Friday, October 10, 2014

Atheist gut reactions

Veritas and Steve Hays made several valuable comments over on a Secular Outpost piece titled "Biblical Genocide and Village Atheists". I'll also note Steve previously responded to Parsons here, here, and here.


Thanks for your piece, Dr. Parsons.

I'm willing to "bite the bullet," but not in the way you describe. As I understand it, a standard interpretation of the conquest is that the land is an archetype of God's divine wrath when it strikes a part of the world. The world was getting a taste of judgment day.

As such, I think it is certainly the elimination of an entire class of people; in this case it is like the flood, but restricted to specific geography: the elimination of all those who are sinners and have no recourse to grace or forgiveness. It is a spiritual "genocide." (I don't think the term really applies, but I assume, because of its rhetorically useful connotations, it will continue to be employed to discredit belief in the Bible.) God is showing how he cannot tolerate sin, which constitutes a message to us rather than some sort of precedent to follow.

On these terms, it is not open to the question of when "genocide is good in some cases." At least not as you seem to be approaching the topic, where some groups are looking to justify genocide. I don't think that is a valid inference from the text.

If someone asks the (often, but not always, "village atheist" quality) question of "What's to stop someone / you from committing genocide in the name of Christianity now?", it's a fairly simple matter to note that, on a Christian theological framework, the conquest was clearly and visibly predicated on signs / miracles that no Israelite could deny as true. Additionally, the NT is quite clear that now is the time of grace as the Gospel goes out, and it will not be up to Christians to enact judgment on others (as many NT passages on revenge, justice, etc. bear out). This is why you don't see theological conservatives calling for genocide; they understand that God is the one who punishes evil and that one cannot just simply take up the sword with these kinds of passages as a "justification."

Now, to a more substantial problem with using these passages as some sort of "win" against Christians: as Westerners, we might find the judgment of all sinners deeply distasteful, and even as a Christian I do recoil in the sense that part of me grates against the idea of being accountable to a divine being with righteous standards who has judged (and will judge, on Christian theology) the whole world. But one reason I remain a Christian despite having such passages thrown in my face (as did more than one professor did during my university days) is that I do accept the idea of original sin and, perhaps more important both for your post and our broader Western context, I am rather unimpressed with attempts by secularists to ground morals in any objective standard. (Here I share company with a number of secular philosophers.) We might feel really icky about genocide, but I don't think there's any truly objective or transcendent reason to reject genocide on secular terms. Temporarily ambulatory bags of chemicals have no intrinsic value, even if one subset of this group is upset that another subset is indiscriminately ending the function of a third set. The best that can be said is that quoting such passages constitutes a good rhetorical gambit that tries to shame someone into believing the secular values and morals of the challenger. But it comes at the expense of grounding anti-genocidal indignation on objective norms, and if one does not hold secular values already, such shame holds little sway.


Thanks for the welcome!

I appreciate you laying out the terms of the argument as clearly as you have.

I suppose the difficulty for me is #3. The secularist might very well grant that morality is a difficult, perhaps vague, concept, but the assertion that genocide could not possibly be moral strikes me as, well, an assertion. What grounds this belief other than a deep dislike of genocide? Why does the secularist get to decide what is and isn't moral, and, say, Jews and Christians don't get to decide that what God did is "moral"?

I find this relevant in at least two respects. The first is that the given conclusion cannot follow, at least in a meaningful way, if secularists cannot ground their complaint in moral realism. If morality is a subjective, social construct, then the best that can be said is that God acted in an "immoral" way to many secularists, "immoral" in this sense meaning perhaps something "icky" like putting ketchup on a fine cut of rare beef. (Although I must admit a temptation to judge egregious violations of comestible delicacies as objectively immoral.) That seems to drains the force of the complaint, as the secularist ends up judging the Christian God-concept by his personal preferences for right and wrong, which will cease to exist once he does. Is there some reason the Christian should accept the secularists' standard? If not, why should he accept the conclusion that God acted "immorally"?

The second relevance is to this sort of assertion:

The first two are mainstays of the faith and the last goes against most people’s deepest intuitions, so it’s a pickle regardless.

Certainly in the secular West. From what I've read, however, it seems not to be such an alien idea in traditionalist cultures.

I don't mean this in a pedantic way. The idea that "most" people are against genocide, is something I'm not sure we can confirm with statistical data from relevant disciplines. If anything, views in, say, the Middle East and Africa, from the recent Gallup report on morality confirm previous literature that traditionalist cultures have few qualms with universal ideals of punishment and justice (and even have trouble with Western ideals of forgiveness and tolerance).

To say it is a "pickle," then, is true in the sense that it is emotionally difficult to believe for sociological / cultural reasons, but I don't see how it counts as a reason to dismiss the account as immoral in a sense of the word that is meaningful to Christians who take these passages as historical narrative.

There is some confusion here, I think, using the term genocide. As a (bi)racial minority, I am against genocide as it is commonly defined. When I view the OT texts, I don't see genocide, but a picture of universal judgment on the wicked as applied to a small corridor of spacetime. So the argument as you've reformulated it risks conflating moral objections to genocide with moral objections to the idea of divine judgment. (You might disagree with that characterization while exegeting the OT texts, of course.)

You say you believe in original sin. Since you bring that up in this context, am I right that you believe, because of original sin, all deserve to die? Or at least the Canaanites (including non-combatants and children) did?

Yes, that's correct. On that view, the Israelites (and anyone outside those lands) were spared because of grace.

Of course, that's another unpopular view (at least in these kinds of circles, where Enlightenment grounded values of self-determination and innate goodness are inviolable features of humanity). I don't have much interest in (or, rather, the time) defending the concept in the comments here, but I did mention it to show an internally consistent way of allowing for universal judgment (expressed particularly in the cases in question).


Well, remember that I said I don't think the OT passages actually portray genocide. So if genocide is a non-negotiable for you (which I am not trying to be dismissive of by the way, as these are really difficult issues that should provoke emotional responses), I don't think it's necessary to say that the passages show genocide.

I'm still having trouble seeing how you'd justify your intuition that "most people" would be against genocide. Certainly in the West, given the West's individualistic philosophical tradition and how deeply these views have permeated society, even religious society. But I don't get that impression from studying most other religions or cultures around the world, which feel far more comfortable with concepts of judgment and punishment (and even celebrate them), including acts of punishment or judgment that apply to entire groups of people. That certainly (and perhaps rightly) offends our desire to avoid punishing individuals for group actions. All that is to say that our intuitions as Westerners that something is deeply wrong cannot be extrapolated to all, or even most, people everywhere without some fairly compelling sociological data. I do not wish to commit the modernist fallacy of thinking that the world's values reflect the elite culture of my particular society, as if they were "self-evident."

I think the core issue is divine judgment. Take the culmination of the flood in Genesis 7:21-23. When God destroys virtually everyone, what would we call that? Is that genocide? I'm not sure it fits scholarly definitions (I have in mind two or three, but I don't have the exact quotes handy at this location). But whatever we call this, does it make us uncomfortable? I would certainly think so. I think, in fact, that is the right response; it should make us think about our own culpability before God.

You are right that Christianity seems like a scary prospect. Divine judgment is a scary prospect. It's difficult to relate it through this medium, but I have often feared divine wrath. But, as you well know, Christianity does not stop at judgment, but offers the Gospel to all who would come. It's only unbearably scary if we stop at judgment and neglect grace.


You ask an interesting set of questions. Thanks for the opportunity to think through my position more. (It is refreshing to have a meaningful conversation on the Internet about these passages.) I hope you don't think I was avoiding them last time. I thought perhaps I had implicitly answered them, but I will try to make a thorough answer here and introduce another line of reasoning.

I think the answer would actually be in the negative. I don't think it is consistent with the character of God to target people on the basis of race, nationality or ethnicity or to command the torture or rape of people. In other words, I am wary that just any command could be considered appropriate or moral, given what we know about the revealed character of God. (And perhaps that is why these hypotheticals remain hypotheticals.)

Edited to add: let me know if that's clear enough.


I'm confused by your response. I wasn't suggesting Christians and Jews locally (to use your qualifier) have not staked out a moral position on genocide; I'm fairly certain Western religionists are overwhelmingly against it. Rather, it seemed to me as if the secularist was requiring Christians and Jews (locally or not) to answer the alleged moral problem on the secularist's terms.

Now, if you gave me that poll, I would certainly agree that genocide is morally wrong, not only because I don't think the OT passages usually brought up fit that definition, but because when someone asks a question like that, they are usually referring to whether it is wrong for people to begin and execute a campaign of genocide. Even if the OT passages are a case of genocide, for reasons I said earlier I wouldn't think it acceptable for any other believer to commit genocide today; on the Christian framework, you are looking at an expression of divine judgment that merely happened to use human instruments, not a case where humans acted on their own and were the primary cause of the slaughter. A better poll question might be, "Do you believe it immoral for God to punish the wicked?" The results might still be pretty split, but I believe that is the real issue on the table.

So what "very steep moral or intellectual price" is being paid? I don't think these passages are "immoral" in the sense that the secularist thinks they are (either on secular terms or Christian terms), so how is a moral price? I don't think there's some sort of contradiction here, so what sort of intellectual price is being paid? I have a sneaking suspicion what is meant here is the social cost of taking a view that polite company finds objectionable.


On a popular atheistic conception of the universe, everything reduces to particle physics. At our "core," you and I are just particles. Are there objective moral reasons to treat one arrangement of particles (say, a rock or a cabbage) better or worse than another set (humans)?

I don't think what I initially wrote is all that "bizarre" or "deeply counterintuitive." I'm just taking the account of particle physics and applying it to organic material. It's not just Christians who wonder about this. I think even Dawkins' has grasped something of the difficulty in his famous comment about how a universe without design is, at bottom, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.


No. We are persistent and sustaining collections of particles.

What do you mean by persistent? As far as I can tell, you and I will both be long dead in about 100 years, a rather miniscule length of time considering the age of the universe! And then, on atheism, we cease to exist.

Of course there are. Why would you think otherwise?

Well, I gave some reasons...

And among those that are capable of consciousness, some are capable of such states as pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, that are intrinsically value laden.

How are they intrinsically value laden in an objectively meaningful way? I still don't see how you get from the mere fact of consciousness to objective value judgments about consciousness. Is that a naturalistic fallacy? (Or perhaps more accurately, the is-ought problem.) After all, on a popular conception of atheism, "consciousness" describes purely physical processes in the brain, which are ultimately reducible to particle physics. Why treat one physical process as objectively better than another?

There is a very strong intuition that some collections of particles (people, for example) have value.

On atheism, isn't that just an evolutionary survival instinct? There's no surprise it would be almost overwhelmingly strong.

As a Christian, I certainly understand the (near?) universal presence of that intuition as it reflects a divine / objective reality, but on atheism I don't see how even the "strong" intuition can get you beyond a mere mechanism for gene replication or fitness.

Further, you have not even tried to explain how God could take something that is intrinsically valueless and make it valuable.

You're acting like there's some obligation for me to answer your admittedly off-topic query. Surely you can respect that I only have so many hours in the day. I am already responding to several other people in this thread on the more substantive issues of the original blog post.

Besides, let's say the Christian case failed. Then what? That doesn't somehow extricate the atheistic one.


Thanks for taking the time to respond, Dr. Parsons. I might not have the time to respond again, as my weekend is packed with teaching and reading responsibilities, although I do appreciate you letting me comment here.

Let me address terminology first. I think the OT account allowed for all Amalekites outside of the land to stay alive and would allow for them to stay alive in the land if they did not proselytize paganism within Israel and/or had repented of their sins (Rahab is a paradigm case). As I'm sure you are aware, there are passages in the Pentateuch that allow for any foreign national to live and work in Israel. So I don't think on the specific and background terms of the account that the Amalekites are being targeted for a racial, political or ethnic characteristic. We might still think their treatment grossly immoral or a violation of the freedom of religion, but I don't see it falling under the definition of genocide as provided.

As for the action itself, I would only grant that it is genocide for the sake of argument. As you can see, I don't think it really is genocide. (You are, of course, free to disagree.) I think those in the account, as other groups, were targeted for their continued, unrepentant sinfulness, of which their predatory actions were an ultimate expression of their culture of idolatry (rather than the single reason they were punished). As I said to another commentator here, I think the core issue is divine judgment. I wouldn't call the flood account a case of genocide, even though we still might find it difficult to stomach for other reasons. On the Christian framework, I want to say that passages like 1 Samuel 15:1-3 are localized expressions of the divine judgment that all deserve. That's not genocide proper, unless it could be proven somehow that the traditional Christian conception of sin maps directly onto exclusive categories of nationality, race, politics, or ethnicity. (I think with the Gospel applying to all nationalities everywhere, that makes for a rather tall order.) But maybe there are other ways to sustain this line of argumentation?


I don't "literally defend genocide." I don't even think the passages in question show genocide. And I certainly don't defend genocide "if Allah...commands." Is the misreading intentional? I'm afraid I must ask because of how you've conducted yourself on other blogs, such as Hurtado's.

The rest of your reply is a cute, but otherwise feeble attempt to show absurdities. There are internally consistent reasons for Christians to value animal life (as humans are commanded to care for the earth) and money (since currency is an efficiency tool used to promote human flourishing).


Steven, you're repeating objections I answered with without engaging them. Perhaps I've been the cause of some confusion here, but I regret that I do not see much value in continuing this conversation.

I hope you have a good weekend.


That's a helpful distinction, Scott. I think that explains some of the confusion in the discussion, since perhaps various commentators (myself included) are trying to treat both issues while some are trying to treat one or the other, not always being clear on what is being addressed.

I also think there's a third (but related) issue of what is the content of these facts? That's a question of interpreting the text as is, of course, and that might be a question preliminary to both factual (historical) and moral issues.


Jeff's comment collapses under its own dead weight:

i) What point did I miss? He claims that "objections to apparently immoral divine commands in the Bible are an attempt to demonstrate an inconsistency in the Christian's (or, perhaps more plausibly, the inerrantist's) beliefs."

Unfortunately for Jeff, that's not how Parsons framed the issue. When he said "I think that any morally decent person would say that if anything is bad, genocide is bad," he's not appealing to Christian belief as the standard of comparison. He's not showing that "genocide" is internally inconsistent with Biblical theism or Biblical ethics. Did Bible writers consider divine commands to execute Canaanites within the Holy Land to be out of character with Yahweh or their faith in Yahweh? Hardly.

In fact, in Scott's syllogism, which Jeff quotes approvingly, the key premise #3 is not what Christians believe or assert, but what "the secularist" believes or asserts. So that's manifestly not an internal critique. Rather, that crucially depends on a premised criterion that's explicitly extrinsic to the Christian (or inerrantist) viewpoint. Even assuming the syllogism is valid, the conclusion only follows given the question-begging premise #3–as if what the secularist asserts is unquestionable true.

Likewise, notice how Jeff framed the issue in his own post, "books like this…fly in the face of what seems obvious to everyone else who doesn’t already hold the a priori belief that everything the Bible says must be true, just because the Bible says it."

That's an external rather than internal judgment.

Jeff is free to recast the argument. He is not, however, entitled to backdate his revision, act as if that was the original argument all along, then retroactively accuse me of missing the point.

ii) Moreover, Jeff's appeal to Scott's syllogism is fundamentally confused. Premise #3 says: "The secularist asserts: Whatever morality may be, genocide is immoral." But moral nihilism cancels that premise. Jeff can't have it both ways.

iii) Finally, even if this were an internal critique, moral nihilism trivializes inconsistency. For unless we have an epistemic duty to be consistent, even if there were an inconsistency in the Christian's belief, there's nothing wrong with holding inconsistent beliefs.

Why would a moral nihilist try to disprove Christianity? Even if he thinks Christianity is false, there's nothing wrong with entertaining false beliefs, given moral nihilism. In fact, given moral nihilism, no inconsistency is better or worse than another. A shoplifter and a serial killer might both be hypocrites, but from the vantage-point of moral nihilism, the inconsistencies of the serial killer are no worse than the inconsistencies of the shoplifter.


"I think Steve, ironically, missed the point again."

Since I didn't miss the point the first time, as I already explained (which Scott conveniently ignores), I can't very well miss it *again*.

"The secularist needn't have any commitment to true belief or any philosophical system that would ground such a commitment. His argument is simply: If you think it's good to have true beliefs, then you should have consistent views. If you don't care about true beliefs, that's fine--but I'd like to hear that admission."

Ironically, Scott is now recanting his original argument, which was predicated on the following premise: "The secularist asserts: Whatever morality may be, genocide is immoral."

I do appreciate his retraction.

"Steve seems to think the secularist has to have some sort of cosmic mandate to take any action. 'Why would a moral nihilist try to disprove Christianity?' he asks."

Because, as a matter of fact, atheists who attack Christianity routinely do so because they think what people believe (and how they act on their beliefs) is important.

"The arguments I construct still stand and fall on their own--the motivation is irrelevant, and the attempt to return to that topic looks more and more like a way of distracting others from the real issues."

Given moral nihilism, what "real issues" are there?


"I said it doesn’t matter whether the atheist can ground morality, because what’s being argued is that the theist’s case is contradictory on the theist’s assumptions. Jeff agreed. You said that wasn’t Jeff’s original argument. But nope, it was."

You're recontextualizing the original argument. Your original syllogism appealed to the viewpoint of "the secularist." That's hardly equivalent to the viewpoint of Bible writers.

Moreover, your syllogism was Jeff's explicit frame of reference. He quoted that and made that the premise of his own argument.

"Jeff quotes a publisher’s description"

That wasn't Jeff's frame of reference in response to *me*. You're resorting to a bait-n-switch.

"'Would a good, kind, and loving deity ever command the wholesale slaughter of nations?' That’s clearly posing the theist’s description of God—'good, kind, and loving'—against description of the Biblical God’s behavior—'the wholesale slaughter of nations.' It is juxtaposing two beliefs of theists. Jeff said the contradiction is obvious and rather desperate hair-splitting is needed to avoid it.

i) All you've done is to *assert* a contradiction. To claim that it's "obvious" is not an argument. Rather, that begs the very question in dispute.

But I do appreciate your backdoor admission that you can't actually argue for your allegation. You merely posit that to be the case.

ii) In addition, you're assuming, w/o benefit of argument, that divine goodness is incompatible with divine judgment. But there's nothing "obviously" contradictory about a good God exacting judgment on a wicked nation. Indeed, justice is a hallmark of goodness.

You don't get to take crucial shortcuts in this debate.

iii) You also seem to be assuming, w/o benefit of argument, that to be "kind" or "loving" means God must be equally kind or loving without respect to the righteous or the wicked.

"Whether or not Jeff or anyone else has any adequate ground for morality is irrelevant. The argument goes through either way."

You're equivocating on whose argument goes through either way. That wasn't Parsons' argument.

"But even if you weren’t and Jeff had made a gaffe, who cares?"

So you don't care about misrepresentations. Thanks for that damning admission.

"I’m giving the stronger argument, Jeff has endorsed it as being what he meant, so let’s argue that."

You're now substituting a different argument that you didn't use before. You don't get to claim Jeff's retroactive endorsement. He may read your comment and endorse it after the fact, but that's different.

"The only reason my secularist asserts what he does is because he thinks that Christians agree with what he’s pointing out."

i) "The secularist" (your original referent) is not a synonym for "the Christian." So your ex post facto gloss is special pleading.

ii) Furthermore, both you and Jeff equivocate over the referent of inconsistency. Are you claiming that some Christians have contradictory beliefs about OT holy war? Or that OT writers have contradictory beliefs about OT holy war?

Is this an internal critique of the Bible? Or an internal critique of what some Christians believe? Showing that some Christians hold inconsistent beliefs wouldn't demonstrate that OT theism is contradictory. Is the Bible the frame of reference, or a publisher's blurb? Those are hardly equivalent.

"So can we please discuss the actual arguments here and stop going after the people making those arguments?"

To the contrary, since you and Jeff are making this an issue about consistency, it's quite germane to point out the inconsistency of moral nihilists attempting to disproving Christianity, as if people have an obligation to value the truth. You're operating with a double standard.

"Obviously by 'real' issue, I meant the ones that are important."

Which simply restates the dilemma of the moral nihilist. Given moral nihilism, what makes one issue more or less important than another?

"One can distinguish between big and small issues without judging small issues or big issues to be morally bad or good."

How does a moral nihilist distinguish between better or worse?

"as opposed to satellite issues that strike me as ancillary and of limited import…"

How is your ranking system justifiable from the standpoint of moral nihilism? What makes "satellite" issues of "limited import"? And even if they are, what makes that less valuable–given moral nihilism?

"While you’re here, why don’t you respond to Keith’s actual post."

That's something I've done on my own blog.


That still requires the moral nihilist to demonstrate that Christian belief in Biblical theism as the source of objective morality is internally inconsistent.


Neither Parsons or Lowder has even begun to make that argument.


"Well, if you mean Parsons didn't actually state: 'Christians believe God is moral,' then fine you're right. But one would have thought such a belief is a given. Are you really denying that?"

Are you deliberately misrepresenting what I said? What I said was: "That still requires the moral nihilist to demonstrate that Christian belief in Biblical theism as the source of objective morality is internally inconsistent."

That's hardly reducible to "Christians believe God is moral."

"2. Here's something God did that seems pretty immoral."

If you're attempting to mount an internal critique, what's the standard of comparison? Whether the OT is contradictory or whether what some Christians believe is contradictory?

Is the internal critique that Bible writers think OT holy war is contrary to Yahweh's goodness?

If that's not the argument, then in what sense is this an internal critique? If you're not using the Bible as the standard of comparison, then you're using something outside the Bible. A relationship between something in the Bible (i.e. divine commands) and some presumed criterion outside the Bible which is brought to bear on the Bible.

But in that event, it ceases to be an internal critique. That's not critiquing the Bible on its own grounds. That's not demonstrating the Bible to be self-contradictory vis-a-vis the ethics of holy war.


  1. Yeah, they both did a great job.

    (BTW, I should note I'm not veritas. For one thing, veritas is a far better person than I am! And far smarter.)