Tom Gilson

Two Definitions of ‘Good,’ Atheist and Christian — And How That Explains the Trouble We’re In

John Loftus gave me a personal challenge to read his edited book The Case Against Miracles. He considers more or less the definitive proof that miracles either can’t happen or can’t be known to have happened. I’m enjoying the read —  it’s strengthening my faith in Christ and the Scriptures. (That happens with a lot of New Atheist books.) That’s how badly it fails at proving what John says it proves.

And it’s also showing me how far the Christian worldview is from the one this book’s atheist authors assume; so distant, we don’t even have common ground on what to call “good.”

It takes some analysis to see why this is the case. If you’d rather skip that, please feel free to scroll past it to my first and second conclusions below. You’ll find out there why this matters; and then I hope you’ll want to return and read the rest of it.

“A Good God Would Not Perform Miracles”

The worldview difference shows clearly in Matt McCormick’s Chapter 2, “God Would Not Perform Miracles.” If there were a perfectly good God, he says, that God would not perform miracles; therefore there is no God and also no miracles, or else there is a good God and also (again) therefore no miracles. What we don’t have as a logical possibility is a good God who does them. Only a less than perfect being would do such a thing.

McCormick devotes pages (for some reason) to showing that if something like miracles actually did happen, they would prove something a lot less than deity was involved. This is uncontroversial, of course. No one thinks even Jesus’ resurrection by itself proves his deity; there is much more to the case for his godhood than that. It gets more interesting when he gets to the meat of the chapter, asking, “Would God perform miracles?”

There are compelling reasons to think that an infinitely good being would not do miracles, even ones that do vast but finite good; if one were to occur, we should infer that the responsible party is not omnibenevolent.

The problem? “A miracle that we attribute to an infinitely good God is problematic,” he says, “because of what it omits.” Some people get healed, billions do not. Some get fed, others starve. Therefore,

The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.

McCormick’s problem here overlaps considerably with the problem of evil: A perfectly good and powerful God wouldn’t allow evil and suffering. It actually runs in close parallel with the deductive version of the problem of evil, which virtually everyone thinks has been solved. McCormick wants to prove deductively that miracles don’t happen, but he runs into the same problem faced by the deductive problem of evil. All it takes is to show a possible way in which he could be wrong, and his deductive argument fails. That’s just the nature of deductive reasoning: Either it works completely upon close inspection or else it fails; there’s no middle ground.

A Terribly Limited Understanding of “Good”

McCormick’s argument stands or falls on his definition of “good,” and I believe the verdict must be that it falls. His view of the good is inadequate and false because of its limited one-dimensionality. Let’s walk through a portion of it so you can see:

Christine Overall makes a step toward the same conclusion, “If Jesus was the Son of God, I want to know why he was hanging out at a party, making it go better [turning water into wine], when he could have been healing lepers, for example.

This is representative of McCormick’s entire case. God should solve the world’s problems, all of which fall in the categories of health, hunger, and violence. He should step in and fix them all. Now; or rather (and I quote him here), “Sooner. Why not yesterday?” Or in fuller context, paraphrased: Why would God even want to solve the problem of Auschwitz? Why let it become a problem in the first place?

Clearly this is what defines the good for McCormick: health, satiety, peace and quiet. At what price, though?

Miracles, as confined, local events solving local problems… aren’t the sort of expansive, world spanning events befitting an omniscient being. An omniscient God doesn’t forget to get enough wine for the party in the first place.

There’s a party. The wine is going to run short. God makes sure that doesn’t happen. And he does it globally, not just locally. No party ever runs short on wine. Ever. Great, right? Wrong.

There’s a huge problem with that, and it isn’t drunkenness; McCormick would undoubtedly have God eliminate that as a problem, too. The real problem is that if God manages every single problem, then you and I manage none. If God is responsible for every outcome, you and I are responsible for none. We can’t fail; therefore we can’t succeed. We can’t do evil; therefore we can’t choose good.

And I ask: How can there be any human good if there is no humanness?

A Vision of Divine “Goodness” That Eliminates Human Virtue

It would seem that McCormick thinks that’s just fine. Goodness doesn’t reside in human choices, human responsibility, or human moral actions. Goodness resides strictly in humans eating what we want, never getting sick, never having even the ability to think of hurting one another. A good God would create no other kind of world, in McCormick’s view.

Thus he would strip all the humanness from human virtue:

If God has the goal of instilling belief, inspiring faith, fortifying resolve, discouraging misbehavior, or enforcing commandments, it takes very little imagination to conceive of more direct, effective, and sustained means of achieving those ends. As Ted Drange has argued, if these were God’s goals, then it would have been a simple matter to directly implant belief into all people’s minds, or perform more spectacular miracles that would convince more people.

One has to wonder: Does McCormick really think God could program us to love? That’s the core word in the two greatest commandments, after all — ones he thinks God could “enforce” upon us that way. I suppose that could leave us acting as if we loved, perhaps even feeling fond emotions, but true love must be always be a choice, never a programmed response. It’s the evil wizard in the dark fantasy stories who forces the woman to love him. Good wizards don’t do that, and neither would a good God.

There’s plenty of evidence of people acting as though convenience counts a lot more for them than virtue. … Which explains a lot of the culture wars. Both sides seek the good, they just understand “good” differently. Very differently.

It’s just as ridiculous to suggest that God could “fortify resolve” in us that way. What does “resolve” even mean, when God has programmed all moral choice out of us? Who could resolve to do good, when one cannot choose to do anything but the good? What fortification is required when God has made everything light and easy?

As for instilling belief or inspiring faith, God doesn’t want either of those  without love. “You believe God is one. Good for you! The demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). James’s “Good for you!” there is ironic; he’s saying mere belief that God is, or that God is one, means nothing. Faith isn’t real unless it’s accompanied by virtue, and virtue that’s been programmed into me (as McCormick would have it) is someone else’s virtue, not mine.

First Conclusion: Virtue Is Secondary to Comfort

So the world McCormick imagines God should be managing for us is one where human comfort is continually maximized in every way by God’s constant, direct, global intervention. That means it’s a world in which human virtue and responsibility are completely and totally eliminated. That’s what McCormick considers maximally good.

Goodness is thus defined by human ease and comfort, provided by someone else’s effort, not our own. Where then does virtue fit in? I imagine McCormick and Loftus would say it’s man’s best effort to do what God should have done instead, if there were a God. We can’t get our ease and comfort the easy way, so we have to work at it the hard way.

It’s hard to see,  though, where interior virtues such as love, moral integrity, commitment to truth, and so on fit in that vision of reality. They have no value in themselves; they only matter to the extent they make someone’s life more comfortable. And human freedom? If it exists (many atheists doubt it) then it’s just too bad that we’re stuck with it, rather than having God manage all our outcomes.

And here we begin to see why this really matters. Don’t miss the import of what we’ve been examining here. McCormick’s vision of a maximally good world entails that he thinks love, moral integrity, and commitment to truth have no value in themselves, but only instrumental value. And human freedom of choice is worth even less.

I am by no means suggesting that atheists like Loftus and McCormick practice no virtue. We’re all human beings here, after all, created in God’s image, with an awareness of right and wrong (Romans 2:14-16), and for all I know they both spend most of their time doing good. What I am suggesting, rather, is that McCormick’s picture of goodness places virtue very much subservient to comfort.

This stands in sharp contrast to scriptural teaching, where difficulty and discomfort are often God’s means of building virtue (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, Hebrews 12:1-11) with eternal benefits for those who follow Christ in the process.

Second Conclusion: The First Conclusion Explains a Lot in Our World

Both Loftus and McCormick think their vision of the good is really good, and both of them also think this argument is compelling. They think people should be persuaded by it. Apparently something in their experience leads them to believe a lot of people will buy into their premise that maximal good is defined by minimal discomfort, along with its implication that human virtue is subservient to human ease and convenience.

Again, don’t miss the import: Apparently a lot of people believe the good is a matter of human comfort, not human virtue.

So in the end it’s that premise regarding goodness and virtue that I find more interesting than McCormick’s conclusions regarding miracles. His conclusion stands or falls along with that premise anyway. He assumes a lot of people agree with that premise. I think he’s probably right: There’s plenty of evidence of people acting as though convenience counts a lot more for them than virtue.

Which explains a lot of the culture wars. Both sides seek the good, they just understand “good” differently. Very differently.

And how shall we bridge that divide? What do we have in common? I would suggest it’s our humanness. But that’s a topic for another day; this blog post is long enough for now.

30 thoughts on “Two Definitions of ‘Good,’ Atheist and Christian — And How That Explains the Trouble We’re In

  1. Tom, thanks for the review! Two comments: 1) McCormick is talking in probalistic terms. It’s probable that a maximally great god would act like a maximally great god. That’s his argument. 2) On the issue of goodness we all get our notions of goodness from the same sources, our cultures, our tribes, our parents, and our brains. One’s religion helps inform one’s morals too, as does the era we are born into. For instance, the continuum between fundamentalist Christian to liberal Christian is best understood by their morals read back into the Bible. Morality creates theology just as surely as theology influences morality, and it’s extremely difficult to say which determines the other, despite assertions to the contrary. Christians have all done this, and still do, and they all think their particular sectarian god is the one and only good god. If you want to read a book that might forever change what you think of Biblical morality read J. Philip Wogman’s magisterial book, “Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction.” Cheers.

  2. Thanks, John. We have different conceptions of goodness, and that’s going to make it hard for us to agree on a lot of issues downstream of those conceptions. I think McCormick’s view of goodness in this chapter is inhuman and horrific, which is a point I’ll develop further in the future. For now, though it’s my second-to-last paragraph, the differences between us, that I was mostly hoping people would notice and attend to.

  3. Great insight on how we define “good,” and I think the way McCormick defines “good” is probably the way most Americans think of good. We tend to see good in terms of the human happiness, ease, and comfort it brings about (often specifically immediate human happiness, ease, and comfort). Christians like myself and skeptics alike would do well to consider how they define “good,” because I think it leads to some flawed ethical beliefs.

  4. Actually, John, (1) is incoherent (besides the fact that McCormick really didn’t hedge his statements much with probability language). It is not at all “probable” that a maximally great God would act like a maximally great God. A maximally great God will certainly, undoubtedly, necessarily act according to what he is. If he’s arguing anything less than that, it’s a bad argument. The only associated probability McCormick can call upon is that he probably understands what a maximally great God would do — except he’s much more than probably wrong in that probability.

  5. Tom, probabalistic language should always be understood unless someone talks in terms of logical proof, or logically inconsistent, or mention the word certain as opposed to almost certain, and even then there can be doubt, since any philosopher teaching an introduction to philosophy class will ask his/her students to prove they existed longer than 5 minutes, or brains in a vat, and so on.

  6. Thanks for the lesson in language, John, but I disagree. With language like the following peppering the chapter, I would suggest that probabilistic language must be stated specifically in order for us to take any of it as probabilistic in its intention:

    I will argue that God would not perform miracles, so if one occurred, we could be sure that God did not do it.

    And

    These considerations will plague all of the alleged purposes we devise for the results of a miracle. And if there does not appear to be any way that this could be God’s act, then it is reasonable to conclude that God did not do it.

    We now have powerful reasons to accept this argument:
    God wouldn’t act in any ways that are below full capacity.

    Performing a miracle would be acting below full capacity for God.
    Therefore, God wouldn’t perform miracles.

    And I said he didn’t hedge his statements with probabilistic language. That remains true. You say that he should be understood as speaking probabilistically because he didn’t say he wasn’t. That’s rather convenient, if you ask me. And finally, my answer to your (1) remains: probabilistic language is wrong in that context, as I explained there.

  7. Gilson: “A maximally great God will certainly, undoubtedly, necessarily act according to what he is.”

    You are the one who argues that an omni-god might have reasons for not using his power to help people. You have to make that argument. McCormick disputes that. He argues it is almost certain that a maximally great god will act like a maximally great god. This isn’t a lesser argument. It’s an argument you must reject but prefer to ignore.

  8. Ignore?????? Not!!!!!!

    I am arguing that the way you suggest this so-called “omni-god” would help people would be to eliminate their humanness. I reject that!

    McCormick’s “maximally great” actions are great in his own imagination, which is unfortunately not doing its job of imagining how inhuman it would be for us if God did that.

  9. John, I really think more highly of you — or I’d like to, anyway — than to see you missing the obvious in what I wrote in the OP here. I didn’t ignore his argument; I answered it; I have just answered it again.

    You can do better than that, right?

  10. It happens so frequently, John, I’m just asking you not to contribute to the pattern. It’s one thing if you disagree with what I write. It’s another thing if you blow right on by it as if I hadn’t written it. The word “ignore” actually boomerangs on you for that this time.

    I’m fine with disagreements, but past experience tells me I do not like the kind of conversation where I have to repeat what I’ve written specifically because someone tells me I didn’t already write it. That’s tedious, tiresome, and unproductive.

    And I think you at least can do better than what I’ve experienced from other atheists here in the past.

  11. You write off McCormick’s argument by claiming something he’s not claiming, theteby ignoing the force of it. We atheists almost always think in terms of the probabilities unless we state otherwise. Only theists talk in terms of certainties. Seriously!

  12. “Performing a miracle would be acting below full capacity for God.
    Therefore, God wouldn’t perform miracles.”

    Dr. McCormick does not say, “Therefore ‘it’s certain’ God wouldn’t perform miracles.”

    Notice the difference that makes all the difference?

    I’ve asked him to look in on this, so we’ll see.

  13. He also didn’t say, “Therefore it’s unlikely or implausible that God would do miracles,” or, “Therefore God probably wouldn’t do miracles.” He didn’t condition it with any probability-related modifiers; he said, “God wouldn’t perform miracles.”

    Notice the difference? Did you also notice he stated it in form of a syllogism, a form which typically suggests deduction, not induction, unless otherwise indicated?

    When he looks in on this, if I missed any probability-related language in his chapter he can inform me, and I’ll correct myself. Or he could perhaps clarify that he meant it as a probability argument even though he didn’t state it as such. Or he could say he really did mean it as a deductive argument, as I have read it to be. We’ll see. But what he cannot do is convince a reasonable reader that your comment #14 here leads to a valid conclusion that he was actually writing it as a probability argument, just because he didn’t use “certainly.”

  14. Let’s re-focus this discussion, though. Forget whether it’s probability or deductive. Re-read my article here, and you’ll find that my arguments against McCormick do not depend on his argument being a deductive argument. I’m saying, in other words, that his argument also fails as a probability argument, just not quite as spectacularly. The whole probability-deductive thing arises out of something I said only parenthetically, and not until I put it in a comment (#4).

    I think I’ve let you derail me with a mostly-irrelevant side issue, in other words. Shame on me for letting you get away with it. I should know better. McCormick’s argument fails for the reasons I stated in the OP. This other bit is a sideshow.

  15. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my piece. What I’ve read here that’s been attributed to me is deeply unfamiliar, and I think, uncharitable. Most of what’s been attributed to me here is flatly mistaken, and perhaps deliberately so. One thing you learn doing analytic philosophy is that before you can critique someone’s position, you need to give some substantial effort to understanding it and giving a charitable reconstruction of what they’re arguing. It’s never hard to misconstrue someone’s position, no matter how carefully and clearly they express it, and then object that your misconstrual is patently unreasonable. These apologetic discussions often feel pointless to me because the temptation on both sides to descend into these straw man analyses is so great. It also strikes me in these conversations that many people on both sides, Christian and atheist apologists, while giving the semblance of a reasonable discussion about the evidence and what it supports, have no intention of actually considering that the arguments on the other side might be reasonable and that there might be grounds for changing one’s mind. The apologist, of both types, is intent on defending the conclusion that they’ve already committed to, and there are no considerations, even hypothetically, that might lead them to change their minds. That is, these discussions are often exercises in motivated reasoning. There’s a favored conclusion for both, and they devise increasingly sophisticated and complex rationalizations for that prior conclusion. They reason backward: they start with the conclusion, like “God exists,” and then construct a rational that will always fortify that conclusion. I’m pretty interested in genuine efforts to gather evidence and draw the conclusion that seems best supported by it. But more motivated reasoning debates don’t accomplish much. I’m pretty familiar with the literature on miracles, and the argument I offer in this chapter raises some interesting issues that I don’t think have been raised before, and they deserve some serious consideration. But I do understand why someone who is a preacher and an apologist would want to straw man the argument and then enumerate all of the alleged ways it goes wrong without really reflecting on what might be informative or interesting in the argument, or reflecting on how the ideas might bring us to a better understanding of the issues. But again, I do appreciate people’s taking some time to read and think about the chapter, however uncharitably.

  16. I’d be glad to have you explain what I got wrong. What I heard in 16 sentences from you here was:

    1. “uncharitable”
    2. “misconstrue”
    3. “flatly mistaken…”
    4. “… and perhaps deliberately so”
    5. “patently unreasonable”
    6. “straw man analyses”
    7. “no intention of actually considering the arguments”
    8. “no considerations, even hypothetically, that they might change their minds”
    9. “exercises in motivated reasoning”
    10. “sophisticated and complex rationalizations”
    11. “they reason backward”
    12. “construct a rational[e]”
    13. “preacher” (spoken pejoratively)
    14. “apologist” (also spoken pejoratively)
    15. “without really reflecting”

     
    What I read here, Dr. McCormick, is deeply unfamiliar, and I think, uncharitable. It’s not exactly engaging with what I said, is it?

    I believe I did engage with your vision of what the “good” is, which is absolutely central to your argument. I gave my reasons for disagreeing with it. I don’t know how I straw-manned it, if I did. This list of criticisms of my person does not exactly explain what I missed there. I cordially invite you to explain further.

  17. Here’s a way to understand the opposite of straw manning. Reconstruct a version of the argument on behalf of the author that the author could read and say, “Yes, that’s a fair and accurate representation of what I’m trying to communicate.” I started reading your OP and I got through about half of it and I hadn’t read anything said that was vaguely recognizable as what I was trying to communicate or what I had thought I stated clearly in the piece. That may be because I’m a poor writer, but it could also be because there wasn’t sufficient interest or honesty on your part to actually try to understand the piece before launching into criticisms. For example, the conclusion that there is no God has been attributed to me, the conclusion that there are no miracles has been attributed to me, and a traditional argument from the problem of evil for atheism has been attributed to me. I don’t argue for any of those conclusions, and I’m quite clear about it; the title is God Wouldn’t Perform Miracles. But I get that, it’s common, especially about religious matters. I could try to pursue it and try to express the arguments again, and try to get you to see what I was arguing for. But I don’t really detect much interest in that. Your knives are out and this is an exercise in defending Jesus and Christian doctrine. So what’s to be gained in my trying to get you to understand it? Is it possible that, from your perspective, there’s an argument or reasons here that might lead you to revise your view or change your mind, even hypothetically? Could there be any evidence or argument, even hypothetically, that would result in your concluding that God wouldn’t do miracles, or that God doesn’t exist, etc? I don’t mean: has someone given a compelling argument against God that you current accept. I mean: is it possible, theoretically, that someone could present evidence or reasons or ideas that might lead you to change your mind? If the answer is no, then you’re not really on the rationality playing field–this is just an exercise in motivated reasoning. But if the answer is yes, I’d be really interested to hear about what those considerations might be. The presumption here is that all things considered, the most reasonable, rational conclusion is that God exists, God does miracles, Christianity is true, etc. Ok, if that’s the assumption behind these discussions, then the corollary is that there could be a situation, a set of circumstances, a body of evidence, a set of arguments that would lead a reasonable, rational person to draw the other conclusion. So what would those circumstances be like? My argument is not that there’s no God or no miracles, not is it the problem of evil argument. My argument isn’t focused on the question of goodness either. It’s basically that miracles are small, but God is big. God would act in ways that are fitting to his nature. Miracles are underachieving acts, beneath the power, knowledge, and goodness of God.

  18. Granted, your argument is not there is no God. Your argument is that there is no miracle-working God, though, isn’t it?

    Could there be any evidence that could convince me God doesn’t exist or doesn’t do miracles? Sure, though it would have to do quite a bit of work. But why do you even ask? This article wasn’t about the existence of God, any more than your chapter was; in fact less so, since your article certainly argued against the miracle-working God of Christianity. I wasn’t defending Jesus, as you claim I was (you won’t find me mentioning him at all in such a context here). I wasn’t particularly defending Christian doctrine, either. You read that into it, Dr. McCormick.

    What I was doing throughout this piece, after a brief context-providing introduction, was assessing your view of the good, and comparing it to the Christian view. Just that. Whether there’s anything that would change my mind about God is orthogonal to that. This was about something else.

    You said my “knives are out and this is an exercise in defending Jesus and Christian doctrine.” It wasn’t that at all. Would you do me the favor of reading my article for what it says, please, and not straw-manning it into something else?

  19. So I would still appreciate your giving me some explanation of what I got wrong on what I wrote about. But not on what I supposedly did wrong on topics I didn’t even mention. Thanks.

  20. I don’t believe that I have ever read a less charitable screed calling for charity. Well done, Matt: you’ve reached hypocrisy level nine!

  21. It’s basically that miracles are small, but God is big. God would act in ways that are fitting to his nature. Miracles are underachieving acts, beneath the power, knowledge, and goodness of God.

    This is what happens when people who do not know God and have no interest in knowing God presume to represent him, pontificating about how “God would act.” And when atheists do it (as they seem compelled to do), it is always good for a chuckle.
    The goodness of God (NB: the very thing addressed in the O/P) is much much bigger than atheists seem to be capable of imagining. The goodness of God is demonstrated to be greater — not less! — by God’s willingness to “play in the sandbox with his children.” Indeed, this represents an immense love (another thing atheists seem hell-bent on denying/avoiding/overlooking) on the part of God: that he is willing to condescend to participate in our lives, recognizing that clear unmitigated revelations of His power are too much for us (Ex 33:20)

  22. Good comments, thanks! I agree about atheists speaking for God, making pronouncements about a being they don’t think exists and about whom they admit they know nothing. But there I’m speaking mostly about other atheists, not McCormick, since he didn’t do quite that. Close, though; very close. He was pontificating about the good more than about God, but he put God in his crosshairs anyway. Not that God feels very defensive when opponents aim at him that way.

  23. Do John and Matt not realize that in their total of seven somewhat lengthy comments that they didn’t engage your main argument even once. Do John and Matt think that the people that read these comments can’t see that. And the argument they don’t engage can be summarized in a single sentence. The maximal good envisioned by Matt isn’t maximally good. That the OP made that its explicit topic. Do John and Matt think that the people that read the OP can’t see that. Do they think those who read their comments can’t see them avoiding engaging in the argument that was presented.

  24. Dear Tom,
    It appears that Matt McCormick assumes the earth is the final destination, not a proving ground. A flawed assumption that makes everything else he says irrelevant. Things like God must be fair to all, to heal all, get all drunk, etc.

    Also, if God had a plan that He didn’t want others (Satan) to know about, then He wouldn’t expose it to them. Part of the plan was to have men (satan) kill the innocent man (Jesus). You can’t tell them this plan or they won’t do it. If you exposed yourself to all that indeed you are God in the flesh, then who is going to execute you?

    The night they arrested Jesus, Jesus said “I am He” and they all fell back. Why? They knew Jesus was different and they didn’t want to end up like those two groups of 50 men consumed by fire. They feared God. God didn’t want everyone to have this same fear, so He limited His exposure.

    God is so infinite that He could convince everyone that He is God. But then how would that help with earth being a proving ground for eternal life? It defeats God’s plan. So, He lets doubt and faith coexist. Those with faith go to eternal life, those with doubt go to eternal destruction.

  25. BillT writes:

    they didn’t engage your main argument even once

    And here it is, one week later. They found the time and the energy to write all kinds of things without engaging the main argument initially. Then, after being called out for not engaging the main argument, they suddenly don’t have the time or the energy to engage the main argument. Quite remarkable. Not a good look for an “analytic philosopher” or someone interested in “rational inquiry”!

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