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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hector Avalos on the Canaanite Genocide

I have recently been made aware of, my friend and fellow former evangelical, Hector Avalos' response to Paul Copan's article, Is Yahweh a Moral Monster. Avalos delivers a devastating critique of Copan's arguments. I understand that a revised version of Hector's article will be published in the forthcoming book, The Christian Delusion, ed. by John Loftus.

I want to share some of the more salient points made by Avalos in his critique of Copan. The entire article is available here.

1. Copan's position presupposes the moral superiority of his particular religion.

Avalos writes:
The religiocentric and ethnocentric biases of Dr. Copan play a fundamental role in how he evaluates other religions. Dr. Copan preselects the standards of his religion, and then just simply judges other religions by that standard.

Dr. Copan is actually relying on a moral relativism that could be used to establish the superiority of any standard. For example, if we, as Americans, value freedom of religion, then it is clear that biblical law is inferior to that of other Near Eastern systems.

One could easily argue that the denial of religious freedom is at the “moral heart” of the Old Testament. It is the very first of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:3: "You shall have no other gods before me.”

The intolerance of other religions is found in every single one of the biblical books. This includes: a) commands to destroy the temples and property of other religions (e.g., Deut. 7, 2 Kings 23); b) Destruction of the “clergy” of other religions (1 Kings 18:40); c) Consistent commands not to worship other gods (e.g., Exodus 20:3)....

In contrast, most Near Eastern religions valued religious diversity, and allowed the worship of almost any god people chose. This freedom to worship would actually be more consistent with American ideals than with anything in the Bible. By the standard which attempts to maximize freedom of religion, the Bible is a setback for humanity, not an advance.

So, if Paul Copan and other evangelical apologists are right, the founders of our nation were wrong to insist upon religious freedom. Assuming the moral superiority of his religion demands that Copan follow one of the foremost principles of his religion, namely, that false religion should not be tolerated. It is interesting that Christian zealots are constantly wanting to place the Ten Commandments in public venues in the United States. Of course, the first two commandments of the ten denies religious freedom.

2. Copan's position contradicts the Christian claim that all human beings are made in the image of God.

Avalos argues:
First, the genocide of the Canaanites flies in the face of Dr. Copan’s touting of the concept of humans being created in the image of god as a superior aspect of biblical ethics. He remarks: "Even more fundamentally, human beings have been created in God's image as co-rulers with God over creation (Gen. 1:26-7; Ps. 8)unlike the ANE mindset, in which the earthly king was the image-bearer of the gods. The imago Dei establishes the fundamental equality of human beings, despite the ethnocentrism and practice of slavery within Israel." Yet, biblical narratives clearly show that the imago Dei matters very little in ensuring human equality.

The fact that the Canaanites were supposedly made in the image of God didn't seem to make any difference to Yahweh or the Israelites. It didn't prevent the Canaanites from being slaughtered as if they were mere animals.

3. Copan's position is based on a religious faith-claim.

Avalos points out:

Dr. Copan’s main defense is a faith claim. He remarks: "First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh's explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture... if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being." Of course, this assumes that Yahweh exists and has the authority to kill women and children. Dr. Copan is accepting the faith claim of the biblical author.

By this logic, if Allah exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? Indeed, a jihadist Muslim could say that Allah has the authority to wipe out all Americans because they are incorrigible and wicked. Of course, these jihadists might also feel entitled to use their own definition of “wicked” and “incorrigible” no less so than Dr. Copan.

If the actions of human beings are to be morally evaluated by the faith claims of their particular religion, then how can one say that Muslims are wrong to commit terroristic acts, that Mormons are wrong to practice polygamy, that David Koresh was wrong to have sex with minor children, that Jim Jones was wrong to order his followers to commit suicide, etc. In each case mentioned above, the adherents of the specific religion would argue that their actions were moral based upon the precepts of their religion. It seems that one must be able to evaluate the morality of actions based on something that is beyond the faith claims of a specific religion.

4. Copan's position is based on one-sided information.

As Avalos remarks:
We must also recall that all the supposed crimes and wickedness of the Canaanite is being narrated by their enemies, the biblical authors. Over and over, we see Dr. Copan applying words such as “morally decadent,” “wicked,” to Canaanites because he is accepting the judgments of biblical authors. In any case, Dr. Copan’s procedure would be analogous to using only the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden to judge American culture.

This is precisely correct. All the evidence that we have concerning the supposed incorrigible immorality of the Canaanites comes from their enemies, namely, the Israelites. Since we know that typically enemies tend to demonize their opposition as justification for going to war, how do we know that we can accept what the biblical authors say at face value?

5. Copan's position is contradictory.

Avalos continues:
One can see that Dr. Copan seems not to value life as much as he claims. Apparently, the value of practicing the right religion supersedes the value of life. Dr. Copan wants to kill women and children to save them from corrupt and wicked practices, but he does not see the killing of women and children as itself a “corrupt” or “wicked” practice.

As I have pointed out in a previous post, it is the height of hypocrisy to punish the Canaanites for practicing child sacrifice by killing their children.

6. Copan's position prefers infanticide over birth-control.

Avalos writes:
Moreover, Dr. Copan assumes that his omnipotent god could find no other alternative than to slaughter children to accomplish the purpose of preventing their corruption.

Yet, Yahweh was believed to cause sterility in women (see Genesis 20:17-18). So, Yahweh could have sterilized Canaanite women supernaturally, and the problem would be solved in a generation or two. No need to kill children with this procedure.

7. Copan's position is itself an example of moral relativism.

Avalos says:
For a Christian apologist to think he or she has triumphed by pointing out the moral relativism of the New Atheism is to miss the entire point.

As an atheist, I don’t deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists. Indeed, when it comes to ethics, there are only two types of people in this world:

A. Those who admit they are moral relativists;
B. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

Dr. Copan fails because he cannot admit that he is a moral relativist, and he thinks that God will solve the problem of moral relativism.

But having a God in a moral system only creates a tautology. All we end up saying is: “X is bad because X is bad.” Thus, if we say that we believe in God, and he says idolatry is evil, then that is a tautology: “God says idolatry is bad and so idolatry is bad because God says it is bad.” Or we end up using this tautology: “Whatever God says is good because whatever God says is good.”

As Kai Nielsen (Ethics Without God [1992]) deftly argues, human beings are always the ultimate judges of morality even if we believe in God. After all, the very judgment that God is good is a human judgment. The judgment that what God commands is good is also a human judgment.

Christians are not doing anything different except to mystify and complicate morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call “good” unto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves.

And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species.

8. Copan's "Christian morality" is inferior to "atheistic morality."

Avalos aruges:
Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences. There is an iron-clad difference between secular and faith-based morality, and we can illustrate it very simply with these propositions:

A. I have to kill person X because Allah said so;
B. I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

In case A, we commit violence on the basis of unverifiable premises. In case B, we might commit violence on the basis of verifiable premises (I can verify a gun exists, and that it is pointed at me). If I am going to kill or be killed, I want it to be a for a reason that I can verify to be true.

If the word “moral” describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist.

What does not exist has no value relative to what does exist. What cannot be proven to exist should never be placed above what does exist. If we value life, then you should never trade something that exists, especially life, for something that does not exist or cannot be proven to exist. That is why it would always be immoral to ever take a human life on the basis of faith claims. It is that simple.


  1. I am a believing Christian who has stumbled greatly over the Canaanite genocides and does not find Copan's arguments to be very persuasive (though a good try). I also think Avalos makes some very good points. But his denial of moral realism, severely undercuts his case. The very reason the argument from the Canaanite genocides has the force it does is because it is objectively immoral to wipe out an entire group of people--every man, woman and child. This is true at all times and all places. Moral relativism, on the other hand, allows for the possibility that it may have been right for Israel to take such action. In that time and in that culture tribal deities and interests created the context where one could feasibly bring death to an entire people group who followed a different tribal deity. Following a religion was more important than honoring the right to life.

    If we grant Avalos all his points, all he has done is show Copan to be inconsistent with his belief in objective morality. That might be sufficient for his purposes of defeating Copan, but it doesn't help an atheist truly buttress a major premise in the problem of evil-- moral evil objectively exists. On this view, if the Nazis had one WW2, rewrote history, and passed laws ensuring their vision of life we could theoretically say that the Holocaust was a morally righteous piece of history. That is simply amazing to consider!

  2. Hello, Mr. Omelianchuk,
    Thanks for your comments. Yes, my purpose was to show the falsity of Dr. Copan's claim that he is not a moral relativist. As I have discussed at length in my book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005), EVERYONE is a moral relativist.

    One reason for that claim is that all morality is ultimately justified only by tautologies--circular statements. Thus, all one is saying is: "I believe X is wrong because I believe X is wrong." No matter what principle you use, you will end up with a tautology.

    Thus, if you say genocide is wrong. All you would be saying is:
    "I believe genocide is wrong because I believe genocide is wrong."

    If you try to resolve that further--e.g., genocide is wrong because it is wrong to kill human beings, then you just end up with another tautology: "I believe killing human beings is wrong because I believe killing human beings is wrong."

    Introducing God into a moral system only complicates it and provides the illusion that theistic morality is not as tautological as an atheist one. For example, all God-based morality can be reduced to: "I believe what God says is right because I believe what God says is right." So you, as a human being, are still deciding what is right and wrong, and simply claiming that God fits your definition of right and wrong.

    But while there is no way to evade ultimate moral tautologies, that does not mean that moral rules cannot exist at all. We just have to admit that they are anchored in a balance between individual interests and group interests. Parts are anchored in our biological and psychological constitutions that allow for emotions such as love and hate.

    I am against genocide because I don't like to see people killed just for being part of an ethnic group, etc. That threatens me because I might become a victim in addition to not wanting to see such destruction of human life. I am against killing people at random because I might be a victim. That is part of my psychological constitution. However, that may also mean that other people exist who do not mind killing people at all. History shows that.

    So it will always be, in part, a battle between those who can't stand to see people suffer and those who can see people suffer or enjoy seeing people suffer.

    In any case, SAYING that there are objective moral values will not change the fact that there aren't any.

    If I am wrong, then show us a moral rule that does not change due to time or circumstance, which is how I define an absolute moral rule. For example, Do you believe that killing infants is ALWAYS WRONG? YES OR NO?

  3. Dr. Avalos,

    Thanks for your reply. I am going to visit the library and check out your book so I can get a better grasp on what your argument is exactly. For now, I will give you some preliminary thoughts in response.

    First, I am not in agreement that ethical statements reduce simply to "I believe X is wrong because I believe X is wrong." This is obviously self-referential and it does not have to be. It may be tautological to say "genocide is morally wrong because it is wrong to wipe out an entire people group" but this does not make it relative to what any individual believes as if by merely believing it gave it truth value. The statement does not need to bear the burden of explanation, because it is a necessary and self-evident truth. To deny it would be immoral. (The same is true of 2 and 2 is 4. Logically speaking, it is a tautology and its self-evident truth is not dependant upon whether anyone believes it. Not to believe would be to fail at basic addition)

    Second, I agree that moral rules can exist in moral relativism. However, they cannot be compared in terms of better or worse. If there is a time and circumstance where genocide is morally right as determined by some culturally or psychologically relative factor, then we are in no position to judge the perpetrators of genocide. Epistemically, I am in no place to understand what it is they are doing. It only appears wrong to me because I am in another place and time. This is where one must land when judging the actions of the Israelites against the Canaanites.

    Third, a moral rule that does not change due to time or circumstance that I would give in response to your question is that deliberately taking an innocent human life is wrong, becaue it violates the human right to life. That would include killing an infant as you suggest.

    Now I suppose I have walked into a trap here and I anticipate a utilitarian response. Here I am left with Dostoevsky's question put in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov: "Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

    Even if one could muster the will to torture the babe for such a delightful outcome, the best possible human world we could imagine, it would not change the fact that it was founded upon an immoral action.

    Thanks for this exchange. Yours is the last word.

  4. Hello, Mr. Omelianchuk,
    I would be glad to address your comments, but I am still not sure of your answer to my question:

    Do you believe that killing infants is ALWAYS WRONG? YES OR NO?

    Please provide a simple YES or NO.

  5. I take it to be a properly basic moral fact that killing infants is always wrong. So YES is my simple answer.

  6. Hello, Mr. Omelianchuk,
    Thanks for that forthright answer. If I follow your logic, may I assume you also think God was wrong to command the killing of infants in 1 Samuel 15:1-3?

    [1] And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore hearken to the words of the LORD.
    [2] Thus says the LORD of hosts, `I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt.
    [3] Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'"

    If you don't believe God commanded this, then why was killing infants not "self-evidently" wrong to this biblical author?