The “Pick Two” Game, Or, Do Believers Really Believe What They Say They Believe?

Figures question mark

Do y’all want to play a game?

It’s a game with a semi- serious point, about theology and whether people’s religious practices line up with what they claim to believe. But for now, let’s just start with the game.

The game: Design your own Christian theology.

And here are the rules.

A couple of days ago, I ran a piece here about how much more sense Christianity would make if it weren’t committed to the blatantly illogical proposition that God is all- knowing, all- powerful, and all- good. The comments have been smart and funny (I’m especially taken with Paul’s thought about “the problem of unfishiness,” and am already working on a post about that). And then Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism fame chimed in with this comment:

I like that comment about picking two – it could be the basis for some actually interesting religions. Maybe God is all-powerful and all-good, but just doesn’t realize human beings are suffering. The whole point of the religion could be to get his attention – blowing trumpets, banging pots and pans together, yelling at the sky, that sort of thing. I, for one, would find it amusing. 🙂

Which immediately inspired the idea of the game. And which brings me to the rules:

If there were a religion in which God were any two of the following — all- powerful, all- knowing, or all- good — what would that religion look like?

I’ll get the ball rolling with my suggestions.


If God were all- powerful and all- good but not all- knowing? Well, I think I’m going to go with Ebon’s idea on this one. God would be like a smart and popular but absent- minded professor, or a mom with lots of kids — smart and cool, but easily distracted — and religion would mostly consist of trying to get God’s attention. Lots of loud noises, colorful outfits, sending up flares, setting off fireworks. (It might be a fun religion to belong to, actually, albeit one that would make you feel a bit small and helpless.)


Second: If God were all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good? That one’s a lot less fun. God would be like a really powerful dictator with spies everywhere, or like an abusive parent or partner. And religion would consist of trying to appease him: trying to figure out exactly what his rules are, and sticking to them as closely as you can; trying to keep track of his shifting moods, and walking on eggshells to adapt to them; trying to figure out what you did wrong — or blaming each other — when the hammer comes down.


And finally, if God were all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful? That one could be interesting. God would be like a smart and good- hearted mid-level bureaucrat in the office where you work. And religion would pretty much consist of looking after yourself. You’d praise him and express your gratitude for all his hard work, and you’d ask for his advice and counsel periodically… but you’d know that, when it came down to any real practical problems, you were pretty much on your own. He could give you guidance and emotional support, he’d be a good shoulder to cry on, but that’d be it. He’d really like to help you, but his hands are tied.

And now, here’s the serious part.

I think this is very much like what Christian religions are like.

Eerily so.

Which brings me to my actual point: Most religious believers don’t act as if they believe their God is all these things. They may say they believe it; but their actual practice reveals a lack of faith in God’s perfect power, perfect knowledge, or perfect goodness… and in many cases, more than one of these.

Let’s look again at my made-up religions.

The one where God is all- powerful and all- good, but not all- knowing, and your religious practice consists of getting his attention? That’s Catholicism. Burning incense; lighting candles; loud choral music; huge ornate churches and cathedrals; religious officiants dressed in lavishly ornate outfits; repeating prayers over and over again. What is that but trying to get God’s attention? And if God were perfectly knowledgeable, why would you need to get his attention?

The one where God is all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good, and religion consists in tiptoeing around trying not to piss him off? There are elements of Catholicism there, too: the rigidity of the rituals and rules, the strictness of the authority system, the prayers that have to be said just so. But I’m going to go with Christian fundamentalism on this one. Fundamentalism is the ultimate “my way or the highway” religion, with a focus, not on how wonderful and loving God is — that seems almost like an afterthought — but on the extensive and rigidly strict rules that God expects you to follow, and the terrible fiery punishment that awaits you if you don’t toe the line. (Not to mention the focus on blaming people you don’t like for natural God-created disasters.) It gives lip service to the idea of God’s perfect goodness… but it doesn’t seem very convincing, or very convinced.

New Spirit

And the one where God is all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful, and religion consists of saying how great he is and then taking care of business on your own? That’s modern progressive Christianity. The Christianity that doesn’t expect prayers to be answered, that sees prayers as a conversation with God and a way to listen to God in your heart but that doesn’t expect him to give you any actual practical help. The Christianity where God is a warm summer breeze, a smile on a child’s face, the love that we have for each other… but he doesn’t heal sickness or relieve pain, make the rain fall or the crops grow. The Christianity that acknowledges that the world basically operates by laws of physical cause and effect, but can’t quite let go of the idea that God has something to do with it all somehow.

This is something I’ve noticed before, and that a lot of other atheists have noticed before. Theists often don’t act as if they believe what they say they believe. The afterlife, for instance. Why would you grieve so terribly at the death of a loved one if you really believed you’d be seeing them again someday? Sure, it’d be sad — but wouldn’t it be like saying goodbye to someone who was moving to another country for a few years? Why do theists grieve every bit as hard at the death of the people they love as atheists do? Why do they act as if… well, as if someone died?

And take hell. If you really believed that anyone who didn’t think and act exactly right was going to be hideously tortured in a fire — not for a minute, not for an hour, but for centuries and millennia and into eternity — wouldn’t you feel morally obligated, and indeed emotionally driven, to try to stop it? Wouldn’t every single Christian who believed in hell be out there on the street corner, desperately imploring people to save themselves before it’s too late… instead of just a handful of crazies?

And it’s now occurring to me that this is true for the All- Powerful, All- Knowing, All- Good belief as well. Believers say they believe it… but when you look at how they actually practice their religion, it becomes clear that they don’t act like they believe it. They act like they believe in a religion made up in a game: a religion where they really only believe in one or two of these things, but have to pretend they believe in all three.

The “Pick Two” Game, Or, Do Believers Really Believe What They Say They Believe?

26 thoughts on “The “Pick Two” Game, Or, Do Believers Really Believe What They Say They Believe?

  1. 1

    heh, it’s amazing how much of your former self you can see in other people’s blogs (it’s almost impossible, of course, to catch yourself doing something silly *when you are doing it*, but hindsight is usually 20/20)…
    I used to believe in God #3, when I was a Christian… I didn’t think God would actually do anything – at least, I knew He wouldn’t do anything “impossible”, and I trusted that he would answer prayers at a rate about equal to that of chance, but – and here is the really stupid bit – I believed He would *choose* which ones to answer, which favours to grant, such that while everything looked about right to chance, it would still have the best outcome.
    And no, I never defined “best”.
    But limiting God to only being able to do those things that might be done by pure luck… yeah, that’s believing in God #3. It’s believing in a good and kind and wise God who nevertheless is unable to help you all the time, and understanding that you need to do things for yourself, and asking in prayers was… well… it was wishing.
    Sometimes people are just stupid. And I’m a member of the group known as “people”…
    (On a tangent… I had many great arguments with a creationist at work, who believed in the Omnimax God… though it really turned out he believed in God #2. I even got him to admit it by the end – he was claiming that God was all good by *his* definition [which was basically that “good” was defined as “like God”], and when I pointed out that his definition was meaningless, and pointed out my own definition of “good” [which did not include any events in the Book of Joshua], my workmate reluctantly admitted that maybe God was an evil sod by my standards… and then he went on to say that that was an even better reason to worship! Ah well… What can you do, eh?)

  2. 2

    I read your prior article on this, and considered commenting, but now that you’ve hit the nail right on the head, I might as well.
    I grew up in a variety of Evangelical Fundamentalist churches, and I’ve got to tell you, nobody ever said God had to be always good. Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent, that was the mantra. When I first heard the atheist argument about an All-Good God, my first thought was “Where the heck does it say God is always good?” In the Fundamentalist philosophy, God is always right, but that’s not the same as good.
    So yes, your God #2 is pretty much what I grew up being taught that God was. There wasn’t even lip service for an “All-good” God.

  3. 3

    I vaguely remember a commenter on Daylight Atheism suggesting that there was “No Christian in the path of a bullet” in response to the “No atheists in foxholes” saying. I’m sure Christians state their beliefs with all sincerity, but they don’t seem to act as if they believe it.
    But perhaps this is just us putting our supposed implications onto other people’s beliefs. Like when believers assume we must be terrified of death or terminally depressed.
    I know plenty of believers who fall into category #3, but will insist they definitely do believe in the power of prayer to heal. When you probe a little deeper however, they’re usually not expecting a flash of light, the blind gaining sight and amputated limbs to grow back. Probably because such things never happen outside of fiction. Apparently they’re not immune to experience!

  4. Kit

    There’s another point about Catholicism: a lot of prayers aren’t directed to God, but to the Virgin Mary or to various saints, asking them to intercede for you. Saints even have their own departments, as it were; you pray to St Anthony if you’ve lost something, to St Jude if the case looks hopeless, and so on. Which does support the ‘getting God’s attention’ idea: you assume God might listen to a saint more than to you, so ask the saint to pass along the message.

  5. 5

    Dave pretty much captured the evangelicalism I grew up with. John Wesley tried to temper this with his focus on “God is Love,” but those teachings never integrated persuasively with the rest. Consequently, the Wesleyans with whom I grew up went around preaching “God is Love,” but living more like “God knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake,” otherwise he’ll roast you in Hell forever (even though he loves you a lot).

  6. 6

    I posted this a few weeks ago on another blog, and just wanted to posit the same questions now:
    (I recycle!)
    essentially I use a modus ponens to highlight that all-knowing and all-powerful don’t work togethor.
    Omniscience and ompnipotency are mutually exclusive !
    If this god is omniscient, then it must know with objective certainty, what will happen at any given point in time, and what has happened in the past, but this certain knowledge requires that this does not change, that god is never surprised by anything that happens.
    If this god is omnipotent, then it must be allowed the power to change anything in the present, future, or past, whenever it wishes. This god must be allowed to surprise itself, or else it is not omnipotenet.
    So if the god is omniscient, m then the world is objectively knowable by the god, and the god cannot be surprised,~s.
    if m, then ~s.
    If the god is omnipotent p,
    it must be allowed to do anything, including surprise itself s.
    if p, then s.

    if the god is omniscient and omnipotenet
    m and p.
    then a contradiction results
    if m and p, then s and ~s.
    we know that [ s and ~s ]is a contradiction, so we know
    ~[s and ~s],so;
    ~[ m and p ],
    or, god cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent.

  7. 7

    I think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is in the third group. He clearly has no limit to his noodly goodness, as attested by his glorious afterlife with the beer volcano and stripper factory. He also is all knowing, as he chose the Pirate race before the foundation of the Earth.
    But he simply is not all-powerful. If he was, would humans have been getting taller as our numbers increased? No; but we are, because there’s only so much of his noodly force to hold us onto the planet. So there you have it: The FSM is all-good, all-knowing, but not all-powerful.

  8. ck

    Have you read Pascal Boyer on religion? He makes a similar point about the divergence between theology and actual beliefs, but bases the difference in the way that our origin of gods works out in evolutionary psychology.
    It’s an interesting read, if you get the time: Religion Explained is the title, I think, and some papers are also available at his Wash U website, but they’re more specifically on the psychology of memory than religion, I think.

  9. 9

    I wondered if you might make correlations between the three versions of theism and their existence in modern day Christianity. Nice job!
    I’ve been through all three versions: raised a Roman Catholic (God #1); was a fundamentalist in high school and college (God #2); and then participated in liberal Quakerism for the next 2 decades (God #3). I saw myself and the various Gods I worshiped as a theist in all of your descriptions. 🙂

  10. 10

    Of course, if God is all-powerful, but neither all-knowing nor all-good (the “Pick One” game), you wind up with the Anthony Fremont, the omnipotent monster kid from the “It’s a Good Life” episode of the Twilight Zone.
    And presumably an all-knowing, but not all-powerful or all-good god would be one of Pratchett’s auditors.
    I’m not sure what an all-good, but neither all-knowing nor all-powerful god would be. Perhaps that’s what the “God is love” people have in mind.

  11. 11

    You have a different idea of omniscience as it pertains to a God than I do. Yours (and I guess Catholics) is just “does God notice us” – assuming that if he noticed, he could do something about it. But what of a God that knows all of what’s going on now, but can’t forcast into the future very well and is having a hard time coming up with good long-term solutions to the problems of the world? The lack of trivial solutions to straight-forward problems kind of shoots this option down though, ie. no regrown limbs, but perhaps this god is wracked by indecision about whether he should be interfering in human affairs all the time, some of the time, or none of the time.
    Anyway, food for thought and another good post, Greta.

  12. 12

    This is a fair observation, Greta. I tried to reconcile God #2 and God #3 (moving from two to three, and assuming they were of course the same God) for years but these conceptions seemed in each other’s way. Of the Christian traditions, I was least exposed to Catholicism so it’s not surprising to me to find God #1 described in that context. I think perhaps it’s impossible to have an equal estimation of all three of these qualities, even when mentally assenting to them. Acting in accordance with the belief in a god with all three of these qualities involves constantly trying to determine which of these versions of God would be most appropriate to a given situation.

  13. 13

    King Aardvark:

    But what of a God that knows all of what’s going on now, but can’t forcast into the future very well

    Since history is sensititive to initial conditions, I think you can safely remove the “very well” part. Increasing intelligence allows God to forecast further into the future and/or more precisely, but I’m sure there’s a point of diminishing returns.
    This is an interesting sort of omniscience that you postulate, but it does raise other questions. As I understand it, you’re suggesting that God can directly observe the present with perfect clarity (but has to remember the past and imagine the future, just as we do).
    But what does “present” mean in this case? Is it God’s light cone? If a star went nova a billion years ago, a billion light-years away, does God observe that now, or did he observe it a billion years ago, when it happened?
    For another thing, “the present” can change, thanks to relativity. Let’s say God can observe all of the events in the present, without having to wait for the light from them to reach him. But if he starts moving toward Earth, his present becomes our future, so he can directly observe our future. (Similarly, once he has passed Earth and is moving away, his present becomes our past.)

  14. 14

    Oh, and two more instances of the “believers don’t actually believe what they claim to believe” phenomenon:
    In the recent Crackergate flare-up, people have tried to get PZ Myers fired for putting a nail through a eucharist. They’re attempting to show that this is a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, or that this violates the University of Minnesota’s code of conduct, and stuff like that. However, no one’s even attempted to demonstrate that a consecrated eucharist actually is the body of Jesus.
    Recently, the Texas supreme court dismissed a case against church members who had held a young woman down for several hours while they performed an exorcism on her. The defense argued, for instance, that the woman’s depression was caused by events on missionary trip, and not by the exorcism. But at no time, as far as I’m aware, did the defense even attempt to show that demon possession is a real phenomenon.
    In the latter case, it may simply be that the church’s lawyers said that the claimed evidence for possession wouldn’t stand up in court. But in the case of Crackergate, it seems as though people realize, at some level, that their beliefs can’t be demonstrated.

  15. 16

    No I don’t think they believe any of their own B.S. Because their behavior gives them away every time. For example, if your saviour Jesus Christ has the power not only to heal you, but to give you immortality – well then why would you need a doctor? And why would you cry at a funeral if you believe the deceased is in heaven with Jesus? These people say they believe in heaven but they’ll do anything and everything to postpone THAT trip!

  16. 17

    Thanks, Greta! I have to admit, hadn’t even considered the possibility that real religions embody these possibilities, but I think you brilliantly proved that they do. I second Kit’s excellent suggestion that Catholicism’s practice of praying to saints makes a lot of sense when understood as an attempt to get God’s attention.
    I’ve been reading Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History, and this thread reminds me of a comment by Arthur Schopenhauer she mentions: he compares attempts to answer the problem of evil to “solving an arithmetical sum which never comes right, but the remainder of which appears now in one place, now in another, after it has been concealed elsewhere.” There are a lot of theists who hold one of the three possibilities listed here, and some who even move repeatedly among them, but there’s always that nagging remainder that just won’t be canceled.

  17. 18

    A good mind game Greta, I have often wondered if believers really believe what they say they do.
    Like others I tend to think not, somehow they compartmentalise what they are supposed to believe with what they see actually happens in the real world.
    A while back I, rather sarcastically, had a dig at the religious and questioned that if they think heaven is so wonderful why aren’t they trying to get there faster? I jokingly suggested that perhaps religious people should be given all the really dangerous jobs.
    I also suggested that religious people should “get out of my way” because they probably don’t care too much about losing a few minutes here and there on earth because they think they get to spend eternity in heaven.
    However none of them act this way. Maybe deep down they really don’t believe in a God 1, 2 or 3?

  18. 19


    an arithmetical sum which never comes right, but the remainder of which appears now in one place, now in another, after it has been concealed elsewhere.

    I find that this comes up a lot in religious arguments, and not just in the context of the problem of evil. Biblical literalists do it a lot.
    The Bible has no contradictions. Okay, but what about the multiple accounts of Jesus’ last words, or the earthquake that John reports and no one else does? Well, eyewitness accounts differ on details. Okay, but then the Bible contradicts itself, even if only for understandable reasons.
    Or what about the multiple deaths of Judas (once by hanging, once by bursting in a field)? Well, Judas hanged himself on a cliff, and whe the branch broke, he fell into a field below and burst. Okay, but that’s radically different from the interpretation you’d get from reading either account; if the Bible omits such significant elements as a cliff, then clearly you can’t trust your understanding of it. No, because God wrote the Bible to be understandable by anyone. And so on, and so forth.
    Maybe there should be the Argument From Apologetics: if the Bible were really written by God, it wouldn’t require so many additional books to make sense of it.

  19. 20

    The first commenter, Anon Ymous, sums up my own experience with the numinous. With the addition of the fact that I had a minimum of religious instruction as a child (more of an introductory course, as it were), I was able to deconstruct the arguments that there was a creator being who was all at once purely true, purely aware, purely powerful and purely loving. Creating scenarios that put a lie to such conviction is trivial. For many, worryingly, such perception is impossible.
    (Secret tip: All I had to do was to consider what my responsibilities would be were I endowed with the above capabilities. The rest proved academic.)
    A wink and a smile to you Greta. You poked my brain again. Refreshing.

  20. 21

    Oh, but all three can be true because logic is not valid! (Or something like that.) At least that’s what my Gospel-gobbling friends try to tell me.

  21. 22

    Oddly, I once got the same breakdown this way: Religious ethics consists of obeying the alleged will of God, and we could see three categories of religion depending on where you got your news about what God wills. If you got it from one or more living prophets that was “orthodoxy”, i.e. the Catholic Church. If you got it from one or more dead prophets, that was fundamentalism. And if you got it from your own conscience, from “the still, small voice” inside, that was “liberal” Christianity.

  22. 23

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
    ~quote by Epicurus

  23. 24

    My idea of the more limited omniscience would be more akin to that of a computer programmer: programmed and populated a simulation so understands the rules at a fundamental level, and can access the states of all variables, so he’s practically omniscient at any given moment. Problem is, just because you program something doesn’t mean you understand or can forcast adequately the results of any changes you make, especially if the simulation has “free will” acting as a randomizer. So, basically, SimCity anyone?

  24. 26

    This is a stunningly well-written blog with a very well-considered approach and analysis.
    I’ve often thought of the fallacy of an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving god (the question of evil depends on it) but I’ve never really considered the extent to which Christian believers disreagerd the principle in practice.
    Which shouldn’t come as a a surprise, really. I mean, hey, Christians disregarding their own teachings?

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