Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Apologetics for Genocide

The Problem

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 reports God seemingly ordering a genocide (“do not leave anything alive that breathes” in the NIV). Other verses could be used, e.g. Joshua 10:40 where the “don’t leave alive anything that breathes” sort of language is used again, and 1 Samuel 15:3 where God seemingly orders the killing of men, women, children, and infants. These passages should be troubling for anybody who is a Christian or is considering Christianity.

Christians deal with these troublesome passages in different ways. Some Christians reject Biblical inerrancy, believing the writings of the New Testament to be more reliable than e.g. Deuteronomy and the books of Samuel, and there is at least some rational basis for this. Mainstream historians date the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the letters of Paul to within the first century, a few decades after the alleged resurrection of Jesus. In contrast, mainstream scholarship dates Deuteronomy, Joshua, and the books of Samuel centuries after the alleged events took place. If you’re a Christian who rejects Biblical inerrancy, it’s not hard to guess which set of books is more likely to contain reliable information.

Some Christians, such as Paul Copan, don’t interpret the Bible in such a way that such a widespread slaughter took place, but rather as hyperbole to describe the Israelites crushing military opposition, similar to how a football coach would say “We murdered the other team” to describe soundly trouncing the opposing team in a game. Odd as that may seem, there is precedent for this in the Ancient Near East, using the hyperbole of total devastation to describe a victory. For example, Hittite king Mursili II who ruled in the early 13th and 14th century BCE is recorded as saying that he emptied certain mountains of humanity, when this wasn’t literally true. At around 1230 BCE, Rameses II’s son Merenptah said, within the context of a military campaign in an inscription known as the Merneptah Stele, that Israel has been wiped out and that its seed does not exist. There is also some evidence for the non-literal and hyperbole interpretation within the Old Testament itself. For example, 1 Samuel 15 ostensibly has all of the Amalekites being destroyed (remember 1 Samuel 15:3?) but the Amalekites pop up again in 1 Samuel 27:8 where David raided the Amalekites. The Biblical inerrantist could easily interpret 1 Samuel 15 as coinciding with Ancient Near Eastern hyperbole.

Still, there are those Christians who interpret some of the more barbaric passages more literally. William Lane Craig for instance seems to think that a perfectly good God might do something like this with respect to the slaughter of Canaanite men, women, and children.

In fairness to Craig, he doesn’t consider it genocide. Why? Craig says this:

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.

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.

But what if they all stayed (the Bible doesn’t say they did, but still…)? Wouldn’t that be genocide? When dealing with apparent mass slaughters in the Old Testament, some Christians seem to define genocide narrowly so that only those cases where the slaughter is due to ethnicity will it count as genocide. For example, Justin Taylor’s blog at the Gospel Coalition says:
“Ethnic cleansing” and genocide refer to destruction of a people due to their ethnicity, and therefore this would be an inappropriate category for the destruction of the Canaanites.

One could define the word “genocide” to mean that if they want, but there also exists the broader definition in which deliberately killing a large group of a nation’s people is enough to constitute genocide. Using the narrow definition while ignoring the broader definition seems like an unsuccessful attempt at avoiding the unpleasant label of “genocide.”

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig has gained some notoriety in the world of internet atheism for being an apologist for genocide. Here is what William Lane Craig has to say:

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. So who is wronged?

So according to Craig, in this story neither the Canaanite adults (deserving of judgment) nor the children (who go to heaven) were wronged. Craig then goes into some stuff about how the people doing the killing were the most wronged, and then explains (successfully or otherwise) how they weren’t wronged. You can see Dawkins criticize Craig on this sort of thing here, even quoting all the same words that I just did.

What Dawkins doesn’t do though is offer much of a rebuttal to Craig’s argument; instead he expresses his moral disgust of Craig. Maybe Dawkins thought no rebuttal is needed, but if the answer to “Who was wronged?” is “Nobody” then we need to reconsider our intellectual grounds for rejecting Craig’s argument if we don’t have any real rebuttal. If we can’t find anybody who was actually wronged by what we’re trying to call an atrocity, we need to offer more than just emotional disgust to defeat Craig’s position.

On the surface at least Craig’s response would seem to have some merit; certainly anybody deserving of the death penalty wouldn’t be wronged in being killed on the orders of the supreme judge in the universe, and the Israelites effectively transport the children to a very pleasant place, so that the children wouldn’t be wronged either. You might think the children were wronged by being separated from their parents, but if the parents were really deserving of the death penalty, this wouldn’t be so bad. Even if they weren’t deserving of the death penalty, a Christian could say the really good parents were not separated from their children but were with them in heaven. So who was wronged? And why is it more difficult than normal to find who was wronged in a story about genocide?

Here’s why: in Craig’s fairy tale, God has basically rigged everything so that actions that would otherwise have horrible consequences—especially in a worldview in which there is no afterlife—actually have good consequences. For example, in Craig’s story the dead children go to heaven, whereas an atheist might believe that any murdered children simply cease to exist. Even if some of the adults killed were innocent, on Craig’s view they would have been judged fairly by God. Again, an atheist might believe any killed person simply ceases to be.

An omnipotent God could arrange the world in such a way that actions that are terrible in the real world turn out to be good, e.g. God creating a world where shooting people actually makes them healthier, and where killing children doesn’t make the cease to be but instead merely transports them to a very pleasant place. It’s the sort of situation that makes “A good God would never order someone to do X” a lot trickier. One could claim, “A good God could never order us to shoot children” and the theist might reply, “But what about a situation where God arranged the world so that shooting children makes them healthier and doesn’t harm them in any way…”

The situation of an omnipotent deity being able to change the rules like that also cuts down other would-be objections. For instance, one could argue that he children suffered horribly when the Israelites killed them. But an omnipotent deity changes the game: the Christian could say something like, “Maybe God made them all sleep while this happened in a way that the children felt no pain at all.” Granted, the Bible doesn’t say this supernatural anesthesia happened, but it doesn’t contradict it either, and the Christian is free to speculate about matters that don’t contradict their holy book.

It might be tempting to argue that this Christian’s ad hoc damage control in positing supernatural anesthesia should be rejected and that the Christian should accept the “God ordered the massacre without anesthesia” belief instead. One problem with this response though is that it’s the Christian’s religion, not ours, and like it or not it’s their fairy tale to make up or add to as they please. We don’t want to tell them their fairy tale is false and that they should accept some other fairy tale—at least not when the replacement fairy tale is where a “perfectly good” God is more savage and brutal. It’s better to get the theist to abandon fairy tales altogether.

Another Approach

So where do we go from here? Does the omnipotent God being able to change the rules like that render the genocide story immune to intellectual criticism? No. There is something we could call the “Do you really believe it?” test. If a woman claims that God told her to kill her sleeping son, we would all think she’s nuts. In fact, most Christians would think she’s nuts. If a leader of a country kills men, women, and children saying God commanded him to do it, we would all think he’s nuts. In fact, most Christians would think he’s nuts. It seems as though deep down they know a perfectly good God wouldn’t order things like that. If there is an infallibly good God, it seems he would think it’s good for us and our children to live out our lives without anybody murdering them, hence our skepticism towards someone saying God ordered them to commit genocide. The Christian (at least the Christian who believes the massacres happened) needs to give us a good reason why we should be skeptical of someone in modern times claiming God ordered them to slaughter men, women and children and not so skeptical of the story in which God allegedly orders the massacres depicted in the (literal interpretation of) the Old Testament.