In this piece I argue that it is possible for God to exist but be unworthy of our worship (or at least of my worship). I discuss what traits I believe a God would not to exhibit in order for me to desire to worship him, and then defend my views against the charge that I am being arrogant in placing my own views of goodness above those of God. I conclude with some reflections on why this issue is important.
Could God be Unworthy of Worship?
Suppose that I came to believe in the existence of an all-powerful God who created us, and who reveals himself to mankind by various means, such as scripture or experiences of the divine. My question is, should I worship such a God? By ‘worship’, I mean (something like) devoting my life to that being, showing them admiration, reverence, paying thanks, granting praise, etc.
My answer to this question is ‘it depends’. Specifically, it depends on whether said being is a good God. By this I do not mean ‘does this being declare themselves to be good?’ (for sinners also do the same), but rather ‘do they satisfy what I believe are the standards of goodness?’ My standard of goodness for God would be something like ‘exhibiting a deep love and concern for all sentient beings, and doing everything within its power to promote the ultimate welfare of such beings’. According to some Christians I have spoken with or read, particularly those coming from a reformed tradition, God does not exhibit such qualities. They say things to the effect that mankind has rebelled against God and rejected him, and as such God no longer has any obligations to them. God is righteously angered (some may substitute a different word here which expresses a very similar meaning) towards mankind because of this rebellion. As such, God chooses to enter into a renewed relationship with some people (‘saving’ them), but not with others. That is his prerogative and perfectly just, as no one is deserving of such treatment at all, so there is no basis on which anyone can complain or claim unjust treatment for not receiving it.
If God is like this, then I do not judge God to be good by my criteria. I couldn’t care in the slightest whether or not God has a moral (or really any sort of) obligation towards mankind, nor could I care less if mankind rejected God seventy times, or even seventy times seven. To do good is, I believe, to strive to promote the ultimate wellbeing of others, regardless of whether or not they have treated you nicely or fairly or justly. If God is not doing this, if he is doing any less than his utmost to promote the wellbeing of mankind, if he is picking and choosing whom to save (or whatever word one cares to use) on the basis of some arbitrary whim and then justifying this on the basis that he has no ‘obligation’ to anyone because they all rejected him, then I call that God nasty, petty, callous, and uncaring. I will not devote my life to such a God, shout hosanna to them, or express unqualified rapturous gratitude to them. I will use what is left of my life to do what I can to help others, and then after I die I will face the eternal conscious torment that at least some Christians believe such a God has justly prepared for me. I’d rather suffer in hell than undeservedly worship the creator of such a horrific place in the obsequious hope of avoiding being sent there.
Am I Being Arrogant?
Is it not exceptionally arrogant (a word I henceforth use to mean ‘too stubborn and overconfident in one’s beliefs’) to declare that God must adhere to my standards of goodness and morality, especially given that I have assented to the proposition that such a being is our creator and is immensely powerful and knowledgeable? I don’t think so. Why should it be the case that because God is our all-powerful all-knowing creator, that therefore he must be good and worthy of worship? What justification is there for such a belief? To me it seems totally without basis, and indeed stands in direct contradiction with our overwhelming evidence that power and intelligence do not in any way imply goodness or virtue. God could be all knowing and all powerful, but just not care very much (or at all) about the welfare of his creation. If that is what God is like, then why should I devote my life to him? Why should I worship him? I’m totally serious about this – I can’t understand how anyone would want to worship such a being, even if they believed very strongly that he existed. Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m looking at this all the wrong way, but currently I feel no desire whatever to worship a being of this sort, nor can I see any reason as to why I should have such a desire – again, even if I strongly believed he existed.
Many Christians speak of how they came to a firm conviction that God exists by sensing his actions in their life, or by reading the bible, or by considering various other arguments and evidences, or by some combination of these methods. Whatever its genesis, making such an emphatic and strong claim is, in my view, profoundly arrogant. If someone thinks that God has revealed himself to them in some personal or experiential way, they believe not only that God has chosen to reveal himself to them when so many others do not receive such divine favour, but also that they have been able to correctly understand and interpret God’s intended message while so many others are deceived or mislead by their spiritual experiences. Similarly, if someone believes that they have come to a correct understanding of God through careful study and analysis of the arguments, then they believe that they have managed to see the evidence clearly and correctly where so many other learned and intelligent people have failed (including both non-theists and adherents of other religions).
Either way, or in the case of a mixture of the two methods, a Christian who claims strong confidence in their beliefs is, I think, making an exceptionally arrogant claim. (Note: I am not saying that Christians are arrogant. I am saying rather that Christians who claim such high confidence are exhibiting arrogance in making this particular claim. I have argued this point in more detail here.) This doesn’t make the claim false, but I think it is grossly inconsistent for a Christian to state that they have seen past all the potential confusions of human psychology, false spirits, bad arguments, and all the rest, and have been able to accurately grasp some of the most profound and deepest truths of human existence, whilst simultaneously criticising as arrogant my claim, which I regard to be the relevantly innocuous, that I have no reason to worship a God who does not care deeply and supremely about the welfare of all sentient beings and do all within his power to help them.
Many Christians speak of how the positive influence of God in their lives is a factor that strengthens their faith. And yet, when I express my negative reactions to certain Christian beliefs about God’s nature, I am accused of being irrational and allowing emotions to cloud my judgement. Not only does this seem to me to be grossly inconsistent, but it also misunderstands the nature of my claim. I am not claiming that the truth of God’s nature or existence is in any way affected by my moral reaction to it (which I think is totally different from ’emotion’, but let’s leave that for the moment). Rather, I am claiming that my moral reaction to God’s nature is relevant to my decision about whether to devote my life to worship of said God. Given that often Christians will speak of how their reading about or contemplation of God leads them to see how amazingly good and worthy of worship he is, I hardly see it as consistent to then criticise me for expressing my reservations about devoting myself to God on the basis that when I read about or contemplate certain teachings about his nature, I am led to see how morally inadequate and unworthy of worship he is (at least according to these particular understandings of God).
I am not claiming here that God is unworthy of worship, or that the Christian God is an evil God. I am not even saying that the God as understood by the particular reformed perspective to which I react so negatively is necessarily ‘evil’. What I am saying is that if certain beliefs about the nature of God are correct, then I see no reason to worship or unreservedly praise such a being. This is important, because it means that if I were to adopt Christianity or another other religion, I would need to be persuaded not only of the existence of whatever divine being the religion believes in, but also of the desirability and rightness of worshipping such a being. I need to be persuaded both that God exists, and that God is good. Either alone is insufficient.