Monday, August 10, 2015

Giving Credit to God

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...
James 1:17
My birthday is coming up and I recently got a birthday card from one of my extremely religious relatives. I noticed the verse James 1:17 was in the bottom corner, which said "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...".

This verse highlights one of those ideas that atheists complain about all the time. The problem is that it takes the good that people do for each other and gives the credit to God. Often you see this with medical interventions, people will get a surgery and then say "thank God the surgery went well". It steals the credit from the people who performed the surgery as well as the entire medical system supporting them. (I'll be using the example of a surgery for the remainder of the post for simplicity, but this applies equally well to many other situations)

But is that how Christians would think about this? I can say that it isn't the case for my religious friends and family. They don't see it as taking credit away from someone else, but rather crediting God as well. They would genuinely thank God for a successful surgery, but they would also of course thank the surgeons and nurses and the myriad of other people who helped them along the way. So what is the harm in that?

In my opinion, the difficulty is that the harm is somewhat subtle. When they thank God, what are they saying exactly? I have heard many times that God is working through the person, but again, what does this mean? I can think of two ways to interpret it, both of which I think are believed by some Christians.

  1. God is literally working through the surgeon, directing their actions in a very hands-on way.
  2. God's presence has influenced the surgeon over their lifetime, perhaps helping them along in subtle ways, helping them get their degree and obtain the training necessary to help you (as well as all of their other patients), even giving them their very morality that caused them to want to help others in the first place.

No one is saying "fuck the doctor, God did it", but if we look at these 2 possibilities, it is hard to not see some of the credit being taken away from the doctor to give it to God. Certainly in the first case, but even in the second, it minimizes the years of work and hardship that the doctor has gone through to get to the place they are today.

Especially as a non-religious person, it is very annoying to see this happen. Our gut reaction can be "hell no, God didn't help me, I worked my ass off to get to where I am with no help from Him!" Sometimes I see atheists respond in this way and Christians are completely taken aback by this response. I think the reason is that for the most part they don't really think about the implications of what they are saying from our perspective. They see the world as God having his hands in everything and helping us out at every turn. They wouldn't take exception to God being credited as helping their work (they would actually probably see it as an honor) so it is hard for them to understand why we wouldn't see it in the same way.

Originally, my next thought was going to be that we should not come out so strongly and alienate Christians, but should instead try to explain our side of things. The problem with this is exactly what I said in the above paragraph, many Christians don't even really think about the implications of what they are saying. Merely pushing back a little bit is often seen as an attack. Couple this with the fact that if they are in a position to be thanking God for something, they are probably going through some difficulty and don't really need our lecture (if we flip the situation we certainly wouldn't want them preaching at us).

So what do we do instead? I have a few ideas, first, make sure that in addition to thanking God, they explicitly thank the doctors as well. With my family, I think for the most part they would do this on their own, but they would also think that by thanking God the doctor's thank you is implied and it might get overlooked. Secondly, when these types of things come up in the media, when somebody on the news is in this situation and thanks God, that is the time for us to have the conversation. When no one in the conversation is actually personally involved, then at least with some distance hopefully some of the emotion will be left out of it and they will be able to see our point of view.


  1. I cannot even count the amount of times I have had these conversations lol. But yes it is annoying as it does detract a lot from the hard work and effort that has been put in by the individuals. The other part about "its a miracle" annoys me as well, after all its not a miracle that the doctor knew what he was doing.

    1. Exactly, saying it is a miracle minimizes all the work put in by the doctors.

  2. This is a common way to prop up their worship, often without recognizing true causes and preventing people from learning how to solve problems. One extreme example is a Colorado Church shootings about ten years ago where the shooter killed a few people before shooting and missing the security guard who killed him.

    She thanked God for intervening and protecting her from the bullet so that she could kill him saving more lives. She didn't ask God why he didn't do a better job teaching people to recognizing the root causes of violence and enable them to provide less violent education to their children so they don't become violent in the first place.

    The Miracle on the Hudson is another example God gets credit for saving them but few ask why he didn't prevent it in the first place or why most flights without any problems weren't considered miraculous.

    1. Exactly, it is a weird blind spot that people seem to have. I understand being happy that she was spared and even wanting that thank someone about it. But you would think a little bit of thought would lead her to "wait a second, if God can make his bullet miss me, why didn't he make the bullets just miss everyone?"


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