Moral Indignation and Divine Genocides
I had an interesting email exchange with Andy, a confessing atheist from Northrhine-Westphalia.
We’ve mainly discussed about metaethic but in this post I want to go into specific things which he wrote about the genocides mentioned in the Bible.
“If you look at some of the justifications for the genocides within the Old Testament, like those from fundamentalist Christians like Paul Copan, then you find exactly the same justifications than those that the Nazis had.
Copan says that the foes of the Israelites were completely wicked, that not one of them was not wicked, that the Israelites *had to* kill them because otherwise they would be killed etc.
And exactly like the Nazis lied about the Jews, I am sure that the Old Testament lies about the Canaanites. It is easy to show this for the Nazi lies but it is harder to demonstrate it for the Old Testament because we have no other source than that of the perpetrators (try to figure out the situation if the Nazis had won World War 2, we would read everywhere that the Nazis had helped the world because the Jews are completely wicked and would have planted the seeds of our destruction and so on and so forth.)
I am extremely thankful to Andy to have given me his opinion in such a way for it raises many interesting questions.
Atrocities in the book of Joshua
In the books of Joshua and Samuel it is reported that God ordered Israelite soldiers to annihilate an entire people whereby it was expressively said that women, children and old men should also be killed.
Now there are several possibilities:
1) the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is correct and historical and
1.a) God has really organized a bloodshed
1.b) God didn’t want that at all. Actually the ancient Israelites projected their murderous nationalism on Him.
2) the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is wrong, we should view the extermination order as a complete military defeat of the enemies
3) the conquest of Canaan and the related genocides actually never occurred. The books attributed to Moses and Joshua were written only much later on by several unknown authors
3.a) the authors really thought that the genocides happened and approved of them. However they employed many false data and oral traditions.
3.b) the authors wanted to write down a mythological or symbolic history of their origins and had absolutely not the intention to be careful historians
There are probably also other possibilities I did not envisage.
Strategies of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists
I would not describe Paul Copan as a fundamentalist but as a conservative Evangelical who wants to defend the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. He told me that he views such commands as not good but terrible, but that they had to be carried out owing to the dire circumstances.
Since he also doesn’t want to give up his faith in the goodness of God he has mainly tried in his book to defend 2).
I think he is right that the reported extermination orders in the Ancient Near East could be sometimes hyperbolic or symbolic. That said, there are many cases where we can assume that they were meant seriously, as Thom Stark described in his book.
In this context, I find it really remarkable that Copan’s response only included 4 pages whereas Stark’s book includes several hundreds pages and that he no longer interacted with him and his book after that.
I strongly doubt that this only lies in the aggressive and disrespectful tone of Thom Stark in the first version of his book. Afterwards he apologized for his rudeness.
Since Copan is aware that 2) could be dubious, he also wrote that this divinely ordered genocide would have actually be a good thing.
The most popular Evangelical apologist William Lane Craig has also tried several times to whitewash the genocides and I went into his last attempt.
But now one must consider the fact that the conquest of Canaan is actually historically extremely unlikely and that the massacres written in the Bible never occurred.
Frankly speaking, I don’t know if 3a) or 3b) is true. Maybe the authors truly wanted to document the historical origins of their people but were mistaken.
But it is also possible that the authors intended to write a symbolic tale which was later misinterpreted as being historical.
In both cases I believe these are human and culturally conditioned thoughts about God and I see the canonical Biblical books in the same way I see books outside the Canon.
And Biblical authors can be wrong in the same way that modern Christian writers make mistakes.
The foundation of my faith is God’s perfection which should always be the norm according to which each religious text has to be evaluated.
And now I want to describe how a healthy and just moral indignation concerning such texts should look like.
Evangelicals have a strong tendency to only consider the nice pages of the Bible whereas they ignore or explain away the odious texts.
And they then say: the Bible depicts us in a consistent way God as being perfectly good.
This is undoubtedly a kind of self-deception.
But militant atheists make the very same mistake when they assert that the Bible depicts us in a consistent manner a God who is a moral monster.
As Thom Stark described in his book ”The Human Faces of God“, the different Biblical authors had not by any mean the same conception of God with respect to his moral nature.
If 1a) or 3a) are true, then there is a great contrast between the order not to spare any living thing in Canaanite cities and the preaching of the prophet Ezechiel that children are never punished for the sins of their parents.
Now I have the following advice for intellectually honest atheists:
instead of asserting that “the God of the Old Testament is a psychopathic monster” it would be better to say what follows:
“The Old Testament shows us contradictory portraits of God. In some passages he is described as being compassionate and loving whereas in other texts he is depicted as being a psychopathic monster.
This shows us that Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot be revealed religions for one cannot deduce a portrait of God free of contradictions out of them. “
This would be much more honest and efficacious than the assertion that the whole Old Testament is wicked for this can be easily refuted.