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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Eight--Yahweh is a Moral Monster

Chapter Eight in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, (ed.John W. Loftus) is entitled, "Yahweh is a Moral Monster," by Hector Avalos, a former evangelical and current Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University. Avalos' essay is an answer to the article "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics," (Philosophia Christi 10 [2008]: 7-37), by Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Paul Copan in his article, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster," attempted to defend the integrity and virtue of his God in spite of the moral atrocities in the OT attributed to Yahweh. Atrocities such as genocide and slavery. Avalos shows why Copan's attempt fails.

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

Avalos writes:
The religiocentric and ethnocentric biases of Copan play a fundamental role in how he evaluates other religions. Copan preselects the standards of his religion, and then just simply judges other religions by that standard. He 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 OT. 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: 1) commands to destroy the temples and property of other religions (e.g., Deut. 7, 2 Kings 23); 2) destruction of the “clergy” of other religions (1 Kings 18:40), 3) consistent commands not to worship other gods (e.g., Exodus 20:3), 4)laws requiring the outright murder of any Hebrew exercising religious freedom (e.g., Deut. 13:1-16; 17:2-5; Exodus 22:18).

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
(pp. 220-21).
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 Copan’s touting of the concept of humans being created in the image of god (Imago Dei)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 (pp. 222-23).
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:
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. 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 Copan (p. 223)
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 Copan applying words such as “morally decadent,” “wicked,” to Canaanites because he is accepting the judgments of biblical authors. In any case, Copan’s procedure would be analogous to using only the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden to judge American culture(p. 224).
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 Copan seems not to value life as much as he claims. Apparently, the value of practicing the right religion supersedes the value of life. 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 (p. 225).
It is the height of hypocrisy to punish the Canaanites for practicing child sacrifice by killing their children. In addition, many scholars see child sacrfice as being practiced by the early Hebrews themselves. Indeed, in Genesis 22, Abraham seems to presume that child sacrifice is not an impossible request, and it is the substitution of the ram that is unexpected. For most of biblical history, Yahweh was not against child sacrifice "per se," but rather against child sacrifice to other gods (p. 227).

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

Avalos states:
Moreover, 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 (p. 225).
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:

1. Those who admit they are moral relativists.
2. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

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 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. So Christians are not doing anything different except to mystify and complicate morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call “good” onto 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 (pp. 232-33).
8. Copan's "Christian morality" is inferior to "atheistic morality."

Avalos argues:
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 (pp. 233-34).
So, in this chapter Avalos demonstrates that Yahweh, the God of the Christians, is in fact a moral monster. He concludes:
What is tragic is that in the twenty-first century a Copan can still defend genocide and infanticide in any form. What is still unbelievable is that a Copan can say that killing women and children is sometimes good. It is that sort of frightening biblical moral ethos that makes the New Atheism more attractive all the time (p. 234).


  1. ---

    It always amazes (though it shouldn't, given that they are human constructs), that the methods used by God in the Biblical stories are always so...human...

    For example, if God wanted to clear a path to the "Promised Land" and get the Israalites there, he could temporarialy or permanently just move the entire Caananite cities to some other location. There was surely enough free and open and land at the time. Like Avalos said, God could have made all the female inhabitants of Caanan infertile, thus cutting off these "wicked" people at the source.

    Needless to say, there are so MANY things God could have done that wouldn't have required mass bloodshed, slaughter and horror. And God, if he be omniscient, would have know that less vicious actions would have cut down on this negative stereotype of Christianity, would have led to less violence in the future from the three monotheistic religions.

    Moreover, with the kind of reasoning we see from Copan/Craig et. al., there isn't a damn thing God could command or do that would be immoral for him. He could order the rape of a small child or the torture of an elderly person, and we could just claim, "They were wicked", or "His ways are higher than our ways!".

    Or he could do something utterly ridiculous like consciously torture someone for all eternity, with no hope of respite or reprieve, and the Christian could still find some way to call him good.


  2. That is just to be expected as man made God in his image, not the other way round.

  3. Good luck convincing a believer that God is a moral monster. That answer is always the same. God is alway assumed to be always good and always right and always incapable of wrong doing or immorality. So, since God commanded the Canaanite genocide, the genocide must be good and righteous and justified. Oh, and the Canaanites were evil and deserved it. Game over.

  4. Can a bridge be a moral monster? I had a friend that drove truck for a living. He had a 13' truck and came upon a 12' 7" bridge once. It was a bad outcome. Was the bridge intolerant? What do you think?