Why indeed would God have any interest in the difference between right and wrong, let alone be puritanical or essentially righteous to the point of carving his commandments into stone?
The answer once seemed obvious, when the lack of countervailing evidence entailed the geocentric view of the universe. In fact, there was no Western concept of the universe in the sense of a multiplicity of solar systems, since all that was thought to exist was the earth, an underworld and an overworld or heaven ruled by deities.
In so far as our planet was assumed to be cosmically central or to comprise the majority of what exists, the vitality shared by the divine spirits above and the living things residing on this planet would have been taken for granted, because other theoretical options would have been inconceivable. Life seemed to be everywhere, since our lack of telescopes and microscopes limited our field of vision to here and now where living things are plentiful — although ancient atomists and other naturalists eventually worked out a reductive picture of matter.
Of course, the happy coincidence that the supreme powers we used to worship were presumed to be sociable like us turned out to be due to an embarrassing imposition of our partialities onto nature, because we now know both that the universe is much larger and that our planet is far older than we could have imagined.
As is now commonly observed, the universe’s savaging of our intuitive, parochial notions of space and time deprived us of our central importance to beings in general. The universe includes many quadrillions of things that have nothing to do with intelligent life and there was no such life on earth for billions of years, just as our planet will very likely endure long after all life here has been extinguished.
Now that we know the inhuman scale of our planet and of the universe, again we should be asking why the Creator would care in the slightest about morality, supposing for the sake of argument that God exists.
Polytheism and the Society of Gods
A divine concern with right and wrong behaviour would have made more sense on the polytheistic view, which in turn was supported by the abundance of stars in the night sky. That coincidence was aided, too, by the lack of light pollution in the ancient world, so that the myriad stars could easily have been seen, each one of which adding to the pantheon and to the majesty of the presumed deities. Gradually, monolatry or henotheism overtook pantheism, to reflect not just the power structure of the rising theocracies, but the recognition of the sun’s apparent prominence as it blots out all the other stars during the day.
Either way, with a multitude of gods you have at least the plausibility of social arrangements between them, in which case they would have moral standards and be subject to compromises so they could cooperate in a civil fashion. You might think the monotheist has a similar basis for positing a divine interest in morality, since the Supreme Being created a plethora of angelic companions as intermediaries, according to the scriptures.
But there are two problems with that suggestion. First, for God to have social relations with his creatures, the latter must be comparable to the deity; otherwise, God would relate to them more or less as we relate to ants. The more angels God creates, then, and the more they resemble God in terms of their knowledge and abilities, the more monotheism slides back into monolatry: the angels would be lesser gods and we’d have a special case, rather, of polytheism.
Second, to the extent that God acquires an interest in morality only after he’s created his angelic intermediaries, this amounts to an exception that proves the rule; that is, this is to concede that strict monotheism, the solitariness of divine being affords only an amoral outlook on God’s part. Perhaps God would have created lesser creatures, then, to escape the infantilism or insanity he’d have endured for eternities when he was all alone with his omnipotence.
We even have a well-established model for thinking of the lone ruler of all creation, and that’s of course the human king, emperor, or dictator. Our having that model at our disposal to try to make any sense out of monotheism is hardly a coincidence, since certain gods were promoted to overlordship as our societies acquired greater hierarchical complexity, and as the kings thus inherited more and more power. (Again, what transpired in Heaven had to reflect the way we did business on earth, because we presumed we were crucial to everything that exists.) And what we know about that human concentration of societal power is that it tends to corrupt the ruler, depriving the king or queen not just of a genuine interest in morality, but of the capacity to feel empathy.
The traditional monotheist will say that the situations are very different, since human rulers have to compete with others, climb the Machiavellian ladder, and backstab their rivals, which is one reason they lose a taste for morality. Indeed, in the monotheistic picture, God wouldn’t have had to compete with anyone to reach his divine status. Still, God would share the king’s absolute supremacy. In fact, God’s having had that status for eternity would count against his alleged obsession with morality, since the lower the king’s starting point in his rise to power, the more he could be expected to have some sympathy for lesser persons.
Any such sympathy can quickly vanish once the ruler reaches the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, because nothing would prevent him at that point from succumbing to all possible temptations. God wouldn’t be tempted exactly, since he wouldn’t know any better with respect to morality. If God were all-powerful, there’s just no reason to think he’d care about the difference between right and wrong. If something were to go wrong for him, he could try again and could do so infinitely many times. If nothing could ever go wrong for him, because he’d also be all-knowing (at least with regard to facts rather than values), he’d have no way of learning the hard way about how certain outcomes are better than others.
Imagine a human king and his harem of wives, and suppose one of those wives displeases him. Why should the king care? Off with her head! After all, there’s always another wife where that one came from. If the king could create infinite wives, how could any of them even possibly hold any value for him? Why should he favour one over the other? Wouldn’t he suffer the same kind of paralysis and indifference as the consumer who has too many choices of mustard brands at the supermarket?
For the same reason, we spoiled denizens of the internet are losing respect for artists, not because artists can no longer produce high-quality work, but because the internet presents us with too much art — too many drawings and songs and poems and novels and movies. Why pay for any of them when the internet is the fabled cornucopia? Evidently, there can be too much of a good thing, in which case what was once a boon becomes a poison.
Likewise, omnipotence would render everything trivial to God. God’s omnipotence would swiftly deprive him of his morals, because his supremacy would make him decadent, spoiled, and tyrannical — which is to say God would be exactly as he’s portrayed in much of the Bible and the Quran. More precisely, the concept of a benevolent, all-powerful deity is incoherent. To show that the deity could have both attributes, you first have to deny that God would be anything like a human king, in which case you’d have fled to mysticism and your monotheistic concept of God would be vacuous.
If God is nothing like a human ruler and human psychology and sociology provide no foundations for understanding what God would be like, theism becomes equivalent to atheism, since the powers belonging to “God” would be effectively impersonal. After all, we’re the only people we know of, so if some alien creature behaves nothing like us, we have no reason to call it a person. If God is personal after all, his supreme power would obviously make him tyrannical, according to worldwide historical experience of how political power works. So it’s either atheism or divine amorality and tyranny for the monotheist.
The other standard metaphors are less applicable to the monotheist’s God. For example, the analogy of the architect would entail polytheism and specifically a sharing of power. The architect often works in large companies and isn’t the same as the builder. In any case, architects are known more for their sense of aesthetics than for any professional application of moral principles. The architect cares about beauty and ugliness, not moral right and wrong.
Similarly, consider the implications of comparing God to a CEO. The head of a company isn’t all-powerful, since he or she answers to a board of directors, at least in theory. In any case, God is seldom compared to a business leader, because such a leader is infamous for his sociopathy. To appeal to that late-modern social metaphor, by way of updating the archaic comparisons to kings and lords would give the game away.
Fatherhood, Divine Love, and the Buddhist Rejoinder
As for the metaphor of fatherhood, this category makes no sense without motherhood. If God fathered the universe into being, what happened to the divine mother? But there’s a deeper problem with thinking of God as a parent, since a parent is emotionally attached to his or her children. You might think this is an advantage, since the comparison to loving human parents might explain divine morality as a consequence of God’s love for us.
But if this is the source of God’s attraction to morality — if God wants us to behave well because he loves us and wants to preserve us from harm, just as a parent wants to protect his or her children — we have the makings of a Buddhist condemnation of monotheism. Evidently, human parents are emotionally attached to their children, because both are mortal. Both the parents and the children can indeed be harmed and they’re irreplaceable. If a child makes poor choices and grows up to be a person who gets into trouble, the parents may feel guilty because they unwittingly helped set the tragedy in motion, none of which could be undone.
But none of that applies to the monotheist’s God who could presumably create a multiverse of universes, each with every variation of you and me and everyone else. God would thus be akin to Rick Sanchez, the mad scientist from Rick and Morty, complete with his depression, despair, and amorality. Why? Because God would grow weary of the absurdity of having to face all at once every logically possible turn of events and every conceivable variation of everything.
Indeed, for Buddhist reasons, God would be deluded in limiting himself to creating just one universe. That is, God wouldn’t have risen to his full potential, meaning he’d have let his power go to waste; more importantly, God would thereby demonstrate his emotional attachment to our universe and to our lowly species in particular, if the monotheists’ scriptures are to be believed. That kind of attachment would be sustained by a failure to appreciate the difference between appearance and reality.
In reality, our universe would mean nothing since God could create infinite other universes, including clones of ours down to every particle of dust. To pretend otherwise would amount to God himself falling into gross error, succumbing to the siren song of maya (illusion). Of course, that would be impossible if God were all-knowing and incapable of erring, but that’s to say the fatherhood metaphor once again makes monotheism incoherent.
To see what I mean, consider the Buddhist’s primary message, which is that the reason we suffer so much is we’re attached to things and we treat them as though they were permanent, so the world is guaranteed to disappoint us. We project our unrealistic expectations onto the ceaseless flow of interconnected events, mistaking the egoistic way we organize our concepts for the mind-independent reality.
What stops the Buddhist, then, from telling God the following? “The reason you love these creatures and obsess over their behaviour is you’re attached to them and crave for them to be immortal. Thus, your love of them is selfish and wrongheaded; you’re projecting your divinity onto them, whereas you created only animals. You’re confusing your love of yourself with how things really are.”
And how could God answer the Buddhist? Of course, God could award us eternal life and make us virtually divine so that his love of us could be more sensible than a human’s love of an ant, but then we’d be back at monotheism’s collapse into polytheism. The question we lose sight of when Christians, especially, love bomb the nonbeliever and wallow in incessant reminders of God’s undeserved love for each and every one of us is whether that divine love could fail to be sinful.
In Buddhist terms, the monotheist’s God would be crazily attached to this universe. By telling us what to do all the time and by rewarding and punishing us on that basis, God would be holding us to a standard that makes no sense, because God himself would be misled by his overflowing ego.
God’s Morality as a Means to a Desperate End
Perhaps, then, God’s interest in morality is only instrumental. Maybe he’s personally amoral like the average human tyrant, but he has to sell us on the idea of morality to achieve some higher purpose. Maybe morality is irrelevant to God’s conduct, but he knows that morality is best for us, which is to say maybe God has a double standard.
Suppose God wants us to grow out of our fallen, childlike errors, to serve as his companions or co-creators. God’s moral commandments and his promises of rewards and threats of punishment might be his ways of training us, just as human parents teach their children only the lessons they’re capable of understanding at their early stage of cognitive development. Once they reach a certain age, children are fit to learn there’s no Santa Claus. Likewise, in the afterlife perhaps, God would hasten to inform us that all of that talk of what we should or shouldn’t do was so much hot air.
Notice some of the implications of this picture. First, this concedes the point of the objection. Monotheism wouldn’t be so great after all, and God wouldn’t be the alpha and the omega; on the contrary, God’s sovereignty would be a prison or a loony bin, a disaster God would have to escape by creating creatures that could evolve into virtual deities, thus sharing the burden. Monotheism would fall to polytheism as a failed experiment.
Second, both God’s love for us and his concern with morality would be phony. Just as we don’t really love our pets in the way we love people, but train them to serve us because we care more about having a subservient companion, God would be using us to free himself of his exclusive divinity. His means would be his bribes and threats. Divine morality would be the equivalent of the master’s rolled-up newspaper with which he smacks us on the nose. We would need to follow God’s commandments and improve our behaviour, not because so-called goodness is really better than badness, but because divinity itself would be intolerable and God would be desperate for solutions.
A less cynical interpretation would be that God shares his power out of generosity or “grace.” This, however, is contradicted by the famous scene in Genesis 3:22 where God banishes Adam and Eve from paradise: God says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
That’s the voice of the divine egomaniac who says he’s jealous of other gods (Deut.6:14–15) and who wouldn’t, therefore, intentionally create other immortal beings — not unless the point is that misery loves company.
The Monster within God
Needless to say, virtually everything the Bible and the Quran say is rendered nonsensical if God doesn’t really and couldn’t even possibly care about the difference between right and wrong. For example, Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross would have nothing to do with the universe’s Creator. The contrary conceit is displayed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Does a king love his subjects? Does a person love an ant? Doesn’t absolute power over others inevitably corrupt the one who’s cursed with the dominant position? Doesn’t the king, rather, abuse his power, taking his people to war out of vanity and greed? Doesn’t the king relish the privileges that make him decadent, and oppress the peasants to maintain his superiority? Aren’t we human dominators wrecking the planet, exterminating and enslaving species at will? If God is a parent with a son, where’s God’s mate? If the parenthood metaphor is empty, why isn’t the divine-love metaphor equally invalid?
No, once we recognize that even if the universe were created by a divine person, as the monotheist would have it, this Creator would be much closer to a nightmarish monster than to a loving parent or a benevolent king, we’re forced to abandon the fake religious piety that’s fit for the herd and their exoteric oversimplifications. In place of that happy-talking, superficial piety, we’re welcome to the horror of shattering our minds in the face of the Lovecraftian beast that would be at the universe’s helm.