The Logic of Genocide

Last month, I wrote about the hideous spectacle of ordinary religious people defending genocide because it’s commanded in the Bible – with some of them professing to not even understand why nonbelievers would have a problem with this. Greta Christina also highlighted this horrific mindset in the writing of William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist who thinks that the worst consequence of Israelite soldiers slaughtering women and children would be the suffering it would cause to the soldiers.

In my post, I held this forth as proof of how the fantasy of the afterlife clouds and distorts morality until the worst evils are seen as good. To most of the believers making this pro-genocide argument, it’s a harmless thought experiment with no bearing on reality. But this logic can’t be easily confined to the realm of abstract theology. Once it’s accepted, inevitably it spreads, and the same reasoning that excuses destruction and mass murder in holy books can just as easily excuse destruction and mass murder in the real world. Today, I’d like to report a concrete example of that.

Earlier this month, U.S. federal prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment in United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden, that particular case now being very definitely settled. But in some of the evidence that prosecutors had gathered to be prepared if the case ever came to trial, there’s a very interesting bit of testimony.

According to Wikipedia, the first bombing attack carried out by al-Qaeda was against a hotel in Yemen in December 1992. The attack was aimed at American soldiers, but instead killed a hotel employee and an Austrian citizen. To justify these lives taken in error, another founding member of al-Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, considered to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable members, issued a fatwa: the killing of innocent bystanders was justified, because if the person killed was a good Muslim, they would go to Paradise and this was a desirable fate, whereas if the person killed was an infidel, they would go to Hell and this was God’s deserved justice.

This information came out in the cross-examination of a witness named Jamal el-Fadl, a Sudanese militant who turned informer for the U.S. government (go here and search for “Tamiyeh”):

Q. Well, in his speech, according to you, Mr. Salim talked about – am I saying this person’s name right, Tamiyeh?
A. Mohamed Ibn Tamiyeh.
Q. Tamiyeh. He told you what Tamiyeh had said back in 17 or 1800 about a war with the Tartans… that sometimes in a war civilians get killed, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that that’s okay, because if they’re good people, they’re lucky enough to go to heaven quicker?
A. Yes.
Q. And if they’re bad people, they deserve to go to hell anyway, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that was his way of saying to you and everyone else listening, it’s okay to kill civilians if you have to because I say it and another scholar says it and that scholar interpreting the Koran says it, right?
A. Yes.
Q. So that was to mean to say to everybody, it’s okay, don’t worry if you kill civilians, it’s part of what we have to do?
A. Yes, under war.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s the same nihilistic logic used by William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists to justify the Canaanite genocide in the Bible. The only difference is that here, instead of being used as a thought experiment to defend a mass slaughter that may or may not have happened in the distant past, it’s being used here and now to defend the indiscriminate killing of human beings.

Craig, for one, hasn’t shied away from the comparison. In an article on his website, he says this:

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.

Like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al-Qaeda, William Lane Craig believes that it’s a religious duty to commit indiscriminate mass murder if God has commanded it, and that obeying this command would be a heroic and praiseworthy deed. They don’t disagree on whether doing this would be wrong; the only difference between them is whether they believe God has in fact issued such a command.

Craig and other professional Christian apologists have so thoroughly deadened their consciences that they see nothing wrong or dangerous about this. But for humanity’s sake, we can hope that most ordinary Christians haven’t gone so far. The next time someone uses this argument to defend the atrocities of the Bible, point out this comparison and ask them, “Are you saying that Osama bin Laden’s theology was correct, he was just wrong about a few factual points?” If the realization that they’re endorsing the logic of most the notorious mass murderer in recent history doesn’t sway them, then almost certainly nothing else will either.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    Over this past weekend, Britain was rocked by an appalling murder of a British ex-pat in Tenerife.
    A woman of 60 was brutally stabbed to death and was actually beheaded, with the maniac running down the street with her severed head before he was thankfully caught and arrested.
    When questioned he kept insisting he was God’s messenger, or the son of God.
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3582098/Tenerife-maniac-Deyan-Deyanov-knife-rant-before-beheading-Jennifer-Mills-Westley.html
    I’d very much like to know exactly on what grounds Craig could condemn this man. He, after all, believes in a deity who sometimes commands people to commit such deeds. On what grounds would Craig say this man WASN’T told to do this by God? It’s not even out of character for Yahweh – it’s exactly the sort of order he has given many times in the past, according to the Bible.

  • Katie M

    “The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.”

    That completely confirms it for me. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are essentially all the same. I though I already knew this, but this outright confirmation just makes me want to vomit.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Is anyone here well enough versed in say hinduism or jainism (for example) to know whether this principle can be applied outside of the Abrahamic religions?

  • Polly

    I feel like I was bait-and-switched in this post. We start off with those awful Xian apologists defending genocide (right there with ya’). Then we see Muslim Extremists advocating real-life murders TODAY. Conclude with Craig.

    Xian apologists are terrible, IN THEORY, but in real life they compartmentalize by rationalizing the genocides in the OT by various methods (different dispensations, special circumstances, etc) AQ and their supporters don’t do this, they really are different and in a really horrendous way. Their OT is still in effect.

  • Katie M

    @Steve-I don’t know about Hinduism, but it definitely wouldn’t be in Jainism. Jains practice ahimsa-essentially, do no harm to any creature. I’ve heard that some Jains carry brooms to sweep insects from their path, rather than stepping on them.

    On second thought, Hinduism is like the Abrahamic religions in at least one respect-it’s just as misogynistic. Strict Hindus believe that if a woman does what she is supposed to, she’ll be reborn as a man. If she doesn’t, she’ll be reborn as a jackal.

  • Stephen P

    If you got Craig to confirm this face-to-face, I wonder how he would react if you then picked up your violin case and said “so it’s just fine for me to kill you now? You’ll be going to the place you deserve.”

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Steve: Jainism preaches absolute pacifism. In fact, this is brought to such a point that believers carry brooms to sweep the ground before them for bugs and drink with filtered masks. This does not mean of course there have been no violations, but there is no sanction of violence in Jainism. Hinduism sanctifies violence in many cases, for instance there has been a tradition of Hindu widows immolating themselves on their dead husbands’ pyres which is continued in some cases even today, despite illegality (some widows have been forced on the pyres by relatives when unwilling to voluntarily die).

    Although you did not mention them, Sikhism was originally supposed to be pacifistic but quickly grew martial in the face of Muslim and Hindu attack, while Sikh men traditionally carried daggers at all times (nowadays only a symbol). There are Sikh extremists in the Indian subcontinent who use violence in advocating for a separate Sikh state called Khalistan to this day.

    Buddhism, while thought of in the West as pacifistic, actually has an extremely long tradition of warrior monks, both in China and Japan. The Chinese Shaolin used kung fu to defend themselves from bandits and in some cases hostile governments, since they were often involved with resistance to corrupt regimes. The Sohei of Japan became so powerful in feudal Japan that imperial and military governments often were obliged to collaborate with them. Yamabushi were ascetic mountain warrior monks, unlike the Sohei that organized into armies or mobs, and thus a lesser force. The warrior monks in these cases actually began due to rival temples and sects of Buddhism in Japan, with theological disputes becoming violent. Originally these were members of rival factions who armed themselves after unarmed brawls had occurred, and things spiraled on from there. In a larger context, Buddhist nations have never had a problem waging war or otherwise committing violence, pacifistic teachings notwithstanding.

    @Ebonmuse: I must disagree with this being “nihilistic logic,” as nihilism in this context is the view that morality does not exist and the very concept is meaningless. No doubt you mean to argue that such thinking as Craig’s leads to “if God commands it, anything is permissible” thus morality being meaningless (the irony is sweet: Dostoyevsky claimed the opposite). However, this would not be nihilism, rather total subjectivism, which is indeed the logic result of a divine command theory of ethics as Craig supports. For, in the context of the Euthyphro Dilemma (paraphrase: “is the good commanded by God because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?”) it seems that a divine command theory of ethics, as Craig makes clear, would fall on the latter end. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma. Thus while God’s commands are absolute, reasoning for them may be completely arbitrary and in any case not revealed to us (the answer to Job is essentially that beloved reply of the frustrated parent: “Because I said so!”)

  • Katie M

    @Michael-I covered Jainism already, brooms and all :P

  • Shawn Smith

    It sounds like this Tamiyeh guy was 500-600 years late to the party. In 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade, Christians (in)famously used the “Kill them all, God will know his own” line. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 200-300 years for the Muslims to rediscover the Enlightenment.

  • David Evans

    A Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, has an argument not unlike Craig’s. The warrior Arjuna is having moral doubts about fighting a battle against his kinsmen. Krishna persuades him that he should fight, because his cause is just and because the souls of those who die are immortal. The difference is that in this view the souls do not go to heaven or hell, but are reborn in situations appropriate to their moral state.

  • http://betterthanesdras.wordpress.com Abbie

    Making excuses for killing civilians is not limited to Islam.

    In war, in general, civilians get killed. We (the US) are killing plenty of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan (among other places) pretty much daily.

    Why is it okay? I don’t know, but we come up with some reason to justify it.

    Religion can be used to justify murder, but so can a lot of other things.

    This doesn’t excuse Craig and Salim, of course- their views are sickening- but it also doesn’t excuse Bush and Obama.

  • Samuel

    Why is it okay? I don’t know, but we come up with some reason to justify it.

    It isn’t, but collateral damage is an inevitable part of war, along with rape, disease and shortages. Get people to not fight wars is really the only way to eliminate this.

    Alternatively, build extremely accurate weapons.

    This doesn’t excuse Craig and Salim, of course- their views are sickening- but it also doesn’t excuse Bush and Obama.

    Neither of them deliberately targeted civilian populations. Bush believed that invading Iraq was justified because the people would be better off. It sounds stupid, but if you looked at North Korea, you’d be willing to make the same argument. The question is wheter you can do it without having a high cost in human lives.

    Obama is supporting the rebels in Libya, but I don’t think we have provided a large number of airstrikes.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    The thing is about religious zealots is that they are always having to break eggs to make omelettes – it’s collateral damage. However, the omelettes always suck.

  • http://shelter.nu/blog/ Alex

    @12, WTF? First, let’s jump to USDD ‘collateral damage’ definition :

    “Unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time. Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack”

    Take a long, hard look at that definition, and tell me it’s perfectly ok. There’s no real difference here between the USDD and God or Allah issuing the orders, because it’s ‘collateral’.

    Btw, bringing collateral damage into this is kinda missing the point, and perhaps a slight Ebonmuse misnomer. This is not about damage outside the scope of the commanded action, it *is* the commanded action. God demands and commands the murder of everything in sight and this is not collateral damage, it *is* the target. At least Al Quaida thought in the context above of it as collateral damage in the same sense the USDF did (which should make some people blink a bit harder).

    This is all about the definition of who’s a target, and in that I’d say that God and Christians are far *worse* than the more targeted Al Quaida, strictly philosophically speaking. That Christians can in any way or form defend this is just crazy, but my own father in law does; he’s convinced that without the guide of the Bible he would be a horrible human, killing and raping and … uh, yeah, right. Easy to say, harder to prove. Wankers, uncommitted to actually thinking things through.

  • jemand

    Jainism has it’s own evils, it has Santhara. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santhara)

    It is an EXCRUCIATING death, and undertaken by about 240 people a YEAR. Out of a relatively smaller religious population, this is quite a number. It also is usually older people, especially widows, and so fulfills the same social policy of getting those women out of the way so you don’t have to feed them… but unlike Suttee… this excruciating death can last for weeks. Without even access to water, severe imbalances in body chemicals can occur and cause great pain, but the religious vow has already been taken, and everybody around you is “supporting” you to keep on until it finishes.

    Anyway, I want to bring light to this practice, because too often Jain gets a pass in these discussions, and in fact it has practices as coercive, painful, and deadly as other religions.

  • ben

    All religions say a bunch of lovely stuff. “Do unto others…” “Harm no living creature” and so on. But seriously. People get doe-eyed because Jains carry brooms to sweep bugs out of the way? What about the millions and billions of bacteria they kill when they wash their hands? Or when their immune system beats a disease, killing all the pathogens? Aren’t they living creatures too? Let’s stop paying attention to these fairy tales, and start thinking about ways to improve the world based on real information.

  • archimedez

    Alex #14,

    Al-Qaeda targets innocent civilians intentionally, though they don’t think of them as innocent civilians. Al-Qaeda tries to maximize, not minimize, civilian casualties. Their concern is mainly over the incidental killing of true Muslims during attacks on non-Muslims or alleged non-Muslims (e.g., some Muslims regarded as heretics and apostates by Al-Qaeda), in which case they use the old rationale (cited in Ebon’s article) that essentially says Allah will sort them out.

  • Jeff

    If you got Craig to confirm this face-to-face, I wonder how he would react if you then picked up your violin case and said “so it’s just fine for me to kill you now? You’ll be going to the place you deserve.”

    Seriously. Can we declare war on Craig, then kill him? I’d love not to have to listen to that condescending moron or come across any more of his drivel online.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    No Jeff we can’t, atheists are way too moral to even consider something like that.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Neither of them deliberately targeted civilian populations. Bush believed that invading Iraq was justified because the people would be better off.

    We don’t know that was the actual rationale, and Bush lied quite a few times about his motivations (changed his story) and the reasons for the war as well as the evidence that he felt made the war necessary. Given that he knew there would be civilian casualties I don’t think we can let him off the hook so easily.

  • Verimius

    On that basis, why not kill every person on the planet and send everyone to their just reward?

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

  • Samuel

    We don’t know that was the actual rationale, and Bush lied quite a few times about his motivations (changed his story) and the reasons for the war as well as the evidence that he felt made the war necessary. Given that he knew there would be civilian casualties I don’t think we can let him off the hook so easily.

    There are always civilian casulties, the question is wheter they are excessive compared to the number of lives saved. Invading Sudan would kill civilians, but would it have not been worth it for the long run?

    As for rationale, given the whole “they will great us as liberators”, I think he honestly believed that.

    Take a long, hard look at that definition, and tell me it’s perfectly ok.

    It is okay. If we didn’t follow that guideline, our enemies would hide in churches and hospitals.

    Heck, lets try a simpler thing- blowing up tanks. It turns out tanks are hard to kill and if they are in an urban area, the blast will affect people nearby. And that is if your weapon hits directly on the tank.

    Collateral damage is an inevitable feature of warfare when there are high explosives involved, targets are intermixed with civilian areas and targets are difficult to kill (hiding in buildings or in caves for example).

    Look at the 1990 war with Iraq. They took 35,000 military deaths and 3,500 civilian casulties. The civilian casulties occured because the government wanted to cripple Iraq’s ability to invade their neighbors and targeted anything that could contribute to a war effort.

    Without that, the death toll would have been almost entirely military because the Iraqi forces fought away from population centers.

    Civilian casulties and collateral damage occur when our enemies fight in the vicinity of the civilian population.

  • Brian M

    Our enemies…how convenient. The reason there is “collaeral damage” is because we are continuously at war. We are always finding new reasons to drop bombs on people. Oops! We didn’t MEAN to kill you. So Sorry. But we are bringing FREEDOM to you, so it’s all OK.

    At least the relgious nutters are doing this because they claim to believe their super sky daddy commands it. Our sociopathic ruling class is doing it because they are power mad and greedy and want to control the world. (Note…the two classes…”religious nutters” and “sociopathic ruling class” are not mutually exclusive classes… there is plenty of overlap!)

  • http://eyesofscience.wordpress.com/ DavidD

    Craig is a swell guy, and reading his Q/A is a very illuminating experience, revealing a great deal about “sophisticated theology.” This gem is from Question 55:

    [T]he rejection of Christ as Lord and Savior, being a rejection of God Himself, is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly does merit infinite punishment. So seen, people are sent to hell, not so much for murder and theft and adultery, but for their rejection of God. Moreover, if God has middle knowledge, then we can say that He allows the damned to pass from this earthly life only once He knows that their rejection of Him is irrevocable. The damned are thus responsible for their own fate and cannot impugn God’s justice.

  • Samuel

    But we are bringing FREEDOM to you, so it’s all OK.

    So, what do you think about Libya then? Should we have not intervened? What about Sudan? Should we have intervened?

    Our sociopathic ruling class is doing it because they are power mad and greedy and want to control the world.

    Hey! They prefer to be called realists. No, really, there is a school of international relations devoted to this belief called realism.

    On the bright side, it is for the good of the nation. On the down side it is slightly nuts.

  • http://shelter.nu/blog/ Alex

    archimedez #17

    No, note that Al-Qaeda has specificity in their scope, it’s just that “Americans” for US Americans implies a lot of people you don’t feel should be included. As I said, this is about definitions. If Americans die, that’s not collateral to Al-Qaeda, it’s spot on, the US civilians *are* the target. Killing a Canadian would be collateral to them. To the US, anyone *but* AL-Qaeda is (probably) collateral.

    Definitions, definitions.

  • Samuel

    I don’t think so. Al-Qaeda targeted Spain because they supported the United States and the Bali bombings were targeted against Australian nationals.

    Canadians would also be a target because of their nations support of the United States.

  • http://shelter.nu/blog/ Alex

    Samuel #27

    You’re missing the point. What Al-Qaeda defines as a target, that’s the target. *We* cannot claim that most of us are civilian to *them*. We can only make our own definitions. (Canadian and Spanish definitions are examples of just a shifting definition of targets and what is collateral)

    Mind also that I’m not arguing right or wrong here, just how the definition of collateral damage / sacrifices comes into play. We can claim them bad, they can claim us bad, and in between lies a forest of claims about what it means to be collateral.

  • archimedez

    Alex #26,

    Al-Qaeda also intentionally targets Canadian civilians. I’m using our definition of civilian because Al-Qaeda doesn’t use the concept of a civilian. To them, any non-Muslim not under dhimmah or some other kind of treaty or contract with an Islamic entity has no protections or right to life or security. (And the non-Muslim must be deemed to be in compliance with the treaty, e.g., must not criticize Islam or Muhammad, etc.). We can keep adding names and nationalities etc. to the list…at the end of it the only people they consider worthy of not being killed (or else, at best, forcibly subjugated under Islamic rule) are those who they consider true Muslims. To the extent that they have a concept analogous to “collateral damage,” it only applies to “true” Muslims–and even these can be killed according to Al-Qaeda because Allah will take care of them.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    There are always civilian casulties…

    Yes, that was the point.

    …the question is wheter they are excessive compared to the number of lives saved.

    No, the question is whether there was actually a moral reason to wage war and cause those civilian deaths. In the case of Iraq, the historical record shows otherwise.

    As for rationale, given the whole “they will great us as liberators”, I think he honestly believed that.

    Which is why the rationale continually shifted as they changed their lies/story? Sorry, not buying it.

  • Seomah

    Collateral damage is an inevitable feature of warfare [...]

    The question is about if it’s an undesirable feature of warfare. We all understand that, to some extent, civilians die in wars, and in theory the ruling class and the army make their best to avoid civilian deaths. But in reality, it often seems that they regard the lifes of foreign civilians with little to none respect. I know that in a battle situation, everything is difficult and mistakes are made, but there’s a lot of errors that cause civilian deaths and also deaths by friendly fire that are not covered by the media as they should be. I’m not eager to criticize the U.S. military, but sometimes it seems that they lack the preparation they need. Certainly it’s not the case with special forces, but regular soldiers…

  • Samuel

    OMFG

    No, the question is whether there was actually a moral reason to wage war and cause those civilian deaths. In the case of Iraq, the historical record shows otherwise.

    Saves net lives IS a moral reason.

    Also, the historical records shows that we would invade for selfish reasons, not that our invasion would be bad. That is the fault of the over optomistic and incompetant Bush administration. Wheter we could have done the invasion in such a way it would be a net gain is an open question.

    Although given Afghanistan, the answer is likely no.

    Which is why the rationale continually shifted as they changed their lies/story? Sorry, not buying it.

    Because personal reasons for invading do not have to match with stated reasons? The reasons the stated reasons changed is he realized he fucked up and tried to cover his ass.

    Seomah

    I’m not eager to criticize the U.S. military, but sometimes it seems that they lack the preparation they need.

    In hindsight national guard reservests probably do not have the same level of training as the rest of the military. Or failing to gather weapon stockpiles after invading. Or disbanding the military leaving its members unemployed. Or…

    Yeah, clusterfuck describes the invasion of Iraq.

  • archimedez

    Off-Topic,

    Doomsday-Rapture May 21, 6:00 pm!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_end_times_prediction

  • Michelle

    This post “The Logic of Genocide” reminds me of a passage in Gregory Boyd’s 1994 book Letters From a Skeptic. The book is made up of correspondence between Greg, the Christian adult son, and his skeptical father who converts in the end, naturally.

    At one point, Greg argues that the OT deaths of Canaanite children “could be seen as an act of mercy.” He admits it “may seem insensitive (I feel insensitive just saying it),” but essentially, God had His reasons. “Perhaps they were spared the hellish life (and probably afterlife) they would have had if they had grown to maturity.”

    I can only shake my head at this. Is he really trying to rationalize killing kids? As if, from the perspective of eternity, it all turns out right in the end? At least he felt “insensitive” making those comments, although I think “callous” is more like it.

  • Ian

    What is not related in the Bible is whether after the ‘victory’ against the Canaanites the victors had a victory parade. During the war in Iraq and Afghanistan victory parades were felt necessary so that the returning troops could feel that they were supported by the civilian population. I note that the Byzantine fighters couldn’t fight the rising Muslim empire because after killing a Muslim they would have to undergo a long penance.

  • Jim Baerg

    “I note that the Byzantine fighters couldn’t fight the rising Muslim empire because after killing a Muslim they would have to undergo a long penance”

    That’s new to me. Reference please.