Christians, Please Learn These Two Words!

To understand why the faith is in great jeopardy

“How do you know your religion is the right one?” It’s not hard to guess what kind of answers we’d get if we posed this question to people coming out of church on Sunday morning. Usually, the answers would be variations on, “I feel it in my heart,” which in turn is based on trusting what they’ve been told by ministers, priests, and parents about the Bible, visions, and prayers. These respected authority figures make sure their cherished religious “truths” are drummed into young minds. But rarely, if ever, do devout folks—seized with genuine curiosity or skepticism—ask, “How do you know these things are true?” Another way to ask this is, “What is your epistemology?” The purpose of epistemology is to sort out the ways of knowing that are reliable and trustworthy. Ministers and priests resist teaching epistemology to their parishioners, because that would involve the search for reliable, verifiable, objective data to substantiate belief (and theists have never been able to agree on where such data can be found). So, all ye Christian faithful, please learn this word: epistemology—and try to put it into practice.


Now, on the second word. The devout commonly fail to grasp that Christian theology, from the get-go, has set itself up for failure. It embraces theological extremism, actually monotheistic totalitarianism: There is no escaping their watchful god, i.e., it sees and hears everything you do and say, and also expects extreme devotion, i.e., love god with all your mind, heart, soul, strength. Christopher Hitchens once likened this to living in North Korea. God is all everything: powerful, knowing, and loving. But if that is true, then this god must be all responsible as well. So Christian theologians have painted themselves into the corner: what possible explanation can they offer for so much evil and suffering in the world—if a caring, competent god is in charge? Serious thinkers have long been bothered by the shallow answers offered by ministers and priests, so theologians developed a sub-specialty to conjure the cleverest possible excuses for exonerating the Christian deity. This field is known as theodicy—a term created by Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716). 


Ministers and priests would prefer their parishioners not give too much thought to theodicy, because theologians who are theodicy experts know that the traditional excuses for god—those that the laity assume are good enough—just don’t work (e.g., “God works in mysterious ways”). I guess we could concede that theodicy specialists represent a Christian attempt at serious thinking, but even their excuses don’t work, as is brilliantly demonstrated by the new John W. Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. There are twenty-two essays in this volume (including two written by me) that show just how useless theodicy is. 


Actually, Essay Number 9, by Robert M. Price, makes the point that “useless” doesn’t quite capture the truth; it is titled, Theodicy: The Idiocy. As soon as apologists try to reconcile horrendous suffering with an all-everything god, they’re in trouble. For example, Christian theologians insist that their god can be credited with an orderly creation, but even this is problematic, as Price points out: 


“…the amazing things we see in nature do look like the result of intelligent design, implying a Designer. But the uglier aspects of nature—the bloody war of predators and their prey, the depredations of hideous cancers and plagues, and so forth—these seem to militate against the designs and governance of a benevolent Deity…”  (p. 234, Kindle)


This is what I mean by being set up for failure from the get-go: even creation was messed up! Sometimes the free-will excuse (god spies on everything we do, but doesn’t want to interfere with our freedom) is combined with the idea that our suffering can be a teaching moment—to improve our characters. So god is okay with that? Price notes that this doesn’t really work, i.e., theism is diminished: 


“…he expects us to learn to deal with tragedy and to prevent human atrocities before they happen, since it is not God, but lazy or vicious humans who create them. But the more you defend God this way, the more you are tending toward Deism, the doctrine that, having created the world and humanity, God sat back to observe.”  (page 235, Kindle)


There is also the “bigger picture” defense of god: “Recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways and that his thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth, we could say that ‘good’ for God does not mean the same as it does for us. But not so fast! Then why use the word at all? Your theology is one of bait and switch.” (page 237, Kindle) This is especially the case when the believer fails to provide reliable, verifiable, objective data to demonstrate that this is the nature of god, i.e., his thoughts are high above ours. This sounds too much like theological hot air: theobabble practiced by theologians of all varieties for centuries. 


Price imagines a dialogue with a believer who argues that—no matter the level of suffering we experience—his god is good. Price would ask:


“…how about if the entire population were killed by an asteroid? Would you still claim God is in loving control?” The believer, smiling placidly, insists that, yes, God would still be in loving control. What content would remain? What does the ‘claim’ even mean? God being in loving control looks just like God not being in control! It would mean nothing. It would be no more than speaking in tongues, a contentless ejaculation of religious enthusiasm. If this is a defense of God, there is no defense.”  (page 238 Kindle)  


And one Price comment, above all, anchors the idiocy of theodicy: “If God turned a blind eye to Adolf, he is no better than Adolf.”  (page 238 Kindle) 


There is considerable irony in the fact that theodicy is thoroughly undermined by the Bible itself. It is so hard to defend the deity described in both the Old and New Testaments. “The most flagrant case of merciless violence engineered by Jehovah is surely the genocidal massacres to sweep Canaan clean of its idolatrous populace.”  (p. 239 Kindle) Later the angry prophets of Jehovah, so deeply annoyed that the Israelites went whoring after other gods, promised that this god would, without mercy, massacre his own people! Indeed, how many people who have undertaken the pious adventure of reading the Bible cover-to-cover, have decided to walk away from the faith because of this depiction of god? There is no theodicy that can redeem such a despicable god.


Nor does the New Testament—despite famous texts about the love of god—make a better case for a likeable god. In this testament we find full-blown belief in eternal torture by fire. Theodicy cannot overcome this, as Price explains:


“It is a sad spectacle to witness the guilty squirming of apologists (not to mention average Christians) trying to defend God’s sending unbelievers to Hell. They are either embarrassed or heartless… Can there be any way in which the notion of God as a father can be squared with the possibility of his damning his creatures, no matter who they are or what they have done, to unending torture? … And think about this: If you rationalize God’s Old Testament atrocities, much less Hell, are not you an accomplice after the fact? Are you not saying what he did/does is all right with you? Do you really want to be implicated? Because you will be, and you will be making your so-noble faith look pretty bad—and rightly so. You are making your God look awful: the Lord of Damnation.”  (page 242 Kindle) 


Accomplices after the fact. Indeed, theodicy specialists are just that, without noticing the idiocy of their endeavors. 


There are, in fact, quite a few things that Christians are afraid to think about—beyond epistemology and theodicy. After my 2016 book was published—in which I analyze ten tough problems that falsify Christianity—I witnessed a stunning display of hate from devout Christians who trolled the book’s website. Yet not once did any of these angry visitors indicate that they’d actually read the book. No one attempted to engage with me on any of the issues I described in detail: they were afraid to think about these things. When my new book was published last year—about ten things Christians themselves wish Jesus hadn’t taught—I gifted copies to several of my Christian friends. Silence. Not even a simple thank-you from any of them. In other words, “Please don’t expect me think about this.” 


“Well, just let them be,” is one approach. And at the end of his essay, Price suggests we can be okay with good Christian folk who do good in the name of their lord: “Many believers are too busy attending to good humanitarian works of mercy in the name of their faith to waste time with theodicy, and I hope they continue to do good even though they are not particularly interested in the questions you and I find so important.”  (p. 243, Kindle)


But these days we’re finding deeply pious and aggressive Christians out to do plenty of harm, especially in the promotion of theocracy. They want to enforce their brand of morality, and curtail the rights of people who don’t agree with them (think gay rights, planned parenthood, access to abortion). Hence, John Loftus, the editor of God and Horrendous Suffering, added a footnote to Price’s comment. Loftus notes Christopher Hitchens’ challenge to believers:


“…[he] repeatedly stumped believers by asking them to come up with one moral action they could do that nonbelievers could not also do. The problem however, is that horrific deeds are sometimes morally justified by good people because of a faith-based religion… Throughout most of [Christianity’s] history violence was its theme, its program, and its method for converting people and keeping believers in the fold. Its history is a history of violence. There is no escaping this.”  (p. 243 Kindle)


Hence our ongoing effort to debunk Christianity, which has two thousand years of momentum, fueled to this day by promises and rituals that no longer make any sense. This is a faith still grounded in ancient superstitions and magical thinking. We’d be much better off—the world would be a safer place—if we could get devout folks to evaluate faith with healthy curiously and skepticism. A good first step would be taking the plunge into study of epistemology: are your ways of knowing about god sound and reasonable? —and then move on to consider just how far theodicy falls short in trying to rescue belief in a good, competent god. 


Look beneath the promises and rituals: do the homework. 



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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