7.05.2009

Empathy, Love and Perfection: a Theological Conundrum

I thought your responses to the question of divine punishment were interesting and about what one would expect from rational people. Two things struck me: why would an omnipotent being bother to punish in the first place, and if it did, the response should be measured and befittting the crime if the entity was loving. There was pretty strong agreement for using perhaps the most advanced moral rudder we have, empathy to guide the punishment. "Make them feel empathy for their victims". Does it strike anyone (other than old Pliny) as odd that this would on the surface seem to be more fair, loving, and moral than the punishments we find in our sacred texts?

Now some might shoot back that terms like loving and perfection as applied to omnipotent beings are beyond our interpretation. Baloney. We get these definitions from the texts themselves. Not to pick on the Bible but if we use it as example we get a pretty good idea about some critical issues: 1) God is perfect. 2) Man is made in God's image though of course an imperfect rendering. 3) Love, compassion, empathy and mercy are 'godlike' (moral) attributes that are praised and well defined within the texts. 4) The entity whose behavior most often would seem to be lacking in these perfect virtues is the omnipotent and perfect being. You kind of expect the imperfect humans to trip up once and awhile but not the perfect entity.

I'm really not trying to play a game of gotcha here. These inconsistencies were some of the first factors in my personal journey away from religion: a perfect and loving God could not by definition be less merciful, loving, compassionate or empathetic than the most moral human beings created in its image. And the most moral humans would not create hell. A place where torment is eternal, where no hope for redemption exists, no useful lessons are taught, and where most of the crimes being punished eternally are ones that imperfect human justice would punish with limited sentences. Would a moral human court damn one in total despair suffering from mental illness who took their own life? I doubt it. Frank Capra came up with a much better and more empathetic solution to that one than one finds in the Bible.

Imagine for a moment the 'empathetic' punishment of someone like Hitler; admittedly a worst case. It's not hard to wish for a place like hell for a monster such as he. If we used the punishment of empathy for his victims we might imagine him having to experience the suffering of every one of his 20 million victims (blame him for all of WWII). Sentence him live through the last 10 years of each victims life - 10 times! So where would that leave us? Hitler would be punished for 2 billion years. Or about 1/7 the total time that has elapsed since the Big Bang. And a rounding error of the time left before time itself ends - not eternal damnation by a long shot. Not long enough? Add another decimal or two, it's still not forever. Add punishment for every child not born because of his evil but it's still not forever.

One might argue that Hitler (and Stalin) are special cases deserving of eternal (trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years) damnation but I would argue that 99.999% of those who would according to the Bible suffer a similar fate wouldn't receive such a sentence by a court made up of the most loving and moral of humans. The father of the prodigal son, never wrote off his wastral son. Would he not have kept on loving him even in death?

I know some might come back with the old saw that the punishment doled out 'hurts me more than it does you' cliche. Don't think so when the sentence is forever...

So I have been bothered by that conundrum since my wee years. A perfect, and loving God would be far more compassionate than any human ever could be. If a compassionate human could not imagine hell as just, then God could not either.

19 comments:

Stacy said...

" Does it strike anyone (other than old Pliny) as odd that this would on the surface seem to be more fair, loving, and moral than the punishments we find in our sacred texts? "

It's one of the first things we realize, is it not? But I think you're preaching to the choir here ... I like the way you formed your argument - with a leading question in the previous post. Like a good lawyer. :-)

R U sure you're in the right profession? ;-)

Michael Lockridge said...

Consider, on the other hand, the merits of the Judeo/Christian system of Divine Justice. Without a God who shall provide proper justice on the other side of death, people would fall back (quite readily) on vengeance and disproportionate punishments in this life.

The Ten Commandments served not only as a standard, but as a set of limits. The MOST you could claim for an eye was an eye. Compare that to the Imperial British system at the height of their "glory" where a child who stole a loaf of bread could be hanged to death.

By removing justice from arbitrary human systems and placing it in the hands of God something approaching real justice might more often come to pass.

Some who would seak their own vengeance might willingly hand over the injustice and the perpitrator to a God who will insure a punishment fitting the crime, if that were a requirement of their faith.

oneblood said...

Michael, that seems like somewhat of a Red Straw Man. -That's when I can't sort out which part is Red Herring, and which is Straw Man.-

The idea of a loving God; this acted as a slow dissolution of scriptural coherence for me.

It started with hellfire, but really moved on to daily life and the untold suffering of billions of people, not to mention animals. How does this remotely fit with a God of Love? It doesn't.

The church's explanations for this come out to nothing short of abuse of the believer: you don't know any better (the 'I don't understand His ways' reasoning), or it's your fault (the 'I don't have enough faith' reasoning).

To believe in a primary cause may seem illogical to some, but for me it is whether one can give attributes to that cause which completely contradict daily experience that I have trouble accepting.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Micheal: Thanks for the thoughts - I'm working on some thoughts based on what you said.
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OneBlood:
"To believe in a primary cause may seem illogical to some, but for me it is whether one can give attributes to that cause which completely contradict daily experience that I have trouble accepting."

please elaborate if you would. I'm not sure I fully grokked your meaning and your response in general was very interesting

pboyfloyd said...

Good post Pliny. Michael seems to be skipping the implication that there is not, even according to Biblical 'deeds' an 'all loving' God and jumping to the 'we don't punish justly therefore God should do it' argument.

Talk about two ships passing in the night.

oneblood said...

Pliny,

If you don't mind I'll just be relatively anecdotal.

I am under the impression that atheists don't believe in a primary cause to the universe. But I can't elaborate because I'm unfamiliar with the argument/s against it.

If indeed there is a primary cause, it seems illogical that we know much about it.

For those who believe in a primary cause, we add, or are told to add descriptors: sentient, and most importantly anthropomorphic. Whatever follows sums up pretty much most of the world religions.

To me sentient seems plausible but anthropomorphic not so much,
and love...that seems ludicrous.

Nevertheless a friend of mine is fond of quoting John Lennon, "Whatever gets you through the night, it's alright."

I guess it seems like intellectual treason but I try not to begrudge people their beliefs. Of course I do, but I try.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

OneBlood
Your last two posts intrigue me in that they seem to be more theistic than Christian or for that matter any other organized religion. Or as Mrs Pliny would say, spiritual rather than religious.

Is that fair? No intent to put you on the spot but that would seem consistent with many of your other postings.

Is your personal philosophy more of a universal creator (builder) with no particular interest in the individual? More of a Founding fathers perspective?

oneblood said...

Pliny,

I think that's a fair assesment. My profile reads 'heterodox Christian' but recently I feel I have an identification and affection for some of the culture more than agreement with the tenets.

I would say I'm still searching for consistency (as best as I can understand) and marginally fit into a theist/deist category with very blurry lines.

Jared said...

As for the ten commandments as mentioned by Michael, I do not think they serve as any set of limits, they are religious laws which were mostly punishable by death:
1) death Deut.13:6-10
2) children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have to put up with YHWH
3) death Lev.24:13-16
4) death Exod.31:14-15
5) death Deut.21:18-21
6) death Lev.24:17
7) death Lev.20:10-12
8) Theft; repayment of value Exod.22:4
9) No clear penalty for deceit
10) maybe death? Josh.7:21-25

Talk about some strict guidelines; 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are definitely death punishments. That god, he's so morally righteous...

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Michael, Thanks for the interesting take on the issue. Your post got the old noodle going! Some thoughts that you stimulated.

“Consider, on the other hand, the merits of the Judeo/Christian system of Divine Justice. Without a God who shall provide proper justice on the other side of death, people would fall back (quite readily) on vengeance and disproportionate punishments in this life.”

Your point is well taken that those humans farthest from the ideal may well be (often are unfortunately) drawn to the extremes of earthly punishment. This is an argument strongly in favor of institutionalizing the law and has been a driver of legal reform for generations so I’m with you there. The question of course is the nature of the institution that upholds and enforces these laws and subsequent restraints. Arguably in this country the secular Constitution provides the restraints if not the actual laws. One of the problems that I see with religion being the source of the moral constraints of the law is that since it often is portrayed as an absolute it lacks any elastic clause similar to the Constitution. It gets painted into a corner pretty fast because a religion is very dependent upon fixed dogma - you can’t really say ‘this is the absolute word of God, for now...until we think of something better” Though Vatican II was pretty close ;). Theologians try to get around this by debating the meaning of the texts but of course that doesn’t strengthen the absolutist’s claims.
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-continued....

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

“The Ten Commandments served not only as a standard, but as a set of limits. The MOST you could claim for an eye was an eye. Compare that to the Imperial British system at the height of their "glory" where a child who stole a loaf of bread could be hanged to death.”

I agree that the commandments establish broad limits and that this is an example of a critical node in the historical path to less arbitrary legal codes. Though of course there are innumerable exceptions and special circumstances. Take the prohibition against killing for example. The Israelites obviously took some significant leeway with that one in the Bible and today Christian churches continue to be divided on the notion of absolute prohibition. In other cases, like Imperial law, Biblical standards seem a bit harsh in light of current mores such as stoning of adulterers and punishment of rape victims to name just 2. Of course we must acknowledge the historical precedents that such Biblical limits provided during the evolution of law as we now know it much as we must acknowledge the role of the Magna Carta, code of Hammurabi, etc. Not because these laws are reasonable models for today but because they contributed to our thinking and enactment of laws over time creating foundations for today’s reforms. At debate is of course the relevance of the exact words in the texts as written to today’s law.
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“By removing justice from arbitrary human systems and placing it in the hands of God something approaching real justice might more often come to pass.”

Interesting point. I guess I should be clear that my post doesn’t directly address the existence of God but rather the internal consistency of religion as a separate issue. I’ll return to that in a moment. As for arbitrary human systems I view this as one of the defining differences between a true liberal and a true conservative (ignoring punditry and other meaningless and divisive bravado on the subject) is their notion of government: the true liberal sees government as a potentially positive force while a true conservative imagines the most positive outcome we can expect from government is as little as can safely exist with. A bit simplistic but true conservatives (not without justification) in my experience tend to prefer it when government is not so much of a change driver. I sympathize with this position and over the years have struggled with it. At this point in my life I have come to view government as our best hope if it can be molded to represent us at our best, not our worst. A big job that. But I admit that is just my opinion.

Real justice is an elusive target and the law is at best merely a poor approximation to it. But that returns me to the internal consistency argument. Assuming that we don’t allow the most base among us to write the laws (well, let’s ignore Congress for a bit ;)), I still think it’s difficult to imagine the most moral among us coming up with eternal damnation as a just punishment for human frailty, particularly if we were responsible for the frailty to begin with. Certainly it would fail the secular standard prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.
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My argument in a nutshell is this: Natural laws are internally consistent. At least all that we know are. If religion represents natural law (the absolute) then my position is that it too must be internally consistent.

---continued....

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

My post was intended (as clear as my usual ramblings ever are...) as a debate of the validity of the circular argument that God MUST exist and provide the absolute foundations of morality (religion) or else chaos will ensue, and since chaos is checked by morality therefore God exists and religion is the expression of His absolutes. This is the essence of the morality argument in my opinion. Two propositions must be true for this statement to have any hope of being true: a God and absolute morality set down in some fashion. One can argue the existence of God in circles forever with no resolution, but the moral consistency of religious teachings measured against moral behavior as well defined in the same sacred texts is not beyond logical assessment. Again and again we are told that the Golden Rule, empathy, compassion, mercy etc are key parts of morality, yet the principle standard by which one is judged for eternity (hell) is none of these. This creates a paradox. We know from other examples in science and nature that when we experience this kind of paradox it always means that our model is missing some key element or another layer of abstraction, i.e., it is not an absolute law of nature. This would argue against the circular argument since the morality described is not internally consistent and therefore unlikely to be a natural law (doggone if Stacy isn’t right - I do sound like a #^%#^# lawyer ;))
--continued....

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Some who would seek their own vengeance might willingly hand over the injustice and the perpetrator to a God who will insure a punishment fitting the crime, if that were a requirement of their faith.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that religions exist in the first place and have remained prevalent for so long. Here again the issue is exactly that: the punishment must be reasonable. Many of the punishments feted out by religions centuries ago no doubt seemed reasonable at the time. Just not so much now.

Thanks for stirring the noodle! Sorry to ramble on so long - darn I’m starting to write like Seeker ;) Couldn’t resist Seeker - you are our resident intellectual. I am but an egg.

Harvey said...

Pliny:

"My post was intended (as clear as my usual ramblings ever are...) as a debate of the validity of the circular argument that God MUST exist and provide the absolute foundations of morality (religion) or else chaos will ensue..."

Great topic!!
The fallacy, it seems to me. is the assumption that mankind cannot be "moral" without the existance of God and a set of absolute rules to guide us.
This only makes sense if one sees "morality" as abiding by these "Commandments" (obviously circular logic) rather than a system of behavior that has evolved over the centuries in response to the needs of ever larger and more complex tribal groups, along with the civilizations that have developed these "rules".
If one sees "the Golden Rule" as a commandment from a deity, one will obviously feel the need for such direction. If, on the other hand, "moral" behavior is seen as the result of thousands of years of human evolution in which we have come to see that certain behaviors are counterproductive to our own longterm well being (i.e. Do not do unto others..., as the Golden rule is actually expressed in the Old Testament), or in which behaviors that are not necessarily in our own best interest, but which are beneficial to the group as a whole can give us a feeling of personal satisfaction, it becomes apparent that such behavior neither implies the existance of a deity nor requires one.

Harvey said...

Further....

Laws are the codification of behaviors that a particular society either finds undesireable or detrimental to the greater good. Once again, I do not see that these require reference to any influences outside that society's evolutional development(such as a deity). Punishment, on the other hand, may certainly benefit from a system of ethics that emphasizes empathy, kindness and, above all, fairness, not to mention protection of the individual from the power of the larger group (as we have in our current version of democracy). In this regard, I do not find the Yahweh of the Judeo-Christian tradition a very good example of such behavior, even in His New Testament update.

Stacy said...

Ok - you all know that I don't write very well...so hang with me.

It seems to me that we are looking for a reason that humans became moral beings that doesn't involve a magic man in the sky. Right?

In my view - everything comes down to survival. If you strip it down to the bare basics (I'm talking the beginning!)Parenthood is the answer(specifically the maternal instinct).

!!!Protect!!!

If you don't protect your offspring - the species will die out.

Everything falls in line after that.

mac said...

Great post Pliney.

It bothered me for some time that even not so good people were seemingly more moral than God ( as described in the Bible).
God was always smiting someone for the slightest of things.
He even killed everything on the planet at one time. How is that compassionate (Even if allagorical)?
How might calling for the death of doubters be considered compassionate?

Yeah, I think that may have been the seed for many of us. Hopefully a good garden grows from it :-)

Harvey said...

Stacy:

"In my view - everything comes down to survival. If you strip it down to the bare basics (I'm talking the beginning!)Parenthood is the answer(specifically the maternal instinct).

!!!Protect!!!

If you don't protect your offspring - the species will die out.

Everything falls in line after that."

Exactly!! "Moral" behavior is learned, beginning with the newborn's eventual realization that it is not the center of the universe, towards whose whims and/or pleasure everyone else must bow. Obviously, at first our parents actually do so, but eventually, in order to interact successfully with the rest of the world we learn that we must sometimes subjugate our personal preferences to that behavior that will encourage evryone else in our tribe/world to treat us in ways we wish to be treated. (Hence, the Golden Rule) I believe you are quite correct that "growing up", maturation, and eventual civilization are entirely survival tactics. If we lived alone on an island our entire lives, there would be no "moral" behavior, nor the need for any.
The religionist's blind spot in all of this, as Mac and others point out, lies in unwillingness to believe that mankind can behave "morally" without the need for Guidelines imposed by a deity.

Asylum Seeker said...

Bah! Me, an intellectual! I just make sure that I only say something when I have a lot to say on a matter!

I agree that punishment should have some sort of rational basis behind it and that would itself be a method of achieve the presumed merits of the Judeo-Christian system of law and improve upon it. It just means that the kind of justice that we can provide in our present reality is necessarily imperfect, due to our inability to rectify wrongs done to the dead and to fully punish those who have taken many lives.

Oneblood: atheists do kinda believe in a "primary cause" (not necessarily, of course), most likely in the form of the Big Bang. Which, is basically a primary cause without sentience (or "purpose" at some level, I suppose).

Anyway, other topics: I've personally always seen the Golden Rule as a good example of both a "rule" that is common to most religions, and an actual description of the kind of behavior that having basic human empathy entails. It's a shame that religion gets some sort of an exclusive claim to that idea, despite it simply being an observation, ultimately.

And finally: I've heard it said that, more or less, God functions at such a high plane that our judgments of whether his behavior are "good" or not are pointless. Granted, that this simply means that calling God "good" at all is pointless if it has no actual meaning from a human perspective when applied to him (even when he defines the very standards by which "good" is determined). But, I think I am now just paraphrasing the main post...