Which God Are We Talking About? (The "Wrong God" Fallacy) 


There's something I'm seeing a lot of in objections people make against God--but it doesn't work. It's in this form, as addressed to theists:

1. You (theists) say that God exists and has such-and-such characteristics.
2. But your God doesn't match my understanding of those characteristics.
3. Therefore your God doesn't exist. 

That's a general form of discussion that probably needs an example before it will make sense. We have one in recent discussions about the problem of evil. At 275 comments so far, I wouldn't ask you to try to catch up with that discussion, so I'll give you a condensed version, borrowed somewhat loosely from that thread:

1. You say that God exists, is all-powerful and perfectly good.
2. Goodness, as I understand it, could never allow things like natural disasters, wars, or the biblical Flood.
3. Therefore your God (all-powerful and perfectly good) does not exist.

I don't want to re-start discussions on the problem of evil here; I'm just trying to flesh out the general form of the objection mentioned above, using this argument as an example. There's a serious problem with that form of objection. Consider that the objector's understanding of goodness comes either from (a) God's revelation, or (b) from some other source. That other source could be cultural norms, it could be personal feelings, it could be Kant, Mill, Rawls, or some other philosopher, but it's not from Biblical revelation.

To such an objector I say, if your understanding of goodness is drawn from (a) the Bible, then you may have a real objection that's worthy of discussion and consideration. Too often, though, objectors' understanding of goodness comes from (b) some other source; and not only that, but by its position in the argument it is taken as authoritative against the possibility of God. The problem that presents may be unique to discussions about God (or at least to discussions about final and ultimate reality). You are proposing that we consider the possibility of God, in a universe where goodness is defined according to (b) your non-revealed source or definition; a universe where there actually is some definition and source of goodness other than God. But that is not the God that we theists are talking about. We refer to a God who is the source and definition of goodness, and to no other God. If there is a hypothesis out there of a God who exists, who is all-powerful and perfectly good, who lives in a universe where he is not the definition of goodness (but something else is instead), then I'll line right up with you and argue against that God too. I think it's nonsense too! The assumptions of this kind of argument require that you be talking about a different kind of God than I am, and if you succeed in refuting that different God, I'm fine with that.

The famous problem of evil cannot be solved--either for or against God--unless it's presented in terms that are relevant to the actual God who is posited. It is relevant and interesting only if the challenge is, "God doesn't meet up to the standards of goodness defined for him in his own [some might say 'purported'] Scriptures."

The same holds for any other argument against God. One objection against Intelligent Design, for example, is that God should have created things a lot more perfect than he did, if he really is an intelligent designer.* But this is assuming a lot about God: for one, that he would want to have a universe that ran in total orderly design perfection, and for another, that he would want a universe where no one would be free to muck that up. That second assumption, in particular, runs afoul of the actual biblical theology of God. So the "unintelligent designer" objection, as applied to the biblical God, is not so much false as it is irrelevant, since it's talking about a different God.

So when we're talking about whether God exists or what he could or could not be like, let's be careful to make sure we're talking about the same God. As I said, if you refute some other God, I'll stand right there with you while you do it.

UPDATE February 18: Since this fallacy happens often, I'm giving it a name, so we can refer back to it as necessary: the Wrong God fallacy. As Aaron said in the comments, it's a version of the Straw Man fallacy, but it's a specific form of it.

*People who raise this objection are often confounding ID as science with its potential philosophical/theological implications. I'll give that a pass for now, especially since I hold that the Designer can be identified as God. That identification is not in the science. It comes from other sources. 

Posted: Fri - February 16, 2007 at 12:17 PM           |


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