Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rationalizing Biblical Atrocities: Just Following Orders

Although in the previous two entries in this series, I showed that the common rationalizations ("blame the victim" and "it could have been worse") fall flat once the textual basis for these approaches show evidence of post-hoc redaction, tu quoque, exaggeration to the point of misrepresentation, and ad hoc rationalizations that give rise to implications which no Christian would accept for any similar action today.

But even given that, there is one last approach, a final fallback position to which Christians can cling to even in the face of unbearable violence and disgusting exploitation:

Yahweh approved it.

Ironically, what would seem to be the ultimate condemnation of Old Testament ethics from the atheistic perspective is actually the strongest rationalization for it from the Christian perspective. The argument proceeds thusly from several premises:

The first set gives rules for determining if a commandment is legitimate.
  1. If a commandment is given in an undeniably genuine manner, then it is from Yahweh
  2. If a commandment is consistent with Yahweh's nature and decrees, then it is from Yahweh.
  3. If a commandment can be appraised through the revealed parameters of the Bible, then it is from Yahweh.
The second set gives rules for addressing the legitimate commandments.
  1. If a commandment is from Yahweh, then it is perfectly good.
  2. If a commandment is from Yahweh, then it must be carried out.
Thus, if any perceived commandment can be first determined to be genuine according to the first three premises, then the last two assure one that not only are these commandments perfectly moral, but they must be carried out unquestionably. The problems with this approach should be obvious, but I'll point them out explicitly.

Problem #1: This is a viciously circular method for appraising commandments which are recorded in the Bible.

Aside from the first premise in the first set, which advocates a verification principle that is not only completely subjective but epistemologically worthless (what conditions are necessary for "undeniably genuine" communication from the divine?), the rest illustrate a completely circular approach to justification. If the Bible is used as the standard by which we determine the "nature" and "decrees" of Yahweh, and also gives us the parameters by which we can judge any future perceived commandments from the deity, then we are precluded from analyzing the morality of actions which are recorded in the Bible. To show this a bit more obviously, examine the following:
  1. The Bible is the standard of good because it records Yahweh's commandments.
  2. Yahweh's commandments are good because they're in the Bible.
Thus, appealing to the Bible as any kind of standard in a matter which questions commandments that are recorded within its pages is a hopeless task.

Problem #2: This same line of reasoning is applicable to any religious system, betraying a hollow moral content.

Although most parents use the "because I said so" approach of justification for many moral commandments levied against their children, those same children are provoked to frustration because they are acutely aware that although the same rationalization is used with the same force by others' parents, the relative commandments vary from household to household. Not to take to task those parents who are too morally uninformed, naive, or busy to explain their moral reasoning to their children, but I think it provides a telling example of what can happen when a deity effectively tells his worshipers "because I said so."

One could easily replace "Yahweh" with the name of any deity in the above premises, including Allah, Vishnu, or Geusha. If the average Christian would hope for a more substantial moral foundation from a pagan holy warrior than "Zeus told me to," then I would also expect Christians to be able to provide something more meaningful.

Problem #3: In order to accept atrocities as moral, the Christian has to give up moral autonomy.

This is the most troubling problem, as I see it, and follows undeniably from the premises above. If the premise that any commandment from Yahweh is perfectly good, then we're back on the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma, impaled on the moral impotence of the typical Christian response that the nature of their deity is perfectly good. If, as Christians say, their deity is sovereign and executes perfect wisdom when he issues commandments, then it is implicit that no Christian can morally validate or invalidate any such commandments - that is to say, no Christian can conclude, based on anything other than the premise that Yahweh is perfectly good, than any particular commandment can be either good or evil. The value of a commandment isn't even up for consideration - the Christian is in a state where any commandment, no matter how superficially horrible and violent (like genocide or the organized rape of young girls) HAS to be good, definitionally. This, then, is the place where Christians give up their moral autonomy, where they lose the ability to decide if something is good or evil based on their own faculties and reasoning.

I see this as a very dangerous place to be, because any system which discourages individuals from acting as moral agents is one in which immorality can thrive. And, to look at the Bible, it would seem that it has.


It's clear to me that, just as the defense of "I was just following orders" doesn't carry much weight for war criminals in modern times, it shouldn't be applicable to ancient murderers like Moses.

Fortunately, an analysis of the source texts for these atrocities shows that not only were the stories cobbled together to make a confused patchwork of scripture for the sole purpose of providing a mythological explanation for the political realities of the ancient Middle East, and all archaeological evidence to date strongly points to the fact that these stories were nothing more than wishful retrojections of a priestly and scribal effort to document what were essentially "Paul Bunyanesque" tall tales of the ancient Israelite mythological characters, rather than a historical reflection of actual events. So even though the stories themselves are horrific, they're no more accurate than the Odyssey accounts of men being eaten alive by a Cyclops or transformed into pigs.

It's also somewhat heartening to know that even as Christians are eager to justify these stories within their context, they're just as eager to assure themselves and others that such a context no longer applies to them. Most Christians will argue that since the ancient Israelite theocracy has come and gone, they no longer are bound by the genocidal directives that created and sustained it. They're also eager to argue that Christians are directed to engage in spiritual, not physical warfare. While I don't agree that their arguments for these latter points are meaningful, I can at least appreciate the humanistic ethical pangs that I suspect underlie their eagerness to distance themselves from a barbaric religious heritage.

Post a Comment


At 6/19/2007 3:19 PM, Blogger Socrates declaimed...

Quite well said. It seems that you make the assumption that what appears to be religious genocide is committed for religious reasons. I would suggest that such atrocities are, instead, conducted for personal reasons and justified to the masses behind a veil of God. True, there are many exceptions and counterexamples for this (conflicts between religious sects provide an abundance of examples), but things like the crusades provide examples of how the greed of a few can manifest itself in “holy” wars.
I think that you would do well to read Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” He explored (a few hundred years ago) a topic very similar to your discussion. Using his writings, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the Christians of whom you speak are acting on selfish motives. They do not embody what are supposed to be Christian ideals, and also lack the ability to hide behind faith—or at least Kierkegaard’s definition of faith (since they lack what he refers to as “infinite resignation”).

At 6/21/2007 2:35 PM, Blogger Bob Kowalski declaimed...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/22/2007 10:38 AM, Blogger Bob Kowalski declaimed...

[I deleted & reposted my comment because I accidentally posted in mid-sentence without realizing it.]

Or it can be put this way: the morality taught by religion is obedience. Obedience is the virtue of virtues: the monumental absurdity of a religious commandment and teaching are not objections. Far from it, the absurdity of religious teachings show how virtuous, that is "obedient" and "tame" the believer is.

It is possible to offer strong defenses and justifications of religion and religion-inspired behavior, but not without a good dose of irony. The perversity of religion comes from the fact that the best defenses are ones that the religious-minded cannot offer and still remain religious-minded.


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