Either God is imperfect, God does not exist, or God did not create the physical world. Such is the conclusion to which we are driven by one of the most compelling atheist arguments. The argument from perfection is closely related to the well-known “problem of evil”, but its unavoidable conclusion is more devastating to theism. It forces us to admit that if God exists, either he did not create the world, or he did so imperfectly.
Yet a God who is imperfect or not the Creator is not really God at all, and hardly worth worshiping. What follows is a recap of the argument as I presented it a few years ago in Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism. After examining the weaknesses of believing in ghosts and imperfect deities, I turned to the question of God.
In fact, the case for God is weaker than that for Aphrodite. Not only does God come with all the difficulties of ghosts and goddesses, but God is defined with two additional attributes which make his existence even less likely: God is perfect, and God supposedly created the natural world.
A perfect being created an imperfect world? On its face that would seem to be impossible. —Which is enough by itself to render the case for God weaker than the case for Minerva and Mithra, who to their benefit aren’t saddled with perfection.
Theists like to tell themselves there is a way around the perfection problem. One option is to deny that God is perfect. But that demotes him to a god, cavorting (probably) after every Venus or Virgin Mary he sees. Most theists can readily see the problem with adopting this particular option.
A second option is to admit that the world is imperfect but insist that God is not responsible. God created a perfect world, but it “fell” because one of the free beings in that world chose—freely—to disobey God. But this “free will defense” completely misses the problem. Sure, it might explain imperfect decisions made by certain sentient species, but it completely ignores the massively larger and more important imperfection which is the result of the world’s flawed design.
Almost every living thing in existence, due to its inherent physical nature, must eat some other living thing in order to survive. This isn’t the result of disobeying God. It’s the result of anatomy and physiology. It can’t be blamed on sin. It can only be blamed on God—if God is the creator.
My moral decisions can’t change the fact that other living things need to eat me to survive, or that I need to eat other living things to survive. The world of life is designed on deadly competition at its core.
The concept of “the fall” is thus laughably inadequate to explain the imperfection of the world. The only option that remains is for the theist to argue that the world “is the best of all possible worlds”—that a perfect God could do no better.
But this approach only works if we lack imagination. For example, we don’t usually think about it, but in the world we have around us physics trumps everything, even morality. For example, a criminal with a gun can kill a Pope or a saint as easily as he can kill another criminal. To kill the saint all he must do is aim the gun at the right part of the body. Physics is no respecter of goodness.
But why not? Why didn’t God create a world in which goodness trumped physics? In our fantasies and movies, in fact, that is what we often make happen. If he had enough imagination, God could have codified the nature of things so that violence never paid. So that when the bullet from the gun of the criminal reached the body of the saint, it suddenly jumped to the body of the criminal instead. Morality would then trump physics. In such a world violence could only be inflicted on oneself. Or, to put it another way, violent perpetrators would receive immediate punishment, exactly proportional to the harm they would have caused. Since God created physics, he certainly could have chosen to allow goodness to trump it.
Isn’t that the way it is, supposedly, in Heaven?
The advocates of “the best of all possible worlds” excuse have one more shot. Earth isn’t perfect, they explain, because it’s a testing ground for souls. In order to find out which of the “free will” beings he created are ready for the perfection of heaven, this argument goes, God created earth as a kind of testing ground or “vale of soul-making”—something along those lines. But a world that doesn’t need a testing ground is clearly more perfect than one which does, just as a factory which produces cars which don’t need to be tested for defects is more perfect than a factory whose output can’t be trusted. But beyond that, this argument still fails to account for embedded imperfection of the world mentioned earlier. How can earth be an adequate testing ground for heaven if in fact it’s nothing like heaven? If a car is built for the road, it needs to be tested on a road—not by dropping it into a volcano. That’s the wrong kind of test.
Other problems with the soul-testing hypothesis abound. If the idea of the test is to help God determine which free-will souls are inherently good and which are only good for an ulterior motive, then it would be essential that the souls being tested not know they are being tested. It would be best, in fact, for the souls not to even know there’s an afterlife or a God: only then could God be sure their goodness was inherent and genuine, not gamed for the test.
There is also the difficulty which results from God’s prescience. if God has foreknowledge of human events then there is simply no need to run any kind of earthly test. If God feels compelled to run the test anyway despite knowing exactly how it will come out, then it raises the serious difficulty of human freedom. It would appear that choices which are foreknown are effectively foreordained. We can not be free to change our behavior during our “test” because to do so would turn God from infallible to fallible. It would destroy divine perfection.
Other difficulties: why does God only test human embryos and fetuses for a few days or months—completing the trial even before they are born—yet spend 80 years testing the soul of a mass-murderer? Makes one suspect its not testing that’s going on at all. Then there’s the whole problem of natural disasters. Why must a 3-year old child be burned by molten lava, crushed by an earthquake, or racked with leukemia or some other incurable disease? Can there be a legitimate point to such a “test”? Isn’t it obvious that no imaginable future could make a milkshake of perfection out of such experiences.
That is the problem with sentient experience: it is real. What is experienced is really experienced; it can’t be undone. The Biblical story of Job is very instructive here. In a single day, as part of a test (the product of a little side-bet between God and Satan) Job suffers the loss of his livestock, the death of most of his servants, then the death of his ten children. But it’s ok. Because in the end, God “makes it all right” by giving him new livestock, new servants, and new children.
Could that in any way make up for the emotional pain Job endured—could it really bring things back to the way they were before God and Devil entered into their evil little agreement? New sons and daughters are nice, but still, still the first ten died. They lost their lives. And Job suffered the loss. Nothing ever undid that suffering or those lost lives: nothing could ever undo it.
When a child is lost to a tornado or a washed-out bridge, how can the pain of the loss ever be undone. There is only one way: to make it so the loss and the pain never occur in the first place. Wiping away the memory of it, even that is not enough: the loss is still a loss even if the survivors don’t remember. (If anything the loss is greater—more tragic—for not even being remembered.)
This world can’t be the best of all worlds because, put simply, it is too easy to improve upon it. One less deadly hurricane or lightning strike or killer virus. One less fetus lost to natural abortion. In fact, humans have proven time and again by the application of technology that the world can be improved. Every levee or dam, every medical advance, every hurricane warning, every antibiotic improves on God’s original creation and prevents evils which God allows.
This is the point at which theists usually throw up their hands and declare that God’s perfection is beyond human understanding.
When I hear this it always sounds like a concession: an admission that their story about God “doesn’t make sense” as far as human reason is concerned.
But to say “only God can understand it” doesn’t work against the argument from perfection. The reason is pretty simple. A world whose perfection is evident to God but not evident to the sentient beings he created is not as perfect as a world whose perfection is evident to both its creator and the creatures within it.
The problem is that as soon as God creates other sentient beings, the world has to be perfect not just for God but for those other sentient beings as well. God’s perspective is no longer the only one that exists. Even to argue that in the end those beings will also see the perfection of the world—that doesn’t work, because in a truly perfect world its perfection would be evident from the beginning. A perfect world would be perfect all along, to everyone’s experience, beginning to end.
To tell Job, for instance, after the death of his 10 children not to worry, that he will eventually experience perfection—that doesn’t work. The loss of his children and the sorrow he experienced from it was still real, not to mention the experiences of the children and servants who were killed. There was no perfection for them even if God thinks otherwise. When their lives came into existence their point of reference also came into existence, and from that moment on God’s point of reference is no longer the only one. Perfection has to be perfection for everyone.
There is really no way to get around the common sense observation that a perfect God would create a perfect world, and that our world isn’t perfect. And that our experience, our human point of view, is just as valid as God’s when it comes to the experience of evil. Perhaps mores so. If only God experiences the world’s perfection, then things are indeed imperfect.
To put the Argument from Perfection into a logical form:
1 – There is a God.
2 – This God is perfect.
3 – And created sentient beings and the world which these beings experience.
4 – But this world sometimes causes terrible experiences due to its design.
5 – What is terrible is imperfect.
6 – Imperfections cannot be the result of perfection.
7 – Given that 4 is confirmed by human experience and 5 & 6 are true by definition, it follows that either 1, 2, or 3 must be false.
8 – Therefore either God does not exist, God is imperfect, or God is not the creator.
One obvious solution for the theist is simply to admit that God is imperfect. But this strikes me as very unsatisfactory—why would I or anyone else want to worship an imperfect being? We might as well worship each other if we are going to worship imperfection. We know with certainty that our fellow human beings exist, and we already care about them. Why not redirect our worship to earth and ourselves if, after all, there is no perfection elsewhere.
If we worship an imperfect God, how do we know we are not worshipping the devil? How can we be certain we have not thrown our support to the author of all that is evil? Why should we give allegiance to a being who is at worst our enemy and at best indifferent to sentient creatures like us.
Another solution—to me just as unsatisfactory—is the Manichaean or Zoroastrian approach. Theirs is a worldview which essentially sets up two cosmic Creators, one good and one evil, who battle for control of the world. In Manicheaism what is spiritual (God) is good and what is material (Satan) is evil. Similiarly, in Zoroastrianism Ahura Madza is the good creator, Ahriman the evil principle. Both religions involve multiple deities and the rejection of monotheism.
Admittedly, the Christian concept of the devil reminds us of the polytheism of Zoroaster and Mani, and likely borrowed from them. But the Christian devil is not a full-fledged God, only a rebellious angel. Though he causes mischief and waylays those who fall for his beguiling temptations, in Christianity God—not devil—is responsible for the nature of the physical world.
By abandoning monotheism, the Problem of Perfection can be avoided. But it seems to me that it comes at the cost of coherence. The hypothesis of a single, perfect Creator holds the promise of a unitary, satisfying explanation for existence—that is its appeal over polytheism. If instead we hypothesize two Creators, one responsible for good and the other for evil, we are left wondering why. Where did these two opposites come from, how did they originate? Is two enough? Indeed, why stop at two. Why not imagine a God for each and every opposite trait: good and evil, justice and injustice, action and inaction, wisdom and folly, strength and weakness, and so on. Before we know it, we need the full pantheon of the Greeks and Romans.
Furthermore, Manichaeism sets our physical body at war with our spirit, evil against good, and although Christianity has never quite managed to extricate itself from the conflict of body with soul, it has mostly managed to substitute an uneasy peace between them. I can see no advantage, and no appeal, in reverting to an earlier and starker dualism. Our bodily needs are not the enemy, and religions which recognize this are vastly preferable to religions which don’t.
Just as scientific explanations have replaced the various roles that polytheistic gods played in controlling and explaining nature, we find that the difficulty of explaining good and evil in our world disappears when approached from an evolutionary perspective. No need for Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, no need to pit matter against spirit in eternal warfare. Evolution allows us another possibility.
If we abandon the concept of a perfect, pre-existing consciousness (or plural consciousnesses) as creator of the world, we no longer have a problem explaining why sentient beings have imperfect experiences. If consciousness or sentience evolved in a physical world via the evolution of species, then the competing interests of conscious animals like us (including the “design” of the physical world which results in our bad experiences) are things which become both comprehensible and coherent. The problem of explaining how imperfection follows from perfection simply goes away.