Thursday, October 04, 2007

My biggest problem with Biblical morality

I know some of you are probably going "Oh, please, where to begin???" But I do have a place where I'd like to begin: the book of Joshua.

In a nutshell, God decides that He'd like to give a wonderful "promised land" to His chosen people. I imagine that -- being God -- He could have used His omnipotent powers to turn the wilderness into a land flowing with milk and honey. Or perhaps He could have anticipated this and reserved a wonderful land for them (by guarding it with cherubim or something). Instead He chose to give them a land that was already inhabited: all the recipients had to do was massacre the inhabitants, every man, woman, and child. What a wonderful gift!

This story looks like a tale from a pagan polytheistic paradigm where the one tribe's God happened to be demonstrating that He's more powerful than the other tribe's God. But let's suppose this really is a tale of an act performed by the one and only God of all humanity. Imagine a child in one of the less-favored tribes -- terrified by the violence and pillage going on all around her -- desperately praying "Heavenly Father, please save my mommy and daddy and me!" and receiving as an answer "Sorry, I can't help you. The privilege of killing you and your family is a special gift that I've given to someone who will be arriving at your house shortly."

To me, this is far worse than the many instances in the Bible where God Himself kills people because this story teaches a deadly lesson: Check your conscience at the church door because God may command you to perform an act of unspeakable evil, and when He does, it is good and righteous to follow His orders whatever they may be.

To any Christian who says, "Oh, that's just the Ooooold Testament -- starting from Jesus, God is all peace-and-love," I'd like to ask the following:

Is this the same God you worship or isn't it? Do you believe He did this, or at least OK'ed this story to go in His holy book? If Jesus really changed things by fulfilling the old law, then please show me the Bible verse where God says "Remember when I told you to massacre the Hittites? And the Girgashites? And the Amorites? And give Me their treasure? In fact, that wasn't righteous at all, that was evil..."

I'm somewhat less worried about Christians who simply don't realize that this is in the Bible or just never really thought about it. But I am more disturbed by educated Christians who attempt to justify and rationalize this, and ask us to "look at it in context." Let me be very clear: There is no context where genocide is right. Even if God is standing right in front of you offering you eternal paradise as a reward for murder and hellfire if you refuse. There may be just causes for going to war, but "I want their land and my God wants their treasure" is not among them.

Now I realize that this harsh post appears to fly in the face of my usual claim of wanting to foster mutual understanding between believers and unbelievers. But this point bothers me quite a lot and presents a stumbling block in my own comprehension of the Christian mindset. (Same for the Jewish mindset and the Muslim mindset, by the way, if they also see this as a story of righteousness.) The whole story seems so incongruous with the ethics of the believers I know, and I'm at a loss to imagine what could possibly be going through their minds as they're reading it in their Bibles.


hm-uk said...

Absolutely spot-on! I can only comment on this from the perspective of a former Mormon, and say that it always seemed awkward to me to use manifest-destiny as an excuse for genocide. Especially when the people bringing the 'peace and justice' through pillaging and murder often disrupted a more balanced and harmonious way of life in the tribe whose land they snatched. My parents claim that it is the people in the system who are flawed, not the system and that all will be revealed through revelation, in due course. I say, not if if serves the system to carry on pillaging the land and exploiting the people.

JohnR said...

I asked my seminary teacher about this as a 16-year-old investigator. I heard enough to enable me to put this concern on the back burner, but even in my most devout (brainwashed) moments, I never felt like I had an adequate explanation (I guess I thought of this as one of those "interpolations of men" in the Bible).

It's one of the first things I ask believers who want to engage me in serious conversation about the Bible: "Would you kill me or my children if God commanded it?" I get quite a mix of answers, but they can definitely be divided between those who try to justify it and (modern/post-modern, liberal Jews and Christians) who see this as 100% human history.

Mormons, even with the "as far as translated correctly" option, almost always fit into the first category.

Anonymous said...

No, no, no, you're just interpreting wrong again.....

JulieAnn said...

Every time I read one of your posts on religion, it hits home how terribly illogical it all is. I love it.
BTW, I am grating words with a person who is a theist, and she baits me by saying "But there IS no God, so why should YOU worry about it?" How do you handle that passive-aggression?
I don't try, I just let he go. But I would like to say something like, "You're right; there is no God, I'd forgotten. I'd better get busy putting babies on spikes."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hm-Uk -- exactly!!!

Hey John R!!!

That's a good question to ask to figure out what people have gleaned from this story.

Hey MXRacer652!!!

Are you serious, or are you being sarcastic? It's possible that I may be interpreting this story wrong, but it seems pretty clear and straight-forward...

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JulieAnn!!!

I'm not sure how to deal with your passive-aggressive friend. Fortunately I haven't really been in that situation...

Unknown said...

Yeah, it was reading stories like this that put the cracks in my faith. God seemed so much like a human; how could he be a god?

And it always annoyed me when religious people I knew would try to explain the will of God in one sentence and then claim that humans couldn't understand the will of God when faced with stories like this.

Anonymous said...

The Old Testament is chock full of pretty shocking things. One of my favorite commentaries (even though he's way to easy on the Good Book), because it captures some of the strangeness and cultural distance, is David Plotz's Blogging the Bible series over at Slate. It's both entertaining and deeply disturbing. Large sections of the book, and especially the core idea that a supreme being would choose a people based on blood and then favor them, are unpalatable. Anyway, nice post.

Anonymous said...

It just doesn't come off well in type, eh?

That's always the most used answer I get, along with ordinarygirl's last paragraph.

Aerin said...

If religion is man made, it seems like the entire point of this doctrine is to take responsibility away for one's own actions. As if to relieve people of their personal guilt for horrid atrocities. It wasn't me doing that, it was God's will.

Suddenly, everything becomes God's will.

What draws the line between sanity and insanity for some (IMO) is the belief that you are just as responsible for your own actions as any God.

My dad (tbm) defends some of this by saying that God would never ask someone to commit murder (like what happened with the Laffertys). Yet I don't completely trust that either. Have you seen Frailty with Bill Paxton? (the basic premise is that a dad has a revelation from God to start killing people in the town - and whether or not his sons go along with him). That movie is disturbing on so many levels.

Unknown said...


As you probably know, I believe you're perfectly justified in criticizing these passages. In fact, I think that such an exercise should promote understanding.

On some level, every theist is uncomfortable with an atheist. I can't think of a religion where unbelievers have a place in the universe, and in fact, unbelievers are at best "lost" and at worst "damned." In that sense, we are morally criticized.

The promotion of understanding has to account for the moral criticisms that our perspective has with a religion's sacred texts, not just with the perspectives that don't conflict with that religion's. Your criticism goes part-and-parcel with your mission, IMO.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey OrdinaryGirl!!!

That's a good point -- God is conveniently mysterious some of the time...

Hey Robert!!!

That is absolutely true that the Bible is full of plenty of other horrors. For this post, I wanted to stick with one extremely clear example, though, because when criticizing Biblical morality in general, it's too easy for the discussion to get sidetracked by the myriad of random trivial details and/or to get accused of Christian-bashing or something. But I agree, it's useful to read a longer piece or a series that gives other sections the treatment they deserve. Another good choice is by the book comics.

Hey MXRacer652!!!

That's what I thought, just making sure... ;^)

Hey Aerin!!!

Exactly. I think it's incredibly ironic (or hypocritical?) that believers accuse others of leaving religion out of selfish desire to do whatever they want. Just look around and you can see plenty of examples of people using "God's will" to justify actions that favor themselves and their group over others (men dominating women, straights discriminating against gays, the unbelievable graft of the reign of GWB, etc.). Giving up religion, by contrast, means being fully responsible for your own actions.

Thanks John!!!

I hope I really am promoting understanding and not just alienating people.

A lot of atheist blogs spend time debating liberal Christians, and on some level I feel like saying, "Okay, whatever, but we agree on environmentalism, healthcare, peace, etc., right?" At the same time, a lot of the bad guys are justifying selfish, short-sighted, and hateful behavior by pointing at the Bible. And the reason they're able to do it is because that stuff is actually written there in the Bible. And it makes me want to ask liberal Christians "How do you feel about that?"

beatdad said...

I am taking a Buddhist Foundational Studies class; last week the priest alluded to the idea that gods are just people who became really powerful, like Bill Gates. Gods, or people residing in the Heaven realm, are just as susceptible to the laws of karma as the rest of us and may be dragged out of heaven at any moment.

Think about Abraham's god that way and read the passage again.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

Honestly, I think that the only context where this story makes any kind of sense is a polytheistic one.

Someone pointed me to a Wikipedia entry (that I can't find anymore) that said there existed an early Christian sect that held that the New Testament God was a different god from the Old Testament God, and that in fact OT God was an evil god. Even though it would be impossible to reconcile this view with what is actually written in the Bible, it still makes more sense than any Christian interpretation that holds that the God of this story is just, all-powerful, and good.

Janell said...

Eh, I chalk this up to one of the standard "Obey or be destroyed even unto the fourth generation" threat/promises. An unsatisfying answer, still, but it's all I have off the top of my head.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Janell!!!

It's true it's similar to that sort of threat or promise. Yet that still doesn't make it make sense to me...

Paul Sunstone said...

Hi Chanson! That was a great post! I find it hard to understand the OT god without recourse to my old college textbook on abnormal psychology. How ironic that millions look to a sociopathic deity for lessons in morality.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Paul!!!

Exactly. The fact that your critical thinking will make you doubt the miracles in the Bible is one thing. But the fact that atrocities are held up as wonderful and righteous (and that the Bible seems to insist that you convince yourself to love a God who is a sociopath) adds a whole new dimension to why one should think critically about it.

Jeff Hebert said...

In my opinion, the fundamental truth of Christian morality is that obeying God is the only moral Good. It is the act of obedience that determines the moral weight of an action, not anything inherent in the act itself.

Under that guideline, passages like the one you reference reflect moral acts, because the slaughter of men, women, and children for material gain was commanded by God. Thus they are acting in a morally good fashion because they are obeying God's commands. The actual acts -- murder, rape, pillaging -- are pretty much irrelevant.

If your response to that is "Well that's fucking batshit crazy and a downright evil moral code", I'd agree with you, which is one reason I'm not a Christian. BUT, it's the only way those Old Testament passages make any sense.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jeff!!!

I have to admit, you're right that it's hard to make sense of it any other way...

Box o Rocks said...

Great write-up. I have had discussions with many theists about his very subject. I guess I'm a glutton, and I generally try to avoid discussion with these people because invariably, any logical construct presented cannot stand against the will of God manifested in a believer.

Excuses given for the Joshua genocide:
They were evil for generations, and uncorrectable. Really? I didn't know innocent children could not be raised within a new home absent of prior influences. And what's the point of missionaries then? If a culture has been bad too long, just take them out.
Expounding on the excuse you heard: "Oh, that's just the Ooooold Testament"
I asked if my life was at risk because I was an atheist.
No, people today don't kill in the name of God.
I reached for a recent example to use; 9/11
Those are Muslims.

Can't win.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Box-O-Rocks!!!

I know how you feel. I think it's weird that it's hard to get a straight answer from Christians about this, yet it doesn't seem to shake their faith...

Anonymous said...

I find these passages shocking and uncomfortable as well. We must be careful, however, not to assume full understanding of the texts we read. Who CAN comprehend God? If there is a God, then how can you possibly seriously expect to understand Him? If there isn't one, then stop arguing the point and trying to understand a God that does not exist.
As a Christian, I see the covenant with Abraham and the defeated nations continual, pagan sin as God's reasoning for violence. (Lev. 18:25) His violence must not be likened to our own, however. It simply can not be...
Thank God (assuming there is a God and that you sin) that Jesus came and started a new covenant by which all could be saved. Ordinary humans couldn't handle the old covenant, but the new plan is salvation through Christ's blood.
There simply must be blood. Yours, or Jesus'. It sounds disgustingly cruel, but that's how it is. We will all be faced with the decision one day.
I really don't understand the theology of it all...and I doubt anyone ever will. Esp those who do not believe it to begin with. It isn't a matter of figuring it all never will. Those who reject God will certainly not find His reasoning on their own.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sarah!!!

I have a bit of a problem with saying the Bible is entirely right and then excusing the parts that are wrong with "we don't understand." There is no ambiguity here and nothing to "not understand" -- it's spelled out right there in black and white: the most horrific evil becomes righteous when commanded by God. This book says that genocide, murdering children, etc. (for your own profit and that of your God) is a wonderful gift that God sometimes grants his obedient followers.

Davey Morrison Dillard said...

I'm LDS. I find passages like these troubling, but not faith-shattering, simply because the anchor of my faith isn't in the Bible, or any other scripture. I think the Bible (and other scripture) is really cool and interesting and beautiful and uplifting and great much of the time, and warped some of the time. I don't believe any scripture is the direct transcription of the inviolable Word of God. It's all written by men, with their understanding, their not-always-correct beliefs, their agendas, frequently after generations of oral history. My faith is anchored in my understanding of God, which grows and develops and is very deeply influenced by scripture, but I think taking every arbitrarily-included book in the Bible, every chapter in Helaman that starts to get a bit sadistic in its description of war, as Unerring Absolute Truth--well, I think that leads to worshipping false gods.

The Super Powers said...

Atheists, like yourself, love to bring up this passage of scripture, but it is logically irrelevant to proving atheism. It may give you some sort of fuzzy feeling about your choice of beliefs, but it has no logical teeth.
This is only a problem if you believe there is a God, that there are absolute unchanging morals, and that the Bible is historically accurate. But if you believe those things, within the theistic context, there are explanations. Do people like them? I don't think Christians love them, but they do acknowledge that it is logically possible that an all-knowing deity could have good reasons for doing what He did.
The atheist is not in a good situation to make this judgment. For where is the atheistic basis for making trans-cultural moral judgments? Read the first part of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and you will see that the Tao (moral law as he writes about it) is best explained by a moral lawgiver.
Anyway, I happened upon your blog as I was looking up old Christmas Carols. I appreciated your blog on the subject of Christmas songs and found your discussion of Veni Emmanual entertaining. I shall now return to my quest at looking up old Christmas carols. Merry Christmas, a bit early.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Davey!!!

Thanks for your input, and sorry for the late reply. Personally, I find very little of the Bible "is really cool and interesting and beautiful and uplifting" -- and the few parts that are don't outweigh the rotten parts nor do they justify holding this book up as a source of good morals overall.

I'm not saying this passage is "faith-shattering" however. I'm not saying that this passage is evidence that God doesn't exist. I'm saying that if this God were to exist, this passage demonstrates that He is evil, and worthy of our contempt, not worship.

Hey Seth!!!

My post has absolutely nothing to do with "proving atheism." My point is that The Bible is a terrible source for moral guidance.

Many people who believe in a God or gods agree that this particular book is abhorrent and should not be held up and respected as a source of wisdom. It's one of the reasons why I prefer some of the newly-popular neo-pagan religions over the religions of "the Book". At least their ethical reasoning isn't hobbled by the requirement of basing it on a text that encourages slavery, genocide, stoning people (including children) for things that aren't even crimes, and many other atrocities.

That said, I'm glad you liked my Christmas Carol post. We can agree to disagree on this Bible stuff, and wish each other a Merry Christmas! :D

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

This is where I pull out my get-out-of-jail-free/the-Bible-isn't-the-word-of-God card. haha

But honestly as a person of (some) faith, how I look at this particularly egregious crime is 1. I don't think God would have commanded it. I think the reason it's in the Bible is because, as people are prone to do, they attributed their "military success" to God answering their prayers ... if it happened at all; maybe this bronze age troupe of nomads decided to invent this myth to inspire faith in the power of their God. which brings me to 2. when people say "look at it in context," I think they should be saying, "what theological message could this represent?" I think it could be an attempt to demonstrate the purity of Israel by presenting how totally against God this other society was (so much so that it had to be eradicated by Israel).

Either way, I agree that a God who would do this is not worthy of our praise and admiration. He's just a jerk. But I think the fact that it's in the Bible says more about the writers and believers of the Bible than it does about God.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

Great, but then you start to get into the question of why revere this book as a source of good, moral counsel? Sure there are some good passages in the Bible, but they're not much more insightful (if at all) than other good texts (including ones as ancient or more) that don't have the same baggage of horrors that you find in the Bible.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

yeah, you're right. There's parts I do like though, and I'm always up for defending "literature" of any kind. It's my debating nature in me.

James K. Collins said...

To Julie Ann Henneman; When someone says the passive-aggressive "why do you care, it doesn't affect you" stuff, I ask them when America is going to stop fearing evolution in the schools. Unfortunately I get kinda frothy over that; the Bible-belt's attempt to FLUSH MY NATION DOWN THE TUBES OVER A FAIRLY-TALE gets me a bit worked up.

If I can keep myself calm enough to do so I also ask why the fsck my gay brother can't get married, why we always seem to go to war with non-Christian nations so much more quickly, and how many witches the average theocracy burns at the stake per generation. And yes, that DOES still happen.

Richard said...

Read this: