful life without an existential void?

Science seems to suggest that the universe is a careless, bleak place in which life is fragile and impossibly delicate. The universe doesn’t care a whit whether we live or die. It is unspeakably vast and mostly empty. And this, to my mind, is what makes life beautiful and important. Because it’s special. Because it’s a fluke. Because wrong choices can end it. Without life, and human endeavor in the face of impossible odds, there is no light in the universe. No striving. No purpose.

To me, every single human second, and every single choice, counts. To me life is beautiful precisely because it’s doomed and because there are no easy answers. We are the only candle burning in the dark that we know of. And that makes us so poignantly important that is is impossible for me to express. Is the idea of a guaranteed win for the good guys better than that? Does that make life more special? How can it?

One of the Creationists who posed questions for Atheists asked, “How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?” I assume that they mean, how do you account for something so beautiful and precious existing in the world without somebody putting it there for us to look at.  My reply is that a sunset is beautiful precisely because there is no god.

The human interpretation of a sunset is the product of a perceptual system that’s designed to pick up a myriad of environmental cues, and which can use those cues to reliably weigh the relative merits of different environments. And understanding that tell us something about what sunsets truly are. They’re delicate, subjective things that aren’t the same anywhere else in the universe. Sunsets require that you look after the atmosphere. Sunsets require that you do not smother the horizon in concrete towers. Sunsets require that you do not block the sight of your people with prison walls.

And the more science we know, the more we realize just how special and precious those sunsets are.  A prebuilt sunset, fabricated like a piece of Ikea furniture by a casual creator, seems, by comparison, a worthless thing.

In a nutshell, I don’t understand see how the promise of automatic certainty and canned moral answers can help at all in appreciating the beauty of life. It seems to me that they’re tools for enabling people who experience persistent pain or fear in their lives to avoid beauty, because of the costs that looking at it honestly entails. I don’t begrudge them that hunger. We all reach for easy answers from time to time. But that doesn’t make it moral, or courageous, or right.