Does God pose an authority problem for you?

I’m going to steal this entire post from Tough Questions Answered to get a conversation started:

Many of the people I know who reject God or who have crafted a God that makes no demands on them have a fundamental problem with authority.  They don’t want anybody telling them what to do.

For a person who wants complete autonomy, who chafes at the thought of anyone having authority over them, a creator God who makes demands is way inconvenient.

Many people who believe in God, but also have this authority hang-up, create their own version of God.  This God gives them what they want when they want it.  He approves of everything they do, as long as they are just trying to be happy.  He encourages them to follow their desires, wherever they lead.  C. S. Lewis compared this God to a senile, old grandfather who never says “no” to his grandchildren.  You want chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  No problem!

Is this the Christian God?  Philosopher Paul Moser answers the question:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans.  Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans.  Since we humans aren’t God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.

If you are “worshiping” a God who makes no demands on you, you’re worshiping no God at all.  You’re just trying to find a deity to make you feel good about your selfish choices.  What’s the point?

I’m posting this because I’m looking for comments. Do you know anyone like this? I’ll help by getting you started with some sample atheists.

Famous atheists agree: God is not the boss of them

Consider the words of Thomas Nagel, a famous atheist philosopher:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)”

He is a widely respected atheist. He once named Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of the Times Literary Supplement’s best books of the year.

And what about atheist Richard Lewontin: (and by “science” he means “naturalistic science”)

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our own a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, not matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.” (Richard Lewontin in New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, p. 28)

Interesting. He’s willing to tell people lies to keep the Divine Foot outside the door.

And one last one from Aldous Huxley:

“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantegous to themselves… For myself, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” — Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means, 1937

So this is pretty widespread among famous atheists. How about among ordinary atheists?

Survey says

Additionally, atheists are not as charitable as religious people:

Arthur Brooks’ survey showed that atheists certainly give less in charity and do less community service as religious people on the right and left.


Drawing on some ten data sets, Brooks finds that religiosity is among the best predictors of charitable giving. Religious Americans are not only much more likely to give money and volunteer their time to religious and secular institutions, they are also more likely to provide aid to family members, return incorrect change, help a homeless person, and donate blood. In fact, despite expecting to find just the opposite, Brooks concluded: “I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people.”

Consider some examples. Religious citizens who make $49,000 gave away about 3.5 times as much money as secular citizens with the same income. They also volunteered twice as often, are 57 percent more likely to help homeless persons, and two-thirds more likely to give blood at their workplace. Meanwhile, those who insist that “beliefs don’t matter as long as you’re a good person” are not as good as those who do think beliefs matter. The former group gave and volunteered at much lower rates.

Yet even these findings tend to obscure the impact of religion on charity. This is because some of the survey respondents that Brooks classified as secular are indirectly affected by religion if they were raised in a religious household.

Atheists also divorce more than committed Christians:


It’s a number that is trumpeted from the rooftops — and the pulpit: Half of marriages among Christians and non-Christians alike end in divorce.

But the reality is that Christians who attend church regularly get divorced at a much lower rate.

Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, found that among people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, 60 percent have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, found a nearly identical spread between “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church and people with no religious affiliation.

Professor Scott Stanley from the University of Denver, who is working on the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, said couples with a vibrant religious faith have more and higher levels of the qualities that marriages need to avoid divorce.

“Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction,” he said. “These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education and age at first marriage.”

My survey of atheists

I like to find out what atheists are really thinking. So a while back, I did this massive survey of the atheists in my life, and this fear of authority (and morality) seemed to be the central belief animating atheism.

Here’s Question 11:

What is your purpose in life, and why did you choose that purpose? Is it just yours, or for everyone else too?

And these were the responses:

  • Mine is to feel good about myself and to feel respected by others.
  • Mine is to enjoy it. I’d hope that I go about it in a way that doesn’t interfere with others enjoyment and that when it does we can compromise.
  • Mine is to relieve inordinate suffering, while leaving room for constructive suffering that lead to creativity and progress. Based on empathy.
  • Mine is to help the species survive by having lots of children, because that lasts after you die
  • Each person decides for themselves. My purpose is to have happy feelings
  • My purpose is to have happy feelings by doing what most of the other people are doing and avoiding social disapproval
  • I have no “objective” purpose. I do what I can to be happy, all things considered.
  • To live as contented as possible. To find answers to big questions. To prepare my children for adulthood. I chose these things because that’s what I like. I don’t care what another’s purpose is as long as they don’t harm anyone.
  • My purpose is to seek happiness while doing no harm (or as little harm as is it may be possible to do) for as long as I’m alive. Of course it’s just my own purpose – I can’t presume to choose another’s purpose. That being said, I do presume everyone has more or less the same goal of happiness and fulfillment, but the precise methods of going about it are always going to vary from person to person.
  • I want to be happy. I generally like other people, and I want them to be happy too.

Here’s Question 12:

Suppose Jesus appeared to us right now and addressed you directly with the following words: “I’m really here and you need to follow me in order to flourish and achieve the goal for which I created you”. He then glares suspiciously at me, snatches a few fries from my plate, eats them, and then disappears. Later on, the Ghostbusters show up and confirm that Jesus was no ghost, but really God stepping into history. And everyone in the restaurant saw and heard exactly what you and I saw and heard. How would you proceed? How would you find out what to do? (i.e. – the atheist now knows Christianity is true, and I want to see what they think they should do in order to act like a Christian)

And these were the responses:

  • I have no idea
  • I would not follow. My own goals are all that I have, and all that I would continue to have in that unlikely situation. I would not yield my autonomy to anyone no matter what their authority to command me
  • I would not follow, because God doesn’t want humans to act any particular way, and he doesn’t care what we do
  • I would not follow. Head is spinning. Would go to physician to find out if hallucinating.
  • If I found there was no trickery? I’d have to change my mind wouldn’t I! Not really likely though is it?
  • I would keep doing what I am doing now, acting morally. That’s what all religions want anyway. (In response to my triumphant scribbling, he realized he had fallen into a trap and changed his answer to the right answer) Oh, wait. I would try to try to find out what Jesus wanted and then try to do that.
  • I hope I would be courageous enough to dedicate my life to rebellion against God.
  • I would not have to change anything unless forced to and all that would change is my actions not my values.  I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran.
  • He would have to convince me that what he wants for me is what I want for me.

Here’s Question 13:

What would be the most difficult thing about becoming a Christian for you? Would it be the moral demands? The demands on your time? The unpopularity, humiliation and persecution that you would face? How would you feel about publicly declaring your allegiance for Christ and facing the consequences? (i.e. – they have become a Christian, what is the most difficult adjustment from your current life?)

And these were the responses:

  • I don’t know
  • It would not be that big of a change for me. I already act morally, I’m already public about my beliefs, and I don’t care what people think about what I believe. I don’t mind disagreeing with people and being unpopular for it. I think the 10 commandments are good. I could find out what to do and start doing those things.
  • I would not be able to believe in miracles, so there would be cognitive dissonance
  • Sacrificing my personal moral standards to take up a standard from a book that is very old and outdated
  • The most difficult would be the fact that I believe something without good evidence.
  • I work many hours a week for institutions and organizations that are charitable. I’m certainly not going to swap those for hours for “prayer time” and waste them.
  • I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran. Obviously, it is possible that if I became a Christian, then I would have different values then I have now.
  • The most difficult thing would be trying to believe the ridiculous claims of Christianity. As for what a Christian finds difficult, how would I know?
  • I could never obey God from gratitude and love, only from servility inspired by fear and cowardice. I do not see myself as servile, fearful or cowardly, and to behave in such a manner would injure my self-esteem and self-image.

So you might be surprised to know that even if Christianity were true, atheists have no intention of changing the way they live. That’s the real issue – and that should be scary for any atheist to realize. If they just cracked open a Bible and read Romans 1, that should be enough to scare the crap out of them – because it’s pretty obvious what is going on with humans – all of us have an authority problem. And a lot of the learning and striving that atheists do is just an effort to get people to think that they are so great and successful after they’ve dumped their relationship with God.

I hope that more atheists look in the mirror and are honest with themselves about what’s really going on. Is it really such a terrible thing to have a relationship with the person who cares the most about you and wants the best for you? Is fun really that important that people have to push away a real, significant, eternal relationship just because it requires self-denial? If I didn’t embrace chastity, as God wishes, where would I get to time to do the really heroic things I do – and how could I concern myself with a woman’s real moral and spiritual needs if I got into the habit of using them selfishly? You can’t experience imitating God when you shut him out. And that’s what we are all here to do – to know him, to be his friend, to act in a way that allows us to feel what he feels, and to have sympathy with him.

13 thoughts on “Does God pose an authority problem for you?”

  1. If a Conscious, Choice-making Authority like God exists, then of course we all just have to deal. But it would be a very hard situation. We would have to either seek his favor, rebel, or hope to hell we’re wrong about his existence. In no case can we love all our neighbors, because, in this world, we know God has not set things up as lovingly as he could have. To follow him, we have to forget about our siblings in the basement.

    So, given the fact of unnecessary, horrendous suffering of innocents in our world, the existence of any Authority like God places us in a bind. If he was all-good, we could follow him without a pinch. But we just know that God plays favorites. He is not as loving as he could be. He has included far more suffering for our fellows than he would ever need for any purpose.

    So, Christians must choose, as in Luke 14:26. We can love God or love our neighbor, but not both. This is the central contradiction of Christianity. Jesus said the First and Second great commandments were equal, but this can not be the case. If we love God, we are approving of his scheme. And we just know that his scheme is needlessly cruel to our neighbors. If God can not reduce suffering any further, then he is weak. In fact, we would be more powerful because we can reduce suffering with Tylenol. It seems that God simply chooses excess suffering.

    To be a Christian, we must choose between God and our fellows. It is Sophie’s choice. We can choose God, but we give up Goodness. We are following mere power. There is nothing in Christianity that sets a minimum number of saved. We could end up alone in heaven with God. You better love Power if that happens.


    1. I think that you misunderstand Christianity. It is a VERY good thing for people who rebel against God to be separated from him. The alternative is that the people who don’t want God are forced against their will to be with him eternally. No authentic Christian feels badly for people who refuse God. That’s their choice, and they get the consequences. It’s fair, because they chose it.


        1. No need to pity nonbelievers. There is no safe bet, so we’re no worse off than you or anyone else. You could end up in Muslim hell. Or you could end up in heaven alone with God. That’s what being a good Christian means: trusting God no matter what.

          Of course, Christians think the chances of that are low. They feel certain that enough of their loved ones will join them in paradise that the cries of the Others won’t bother them.

          And atheists think the chances that a god fitting the OT existing are low. And that, even if Yahweh is real, paradise would be a prison, especially for Second-Great-Commandment/love-your-neighbor Christians who would weep for those in hell, or try to join them to serve water. Which is what Jesus would do, at least in some of his moods.


      1. > It’s fair, because they chose it.

        This doesn’t follow at all. It really depends on what the consequences are. If God lets the atheists evaporate, perhaps it’s fair. But eternal torment for being a good Hindu?

        The issue is not whether God has set things up fairly. It is whether he has set them up as fairly, and as lovingly, as he could have.


        1. Why do you think that God is interested in whether people are good or not? That’s not the Christian view. On the Christian view, God is interested primarily in accurate beliefs about his existence and character, and a response of active love and obedience. Hindus neither know God, nor do they love him as he really is.

          What does the Bible say? Look at the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40:

          36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

          37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

          38 This is the first and greatest commandment.

          39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

          40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

          I think that the first part of loving God if you are not sure he is there is to have an open mind about his existence and character, and a willingness to re-prioritize your life in case he is there and has a personality different from yours. People have a rational obligation to conduct an inquiry without pre-judging what the outcome will be. If people settle on a false set of beliefs, it doesn’t matter how nice they are – that’s not what God is looking for. Everyone has to answer the question that Jesus asked of Peter in Luke 18. “Who do you say that I am?”


  2. Short version: For Good to mean anything, we have to measure it by something other than itself. If God is the Ultimate Authority, then we can not say he is good. He is simply God.

    Americans know this in their bones. We know that power must be derived from the people, bottom-up. Any top-down authority that is not accountable to something other than itself is mere power.

    That’s why any Divine Law is useless in a free society. Since humans disagree about what they are, imposing them would be a form of oppression, even if they were genuine. So it seems that, even if an absolute morality existed, we would still have to settle for man-made, provisional systems if we want to avoid authoritarianism. Freedom includes the right to be wrong.

    We can have God or Goodness. God or freedom. But not both.


    1. The orthodox view is that the standard of good flows from God’s own moral nature. He is the standard, and there is nothing outside of him that defines good and evil. Since he designed us (and the universe), his notion of what we ought to do and how the universe ought to be is the only one that matters.


  3. 1) I notice C.S.Lewis’s senile grandfather God is most common among churchian feminism. It seems to be a case of ‘God will forgive me so I don’t have to change.’
    2) I’ve seen the 38% divorce rate before. It is atrocious that some people try to tout it as positive compared to secular culture, rather than a travesty every church should be scrambling to rectify.
    3) Pertaining to question 12, did the some of the atheists not understand the precepts of Christianity?


  4. ‘Suppose Jesus appeared to us right now and addressed you directly with the following words: “I’m really here and you need to follow me in order to flourish and achieve the goal for which I created you”. He then glares suspiciously at me, snatches a few fries from my plate, eats them, and then disappears.’

    The question is unfairly posed.

    If Jesus were to show up in person, he might very well say something “Christians” wouldn’t like, e.g. “Follow me, and by the way, the Bible is mistranslated and garbled.”

    It’s all too easy to say, “Find out what Jesus would want and do that.” In fact, the nature of the Christian religion has a massive problem, and that problem is rational, intelligent people disagree about what Jesus wants.


  5. Yes, it’s not really about belief or disbelief, but it’s definitely a question of submission or rebellion. I think many atheists would agree with this.

    Maybe the atheists think they’re obeying the real authority – materialistic nature – and they’re just rebelling against human authority, insofar as humans made up the Bible and all.


  6. @ Jack Dublin:
    1) As I understand C.S. Lewis, God is not senile. Supposedly, God saves people who give a proper response to His General Revelation, if that is what they have, but punishes those who have rejected His Special Revelation, when He has given it to them. A person who is forgiven is repentant. It is definitely unfortunate that people think they can go on sinning!
    2) The argument is that this is better than what is going on in the secular world, correct? Although this should be taken care of, that is not the point of the argument.
    3) I shouldn’t speak for Wintery Knight, but with how modern atheism is going (cf. the Lawyer Analogy), I wouldn’t be surprised if only 12% or fewer understood the precepts.

    @ zhai2nan2:
    You say Jesus would tell people that the Bible is garbled. We are certain that the Old Testament is 90% textually pure. All of this “corruption” is on par with simple spelling errors that wouldn’t make any more a difference than if I “sp3113d l!k3 th0s3 TR011S wh0 th!nk th4t l337 sp34k !s kewl.” The same is true of the New Testament, but with a much smaller margin of error; it is 99% pure. You’re exaggerating.
    Actually, all the Churches agree on a set of key doctrines:
    1) There is only one God.
    2) God manifests as three persons.
    3) Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
    4) The Bible in its original form is inerrant, even if we accept that the Bible has been corrupted (uide supra).
    5) All people are sinners, in need of salvation.
    6) Salvation is God’s work alone. Even with Roman Catholics, who believe that after the Original Sin has been taken away (an act of grace), and doing good works will give more grace, believe this. If any doctrine seems in doubt, it is because of a complex question (“How do faith and works interact?” “How should we interpret this portion of the Bible?” etc.) and the answer given. As of yet, the closest thing to evidence for this assertion seems to be the range of possible interpretation on these questions.

    @ John Moore:
    I don’t think I understand. Can nature really be an authority? If it is, then we’ve fallen out of atheism, and into a type of Panpsychic Pantheism. Could you clarify?


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