On Giving God More Than His Due

A friend of mine helped one of his friends recover a chapter of her graduate thesis from a corrupted flash drive. Needless to say, she was appreciative and made this clear on Facebook. Amongst the many compliments and comments to this post was “Praise the Lord!”, a fairly natural reaction for a devoted monotheist. But this attribution of praise seems rather unfair to my friend, who is responsible for the good act. Why should he be deprived of credit, if indeed we wish to assign credit at all?

Now my reaction may be misguided. There are perfectly consistent theologies that depict God and the world in such a way that praise would certainly be reasonably assigned to God. Asharism in Islam (named for the 10th century theologian Abu Hasan al-Ashari) is one. According to Ashari, his commentators, and proponents, God is the real agent of everything that occurs; causation as we normally perceive it, including the willed, expert, or virtuous acts of people is an illusion. God simply has a habitual way of creating the world at every moment that suggests causation within the flow of time. But if God so decided, miracles contrary to His habit could occur at any moment.

I do not take the devoted monotheist depicted at the start of this post to subscribe to Asharism or a similar theology. Rather, I suspect he believes that humans are responsible for at least some of their actions, especially sinful actions. But these two positions alongside one another seem, if not flatly contradictory, at least contrived–as if saying, “God gets credit for the good things, but sin–that’s on us.” Without some principled way of distinguishing the agent of sinful and praiseworthy acts, it seems that praise and blame should be given where praise and blame are due. God doesn’t merit praise just because praise increases His majesty. Neither should humans be blamed just because they need to be in order for eternal punishment to be just.

This brings to mind Ludwig Feuerbach‘s theory of religion. According to Feuerbach, all religions can be characterized by activities that involve the projection of human goods onto objects or beings external to the human species. This glorifies God (gods, the Buddha, etc.) while impoverishing humanity. Thus a great and glorious God is actually a sign of a people alienated from their virtues and plenty. This is why Feuerbach uses the term projection: divinity is the inverted image of a people, like that cast by a convex lens.

Feuerbach paints with a wide brush, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t tapped into something human in the process. Prayers of thanksgiving, beseeching God for some good, sacrifice, worship can all be readily understood as variations on projection. His theory also explains why so few believers blame God for evil in the world. Such blame would impoverish God.