The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

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Robert Heinlein was a brilliant science fiction author, but what he wrote about religion did a disservice to thoughtful atheists

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)

As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.

Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.

First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.

I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.

I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.

The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.

To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

G. Scott Huggins

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern”. If you like to laugh, “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” is in Sword and Sorceress 30. Scott’s regular non-fiction column for Sci Phi Journal is entitled The Mote in God’s “I”. In the column Scott explores the nature of SF&F genre writing from the perspective of a committed Christian. When he is not teaching or writing, Scott devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

6 Comments

  1. You have made exactly the same error of flippancy that you accuse Heinlein of. You have made no point other than that Heinlein, a science fiction author, does not proffer a thorough critique of Christianity in a book intended to entertain. Besides, Heinlein is simply translating Epicurus into the vernacular: Do you accuse Epicurus too of flippancy?

    Your account of the the omni- attributes seems circular: whatever God does not do in not doable; whatever God does not know is unknowable; whatever God permits is justice. You have said nothing more than the world is as it appears to be, God or no God.

    You are correct, however: atheists do not care about theology, which is as ridiculous to the non-believer as professional wrestling is to the non-fan. There are any number of yahoos who make stupid arguments, but the serious atheist argument against religion has never been theological. The argument has been against religion’s social privilege, and the charge that religion is ridiculous and actually believed only by the gullible and self-deluded directly undermines that privilege.

    And it is true: religion is on precisely the same level as professional wrestling. If someone enjoys it, great. But if someone actually believes that it is other than 100 percent show business, they are at best mistaken.

    • Hi Larry, I’m not going to engage with the main thrust of your argument, but I think you make too bold a claim when asserting ‘the’ serious atheist argument is concerned with social privilege. That may be an argument, but atheists are entitled to put forward arguments which are metaphysical or epistemic in character without being dismissed as somehow failing to be ‘serious’.

      • Hi Ray,

        I think you are looking at a different distinction than I’m trying to make, perhaps unclearly: I don’t mean “serious” as opposed to foolish, flippant, trivial, or dishonest.I mean “serious” in the sense of fundamental or primary, as opposed to peripheral.

        However, religious metaphysics and epistemology does sometimes seem to skirt the shoals of unseriousness in almost every sense.

        • Hi Larry, thanks for the clarification. Perhaps it is worth observing that we could place faith on a spectrum, depending on the extent to which the individual’s adoption of religious belief is exoteric or esoteric in character. Exoteric religion would more obviously be subject to a social analysis, but it would be difficult to replicate that analysis for a deeply personal, esoteric form of faith that does not have a social aspect to it. Atheists should avoid conflating a critique of religious orthodoxies, as typically represented by a church or a school of thought, with a critique of all manifestations of spirituality as adopted by individual human beings in practice.

          • Perhaps it is worth observing that we could place faith on a spectrum…

            Perhaps, if that sort of thing interests you. I don’t find that field of… investigation(?)… particularly interesting.

            Atheists should avoid conflating a critique of religious orthodoxies … with a critique of all manifestations of spirituality.

            And by and large we do in fact avoid such conflation.

  2. I’m not familiar with how his views might have changed over time, but in “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Heinlein was certainly an agnostic. His literary ego, Jubal Hershaw, even donated money to churches in his atheist friend’s name just to goad him.

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