Dispatches from the Creation Wars

An Odd Response

Matt Powell of Wheat and Chaff has responded, at least indirectly, to my post on evolving morality. That is, he is ostensibly responding to my friend DarkSyde’s comments left on Rusty’s kind-of response to my post, but he mentions me by name. The mistakes in Matt’s post begin with the title itself, which is “Judging God”. But nowhere do I “judge God”. What I judged – i.e. analyzed, thought about, reached conclusions about – are claims about God, specifically the claims that God ordered slavery and genocide. I reject those claims, in every case in which they are made. Matt rejects all such claims except those in the bible. Those he celebrates.

Like Rusty, Matt doesn’t actually bother to answer the actual position being taken, which rests on two arguments. First, that the modern moral view, by consensus, is different from the biblical view in regards to slavery and war. Second, that the modern view on those matters is better than the biblical view. Matt does not address those arguments, just like Rusty didn’t address those arguments. Rusty’s answer was, essentially, “Unless you can say that God said so, you have no basis for making any moral claim.” That argument was answered here. Matt’s answer is, essentially, “You better accept that God did those things or he’ll do them to you too”:

You donít get to decide whether or not God fits your standards of morality. What you get to do is to decide to submit yourself to His standards of right and wrong, or rebel against Him and destroy yourself in the process…

So go ahead and invent a God thatís more to your liking, if it makes you feel better. Or just write Him out of the picture altogether. But you might find Him knocking at the door one day, and you might not like what Heís got to say.

Again, Matt misunderstands the argument being made. The argument isn’t that God has no right to do such things, the argument is that it’s not rational or consistent to believe that God did such things. And if you’re trying to make the case that it is rational to believe that, you can hardly do worse than to base your reply on the notion that God will destroy you if you don’t just shut up and accept it. If that’s the best argument you have, you’ve pretty much proven the alternative correct.

Part of the reason Matt misunderstands the argument seems to be that he just didn’t bother to read it well in the first place. For instance, he says this:

Ed’s wrong, by the way, when you say no human dictator has ever commanded the destruction of whole peoples. Hitler with the Jews, Stalin with the Ukrainians, Mao with anyone who looked foreign.

There’s just one problem with this claim that I’m wrong – I never said any such thing in the first place. It’s difficult to give a good response to an argument when the argument you claim to be responding to was never made by the person you’re ostensibly responding to.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Powell
    July 23, 2004

    Hi Ed,
    Thanks for the link!

    Well, I misunderstood one part of your quote- you said-
    “Even Adolf Hitler, the very embodiment of evil in the 20th century, did not command his soldiers to kill every man, woman and child or to take the virgin women in conquered lands for themselves.”
    I took this to mean that you denied that any dictator ever commanded such a genocide. Hitler certainly did command the deaths of all Jewish men, women and children, or at least his subordinates did. I guess I misunderstood the thrust of that statement, though. Sorry. Although frankly, your point doesn’t make much sense if you say Hitler (the “very embodiment of evil”) didn’t command such an evil thing, but are willing to concede that others (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) did.

    That being said, my statement was never intended as an adequate refutation of what you said, but rather a response specifically to some things DarkSyde said on Rusty’s comments page. So if you’d like to attribute that to my ignorance or carelessness or whatever, that’s fine.

    Matt

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    July 23, 2004

    Well, I misunderstood one part of your quote- you said-
    “Even Adolf Hitler, the very embodiment of evil in the 20th century, did not command his soldiers to kill every man, woman and child or to take the virgin women in conquered lands for themselves.”
    I took this to mean that you denied that any dictator ever commanded such a genocide. Hitler certainly did command the deaths of all Jewish men, women and children, or at least his subordinates did. I guess I misunderstood the thrust of that statement, though. Sorry. Although frankly, your point doesn’t make much sense if you say Hitler (the “very embodiment of evil”) didn’t command such an evil thing, but are willing to concede that others (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) did.

    What I meant was that even Hitler, when he sent his army into Poland or Czechoslovakia, for example, did not order them to kill every man, married woman and child except the virgin females to be kept as the spoils of war. And that much is true. Yet God allegedly commands exactly that several times in the bible. I don’t concede that any other dictator of the 20th century did that either. They were of course barbaric madmen. But if their actions make them barbaric madmen, as you and I would agree, why do the same actions on the part of Moses, claiming God told him to, not make him a barbaric madman as well?

    Ironically, the unbeliever is the one who is the moral absolutist here, while the Christian is the moral relativist. I believe genocide and slavery are always wrong, everywhere, at all times, no matter who does it and no matter what God they claim told them it’s okay. You cannot believe that it’s always wrong, because that would make God wrong. So you believe that right and wrong are relative. But if God can decide at a whim what is right and what is wrong, even if this moment’s whim contradicts yesterday’s whim, then how does this provide a rational basis for right and wrong at all? And how does one determine when God has really told someone to do something terrible and when the person making that claim is either lying or delusional? You obviously cannot determine it based upon whether it squares with what you believe God has told you in the past, because you have already had to admit that God can change his mind willy nilly and tell you today to do the opposite of what he told you yesterday, and you have already had to take the position that both commands are equally moral. So it becomes not only a relativistic morality, it becomes one which carries with it no criteria by which one can discern a true claim from a false one. And yet those of us who do not subscribe to the “divine command” theory of morality are the ones who are continually accused of relativism and of having no objective basis for morality. Ironic, is it not?

  3. #3 Matt Powell
    July 23, 2004

    My response, here.

  4. #4 Funkstro
    July 24, 2004

    This makes me think of Judges 14:19… While possessed by the “Spirit of the Lord,” Samson kills 30 men to pay off a gambling debt.
    Thank Spinoza’s God, my bookie gives me a rain check.

  5. #5 Mike S.
    July 26, 2004

    Ed,

    What do you make of the claim (I think it’s accurate, but I don’t have enough knowledge to state that it’s a fact) that the abolitionist movements were instigated by Christians? (Rodney Stark makes this claim, for example.) Do you not buy it, or do you think it has some truth but isn’t closely related to their theological beliefs? Perhaps you think they are being inconsistent by ignoring the parts of the Bible you referenced in your first post?

    This isn’t necessarily to contradict the thesis that our moral standards have changed over time, but to point out that at least in some cases the changes in moral standards were driven by believers and their theological positions.

    I also wonder how you came to the conclusion that the Bible should be logical, or that you should use logic as a standard against which to judge it.

  6. #6 Mike S.
    July 26, 2004

    I just saw that you address the abolition movement in the comments section of the original post…

  7. #7 Mike S.
    July 26, 2004

    Ed, if you don’t believe that “… God (the creator of the universe) takes any interest at all in what happens to human beings.”, then what is your moral system based upon? Why is slavery wrong, if God doesn’t care about human beings?

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    July 26, 2004

    Ed, if you don’t believe that “… God (the creator of the universe) takes any interest at all in what happens to human beings.”, then what is your moral system based upon? Why is slavery wrong, if God doesn’t care about human beings?

    To me, that’s a nonsensical question because there simply is no connection between the two things. But if you will only accept a moral claim if it begins with “God said so”, then “God said so”. Does that really help answer the question? Of course not. But the same is true when those who accept divine command theory as well.

  9. #9 Mike S.
    July 27, 2004

    “Does that really help answer the question?”

    I didn’t mean to imply that it fully answers the question – I just wanted to know what the basis was for your assertion that slavery is wrong. To use the Creationism/Evolution analogy – you are making a negative argument against the Bible (or against divine command theory). OK, fine, that’s an interesting subject, and a fair argument (in contradistinction to most Creationist negative arguments about evolution). But what’s your positive argument for the source of moral law?

    I also wanted to comment on the abolitionist movement. Your position seems to be that both the pro- and anti-slavery sides used the Bible to justify their position, and that in fact, the pro-slavery side actually had more scriptural support for their position. I can think of a couple of objections to this. The first is the issue raised earlier about rule-based vs. principle-based morality. I think the pro-slavery argument was based on a rule-based interpretation of scripture (i.e. God didn’t forbid owning slaves), but the anti-slavery argument was based upon principle (all human beings are created in God’s image, thus all have an inherent dignity and moral worth that we are called to recognize and respect). Perhaps this doesn’t directly get at the issue of whether the Bible is a reliable basis for morality, but it seems to me to introduce an asymmetry in the arguments about slavery during the abolitionist movements.

    The second objection is the motivations of the two sides. The abolitionists were motivated almost entirely by their theological and moral beliefs, and had very little to gain personally through the abolition of slavery. I think it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the abolitionist movement would have happened without people committed to Christian doctrine based in the Bible. (That is not to say that non-believers were not involved in the movement, just that the impetus largely originated with Christians.) I don’t doubt that there were some defenders of slavery who honestly looked to the Bible as a guide, treated their slaves well, and thought there wasn’t anything inherently anti-Christian in owning slaves (or even thought that owning slaves was encouraged, not just condoned, by God). However, I think that most defenders of slavery had various self-interests involved that clouded their objectivity. The obvious one is the economic self-interest. Another is the cultural self-interest – their way of life would be threatened if slavery was abolished. And the big one is the moral self-interest – in order to admit that slavery was wrong, they would have to face the fact that a great evil had been perpetrated over the last 200+ years. That’s a heavy psychological burden to overcome. Obviously, people are very good at using scripture to rationalize their beliefs, so I think a lot of the Biblical basis for supporting slavery was disingenuous, or a subconscious rationalization of something they knew to be wrong.

    Again, this is not dispositive regarding the support or condemnation of slavery and the Bible, but it suggests to me that the picture of the pro- and anti-slavery arguments being equally supported by the Bible is not accurate.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    July 27, 2004

    I didn’t mean to imply that it fully answers the question – I just wanted to know what the basis was for your assertion that slavery is wrong. To use the Creationism/Evolution analogy – you are making a negative argument against the Bible (or against divine command theory). OK, fine, that’s an interesting subject, and a fair argument (in contradistinction to most Creationist negative arguments about evolution). But what’s your positive argument for the source of moral law?

    My moral code begins with the simple premise of self-ownership. Each individual owns and controls their own life. When our actions deprive someone else of self-determination or injures them against their will, our actions are immoral. Now this is obviously a general rule and every general rule has exceptions. We can think of all sorts of hypothetical situations where it’s not as simple as a general rule makes it sound, and in those situations I would generally opt for a utilitarian standard. Much more can be said on this subject, of course.

    I also wanted to comment on the abolitionist movement. Your position seems to be that both the pro- and anti-slavery sides used the Bible to justify their position, and that in fact, the pro-slavery side actually had more scriptural support for their position. I can think of a couple of objections to this. The first is the issue raised earlier about rule-based vs. principle-based morality. I think the pro-slavery argument was based on a rule-based interpretation of scripture (i.e. God didn’t forbid owning slaves), but the anti-slavery argument was based upon principle (all human beings are created in God’s image, thus all have an inherent dignity and moral worth that we are called to recognize and respect). Perhaps this doesn’t directly get at the issue of whether the Bible is a reliable basis for morality, but it seems to me to introduce an asymmetry in the arguments about slavery during the abolitionist movements.

    The real asymmetry between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups, in terms of the bible, is that the pro-slavery crowd could cite any number of blatantly and obviously pro-slavery verses, while the anti-slavery crowd could not. They had to rely on metaphor, on applying more general proclamations to a specific circumstance in which the biblical writers themselves did not apply them, and on reading specific prohibitions into the text that contradicted the text. From a biblical standpoint, the pro-slavery position was far more consistent. The anti-slavery group could make the argument you’re making, that all human beings are created by God and therefore have an inherent dignity and moral worth that slavery violates, but they would then have to explain why this statement, which was of course true from the very beginning of the bible if it is true at all, was not applied in that way by any of the biblical writers that they believe were inspired directly by God to write. If that statement is true, then it is violated over and over again by the very men who wrote the bible, and those men were allegedly in touch with God himself. That’s something that can’t really be explained, it can only be explained away. If that general principle was ever intended to be applied in the manner that the anti-slavery folks wanted to apply it thousands of years later, it is incomprehensible that it was never applied that way by any of the biblical writers who had access to the same general principle and who nonetheless advocated slavery. So as I said, the pro-slavery crowd, relying solely on the bible, had a much more consistent argument to make than the anti-slavery crowd did.

    The second objection is the motivations of the two sides. The abolitionists were motivated almost entirely by their theological and moral beliefs, and had very little to gain personally through the abolition of slavery. I think it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the abolitionist movement would have happened without people committed to Christian doctrine based in the Bible. (That is not to say that non-believers were not involved in the movement, just that the impetus largely originated with Christians.) I don’t doubt that there were some defenders of slavery who honestly looked to the Bible as a guide, treated their slaves well, and thought there wasn’t anything inherently anti-Christian in owning slaves (or even thought that owning slaves was encouraged, not just condoned, by God). However, I think that most defenders of slavery had various self-interests involved that clouded their objectivity. The obvious one is the economic self-interest. Another is the cultural self-interest – their way of life would be threatened if slavery was abolished. And the big one is the moral self-interest – in order to admit that slavery was wrong, they would have to face the fact that a great evil had been perpetrated over the last 200+ years. That’s a heavy psychological burden to overcome. Obviously, people are very good at using scripture to rationalize their beliefs, so I think a lot of the Biblical basis for supporting slavery was disingenuous, or a subconscious rationalization of something they knew to be wrong.

    But remember, the issue is not which side was right about slavery (we would certainly agree that the abolitionists were right). The issue is whether there was any support in the bible for that position.

    Again, this is not dispositive regarding the support or condemnation of slavery and the Bible, but it suggests to me that the picture of the pro- and anti-slavery arguments being equally supported by the Bible is not accurate.

    But I’m not saying that they are equally supported by the bible. I’m saying that they are not equally supported by the bible, that the pro-slavery position had all of the biblical support. There is not a single verse in the bible that condemns slavery as immoral, while there are dozens of verses to the contrary, that see slavery as perfectly normal behavior, ordained and established by God himself, and that the slaveowner literally owned a slave and could do with them as he pleases, including beating them savagely as long as they didn’t die immediately. This isn’t equal at all. All of the direct biblical support is on the side of slavery; the abolitionists had to rely upon reading a specific prohibition into a text that explicitly allowed it.