Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Skeptics on the Horns of Their Dilemma?

The biblical skeptic or the atheist will often cite some powerful sounding and emotionally tugging ideas in order to argue that the God of the Old Testament, and thus the God of the Christians, is a genocidal maniac. Often it is said that he condones genocide, and the Canaanites are a popular example of God’s wickedness. I was even told recently that he condones rape, though I can think of no specific evidence to support that claim.

Here are some thoughts on why the skeptic falls short here, or at the very least, has a tremendous amount of the argumentative burden to bear.

First of all, these claims are often in the form of “quote-mining,” or picking and choosing texts, pulling them out of context and misrepresenting them. This claim of mine does not say that there are no such verses or passages that sound like the skeptic wants them to sound, but I argue that they are misrepresentations of the overall picture. If the skeptic wants to talk about ancient near-eastern literature and culture, let them do the intellectually honest work of trying to understand it before they misunderstand it. In the end, the skeptic’s claim will be much stronger if they do the literary work to understand the works they are trying to eviscerate.

Secondly, I wonder if the skeptic is trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to these claims. More often than not, the same skeptic who makes the moral monster claim is the same skeptic who disbelieves in God because of some form of the problem of evil. So, in one instance it is said that God simply does not do enough to alleviate the evils we see and experience in this world and in the other instance, God is rotten for dealing harshly with ancient, evil, cultures.

Imagine a culture in which many of the first-born children are sacrificed alive on the brass arms of a demon-god over a pit of fire. Imagine the same culture in which, because their primary deity repeatedly rapes his sister while she is in the form of a cow, religious rape and incest are not just condoned but institutionalized. If you can imagine a culture that contains such injustices and horrors, you have imagined the Canaanite society. And one need not go to the biblical record to see that. The archeological evidence stands on its own.

So, what should a God do with such rampant evil? If the skeptic is consistent, he in a pickle. Either God escapes the problem of evil by dealing with real evil, or he escapes the moral monster accusation by justly judging an evil culture. I am no expert on formalizing arguments, but hopefully the following encapsulation helps to communicate the horns of this particular dilemma.

First, the skeptic usually holds to two claims about the existence of God simultaneously: 1) God does not exist due to some form of the problem of evil (eg. God does not intervene to our satisfaction when we see evil), and 2) the God presented in the OT is a moral monster for judging some cultures.

Second, to take one of the most common examples of the skeptic, the Canaanites, they were objectively evil and we know as much from extra biblical evidence.

Third, as a result of their own beliefs and historical evidence, the skeptic is impaled on the horns of their own dilemma. Either God did judge evil and therefore the problem of evil is shaken, or God justly judged an evil culture and therefore the moral monster accusation loses its force.

Are there ways out of this problem? There are, but I don’t think any of them are attractive.

To begin with, the skeptic could deny the Canaanites were the unjust, misogynistic, slave-holding culture I am claiming them to be, but that would require a lot of unique historical work. All the evidence points to them being a pretty rotten culture and a bad place to be if you were not among the powerful.

The next possible move might be to accept the historical data but adopt some form of cultural relativism – what we view as unjust or morally evil, was simply normal and acceptable to them. But cultural relativism is the philosophical version of moldy Swiss cheese, and this position would logically commit the skeptic to accepting pre-Civil War slavery and power-rape as “OK for them.” Not a tenable, or desirable, position. In addition, how many skeptics are willing to be that consistent?

The next set of moves seem to all fall into the same category – denying one or more aspect of the two claims attributed to the skeptic. For example, they might still hold to a version of the problem of evil, but deny the legitimacy of any and all biblical evidence about the events it records: rule them out of play simply for being recorded in the Bible. Or more specifically, the skeptic might be willing to admit into evidence all the “nasty” bits of the biblical record, but deny the reliability of the context and theology of the Bible. But that denial requires more than just skeptical assertion, it requires real literary work on the documents themselves.

Or they may still hold to the moral monster view and claim that the Canaanites (or other similar cultures) were not given a chance to change. God simply commanded that they be wiped out. The best record we have of these events in question, the Bible, does not support that claim. God often tells his people that after centuries of waiting patiently for the Canaanites to turn to him, it is time for judgment to come. The record, so selectively cited by the skeptic, claims God to be unusually patient.


Ritchie said...

It sounds to me rather like you've failed to grasp the points of these arguments.

There are certainly many questionable deeds apparently committed or condoned by God in the Bible - deeds which do seem to be the work of a moral monster, including genocide, infanticide and, yes, rape (see 2 Samuel 11:2 - 12:18 where God punishes David's misdeeds by having his wives raped and baby son killed).

Many religious people merely dismiss such passages as handwaving, allegorical or 'quote-mining'. But to make such accusations and stop there is lazy thinking. It is to show these accusations up for what they are - excuses for not actually facing up to these problematic passages.

Moreover, you seem to misunderstand the Problem of Evil too. It is not an attempt to condemn God for 'evil' deeds He has allegedly done - it is an attempt do determine whether God exists from the evidence around us.

This site explains it well, but I'll just give you a condensed version:


Evil (or 'suffering' if you prefer) exists in the world. How is this to be reconciled with the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God?

Being all-knowing, He must know evil exists. Being all-powerful, He must be ABLE to remove it. Being all-loving, surely He should want to. But evil does exist. Therefore, such a God probably does not.

There are many common, but deeply flawed rebuttals. For one, God lets us suffer because we miserable, sinful humans deserve it. This falls apart when we consider suffering is not fairly distributed. Many worthy people suffer horribly, while awful people prosper. Also, if God makes sure all suffering is deserved, how do we explain the Biblical passages which endorse charity and alleviating the suffering of others? Why would a Christian interfere with the righteous judgement of God?

Some say suffering is a test. But God apparently knows everything, so why would he need to test anyone? He'd know other people's hearts without having to test them.

Some say suffering doesn't matter because all injustice will be put right after death. But why would God postpone such judgement until after death? To delay judgement just causes needless suffering and cruelty in the meantime.

Some say God does not want to impose on our free will. But this too is flawed. Humans are not COMPLETELY free anyway. There are things we cannot do - like fly unaided, or jump over the Pacific. We do have limits. But hurting others is within those limits. God could have made us otherwise - so people who chose to reject God and do evil would harm only themselves. But He didn't. Why? This argument also ignores that a lot of suffering is not caused by human actions. Hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hunger, forest fires, an absolute plethora of diseases and parasites, and mere random accidents account for a massive proportion of human suffering.

Ritchie said...

Some say we suffer so we can grow spiritually by overcoming it. But again, why is suffering distributed as it is? If it is a test for our souls, surely it is reasonable we all suffer equally, so we all get a chance for our souls to grow.

Some say we need evil in our lives so we recognise and appreciate the good by contrast. But is this a good reason? How would you describe a fireman who went around starting fires so he could demonstrate his bravery in putting them out? How would you describe a doctor who willfully infected people so he could prove his skill in curing them? Would these be good people, or moral monsters? There is nothing praiseworthy about saving people from a danger you deliberately brought about.

Finally, some say there is a purpose for suffering - we just don't know what it is. But this is to admit that we do not fully understand God's motives or actions, and therefore cannot conclude He is good. To assert 'He is good', and that 'He allows evil for unknown reasons' is inconsistant and disingenuous. We could as easily call Him evil and claim there are unknown evil motives behind his apparently good deeds.

The atheist, by contrast, faces no problem in explaining evil - we have no guardian or overseer, we are just living in a world governed by natural forces which make no allowance for us or our suffering. And if the universe doesn't care about us, that makes it doubly important that we do. We have to make sure our lives are protected, our rights respected, our morals upheld, as much as we possibly can.

Because clearly no-one or nothing else in the universe will do it for us.

Dan said...

In today's mindset, the Canaanites would be held up as an equal society. Such is ex nihilo morality. Great post.