Personal Gods and the Problem of Empty Toilet Paper Tubes

Another essay from my collection. Of note, this one was inspired by another poster on one of the sites I used to visit, however I don’t recall the poster’s name or what site this originally came up on. I’d like to give that poster credit for the original concept, so if the subject here rings a bell and you know who posted the idea previously, let me know. The essay is a more fleshed out and greatly elaborated take on the concept. _______________________________________________________________

I was brought up as an Episcopalian and went to church nearly every Sunday between the ages of about five through about fifteen. I recall many sermon topics and biblical teachings, but the topic that seemed to come up more frequently than others is the concept of a personal God. Certain priests and laypeople really gravitated to the idea that God was available on a personal level and claimed outright (and reiterated many times) that God wanted to have a personal relationship with everyone. This, of course, was coupled with the idea that God was also an all loving God. So, not only did this God want to hang out as buds, but in theory wanted the best for those folk it hung out with. Kind of like an invisible friend, but with the added bonus of being…well…Almighty. I confess, I really loved the idea of having God as a personal friend who was…well, in theory…really much cooler than any of my human friends. As you might imagine, I started to become a little annoyed and rather disillusioned when said supposed cool friend never actually did anything…well…cool. In fact, after a number of years it became quite clear (and rather disappointing) that this God didn’t do anything personal, at least not with me.

Let me be clear about something: my beef with the lack of personal interaction has nothing to do with my “requiring” this God to “prove” its personal friendship (which is a criticism some have leveled against my point in the past.) This is not a case of, “if you really were my personal friend, you’d give me a pet Godzilla for my birthday.” Rather, this is the recognition that over a good ten years, this supposed personal God never did anything personal or even anything that most people take for granted as normal acts of personal kindness. Over the years, I’ve come up with a thought experiment to illustrate the obvious paradox. The concept is pretty simple to grasp: if the claim that God is (or can be) a personal, loving friend, why are there empty toilet paper rolls?

Think about that for a minute or two. I mean, really think about it. Then consider this thought experiment.

Let’s say you are at home and you feel the urge to go to the bathroom. You waltz on in and sit down to do your business. You look over and discover (oh no!) the toilet paper roll is empty! Damn!

Now let’s say you’re not home alone. Maybe your spouse is home, or your brother or sister, or maybe one of your kids or one of your parents, or maybe a friend is visiting. It doesn’t matter who else is in the house really. The critical element is that someone who, at least on some level, cares about you and with whom you have a personal relationship is in the house.

So you call out to this person, “honey? The toilet paper roll is empty. Can you bring me a new roll?” Now, what are the odds this person, who supposedly loves you and with whom you have a definite personal relationship, is going to bring you a new roll of toilet paper? I submit that if you answered anything other than 1 (note: odds are a ratio of the number of desired or likely outcomes against the number of undesirable or unlikely outcomes. If there is no likelihood of any undesirable outcomes, then the ratio is 1. 1 is equivalent to 100%), you might want to start reevaluating your relationships.

The point is that the vast majority of people, if they are honest, all admit that pretty much any personal relationship loved one would bring them a roll of toilet paper. Even the antagonistic relationship siblings I’ve asked have universally all agreed that they’d eventually relent (after a certain amount of some kind of grief and teasing) and bring their sibling a roll.

Now, let’s take the same basic scenario, but this time none of your immediate family or a visiting personal human friend are at home. What are the odds of a roll of toilet paper appearing if you ask God to get you one?

I’m not being flippant here (well…not entirely). The fact is, this just doesn’t seem to happen. And the thing is, the “personal” in personal God has to mean “interactive” with a particular person. That’s the definition of personal. So, if this God can’t or won’t do some interactive something as simple as bringing someone a roll of toilet paper, how can it be considered “personal” in any sense of the term?

Of note, one of the most common responses I get when I offer this apparent paradox to folks – usually theistic folk – to consider is that, well…providing someone a roll of toilet paper would be incredibly trivial for a God. My immediate rebuttal is always, “but what isn’t trivial to a God?” I’ve never gotten an answer. Seriously. The moment I’ve noted that if we’re talking about an entity that supposedly is the creator of the universe and ask what act could be defined as “not trivial”, the people arguing for actions too trivial for such a God tend to realize there’s no honest argument. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that some folk haven’t tried to double down with the old, “God decides what is His prerogative” usually coupled with some variation of “and the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I just roll my eyes. Such responses strike me as more supporting of my point that this supposed God isn’t very personal.

Keep in mind too, if you really think about it, if an act like bringing someone toilet paper is too trivial for a God to bother with, in what sense would said God ever interact with anyone? I’ll be getting into more detail on the issues of omni-gods (that is, a God with omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth), but the point is that if there is some way to actually measure certain actions as trivial for some God, why wouldn’t said God just do them? I mean, what’s the loss? Unless said omnigod has limitations or some form of action parameters, then it would seem that trivial actions would actually be something a God would do with abandon since they would definitely demonstrate the personal element to its faithful and would have no actual impact on the God’s ability to do other rather more important things simultaneously (whatever those might be.)

Kind of makes me wonder why coffee isn’t just ready for drinking every morning…

51 thoughts on “Personal Gods and the Problem of Empty Toilet Paper Tubes

  1. What enquiring minds want to know is was the flippancy designed into this essay or what it a consequence of your status as a recovering christian?

    For non-flippancy’s sake, a personal God means a God that can actually change the direction of your life in a myriad number of ways, not wipe your ass.

    If your idea of a God is a magical being that can come down from the clouds and serve your every whim, better you rub an Arabian teapot to let the genie out.

    You’re prolly the kind of person that hated playing hot and cold when you were a kid.

  2. Steve:
    What enquiring minds want to know is was the flippancy designed into this essay or what it a consequence of your status as a recovering christian?

    For non-flippancy’s sake, a personal God means a God that can actually change the direction of your life in a myriad number of ways, not wipe your ass.

    Oh my goodness…

    Wind, fire, cancer, and viruses can change the direction of people’s lives in myriad ways too, but no rational person describes any of them as personal. You might consider looking up what “personal” actually means some time.

    If your idea of a God is a magical being that can come down from the clouds and serve your every whim, better you rub an Arabian teapot to let the genie out.

    Well…rubbing teapots appears to do more for most people than most religions, so why not? Clearly YMMV…

    As for my idea of God, It’s definitely not something that can be personal.

    You’re prolly the kind of person that hated playing hot and cold when you were a kid.

    I don’t know what you are referring to, so I clearly didn’t hate it.

  3. How are we supposed to learn if everything gets handed to us. Anyone with a bit of foresight would not find themselves in the position of sitting on the toilet without any toilet paper if paper had been available. We should accept responsibility and learn by our mistakes.

    I have previously mentioned Thomas Kempis. He wrote:

    When Christ was in the world, He was despised by men; in the hour of need He was forsaken by acquaintances and left by friends to the depths of scorn. He was willing to suffer and to be despised; do you dare to complain of anything?

    Kempis called suffering, “the royal way of the holy cross.” If there was any other way Christ would have shown us by example. We just have to accept any sufferings and inconveniences that come our way.

    If the Son has to endure the cross with no Fatherly intervention, I’m sure any of us could endure the inconvenience of not having any paper to wipe our bums. I remember a childhood when toilet paper was a rare luxury and someone thought it a good idea to stock public toilets with greaseproof paper. But relatively speaking, on the whole ( 😉 ) we had it good.

    Of course a world full of suffering is nigh on impossible to justify for anyone who believes in an omnipotent God.

  4. CharlieM,

    The point of the essay is not that I believe we should be handed anything by any god or gods. Rather, I am pointing out the inherent contradiction between a particular claim about certain omni-gods – that such a god is supposedly “personal” and yet never does anything personal.

    I have no problem with the idea of the God of the philosophers, for instance. That God does not…cannot…interact with humanity in any way. That strikes me as more inline with the available evidence.

    As for Kempis’ point on suffering, I’ve had that discussion on this site as well. To summarize: if “the royal way of the holy cross” is sufficiently met by getting the flu and having a car wreck, any God allowing any greater suffering of any other people is simply being cruel and/or whimsical. I don’t buy into such gods.

  5. What any god does for anyone personally is to grant them the peace of mind just knowing their god is out there. He’s the dude who grants the Will To Believe, a state of mind which is capable of overriding anything mere reality has to offer. What more could you want?

  6. Flint:
    What any god does for anyone personally is to grant them the peace of mind just knowing their god is out there. He’s the dude who grants the Will To Believe, a state of mind which is capable of overriding anything mere reality has to offer. What more could you want?

    Are you asking me, Flint? If so, then I say nothing. Again, I am fine with the Philosopher’s God which can bestow a level of peace of mind. I am simply pointing out in this essay the inherent contradiction with the idea of a person god that does nothing personal.

  7. CharlieM,

    Just to elaborate, Charlie, I had a nearly one year discussion with William J Murray on the subject of why people needed to suffer to demonstrate their willingness to be servants to WJM’s god. I do not buy into such gods and will NEVER worship such concepts and constructs.

    I will be clear: I’ve had five kidney transplants. Over the last two years my “life”, such as it is, fell apart (ironically not due to covid), and I have worked my way back to some semblance of health. If anything less than what I went through is acceptable for some “royal way to the holy cross”, then clearly your idea of god is simply fucking with me. I’m not impressed.

  8. Steve:

    For non-flippancy’s sake, a personal God means a God that can actually change the direction of your life in a myriad number of ways, not wipe your ass.

    Or consider your life as meaningless, as well?

  9. phoodoo:
    Gimme, gimme, gimme God, ..

    I hate you!I don’t believe in you!

    Ever consider that the existence of God does not preclude life being a meaningless accident? Would you believe in that version of God or do you demand God act according to your needs?

    Then who is saying ,gimme ,gimme , gimme?
    .

  10. …so if the subject here rings a bell and you know who posted the idea previously, let me know.

    There was an OP here on those lines by Keiths and I can’t remember
    any of it other than there was an illustration of an empty toilet roll holder. Had a quick look through post titles but didn’t spot it.

  11. Robin: I will be clear: I’ve had five kidney transplants. Over the last two years my “life”, such as it is, fell apart (ironically not due to covid), and I have worked my way back to some semblance of health.

    Blimey, Robin, I can’t really imagine, but that sounds really tough. My best wishes that your health continues to improve.

  12. Alan Fox:
    …so if the subject here rings a bell and you know who posted the idea previously, let me know.

    There was an OP here on those lines by Keiths and I can’t remember
    any of it other than there was an illustration of an empty toilet roll holder. Had a quick look through post titles but didn’t spot it.

    Keith’s might have been the person. That’s ringing a bell.

    I’ve done a few searches here and.at AtBC, but no luck.

    Thanks taking a look Alan!

  13. Flint:
    What any god does for anyone personally is to grant them the peace of mind just knowing their god is out there. He’s the dude who grants the Will To Believe, a state of mind which is capable of overriding anything mere reality has to offer. What more could you want?

    Oh, it doesn’t stop there. He also gives you deferral of responsibility for most stuff.

    You can send “thoughts and prayers” to grieving people and not lift a finger.

    You can criticise other people’s morality and say “I’m not judging you… HE is”

    You can believe he will prevent the climate from changing, and pretend you don’t need to do anything about it.

    You can believe he supports you in committing genocide, or detonating your suicide bomber vest.

    You can believe he supports a president who was a thumb-sucking moron and a flaming sack of shit, just because you think he will kick the Mexicans out of the country for you.

    This is the most powerful coping mechanism ever devised. It’s no wonder people keep him around.

  14. I think the blank-check Will To Believe covers all that and more, but thanks for filling in a lot of the details. Those are where the devil lives.

  15. Robin,

    Maybe the personal thing God does is let you know right from wrong and let’s you decide which one you will choose.

    Of course the irony of the non believers claiming that the concept of God makes being immoral easier for believers is beyond silly. If you don’t believe in the concept of a God, any concept of morality or personal responsibility is completely meaningless.

  16. velikovskys: Or consider your life as meaningless, as well?

    That would only be a consideration for those that do not believe people can survive physical death.

  17. Fair Witness: Oh, it doesn’t stop there.He also gives you deferral of responsibility for most stuff.

    You can send “thoughts and prayers” to grieving people and not lift a finger.

    You can criticise other people’s morality and say “I’m not judging you…HE is”

    You can believe he will prevent the climate from changing, and pretend you don’t need to do anything about it.

    You can believe he supports you in committing genocide, or detonating your suicide bomber vest.

    You can believe he supports a president who was a thumb-sucking moron and a flaming sack of shit, just because you think he will kick the Mexicans out of the country for you.

    This is the most powerful coping mechanism ever devised.It’s no wonder people keep him around.

    What makes you believe your list is exclusive to believers? I should say theistic believers since everyone believes in something whether it is God, Gaia, Me, or Vulcans.

    So , in fact non-theistic belief is comparatively way more destructive to life than theistic belief.

  18. phoodoo:
    Robin,

    Maybe the personal thing God does is let you know right from wrong and let’s you decide which one you will choose.

    Which would still not be a personal god in any sense of the term.

    Of course the irony of the non believers claiming that the concept of God makes being immoral easier for believers is beyond silly.If you don’t believe in the concept of a God,any concept of morality or personal responsibility is completely meaningless.

    Blah, blah, blah, blah… rinse and repeat that old canard. WJM was somewhat better at repeating that line of nonsense. He was, at least, more creative in his attempts to demonstrate the meaninglessness of non-divine moral relativism. As demonstrated, however, plenty of non-believers have perfectly successful and functional moral systems. Non-believers have the benefit of actually caring about people…

  19. phoodoo:

    Maybe the personal thing God does is let you know right from wrong and let’s you decide which one you will choose.

    It’s entirely plausible that human morality evolved even before gods were invented. Most species have evolved some way of interacting with others of the same species, if only for purposes of mating. For a gregarious species like humans, some common-sense rules of thumb had to have been developed and practiced to keep fights and other friction down to manageable levels. And these rules of thumb embody our notions of fairness, cooperation, right and wrong.

    I speculate that some time long after certain patterns of behaviors evolved to allow tribes to work in some form of harmony and cooperation, some gods were concocted because the rules for living had to come from somewhere, right? People generally don’t grasp a million years of evolution very well…

  20. Flint: It’s entirely plausible that human morality evolved even before gods were invented

    What would that even mean, other than the fact that it would make morality meaningless other than as a means for survival. In which case, if some want to pursue another means of survival, they will be certainly justified if they feel it helps their survival.

    Is that really what you think morality is-just a convenient survival strategy?

  21. Robin:
    CharlieM,

    The point of the essay is not that I believe we should be handed anything by any god or gods. Rather, I am pointing out the inherent contradiction between a particular claim about certain omni-gods – that such a god is supposedly “personal” and yet never does anything personal.

    I have sympathy with you regarding any God that is supposedly omnipotent because for such a God anything should be possible and lack of intervention if not due to impotence would show a distinct lack of caring.

    But what about a God who cede power for love? If that God was like a father who had complete power over his children said, “because of my love for you I will hand over some of this power to you. But be warned, it is a gift from me to you so use it wisely because I cannot take it back. You will have to take responsibility for what is your possession”.

    Doing “anything personal” is another matter.

    According to Luke Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Just as I do not claim to be able to know another’s thoughts, to judge anyone else’s personal relationship with what they call God is not something I feel I can do. But I would not expect God to manipulate matter like some human magician, an inner relationship is more likely.

    Robin: I have no problem with the idea of the God of the philosophers, for instance. That God does not…cannot…interact with humanity in any way. That strikes me as more inline with the available evidence.

    Have you thought of the possibility that there may be interactions of which you are not aware? For example, for all we know celestial movements may be under the control of a higher Will.

    Robin: As for Kempis’ point on suffering, I’ve had that discussion on this site as well. To summarize: if “the royal way of the holy cross” is sufficiently met by getting the flu and having a car wreck, any God allowing any greater suffering of any other people is simply being cruel and/or whimsical. I don’t buy into such gods.

    The suffering of Christ is at the heart of all the teachings of Christianity. And if there is any truth to the Christian story then the suffering of Christ was and is a continuous suffering that is far greater than anything we could ever imagine.

    All Buddhists, whether they are theistic, agnostic or atheistic, are aware of the truth of Buddha, there is suffering.

  22. Robin:
    CharlieM,

    Just to elaborate, Charlie, I had a nearly one year discussion with William J Murray on the subject of why people needed to suffer to demonstrate their willingness to be servants to WJM’s god. I do not buy into such gods and will NEVER worship such concepts and constructs.

    I will be clear: I’ve had five kidney transplants. Over the last two years my “life”, such as it is, fell apart (ironically not due to covid), and I have worked my way back to some semblance of health. If anything less than what I went through is acceptable for some “royal way to the holy cross”, then clearly your idea of god is simply fucking with me. I’m not impressed.

    It’s not a case of needing to suffer. Suffering is a fact and it can come about through various causes. Through the cruelty of others, through our own making, by accident. We all suffer to some extent, and how we deal with suffering is important. You have obviously borne a lot of suffering and hopefully you are through the worst of it. Some people say they are glad of past suffering because of what it has made them.

    So let’s agree that if there is a God, whether you believe in Him, Her, or It, they are not omnipotent. I wish you the best of health.

  23. Flint: It’s entirely plausible that human morality evolved even before gods were invented. Most species have evolved some way of interacting with others of the same species, if only for purposes of mating. For a gregarious species like humans, some common-sense rules of thumb had to have been developed and practiced to keep fights and other friction down to manageable levels. And these rules of thumb embody our notions of fairness, cooperation, right and wrong.

    I speculate that some time long after certain patterns of behaviors evolved to allow tribes to work in some form of harmony and cooperation, some gods were concocted because the rules for living had to come from somewhere, right? People generally don’t grasp a million years of evolution very well…

    There’s a lot of really interesting recent work on the evolution of culture and morality. Apart from Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Morality I recommend recent work by Boyd, Heinrich, and Sterelny. Plus Frans de Waal and others have done lots of interesting work demonstrating fairness, reciprocity, and empathy in lots of social animals. (Granted, in most social animals, ethics is restricted to members of one particular social group. But that’s the default setting for most humans, too, and we can overcome that limitation only with considerable effort.)

    The gist of all these accounts is highly intelligent social animals need ways to detect and sanction free riders. If members of the species are intelligent enough to recognize that they can benefit from cooperation without expending the time and energy of cooperation (which can sometimes also involve risks to health or life), they would be tempted to do so — unless others were keeping tabs on who contributes, and that all the animals know that everyone is keeping tabs on each other. This is lot of complex information to keep track of, and it drives the evolution of intelligence in carnivores, primates, and cetaceans. (Interestingly, one of the main things that makes cephalopod intelligence fascinating is that the evolution of intelligence was not driven by social interaction.)

    The human case is different because we take the primate form of social intelligence and dial it up to 11. We are far more interdependent than other primates, even other apes. We are, to use Sterelny’s phrase, “obligate cooperative foragers”: each individual somehow contributes to the provisioning and maintenance (and social reproduction) of the group by occupying a distinct social role: in childcare, food preparation, making tools and clothing, hunting small, medium or sometimes large game, gathering roots, berries, eggs, small animals, leadership, organizing religious rituals that promote cohesion, resolving disagreements, and so on.

    There’s very little room for serious doubt that we could have evolved our unique form of hominid life if we hadn’t evolved norms that regulate social life.

    The evolution of religion (using that word in the broadest sense) is unquestionably closely related — but not identical. For the unprejudiced mind it is surely a striking fact that so far as we know, there are no atheistic hunter-gather societies. A commitment to the world as having “spirits” (roughly, beings with person-like psychological properties but wildly different or even absent biological and physical properties) is everywhere: ancestors, ghosts, tricksters, demons, protectors, animal guides, and creator(s). These beings are often indifferent to human beings, but can also be help or harm to human beings and especially to those who know how to manipulate them.

    Still, I think it is fair to say that on balance, for most of human history, ethics and religion belonged in different ‘boxes’, as it were: ethics had to do with how we treated each other, and religion was about our relation with the larger universe in which we live. Nourezayan argues that the blending of ethics and religion started with rise of complex civilizations, in which people needed to interact with others who weren’t personally known. It was much later that philosophers and theologians started to get in on the act.

    Ethics and religion are both almost certainly as old as humanity itself (in the ‘behavioral modernity‘ sense of humanity), so at least around 50,000 years and very likely much older than that. But the idea that ethics and religion have anything to do with each other is a very late addition to how we think about the world, probably subsequent to permanent settlement based on surplus agriculture, so about 10,000 years ago at the outside.

  24. CharlieM: I have sympathy with you regarding any God that is supposedly omnipotent because for such a God anything should be possible and lack of intervention if not due to impotence would show a distinct lack of caring.

    Indeed. This is generally covered under the theological Problem of Evil.

    But what about a God who cede power for love? If that God was like a father who had complete power over his children said, “because of my love for you I will hand over some of this power to you. But be warned, it is a gift from me to you so use it wisely because I cannot take it back. You will have to take responsibility for what is your possession”.

    Well…I confess I find such a situation dubious.

    In another essay I’ve been working on I explore issues I have with the Old Testament concept of a God that gets angry and “smites” people for their sins and transgressions. In particular, I look at the (to me) ridiculous notion of a God – a supposedly omnipotent God – who destroys nie unto EVERY ORGANISM ON THE PLANET just to punish some wicked humans (a la the story of Noah). The level of catastrophic retribution in relation to the A) actual percentage of offenders and B) the supposed level of offense(s) is simply off-the-charts absurd. The level of anger described would be considered beyond unacceptable sociopathic bullying behavior in real-world terms.

    That noted, I find the reverse equally as ridiculous. Love, to me, is quite specifically a level of desire for someone else’s well-being that exceeds the level of desire for one’s own well-being. I cannot except the concept of any omni-god for which that could be possible because it would require a God to place itself in some state of subordination to Its creation.

    Doing “anything personal” is another matter.

    Then there’s that…

    According to Luke Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Just as I do not claim to be able to know another’s thoughts, to judge anyone else’s personal relationship with what they call God is not something I feel I can do. But I would not expect God to manipulate matter like some human magician, an inner relationship is more likely.

    Fair enough. I’m in agreement for what it’s worth.

    Have you thought of the possibility that there may be interactions of which you are not aware? For example, for all we know celestial movements may be under the control of a higher Will.

    Clearly many things are conceivably possible. That said, I don’t find all conceivable concepts equally realistic or convincing. My essay The Blind Watch Dropper touches on my perspective on the issues with teleological arguments. I see them as inherently fallacious. More to the point though, I cannot imagine why an entity capable of creating a universe would then meddle with it or bother to influence it in any way.

    The suffering of Christ is at the heart of all the teachings of Christianity. And if there is any truth to the Christian story then the suffering of Christ was and is a continuous suffering that is far greater than anything we could ever imagine.

    Try me. I think I can imagine some pretty extreme suffering…

    All Buddhists, whether they are theistic, agnostic or atheistic, are aware of the truth of Buddha, there is suffering.

    Yes, there is. And I am not trying to pooh-pooh the education, character, strength, perseverance, inspiration and a few other great qualities that can come from suffering. And I am not trying to pooh-pooh the different levels and types of suffering that people experience either. Suffering sucks, no matter how little or how much one experiences.

    My issue is with the claim that perhaps (though few ever offer the “perhaps”) suffering is God’s way of testing individuals for some Higher Goal or Higher Purpose. If that were the case, the tests would – in my view – have to be to some extent similar levels of suffering. Otherwise the God in question is simply being a whimsical sociopath. I have no interest in that sort of god concept.

  25. CharlieM: It’s not a case of needing to suffer. Suffering is a fact and it can come about through various causes. Through the cruelty of others, through our own making, by accident. We all suffer to some extent, and how we deal with suffering is important. You have obviously borne a lot of suffering and hopefully you are through the worst of it. Some people say they are glad of past suffering because of what it has made them.

    I agree with all of this. My only issue was with the notion – which I’ve heard quite a bit throughout my life – that the suffering people face is some form of test for some god’s love. I’m just not into the concept of whimsical gods.

    So let’s agree that if there is a God, whether you believe in Him, Her, or It, they are not omnipotent. I wish you the best of health.

    Agreed. And thank you!

  26. Robin: This is generally covered under the theological Problem of Evil.

    Theodicy is evil.

  27. phoodoo: What would that even mean, other than the fact that it would make morality meaningless other than as a means for survival.In which case, if some want to pursue another means of survival, they will be certainly justified if they feel it helps their survival.

    Is that really what you think morality is-just a convenient survival strategy?

    Yes, if we consider survival broadly. This would include the well-being of the entire tribe, feelings of satisfaction, pride in workmanship, identification and sanction of free riders (as KN notes), notions of fairness and sharing, understanding of mutual interdependency, and really all of the aspects of the group life of a highly social species. Morality considered broadly like this requires that every member of the group have a pretty good idea of the abilities, positions, and opinions of every other member. Without all this, human societies (NOT the individuals within them) could not survive.

    Now, a good deal of this was eventually codified as commandments 6-10 of the ten commandments, and essentially all of it has been codified as common law. But any law student can tell you that if a law is not followed voluntarily by the large majority, it’s useless (and laws nearly everyone violates nearly all the time are worse than useless, because then enforcement becomes arbitary and therefore selective). People mostly try to obey common law and behavioral commandments not because of enforcement, but because they recognize that following these rules makes for a better life for all involved. We generally label this recognition as morality.

  28. Kantian Naturalist:
    The human case is different because we take the primate form of social intelligence and dial it up to 11. We are far more interdependent than other primates, even other apes.

    I read with interest about a game (or experiment) you are probably familiar with. This game is played between two individuals. In this game, one individual is given a bunch of something both regard as desirable. That individual can then share as much or as little as he sees fit with the other. The second individual has two choices: he can accept the distribution, or reject it. If he rejects it, neither individual gets anything at all.

    When chimps or gorillas played this game, the only distribution rejected was when the second individual got nothing at all. But when humans played this game (using money as the good to be distributed), results were extremely different. If the second individual did not consider the distribution “fair”, he’d reject it and nobody got anything. Many repetitions with many people found that any distribution more extreme than 60-40 would be rejected. Even when the amounts of money were substantial like a thousand dollars, if the first player offered $300, the second player would turn it down and get nothing.

    And of course, the first player would always realize that a distribution deemed “unfair” would be rejected. Of all species tested (which I recall also included birds), only humans would reject distributions where they got something, if they thought it wasn’t enough. Humans do dial it to 11.

  29. Robin: Non-believers have the benefit of actually caring about people…

    Indeed. Only atheists can truly be altruistic.

  30. Flint: When chimps or gorillas played this game, the only distribution rejected was when the second individual got nothing at all. But when humans played this game (using money as the good to be distributed), results were extremely different. If the second individual did not consider the distribution “fair”, he’d reject it and nobody got anything. Many repetitions with many people found that any distribution more extreme than 60-40 would be rejected. Even when the amounts of money were substantial like a thousand dollars, if the first player offered $300, the second player would turn it down and get nothing.

    Reciprocal conditional altruism? Offering your neighbour some service is an investment in the future. Cultural evolution in humans has effectively obliterated biological evolution by its sheer success (so far, perhaps Ukraine is its most recent severe test).

  31. Alan Fox: Robin: Non-believers have the benefit of actually caring about people…

    Alan: Indeed. Only atheists can truly be altruistic.

    But both believers and non-believers seem to have a deeply engrained tribalism.

  32. Corneel: But both believers and non-believers seem to have a deeply engrained tribalism.

    Yes, but that’s because we are only human. Tribalism (and the reciprocal altruism that, IMHO, gives tribalism the evolutionary/cultural edge allowing humans to move beyond extended family groups) is ingrained in us. Atheism specifically doesn’t seem a group activity. I don’t think I seek the company or reassurance of other atheists. Though it might be fair to say I’m repelled by overt displays of religious fervour and especially proselytism.

  33. Robin:
    CharlieM: I have sympathy with you regarding any God that is supposedly omnipotent because for such a God anything should be possible and lack of intervention if not due to impotence would show a distinct lack of caring.

    Robin: Indeed. This is generally covered under the theological Problem of Evil.

    CharlieM: But what about a God who cedes power for love? If that God was like a father who had complete power over his children said, “because of my love for you I will hand over some of this power to you. But be warned, it is a gift from me to you so use it wisely because I cannot take it back. You will have to take responsibility for what is your possession”.

    Robin: Well…I confess I find such a situation dubious.

    Parents who love their children gradually allow them progressively greater freedom to live and act as they themselves see fit. Do you see this as dubious?

    Robin: In another essay I’ve been working on I explore issues I have with the Old Testament concept of a God that gets angry and “smites” people for their sins and transgressions. In particular, I look at the (to me) ridiculous notion of a God – a supposedly omnipotent God – who destroys nie unto EVERY ORGANISM ON THE PLANET just to punish some wicked humans (a la the story of Noah). The level of catastrophic retribution in relation to the A) actual percentage of offenders and B) the supposed level of offense(s) is simply off-the-charts absurd. The level of anger described would be considered beyond unacceptable sociopathic bullying behavior in real-world terms.

    The Old Testament contains an understanding of God from the point of view of the Jewish people at that time.

    Robin: That noted, I find the reverse equally as ridiculous. Love, to me, is quite specifically a level of desire for someone else’s well-being that exceeds the level of desire for one’s own well-being. I cannot except the concept of any omni-god for which that could be possible because it would require a God to place itself in some state of subordination to Its creation.

    So is it that you find dubious the concept of a God who is willing to relinquish power because you would then have to consider the possibility of a less-than-omni-god?

    There is a Christian initiation process based on the Passion of Christ follows seven stages. The first stage is termed “The washing of the feet”. At this stage the candidate acquires a feeling of gratitude for the whole of nature. An understanding is developed that we owe our existence to the lower kingdoms of nature.

    CharlieM: Doing “anything personal” is another matter.

    Robin: Then there’s that…

    CharlieM: According to Luke Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Just as I do not claim to be able to know another’s thoughts, to judge anyone else’s personal relationship with what they call God is not something I feel I can do. But I would not expect God to manipulate matter like some human magician, an inner relationship is more likely.

    Robin: Fair enough. I’m in agreement for what it’s worth.

    CharlieM: Have you thought of the possibility that there may be interactions of which you are not aware? For example, for all we know celestial movements may be under the control of a higher Will.

    Robin: Clearly many things are conceivably possible. That said, I don’t find all conceivable concepts equally realistic or convincing. My essay The Blind Watch Dropper touches on my perspective on the issues with teleological arguments. I see them as inherently fallacious. More to the point though, I cannot imagine why an entity capable of creating a universe would then meddle with it or bother to influence it in any way.

    So you are arguing against a transcendent God and not an immanent God?

    CharlieM: The suffering of Christ is at the heart of all the teachings of Christianity. And if there is any truth to the Christian story then the suffering of Christ was and is a continuous suffering that is far greater than anything we could ever imagine.

    Robin: Try me. I think I can imagine some pretty extreme suffering…

    You are asking me to describe something that is beyond our imagination. How would that be possible?

    CharlieM: All Buddhists, whether they are theistic, agnostic or atheistic, are aware of the truth of Buddha, there is suffering.

    Robin: Yes, there is. And I am not trying to pooh-pooh the education, character, strength, perseverance, inspiration and a few other great qualities that can come from suffering. And I am not trying to pooh-pooh the different levels and types of suffering that people experience either. Suffering sucks, no matter how little or how much one experiences.

    My issue is with the claim that perhaps (though few ever offer the “perhaps”) suffering is God’s way of testing individuals for some Higher Goal or Higher Purpose. If that were the case, the tests would – in my view – have to be to some extent similar levels of suffering. Otherwise the God in question is simply being a whimsical sociopath. I have no interest in that sort of god concept.

    It is not so much God testing us as us testing ourselves.

  34. Alan Fox:
    Robin: Non-believers have the benefit of actually caring about people…

    Alan Fox: Indeed. Only atheists can truly be altruistic.

    And Alan Fox knows this because Alan Fox is omniscient. 🙂

  35. CharlieM: And Alan Fox knows this because Alan Fox is omniscient. 🙂

    No, it’s simple logic. God rewards acts of selfless kindness so the godly can’t be selfless. Atheists can expect no reward from a non-existent god, ergo their selflessness is real.

    Anyway, don’t let me rain on anyone’s parade. For those who find religion a comfort, fine. Just don’t come calling on me to tell me about it.

  36. Alan Fox: Indeed. Only atheists can truly be altruistic.

    I don’t think that’s true. While surely some (maybe most?) theists are motivated to act morally because of expectation of posthumous reward or punishment, many theists act morally out of respect for human dignity and concern for the alleviation of suffering. The fact that they use a theological conceptual framework for articulating those attitudes doesn’t mean that they aren’t motivated by altruism just as much as moral atheists are.

    To the question, “can one truly be a morally good person without believing in God?” I prefer the response of the Lithuanian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “can one truly believe in God without being a morally good person?”

    In other words, to believe in God and to be a morally good person are the same thing: one can believe that that they believe in God, but their actions towards other people, and especially towards the most vulnerable, show that they really do not.

    Conversely, one can believe that they don’t believe in God, but their actions towards other people, and especially towards the most vulnerable, show that they really do.

    Put otherwise, Levinas would have us stop asking the question “can atheists be good people?” and start asking the question, “do our beliefs about ourselves correspond to our attitudes and actions?” Personally, I find that to be far more interesting question.

    Based on that, I would disagree with this statement:

    Alan Fox: No, it’s simple logic. God rewards acts of selfless kindness so the godly can’t be selfless. Atheists can expect no reward from a non-existent god, ergo their selflessness is real.

    I think the moral psychology — what really motivates people to act morally (or immorally) — is much more complicated than this, for both people of faith and for non-believers. While no doubt there are some people of faith who act morally solely out of concern for their posthumous selves, I don’t think that’s true of all people of faith.

    Corneel: But both believers and non-believers seem to have a deeply engrained tribalism.

    Certainly tribalism is deeply ingrained in the human form of life, and it’s not always a bad thing. The kind of intimacy and solidarity we have with people who share central aspects of our identity are themselves intrinsic goods, things that enrich the value of our lives. Social groups based on shared history, shared suffering, forms of humor, ethnic foods, musical styles, etc are all really important.

    The problem with tribalism arises when we devalue the moral significance of people who don’t come from our tribe. But cosmopolitanism in ethics and tribalism in other respects are quite compatible.

    That said, I don’t really see any tribalism around theism vs atheism per se. Those are rather abstract metaphysical commitments, very different from shared languages, foods, histories, sense of humor, traditional occupations, etc.

  37. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think that’s true. While surely some (maybe most?) theists are motivated to act morally because of expectation of posthumous reward or punishment, many theists act morally out of respect for human dignity and concern for the alleviation of suffering.

    I’m sure that’s true but, nevertheless, the atheist cannot have the option.

    I’ll stop because belief is an emotional state and my inability to empathize with believers could be pathological, borderline Asperger’s perhaps as my wife has remarked on occasion.

  38. Alan Fox: I’m sure that’s true but, nevertheless, the atheist cannot have the option.

    True, but that doesn’t mean that atheists can’t also have selfish motivations — such a fear of punishment by agents of the state, or social sanctions, or even expectation of approval and fear of disapproval by others.

    I’ll stop because belief is an emotional state and my inability to empathize with believers could be pathological, borderline Asperger’s perhaps as my wife has remarked on occasion.

    Autism spectrum disorders aside, I think it’s very difficult to empathize with anyone whom we encounter online — there’s just not enough non-linguistic information (tone of voice, facial expression, gestures. etc.) to trigger that millions-year-old mammalian oxytocin mediated neural response that we experience as empathy.

  39. On tribalism, as KN says, we just need to have bigger tribes. Unite against a common enemy. COVID might have been a candidate, Russians seem to have come close to demonstrating how not to do tribalism by uniting most of the developed world against them.

    Now climate change is undeniable (though some still deny, and why is there an apparent link to right-wing Christian fundamentalism) we have a new common enemy. Trouble is it’s not going to stop till it beats us.

  40. Kantian Naturalist: That said, I don’t really see any tribalism around theism vs atheism per se. Those are rather abstract metaphysical commitments, very different from shared languages, foods, histories, sense of humor, traditional occupations, etc.

    You appeared to have missed that I was playfully nudging Alan for declaring atheists to be the only people capable of being truly altruistic.

    But apart from that: what prevents people from using “abstract metaphysical commitments” to define the identity of the social group they are being part of? Do you not live in the US of A? 😉

  41. Corneel: You appeared to have missed that I was playfully nudging Alan for declaring atheists to be the only people capable of being truly altruistic.

    Oh, sorry! Yes, I did miss that you were being playful!

    But apart from that: what prevents people from using “abstract metaphysical commitments” to define the identity of the social group they are being part of? Do you not live in the US of A?

    In the USA (where I do live, for both good and ill), there are people who claim that they’re taking theism (or atheism) as the basis for their social identity. But consider the sub-culture of hard-core evangelical Christians: they have their own bookstores, movies, TV shows, businesses — “Christian” has become a brand that is aggressively marketed to specific consumers. That would be a case, anyway, of much more than an abstract metaphysical commitment being the basis of social identity.

    The New Atheists tried imitating that model, marketed to non-believers.

  42. CharlieM: Parents who love their children gradually allow them progressively greater freedom to live and act as they themselves see fit. Do you see this as dubious?

    No, but then I do not believe omni-gods would (or could) ever be in the same role or relationship to us humans as a parent-child role/relationship.

    The Old Testament contains an understanding of God from the point of view of the Jewish people at that time.

    Absolutely! And this is my point exactly. The depictions reflect a projection of the Jews’ experience with petulant, erratic, fickle, unforgiving kings. This is a very anthropomorphic depiction, something I do not myself believe in.

    So is it that you find dubious the concept of a God who is willing to relinquish power because you would then have to consider the possibility of a less-than-omni-god?

    Sort of, but it’s also that I just don’t accept the concept of anthropomorphic or anthropocentric gods. As I note in my essay I’m Special, the idea that an omni-god would create an entire universe and then, for some “reason”, focus only on some ridiculously minute element of the whole thing is bizarrely absurd to me. Couple that with the idea that such an entity would relate to, let alone have, a similar emotional appreciation and perspective to this ridiculously minute subset of the entire enchilada strikes me as close to impossible.

    There is a Christian initiation process based on the Passion of Christ follows seven stages. The first stage is termed “The washing of the feet”. At this stage the candidate acquires a feeling of gratitude for the whole of nature. An understanding is developed that we owe our existence to the lower kingdoms of nature.

    Ok. I can go along with this philosophically.

    So you are arguing against a transcendent God and not an immanent God?

    No, I would say I find both problematic. Immanence suggests that a God is manifested in the material world itself. I’m don’t really buy that. In Creating the Anthropocentric God essay, I try to illustrate my issue with the analogy to a human trying to live within an enormous HO scale train model – a creator living within what It created. I just don’t see it as something that could possibly work.

    You are asking me to describe something that is beyond our imagination. How would that be possible?

    You stated that you think the suffering of Christ is continuous and beyond what we could really imagine. My response is that first and foremost, suffering is not beyond imagination – not even immense suffering. The families and friends of 19 children and two teachers didn’t suffer simply on the day of the shootings in Uvalde; they will be suffering for the rest of their lives and likely in ways we can’t fully appreciate. But I dare say some of us can imagine it to some extent. Ditto the literally millions of folk in Ukraine who are suffering and will continue to feel suffering for decades and beyond. So, just to be snarky about it, I am suggesting that I actually can imagine (well…not only imagine…) pretty immense suffering. What people choose to believe or try to believe about some deity-in-human-form’s ability or level of suffering is, to put it bluntly, not all that impressive to me.

    It is not so much God testing us as us testing ourselves.

    Yeah…that was WJM take as well. I don’t buy that either.

  43. Kantian Naturalist: But consider the sub-culture of hard-core evangelical Christians: they have their own bookstores, movies, TV shows, businesses — “Christian” has become a brand that is aggressively marketed to specific consumers. That would be a case, anyway, of much more than an abstract metaphysical commitment being the basis of social identity.

    It reminds me of the situation here in NL way back in the first half of the previous century. Catholics, protestants and socialists separated every conceivable aspect of society participation (political parties, newspapers, broadcasting organisations, sport clubs, etc etc), so nobody was inconvenienced by having to intermingle with or being exposed to ideas from people of a different group. It’s called “verzuiling”, loosely translated as “pillarisation” (and look, it has a wikipedia lemma).
    In hindsight it is generally considered to have been a bad thing, as it alienated these groups from each other. It is worrisome to see your country going in a similar direction.

  44. Alan Fox:
    CharlieM: And Alan Fox knows this because Alan Fox is omniscient.

    Alan Fox: No, it’s simple logic. God rewards acts of selfless kindness so the godly can’t be selfless. Atheists can expect no reward from a non-existent god, ergo their selflessness is real.

    Anybody, no matter who they are or what their beliefs can act out of selfless love with no thought of benefit for themselves. If a person is acting with any thought of being rewarded the obviously there is selfishness in their action. Those who act selflessly gain nothing from their actions, but those who act selfishly will have to pay a price for their actions. Doing good is not enough, we have to understand the motives of our actions.

    For those who believe in karma, selfless actions have no effect on a person’s karma.

  45. Kantian Naturalist in a response to Alan Fox and Cornee ended his post thus:

    Certainly tribalism is deeply ingrained in the human form of life, and it’s not always a bad thing. The kind of intimacy and solidarity we have with people who share central aspects of our identity are themselves intrinsic goods, things that enrich the value of our lives. Social groups based on shared history, shared suffering, forms of humor, ethnic foods, musical styles, etc are all really important.

    The problem with tribalism arises when we devalue the moral significance of people who don’t come from our tribe. But cosmopolitanism in ethics and tribalism in other respects are quite compatible.

    That said, I don’t really see any tribalism around theism vs atheism per se. Those are rather abstract metaphysical commitments, very different from shared languages, foods, histories, sense of humor, traditional occupations, etc.

    I think this was a well balanced, thoughtful post and I agree with what was said.

    It is interesting to look at the course of human evolution over the historical period, and to see the progression. We have come from tribal groups and family clans to larger communities such as city states, ethnic divisions, and nations. and on to multi-cultural societies. From conditions in which the beliefs and lifestyles of the individual was determined by the group to our modern society where people think and act more as individuals than as members of a tribe.

    And of course not all cultures progress at the same rate.

    But in obtaining a relatively free individuality we are no longer obliged to worship the God/Gods of our people. Coming to a belief or non-belief in the Divine is a concern of the individual. We are left to make a free decision without the coercion of any external authority.

    I see this as progress.

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