Friday, October 5, 2012

Genocide is OK if the True God commands it – but how to know which God is the right one?

Richard Dawkins in recent writings has referred a number of times to a charming fellow named William Lane Craig, also known as "the Genocide Preacher". For those who have not heard of him he has a webpage with the preposterous title of "Reasonable Faith". In a recent Q & A page he explains why it was perfectly reasonable for Yahweh to command the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children so that his chosen people could have their land. His argument is that whatever God commands is necessarily good, so therefore killing people, even innocent children is not only perfectly fine, but morally obligatory if God has said that it must be done. He thinks this is perfectly compatible with his vision of God as being all-loving, compassionate and good. The destruction of the Canaanites was morally justifiable because these people were "wicked" and had come under His divine judgment. Why a compassionate and all-loving God would make such harsh judgments is far from clear but who are we mere mortals to question God? 
So the adults were "wicked" enough to merit Yahweh's judgment, but what about the children? Is not killing children including babies,just because their parents are wicked  a bit  harsh, even for Yahweh?
Yahweh on wheels (Image source: The New Oxonian)

Craig explains why this is not actually morally wrong:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Well there we have it. Children who are put to death go to a place that is ten times better than any life they could have on Earth, so the Israelites were actually doing them a favour! Craig claims that they are actually "happy" to quit this life - so their apparent screams of terror are really cries of joy! 

Maybe I'm just a killjoy but personally I think this is an indictment of the whole idea of life after death as being "better" than life in this world. I have read historical accounts of early Christian martyrs who not only welcomed  death, but actually provoked people into killing them because they were assured that they would experience the eternal bliss of paradise. At least they didn't go around killing children. Apologists for religion sometimes try to argue that without religion, people have no reason to be moral and therefore atheism opens the way to an "anything goes" principle where any atrocity is permitted. But this argument is easily turned on its head because as we have just seen, "anything goes", including infanticide and genocide, as long as God has commanded it. And after all, if there is a better world awaiting the martyrs, life in this world has little value by comparison. 

Craig does set some moral boundaries though. Let's examine his argument why killing people in the name of Allah for example is not morally defensible:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Let's repeat what Craig says just for emphasis: the problem with killing people in the name of Islam is not due to the wrong moral theory, the real problem is that they have the "wrong" god. As Craig points out Allah hates non-Muslims (no argument from me there) but Yahweh loves everyone - even those who are so "wicked" they must be killed. Allah is utterly "arbitrary" in his dealings with mankind, but any atrocity commanded by Yahweh is automatically good because "He can give and take life as he chooses." (Craig's actual words.) See the difference? No, neither can I. 

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is some substantive difference, and that the choice of "right" versus "wrong" god matters. How can anyone honestly know which god is the right one? Personal experience? If I hear a voice commanding me to kill infants, how do I know that this command really does issue from the "true" god and not one of the "false" ones? Nowadays, most people, even devoutly religious ones, would think that I had gone mad if I started claiming that God had given me such an order. What about faith? Craig expresses complete faith that Yahweh is in fact the true god. But Muslims also have complete faith that Allah is the true god too! How is one to choose? 

I think that if one is completely honest, one would have to admit that even if it turns out that there is a real god somewhere, there is no way of knowing which of various competing gods is the "true" one. Therefore, there is no sensible basis for choosing. Geoffrey Berg has argued that even if God is real there is no way that humans could ever recognise him or truly know that he exists. He calls this "the Man and God comprehension gulf argument." The implication is that even if God revealed himself to humanity and attempted "proof" by performing all sorts of miracles, we could never really know if the being in question really was God and not just a very powerful being. (Star Trek fans might consider the omnipotent character "Q" who could easily pose as God if he had felt so inclined.)    


  1. hmm strange i ended up on your page.How can we know the true God? Tough,isnt it?I have read your conclusion and i would just talk about me and mine .I was born into a specific faith. My God and (someone else's random power) put me there. I have gone through various difficulties in life to realise that I am very powerless.I am finite.I have an end. I simply cannot reject the idea of creator .To me the function of universe is not random.Its measured,precise and predictable. It has a runner.

    One migt say this is random,i will argue what if it isnt? What if who ever designed me had a specific purpose in mind? If it sit in life twiddling thumbs and never sparin a thought to that entity only to meet an end where i am asked why didnt you ever think I would feel terrible.So this feeling of gratefulness,or the feeling of nothingness about myself motivates me to believe.
    As for which God.This is settled by which God I choose to believe in.What are the reasons behind my belief.Is it the culture,parents,society or researching?I choose to believe in the Allah of Muhammad s.a.w This is the God that strikes a chord within me. I believe everyone has a chord.One needs to search and find and not rest unless one reaches a conclusion.After all it defines our purpose and our lives.What sort of person can simply not think of why and how he came into being?It took me 24 yrs to turn this over and every which angle.i didnt reject it simply because it was my parents faith,i constantly asked questions.Now alhumdolilah i feel more certain than ever that there is only one Allah and he sent a messenger.His message is in Quran and sunnah.

    1. Thank you for taking an interest. Ultimately, it is your decision what you choose to believe. When I hear someone say they “cannot” reject an idea, what I think is that they will not. I think it is quite interesting to ask “what if” questions, there are so many of them to choose from. What if the universe is really a giant computer simulation and none of this is real? What if the universe was brought into being by technologically advanced beings from another dimension? What if there actually is a God who will punish you for not choosing the “right” religion and you end up picking the “wrong” one through an honest mistake? If there’s only one “true” religion then countless people are in trouble whichever one it happens to be. I don’t say these things to mock you, only to make a point that in all honesty we cannot be certain that any of these or countless other “what if” scenarios are not true. I am sure you are sincere in what you believe, but consider that people of other faiths are sincere about theirs. Many, many people throughout the ages have gone through periods of careful questioning to arrive at what they consider to be “true” beliefs that feel right to them. Consider also that if your parents had been Christians, there is a very strong chance that you would arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is God, but if they had been Hindus you would be equally convinced of the divinity of Krishna or Shiva, and so on for all the other faiths known to man. I am aware that many people are motivated by inner feelings that lead them to accept particular beliefs and that they feel a deep sense of certainty that what they believe is true. By definition if a person sincerely believes something then they are certain that it is true. But in my opinion the feeling of certainty does not mean that a belief is true, no matter how strong the feeling is. Else, how can you explain that so many people throughout the ages have felt deeply certain about a variety of contradictory and conflicting things? You may choose to disagree but there is no logical way that people can truly know that non-evidenced based beliefs have any basis in reality.

  2. I agree with you and so does Quran. Mnay people can make mistakes,be comitted to those mistakes. However the concept of a God, you know,an ultimate being. He cannot miss that.I mean he sees which ever way you are turning.He sees whichever path you are selecting. Should he choose to guide you to his path ,he doesnt have to break the "simulation"universe that he built.He has enough resources at his disposal to just turn your path onto his. My belief (and then again i agree i choose it) about this is that there is no ill that can reach a good person.And every person has the potential to be the good person.But as you said if there is one true God and one true path than countless people are in trouble. But the idea isnt to feel smug about my being right and contemptuous of them being wrong. It is more to reconcile that i might take a wrong turn due to wishing others ill or considering them beneath me and they might take a right turn. However the faith that i choose to follow does preach that countless humans are in trouble. There is a concept of hell, there is a punishment.

    I also agree with you that we cannot truly know.That is why it is a faith.But the fear of making mistake shouldnt stop one from choosing a path. Since we are in this mess already to just sit on fence.

    Also i didnt think you made any mocking comments.Infact you sound very rational and decent.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful writings on important subjects, Scott. Though a Christian (and theology graduate) myself, I found them respectful and carefully thought out. Indeed, like many people of faith I have wrestled with many of them myself- and always appreciate the thoughts of respectful non-religious people to help me live my own faith more ethically.

    One book that might be of interest to you is Bradley Jersak's "The Human Faces of God." A former fundamentalist himself he deals directly with contradictions of Biblical inerrancy and ways the Bible's more disturbing layers are often hypocritically argued away or justified. What I appreciate about his work is that it is both skeptical and from a place of faith. It deals with both deeper textual and philosophical questions as well as specific challenging "hard texts" in the Bible, pulling few punches, but ultimately aimed as constructive of a more nuanced, honest Christian theology.

    Best wishes and keep writing!

    1. Apologies, the author is actually Thom Stark!

      Bradley Jersak is another excellent writer I'd commend to you on questions of Heaven and Hell. His "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut" is a thorough but accessible unpacking of the history of the actual words/images the Bible uses for these places as well as the surprising diversity of Christian and Jewish opinions on the extent of God's graciousness down through history. Its a useful read that very carefully walks one through the evidence and competing voices in scripture, admitting some of the author's biases but asking readers to take each individual text on its own terms and wrestle with its meaning. Although I see you are not a person of faith, I think it'd be a very interesting resource for your future writing on this subject. Peace!