People are dead because a few idiots thought that a particular god was offended by their actions. Unfortunately, this is not a novel occurrence in human history. On a scale from the denial of basic civil rights to genocide, the list of atrocities committed in the name of God is endless. For as long as humans have anthropomorphized our understanding of the metaphysical world, some of us have used the ostensible will of our particularity deity or deities to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be completely indefensible.
The problem with this “logic” is that reprehensible behavior, even if justified by a perceived divine command, is still inexcusable. Here are three reasons why.
We Do Not Hear Directly from God
Whatever specific claims a religion might make about their deity, all religions claim some level of supernatural ability for their god(s). My own faith, Christianity, claims omnipotence. We believe in one God, who can do anything God wants to do. Curiously, however, neither our God nor anyone else’s uses this supernatural power to communicate with us in obvious, incontrovertible ways.
Considering the claims some make about how strongly their particular god feels about things, this is a little surprising. If, for instance, the bark on every single tree read “Give to the poor or I will be angry,” charitable giving might go up considerably. If the words “Keep the Sabbath holy” hung in fiery letters in the sky every Friday evening at sundown, Shabbat meals would be the norm all over the world. I shudder to think of the impact of creating us with warnings against promiscuity pre-inscribed on certain parts of our bodies.
Yet this is not how God communicates. We do not have obvious proclamations that are unquestionably of divine origin. What we have is tradition, the history of the members of our community of faith constantly seeking to know the will of God and recording that very human effort in scripture and liturgy. Human writings created by human hands using human language and mediated by human teachers, that is all that we have.
Some members of some traditions claim otherwise. They assert that their scriptures were actually composed, or dictated, or directly and verbatim inspired, by God. This assertion is fine for comforting and reassuring the faithful, and for guiding adherents in the management of their interior life of faith. If, however, a person wants to act in a way that restricts the rights of another person, harms another person, or – God forbid – kills another person, an unsubstantiated claim of divine authorship for a religion’s teachings is not good enough. If an all-powerful God, or even a moderately powerful hedge deity, really wants you to oppress or kill someone, then God had better make it abundantly clear in some supernatural and indisputable way. Holding up a piece of paper and claiming “God wrote this” is simply not adequate justification for harming another human being.
People of Faith Constantly Reinterpret Their Teachings
Besides the obvious reason to question the sanity of committing murder based on unproven claims of divine authority, there is justification for caution from within our faith traditions as well. Even the religions that make the most strident claims about the immutability of their scriptures have modified their interpretation of those Scriptures over time. The Roman Catholic Church now recognizes that the Sun is the center of our solar system. The Southern Baptist Convention, despite being founded solely for the purpose of defending slavery, has repudiated both slavery and racism. Even the most doctrinaire of faiths change their normative interpretations over time.
Beyond the proven history of reinterpretation, there is also the matter of a lack of consensus even (or especially) among the most devout. Gather any three Orthodox Jews together and ask them about halakah and the use of electricity on the Sabbath, and be prepared for three different answers – all based on the Torah. Ask a Sunni scholar and a Shi’a scholar about taqiyya in times of oppression, and their Koranic interpretations will likely take very different directions. Try getting the aforementioned Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists to come to a biblical consensus on the Eucharist.
Even if one were to concede the unprovable assertion that a faiths’s scriptures and/or traditions were divinely authored, there remains the inarguable fact that the contents of those scriptures and traditions are sufficiently ambiguous that even the most devout cannot agree on what they mean. This is fine if the topic at hand is whether or not to flip a light switch on Saturday morning. It is problematic, however, when the topic is murder. Simply put, if the purported claims of a deity are not so abundantly clear that every single person who encounters them agrees on exactly what they mean, then those claims are not clear enough to justify oppression, violence, or murder.
Speaking as a member of the clergy who has also served as a soldier, this seems like an obvious minimum standard. If a military order came down about a building, and three different officers read the order and came up with three different interpretations – attack the building, leave the building alone, and protect the troops inside the building – moving forward with an attack would be unjustifiable. The same is true with any act of violence or oppression committed in the name of God.
God Does Not Need Our Help
This is even more evident in view of what it means to be God in the first place. Assuming that a deity is worthy of worship, they must have some level of power over the world in which we live. In decades of studying religion, I have yet to encounter any group that burned incense to Bernard the Ineffectual, God of Weakness and Passivity. For a being to be worthy of our worship, they must have power. We seek the divine because we want to draw closer to the metaphysical power of creation, to our own Creator, to the guiding forces of the universe. We only worship gods who have power.
If a being with that level of power finds something offensive, then – by definition – they have the ability to do something about it. If God thinks blasphemers should be struck dead, then God, who has the power of life and death, has the option of doing so. If God thinks those who dress in revealing ways should suffer excruciating pain, God has the ability to make that happen instantly and incurably. If God is the one who is offended, God has the power to act. God has no need of us taking offense and acting of our own accord. Besides, even our best efforts would pale compared to the power of divine wrath, assuming that’s what God really wants. Any god incapable of divine retribution for blasphemy – and who therefore relies on puny humans to do the dirty work – is a weak and impotent god in the first place, one unworthy of worship or sacrifice.
People of faith might recognize a flaw in this argument. Presumably the power of any god worth worshiping is not just limited to divine retribution. Such a god is also capable of performing miraculous deeds of beneficence, curing all illnesses, feeding all who hunger, and protecting all who are in need. If God wants these things done, shouldn’t we also leave them to God? If we are not expected to emulate or embody God’s wrath, why should it be necessary for us to act as instruments of God’s benevolence?
As a person of faith myself, I would like to propose a simple way to resolve this inconsistency. Recognizing the previous points about the inherent ambiguity of religious tradition, the only instances in which we should act towards others on behalf of God are those times when those same people ask us to do so. If we believe God wants everyone to be fed, and someone asks us for food, we should feed them. If we believe God values mercy, and someone comes to us seeking a second chance, we should offer it. If we believe God is a God of hope, then our words and our actions should restore those who come to us because they feel hopeless.
Setting this simple distinction, that it our duty to act on the will of God only when it does not impose violence on another person, or act in some other way against their wishes, allows us to continue to have a living faith that requires us to act, but prevents us from allowing our flawed human intellect from bringing more evil and cruelty into the world. If everything our respective religions have taught us about God is true, then that’s a line God would never want us to cross in the first place.