In a recent post on his Reasonable Faith site, famed Christian apologist and debater William Lane Craig published an explanation for why the genocide and infanticide ordered by God against the Canaanites in the Old Testament was morally defensible. For God, at any rate -- and for people following God's orders. Short version: When guilty people got killed, they deserved it because they were guilty and bad... and when innocent people got killed, even when innocent babies were killed, they went to Heaven, and it was all hunky dory in the end.
Here are some choice excerpts:
God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.
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. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.
I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He's not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God's hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He's not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He's an extensively educated, widely published, widely read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about.
And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to kill pretty much anybody. It's okay to kill bad people, because they're bad and they deserve it... and it's okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said -- not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words -- "the death of these children was actually their salvation."
So why did this story not make headlines? Why was there not an appalled outcry from the Christian world? Why didn't Christian leaders from all sects take to the pulpits to disavow Craig, and to express their utter repugnance with his views, and to explain in no uncertain terms that their religion does not, and will not, defend the extermination of races or the slaughter of children?
Because the things he said are not that unusual.
Because lots of people share his views.
Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.
Step One: Admit Your Mistakes
See, here's the thing. When faced with horrors in our past -- our personal history, or our human history -- non-believers don't have any need to defend them. When non-believers look at a human history full of genocide, infanticide, slavery, forced marriage, etc. etc. etc., we're entirely free to say, "Damn. That was terrible. That was some seriously screwed-up shit we did. We were wrong to do that. Let's not ever do that again."
But for people who believe in a holy book, it's not that simple. When faced with horrors in their religion's history -- horrors that their holy book defends, and even praises -- believers have to do one of two things. They have to either a) cherry-pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don't; or b) come up with contorted rationalizations for why the most blatant, grotesque, black-and-white evil really isn't all that bad.
Now, progressive and moderate believers usually go the cherry-picking route. But that requires its own contortions. Once you acknowledge that your holy books really aren't that holy, once you admit that they have moral as well as factual errors, then you have to start asking why any of it is special, why any of it should be treated any differently from any other flawed books of history or philosophy. You have to start asking why -- since your religion's holy books are just as screwed-up as every other religion's -- your religion is still somehow the right one, and all other religions are mistaken. You have to start asking how you know which parts of your holy book are right and which parts are wrong -- and how you know that people who disagree with you, who've picked the exact opposite cherries from the ones you've picked, who feel their faith in their hearts exactly as much as you do, have somehow gotten it terribly wrong. You have to start asking how you know the things you know. And to do that, and still maintain religious faith, requires its own contorted thinking, its own denial of reality, its own sticking of one's fingers in one's ears and chanting, "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!"
And when you don't go the cherry-picking route? When you insist -- as Craig apparently does -- that your holy book is special and perfect, that the events and motivations in the text all took place exactly as described, and that the actions of God described in it are right and good by their very definition?
You put yourself in the position of defending the indefensible.
When your holy book says that God ordered his chosen people to slaughter an entire race, down to the babies and children -- and you insist that this book is special and perfect -- you put yourself in the position of defending genocide. You put yourself in the position of defending infanticide. You put yourself in the position of defending slavery, rape, forced marriage, ethnic hatred, the systematic subjugation of women, human sacrifice, and any number of moral grotesqueries that your holy book not only defends, but praises to the skies and offers as models of exemplary behavior.
And you can't cut the Gordian knot. You can't simply say, "This is wrong. This is vile and indefensible. This kind of behavior comes from a tribal morality that humanity has evolved beyond, and we should repudiate it without reservation."
Not without relinquishing your faith.
And if you refuse to relinquish your faith? If you cling to the assumption that your faith, by definition, is the highest good there is, and that by definition it trumps all other moral considerations?
Then you cut yourself off from your own moral compass.
I've made this point before, and I'm sure I'll make it again: Religion, by its very nature as an untestable belief in undetectable beings and an unknowable afterlife, disables our reality checks. It ends the conversation. It cuts off inquiry: not only factual inquiry, but moral inquiry. Because God's law trumps human law, people who think they're obeying God can easily get cut off from their own moral instincts. And these moral contortions don't always lie in the realm of theological game-playing. They can have real-world consequences: from genocide to infanticide, from honor killings to abandoned gay children, from burned witches to battered wives to blown-up buildings.
As just one example among so very many: Look at the Lafferty brothers, Mormon fundamentalists who murdered an innocent woman and her 15-month-old daughter because they thought God had commanded them to do it. At many points in their journey across the continent on their way to the killings, they questioned whether brutally slaughtering their brother's wife and her infant child was really the right thing to do. But they always came to the same answer: Yes. It was right. They thought God had commanded it -- and that settled the question. It ended the conversation. It stopped their moral query dead in its tracks.
But don't just look at sociopathic murderers from a bonkers religious cult. That's too easy. Look at Mr. Theological Scholar himself, William Lane Craig. In this piece, Craig says that the Canaanites were evil, and deserving of genocide, because (among other things) they practiced infanticide. The very crime that God ordered the Israelites to commit. I shit you not. Quote: "By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice." (Emphasis -- and dumbstruck bafflement -- mine.) And he says the infanticide of the Canaanite children was defensible and necessary because the Israelites needed to keep their tribal identity pure, and keep their God-given morality untainted by the Canaanite wickedness. Again, I shit you not. Again, quote: "By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable." As if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god couldn't come up with a better way to teach a lesson about assimilation to pagan idolatry than murdering children.
I could sit here all day and pick apart everything that's intellectually wrong with Craig's arguments. But it seems that a far more appropriate response would be, "Are you fucking kidding me? Do you hear what you're saying? Can you really not hear how grotesque, repulsive, flatly evil, totally batshit insane that sounds? Yeah, sure, if you start with your assumptions, then genocide and infanticide are morally defensible. Doesn't that tell you that there is something monstrously, ludicrously wrong with your assumptions?"
If I were trying to make up a more blatant example of ethical contortionism, of morality so twisted by its need to defend the indefensible that it has blinded itself to its own contradictions and grotesqueries, I couldn't have done a better job. Craig, like so many believers before him, has made my best arguments for me.
What's Sauce for the Creation Is Sauce for the Creator
Now. Some people might argue that the rules of morality aren't the same for God as they are for people. They might argue that, while it would certainly be wrong for people to kill babies and eradicate entire races on their own initiative, it's not wrong for God to do it. Craig himself makes that argument in this piece. Quote:
According to the version of divine command ethics which I've defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn't issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. (emphasis mine) He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as "playing God." Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that's His prerogative.
Yeah. See, here's the problem with that. If the moral rules for God are different from the moral rules for people? If the very definitions of good and evil are different for God than they are for us?
Then what does it even mean to say that God is good?
If you say that what "good" means for God is totally different from what "good" means for people -- if you say that murdering infants and systematically eradicating entire races is evil for people but good for God -- then you're pretty much saying that what it means for God to be "good," and what it means for us to be "good," are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. You have rendered the entire concept of "good and evil" meaningless.
And I, for one, don't want the entire concept of good and evil to be rendered meaningless.
Of course, if you're a progressive/ moderate/ non-literalist believer, you're not stuck with defending every tenet of your holy book. You can say, "No, no, God didn't command these horrors. He couldn't have. The Bible is an inspired but flawed document, and it must be mistaken here when it says this command came from God. The Israelites wanted to slaughter the Canaanites, so they went ahead with it and told themselves the order came from God. But my God is good, and my God would never tell anyone to do any such a thing."
But then we're back to the cherry-picking problem: How do you know? How do you know which parts of your holy book are the ones that God meant? The Bible, and indeed most other religious texts, is loaded with instances of God commanding his followers to commit murder or worse. How do you know that God really wasn't giving those orders... but he really was giving the orders to love our neighbors and give to the poor? No two Christian sects agree on which bits of the Bible are God's true word and which bits are the "Just kidding" bits. And every sect has just as much "feeling in their heart" about their interpretation as you do.
So in order to pick those cherries, you have to twist yourself into just as many contortions as the fundies do.
Irony Meter Goes Off the Scale
It's funny. One of the most common pieces of bigotry aimed at atheism is that it doesn't provide any basis for morality. It's widely assumed that without religion -- without moral teachings from religious traditions, and without fear of eternal punishment and desire for eternal reward -- people would behave entirely selfishly, with no concern for others. And atheists are commonly accused of moral relativism: of thinking that there are no fundamental moral principles, and that all morality can be adapted to suit the needs of the moment.
But it isn't atheists who are saying, "Well, sure, genocide seems wrong... but under some circumstances, it actually makes a certain amount of sense." It isn't atheists who are saying, "Well, sure, infanticide seems wrong... but looked at in a certain light, it really isn't all that bad." It isn't atheists who are prioritizing an attachment to an ancient ideology over the clearest moral principles one can imagine: the principle that entire races ought not to be systematically exterminated, and the principle that children ought not to be slaughtered.
Human beings have intrinsic compassion. We have a sense of justice. We have feelings of revulsion and rage when we see others harmed. We have a desire to help create a livable world. We have a willingness to make personal sacrifices -- sometimes great sacrifices -- to help others in need. And contrary to what Craig and many other Christians think, these moral emotions don't derive from the Bible, and don't require belief in God. They're taught by virtually every religion and every society, and atheists feel them every bit as much as believers. Humans are a social species, and these emotions and principles evolved because they help members of a social species survive and reproduce. (Other social species seem to have some or all of these moral emotions as well.)
But our compassion and justice, our altruism and moral revulsion, can be twisted. They can be stunted. They can be denied, ignored, shoved to the back burner, rationalized away. They can be contorted to the point where we're saying that black is white, war is peace, and the most blatant evil is actually goodness if you squint your eyes just right. They can be contorted to the point where we're saying that genocide is okay because everyone gets what they deserve in the afterlife, and that infanticide is morally necessary to teach a lesson about the evils of murdering children.
And religion is Exhibit A in how this can happen.