Immoral Christianity: 1 – Collective Blame


God blames entire groups of people for the actions of individuals.

To put it mildly, that’s problematic. Among humans, group-blaming is seen as a form of prejudice, bias, or sloppy thinking. Our notion of “guilt” depends on being able recognize an individual as responsible for their actions, which implies that “collective guilt” is a situation that only occurs when everyone in a group was responsible to some degree or another for a misdeed. In other words, if you were a prosecutor trying a group of defendants for some crime, you might argue that every one of the defendants had some involvement in the crime – but, then, you’d have to break down the degree to which each individual was involved, and how their actions made them responsible for the commission of the crime. Group trials and group punishments are the sort of thing that we expect from authoritarian dictatorships that don’t respect the rule of law. Granted, the god of the old testament is an authoritarian par excellence, we would consider collective blame to be a moral failing if it were a human doing it.

There have been various attempts to patch this problem by claiming that god’s actions are always good, because god is the very definition of good (divine command theory [iep]) but that’s circular reasoning: god’s actions are good because god is good. Plato’s Socrates famously tried to interrogate the question of the gods’ ability to define goodness in his Euthyphro dialog:

Socrates: The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Plato’s sockpuppet is, as usual, laying a trap; there is either a higher morality that the gods adhere to, or the gods are the source of morality and we are therefore dependent on the divine whim. Socrates never has to make the follow-on argument, which is that – if what is holy (e.g.: what is right) is what the gods want, then oughtn’t the gods be a bit clearer to us about what they want? We can’t let the gods off lightly, saying in effect that they have a rule-book of what they consider moral/immoral and we’re expected to find that out the hard way. For one thing, what if that rule-book is incoherent and full of contradictions? It’s still what the gods want, but it’s not fair for them to hold us to account for a set of rules that have not been explained.

“Imagining the Exodus” by Edward Poynter [wikipedia]

This topic, of god’s engaging in collective blame, is central to the whole creaking edifice of christian morality – it connects to inherited blame (I’ll get to that, next) and the question of whether it’s moral to hold someone responsible for something that they cannot even understand. The usual patch christians apply to that question is to skip over it by waving the magical macguffin “free will” at the situation; free will apparently being a convenient way of assigning blame for decisions that a person might have been able to make, therefore it’s their fault, or something like that. Christianity has been evolving for thousands of years, and proponents of the religion have offered up all kinds of answers to these sort of questions – glib patches thrown over top of great big leaking flaws – but those answers don’t come from god; they’re the product of intelligent and well-meaning (maybe) theologians who were trying to bail the metaphorical water out of the boat. This is an important point: doctrines like divine command theory were necessary as a way for humans to explain to other humans how it is that god supposedly gets away with doing hugely immoral things.

Oh, they’re not immoral because: god? That’s not an answer. For one thing, it’s pretty darned immoral in its own right to create and toss up a great big barrier of bafflegab in order to justify performing no further enquiry into god’s morals. It’s not a moral sin, like murder (which god is OK with, by the way) but it’s a crime against one’s own intellect, to try to jam such contradictory ideas into one’s own world-view. Back in the 1990s, riding a metroliner from Baltimore to New York, I found myself sitting next to a rabbi, who asked me politely if I would please put away the copy of Playboy that I was reading for the articles. A cheerful discussion ensued, in which the rabbi did a great job of holding up the reputation of rabbis for being argumentative, and we eventually got to the question of where god’s morals come from. He laughed and said, “Socrates should have been a rabbi,” which was unforgettable for me, but then twisted around and said “god gave us a moral sense so that we can judge the actions of others, including god. Surely he would be proud of us humans for exploring so enthusiastically; perhaps he learns from us, not the other way around.” That shovel-load of fewmet was so graciously and elegantly delivered that we spent the rest of our trip together in companionable silence, me chewing thoughtfully on it. If we were to take the rabbi’s argument seriously, we’d have to conclude that we were possibly put here to judge and assess the flaws in god’s behavior, to flesh out and fix god’s moral compass. If so, that’s a hell of a burden to put on humanity; we never asked for it.

Lawrence Alma Tadema – “The death of Pharaoh’s First-born son” [wikipedia]

“Collective guilt” is a more typical framing for this situation, but it presupposes to even a slight degree that there is, in fact, someone guilty of doing something. That’s why, instead, I’m going to say “God blames entire groups” – it’s more clear that it’s god that’s making a moral choice, and that choice is to blame a collective.

The canonical example of collective blaming in the bible is the story of exodus, where god kicks the Egyptian’s asses for Pharaoh’s decision to abuse the Hebrews when Moses asks him to free the Israelite slaves, Pharaoh makes them work harder. This is portrayed as, clearly, an immoral act and justifies a god-provided saturation bombing that torments all Egyptians including killing their firstborn. Now, had god inflicted all of the plagues on Pharaoh, personally, it might have been reasonable and the Egyptians might have seen the error and unpopularity of Pharaoh’s ways, and everyone could have lived happily ever after. But, no, god decides to punish all of the Egyptians and specifically their children who – in case anyone does not realize that Egypt was an autocracy – were not policy-makers who were responsible for any of what was going on. There is no human prosecutor that has ever lived, who would try to make the case that the Egyptian first-born were responsible for what happened to the Israelites, and therefore deserved to be punished. God specifically punished the one class of Egyptians that could arguably be innocent of crimes against the Israelites. And punishing a child’s parent by killing their child is monstrous.

Lawrence Alma Tadema – “The Egyptian Widow” [wikipedia]

The purpose of these stories in the bible, we are told, is that they are not necessarily historical documentary – they are parables – instruction for humans in the ways of god. It’s tempting, then, to say “god did not literally punish all the Egyptians for Pharaoh’s mistake” but that avoids the claim that that is exactly what we are supposed to be learning from the bible, whether it actually happened that way, or not. The “moral lesson” in the bible is unmistakably that god engages in collective blame and collective punishment. The Egypt incident is hardly the only place in the bible where god engages in collective blame and punishment but it’s a good example, for the clarity of its immorality. God is Bomber Command Bad, in this case, laying waste to the lives of all Egyptians because Pharaoh was culpable for … oh, wait. Maybe it wasn’t even that simple: depending on the translation of the bible we’re talking about, it may be that god manipulated Pharaoh into needing to have his own ass kicked:

Exodus 9:12 King James Version (KJV)

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had spoken unto Moses.

Why did god have to do that, instead of letting Pharaoh follow his own free will? Was Pharaoh about to let the Israelites go, and it was just too good an opportunity to make an example of all of Egypt, so god went ahead and dropped the bomb on them pour encourager les autres?

If we want to be kind, we’ll assume that the Egypt incident is not documentary, it’s a children’s story intended to teach children a moral lesson. And that lesson is: god is an arbitrary, scary mother*!*&! who has serious control issues. Are christian children taught these stories in order to help them grow up to be the kind of moral beings who drop nuclear weapons on cities full of civilians?

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Of course not all christians believe in collective blame. Some, certainly, would recognize collective blaming as immoral in itself, but then they are left squaring the circle between biblical teaching and their own moral system: did they adopt god’s morals, or are they morally superior to god? Socrates was brutal to poor old Euthyphro, but Euthyphro was asking for it.

I feel that Lawrence Alma Tadema’s illustrations of the bible stories tries to humanize the Egyptians, who suffered severely for their leaders’ alleged crimes. No doubt they were all hoping for “regime change” but god didn’t even grant them that. Alma Tadema’s illustration of the Egyptian Wife gracefully evokes her despair at losing her husband; it shows us that you can’t get rid of evil by doing more evil – you know, two wrongs don’t make a right and all that stuff? That’s one you won’t learn from the bible.

Comments

  1. says

    Now, had god inflicted all of the plagues on Pharoah, personally, it might have been reasonable and the Egyptians might have seen the error and unpopularity of Pharoah’s ways, and everyone could have lived happily ever after. But, no, god decides to punish all of the Egyptians…

    Imagine how many people were even present when Moses went: “Let my people go!” Only a handful of the Egyptians would even have known that the conversation had taken place, much less been able to do anything about it. For the average Egyptian, they were just going along with their day and suddenly it’s locusts, boils, and fire from the sky.

    The lesson would have been so much stronger if the punishments were personal, not collective. If the common Egyptians saw that those who treated the Hebrews poorly were struck with disease, while their nicer neighbors weren’t, perhaps the point would have come across better.

    Of course, this points to the fictionality (is that a word?) of the story. God’s behavior doesn’t make the slightest sense as an actual response to the situation. It only makes sense as a story to be told after the “fact”, showing off how powerful God is. The message is that when God says “jump”, don’t waste time asking “how high?”, just jump like a motherfucker.

  2. says

    I feel that Lawrence Alma Tadema’s illustrations of the bible stories tries to humanize the Egyptians

    Looking at these paintings, I saw a possible alternative explanation. Instead of humanizing the victims and wanting the viewer to sympathize with people who lost their children and suffered unjustly (your interpretation), the artist wanted to create sadistic torture porn about how those suckers got what they deserved for disobeying the Lord, namely, people whom the viewer is expected to dislike are portrayed as suffering for viewer’s enjoyment.

    I don’t know about the religious views of this particular artist, but I am a pessimistic cynic and I have seen a hell lot of torture porn in art.

  3. Owlmirror says

    The canonical example of collective blaming in the bible is the story of exodus, where god kicks the Egyptian’s asses for Pharoah’s decision to abuse the Hebrews when Moses asks him to free the Israelite slaves, Pharoah makes them work harder

    And, according to the bible, Pharaoh had also decreed the deaths of all males born to the Israelites. Of course, the deaths didn’t actually happen, even in the narrative (because there’s a census after the exodus, and 600000 (or thereabout) males are counted)

    Why did god [harden Pharaoh’s heart]?

    If you read Exodus 10 & 11, those chapters have God specifically proclaim that he’s doing it to show off. “so that I may perform these signs of mine” … “so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt”

    It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the children of those in power who die: “. . . to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.”

  4. says

    John Morales@#5:
    Out of curiosity, why not The Flood?

    Saving it for later. under the heading of “god does not accept responsibility for his actions.”

    It’s also, arguably, not really part of the bible, since it’s basically a paraphrase of the epic of GIlgamesh. I don’t suppose that matters either way, but I have trouble pretending to take that part of the bible even slightly seriously.

  5. says

    Owlmirror@#4:
    If you read Exodus 10 & 11, those chapters have God specifically proclaim that he’s doing it to show off. “so that I may perform these signs of mine” … “so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt”

    God is making sure to teach his followers, by example, the sin of vanity.

    It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the children of those in power who die: “. . . to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.”

    That was “acceptable collateral damage.”

  6. says

    LykeX@#1:
    For the average Egyptian, they were just going along with their day and suddenly it’s locusts, boils, and fire from the sky.

    That’s true. Pharaoh is kind of a Trumpian chumpian, isn’t he?
    Now I’m imagining the fun that could be had by editing Trump’s voice into some of the dialogue in The Ten Commandments – except it would be a lot of work. The part where Pharaoh blames Obama for the plague of locusts would be great, though. “Obama, who?”

  7. Owlmirror says

    [The Flood is] arguably, not really part of the bible, since it’s basically a paraphrase of the epic of GIlgamesh.

    This makes no sense. The Flood is still being presented as the actions of God.

    The point isn’t that God actually did any of these things, it’s that people imagine God did those things — and make excuses for God doing those things.

    Or in other words: “god does not accept responsibility for his actions.” theists do not accept that the God [whom they imagine] is responsible for his actions.

    The Flood story was important enough to those who wrote the bible that there were actually two distinct versions that were interleaved together to make the chapters in Genesis. I suspect that local geology had something to do with why the story was imported from Mesopotamia.

    Also, the Flood story is integrated into the genealogies before and the histories of the “sons of Noah” afterwards. It’s not a standalone side story.

  8. Owlmirror says

    A couple more thoughts:

    1) It’s not just Christianity, of course.

    2) Collective and inherited blame/punishment didn’t start with religion, and probably won’t go away even if religion somehow did, but religion makes collective/inherited blame the will of the cosmic power that runs the universe.

  9. komarov says

    “”It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the children of those in power who die: “. . . to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.”

    That was “acceptable collateral damage.”””


    Or perhaps it was an early example of two-stage attacks, comparable to a second strike to aimed at first responders to the initial attack. Or, say, bombing a hospital: Some get to die in the inferno itself, the rest get to die from “lack of hospital”.

  10. says

    Owlmirror@#9/10:
    This makes no sense. The Flood is still being presented as the actions of God.

    The point isn’t that God actually did any of these things, it’s that people imagine God did those things — and make excuses for God doing those things.

    You’re right. It’s a lesson in divine morality.

    Collective and inherited blame/punishment didn’t start with religion, and probably won’t go away even if religion somehow did, but religion makes collective/inherited blame the will of the cosmic power that runs the universe.

    It’s probably a minor thing but I used “god blames” as opposed to “god punishes” because that way it’s harder for someone to argue that poor old god had himself in a hammerlock and forced himself to do that. Someone tried that angle on me once, regarding the “hell issue” – god doesn’t want to punish those people, it’s necessary. Christianity encourages that kind of deeply sick thinking.

  11. says

    Andreas Avester@#3:
    I don’t know about the religious views of this particular artist, but I am a pessimistic cynic and I have seen a hell lot of torture porn in art.

    Good point. Medieval christian art, particularly. Some of that stuff is positively shudderific.

    I am going to continue to believe Alma Tadema meant well because I really love his art and I’ll be mad as hell if he was just being a fascist. [I always thought he was one of the inventors of the bodice buster cover art genre, and that he probably did loads of soft-core porn for private clients. He definitely had white supremacy issues: all of the important people in most of his paintings are white, regardless of where and who they were supposed to be]

  12. brucegee1962 says

    Theists will come back with “Well, you can’t judge a divine being by our limited human morality.” The counter to that one is “Then why does this deity downright invite us to do so?”
    The New Testament is positively carpeted with references to God as a kind and loving father. The Prodigal Son parable makes him out to be practically doting. If we’re constantly invited to view God as a father, wouldn’t that imply that we can criticize him as one would a father as well?
    Perhaps in that culture fathers were never questioned, but we’re not in that culture anymore — and an omniscient being would have known back then that this kind of softshoe wouldn’t work forever.

  13. Ridana says

    Egypt isn’t the only time god seems to wreak havoc and death just to show off. It seems to be one of his defining characteristics. From pranking Abraham into nearly killing his son, to wiping out Lot’s apparently interchangeable family to win a bet (“Watch this – no matter what I do to him, he’ll still remain loyal.” Hmm, maybe Dumpster has heard this story…), there are numerous examples.

    Maybe “You’re worthless, but I’m so awesome I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse: if you love me enough, I’ll get my kid to take the rap for you,” is just the inevitable endpoint of all that needy ego. Honestly, I can’t tell if god is on a cosmic power trip or is just unfathomably insecure. Notice me, kouhai!

  14. John Morales says

    Ridana, Job, not Lot.

    Though a job lot is kinda the theme, this post is about collective punishment, not about the consequences of ignoring a Divine Command.

  15. publicola says

    Boy, the nuns in Catholic school sure learned that lesson well. If someone transgressed and nobody ‘fessed up, everyone missed recess. As far as God’s morality, if he is as omniscient as he is said to be, then he knew the fate of mankind before he even created it, and went ahead anyway. Nuf sed.

  16. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    There’s an inverse effect to collective blaming, which I hope you’ll get into eventually. Thanks to Memorial Day I heard a couple renditions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was immediately struck by the implicit message of the lyrics, which is: collective transference of responsibility: “He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” etc.

    It isn’t us who are firing these cannonballs into your troops; it isn’t us who are burning your cities. Oh no, you’ve pissed off god, it’s his doing and your fault.

  17. says

    Just an Organic Regular Expression@#19:
    It isn’t us who are firing these cannonballs into your troops; it isn’t us who are burning your cities. Oh no, you’ve pissed off god, it’s his doing and your fault.

    Yup, I have that one on the list. God is really fond of shuffling responsibility around, which is odd because that’s exactly the opposite of what we mean by “responsibility.”

  18. Curious Digressions says

    How can it be unfair or monstrous to kill children to punish their fathers? Kids are property, not people! /sarcasm

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