Thursday, October 03, 2013

Morality and mortality

Here are some comments I left on this post:

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, God ends every human life. Sometimes by “natural causes” (e.g. disease, miscarriage, old age), sometimes by accident (e.g. a fatal head-on collision), sometimes by disease (e.g. cancer), sometimes by violence (warfare, murder). 

Death by natural causes isn’t necessarily preferable to death by the sword. You can die a quick death by violence, or you can die a painful, lingering death by natural causes. For some reason, critics get hung up on how people die. But in a fallen world, death is inevitable one way or another.

So God’s command to execute the Canaanites doesn’t create a special issue, over and above human mortality generally. Ultimately, it’s what happens to you after you die that matters. That’s for keeps. 

Unbelievers attack the divine command to execute the Canaanites, but atheism has no principled basis for human rights. Atheism can’t ground objective moral norms. And even if it could, atheism has such a reductionistic view of human beings that there’s nothing sacrosanct about human life from a secular standpoint. Nothing to make us “special,” compared to any other organism. Or extinct species.
According to atheism, humans are essentially expendable, disposable, replaceable. We’re just carriers for our genes. Atheists wax indigent over OT ethics, but fall oddly silent when it comes to the amoral and dehumanizing implications of naturalistic evolution.

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:42 pm
”Likewise, we know that– just for instance– Deutoronomy was a later addition to the pentateuch…”

No, we don’t “know” that. That’s just your assertion.

“…and could very well be acting as a revisionist attempt to explain away the distasteful nature of the Israelite’s purges.”

How do you square that with Deut 20?

“Even if you personally are willing to dispense with scholarly consensus…”

There is no scholarly consensus to that effect. Your claim suffers from blatant selection bias. 

“…and maintain that Moses wrote Genesis, etc. you cannot deny that my acceptance of said consensus will change the way I read the text.”

Meaning an atheist reads the text differently than a Jewish or Christian believer. And the sky is blue. 

“There is no grand thread running through it except for the one provided by the editorial work of later academies and councils– and that’s not even perfect (look at the history of ‘Ecclesiastes’ and the wrangling that led to its canonization).”

That’s all ex post facto. It takes the canon for granted. 

“it still doesn’t follow that a mitigated evil is not evil.”

Likewise, it doesn’t follow that an asserted evil is really evil. You assume what you need to prove.

“I personally see no reason whatsoever to believe any of those statements.”

You offer no reasons.

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 10:25 am
”I’m remembering what I was taught (at a conservative Christian college no less). From my understanding, there were stages of textual manipulation by Priestly and a later Deuteronomical redactors, the latter of which operated to implement and solidify a whole raft of religious reform during the Babylonian Exile. Do you think the last two hundred years of scholarly work on source criticism is moot and so easily voided by your theological convictions?”

i) That’s a loaded question. You built your own tendentious assumption into the question: “Do you think…so easily voided by your theological conviction.” You act as if source criticism is a value-free exercise. Needless to say, source critics have their own philosophical assumptions and objectives. 

ii) Source critics moot each other by contradicting each other’s hypothetical reconstructions. 

iii) You’re disregarding scholarly work to the contrary.

“You ask me to give up the idea that these texts were written and manipulated by human beings (a practice that happens everywhere texts are written) and instead believe that they were conjured whole cloth out of the mind of God and never touched again. But why should I?”

I didn’t ask you to do anything. I simply challenged your gratuitous, fact-free assertion. 

You also equivocate over the nature of editorial activity. Editorial activity doesn’t imply manipulation according to a theological agenda. Rather, it can involve updating a text, or collating texts. 

“Why believe that when I don’t believe miraculous things that have been attributed to, say, Alexander the Great? I understand that you have your personal reasons to believe it, but why should anyone else?”

Why do you believe anything attributed to Alexander the Great? Why do you believe he even existed? Clearly you accept and sift testimonial evidence to some degree. 

Why do you believe ordinary things that have been attributed to some people, but not believe every ordinary attribution? 

Or do you automatically draw the line with miraculous attributions? If so, why? 

BTW, you seem to be insinuating that Christians automatically deny extrabiblical miracles. If so, where did you come up with that? 

“By that logic there is no scholarly consensus that the earth revolves around the sun since I can point to a few fringe “astronomers” who dispute it. Your presupposition here draws dangerously close to epistemological subjectivism.”

Ironically, your appeal to alleged consensus draws dangerously close to epistemological subjectivism. You’re making collective belief its own justification. I believe it because you believe it and you believe it because I believe it.

Is consensus your best argument for heliocentrism? The real question at issue is the basis for a “scholarly consensus.” Collective belief is not self-validating. Do you think there’s no underlying evidence for heliocentrism? Is it just a matter of which position garners the most votes? 

“But it doesn’t, really. The very idea of a scriptural canon is a relatively late period– an artifact of the exile, when the Jews were afraid of losing their culture. Heck, the thing wasn’t even a finished product until early in the Common Era (again, I point you to the controversies surrounding Koheleth which weren’t resolved until the 90s A.D.). Canonicity is a complex subject, far more interesting than your two-dimensional caricature of it.”

i) Ironically, you’re the one who’s guilty of a 2D caricature. Why assume canonization is a late, one-stage process? Why not view canonization as a multistage process that tracks the chronology of composition? Earlier books are canonized earlier. 

ii) The Council of Jamnia reflects the disruption of Judaism due to the disastrous war with Rome–which proves my point. This is ex post facto. 

“God said to. We were just following orders. It can’t be laid at our feet!”

What makes you think the writer is distancing himself from the legislation? What makes you think the writer is motivated by plausible deniability?

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm

”Steve, Admittedly, I do think that the first options to consider in all cases of belief is the naturalistic ones. But so do you in everything but your religious life”

i) No, my first option is to opt for the best explanation, not the “naturalistic” explanation. 

ii) Your appeal to “naturalistic” explanation is equivocal. That could denote a natural cause. But Christian theism is not opposed to natural causation. Christianity has a doctrine of ordinary providence.

Or that could denote “naturalism,” viz. the universe as a closed system. If the latter, then that is not my first option. That’s not even my last option. That’s not a live option, period. 

“As tired as it is, the old saying about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence rings true to me.”

That’s wholly ambiguous in terms of what constitutes an extraordinary claim, what constitutes extraordinary evidence, and why the former entails the latter. So you need to define your terms and present a connecting argument.

In what sense are miracles “extraordinary” in a theistic universe? 

Your position amounts to a universal negative. Every reported miracle is a false claim. But to say every observer who ever reported a miracle is mistaken or untrustworthy is, itself, an extraordinary claim. Your universal negative is an extraordinary claim. So where’s your extraordinary evidence to show that every witness to a miracle, throughout human history, was mistaken or untrustworthy?

“Rather, like anybody else, I discount the things that are patently untrue or that make no sense. I do the same thing with the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.”

That begs the question of whether OT and NT miracles are “patently untrue” or nonsensical. 

“But, I’ve never seen a miracle.”

You’ve never seen the 18th century. Maybe that’s something historians just made up. 

“No purported miracle withstands rational scrutiny (I am open to contradiction here).”

Who have you read? How do you define “rational scrutiny”? 

“All of my knowledge about the world (admittedly sparse) leads me to doubt the existence of miracles. Therefore, why should I accept them in texts (when I’m supposed to read them as historical artifacts)?”

Your provincial autobiographical impressions don’t amount to an argument against miracles.

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

”I would say that your placing Joshua (and Samuel for that matter) within the entire sweep of Christian theology doesn’t really respect the integrity of the text, however. Most obviously, these works were created by Jews (Judaism didn’t exist until much later, of course, but you get my idea) and at best they serve their historical and literary purposes. To me that’s problematic.”

Except for Luke (who may not be a real exception if he was a God-fearer or proselyte), the NT writers were also Jews. So you’ve erected a false dichotomy.

“‘Then is God’s character or nature good because he wills it, or does his character conform to it because it is good?’ The dilemma itself is just pushed away, not answered.”
God's will isn't separate from his nature. 

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm
”Hi Steve, They may have been ethnically and culturally Jewish…”

Not just that. They were religious Jews.

“but they were also committed Christians…”

They were Messianic Jews. Followers of Jeshua. 

“…who (in the Gospel of John, for instance) seem to go to a lot of effort to distinguish themselves from their origins.”

No, they distinguish themselves from opponents of Jesus.

“Obviously, they believed that the Hebrew Bible was subsumed under the new covenant. But equally obviously, observant Jews disputed that and still do.”

Which makes it an intramural Jewish dispute. 

“Just assuming that the former were right doesn’t achieve anything beyond reinforcing doctrine– important for believers but irrelevant to answering the challenges of anyone else.”

If you’re going to attack OT ethics as an outsider, then you need to justify your own moral standards.

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm

You’re making a string of tendentious assertions without any supporting arguments. 

For someone who touts logic, you need to distinguish between killing and murder. They are not morally equivalent. Although murder is killing, not all killing is murder. Don’t presume to be so judgmental if you’re unable to draw rudimentary ethical distinctions.

You also need to learn how to think for yourself instead of regurgitating the talking-points of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The OT doesn’t command “genocide.” The Canaanites aren’t targeted for ethnic reasons, but ethical reasons.

In addition, there’s no command to systematically eradicate the Canaanite people-group. Rather, they are allowed to live in peace outside the borders of Israel so long as they allow Israel to live in peace.

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Have you even read Gen 22 for yourself? Isaac wasn’t “murdered.” He wasn’t even killed. It was a counterfactual command. Moreover, what makes you think he “suffered”? You’re not getting that from the text. 

“What greater good justifies the killing of another human being? Outside of religion, in ANY OTHER CONTEXT, this would be considered not only immoral but evil, it would simply not be allowed. There’s a reason why today Christianity (thankfully) lives under the social rules of secular states, which don’t allow it.”

Secular ideologies often justify killing for the common good. Where have you been? 

“I cannot make myself and my moral code subject to such horrific worldview.”

And what’s the basis for your moral code? How to you warrant objective moral norms?

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:32 pm

”…calling murder and genocide something righteous and merciful can only make sense within the confines of religion. In today’s world, this is just unacceptable and is rejected by even religious people!”

You’re the one who’s calling it “murder” and “genocide.” You impute your own interpretation to the opposing side, then generate a specious contradiction. You need to cultivate the critical detachment to distinguish your own notions from the position to presume to critique. 

“God who uses unnecessary killing…”

Begs the question.

“…and human degradation (see treatment on women in both the OT and the NT).”

Begs the question. 

“In fact, religion is so sectarian that Christians don’t accept this worldview from the god of Islam, who also calls his/her followers to kill the infidel in his/her book. And does so in the same manner of the Old Testament: trying to rid the world of entire towns and civilizations. However Christianity accepts it when it comes from the Old Testament. How do you explain the contradiction?”

There’s an elementary difference between true religion and false religion.
September 27, 2013 at 11:00 am
The most reprehensible thing about the OT genocides is that god has the Hebrews do his dirty work of killing women and babies for him.
steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:45 pm
Calling it “reprehensible” is not an argument. 

“If a group of people tried to kill innocents on behalf of their god (wait a second…. some people today do still do that!!), we would rightly denounce them as savage zealots.”

Actually, if you paid attention, you’d notice that infanticide is becoming fashionable in contemporary bioethics. You really need to keep tabs on what your own side is saying.

September 28, 2013 at 7:31 am

Steve,So infanticide is ok when the Israelites practice it, but evil when Peter Singer advocates it (not ever having actually done it, presumably)? I think you’re a smart guy but can’t you see how self-serving that was?

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 10:28 am
I’m responding to AJG on his own grounds. That doesn’t require me to agree. Don’t you understand that basic distinction?

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm
”I don’t have a side. Just because I am materialist…”

That’s your side.

“…does not mean I advocate the killing of children.”

Why not?
”So I say again, commanding the killing killing of innocent children is wrong and a god who would command it is an evil tyrant worthy of contempt not worship.”

You seem to think Christians should bow down to your verbal expressions of disapproval. But you haven’t given us any reason to take your moralizing seriously.

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:58 pm
”Christian fundamentalists are blind to the notion that this book was written by 1st and 2nd century bronze age men. 100% of the people living in this world today are in a better position to analyze the world and define a moral code, with everything we have come to know about ourselves and society and the cosmos. In spite of that, a good percentage of the world continues to guide their moral values based on 1st century thinking. It’s time to have a 21st century conversation about human values and well being.”

You’re parroting terms you don’t even understand. Something you evidently picked up from a village atheist book or website, which you blindly repeat because it sounds rhetorically impressive. There is no first or second century Bronze Age.

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm
Since you don’t offer a substantive argument for your claims, it’s hardly incumbent on me to disprove an argument you never made.

steve hays
September 27, 2013 at 11:49 pm
AJG “You can argue about the definition of the word “slave” until you’re blue in the face, but a god that issues the command above is pure evil.”

You’re long on adjectives, but short on reason. You need to learn how to make a rational case for your claims.

For instance, according to the standard secular paradigm, a human being is just a temporary, fortuitous organization of matter. So on your own assumptions, why is it “pure evil” to reorganize that packet of particles by terminating the biological unit?

steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 12:06 am
”I tried going through the whole 2 videos, but now understand that it’s not worth it. I don’t know how many sane people can go beyond minute 21:30 of the first video : Mr Williams claims that God knows the future and therefore can change the foundation of morality based on that future. His exact words: ‘knowing the future can sometimes change what is morally OK’…This sort of moral relativism embedded in the Divine Command theory is not only contradictory with the otherwise objective nature of the bible as a moral code that most Christians hold.”

There’s nothing inherently relativistic about saying a knowledge of alternate outcomes has a moral bearing on what course of action should be chosen. To take different outcomes into account when opting for a particular course of action is basic part of moral deliberation. You need to drop your reactionary, knee-jerk attitude and actually think through the issues.
steve hays
September 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm
”Murder is murder…”

An abstract tautology that does nothing to establish a specific claim.

“…let’s call it what it is.”

Calling murder murder is not the issue. The issue is when you assert, without benefit of argument, that divine commands to execute Canaanites are equivalent to murder. Do you think all killing is murder? If so, where’s your argument? If not, then you can’t cite examples of killing as ipso facto murderous. That requires a supporting argument.

“You can justify it in several ways, many of which may let you sleep at night.”

I don’t justify “murder.” But there is such a thing as justifiable homicide. 

“If you are saying that your religion is better than theirs…”

In the sense that truer is better. Christianity is true, Islam is false. 

“Suffice it to say I just don’t see the difference between the atrocities Mr Williams tries to justify in his lectures to those in the Quran.”

The fact that you don’t “see” it is not an argument. I’m waiting for you to present an actual argument for your position.


  1. Steve:
    Thanks for posting this. Good to read you at work. Argumentation may or may not be used by God to change someone's heart and mind, but even if He does not work in that way in any particular instance, vigorous defense of truth is useful to 'stop the mouths of the obstreperous' (i.e., though it may not actually stop their mouths, at least it demonstrates to them that their facile pseudo-intellectualism will not be able to steamroller over the truth).