Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Defending Genocide

Normally I try to stay away* from biblical interpretation, but sometimes it can be downright hilarious. Creationist accounts of the history of the universe to fit into Genesis is comically absurd, for example. It's sad in a way, too, as the absurdities are consequences of untenable premises.

One of the charges against such biblical interpretations has been the monstrous accounts of God in the bible. From flooding the entire globe bar a few people and animals, to killing the first-born son of every Egyptian, and slaughtering entire tribes, there's plenty of examples of acts attributed to God that could easily take the title of "moral monster".

William Lane Craig sees it otherwise. He's copped criticism of his defence of God's slaughter of the Canaanites, especially brushing off the slaughter of infants as a good thing**! When I listen to Craig argue, I worry for his safety at zebra crossings, lest he argues that black is really white.

Anyway, to his defence of his defence:
I’ve seen those kinds of responses, too, Peter, and find them disappointing because they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions raised by such stories. Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion, leaving us with no deeper understanding of the issues than before we began.
We use emotion in our reasoning, when it comes to issues of morality we cannot help but be emotional about it. Contrary to what Craig alludes, the outbursts don't take the place of rational discussion but are part of it. But of course we should think about it rationally, so let's continue.

I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.”
I remember getting into an argument with a believer who argued that logic presupposed God. I pointed out that his logic was circular, to which he responded "how can you say it's circular if you have no foundation for logic?" In other words, I had no right to use logic unless I acknowledged God. I could point out that the universe is indifferent is a straw man as you don't need the universe to care about our behaviour to have morality, there are many naturalistic accounts of morality that don't require the universe to care.

So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.
At least there is the acknowledgement of the possibility of internal inconsistency. If a murderer is a morally evil person and God murders, then why doesn't that make God as morally evil? "At most"? I'm getting the impression that Craig is using language to diminish the concerns raised.

If there is an inconsistency on our part, then we’ll just have to give up the historicity of the narratives, taking them as either legends or else misinterpretations by Israel of God’s will. The existence of God and the soundness of the moral argument for His existence don’t even come into play.
Interestingly enough, this is the argument that's put forth. If God is the God of the bible who ordered the slaughter of infants, then that God is incompatible with the description of God as being all-good, and thus doesn't exist. Same thing goes when someone is arguing against Creationism - it's not saying that every and all possible description of God necessarily has to be the YEC interpretation of God and thus God doesn't exist, but that the YEC God as described by people is incompatible with everything we know about reality. There are some 2 billion believers, and God isn't the same thing to each of them. Certain premises and the arguments surrounding them differ depending on who you ask. Plenty claim to speak for God and of God, one cannot expect any argument to address every believer.

My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so.
The argument, as it goes, is that the commands are morally repugnant and not characteristic of what we would call all-good. It's not whether or not God has the moral right to do whatever he likes, but that his character by choosing certain actions is showing what we would consider a human to be a moral monster.

I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.
The Canaanites who were slaughtered weren't wronged?!?

The judgment of God upon these tribal groups, which had become so incredibly debauched by that time, is that they were being divested of their land. Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
How does this make it any better? Even in this scenario, the Caananites are being displaced from their land. One might make the parallel with home invasion. Is home invasion really right because God says so? And if the people refuse to leave, does it make it right to kill them? I'm thankful that the law cares much more about the rights of the individual than God does...

It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated.
And that makes it so much better... Seriously?

No one had to die in this whole affair. Of course, that fact doesn’t affect the moral question concerning the command that God gave, as explained above. But I stand by my previous answer of how God could have commanded the killing of any Canaanites who attempted to remain behind in the land.
This doesn't really solve any of the moral problems, it's just trying to downplay it enough that it doesn't carry the weight that genocide does.

In all likelihood, there was no slaughter of the Canaanites. The archaeology is pointing to the Canaan cities being abandoned much earlier***, the destruction characterised by destruction within. Historically there's nothing to argue about, no slaughter to argue away any more than there is a global flood in which all but Noah and his children's families were drowned. But the arguments are about their consistency and their accuracy with explaining the world, that we would describe a mass murder as a moral monster yet describe God as all-good for being described as carrying out much worse acts doesn't seem right. Perhaps Craig can dissolve the problem in a puff of logic, but there does seem to be a fundamental contradiction between how people describe God and how people describe God's actions.

* For the same reason that I really don't care whether Han shot first.
** "Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation."
*** Among other sources, watch the PBS Nova documentary The Bible's Buried Secrets

1 comment:

Negative Entropy said...

This is quite lucid Kel.