I’ve been listening to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Dembski. It’s over two hours long, so I’m not through the whole thing, but I just got through a part where they’re talking about the goodness of God, and I had to stop and write.
Dembski makes the argument that, once you accept the existence of God, the goodness of God follows almost necessarily. His argument runs thus: If we claim that there is a God (“God” here defined as an all-powerful being who created and continually engages with the universe), but that God is not good, we have to ask, “Where does the standard of ‘good’ come from?” We are claiming that there is a standard of morality that God does not meet, and this seems like a fairly absurd claim. If the standard comes from an authority higher than God, then God isn’t worthy of the name, and if it comes from a lower authority, then it’s presumptuous to suggest that God should be subject to it.
This reasoning is completely sound, in my judgement. Dembski then continues, addressing the problem of evil: if the all-powerful God is good, then why is there evil? And here is where I have a problem, because he’s just equivocated on the definition of “good.” In the first argument, “good” is defined as “the standard of morality set by the highest authority.” No assumptions have been made about which actions or values are good and which are not. It’s simply been stated that it doesn’t make sense to pose a standard of good which God does not meet. It doesn’t follow from that argument that evil exists at all. There is no reason to suppose, from this argument, that the universe, with all the destruction and cruelty it contains, isn’t exactly the way God wanted it to be.
But Dembski takes for granted the existence of evil, and therefore brings in the assumption that God’s standards of good match up with human standards to some extent. To human eyes, it is obvious that things like cruelty, greed, oppression, and senseless destruction fall together under a heading generally definable as “bad,” “evil,” “opposite of good.” Different groups of humans have different ideas about whether certain specific actions or qualities are good, evil, or neutral, but the general idea of evil is pretty consistent and well-understood throughout humanity. In the appendix to his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis gives an excellent catalogue of the moral precepts which have generally been agreed upon in human societies: compassion, fair dealing, generosity, trustworthiness. Approval of these qualities, and condemnation of their opposites, has appeared in human societies throughout history, and forms the hub of our notions of good and evil.
By asking, “Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” we are assuming that God agrees with this general idea of evil. As different human cultures differ in their precise moral codes, so we imagine that God may call some things “good” which we feel as evils, and vice versa, but we take for granted that God is in agreement with that basic hub of morality which is so consistently felt throughout human culture.
So when we ask “Is God good?” we can be asking two things. We can be asking, “Is God the highest standard of morality?” Or we can be asking, “Does our basic human understanding of good and evil agree with God’s?” The answer to the first question is “yes,” almost by definition. That does not, however, begin to answer the second question.
Without making any further assumptions, without taking any religious texts as authoritative, the most sensible conclusion is that our understanding of good and evil does not agree with God’s. The very fact that so many forces, both within humanity and without, oppose our sense of the good, suggests that the supreme authority of the universe is fairly indifferent to it. Nature rewards selfishness and competition as well as cooperation and generosity. The simplest answer to the question of “Why is there evil?” or, as David lamented, “Why do evil men prosper?” is that God has very different ideas of good and evil than we do. In other words, there is no evil. Everything, on heaven and earth, is exactly the way God wanted it to be, and our human feeling that in a perfect world things would be different is merely a misapprehension, a mistake born out of our limited and highly biased perspective.
In fact I find it hard to justify any other conclusion, philosophically. Why should we believe that God values compassion, fair dealing, generosity, and trustworthiness? Certainly it’s much nicer to imagine so, but that’s no reason for believing it. I don’t see how you get to such a belief without a religious text or a very complicated rationalization born out of wishful thinking.
So when religious apologists claim that, once you’ve accepted the existence of God, the goodness of God follows naturally, they’re using semantic equivocation to bridge a very wide gap. If you want to take “good” to mean “the highest moral standard in the universe,” go right ahead, but then you have to go on to ask, “Is human goodness actually good?” And no apologist that I’ve encountered has bothered to do that.