Here is a tweet from the folks at “Atheist Republic”. Call it a meme if you want. (Might as well since the word “meme” seems to apply to most anything that gets retweeted.) So here’s the meme:
— Atheist Republic (@AtheistRepublic) August 16, 2017
I’m not sure what definition of “bullshit” the folks at Atheist Republic are intending (and AR ignored my request for clarification). So let’s consider the possibilities.
Bullshit as Posture
Harry Frankfurt famously defined bullshit as the use of language for the end of persuasion irrespective of whether what one says is true. Consider, for example, the used car salesman who says “This car was never driven in winter.” Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. Frankly, the salesman doesn’t care: he just said it to get the person to buy the car. That’s bullshit by Frankfurt’s definition.
Could Atheist Republic be referring to this? Could he be claiming that people who say “God is good” don’t care about the truth of what they’re saying? Perhaps. But if so, then his tweet is clearly false. People who say God is good surely do care about the truth of what they say. To be sure, their language may also function as a form of persuasion. But they are not feigning a concern for the truth of what they say.
Bullshit as Unclarifiable Clarity
The second type of bullshit was defined by G.A. Cohen as “unclarifiable unclarity”. In this case, a statement might initially appear meaningful, but upon closer examination it is not meaningful. Analytic philosopher Paul Edwards once wrote a scathing review of the philosophy of Heidegger titled Heidegger’s Confusions. The core of Edwards’ charge is that Heidegger’s lofty-sounding verbiage is, in fact, nothing more than unclarifiably unclear bullshit.
(Whatever you think of Heidegger, it is simply a fact that academics, particularly those in the more speculative and abstract branches of the humanities, do occasionally stumble into this kind of bullshit. Notice that I said stumble: you see, those who purvey this kind of bullshit may be earnest. They may really believe what they have to say is true and important. But when you try to get them to articulate what it is that they believe, one finds their assertions evaporating like dew in the morning sun.)
So is it possible that Atheist Republic is charging those who say “God is good” with committing the sin of unclarifiable unclarity?
This interpretation has two things in its favor: first, unlike Frankfurt’s bullshit, this type doesn’t impugn the good intentions of the speaker. As I already said, when people say “God is good” they typically mean what they say, and unclarifiable unclarity is consistent with that earnest stance.
Second, it is at least prima facie plausible in light of the structure of the tweet: one proceeds from a woman almost raped, to a woman raped, to a woman raped and murdered. In each case the response is the same: “God is good.” But if God is good irrespective of what happens to that woman, then what can it possibly mean to say that God is good? Isn’t this assertion itself unclarifiably unclear?
While this interpretation is more plausible, if this is what the folks at Atheist Republic intended then they are simply mistaken: the claim that God is good is perfectly clear. It means (among other things) that God always acts in a way consistent with bringing about the final shalom of creation. You may reject that claim (see below), but that doesn’t change the fact that it is clear.
Bullshit as Strong Rejection
There is one more possibility, and it seems to me the most plausible. In this case “bullshit” functions not as an analysis of the assertions of another; rather, the use of the word functions as a statement of personal incredulity.
Consider, while Dave and Steve are drinking beers on the tailgate of Steve’s truck, Dave insists that his hopped up 77′ Trans Am could outrun a Ferrari Enzo on the Nürburgring. Steve retorts: “Bullshit!” The most plausible interpretation of Steve’s statement is that he is simply intending to express his strong rejection of Dave’s claim.
By the same token, it seems to me most plausible to interpret Atheist Republic as expressing a strong rejection of the theist’s claim that God is good.
In other words, the meme reduces to an expression of an atheist’s indignant personal incredulity toward an aspect of theistic belief.
A Deeper Look
Why are the folks at Atheist Republic skeptical of the claim that God is good? Alas, the meme does not tell us. It could be that the writer(s) of the meme are implying that the claim is unfalsifiable and we should be skeptical of claims which are unfalsifiable. Think, for example, of the man who says the earth was created this morning with apparent age and false memories. The claim may be unfalsifiable, but we would probably all be incredulous toward such a claim.
However, it is doubtful that unfalsifiability alone is the problem. After all, we believe many things to be perfectly reasonable even though they are unfalsifiable. Here’s an example: I suspect we would probably all believe that there is no evil Cartesian deceiving us into (wrongly) believing that 2+2=4. And yet, we have no means to falsify that belief.
The real issue, I suspect, relates to background plausibility frameworks. Relative to a widely held plausibility framework, the belief that there is no evil Cartesian demon is sensible while the belief that the world is a day old is anything but.
As for the question of whether it is sensible to believe in God in the midst of the evil in the world, that judgment too is made relative to background plausibility frameworks. To the atheist who insists we evolved with no purpose and that suffering regularly happens for no reason at all, it is sensible to see the horrors of attempted rape, rape, and murder as further evidence of one’s beliefs.
However, to the theist who insists there is a good God, it is sensible to remind oneself that God only allows these horrors because of his morally sufficient reasons, whatever those may be. And we, finite humans that we are, are not in a place to know definitively what those reasons may be.
From that perspective, it seems to me quite unhelpful to express personal incredulity by labeling those with different interpretations of reality as “bullshit”. Such vulgarisms merely cheapen the public discourse and encourage tribal superiority.
For further discussion of the topics of providence, evil, and divine goodness see my article “‘But God was faithful’ as if he might have been otherwise?“