Nasty, Brutish, and Short

One of the things that has become fashionable is for Christians and Atheists to discuss whether or not God is moral. I have blogged about this at length. At the risk of pummeling a certain deceased equine, I would like to give the loyal opposition their due. Usually the Atheists will produce a list of passages (mostly but not exclusively) from the Old Testament. Here’s a an example from Common Sense Atheism one of the many blogs talking about the immorality of the Old Testament God:

  1. In Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, fetuses, and animals.
  2. In Exodus 12:29, God the baby-killer slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
  3. In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
  4. In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant.
  5. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they are allowed to rape as spoils of war.
  6. In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them

These passages are supposed to show that the God of Judaism and Christianity is evil, immoral, and sadistic in his ethics of war.

There are, of course, responses from believers. They fall mainly into two categories: attempts to rationalize God’s commands in light of culture and consequences and attempts to show the inconsistency of atheism to claim moral authority in these debates. In this post I’m going to consider the latter. Next post I’ll tackle the former

I’ve made the claim in the past that  it is inconsistent for Atheists to claim the moral high ground while maintaining materialism (i.e. physicalism). It is possible to deny the existence of God without embracing physicalism but not easily and most atheists do not. The big wigs of Atheism, (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, embrace physicalism so I’ll stick with this kind of inconsistency and reserve my discussion of the beliefs of those few atheist/platonists who admit that there are non-material things like numbers and moral truths but not God until I can corner them at a Starbucks).  To use an example from Wilson, suppose a bus full of children are blown up by a terrorist bomb. There are bodies and bus pieces everywhere. Sure its a tragedy. However, given that there is nothing in the universe save atoms in motion and the four basic forces, then when one person says, “Its sad that the children died” and another says, “Its sad that a perfectly good bus was destroyed,” Physicalism cannot distinguish between bus parts and children parts. You need some other reason and more importantly, I think, atheists owe their opponents a reason we should care more about one than the other.

There are at least three options.

Option 1: The loss of children is a tragedy because we care more about them than the bus. Why? We just do. Children are more integral to our biology. We can’t help but care for them more even if we didn’t want to. While this position isn’t inconsistent its consistency comes at a price. Essentially physicalism requires us to act in bad faith–act as if there were some objective moral reason to say the loss of children is more wrong than the loss of a bus without it actually being true.

Option 2: The loss of children is a tragedy because it involved suffering. Pain decides what is immoral. A bus doesn’t feel pain. Children do and so do their grieving parents. The bomber, like God, is immoral because he causes suffering for no good reason. This position is inconsistent however, what makes pain so all fired immoral? How can the fact that a couple of million neurons fire in a way that causes the organism to feel unpleasant create a moral obligation. Isn’t this the worst kind of fallacy to derive a moral value  (you ought not do x) from a fact (pain hurts)? It is always an open question, why pain and not say horror of destroying the aesthetic qualities of a school bus?

Option 3: The loss of children is a tragedy because its an intentional violation of a social contract. We all agree to follow a version of the golden rule (don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you). Everyone has projects, plans, and a future. To take that away is to deny something important. Bombing school buses violates that social contract. Of all of the possibilities, this one is the strongest. The claim is that morality evolves much like biology but there are some moral rules that just make sense. Don’t hit me and I won’t hit you. The pugilistic version of the golden rule. Now this agreement doesn’t have to be signed by everyone to be reasonable. It just has to make sense for any hypothetical person in the situation where everyone can hit everyone else. To crudely paraphrase Thomas Hobbes: Life in our little world is nasty, brutish, and short. It makes sense that we would all put our guns down slowly and agree to work together by setting up some rules, for Hobbes that meant the sovereign rule of a benevolent dictator but that’s a different story. The key point here is that what is moral is determined by what it would be reasonable for everyone to agree to. You would never agree to anyone ever destroying bus loads of children because the children in question could end up being yours. Thus terrorist acts are evil because they violate the contract. There are two problems with this. One terrorists are not reasonable so why should they uphold this contract? And two, should an all powerful being have any reasonable expectation of following our social contract?

If we take this last option, God becomes immoral at the price of God’s complete disconnect with the world. We are ants and God has no reason to play by our rules.  But notice, the Atheist does not bring up the slaughter of the Amalekites to rail against God. She brings it up to show the absurdity of believing in a religion that would allow such a God. But if the social contract is the justification for the moral high ground, then God is not absurd. God is imminently reasonable to do whatever God wants.

I will say however, that merely pointing out the lack of moral authority to atheists, isn’t satisfying or completely fair. If we don’t address these legitimate accusations, we have only succeeded in being defensive. In our next blog I want to take up the argument that God is not immoral given the culture, context, and consequences of the Old Testament. My answer will definitely surprise and possibly annoy at least some of you.

I look forward to responses especially from the atheists that occasionally check up on our little blog.

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *