When theologians justify atrocities

Since there no credible evidence to back up the idea of god, believers essentially have to resort to debating tricks to try and justify their beliefs. Theologians are quite good at this because they have a lot of practice. After all, it takes considerable rhetorical and logical skill to debate questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But debating tricks are just that, tricks, and any reasonably good debater can quickly identify the ones used by an opponent and neutralize them.

In a comment to an earlier post, Mike Haubrich gives a link to a post on his own blog where he takes apart one of theologian William Lane Craig’s favorite debating tactics. What arouses Mike’s ire is a post by Craig in which he justifies the most appalling acts by god simply because they are commanded by his particular god.

There is a trap that believers in a god simply cannot avoid. The only way to maintain the idea of a loving god who acts in accordance with our present beliefs about what constitutes humane values and morality is to be erratic and inconsistent, picking and choosing from religious texts which events to take at face value and which to ignore and making assumptions as needed to overcome problems, even if a new assumption should contradict an earlier one.

Intellectuals like Craig find this beneath them because it is so obviously cherry picking and ad hoc and so they try to build an intellectually consistent system. His approach comes under the heading of the fancy name ‘divine command theory’ in which something is good if god commands it. Here it is in a nutshell:

I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

Of course it is only your god’s command that gets this absolution, not somebody else’s stray god. In pursuing this logic, as Mike so clearly shows in his post, Lane is forced to conclusions that justify monstrous and barbaric acts such as genocide, the murder of children, and rape.

Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina also weigh in on the horrific implications of Craig’s line of reasoning. Christina makes an important point:

I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He’s not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God’s hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He’s not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He’s an extensively educated, widely published, widely read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they’re talking about. [My italics]

And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to kill pretty much anybody. It’s okay to kill bad people, because they’re bad and they deserve it… and it’s okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said — not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words — “the death of these children was actually their salvation.”

She then poses an excellent question:

So why did this story not make headlines? Why was there not an appalled outcry from the Christian world? Why didn’t Christian leaders from all sects take to the pulpits to disavow Craig, and to express their utter repugnance with his views, and to explain in no uncertain terms that their religion does not, and will not, defend the extermination of races or the slaughter of children?

Because the things he said are not that unusual.

Because lots of people share his views.

Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.

The post by Craig that Mike and Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina take apart has to be read to be believed. If I had set out to create a parody of biblical morality to discredit the idea of god, I could not have done a better job. It is a perfect example of a superficially clever argument that only a person who values belief in god over basic morality, or even decency, could construct.

Craig embodies the type George Orwell spoke of in his Notes on Nationalism (1945): “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”


  1. says

    Thank you, Mano, for bringing out more of my post. One of my friends posts, in his surprising attempt to justify Craig’s position that under my logical reading, one would have to accept that Hitler believed that what he was doing with The Final Solution was right.

    And he did. He often stated it as his responsibility to do God’s work; as did Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

    There is no objective morality. It is not a “thing.” It is derived from human thought, and where it becomes frightening is in the insistence on Divine Command. Given that Joshua was a real person, and “heard” God tell him that Jericho must be destroyed, how are we to tell 2500 years later that he wasn’t as insane as Pol Pot?

    Divine Command can be used by anyone who claims God as his Commander; and Craig can’t blame him.

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