establishment clause

Why the Statement, “god is great,” is Inherently Problematic

As a philosophical naturalist it should come as no surprise that I believe all gods are as imaginary as leprechauns or the Easter Bunny, and as a result I don’t agree that “god is great.” But it isn’t my personal disbelief in supernatural causation that gives rise to the problems inherent in the statement, “god is great.”

Instead this particular statement is inherently problematic for a number of reasons, such as: that it’s vague and meaningless; it fails to resolve several philosophical dilemmas surrounding the question of whether a god exists; and it is ultimately divisive to the point of creating conflicts, violence, and oppression.

Now i’m not naive enough to believe it’s possible to refute the possibility a god exists in a seventeen hundred word blog post. I’m just not that convincing, but by highlighting a few of the inherent problems maybe it will cause a few readers to at least pause and think before asserting, “god is great.”

1. Vagueness:

The word god is a common noun, which is why the word shouldn’t be capitalized unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence. While a lot of monotheist name their god, “God,” this in effect is the same as naming your dog, “Dog.” Just because you use the common noun as a proper noun, does not mean that there is only one god, or that everyone who believes in a god believes in the same god you do. Just as me naming my dog, “Dog,” does not make it the only dog or mean that everyone that uses the term dog is referring to my particular dog every time they say the word dog.

Throughout history humans have imagined a myriad of different mutually exclusive gods, many of whom have been named “God,” or declared to be the only god. I would even go as far as to say that every person who believes in god(s) has their own personal concept of what they mean when they use the term god. Thus everyone who believes in a god, believes in their own unique god, even where the believer ascribes to a larger religion, with fixed definitions of its god(s).

This unique god may be compatible with other gods, but by nature a personal god can’t be compatible with every possible variation of god. For instance Yahweh and Jesus, while believed to be the same god by Christians, are in fact mutually exclusive concepts of god. This is why observant Jews don’t believe Jesus is a god, because as of about 800 BCE, religious Jews as a whole began to believe their war god Yahweh was the exclusive and only god.

Thus the term, “god is great,” is vague as to which god is being referred to and why it is great, which means the statement without alternative context can be read as, “My, god, which I name ‘God’ is great merely because it is my god.”

This tells us nothing about whether a god does indeed exist, what the definition of that god is or how we are to determine whether the god in question is indeed great, as there is no manner to determine by what standards greatness is to be judged.

2. Euthyphro’s Dilemma:

Much like Admiral Akbar in Return of the Jedi, every time I hear this statement I feel like saying, “it’s a trap!” This is because the statement, “god is great,” without context falls into a form of the logical dilemma first penned by Plato, and supposedly articulated by Socrates.

Essentially Euthyphro’s Dilemma breaks down into the question, is a god great, “just because?” Or is there an outside standard by which we can judge whether or not a god is indeed great? The word great itself creates problems as in English it generally refers to physical size, or largeness, but it is most often used in the context of this statement as a synonym for goodness.

a. Just Because:

If a god is great, “just because,” that means that the word god becomes a synonym for great, rendering it a meaningless statement premised upon un-proven and debatable presuppositions. Essentially, the statement becomes the same thing as saying, “water is H2O.”  Both statements are redundant as neither establishes anything meaningful about the other and merely reduces the words to synonyms, without proving the existence of the god in question, or defining what it means to for that god to be good or great.

Where a god is ontologically the same as goodness then goodness or greatness becomes arbitrary, and whatever the god chooses to do is defined as good. If a god is thought responsible for all events and life on earth, then one would have to say the creation of Hitler, or Stalin and the resulting deaths of millions from their actions were great, because they were both acts of god. Ultimately this reduces the statement either to a tautology, or to a vague and subjective value statement, which is meaningless.

But while this may appeal to some theists, few would respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the response, “I’m god,” indicating that most believers at least implicitly understand the problems of reducing god to a synonym for goodness or greatness.

b. Objective Standard:

If an objective standard for judging greatness, or goodness exists, then for a god to be great it must not only meet the objective standard, but the standard must exist irrespective of whether a given god exists.

Thus where an objective standard of goodness exists separate and independent of a god’s will there is something over which a god is not sovereign, and the actions of the god in question are restricted to only that which meets the objective definition of goodness or greatness, otherwise it is an untrue statement. This means for the statement to be true a god that is good lacks free will and thus is not able to act in a manner which is anything, but great or good.

Which tells us nothing about what it means to be objectively good, other than that a god who is great by an objective standard is limited from acting in a manner other than in a manner the unestablished standard dictates. Again essentially reducing the statement to little more than a vague tautology, which tells us nothing.

3. Dilemma of Evil:

The statement “god is great,” seems to ignore the problem that in this world there exists things that we describe as evil, as in the battle of good versus evil. If a god is to be described as good or great then there must exist something that is not just the absence of goodness or greatness, but the opposite of good or great, that which we call evil.

Often misattributed to Epicurus, the basic formulation of this problem essentially reads:

Is a god willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then it is not omnipotent.

Is a god able to prevent evil, but not willing?

Then it is malevolent.

Is a god both willing and able?

Then whence cometh evil?

Is a god neither willing nor able?

Then why call it a god?

For a god to be ontologically good or great, it can’t be responsible for evil, which means there must be at least one other independent non-created being (a god) of equal power, or some other type of supernatural causation responsible for what we call evil.

If there is an objective standard the god in question can only be great if its actions meet that standard, meaning a god is not omnipotent and therefore unable to prevent evil, because the god is limited to only doing that which meets the objective standard of goodness or greatness. This ultimately means worship of that god is irrelevant, because regardless of praise or declaration the god may only do that which is good or great, and is unable to prevent evil.

Either way you cut it, the statement “god is great,” becomes problematic if not down right meaningless when viewed against the dilemma of evil.

4. Inherent Divisiveness of the Statement:

While the philosophical dilemmas and general vagueness of the statement may not be sufficient for most theists to give up using this statement, or convince someone that god(s) don’t exist, it is the effect the statement has on others that should at least give one pause before saying this in mixed company.

The statement, “god is great,” is an inherently divisive statement, because it translates into the statement, “My god, who I name ‘God’ is great, because it is my god.” Since there is not just one god, but an infinite number of possible gods, many of whom are mutually exclusive and none of which is established to be empirically true, the statement inherently creates disagreements and conflict between people.

Anyone, who has a different definition of god from the speaker, especially a mutually exclusive one will by necessity disagree with the speaker. As a result result the listener will either challenge the speaker’s strongly held beliefs, or suffer in silence in an attempt to avoid causing offense or be rejected by the speaker.

Disagreement wouldn’t be a problem if this conflict remained in the theoretical world of logic and philosophy. But unfortunately for us humans, our disagreements and differences of belief very frequently turn into violence and coercion.

As a result this statement can be the cause of a great deal of misery. Take for example a suicide bomber, who believes his or her god is so great that it leads the believer to kill themselves and others for disagreeing with the belief that their personal god is great.

It is remarkable how frail and weak people’s gods are that they constantly require humans to commit acts of violence and brutality against those who disbelieve, or refuse to accept the authority of the self appointed mouth pieces of a particular god. While in secular countries, like the United States of America, this disagreement generally remains an endlessly ongoing shouting match, in countries where one generalized god concept has a monopoly on force, it can cause the denial of the fundamental freedom to believe as our consciouses dictates as well as violent oppression against minority beliefs.

In fact in at least thirteen countries it is illegal and punishable by incarceration or corporal punishment to deny that a particular god concept, named “God,” is great. While some theist might think this a nifty idea when their general god is the one receiving state sponsorship, they are just as quick to scream persecution when the shoe is on the other foot.

So while one needn’t give up the belief in a god because of the problems inherent in the statement, “god is great,” it would be better for us all if we moved away from endlessly proclaiming such a divisive and meaningless statements as, “god is great.”

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Blasphemy in Oklahoma City: You Have The Right to be Offended 

Founding Father Thomas Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, wrote, “One man’s revelation is another man’s heresy.” While it’s certain these words, written in a French Jail cell, weren’t intended for the American Republic that Paine helped inspire, they are however applicable to the current political situation we live in today. Specifically, they apply to the uproar over Satanists using the Oklahoma CitySpace Theater for a black mass.

With the exception of religious fundamentalists, and revisionist historians like David Barton, most Americans recognize that our country was founded as a secular nation, all be it one with a Christian majority. But regardless of personal religious sentiment or lack there of, the founding fathers explicitly established a secular government by ratifying the First Amendment and its establishment clause.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines certain rights including the right to speak freely, the right to practice one’s religion, or not, and the right to be free from establishment, by the state or federal government, of a religion. What the First Amendment doesn’t protect is the right to be free from offense, or to prevent hearing speech religious or otherwise that one disagrees with.

Unfortunately, some people like Phyllis Zagano seem to believe that because they have a strongly held religious belief that it should receive special protection. Additionally, that those who hold a religious belief that differs from hers, and which Phyllis finds blasphemous should not be entitled to equal protection under the law, and should explicitly be precluded from freely speaking, or exercising their religious beliefs when those beliefs and statements rise to a level that Phyllis or others find offensive.

In a recent article for the National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis tries to argue that the Constitution should protect her from having to live in a world where other people have religious beliefs and practices that differ from her own. Specifically, Phyllis wants to shut down those nasty Satanists in Oklahoma, and prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights to freely speak and practice their religion.

http://ncronline.org/blogs/just-catholic/blasphemy-oklahoma-city

Unfortunately for Phyllis and the others like her, the First Amendment doesn’t protect her feelings, or allow her to shut down speech that she considers blasphemous, profane or heretical. In fact the First Amendment is designed to protect everyone from people exactly like Phyllis.

It’s clear from reading this article that Phyllis, like the countless other Christians, up in arms against the Satanists, don’t really understand the First or Fourteenth Amendment. Not one to let her ignorance on constitutional law prevent her from exercising her right to speech, Phyllis claims not only a right to be free from offense, but also the unique ability to determine what constitutes a legitimate religion and political speech. She asks. “Who can think Satanism is a religion?” “Who thinks a ‘black mass’ is political speech?”

Well Phyllis, to answer your question, I for one do. But I’m not alone, the United States Constitution, and a ton of legal precedent supports this belief. I, the City Manager, and countless others correctly understand that the First and Fourteenth Amendment does indeed protect what you term, “blasphemous hate speech.”

Oklahoma has anti-blaspheme laws, antiquated laws, which violate the First Amendment, by precluding people from freely exercising their right to freedom of speech and their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. More over, anti-blaspheme laws come into conflict with the Establishment Clause, which precludes the government from showing favor for one set of religious beliefs.

While Phyllis correctly identifies Oklahoma’s blasphemy laws as being old fashioned, she fails to recognize that they are also unconstitutional and urges that they be used to prevent Satanists from freely exercising their religious beliefs, and offending her religious sensitivities, by holding a black mass where they will step on a wafer, that Phyllis believes is magical.

This is a product of what can be termed Christian Privilege.

Because the United States has a Christian majority, Christians receive significant privilege. As a result unconstitutional laws such as anti-blasphemy laws, or laws that preclude atheists from holding public office remain on the books in a number of states. However, they are unconstitutional and while still effective, are not enforced, because enforcement would be a violation of the First Amendment. That theses laws continue to remain on the books, is not a sign of their constitutionality, but only further proof that a majority of elected officials don’t care enough to vote to remove them.

Ignoring her own hypocrisy, Phyllis asks, “Why don’t Catholics get ‘equal protection of the laws’?” The answer is, they do. There is no constitutional protection to be free from speech that one considered blasphemous and hurts the sentiments of religious people.

The reason her question is hypocritical, is because she tries to use the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, to deny equal protection of the First Amendment to people whose beliefs offend her. What Phyllis and others like her demand, is not equal protection, but the right to discriminate against others, because their words, actions, and beliefs are deemed offensive. Or more simply put, because she finds their revelations to be heretical.

If this were a question of Christians being unfairly arrested under anti-blaspheme laws, Phyllis might have a legitimate point by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment. However, this is not the case. There are no cases of Catholics being punished for blaspheme, even though I could make a good argument that Phyllis’s very statements, constitute the wonton uttering of contumelious reproach upon a religion other than Christianity, which arises to the definition of blaspheme under Oklahoma law.

The reality is that Catholics have the right to use the Oklahoma CitySpace Theater for a religious rite. Because Catholics are afforded this ability other religions get the same benefit.  Included in this are religions that preach or hold positions in opposition to Catholicism. By refusing to allow other religions equal access to State facilities, Oklahoma City would be effectively violating of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

Further to preclude speech on the basis that someone is offended would negate the very basis of the First Amendment’s right to free speech. Because the speech in question is religious in nature a preclusion on the basis that it’s offensive to other religions would also violate the free exercise and establishment clauses as well. This is a slippery slope that once started quickly ends in the United States looking like and Islamic Theocracy, with people being punished, for dissenting from the majority religious belief system, or merely saying they don’t believe in god(s).

As Paine said, “One man’s revelation is another man’s heresy,” meaning all religious speech, by its nature, is always going to be offensive to someone. Phyllis, who happens to be a member of the single largest sect of Christianity may be blind to the fact that some people find her opinions, beliefs, and religion offensive and blasphemous. But simply because her beliefs happens to be popular does not mean they receive special protections. The First Amendment was designed to prevent this type of slippery slope. Enshrined within that Amendment are a number of rights, but the right to not be offended, or to shut down speech on the basis of offense is not one of them.