For reference, the well-known Epicurean quote:
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
It seems to me that the omnipotence of God is a fundamental problem for theists—or, at least, a bigger problem than either side in the God debate typically recognizes. As Epicurus recognized, it leads to self-contradiction. Too often, atheists will let this issue slide without hammering on it enough, in my opinion. We're letting theists get away with acting like God is a limited being when, by their own definition of him as omnipotent, he is not. So what would it mean for a being to be omnipotent, really?
The full consequences of omnipotence are most relevant when discussing the problem of evil and the free will defense. We all know that most theists with at least a passing familiarity with apologetics will at some point say that free will is necessary in order for humans to learn, to be able to truly love, and to generally not be robots; and, as a consequence of free will, evil must be allowed to happen. On the face of it, this makes sense. But we are dealing with an omnipotent God here. If God exists and created the universe, he made all the rules; God does not follow any preexisting rules, since by definition no rules preexist God. So there is no law of the universe that says it is necessary for humans to suffer and die in order to learn or to love. God must have chosen this method, which would make him malevolent.
Perhaps someone could argue that there are no other options, that it's either free will or robots, and that to say otherwise is nonsensical, like the old "Can God create a rock so big he cannot lift it?" question. I don't think this is the case. First off, we can ask the theist if they believe God answers prayer. If he allows a plane to crash in order to preserve our free will, then every time he does answer a prayer or intervenes in any way on our behalf, it is a violation of our free will. But this is a bit of a "gotcha" argument, so let me move on to the heart of the matter. Free-will-or-robot is a false dichotomy because, once again, an omnipotent being is a part of the equation. God created all the circumstances under which humans operate. He created a world with hurricanes and landslides, he created a universe with no scientific evidence of himself, he allows humans to live and die entrenched in cultures that largely shape our worldview, and he created our species with the very psychological makeup that makes us prone to such arrangements. What becomes blatantly obvious is that we are not blank slates who live free lives made up of the sum of our own choices. Compared to God, we are very contingent beings with very few choices and very little ability to affect our own outcomes. And the party responsible for all of this is God himself. Much like ants in an ant farm have the "free will" to choose where they dig, we have, at best, what you could call directed or contingent free will, which is the middle ground we inhabit between godlike free will and robots.
I can think of at least one other way omnipotence leads to a self-contradiction: the omniscient (all-knowing, or all-wise) component of an omnipotent being is problematic, because what things exist outside of God for God to know about? What conditions can he be wise about? There are none that he has not himself created! At best, we can say that it is irrelevant to speak of God's wisdom in a theological or philosophical context.
What are your thoughts? Do you take omnipotence to its full logical conclusions when debating theists? I'd love for people to hone or add to my musings on this topic.
Yes, Bob, it's likely that everyone who's ever studied philosophy or theology is more than merely interested and must be a secret believer. Sam Harris and Bart Ehrman are basically popes on the inside. You seem pretty deeply concerned about atheism, being on a site like this. You sure you're a theist?
The many "problems" with the big western religions gnawed at some of us indoctrinated for years. When we started digging in to it, the house of cards crumbles. Then we have to disappoint our loved ones...to be honest.
If you don't believe in the fundamentals of your own religion why not just kick the habit (get it !). Even the beatified Momma Tessy was a skeptic of sorts....
"Such deep longing for God -- and ... repulsed -- empty -- no faith -- no love -- no zeal. Saving souls holds no attraction -- Heaven means nothing -- pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."
"I utter words of community prayers -- and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give -- but my prayer of union is not there any longer -- I no longer pray."
In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”
I think you're mistaking theological abstractions like your modern English definition of "omnipotent" with the fundamentals of our religion. Theology, like science, is a human explanation. It can be incomplete, it can be wrong, it can merely be conjecture or an interesting notion.
Doubt, questioning, loneliness, loss... all of these are very human, and a sign of honest faith. Skepticism, atheism included.
The folks to beware of are the ones who are convinced that their human notions are absolutely right, and who stop doubting their own understanding. At the point when you are certain that atheism is right, or you are certain that the bible is literally true in all particulars, that's when you've lost your way.
Is it wrong to try and understand the platform of religious thought? I dare say most atheists ponder the details of religious belief much more than the average theist and for good reason. If it cannot hold up to the scrutiny of logic and reasoning why would one place any credence in it? The inconsistencies of religious thought are probably best just left alone by the majority of theists. Religious indoctrination and the resulting 'faith' of the masses ensures issues of critical thought and reason remain mostly irrelevant.
"Christian faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of learning dogma by rote. It is a matter of the individual repeatedly renewing h/er passionate subjective relationship to an object which can never be known, but only believed in. This belief is offensive to reason, since it only exists in the face of the absurd (the paradox of the eternal, immortal, infinite God being incarnated in time as a finite mortal)." (source)
So, basically, to the theist, the measure of his faith is the enormity of the untenability of what he believes. The more absurd the belief which he holds, the greater the demonstration of his faith.
This is interesting because if Kierkegaard is correct, apologists are not true theists since they attempt to prove that the claims of their religion are NOT absurd, but rational.
Mmm with Kierkegaard it's a little more involved then that. He really means that you have to be an idiot to accept God and he really means that it's good to be an idiot. His texts are long and often descends into obscurantism just when you need meat on the bone the most. Sentences like:
In the deepest sense, the being in a state of sin is the sin, the particular sins are not the continuation of sin, they are expressions of its continuation [wtf?]
I am so stupid that I cannot understand philosophy, the antithesis of this is that philosophy is so clever that it cannot comprehend my stupidity. These antitheses are mediated in a higher unity in our common stupidity. [yes we are stupid for taking this seriously]
and if you really feel like a whopper of a challenge...try to make sense of this (fully well knowing that he purposely never makes it clear what the world of spirit means and that he has attributed dozens of conflicting qualities to spirit and the world of spirit:
The Christian God is spirit and Christianity is spirit, and there is discord between the flesh and the spirit but the flesh is not the sensuous-it is the selfish. In this sense, even the spiritual can become sensuous-for example, if a person took his spiritual gifts in vain, he would then be carnal. And of course I know that it is not necessary for the Christian that Christ must have been physically beautiful; and it would be grievous-for a reason different from the one you give-because if beauty were some essential, how the believer would long to see him; but from all this it by no means follows that the sensuous is annihilated in Christianity. The first love has the element of beauty in itself, and the joy and fullness that are in the sensuous in its innocence can very well be caught up in Christianity. But let us guard against one thing, a wrong turn that is more dangerous than the one you wish to avoid; let us not become too spiritual. [let the word spiritual f**k off forever from the sea of meaninglessness that it came from]
"So, basically, to the theist, the measure of his faith is the enormity of the untenability of what he believes. The more absurd the belief which he holds, the greater the demonstration of his faith."
It is hard for me to wrap my head around that type of thinking. Perhaps it is not thinking at all but rather blind obedience to religious tradition.
Think of contrary facts as temptation.
I tend to agree with @Davis. Kierkegaard I find to be completely convoluted and opaque. I'm sure there are some interesting ideas embedded in his obscurantist prose, but I find it mind-numbing to try to sift through. Plus, you really need to read him in the original; the translations are very poor.
The early mono-theist's grandest mistake was assigning omnipotence to their God. At least when there were several gods, there was more wiggle room for opinions wrt which behavior is "best".
Notice that Dr. Bob can laugh at people who would discuss the meaning of omnipotence, but I doubt he can answer the questions reasonably, either. (Which is the point, after all... there are no reasonable answers in these stories crafted by mortal beings.)
Does Dr. Bob ever actually answer any question? It would be really lovely if there were a theist who could challenge us by answering questions with an answer which answered the question and also challenged us.