Theology vs. The Memes #4: If At First WHO Doesn’t Succeed?

Oh, how one of my atheist friends loves the Noah’s Ark story. It is the ultimate proof of God’s incompetence and evil. The argument goes that if God couldn’t make people good enough not to sin, he’s not much of a god, expressed by the meme above.

Folks, this is the worst sort of begging the question when it comes to arguments against religion. What the meme wants to conceal is three separate assumptions that are made: firstly, that the success or failure involved is God’s. Secondly, that we are capable of judging that “success.” Thirdly, that God’s justice, like man’s, is circumscribed by death.

To take the points in reverse order, I’ve already noted that using premature death as an argument against the goodness of God is rather silly. The people killed in the Flood were already going to die. They would face God’s judgment eventually. By the laws of statistics, many of them would have died before reaching the average lifespan. If allowing people to die in a Flood is evil, then allowing them to die at all is hardly less evil. And of course, if you don’t trust God to be just to the souls of the dead, you’ve rather pre-judged your case, since you can have no experience of how He does that. And no, you can’t use God’s visible behavior to humans on Earth to judge what he does with them later. Otherwise you might just as well assume that every parent who speaks sharply to a child and then hauls them away from a party for misbehavior goes directly home and murders the child.

Which of course brings up the next two points. Do we not see that if we take the idea of God at all seriously, we have to imagine a Being that can plan on a scale of millions of years and has access to energies, times and spaces that we cannot conceive of? I realize that atheists don’t take the idea of God seriously, but that’s exactly what reduces memes like this to self-congratulatory wankery, utterly irrelevant to the average believer. It’s a straw-god argument. And straw-god is a real asshole, that is for sure. But if you want to convince believers, you have to take on a real god at some point, and that’s a much harder target, because you can’t judge a god’s success (let alone God’s) on a human scale.

Finally, the idea that the Flood (or any other example of mass death) was triggered by a “failure” on God’s part neatly and conveniently removes human action and accountability from the equation. Scripture’s take on the state of humanity was that life was nothing but people plotting to do evil (Genesis 6).

Again, I realize that my atheist friends don’t really believe in this story. But friends, if you’re going to condemn it as emblematic of the evil nature of the God we have imagined for ourselves, you’re going to have to be consistent, and you’re not even doing that well. First you complain that all the evil in the world is the fault of God and his “failure” to make good humans. Well, okay, let’s take that seriously for just a moment. If indeed that is the case, then surely humans, having seen the evil God allows, could prevent it, yes? If we are better than Him, then we must be able fix it; that’s the inescapable conclusion. Okay, not everything. I mean, we started from a pretty low technology base, so it’ll be awhile before we’re up to preventing plagues and floods.  But at the very least there should be no war, murder, slavery, or any other purely human evil, should there?

Oh, there is? All of those things exist? Gee, that doesn’t look very good for our claim to be better than God and stand in judgment of Him, does it? Hell, we’ve done a better job at preventing the plagues and floods!

If we are so capable of sitting in judgment of God, then why are we not doing better than Him? The failure is not His. The failure is ours. If God calls attention to that failure, then getting mad about it is about as admirable as yelling at the police officer who pulled you over for actually breaking the law.

And of course the other side of the coin is this: If we are not capable of doing better than the God we revile, then obviously we do need a God, don’t we? We need to desperately seek Him — to seek someone — out and discover how we can stop failing. When you’re failing, it’s time to listen and trust. Not to judge. Judgment is the purview of the successful.

If you really disbelieve, then all I can say is that blaming a god who doesn’t exist for your troubles is even more childish than worshiping one. The god you worship might turn out to be real. The god you blame might, too, of course, but you might think about the possible results of that. In either case, the failure is the argument against God’s ethics.

Theology vs. The Memes #2: The Emperor’s New Quote

I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:

That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”

1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.

The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.

Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?

And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:

3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie.  The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.

I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:

“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.