It’s the Prime Directive

Yesterday, I saw a blog post by an atheist asking, “If I had the power to save everyone at the theater that was just shot up because I was all-powerful and all-knowing, and I didn’t do it, wouldn’t I be evil?” The old theodicy question – how do we explain a world of evil if God is all loving? It’s a legitimate question. And one that we have a hard time answering well. So, I was thinking about that atheists’ question last night while laying in bed. And then because I was drifting off to sleep and thoughts become more slippery and less reality tethered as you drift off, my mind wandered to ants. You see, my daughter Sophia had spent some time last night watching an ant colony in the rocks in front of the house. She tried to convince me to let her bring out some sugar for them – probably so she could watch ants carrying sugar crystals. I told her the ants didn’t need any help from us – they do just fine on our own. Partway to sleep, I thought about ants preparing to go off to war against another ant colony while Sophia was watching. What if she could step in to stop it? Would she? Should she? And my mind slipped back to that question – “If I had the power to save everyone at the theater because I was all-powerful and all-knowing, and I didn’t do it, wouldn’t I be evil?” Would Sophia be evil if she didn’t step in to stop an ant war? And just then the words “it’s the prime directive” popped into my head. Which woke me right up.

“Honey, what exactly is the prime directive again?” I asked my husband whose dream is to have us wear our federation uniforms on a replica of the deck of the USS Enterprise cum entertainment room.

“You can’t interfere with the internal affairs of any civilization in any way, for any reason.”

“And if they are getting ready to destroy themselves or do something really awful?”

“They have a right to their own stupidity,” he answered, “grmpzzzzzzz . . . ” (I think he’s kind of used to me asking strange, random questions when he’s half asleep by now.)

I lay back down thinking that I should go to that post and leave the comment, “it’s the prime directive, dear.”

Now, to be clear, I’m no deist. I don’t think that God created us and is just sitting back watching from a nice, heavenly vantage point. The bible and the existence of Jesus and many of our own lives all point to the reality that God is intensely interested in and invested in us. Like Captain Kirk, God has violated the prime directive many times. However, I have been thinking for a while that our understanding of God’s relationship with us is almost certainly skewed and needs adjusting.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. I have heard more than one pastor claim that Adam and Eve lived in constant communion with God. Only they just made that up. Genesis 3:8 says “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” God appears to have come to walk around. Maybe visit. Adam and Eve had been off doing their own thing – living their own lives. There has always been a separation between the lives of men and God. In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” If God and Adam were living together in the garden how could Adam be alone? God may know all things, but that doesn’t mean he’s always giving his attention to all things. At least that’s not how it was at the beginning, it seems.

But the garden never was for God – it was for man. And God is not man. He is not one of us. His concerns are not the same as our concerns. I’m very interested in having a tasty dinner. God’s very concerned with my moral and spiritual development. I want God to fix my water heater. God wants to fix my heart. I want God to give me enough money to get the second car working. God wants to give me himself. God really is much more alien to me than Captain Picard ever was to the Klingons. He is more like Sophia watching ants preparing for war than like me watching the Colorado shooter prepare himself for a shooting spree. Perhaps the real problem is that we expect God to deal with us as if he were one of us – only with greater vision and power.

One of the things that happens when you reject literal creationism and embrace the testimony of the world that God has actually created is you have to let go of the fairy-tale that we once lived in a magical place where nothing ever experienced physical death and there were no mosquitoes or parasites or earthquakes or lightning strikes. Which means that God never did intend for us to live in a world which we humans would consider “perfect”. In fact, God himself never claimed that the Garden of Eden was perfect – he called it “good” and man and woman “very good”. The plan always did include us dealing with discomfort and people we love passing into the afterlife and even sickness and loss. That’s the world and life that we were made for. The plan was that we would encounter God walking in the garden – not that he’d be following us around swatting away that one mosquito carrying malaria so we didn’t get sick.

What was not part of the plan was that one man would arm himself and walk into a theater full of people to shoot them. It was never part of the plan that a mother would tie her child to a bed and beat him. It wasn’t part of the plan that a nation would work together to exterminate 12 million human beings. It wasn’t part of the plan that we would suffer at each other’s hands the way that we do. But guess what? This game belongs to us. It’s our world. And like it or not, its problems are ours to solve.

God didn’t make this world for himself. He made it for us and gave it to us and it’s high time we stopped waiting for Jesus to float down on a cloud to set the whole thing right. That’s our job. God didn’t create a cure for malaria – we did that. God didn’t create musical instruments for us to make music with – we did that. God didn’t create animals that would walk right up to us to be slaughtered or carry our loads or just sit and let us pet them – we worked that out. That’s our job – to take what God has given us and use it for good things. God has provided us with amazing abundance – we’re the ones who took it and made a world where Paris Hilton’s dogs can have their own air-conditioned mansion while other people can’t get food and water. God’s not the one who is failing us – we’re failing each other.

The question isn’t “why didn’t God stop the Colorado shooter?” The question is why hasn’t all the suffering we’ve created caused us to stop screwing around and get serious about doing things the right way? We’ve been told how: love self and neighbor with kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness. Put others before yourself. Be willing to give up everything if that’s what it takes. Stop grabbing and striving and holding onto everything and worrying about everything. Stop storing up for yourself without making sure that everyone else is OK first. And stop waiting for God to show up and fix it all for you. He’s already created a good world for us, proven himself faithful, provided for our salvation and forgiveness, given the instructions – offered himself up body and soul so that we can be redeemed from the mess we’ve made.

Asking “why didn’t God stop the shooter” is really no different than the addict asking why mom and dad didn’t pay their rent. We’re like the addict who claims that they can’t get clean because their lives are too stressful, no one loves them, they were abused, they just need some time, some money, someplace to crash, people to get off their back and then they’d be fine. But here’s the truth – just like any other addict, we have to WANT to get better. We have to want life to be different. God can offer all the instructions and all the forgiveness and redemption in all the universe – and he has. But until we want to get better more than we want to keep doing things our own way and avoid suffering and enjoy an imaginary perfection that only God can provide and we have no responsibility for creating, life is going to keep chewing us up and spitting us out. It’s our world. It’s our game. It’s our turn.

33 thoughts on “It’s the Prime Directive

  1. Thank you for another great post. Very insightful, though I also understand all the doubts and questions that come to mind when thinking about God in that way. I think that the bottom line is that an addict, even when pi**ed at his parents for not helping, is still alive and the parents, when able, are watchful and try to avoid the worst case scenario (as in death).

    On the other hand, when tragedies like Colorado’s happen, for those who die, for all intent and purposes is game over. I guess that’s where faith is most useful…

    Finally, I officially like your husband. Please tell him “Live long and prosper” from me…

    1. I meant to put this into the post, but the thing is that God is not like us – he doesn’t fear or dread our physical deaths. In the story of the fall, when it is said, “on that day you will surely die”, I believe that God is saying that death as a dreadful end rather than a moving on will become our reality. But that’s not his reality. And now as Christians, it’s not supposed to be our reality either – “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13

  2. Husband has good taste in women!

    Aside from that… I think you’re right abt “God has a different perspective on death”, not so right about “God is alien.” What makes things difficult is that we, and God, are not truly separate.

    We didn’t invent musical instruments — or running amok — entirely on our own. God is ‘imperfect’ by our criteria because we are also. Just as a baby will look like an extremely imperfect adult — or a perfect baby, we’ve got this long-term (ie ‘eternal’) relationship to negotiate, and even though God probably has a pretty good idea how it comes out, we have to try out some mistakes. Most of them not as bad as that guy in the theatre — but how come everyone thought that kind of behavior, on the screen, was ‘entertainment’?

    “Game over”? “Want to play again?”

  3. Two comments, if I may:

    1. The prime directive metaphor is not, I think, a very good one when you look at it more closely. God is not a passing stranger who happens to see the earth and its inhabitants.

    Imagine if Kirk himself had developed a machine in a backroom of the Enterprise that created sentient beings. He cranked this machine up, and created a handful of these beings, then deposited them on a planet in a nearby galaxy. Would Kirk have the same responsibility toward these beings as he would have to a completely alien species he just happened to pass by in his spaceship? I think not. You might as well ask if your responsibility towards your own children is the same as your responsibility to the children you see walking through the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

    God, in other words, DOES have a responsibility to look after our well-being, for the simple reason that he created us – he subjected us to the universe, so it his duty to protect us from it (and from ourselves). Of course, this is only if he is a good god. If he is an evil god, then he probably created us for the sport of watching us suffer. Frankly, this doesn’t seem too far fetched sometimes.

    2. This brings me to my second point. The analogy of the parents with a drug-addled child is more compelling, but it lies in direct conflict with the prime directive metaphor. You cannot simultaneously be an aloof spacefarer declining to meddle in the affairs of strangers, and a concerned parent caring for his child.

    But if the parent-child analogy is appropriate, does it *really* tell us that the parent should let his child continue to be addicted to drugs? Perhaps you are right that the parent shouldn’t enable his child by paying his rent. But surely you aren’t suggesting that the parent simply stand back with arms folded, rather than trying everything in her power to help her child? I agree that a flesh-and-blood parent may, at the end of the day, have limited options. We’re only human, and drug addictions are extremely difficult to end.

    But we’re talking about God here, right? The all-powerful, benevolent being? Here we have a parent figure who really CAN do useful, effective things to stop his children from getting into serious trouble, even dying. Yet he spectacularly fails to do so on a regular basis. And this is where your second analogy breaks down. For God just isn’t a good parent. He stands back and allows all manner of evil to flourish. Babies get raped in Africa, did you know that? People think that they’ll cure their AIDS that way. God doesn’t stop it. People get crushed under their own homes during earthquakes. God doesn’t stop it. People get drowned in tsunamis. Mowed down in shootings. The list goes on.

    This is not a parent who is stopping rent payments for his child’s own good. This is a parent who almost seems to have a fascination with evil.

    1. I’m afraid that I’m just not literal minded enough to be bothered that the prime directive analogy is imperfect or conflicts with the drug addicts parent analogy. That’s how life is – all paradox. If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s the right answer is pretty much never, ever either or and almost always both/and. I kind of drive people nuts that way. My point is really that what we’re doing down here is our responsibility to work out. If/when God steps in, it’s a favor – not a requirement. (Besides, I don’t think that the prime directive comes out of a “disinterested observer” position at all. It’s more a recognition of boundaries. Which is QUITE analogous to what I’m arguing here about God.)

      Also, I think that as a Christian God has stepped into carry the responsibility he has for an imperfect creation through Jesus. I know from my own life, that God is extraordinarily persistant, patient, kind and attentive to my needs. It’s just that my desires are not his needs. I have no guarentee of physical safety. That’s a desire of mine, but not a spiritual need. My physical life is temporary, so from a heavenly perspective it makes sense that God would invest in what will last for me and even be willing to allow and use the problems of this physical life to do that.

      Finally, the problem with this “all-powerful God who can do anything” notion is that like children, we have both a right to and a duty to carry a certain amount of autonomy. I’m not a free will purist who thinks that God never interferes. But I could follow my kids around all day long correcting them, keeping them from harm’s way, advocating for them, etc. And then I’d be a shitty helicopter parent responsible for stifling a human being and keeping them stunted. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many people seem to think that God is supposed to be doing. But as I said, his concerns for me are much bigger and more important that making sure I get all As and stay healthy through a long life.

  4. Last comment evidently assumes that:
    1) God does not directly experience whatever evil happens to us.
    2) That we know what is good for us, but God does not.
    3) That dying is bad for us, rather than being an inconvenient removal from the game.
    4) That our long term happiness doesn’t hinge on a long maturing process, in which we learn what suffering is and acquire the compassionate attitude you imagine God lacks.
    — — — —

    If we’re ‘made in the image of God,’ then any quality that’s truly human is truly divine. Most of the trouble comes of being a finite edition, not yet having learned that “We and our Father are one.”

    1. What you said. Mostly. I don’t think that we are of the same substance of God. I think that we do exist seperate from him. But I’m just a wee human – I can always be wrong . 😉

  5. Treegesalt,

    We could just as easily use your logic to doubt your beliefs:

    Your comments assume that: God exists, that he cares about us, that he intervenes in our daily affairs, that he revealed himself to a small tribe in the Middle-East, that we can know the mind and will of a being thought to be beyond space and time, that God allegedly only allows evil/suffering to (A) occur in degrees necessary for character development or (B) to achieve some greater good. The natural evil (natural disasters) that result in large-scale destruction, the fawn who burns alive in a forest fire…to the skeptic it seems clear that these forms of suffering could have been prevented while still obtaining A & B.

    I hope you won’t take offense at candid feedback, Rebecca. But your blog post seems myopic.

    First, don’t most Christian denominations/belief systems adhere to the doctrine of the fall? If you reject the Fall, then God created us imperfect, and would hardly be justified in thereby expecting perfect or near perfect behavior. I made you sick, and now command you to be well! If you accept the Fall (which you don’t), then why are the actions of one couple imputed onto all mankind?

    Here’s where things really start to get incredibly myopic. Your post assumes the U.S. and other relatively wealthy countries comprise the majority of the world:

    “The question isn’t “why didn’t God stop the Colorado shooter?” The question is why hasn’t all the suffering we’ve created caused us to stop screwing around and get serious about doing things the right way? We’ve been told how: love self and neighbor with kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness. Put others before yourself. Be willing to give up everything if that’s what it takes. Stop grabbing and striving and holding onto everything and worrying about everything. Stop storing up for yourself without making sure that everyone else is OK first. And stop waiting for God to show up and fix it all for you.”

    You make it seem naively simple, like most humans are born with a decent shot and simply fail to live up to God’s commands. 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day, and even more than that live in desolate poverty. That means they don’t get enough food, shelter or clothing. Nearly a billion people were illiterate in 2000. Of the 2.2 billion children alive, over 1 billion are in poverty. 22,000 children die from poverty every day. I’ll remember to tell one of those kids their problems stem from behavioral issues…

    In these conditions, do you think human beings will develop a normal psyche or personality? Since many are illiterate, will they even know what that means?

    This idea that God chooses to idly sit back, arms folded because for mysterious reasons it’s in our collective interest that he not interfere…is incredibly naive and disillusioned to the point of being offensive. And how did we create this mess ourselves? Did we give ourselves a base nature that without culture and training leads to something more animal than human? A world full of disease, natural disasters, hunger.

    Your post fails to address or consider the largest segment of the global population, and skips over the atheist or religious skeptic’s real claim in theodicy.

    Roughly, if an all-good, powerful God exists, he’d prevent evil/suffering unless he couldn’t without (a) thereby permitting an evil equally bad/worse or (b) obtaining some greater good that justifies the suffering. We think evil/suffering occurs in degrees beyond what’s necessary to obtain A & B. So the all-good God probably doesn’t exist. I gave an example of a fawn burning in a forest fire, and of natural disasters, so arguing that free will satisfies B won’t work.

    1. Actually, I hold a number of ideas which probably aren’t common among Christians. First of all, I don’t think that there ever was a time when things were perfect, nor do I think that we were ever supposed to be perfect. Creation was declared good and humanity in relationship was said to be very good. If you ever have the chance, ask a very poor person or someone living in an impoverished country if their life is “good”. I have and most will say yes and point to the good things about their lives. It can be as simple as the air and sun or as profound as their relationships with the people they love. We 1st worlders have an fantastically arrogant presumption that people living in circumstances such as most humans have lived in through out all of human history live miserable lives with little to redeem them. Which is hogwash and very insulting to the billions of people who have lived very satisfying lives completely independent of the sort of things which we westerners view as necessities. The de-humanizing effect of this attitude is vile, frankly. And yes, I have known people who have lived under these circumstances. Sure, they wish things were easier and suffered when children died early or water was hard to come by. But they would find your view of the worth and goodness of the lives they lived under those circumstances unbelievably insulting.

      The reality is that life was never meant to be pain free. That’s a fairy tale (and an unimaginative one at that!). Simply due to the normal functioning of our planet and our own bodies, some amount of suffering was always going to be part of human existence. Given the nature of human beings and the fact that we do often grow through and even find beauty in the midst of pain, this is hardly the end of the world and is almost certainly a net good.

      I don’t reject the fall, but my understanding of it is slightly different than many Christians. For example, we may have been “perfect”, but we were clearly immature. We were perfect the way that babies who crap on themselves are perfect. But really, nothing in creation was ever declared perfect anyways. The details of why the fall happened and the effect it had on us is actually something I spend a good amount of time meditating on. It’s too complicated to delve into here in depth, but I will say that I do reject the whole “Adam and Eve disobeyed, God was furious and punished all of humanity for their disobedience” narrative. I think that this has likely been humanity’s view of what happened for a very long time, but an open minded reading of the actual story reveals that there are other ways of interpreting it. But again, it’s too much for me to get into here.

      As to why it has had the effect that it’s had on humanity is as simple as looking at your own parents. Or yourself as a parent. I don’t know any human who wasn’t handed a load of baggage to sort out by their upbringing. I believe that we are in the process of being redeemed and we have and will continue to see changes (and improvements) over time, but it’s a working out process.

      And yes, it’s very naive to say that if we start loving each other better, things will right themselves. Guilty as charged. However, love isn’t some soft, namby-pamby thing fit only for women and wimps. It’s costly. It can mean working through a marriage that has utterly broken when it’s easier to walk away. It could mean serving those who are living in horrible conditions a world away with money or even our lives. It could mean simply not being an ass in traffic. Nothing good that we do goes to waste. And really, what other option do we have? We’ve been playing games of money and power and such for millennia and look where it’s gotten us. As a Christian, I know that I’ve been told to love and that God will provide the increase. It’s the seed I plant with my life and I believe we’re all called to plant. And like Jesus said, a seed may not look like much, but from it comes great fruit. So that’s what I’m putting my faith in. I don’t see anything else out there worth giving my life to anyways, so might as well.

    2. And I apologize that my response isn’t very well written. It’s hard to compose an essay in a little box with a teen breathing over your shoulder waiting to get back on the computer! 😉

    3. My comments are not based on my “logic” so much as on my observations. Feel free to doubt my beliefs; I certainly did; and truth can look out for itself.

      The Being who is — reveals Hsrself to anyone paying sufficient attention, in whatever way best suits their particular worldview. In a Middle Eastern mileau of tribal gods, the easiest way to make Hsr existence understood and accepted was as another one of these gods, only larger & toothier. The Jews didn’t get their notions entirely correct right back then; most Christians don’t get them all sorted out today; what else is new?

      If you think of “all-powerful” — not in the sense of a divine mechanic constructing a perfect machine — but in the sense of a novelist imagining a self-consistent universe, and peopling it with believable characters, you’ll better understand the constraints & difficulties entailed in that sort of ‘power’.

      If you consider that whatever happens to us here is temporary — then the truly ugly things that do happen to many people don’t necessarily mean what they seem. My own experience has been that my troubles have been strikingly appropriate to the person I was, what I was doing, what I needed to learn. We aren’t talking about “deserved” or “undeserved” so much as ‘what I was ready to learn at the time.’ What I’ve intuited of God’s nature implies that this kind of treatment is available to everyone; but that making everyone aware of it intrinsically takes more time & different experiences for each person.

      A “Skeptic” who can believe that their sentience is the product of ionic waves traveling along the membranes of complex networks of organic glupp… shouldn’t consider anyone else’s beliefs too implausible.

  6. No worries, I’m not here to judge your form. I can see where teen breath would be distracting!

    On the point about suffering and poverty, you’ll notice I never said their lives weren’t good or worthwhile. I said there’s an immense amount of suffering that goes on for the majority of our planet’s population, and that this suffering counts against the existence of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God. This kind of suffering isn’t the kind Christians commonly claim is necessary for character development, compassion, etc. It’s excessive and gruesome. And the 70-80% I referred to as being in desolate poverty aren’t merely lacking goods that wealthy nations have grown accustomed to. They are classified as being in desolate poverty – which means they don’t get enough food, shelter or clothing. This is different than merely being poor. This is a state where you aren’t meeting your basic needs and it’s seriously affecting your health and well-being. I’m aware that surveys among members of the various socioeconomic classes on personal satisfaction/happiness are actually consistent.

    And you’ll find no disagreement from me about the nature of life on earth and our universe. It’s bound to be at times painful and a struggle. Nor do I think this is something to moan about. Life is still precious, worth living and full of both joy and sorrow. My talk of suffering & evil was only meant to count as evidence against the existence of an all-good God.

    Let me ask you something. Do you ever worry that your interpretation of biblical text is so loose and liberal that you can’t really consider it to represent something true? Since, as I believe, the bible is too vague and written in such a way that it can’t be clearly interpreted, why should one interpretation be favored over another? We know meditation isn’t always the best way to discover scientific or metaphysical truths, and if you have to do this much inventing and creative revision to make the bible conform to how you’d like the world to be, why not just dispense with it altogether?

    My main question here is, why is belief in God and the divine authority of the bible so important to you? Surely you know the religious skeptic can find plenty of deep meaning and happiness in their existence. I do. You say that you don’t know of anything else worth giving your life to other than Jesus, but why do you feel an impulse to give it to anyone? And you seem to care about your family, kids, and humanity in general, so why aren’t they a proper object of devotion for your life. In my opinion, they actually are, and unbelief in God wouldn’t change the solidarity you feel with your family and human beings.

    In my case, I was raised in a deeply conservative household attending a Baptist church 3x/week. My parents were strict, but gave me a work ethic and sense of discipline that was well worth it. No bad experience pushed me away from religion or Christianity. It happened gradually in my mid-twenties as I exposed myself to more and more facts related to these big questions. I got my first degree in philosophy, so I had plenty of time to explore the issue. And no, a liberal academic staff didn’t turn me; there was a healthy mix of Christian and secular philosophers present. I started as an apologist for the faith. Gradually, over a three year period, I slowly came to terms with the fact that the belief system was probably false. It doesn’t happen overnight, we don’t work that way. Even if you know deep down something is false, it takes time for humans to grapple with it. It was rough at first because of the lifetime indoctrination and exposure, but given enough time, nothing really changed. I’d say I’ve become more generous and other-centered as I’ve aged. If I hadn’t constantly fostered an attitude of accepting truths no matter how uncomfortable, I’d probably be a Christian. And in my opinion, I’d be doing others a disservice by giving the false impression that we need a savior to do good, to have meaning and purpose, along with other things that might go wrong like advocating a ban on promising medical research (stem cells), making the gays feel guilt and shame, fostering an anti-science attitude (not everyone does it, but many do).

    I’m not sharing this to tell a life story on the internet, or to convert you to skepticism, but just to show a personal story illustrating why I think religious belief can be dangerous and why it’s not necessary for infusing a life with meaning, purpose and morality.

    1. I am attached to my faith because of some rather intense experiences of God. And every time I’ve gone questioning or dug under the surface, I’ve found something worth keeping. I feel very blessed that I wasn’t raised in a biblically conservative environment. (Raised Roman Catholic, spent my adulthood in Evangelical environments.) I think that one of the problems with hyper-conservative approaches to the bible is that it presumes that what there is to know is known – by them. Which is rubbish. And I don’t worry about interpreting scripture too loosely. I actually hold a very high view of scripture, but I do tend to follow the model of Jesus in how I read and understand it. The pharisees were of course the fundamentalists of their day and read the bible in basically the same way – with an eye to rules, restrictions, faithfully adherence, etc. Jesus read the text and pulled out love, generosity, a willingness to sacrifice and suffer for God and man, etc. Same scripture, completely different emphasis. I’ve also written before about how undervalued intellectuals and creativity are by the church and how contrary that is to scripture as a whole. In many places the clever, crafty person is praised. Think of the crooked steward or even Jesus’ tendency to find a 3rd way between the rules based approach of the religious rulers and just rejecting the whole thing. Scripture to me is a great treasure which we’ve been entrusted with and I believe that the story of the talents demonstrates what we are supposed to be doing with it. Too many people are like the servant who just wanted to preserve what they have been given, but God wants us to take what we’ve been given and allow it to grow into something more. It does entail risks, but I have spent enough time in prayer and study that by the time I put something down here on my blog, I’m pretty confident of it. And I trust that God will allow what is false to fall away.

    2. Oh and re extreme poverty. I have known people coming out of extreme poverty. We have a large Somali community in our area, for example, and I’ve known a couple of people who have come here after spending years in a refugee camp. It’s very hard, but even still they would tell you that it’s a life worth living nonetheless. Which is really all we’ve been promised from the hands of God. This is a God who created predator and prey and droughts and wildfire and all the rest. The problem we have, as I said, is with us. We have been given and created enormous abundance. The fact that there are so many people living in extreme poverty is on our heads, not God’s. Unfortunately too many people do not take the words of scripture seriously enough and therefor seem to think that it’s God’s job to set things right. God tends to “set things right” by sending in an invading army, not by magically making even more of what we have enough of. Quite consistently when God condemns his people, it’s for not looking after those in need. I think that the core problem we have and which animates the tendency to count our suffering against God is that we want God to be someone who he never, ever claimed to be. We’ve decided that if God were really good, he’d be the big sugar daddy in the sky. But that’s our fantasy version of him, not any reality he’s ever laid claim to. This world has been entrusted to us to have dominion over but we keep wanting to insist that it’s God’s job to set it right. If it’s God’s job, then we don’t have dominion. We’ve been given everything we need but have refused to use it to benefit all of mankind and then blame God for the suffering. Clearly that’s not working.

  7. Treegesalt,

    My goal isn’t to convert you, but merely to point out that skepticism should carry the day when it comes to belief in something as remote and esoteric as supernatural beings.

    I have to wonder, if God chose to reveal him/herself in multiple forms, why are the revelations contradictory, vague and so poorly attested to in terms of evidence? Must I take the word of a 6th/7th century illiterate thief/murderer that God gave him a revelation in a cave in a way that no one else can – quite conveniently – attest to? Why should a loose collection of arbitrarily chosen books that comprise the Christian canon represent God’s will? How do I know the authors weren’t deluded, lying, or attempting to achieve a political purpose? Can you honestly read the Old & New Testament and not see the cultural, man-made stamp it bears based on when and where it’s authors were born? If so, on what basis do you filter the man-made from the divinely authored portions of the bible? Should I trust that supernatural attestations represent truth when they originate from a time and place where mostly illiterate, uneducated folks were incredibly gullible, credulous and extremely quick to adopt supernatural explanations for ordinary events? These aren’t unreasonable doubts.

    You try to make it a problem caused by man, but if God really wanted to reveal himself, don’t you think his revelation would be clear and avoid confusion or contradiction? And couldn’t he manage to accomplish this feat? If he considered belief in him to be so important, don’t you think he would have made his existence and character more clearly, readily known?

    On your third paragraph about how best to view his omnipotence, we’re talking about a hypothetical being beyond time and space, whose thoughts, motives and modes of action would be thoroughly and infinitely beyond us. How can you possibly know any more about this being and whether he exists than I do – which is to say, nothing?

    “If you consider that whatever happens to us here is temporary — then the truly ugly things that do happen to many people don’t necessarily mean what they seem.”

    This view – in addition to not being true – has the extraordinarily unwelcome consequence of saying we also shouldn’t care what happens to our fellow man in this life, either. It also makes us playthings for some alleged supreme being. It’s all a lab experiment and it doesn’t matter what happens to you now because I’ve got something great in store for you! If you were capable of eternally rewarding me, would that justify you in arbitrarily inflicting temporary suffering on me? And after hearing about some of the truly horrendous evils that man sometimes inflicts on others, I can’t imagine giving the victim or their families this advice, nor can I imagine feeling that after learning of these crimes.

    You said:

    “A “Skeptic” who can believe that their sentience is the product of ionic waves traveling along the membranes of complex networks of organic glupp… shouldn’t consider anyone else’s beliefs too implausible.”

    That’s an extremely reductionist, simplified description of what goes on in the brain to produce consciousness, but yes, I believe that. We’re learning more about how the brain accomplishes this, but we still don’t quite know how it works. That doesn’t make the natural default position: God did it!

    Before the advent of science, 600 or even 1,000 years ago, your fore-bearers may have argued that the stars and their movements couldn’t possibly have natural regularity or explanations, but that God must orchestrate it all. They argued disease was God’s retribution on mankind – rather than the work of microorganisms no one could possibly imagine existed, that natural disasters were God’s work, that incantation rather than medicine or diet treated health conditions, and any number of absurd but understandable beliefs.

    Here you are, many years and much more science, knowledge and understanding later, claiming that since we haven’t figured it all out yet, the gaps in our current explanations can’t ever be explained by anything other than God. Notice any similarities to your predecessors?

    Sentience is indeed caused by transmission of electrical impulses between 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. We know because inactivity in certain areas of the brain leads to conscious inactivity in areas that correspond to what that brain area controls. Almost no serious Christian with science literacy argues this, and some might hold that a soul survives the body. But they wouldn’t argue that your simplified description is indeed how sentience and consciousness are produced. This post is very long, so I won’t even mention the wacky principles of quantum mechanics that we empirically know for certain are true but defy common sense and intuition.

    1. But I don’t “believe in” a “remote and esoteric supernatural being”. I know the Being who lives as you, me, as the sentience of anyone who is sentient.

      I’m not asking you to take the word of any person, ancient or modern, that they’ve got an error-free exposition of what God is up to with us. When you can tune into your own soul, and recognize it at work in everything around you, you’ll find truth in many things — probably not fully-understood by the people who intuited and wrote them — that don’t fit into your present world view.

      What you can explain mechanistically is not “sentience”, but the generation of spontaneous, complex, creative, responsive behavior. Neural nets do that sort of thing — but there’s no necessary implication that there’s “anybody home in there.”

      Thought-experiment: We can’t physically construct a model human brain; there are too many interconnections. There are however, plans to simulate the operations of an actual brain on a really large network of supercomputers, sometime in the near future. Imagine that (with whatever time-lag this entailed) we could teach it English, feed it questions, get back the kind of answers we’d expect from a human being… but the only thing physically happening, of course, would be electrons moving through semiconductors. No physical neurons would be twanged in the making of these responses, only virtual ones. Is there anybody in there?

  8. So, the fact that those who have intuited through mysterious means ideas about God, wrote them down, and are vastly different and contradictory from one another doesn’t give you pause? It doesn’t make you think that these allegedly spiritual, soul-searching insights are self-generated and unreliable as a guide to metaphysical truth? Billions of people around the globe claim to earnestly seek after God, and arrive at wildly different answers as to his nature and his will for us. A growing number of skeptics claim, often sincerely, to find no reason to believe in God – through soul-searching or that other inferior method of investigation, you know, science, evidence-evaluation, impartiality and disinterest.

    Ok, cool deal. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, but of course not to force them on others by, say, banning stem cell research! Many of us just can’t be brought to think and believe in that way…

    I was raised in a conservative baptist church, attending service 3x/week. I’ve had time to “soul-search,” but what convinced me that the whole thing is probably false and in any case is irrelevant is searching with my head. Even if God does exist…good deal. Alright. Now what? How does that change your life? If he thought believing in him to be so important, he would make his existence more clearly known. And life for me has plenty of meaning and purpose without belief in God. If he’s out there, he won’t care that I chose not to be a hypocrite and own my beliefs, and form them in best way I know how.

    Several studies have been conducted by psychologists showing that humans have a natural tendency to believe in the supernatural, and that at a very young age we falsely attribute occurrences to the work of a deity, often in our favor. I can link to them if you like. Don’t know that this will make a difference…

    Thought-experiment: The overwhelming majority of cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and A.I. researchers vehemently disagree with you. Both of us know almost nothing about cognitive science and current research into consciousness. The consensus view of experts matters to me, especially if I know almost nothing in that area. Most A.I. researchers wouldn’t understand your word choice, but they would say yes, they think it’s possible and inevitable that we model the brain and create self-aware machines, as crazy as it sounds.

    Does it sound crazy that two particles can undergo quantum entanglement, be separated by large geographic distance, and through no visible mechanism causally effect one another…i.e. spin one, the other spins in the same direction? Yep. Is it experimentally demonstrated? Yes. Can particles pop into and out of existence, can virtual particles exist in empty space, can an electron spin counterclockwise and clockwise at the same time, are atoms 99.9% (13 decimal places) empty space, and the only reason we bump up against solids is due to electron repulsion? Yep. Is 94 or so percent of the universe made of dark matter, possibly some substance without electrons and thus incapable of interacting with the rest of the universe?

    We’re just beginning to learn what we don’t know. And I honestly can’t identify with the self-assurance and certitude common among the faithful.

    1. Actually, Ryan, with all respect – you don’t know me. I happen to keep up with the research into the human brain and the nature of conciousness for one. And to say that nothing is settled would be grossly understating the case. However, I think that it is quite clear that we are who we are a physical beings and our thoughts, personalities and abilities are very closely tied to our biology. Which is seen as threatening to a large portion of Christians who have embraced dualism – a heretical idea which has dogged the faith since very early on. Proper Christianity holds that the physical and spiritual exist together – we are not who we are outside of our bodies. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but NT Wright has done a good amount of work exploring this idea and how it was understood by the early Christians. (Trying to remember the name of the book. Surprised by something or other. Too lazy to look it up.) But there are two problems with the purely materialist view of human consciousness and spiritual experiences. Aside from the fact that we know far less about the human brain than you might think (see glial cells. They make up most of our brain matter and until the last few years were thought to do very little. Wrong). But first say we take the various experiments using magnets to influence the brain. Some scientists have claimed to be able to recreate spiritual experiences in the lab by manipulating the brain this way. However, unless they conduct these experiments on someone like myself who is essentially a contemplative or a Buddhist monk or something and ask if the experiences are actually the same, they have no way of knowing that they are. But secondly, even if they are, all they have done is uncover the physical mechanisms (to the extent that they understand what it is they are actually doing to the brain) of a known experience. It tells us nothing about what it means or why our brains create these experiences. As a person of faith, of course, I think our brains do this because it’s a means to connect with a spiritual reality which is imprinted into a very make-up.

      Also, it would be a gross misunderstanding to think that the ideas I have are in any way particularly novel or untethered from the larger body of Christian thought. I’ve probably had only one or two completely new ideas in my life. Most of what I have thought has been thought before. And much of it is still the official teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Or was widely believed in the very early church before Augustine got his grubby paws on the faith and twisted it all to hell. Contrary to what is taught in putatively conservative Christian circles, Christian thought has always been a wide, wild and woolly thing. The sort of narrowing down (and choking the life from) Christian theology which is done by many modern denominations is actually what is in complete conflict with the historical faith. The sort of looser, more imaginative thinking about the faith I tend to do here was the norm for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and has been largely allowed to continue in the Eastern Orthodox faith.

      What is most interesting to me is that although I am much more widely read than probably 98% of Christians (a fairly low bar, to be frank), the body of writing and thinking which has been left to us by those who went before us in the faith is far too voluminous for me to have done much more than some sampling. And yet inevitably I end up discovering that my understanding of the faith that come from many hours of study and contemplation is not at all novel or unique. Others have come to the same conclusions many times before. Unfortunately, as I said, so much effort has gone into the narrowing down of the faith to make it suitably lifeless and constraining to suit the needs of our modern day pharisees. So to Christians unschooled in the wider body of Christian thought and tradition, it can look like I’m the one who is just conjecturing wildly and free associating until I get to something that makes me happy. However, a closer examination shows that they are in fact the ones who are out of line and untethered from Christian traditions and understanding. All I’m doing that hasn’t been done enough before is coming to these understandings in a modern (or post-modern, if you prefer) context. But even in that I’m hardly alone. Many other Christian thinkers are coming to similar conclusions right alongside me. They just aren’t the ones who are read in conservative circles, although even that is changing. The fact is that I often – completely unknowingly – come to conclusions which many others have come to as well which isn’t at all surprising to me. It’s part of the unity which Jesus prayed for us and also part of why I have the confidence to do what I do.

      I’ll stand by the things I say here, no matter how out of step they may seem with the louder portions of the Christian community. And I’ll put my life up as collateral and evidence for my right to do so. I’m hardly perfect, but I have a real, living, active faith which has shaped every corner of my life to stand on. If I don’t have a good Christian life and my ideas aren’t consistent with scripture as well as Christian tradition, then there’s no such thing.

    2. Ryan, if you were truly done with learning, if you were stuck forever saying the same tired stuff about ~”I don’t believe this and you can’t make me” there really wouldn’t be much point to this conversation. You’re still alive, and what you live by is eternal and creative; it will have its way with you. We don’t have to impose anything on anyone; we don’t have to agree even with each other all the time. There’s lots of time to let it all teach us.

  9. Rebecca,

    My last comment was mainly addressed to Treegestalt. I wasn’t assuming anything about the extent of your knowledge or interest in cognitive science and consciousness. I can safely say, though, that like me you know almost nothing about it. I took a few painful philosophy of mind classes awhile ago and still know next to nothing. Keeping up with the current research doesn’t help you or me much, either. I like staying current with discoveries in particle physics, and know something about the subject, but nothing close enough to feel confident in forming an opinion that diverges from the consensus view of physicists. I think this is a similar case.

    Yeah, you definitely sound like my kind of Christian, not that you need my approval. I only worry about the folks who’ve short-circuited their rational, critical-thinking faculties in forming religious beliefs, and what other effects that tend to has on what public and social policy positions they adopt. You and Treegestalt don’t seem to fit this mold, so I want to make sure you know that. Whatever else you can say about faith, can we admit there’s room for reasonable doubt?


    I think the whole point I was trying to make is that I’m NOT done with learning and take inspiration from Socrates in considering a truly educated person to be one who knows how little they know. I’ve only found one cheesy phrase to describe it: “You can’t fill a cup that’s already full.”

    And I’m not offering a tired, repetitious, petulant account of “why I don’t believe, and you can’t make me!” I think my reasons go well beyond this mischaracterization, don’t you?

    Do you really think it will have it’s way with me? What if it’s something akin to the male gender…I don’t think I’m ready to question my sexuality in this way…:)

    1. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to doubt what I say.

      Since it’s literally in-my-face, it’s not reasonable for me. “What if I really weren’t confronted by a charging blue rhino?” Well, okay, I could be making that part up — in fact I am — but the point is, errrr…. I didn’t need to finish the ‘computer science’ degree to learn quite a bit about how computers function, how people function on a neurophysiological level — & keep up with ideas since then — and none of it is relevant to the fact that I’m “in here”. Even if I’m mistaken, that “I” is here. And it can’t be magically generated by data processing of any sort, because: “Who’s reading that data?”

      I’m sure you’re an okay human, & that you haven’t read the arguments you’ve been presenting from as many different people as I have. Bad of me to put you down about that!

      How many sexual organs does God have, need, want? Oy! God has been known to take the form of cute females to entice young freethinkers into church! Some 6 billion plus of various sorts? But it’s our hearts & heads that really get the rumpling!

  10. What’s in your face? The fact that there’s an “I” in your head?

    We both agree about that. What we disagree about is how consciousness can and does arise from the interactions of billions of neurons through trillions of connections. If your mental states aren’t causally connected to your brain states, why does damage to certain areas of the brain reliably inhibit consciousness based on which area of the brain is damaged? Where does the “I” go in comatose patients, in alzheimer patients, brain-damaged patients, etc.? There is nothing magical about how consciousness arises from brain states, it is merely not fully understood.

    Your description of brain activity as data processing is deceptively reductionist, and I hate to put you down this way, but you apparently haven’t read enough to learn that most cognitive scientists and neuroscientists disagree with you. To be frank, I can’t imagine you know something that thousands of researchers are somehow missing. Some may be spiritual and think that a soul survives the body, but almost none think that mental states can’t be causally determined and explained by brain states. This question has been settled for awhile now. There really isn’t much else to say. It’s akin to a reproductive scientist arguing with a stork-theorist about where babies come from.

    1. What’s “in my face” is: a debate on whether my nose might be an optical illusion caused by crossing my eyes.

      I don’t need a degree in philosophy to see the distinction between outwardly observable phenomena (including brain states) and the experience of observing.

      We’ve always known that if you thump me on the head hard enough I will stop producing outward evidence of conscious experience. Slightly less hard, I’ll just experience fuzzy consciousness. We see with eyes, touch with hands, whoop-de-doo. Interfere with any organ and you’ll make a change in what a person experiences — but what does this have to do with experiencing as such?

      I don’t know about you, but one of the things I use my brain for is processing data. It doesn’t do it the same way my computer does; the mechanisms that control it are less centralized and more robust; but basically it’s getting stimuli from outside, organizing these into perceptions, and generating responses.

      Much as my muscles produce movements… while I experience moving them. Should I attribute my awareness of these motions to these muscles? Their motion generates patterns of nerve impulses which do produce each specific sensation of motion — but has nothing to do with the fact that I’m here to feel it.

      I am getting tired of being thumped on the virtual head here; and if you wish to continue this argument with anyone else, may you both have joy of it. I’m done.

      1. No need to be frustrated. From what little I remember in philosophy of mind, the subjective “what-it-is-like” experience of observing and feeling is philosophically difficult to match up with physical brain states. I get that, and I agree it’s still an unsolved mystery.

        Our difference lies in what we conclude from here. I think you’re a bit too quick, and much too confident that our inability to currently explain it indicates that the default position should be that the mind consists of a physical brain and an immaterial soul. The god/supernatural of the gaps approach has obvious flaws. Much of what has throughout history been thought unexplainable without reference to God/supernatural has later been fully or satisfactorily explained through science.

        Our difference also lies in the extent to which we’re willing to assent to consensus views in areas we know little about. You seem to more than I do about it, I haven’t studied or thought about philosophy of mind in years. But we can both be honest here and say that – though you know more than I in this area – compared to those in the know, we know almost nothing. And you haven’t disputed, and rightly so, that most cognitive scientists believe consciousness derives from physical brain states.

  11. After a second reading of this post, I want to say that it is a little scary to me to think of God as an being utterly alien, even though I realize that this is the only way to really define it. However, in a shameless unscientific speculation, I think that God would surely be able to truly understand us, to literally put him/her/it self in our place. Some would argue that this is precisely what Jesus did. You see, we humans we’ll never be able to literally put ourselves into another being’s place, I would never be able to feel exactly how is it like to be my child, my spouse, let alone our dog. This was brilliantly expressed by a philosopher called Thomas Nagel in an essay titled “What is it like to be a bat”. Here’s a link to it:

    And, much more poignantly by Sylvia Plath: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.”

    Now here’s the shamelessly unscientific though on my part: What if God is able to really feel what is it like to be a bat, dog, chimp, us, or even an insect, a plant, a mushroom or even a bacteria? What about a being from another galaxy? Wouldn’t that ability to truly comprehend all and every expression of life be part of his love and care about us?

    You know what? We should write a joint post about this… (:-)

    1. Oh, I’m quite familiar with the “what’s it like to be a bat” question. One of my favorite riddles in various forms. I would agree that God is able to experience all that we experience. I don’t think we are alien to God, but that God is alien to us, But I think it’s the sort of alien that exists between adults and babies or even men and women than between Sophia and an ant. And writing a joint post would be awesome, btw. 😉

  12. Although most of my doubts and challenges of faith are related to these issues, I believe much of the evil that haunts us collectively is the consequence of free will. But on the positive note, how valued is our free will to God if I’m right about free will.

    1. One of the things that I have been learning over the last few years is that in relationships, controlling another person is completely incompatible with love. I don’t entirely understand it, but I know that I know that it’s true. OTOH, a bit of manipulation seems to be something that both God and man engage in as a normal part of a loving relationship.

  13. It’s a lot like teaching a teenager how to drive. They are behind the wheel and have a lot of power even though we don’t usually think of it that way. We are risking our own safety to teach them how to drive. In doing so, we open a Pandora’s box of opportunities to partake in questionable activity by affording our teen the opportunity to engage in that level of autonomy.

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