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.

6 thoughts on “I Don’t Get Monotheism”

  1. I enjoyed that. I saw some of the questions re that debate. The one about ‘how come non-creationists accept life could have come from elsewhere but not God’ interested me at first but seems to be straying pretty far from their original concept. I accept my microbial ancestor may have hopped off a meteorite, but I’m not going to pray to it.

  2. I’m interested in the meta-rhetorical use of debate – that is, one side perpetuating a non-debate as a debate in order to keep the other side perpetually in a sort of truth value superposition. I mostly bang into it in the microscopically niche domain of deaf kids language acquisition, but it’s totally true for questions of god.

    1. It seems like a pretty heavily over-used device on this side of the Atlantic. Whether you’re talking guns, climate, or any other scenario where the balance of facts lies on the other side of the equation from the money. I have to wonder what’s keeping the non-debate alive in deaf language acquisition. Not money, is my guess.

      1. Lots of things. Like languages you are not fluent in appearing to be pidgin and therefore impoverished (Ha ha! French doesn’t have a word for weekend! Germans call nipples breast-warts!) but this is your monotheism post, so I won’t bang on about it. :O)

  3. I have had the same questions. How can you do a “good” deed if your motivation is to get rewards points to get into the exclusive country club known as heaven.. Etc
    Well I used to see it like that, especially as my most bible bashing aunt never did a genuinely selfless act. All her “charitable” deeds had strings attached, including her boasting about how good she was and her holding her acts of convenience against those she “helped” etc.
    I eventually came to see it like this…it can bring a person pleasure when they help people or share things with those in need.. So to me this is morally fine. Help people if it’s something you enjoy doing… You might call this selfish but who cares if it’s a win win.
    As far as an unthinking god is pointless. Well I see where your coming from but Zen Buddhism and even Christian and Judaism and Islam are at heart talking about an eternal unknowable consciousness. The difference between that god and the pop culture god is ego. No ego means no thinking or thought. It still means their is a mind though. How is an unthinking mind of any use? Well if you ever achieve an unthinking mind you will see this question from a totally different perspective. That’s the aim in zen meditation. How could a god exist and allow all the suffering in the world? Because god doesn’t think. Well if god doesn’t think then wants the point of god? There doesn’t have to be a point, other than we exist. It could be it’s all a simulation, one of many, as some believe.. So no point for us but whoever made the simulation there would be a point.

    1. Hi Lucas,
      Thank you for your comment. Sorry I didn’t get to it for about half a year. Fairly slack on my part, really. In any case, I wanted to address one of the points you raised. You referred to an ‘eternal unknowable consciousness’. I think this is an interesting take. I have an opinion about it of course, so thank you for raising it.
      The kind of meditative state you refer to is a state that an entity designed for thinking can attain. In essence, we have a reasoning engine, and we develop the skill to put it into a kind of neutral gear. From that, we gain insight and benefit. Awesome. But that’s an occasional state for an embodied organism, not a context-free closed loop of the sort a true monotheistic deity would have.
      If we’re saying that the mind of God is a context-free closed loop that nevertheless has some orientation in time, then that’s kind of like saying that God is the universe. Which is fine, I guess, but it’s a kind of semantic goalpost moving. It doesn’t leave much room for traditional god-ness. It’s sort of along the lines of “God is Math”. Which is sort of like saying ‘there’s no God but Math’, which is also like saying ‘there’s no God, just Math’.
      What’s interesting about your take, though, is the implication that we’re in someone’s simulation. While I don’t hold with the simulation hypothesis, I have a lot in common with many people who do. In that scenario, our ‘god’ is just an entity in some meta-universe who’s dreaming us. Fair enough, I guess. He’d have all the reasons to have consciousness that we do. After all, he still has to go to his meta-job and buy meta-groceries, wrangle his meta-baby, etc.
      It’s not disprovable, but I suspect it’s not useful either. Is there some value or insight we could gain from such a perspective other than the nebulous comfort of the idea that a holistic consciousness exists? And if that’s all we get, do we need it?

      As an aside, for my case for why the simulation hypothesis doesn’t work, here’s a link:

      Once again, thanks for the comment and my apologies for failing to approve it for so long.

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