Episode 89: Genocide (part 2) »« Welcome Doubtcast fans and new listeners!

Episode 88: Genocide (part 1)

RD kicks off it’s “Summer Genocide Series” with a critical review of Paul Copan’s book “Is God a Moral Monster?” Copan argues that the holy war waged against the Canaanites was not the blood-soaked genocide that critics of the Bible make it out to be . It was a limited, relatively humane campaign that was morally and spiritually justified. Thom Stark disagrees. He’s written a massive point-by-point refutation of Copan’s book entitled “Is God a Moral Compromiser?” (free pdf available here!). We’ll take a look at Copan’s arguments and Stark’s response for this weeks Counter-apologetics segment. Also on this episode: the doubtcasters discuss the religion and politics of Anders Breivik and for a new segment of “God Thinks Like You” we share new data which proves fundamentalists are kind and helpful–except towards people who are different from them.

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Comments

  1. Zack says

    Stark might well have some good points about how wrong Copan is in certain parts of his book, however, did any of you read the intro to Stark’s review? I’ve rarely read such a load pretentious crap. You may as well have used William Lain Craig quotes to refute Chopan as Stark. You really should have mentioned how full of it Stark is on other subjects than the few chapters that he treated in his review.

  2. JHGRedekop says

    If children who are killed go straight to Heaven, while those who survive childhood run the risk of going to Hell, would it not then be immoral to let them reach adulthood?

  3. says

    Great show as always, very uplifting. I enjoyed the struggling with laughing at this subject. It does seem the entire apologetic industry is built on the hope that no one will look up the things they reference. Thanks for the balanced approach to the Norway shooter too.

    @JHGRedekop: Not sure how serious your question was, but I have run into that in theist discussions, and had “The Age of Accountability” thrown at me. It is a basically bogus idea, with no real support, even within theological circles.. http://www.gotquestions.org/age-of-accountability.html

  4. JHGRedekop says

    @John Wolforth: I wasn’t being all that serious, just musing on out a direct consequence of Copan’s argument: if murdering children en masse doesn’t make you a moral monster because they’ll go to Heaven, and murdering their parents is ok because they’re doomed to Hell, it seems that you pretty much have a moral imperative to murder the children before they grow up to be like their parents…

  5. Andrew @EC says

    Really glad to see you guys on FTB — I think Reasonable Doubts is the single best resource we have as atheists to reach out to reasonable Christians, and I recommend it all the time. Welcome!

  6. Andrew @EC says

    Zack — what’s your issue with Stark’s preface? I just read it and I don’t see a real problem with it (other than the occasional jab at atheists, which I guess I’m inured to by now).

  7. Dan says

    I don’t see the problem with Stark’s preface either. He seems very reasonable, especially for a christian.

  8. Susan says

    In the latest podcast you mentioned the Texas prayer rally and you gave out some incorrect info. It was held in Reliant Stadium which holds about 70,000 people. Reports from the Austin-American Statesman say that 30,000 attended, although I do not know where this number came from. I would not trust self report stats. As you also noted, the stadium had a lot of empty seats. Lastly, the lawsuit regarded Gov Perry using his position to ask Texans to attend. I never heard reports of tax dollars being spent on the event.

    Love the podcast! Thanks for the fun and inormative shows!

  9. Barefoot Bree says

    [Off-topic] Thought you guys might like to know that Reasonable Doubts got a shout-out from Ask An Atheist last week. A listener asked about Free Will, and the AAA hosts said it was far too involved for their kind of show, but that you guys had done a fantastic job of teasing it apart, and recommended anyone come over here for an education on the subject. (I agree.) Kudos!

  10. Zyaama says

    Great show again.

    One thing I really would’ve liked to hear discussed: Is not the fact that Paul Copan had to write his book already a clear indication that he used a moral standard which was not based on the bible? He would probably argue otherwise, but the fact that nearly everybody considers genocide as evil, even when ordered by god, pretty much proves that our moral values are not based on the bible.

  11. Jeremias Topitsch says

    You quote a “Norwegian Pro Deutschland group” when talking about The massacre in Norway. “Pro Deutschland” is of course a German and not a Norwegian group (“Deutschland” being the german word for Germany).
    Pro Deutschland is a fringe party on the right wing of the political spectrum. It only locally achieves 5-8% at elections and is barely visible at federal level.
    The party is known for their anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant propaganda.

  12. Katrina, radicales féministes athées says

    This is interesting. Copan’s premise, that “holy war waged against the Canaanites was not the blood-soaked genocide that critics of the Bible make it out to be.” is similar to what I learned when studying Liberation Theology in college. Norman Gottwald, in his Tribes of Yahweh, suggested that rather than killing all of the Canaanites, the Israelites were a catalyst for revolution and that it was the kings or rulers of Canaan who were killed.

  13. says

    Hector Avalos wrote a response called “Yahweh is a Moral Monster” published in “The Christian Delusion” edited by John Loftus.

  14. Solid Muldoon says

    “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho…”

    I was taught this song as a child. We sang it at church and in school assemblies. It wasn’t until I grew up and read the Bible for myself that I learned of the horrors that followed after the walls came tumbling down.

    Religious indoctrination is child abuse.

  15. says

    Only just learned about you, since you joined freethoughtblogs. I’ve been listening to your back catalog and there’s some great stuff in there. I’m now subscribe via iTunes.

    Keep it up.

  16. says

    Great discussion, guys. I enjoyed it. Thanks for linking to the review as well.

    FTR, I happen to live in Houston, so let’s make sure if we’re giving Texas to Perry we keep Austin and Houston. :)

  17. says

    Katrina,

    Gottwald’s thesis no longer enjoys the support of many scholars. His reconstruction was influenced by a Marxist paradigm, and doesn’t comport well with the confluence of evidence. In short, it’s dated.

  18. llewelly says

    Today I tried to download several older doubtcast episodes, notably
    http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/reasonabledoubts/Msxh/~5/oshrdoRKawQ/rd88_genocide_part1.mp3

    and

    http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/reasonabledoubts/Msxh/~5/J9alhqYE8fQ/rd85_they_had_it_coming.mp3

    In both cases I got the following warning, from google:

    Safe Browsing
    Diagnostic page for doubtcast.org

    What is the current listing status for doubtcast.org?

    Site is listed as suspicious – visiting this web site may harm your computer.

    Part of this site was listed for suspicious activity 1 time(s) over the past 90 days.

    What happened when Google visited this site?

    Of the 2 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 1 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded and installed without user consent. The last time Google visited this site was on 2011-08-18, and the last time suspicious content was found on this site was on 2011-08-18.

    Malicious software includes 1 trojan(s). Successful infection resulted in an average of 7 new process(es) on the target machine.

    Malicious software is hosted on 2 domain(s), including ajstcb.com/, numudozaf.com/.

    1 domain(s) appear to be functioning as intermediaries for distributing malware to visitors of this site, including zirycatum.com/.

    This site was hosted on 1 network(s) including AS8560 (SCHLUND).

  19. Thomas says

    Hi there,
    I am fairly new to the atheist community, but I enjoy your podcasts very much.
    But I hope you can help me with an issue. I listened to a lot of debates between believers and non-believers and when it comes to the question of morality the non-beliver is always told to shut up, because there is no “objective morality” on our side. But I have nowhere found what that means. Where are the rules which are always and everywhere true? Who knows all of them? Why can’t I say that e.g. being mean to gays is wrong because in former times it was ok?

    It would be great to hear some comments of you guys

    Cheers

    Thomas (ex Catholic since last week, still struggling with the IRS)

  20. Atheist Curmudgeon says

    “the imaginary tragedy of the debt ceiling”

    You guys are real idiots sometimes. The national debt is a disaster, and yet you manage to brush it off with an ignorant comment like that in less than five minutes of the show. And if it was a joke, then it was a stupid joke. In either case, it’s all too typical of you guys, given your output in recent shows.

    That aside, I’m actually amazed to see an overall lack of political browbeating in this episode. Even the bit about Texas Governor Rick Perry is remarkably on-topic, given that he’s wasting tax money on a stadium prayer event. (Now if only leftists would acknowledge all the other more substantial things that politicians waste taxpayer money on.)

    This is probably the best episode since the Disunity of the Bible. You guys are razor sharp when you take on Christian apologetics. Especially extremely stupid Christian apologetics, such as in Paul Copan’s book.

    I find it interesting that Thom Stark himself is Christian. I’m happy to see a Christian being honest about what the Bible says, although it does make me wonder how Stark deals with these problems himself. Perhaps I’ll find out if I keep reading. While I appreciate his academic honesty on the matter of scripture, I’m left to wonder if he even believes that these events happened at all. Perhaps he doesn’t, but if that’s the case, then how is he any less a cherry-picker than Copan?

    Ah, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another episode.

  21. says

    “although it does make me wonder how Stark deals with these problems himself.”

    I discuss this in my book, The Human Faces of God. I argue that these are human constructions that tell us more about humans than about any God, and that for that reason they are valuable as reminders to us of where we’ve come from and what we’re always capable of.

    “I’m left to wonder if he even believes that these events happened at all. Perhaps he doesn’t, but if that’s the case, then how is he any less a cherry-picker than Copan?”

    I don’t believe the conquest of Canaan took place as depicted in the Bible. My view here is informed by the archaeological record. But I’m not following how that makes me a cherry-picker. I never argue that the fact that “it didn’t happen” resolves the problem in the text. In fact, I argue against that line of reasoning when it is taken up by William Lane Craig. The only way to “resolve the problem” of these texts is to conclude that these texts are horribly wrong.

    Are you suggesting that I must be a cherry-picker because I reject certain texts but not others? If so, I disagree with that point of view. It’s called a critical appropriation. My approach is to critically appropriate everything, not just my own scriptures. I don’t believe that any single text gives us anything less than a human construction, but some of them are better human constructions than others.

    I could be identified as a socialist democrat, yet I don’t agree with everything the party line says. That doesn’t make me a cherry-picker. That makes me self-critical.

    I’m neither an atheist nor a theist. I’m a hopeful agnostic, who identifies as Christian, among other things, for a number of reasons. I stand roughly within the liberal protestant tradition. There’s much that is very good in Christianity, even while there’s much that is not at all good. The same, of course, is true of my identification as a U.S. citizen. When I so identify, I am stating my allegiance to the best insights of our political tradition, while taking my share of the responsibility for our long history of failures and misguided political doctrines. Once again, that’s not cherry-picking. That’s being self-critical. With this approach, I see no reason to renounce my Christian identity, anymore than I would renounce my U.S. citizenship simply because I don’t agree with everything in our constitution and legislative history. My motto is, start where you are and move outward. Make the best of the tradition you find yourself in, and explore also the traditions of others.

  22. Bookworm says

    I enjoyed reading Thom Stark’s rebuttal of Copan, but my eyebrows lifted at the comment above. Equating Christianity with US citizenship is a bit specious, methinks. Granted, both have long traditions encompassing both good and bad, but the latter is grounded in real verifiable history (ok, as far as historiography can go, anyway), while the former is grounded in God (totally unverifiable). How can one be a Christian and not be a theist? Doesn’t that collapse Christianity into a mere social/ethical framework for ‘How I live my life?’ I apologise in advance if I’ve missed something, but as an ex fundy turned atheist these questions still haunt me.

  23. says

    Thom said, “Gottwald’s thesis no longer enjoys the support of many scholars. His reconstruction was influenced by a Marxist paradigm, and doesn’t comport well with the confluence of evidence. In short, it’s dated.”

    If you mean historical scholars, then Gottwald is probably dated. However, if you mean religious, isn’t the Marxist criticism the common complaint of theologians with Libertaion Theology? Since this has been by addressed by Segundo and others, I would say it is not dated. Marxism does not attempt to apply ideology to practical human affairs as Liberation Theology does.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Liberation_of_Theology

  24. epweissengruber says

    Great show guys.

    You — once again — indicate why the concepts in the Bible are morally repugnant.

    Assuming that the Bible is not history but a collection of ancient texts, retained by and elaborated upon by an emerging religious and political community, why on earth are such stories of genocide and collective murder preserved? That’s a question I would like you to address. If the Israelites were just Canaanites redefining themselves as a particular nation and religion, why did they come up with and preserve these myths of engaging in righteous slaughter? I understand that depicting oneself as a righteous conqueror might have been good PR in the Iron Age, but why the need to paint yourselves as remorseless killing machines?

    Have you looked at James Kugel’s “The Bible as it Was”?

    His discussion of the revenge slaughter for the rape of Dinah is very illuminating.

    Dinah is a “single, isolated episode” but it’s concepts of racial purity and sanctified murder fit thematically with the material discussed in your broadcast.

    Story: Jacob’s daughter is violated in Shechem. Hamor’s son, Schechem, wishes to keep Dinah as his wife and approaches Jacob for permission to marry. Jacob’s sons propose that all men of Schechem must be circumcised before the marriage takes place. The men agree. While the Schechemites are recovering from their operations, Simeon and Levi enter and kill all the males. Jacob protests against his sons’ rashness and warns of Canaanite retaliation but his sons reply “Shall our sister be treated as a harlot.”

    Kugel’s study of later books in the Hebrew Bible, and in later Jewish commentary (historical, Dead Sea scrolls, etc.) shows the integration of this little episode into the kind of ethical/cultural environment critiqued in your podcast, one where collective murder is entirely justified, and xenophobia and tight control of the in-group are the background assumptions for making judgments about right and wrong, killing and mercy, in-group vs. out-group relations.

    This episode had multiple interpretations:
    - the sons’ wrath was Wrong (4 Macc. 2:19 – 20)
    - wrath seems Unjustified: a man who violates a virgin must make a payment to the father and marry the girl and keep her for the rest of her life (Deut. 22:28 – 29), so the murder goes against some parts of Jewish law, laws that Hamor seems to have been following (even offering a much larger payment than Deuteronomy calls for)
    - the sons’ wrath was Right, because the violator was a foreigner and “most early interpreters” approved of the action as a “clear case of us against them” (Kugel 235)
    - the incident was used by later commentators to reinforce the notion that foreigners are inferior
    * Jth. 9:2
    * Jubilees 30:11-14
    * Targum Neophyti Gen. 34:31
    * Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:337-338
    - intermariage is forbidden and, since recompense through payment and marriaged was impossible, murder was the only response to the violation
    * Deut. 7:3-6
    * Ezra 9:1
    * Ezra 10:2-5
    - an Israelite who offers a daughter to a foreigner deserves death
    * Jubilees 30: 7
    * Josephus 1:337-338
    - the circumcision ploy was not sinful deception (implied in Gen. 34:13-14) but was practical wisdom
    * Jubilees 30:3, 12-13
    * Targum Onqelos Gen. 34:13
    * Genesis Rabba 80:8
    - collective punishment is Right, even if only 1 member of the out group has trespassed
    * Gen. 34:27
    * Jth. 9:2-4
    * Jubilees 30:3-4
    * Targum Neophyti Gen. 34:31
    - The recent individual crime is part of a city’s history of sin, so the long-deserved destruction may be out of all proportion with the act (the rape) but is entirely justified by a history of sin
    * Theodotus, Fragment 7 (cited from Alexander Polyhistor in Eusebius Praeparatio Evangelica 9.22.9)
    * Testament of Levi 6:8-7:1
    - Dinah’s case establishes a precedent that will be followed in future
    * Septuagint Gen 34:7 (the Greek implies the future relevance)
    * Jth. 9:2
    * Jubilees 30:5
    - The protagonists of the story are not even culpable as individuals but mere instruments of God’s will
    * Gen. 34:7
    - The slaughter was divinely ordained
    * Theodotus, Fragment 7, cited above
    * Jubilees 30:5
    * Testament of Levi, cited above
    * Joseph and Aseneth 23:14

    Love the show, keep it up

  25. says

    Bookworm,

    I fully appreciate how these questions can still haunt someone long after abandoning a fundamentalist faith. Allow me to clarify some things. First, I did not “equate” Christianity with US citizenship; I compared them. That doesn’t mean there aren’t (obvious) points of difference. But the comparison I made is simply that ordinarily disagreeing with large parts of our tradition doesn’t necessarily commit us to abandoning the tradition wholesale. Now let me clarify that I think rejecting Christianity is a perfectly valid response to the kind of material covered in my book and review of Copan’s book; it’s just not the only valid response. I’m not trying to persuade atheists to become Christian; but neither am I trying to persuade Christians to become atheists. What one does with the material is up to them. As a Christian, my aim is to use the material to chasten my tradition; I choose to remain within it, as a (small) voice of reform.

    Now, your statement that US history is “grounded in real verifiable history (ok, as far as historiography can go, anyway), while the former is grounded in God (totally unverifiable).” This is true enough, but not the point. The history of theology is grounded in real verifiable history, and I can make the same sort of judgments about that history as I can about the history of US legislation. Yes, theology’s object is often (though not always) “God,” and God is not a verifiable entity. But that’s not the point of theology. If you think it is, you’re still captured by the fundamentalist understanding of theology, which is relatively young.

    The Bible is a collection of texts in contention with each other. It is an argument with itself. My perspective is that the argument is healthy, and some perspectives are clearly right, while others are clearly wrong. On some points, no one is right. On other points, each of different perspectives are right in different ways. The Bible isn’t just about “God,” you realize. It is ultimately, I would argue, an exploration of the big questions that all humans face. And in the pages of the Bible, God is sometimes, though certainly not always, posited as in some sense the answer to some of those questions. But books like Ecclesiastes and Job represent criticisms of traditional theology. They say that God is irrelevant, that God is to blame, and that God can be the bad guy. These are real positions found in the Hebrew and Christian bibles. I see them as part of the argument, an argument that isn’t just about God, but more fundamentally about why humans are here. My view is that participation in the argument, a commitment to hearing the different voices, giving them their fair shake, yet also criticizing them, is what it means to be a part of the faith tradition. There has always been a lot of diversity within Judaism and Christianity, and fundamentalism has been very successful in obscuring that fact in the vision of many.

    On some points, I would follow Jesus ardently. On others, I would be very critical of Jesus. (See the eighth and tenth chapters of Human Faces of God.) But where Jesus was right (for instance, in his incisive criticisms of an exploitative economic system that falsely legitimated itself in the name of God), he was brilliant. I can follow him, build on his best insights, without being committed to everything he taught and believed. In the same way, we can build on what Jefferson et al began without being committed to their every practice and belief (e.g., slavery, patriarchy, atomistic individualism, etc.). So saying that one is grounded in verifiable history while the other is grounded in what is by definition unverifiable is too simplistic a criticism. It misses the point, and it’s also not entirely accurate. Does the US have a verifiable history? Yes. But does that mean that every doctrine of the US political economy is “verifiable”? No. Political ideologies are notoriously difficult to “test” because there are too many unforeseeable factors that can affect its successful implementation. I think US capitalism has failed, and not just recently. And I can give historically verifiable reasons. But that’s hardly an objective “fact,” and my reasons are interpretations of historical facts, not historical facts themselves. On the other hand, theology and Christianity is not just about “God.” It also has a verifiable history, and many of its claims can be tested according to historiographical criteria. It fails on many levels, but also succeeds on some. And once again, unforeseeable factors will interfere and change the shape of the movement.

    In short, it’s ALL a very messy business, and to say that it all hinges on the fact that “God” can’t be verified is a bit naive. I fully concur that God can’t be verified, but, you have to realize, my kind of Christianity (shared by a minority of millions the world over) does not at all depend upon any such verification. For liberals like myself, theology is a way of poetically expressing profound truths about humanity and reality itself, expressions that help us to form our lives in ways that make sense and benefit fellow humans; it is not an enterprise in propositional assertions about metaphysics.

    You ask, “How can one be a Christian and not be a theist? Doesn’t that collapse Christianity into a mere social/ethical framework for ‘How I live my life?’”

    This is a good question. You’ll see that I’ve already addressed your second question, but I (and many others with me) would argue that theology (any theology, not just Christianity) has always and only been a social/ethical framework for ‘How I live my life.’ More accurately, for ‘How we live our lives together.’ When we do theology, we do it fully consciously.

    We can debate, of course, whether religion is really useful or necessary to help humans come together, or whether it’s cons outweigh its pros. That’s fine, but that’s not really a debate I’m interested in, because I’m a realist. I think religion will always be here, or at least for a long, long time to come. So for my part, better to reform it than to try to live alongside it in its fundamentalist forms, especially when they are so dangerous. Now, being a realist, I realize that fundamentalism isn’t going anywhere either. I think it’s rooted in human biology. Nevertheless, as stated, I’m not interested in converting anybody into either a Christian or an atheist. What I am interested in is combating fundamentalism. Those who wish to remain religious (as I do) will benefit society in that way, and those who wish to abandon religion may do so, and benefit society in that way.

    Now, as for the question, How can one be a Christian and not a theist?, there is a simple answer to that. There is a long tradition within (even traditional forms of) Christianity that see “theism” as idolatry! Many Christians reject classical theism as a philosophical construct and insist that God cannot be defined or defended with philosophy. In that sense, I am definitely not a theist. God cannot be empirically verified; God cannot be logically or philosophically “proven” or even defended IMO. There is a longstanding tradition which says that best expression of good theology is a kind of agnosticism. In my view, both theism and atheism say too much about God. That doesn’t mean atheists don’t have good things to say by way of criticism of theology. Of course, most of what atheists have to say by way of criticism of theology has been said already by theologians themselves! (Or by theists or deists, or what you.) Regardless, I consider atheists and theists both friends.

    What I see as so tragic is so many fundamentalist Christians realizing how bankrupt fundamentalist Christianity is and then becoming atheists without ever having a fundamentalist perspective on religion challenged or questioned. While fundamentalism may be a dominant (or at least the loudest) form of Christianity/Islam today, that has not always been the case. Without trying to persuade people to become this or that, without trying to persuade them to adopt any specific label, I do want to try to encourage an attitude that seeks to understand nuance and diversity. The “all or nothing” mindset is what has to go, whether it’s adopted by a theist or an atheist. That’s really my only crusade.

    All the very best,
    T

  26. says

    John Wolforth,

    Good comment, but it conflates some issues, I think. Yes, Gottwald’s historical reconstruction of the conquest of Canaan is quite dated. That’s the problem, Gottwald wasn’t just doing a Marxist theology of the conquest, he was actually trying to do legitimate historical reconstruction. In that sense (the sense in which he tried to operate), he failed.

    Some liberation theologians today, though not many, still follow Gottwald, but usually only because they aren’t always up to speed on what archaeologist and Hebrew Bible scholars are saying.

    Now, obviously Marxism isn’t dated (unless you ask someone at Fox News). Sure, numerous elements of Marx’s original critique are dated, but the critique of capital stands strong, and numerous neo-Marxisms are very up-to-date. But it’s an oversimplification to equate Marxism with Liberation Theology. (I actually did my graduate thesis on Liberation Theology.) Yes, there is some basic agreement with Marx among liberation theologians, but all the major liberation theologians also make significant critiques of Marx, including Segundo.

    However, that’s beside the point of Gottwald’s reconstruction of the conquest. Gottwald read a Marxist scenario into the historical data. But the fact that his reconstruction has been for the most part rejected doesn’t mean that Marxism has been rejected, or that one can’t accept a better model of the Canaanite conquest and still be a Marxist.

  27. bookworm says

    Thom, above, thanks for the elaboration, but there are still points of intrigue. Firstly, Christianity is, obviously, hardly monolithic in definition, and can ever be only connotative, not denotative, since ‘I’m a Christian’ depends on more than just utterance. I’ve heard many declare themselves to be Christian and roundly condemn other self-identified Christians for being, well, not Christian. And that’s even before we get to Catholics-are-not-Christians, or vice-versa, and the disputes over who is a Christian even within traditions, be they Baptist or widely Protestant. You talked about the notion of theism as idolatry, so perhaps the term means something different than belief in at least one god. The point: I have never seen a faith statement that purports to be Christian that did not include ‘I believe in God’ (theism) somewhere within it (whether or not this was in a fundamentalist or more left-leaning, social justice oriented church or college setting). I’m still confused about how you so easily assume God (with a capital) as you do in your main penultimate paragraph, then decide that atheist or deist really doesn’t matter, and still happily identify as Christian. This seems an exercise in humanism but chucking ‘Christian’ on the front to differentiate from Buddhist humanism or atheistic humanism or karmic humanism or [whatever] humanism … I’m not trying to be picky but there does seem to be a logical gap. My other problem is that theology isn’t historical, except that you can historically determine that someone believed something at a particular time in history; you can probably also leave God completely out of theology (although that begs redefinition of the term), but if questions of theism are so easily shunted aside you might as well privilege Pride and Prejudice as a book which explores the human condition, and elevate it, and many others that explore what it is to live. How do you combat fundamentalism by excluding God from the conversation? That’s akin to Jennifer Fulwiler’s recent attempt to convince atheists by invoking God as predicate; it convinces no one. I suppose my subtext is the point at which the exercise becomes ‘wanking with words’, as they say, and obfuscation (and no, that’s not what I think you’re doing; I’m extrapolating into much of what I’ve read in systematics over the years), and finding the points of dialogue that work.

  28. says

    Bookworm,

    Great comments.

    “I’ve heard many declare themselves to be Christian and roundly condemn other self-identified Christians for being, well, not Christian. And that’s even before we get to Catholics-are-not-Christians, or vice-versa, and the disputes over who is a Christian even within traditions, be they Baptist or widely Protestant.”

    Yes. I myself have no interest in saying, “That is not Christian,” precisely because I don’t believe there is one specific thing that gets to count as “Christian” over against all others. I do think it’s possible to say, “That’s not biblica,” or, “That’s contrary to the message of Christ.” But to say, “That’s not Christian” is to ignore the long and diverse history of Christianity(ies).

    “You talked about the notion of theism as idolatry, so perhaps the term means something different than belief in at least one god.”

    By saying “theism as idolatry” I didn’t mean to say that anyone who identifies as a theist is an idolater and therefore “not Christian.” But there is a tradition (more than one actually) which sees the concerns of classical theism as a sort of idolatry—trying to define God, so to speak, is to make God into a particular image. Apophatic theology relates here, which seeks to know God more fully primarily by identifying what God is not.

    Yes, theism can just mean “belief in at least one god,” but I was referring to theism as a philosophical position. As it happens, at any rate, I do not myself “believe” in God, although I often hope in and for a God. If there is a God, a God who is supposedly omnibenevolent (at least), I’ll have some choice words for the deity should I ever encounter it. Nevertheless, that does not preclude me from hoping, despite my numerous objections.

    “The point: I have never seen a faith statement that purports to be Christian that did not include ‘I believe in God’ (theism) somewhere within it (whether or not this was in a fundamentalist or more left-leaning, social justice oriented church or college setting).”

    You need to read Tillich! :)

    “I’m still confused about how you so easily assume God (with a capital) as you do in your main penultimate paragraph, then decide that atheist or deist really doesn’t matter, and still happily identify as Christian.”

    I’m not assuming “God” (capital G or otherwise) in the penultimate paragraph. I’m dealing there with the definition of God. There are some Christian thinkers who have argued that it is not correct even to ascribe existence to God, but that is not the same thing as saying that God does not exist. Nevertheless, I’m not assuming God’s existence. I don’t recall saying that atheist or deist “doesn’t matter.” (I’m not sure what that means.) I agree with many of the critiques made by atheists against Christian theism. I was merely pointing out that theists and deists have made those same critiques as well.

    “This seems an exercise in humanism but chucking ‘Christian’ on the front to differentiate from Buddhist humanism or atheistic humanism or karmic humanism or [whatever] humanism … I’m not trying to be picky but there does seem to be a logical gap.”

    I don’t see the logical gap, and certainly you’ve heard of Christian humanism! Look, I can identify as a number of things. Christian is my first identifier because that’s how I was raised and because I want to take responsibility for my tradition. But I am also humanist, Marxist, agnostic, mystic, and sometimes perhaps a bit of an atheist (in certain senses). I would like to be more of a Buddhist humanist, but not to the exclusion of my Christian humanism. I’m what atheist moral philosopher Jeffrey Stout calls a bricoleur, which is how he identifies himself, mind you. I don’t feel the need to stand behind and defend one label to describe myself. I don’t see Christian and atheist as mutually exclusive at all. They can be mutually exclusive on certain points, but it just depends on how the terms are used, by whom, and in what context. Recall that Christians were derided by the Romans as atheists. However, I would say that a Christian can be an atheist in the sense that the Christian demand that God be just requires an atheistic critique of Christian theology. This, for me, wouldn’t necessarily mean that “God” doesn’t exist; just that our efforts to identify “God” have been failures. Our gods do not exist. That is an atheism fully consonant with a Judeo-Christian prophetic posture. If that leaves us in ambiguity, so be it. Read, thou, thy Qohelet.

    “My other problem is that theology isn’t historical, except that you can historically determine that someone believed something at a particular time in history.”

    That’s all I meant, and that’s actually an entire academic discipline all to itself, called “Historical Theology.” And IMO doing historical theology is akin to doing historical politics. It’s to glean the best insights, judge what has worked and what hasn’t—to be in dialogue with past traditions rather than to throw them off wholesale, even if our dialogue leads us to disagree with most of what they’ve said: it’s the dialogue that makes us whole persons and communities in the present.

    “You can probably also leave God completely out of theology (although that begs redefinition of the term), but if questions of theism are so easily shunted aside you might as well privilege Pride and Prejudice as a book which explores the human condition, and elevate it, and many others that explore what it is to live.”

    I advocate for such a use of all good literature, absolutely, but I define a Christian (without rejecting other definitions) as one whose primary resources are the Christian scriptures. The question for me isn’t “is this particular book more reliable than all these other books?” The question for me is how best to read the book we’re reading to become the best human beings we can be. That’s why my book, The Human Faces of God, is an attack on the doctrine of inerrancy, because I argue that inerrancy (apart from being stupid) stunts our moral growth. When I read Pride and Prejudice, I read it for insight, to be sure. But a Christian is someone who turns first to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. That’s all. If you want to say, “Why privilege those particular books over others?” that’s a perfectly valid question. The answer is simply that Christians are those who have chosen to operate within a particular tradition. That doesn’t mean a Christian can’t move beyond the scriptures, as I argue in Human Faces of God. It just means that’s where we start. We need to have a critical reading of the scriptures, and move on to a critical reading of other texts. We appropriate what’s best, and learn from the failures. If you see no reason to participate in a specific tradition such as Christianity, that’s perfectly fine. Some derive much value from it. Others do not. Some don’t for a long time, then do for a while. Others still do for a while, then can’t anymore. All that is fine.

    “How do you combat fundamentalism by excluding God from the conversation?”

    I’m not sure how you think I’m excluding God from the conversation. Here I’m responding to comments made by atheists. But my strategy is pedagogical, especially when working with fundamentalists. I try to combat fundamentalism by pointing out its inherent contradictions, by carefully showing the fundamentalist where their methods of reading scripture are at odds with the scriptures themselves, etc. I don’t think it’s at all necessary to raise the issue of God’s existence in order to combat fundamentalism. But if those questions arise in the mind of the individual fundamentalist, then that’s where the conversation will go.

    As for “wanking with words,” one could say that’s all poetry is, but one would be a dullard who said it. I see it as speaking different languages. I speak English to English speakers and Spanish to Spanish speakers. I also strive to speak Christian to Christians and Humanism to Humanists and Islam to Muslims, and so on. Since I think it’s arrogant to try to tell a person s/he should identify as [insert ideological label here], I think pedagogy is the best method: help each tradition to be the best that it can possibly be using first its own best insights.

    But I will always be a Christian, at the very least, for the same reason that the son of a slaveowner should always identify himself as a slaveowner, even if he doesn’t own slaves and publicly denounces the practice. Again, this is not the only reason, but at the very least, I identify as a Christian because I must take responsibility for the failures of the tradition into which I was brought up. But I also happen to like Jesus, despite his numerous failings. Because his ethic of compassion for the marginalized and his commitment to opposing systemic injustice, calling myself a Christian means that I share those ideals and want to emulate his life, at least in those ways. Forgive me if I don’t give much credence to the edifice called “Christianity” that was subsequently constructed. If that edifice wishes to exclude, I could care less. But when I critique the arguments (such as Copan’s) employed to prop the edifice up, I am in effect saying, “There shall not be one stone left upon another,” and am in that sense I am doing a very Christian work.

  29. bookworm says

    Thanks, Thom, for the elaboration. For the most part I agree with you, for what that’s worth, and on reflection the differences are underscored by definitional problems: for example, how you identify as Christian would be soundly rejected by most of the Christians I know, even if their understanding of ‘God’ was be informed by the relatively small number of pages in their Bibles that were most frequently thumbed, and ‘Christian’ by where they were standing when they spoke. Thanks again for the conversation.

  30. says

    Bookworm,

    Thanks to you as well for the good discussion. And yes, how I identify as Christian would be rejected by MOST of the Christians I know as well. Nevertheless there is a viable tradition of Protestant Liberalism with which millions of people the world over identify. As you pointed out, Christians have always made it their business to tell others who identify as Christian that they’re not really Christians. But I also know many generous Christians, even ones who maintain traditional beliefs in God and the resurrection of Christ, etc., who happily call liberals such as Marcus Borg and the like “Christians.” Often it is those who have studied Christian history in an ecumenical environment who see the folly in making claims about who’s in and who’s out. And then of course there’s the social justice Christian who (while maintaining belief in God and resurrection, etc.) will mean it when s/he says that Gandhi, a Hindu, was a true Christian, and that the vast majority of self-professed Christians in the U.S. are no such thing. This is a way of saying that doing what Christ did (nonviolent resistance against oppression on behalf of the oppressed) is more important to God than believing the “right” things. The classical theological way to put this is that orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy. I tend to agree. What we do and how we treat others should be much more determinative than what we think about certain metaphysical propositions inside our brains.

    Best,
    T

  31. AlanMacandCheese says

    Whether the war between the Israelites and the Canaanites was genocide or spiritually justified is a silly question. The hard archeological evidence says it never happened. Canaan was destroyed from within by economic collapse and internal rebellions. The so called “Islaelites” were Canaanites fleeing the collapse. In fact, the so called “Books of Moses” are complete fiction.

  32. Jeremy Beahan says

    Ilewelly and foolfoder,

    Thanks for the info. I’m looking into it. Hopefully this will be resolved soon.

  33. cgauthier says

    So, Mr. Stark, you dont necessarily believe in a slave master, you just hope there is one? How can you be smart enough to see past spiritual servitude, but servile enough to long again for the chains?

    Any Creator that actually existed would be responsible for all the bad as well as the good. The aggregate experiences of all the worlds sentient beings in history is heavier with suffering than joy. You would have “choice words” for god? I would have no words for that scum. I would have a thick wad of spittle and a mind raging with contempt. Thank fucking Goodness there are no gods.

  34. says

    I find this comment to be a bit unhelpful. First, it beats a straw man. If there is a God and God is a slave-master, then I will reject such a God. I do not hope for a slave-master God, contrary to your claim.

    If there is a God and God is all-powerful, then I will have much to say on behalf of those who have suffered. But since I have no idea what kind of God might or might not exist, I reserve judgment. Do I reject the pseudo-benevolent God of fundamentalist Christianity? Of course. Is an all-powerful, all-loving God incompatible with human experience? That’s certainly the charge I would bring against any god who claimed to be both of those things. But perhaps I’m missing something.

    I hope for a good God who struggles with us but doesn’t solve our problems for us; one who doesn’t want us to be spiritual slaves but also doesn’t want us to be slaves to our worst instincts; a God who binds us together. Do I think we’re lost without such a God? Of course not. But that doesn’t stop me from hoping for one. If such a God exists, there are still plenty of problems that need accounting for. If they can be accounted for, then I’ll choose “hell” over “heaven” (so to speak). Until then, my policy is be just for the sake of justice. If no gods exist, my policy doesn’t change. I realize you’re responding to a certain set of theological claims made by certain strands of Christianity, but there’s a much bigger landscape out there.

    I try to be tolerant, and I try not to presume that someone who hopes for something they can’t fully explain must be “servile.” Neither do I presume that those who reject the notion of god outright is anything other than intellectually honest with themselves. I would hope to be afforded the same level of basic respect, but what we hope for isn’t always the reality.

  35. says

    When we die, we are going to stand before God and give an account for our lives. Because God is good, He is going to judge each of us according to the perfect, moral standard of His Law. If we’ve ever lied, stolen, taken His name in vain, He will find us guilty of breaking His Law. And because God is good, He must punish our sin; and the punishment God has ascribed for sin is eternity in Hell.

    But God is also merciful, loving, and kind in that He provided one way to escape that punishment; and that was through the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ: fully-God and fully-Man, without sin. He died a horrible, bloody death on the cross that He did not deserve in order to take upon Himself the punishment we rightly deserve for our sins against God. And then three days later He forever defeated sin and death when He rose from the grave.

    What God requires of you and me is that we repent–that we turn from our sin, and by faith and by faith alone, receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’

    So, please, repent and believe the gospel while God has given you time.

    Love in Christ

    Dean

  36. Dennis N says

    Thom Stark:

    I’m neither an atheist nor a theist.

    I find this logically impossible. You are either A (a theist) or not A (not a theist). Do you hold a belief in a god or do you not? It’s not a false dichotomy, it’s an actual dichotomy.

    Dean:

    When we die, we are going to stand before God and give an account for our lives.

    Evidence needed is needed to support this assertion.

  37. says

    Perhaps a good college course in logic would be in order for you then! :) It’s not an either/or, my friend.

    The second statement needs no evidentiary support since it is a hypothetical conditional.

  38. Anri says

    I hope for a good God who struggles with us but doesn’t solve our problems for us;

    Can this be accurately translated as: “I hope god’s not all-mighty, because otherwise he’s not good” ? And if the bible were to claim that god was all-mighty and others that state he is good, would you regard the rejection of such passages for your own personal tastes as a legitimate example of ‘cherry-picking’?

    Also, I’m interested, what third option do you see in belief vs non-belief? I am assuming that having never even considered the question might be an answer – certainly you don’t place yourself in this category?

    (Oh, and dean is a typical copy/paste godbot. He turned up on Pharyngula as well. I suggest ignoring him.)

  39. says

    Anri,

    Good questions. Ignoring Dean seemed like the right thing to do to me too.

    “Can this be accurately translated as: ‘I hope god’s not all-mighty, because otherwise he’s not good’?”

    Sure.

    “And if the bible were to claim that god was all-mighty and others that state he is good, would you regard the rejection of such passages for your own personal tastes as a legitimate example of ‘cherry-picking’?”

    First, I don’t think that the Bible does claim that Yahweh is all-mighty, not as omnipotence is classically understood within the tradition anyway. But that’s irrelevant. The answer to your question is no. “Cherry-picking” means I pick the ones I like and ignore the ones I don’t. That’s not what I do. I often pick the ones I don’t like, because they’re right, despite me. But always I appropriate critically: I don’t accept anything wholesale. But your question still assumes a standard view of the Bible as divine revelation from heaven. That’s not my view of the Bible. I think it’s a human book.

    “Also, I’m interested, what third option do you see in belief vs non-belief? I am assuming that having never even considered the question might be an answer – certainly you don’t place yourself in this category?”

    I already answered this question much earlier in the thread. Agnosticism with hope. But I said originally that I was neither and atheist nor a theist. Dennis tried to equate “lack of belief in a god” with atheism, which is a move I don’t accept. One can lack that belief and not be an atheist. Atheist means = no god. Apistisist would be one with “no belief.” Thus, I can lack a belief in God without being an atheist, saying “there is no god.” But in reality, I don’t know whether I do or don’t lack a belief in God. I vacillate. But that vacillation over a metaphysical proposition really has little bearing on the kind of judgments I make about ethics, or anything within the material universe. That shouldn’t be too difficult to get one’s head around. It’s generally the fundamentalist mindset that sees things like this in black and white. IMHO.

  40. Anri says

    Thom, thank you for responding… I hope I wasn’t snarky in my questions – I was going for direct and may have ended up a bit rude.

    First, I don’t think that the Bible does claim that Yahweh is all-mighty, not as omnipotence is classically understood within the tradition anyway. But that’s irrelevant.

    Interesting. I have heard this response from thinking theists before, and it leads me to wonder why classical Christian tradition holds god to be all-powerful, then?

    The answer to your question is no. “Cherry-picking” means I pick the ones I like and ignore the ones I don’t. That’s not what I do. I often pick the ones I don’t like, because they’re right, despite me. But always I appropriate critically: I don’t accept anything wholesale.

    I would disagree with that definition of cherry-picking. My understanding of the phrase is that it means within the same source, taking the results that support your position while ignoring those that do not.
    Given this, my question still stands.

    But your question still assumes a standard view of the Bible as divine revelation from heaven. That’s not my view of the Bible. I think it’s a human book.

    But so are the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are at least as historically accurate as the bible, and discuss another group of gods. Why not accept the Greek Pantheon, then?

    By what criteria do you accept sections of the bible but reject others? Believability?
    It is my understanding that archaeological research has essentially disproven the Exodus. I don’t know the in and outs of it, but such a migration would have left traces that would be preserved to this day, had it happened as described in the bible. This seems to me to be a reasonable reason to reject the Exodus as having occurred – it contradicts our understanding of the world.
    Yet, the resurrection of Jesus, which is central to the story of Christianity also does this, to a far greater extent. What criteria can one use, other than personal preference, in selecting between impossible stores from the bible?
    Or impossible stories from any other source, for that matter?

    That, I think, is the crux of my question.

    The atheist/agnostic/theist business might just be me quibbling over terminology, and this port is plenty long enough as it is, so I’ll just say that I find your take on it to be quite reasonable.

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