“Functionally there is no difference whether we live on this earth for hours, like some babies that die at birth, or live to see our twilight years.”
I get a fair amount of mail from religious believers, wanting to debate with me about things I’ve written. Back in the days when I didn’t have ten hours worth of work for every hour of spare time I had, I used to engage with these people in private email. I sometimes miss being able to do that. But I simply don’t have time anymore. And in any case, it seems like a waste of time. Why waste my efforts on just one person, when I could be sharing them with thousands? And why waste the eloquence and intellectual powers of my regular readers and commenters? (Which are, quite frequently, prodigious. I love having an army of bulldogs who can make my arguments for me, and often make better ones than I would have, at the times when I just don’t have the time and energy to get into the fray myself.)
So from now on, when I get these emails, I’ve decided to start
throwing them to the wolves opening them up to vigorous public debate. I now ask my querants if it’s okay to publish their letters on my blog, and debate them publicly instead of privately. If they say yes, it’s game on. (Names will only ever be published with permission of the authors.)
Our first contestant is Aaron deOliveira, responding to my April 27 piece on AlterNet, One More Reason Religion Is So Messed Up: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide. Here is his letter, published in its entirety, with no edits, and no illustrations until my reply.
sorry it’s taken me this long to say anything about your post. i’ve been a lurker on your blog for a little while. the post gave me a lot to reflect on before i felt i had a suitable answer to your post. also, i’m emailing you rather than posting in the comments because the conversation there has already snaked in several directions.
i myself am LDS. i particularly enjoy talking with atheists and reading their blogs. on the whole, atheists ask very profound questions. i think it’s because they are able to be 100% critical and skeptical of religious actions whether by god or man.
so back to your post. first, lets call a stone a stone. what the Israelites did to the various people’s of Canaan was genocide. it’s functionally no different than the genocides that happened in Sudan, Bosnia/Croatia, etc. one group of people finds a reason to exterminate another group of people. anyone that argues that it was something else is being disingenuous.
so this leads us to the morality of the action. i picture god as a gardener and this earth as a garden. all the peoples of the earth are plants in this garden. by comparison, in the gardens that we till here on earth, the gardener exercises judgement over life and death frequently. he decides which plants to prune, which weeds to pull, which bugs to attracted for pollination and which to kill as pests. the garden is just as valuable to the weed’s continued existence as the flowers and the aphid is just as hungry as the bee. so why does the gardener get to decide what lives and what dies in his garden? shouldn’t he preserve all life unmolested in his garden?
the morality of the gardeners actions are usually judged by measuring against his purpose. the gardeners purpose is to raise up the best plants he can. so he naturally removes things detrimental to their development. because the gardener has designated this particular plot of land as a garden, when he exercises authority over the life and death of what is there, his actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose.
if the gardener were to exercise the same authority over life and death in the wild, his actions would no longer be seen as moral. if he went into the wilderness and killed trees or destroyed animals because they didn’t please him, most people would censure the gardener for his actions even though they are functionally the same as what he does in his garden.
so coming full circle with my god as a gardener analogy. there are times where god as the creator and owner of both the earth and its inhabitants (ie. the garden) exercises authority over the life and death of those that dwell there. god’s purpose of making every inhabitant, both the committer of the genocide and the and the victim of it, into their best selves is fulfilled the same way as the gardener in the analogy.
leaving the analogy, i want to touch on something that you probably don’t accept, but is necessary in discussing god and man’s actions as they pertain to life and death. we are eternal beings. we existed before we came to this earth. we will exist long after we pass through death. functionally there is no difference whether we live on this earth for hours, like some babies that die at birth, or live to see our twilight years. life on earth is just one part of the entire spectrum of our existence.
another quick analogy to explain how god killing someone or directing that someone be killed isn’t immoral. picture every person passing through life as being on a highway. when god exercises his authority and pulls someone over, ie killing them, he does not prevent them from their destination. because of the resurrection, every person will live again and have full exercise of their life and all of its potentials. it is a generally acknowledged maxim that ‘life isn’t fair’. and yet, although it is intrinsically unfair, people don’t impute evil to life not being fair which gives rise to another maxim, ‘you play the hand your dealt’. so from these maxims we see that the length of each life and the manner in which it ends is not intrinsically immoral. because god provided the resurrection, all men, women and children will see the full potential of their lives, just in different orders. some die young and in the resurrection will live out their days. some die old and in the resurrection will receive renewed bodies to continue to become their best selves.
so does my ‘god as a gardener’ analogy hold water? let me know if there are flaws in my reasoning.
Okay. I don’t really have time and energy to take this apart line by line. But I can get the ball rolling.
Yes, Aaron, I think there are flaws in your reasoning.
First, and maybe most importantly: Are you really arguing that human life has no more value than plant life? That killing an infant, or wiping out an entire race, has no more moral impact than pulling a weed?
2: Do you think that God the gardener is all-powerful? If so, why did he create weeds in the first place? Why did he create people in such a way that, in order to reach their “potential,” many of them had to suffer terribly and/or die prematurely, either by natural causes or at the hands of their fellow human beings? (Which leads back to #1: Are you really arguing that human life has no more value than plant life?)
3: If we hear voices in our heads telling us to kill people, how are we to know whether they come from God, and are therefore okay — or whether they came from from hatred/ fear/ selfishness/ desire for conquest/ psychosis, and therefore ought to be resisted? How are we to know that the Israelites really were listening to God, and therefore the command to commit genocide against the Canaanites was okay… but that Osama Bin Laden was not listening to God, and therefore the command to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center was grotesquely evil?
4: You are absolutely correct: I don’t accept the premise that life is eternal. Why do you think that premise is correct? You are coming to a moral conclusion based on this premise — namely, that mortal human life is pretty much irrelevant, and that what happens to us in the afterlife is all that really matters. If your premise is mistaken, then your conclusion is questionable at best, profoundly disturbing and morally grotesque at worst. Given that, I assume you want to be very certain indeed that your premise is correct. Do you have any good evidence to suggest that it is? Or do you simply feel it in your heart? And if the latter, again I ask: How do you know that the feelings in your heart are correct, but the feelings in the hearts of people with radically different religious beliefs from yours are mistaken? I can tell you why I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and can even tell you what evidence would persuade me that I was mistaken. Can you do the same?
Summary: You are basically making the “mysterious ways” argument. God has a plan, and it’s not up to us to judge his plan. You say that “his [God’s] actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose”… while completely punting the question of whether his purpose is moral. It’s a terrible argument for many reasons. When used as a response to truth claims and the lack of good evidence for them, it’s an evasion of the question, pure and simple. When used as a response to questions of morality, it is negating the entire concept of “good” and “evil.” (Your argument that “his [God’s] actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose” is a tautology: God’s actions are moral because they fulfill God’s purpose, and God’s purpose must, by definition, be moral, because he’s God.) As I said in the piece we’re discussing: If you say that what “good” means for God is totally different from what “good” means for people — if you say that murdering infants and systematically eradicating entire races is evil for people but good for God — then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. You have rendered the entire concept of “good and evil” meaningless. And I, for one, don’t want the entire concept of good and evil to be rendered meaningless.
But if you’re going to make the “mysterious ways” argument, then at least I hope you’re consistent. I hope that you never, ever, ever try to claim that anything at all happened in life because God willed it. I hope you never claim that good things happened because God made them happen. You don’t get to have it both ways: you don’t get to sometimes say that you clearly see God’s plan in your life and the lives of others, and at other times say that God moves in mysterious ways that elude us puny mortals, and we’re not competent to judge him or even understand him.
And if you are being consistent, and see God as entirely mysterious and incomprehensible, with both practical plans and moral guidelines that mean nothing to us… then what meaning does he have in your life? Are you motivated to obey him purely from fear of punishment and desire for reward? Do you see him as an unpredictable abusive parent, who hits or hugs for no reason you can discern, and whose patterns of behavior you’re desperately trying to understand so you can avoid the worst of it?
Is that really how you want to live?
So that’s my quick- and- dirty response. Readers, what have I missed here? Aaron, what do you think? Everybody, please remember the ground rules: Stay civil. Critique ideas as harshly as you like, but don’t engage in personal insults. And please don’t critique grammar, spelling, tone patrolling, or other irrelevancies: please stay focused on content. Go for it!