Most of my readers will know of Stephen Law, the respected atheist philosopher who has made some perspicuous contributions to philosophy of religion, perhaps most notably in his evil God argument. (In the past I reviewed Law’s book Believing Bullshit and I’ve offered several critiques of his evil God argument, including here and here.)
Today Law offered the following retweet accompanied by his own comment where he opined: “I can’t vouch for the image but the sentiment is widespread.”
— Staunch Atheist (@StaunchA) December 10, 2016
While Law cannot vouch for the image, presumably he can and does vouch for the sentiment. (If he didn’t, he surely should have said as much.)
So what should we think of this tweet … and Law’s sympathetic retweet of it?
A bit like?
My first problem is with the wording. What does this meme (if that is what we should call it) mean by saying this one thing (thanking God) is a bit like this other thing (thanking a serial killer)?
Stephen Law is a philosopher. Teaching philosophy is a bit like making a porn film.
How so? Well, in both cases the product (philosophy, porn) appears to many observers to be indulgent, self-gratifying, and unhelpful for conducting the business of daily life.
The lesson: once you want to start associating folks with a highly inflammatory act — thanking a serial killer; making a porn film — you better be clear on exactly what you mean by saying the one thing is a bit like the other. Otherwise, you’re simply poisoning the well of public discourse.
As for the meme, what might the alleged point of comparison be? I take it we can agree that thanking a serial killer is morally problematic generally and insensitive to victims specifically. So perhaps the meme is claiming that thanking God is likewise morally problematic generally and insensitive to victims specifically.
Is that true?
Bait and Switch
Here’s the first, enormous, glaring problem. This meme engages in a truly nasty bait and switch. Take a look again at the wording. According to the meme, thanking God for sparing you in a natural disaster is equivalent to thanking a serial killer for stabbing the family next door.
But of course, these are not equivalent. Rather, the equivalence would be this:
(1) thanking God for sparing you in a natural disaster is equivalent to thanking the serial killer for sparing you.
(2) thanking the serial killer for stabbing the family next door is equivalent to thanking God for killing other people in a natural disaster.
Needless to say, the type of actions described in (1) are quite different from the type of actions described in (2). The former focuses on the self that was sparred, while the latter focuses on the victims who were killed.
Clearly both actions described in (2) are deplorable. But nobody is defending theists who thank God for killing people in natural disasters.
What about (1)? Are these actions both morally problematic? That isn’t obvious. If I were sparred by a serial killer I could envision myself thanking him (or her) even while I regretted deeply the deaths of others. And even if I might also struggle with survivor’s guilt for years to come. And if I were sparred in a natural disaster I can envision myself thanking God even if I deeply regretted the deaths of others. And even if I might also struggle here with survivor’s guilt for years to come.
“Fair enough,” you reply, “but those who died at the hand of the serial killer were murdered. So did God murder people as well?” Yes, that is the next question, isn’t it? So let’s turn to it now.
Is God like a serial killer?
Is God’s action in nature relevantly analogous to a serial killer’s actions in nature? To answer that question we need to deal with two points: intention and action.
But before going further, we first need to have a definition of God in place so we know what kind of being we’re discussing. Since Law is a philosopher, he is well familiar with the rigorous definition of God in perfect being theology, a concept which is captured in Anselm’s famous description of that being than which none greater can be conceived. In other words, God is that being who exemplifies a maximal set of compossible great-making attributes.
PBT represents the mainstream of academic discourse on the doctrine of God. However, this is not just an ivory tower notion. I would add that having taught in churches, a Christian college and a Christian seminary for fifteen years, the technical Perfect Being Theology definition effectively captures the tacit understanding of the average lay-Christian as well. To be sure, the average Christian cannot articulate the doctrine on their own. But once it is explained to them, they almost invariably agree. In fact, in fourteen years I have never had a student in systematic theology who disputed the PBT definition once it had been explained to them.
So how does God, so described, compare to a serial killer? God, as we’ve said, is understood to be a perfect being, a status that includes maximal wisdom, goodness, and knowledge. By contrast, a serial killer is likely a clinical psychopath, in other words a person who suffers from a severe personality disorder which manifests itself in extremely callous, anti-social behavior.
Intention and Action
With that in mind, let’s turn to the first point: intention. As Stephen Law surely knows, theists (and Christians in particular) most emphatically do not believe that God engages in acts of evil. Consequently, if God engages in an act that appears to be evil, God must have morally sufficient reasons for it. Needless to say, the serial killer does not.
Please note, whether or not you agree with various theodicies and defenses is not the issue. The point, rather, is that the theist’s perspective on God’s intentions is completely different from the serial killer’s intentions. Thus, suggesting any moral equivalence in their respective intentions is wholly spurious.
Second, what about action? At this point, one would need to establish that God acts through natural processes in a way that is relevantly analogous to a serial killer directly using an implement (e.g. a knife) to kill his hapless victims. For anybody who has spent five minutes reading the extensive literature on divine action, this is a highly contentious assumption, to say the least.
In my book Faith Lacking Understanding I devote a chapter to distinguishing two possible models of divine action which I call the Transcendent Agent Model and the Immanent Agent Model. These two models represent the mainstream division of opinion on divine action among systematic and philosophical theologians today. And on neither model is it obvious that God’s action in natural events are relevantly analogous to a serial killer directly using an implement to kill his hapless victims. To say the least, much more work is required here than this meme provides.
Thus, there is as yet no reason to believe that God’s intentions and actions area bit like those of a serial killer in any morally relevant sense.
In sum, this is a mean-spirited and misleading meme which, as I suggested above, does nothing more than poison the well of public discourse. And God knows we already have enough of that.