Van Inwagen on the horrible stuff in the Bible, also the Enlightenment

Most people reading this probably don’t need me to tell them that the Bible is full of horrible stuff. If you’re new to the show and need to be told that, go check out the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible or something similar and then come back here. Because what I want to talk about in this post is a defense of Christianity by philosopher Peter van Inwagen which, unlike a lot of defenses of Christianity, recognizes that the Bible is full of horrible stuff. He doesn’t try to justify it or reinterpret it all in a way that’s nice and cuddly. On the other hand, van Inwagen isn’t totally off in left-wing theology la-la-land either. He’s a theological moderate who also does things like rail against the left-wing theologians who he thinks are essentially atheists in disguise.

Van Inwagen’s view, laid out in his contribution to the anthology Divine Evil, is that the Bible is divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean the Bible is totally without error. It does mean that the Bible is more or less the way God intended it to be, but the Bible was still the product of human authors, in some cases badly flawed human authors. The Bible shows God trying to the guide humans towards moral improvement, but maybe God saw that the best way to do this wasn’t to insist humans get everything right all at once. Instead, God took a more gradual approach, and allowed the human authors of the Bible to make errors, sometimes very serious ones.

After sketching this basic view van Inwagen says:

Critics of the morality of the God of the Hebrews rarely ask themselves what the source of the morality from whose perspective they present their criticism is. A few years ago, I watched with great pleasure the HBO production called ‘Rome’. The final disk of the DVD version of ‘Rome’ includes interviews with some of the people involved in the production of the program. In one interview, someone or other was asked in what ways he thought the Romans were like us and unlike us. He replied that they were remarkably like us in most ways, but that there was one way in which they were very different from us: in their extreme brutality—in both their willingness to commit brutal acts and in their indifference to the pervasive, entrenched brutality of their world. When he was asked whether he could explain why we and the Romans were so different in this respect, he did not quite answer by saying ‘Christianity is what made the difference’—I don’t think he could have brought himself to say that—but he did identify ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ as the source of the difference. And that was a very good answer. The morality of almost everyone in Western Europe and the anglophone countries today (if that person is not a criminal or a sociopath) is either the morality that the Hebrew Bible was tending toward or some revised, edited version of that morality. Almost every atheist (in Western Europe and the anglophone countries), however committed he or she may be to atheism, accepts some modified version of what Judeao-Christian morality teaches about how human beings ought to treat other human beings. And even the modifications are generally achieved by using one part of that morality to attack some other part. (For example, by attempting to turn the principle ‘don’t make other people unhappy’ against Judeo-Christian sexual morality.)

When I read this I immediately thought of something that Augustine says about torture in city of God:

What shall I say of these judgments which men pronounce on men, and which are necessary in communities, whatever outward peace they enjoy? Melancholy and lamentable judgments they are, since the judges are men who cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar, and are therefore frequently compelled to put innocent witnesses to the torture to ascertain the truth regarding the crimes of other men. (XIX.6)

What Augustine says here reflects the common Roman attitude that in order to get slaves and other members of the lower classes to tell the truth in court you have to torture them. He doesn’t question that for a second. He thinks it’s unfortunate, but says, in effect, “hey, that’s life, sometimes you’ve got to torture people.” Elsewhere, Augustine explicitly advocated torturing heretics.

Now, Augustine may not exactly have been indifferent to the pervasive, entrenched brutality of his time, but he still accepted it as a fact of life. In this, Augustine was fairly typical of Christians until relatively recent times. The U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments isn’t something we get from big-shot theologians like Augustine. It was a product of The Enlightenment.

You could try to say that Augustine was at least an improvement since he thought torturing people was unfortunate. However, I see no reason to think that Augustine’s pagan contemporaries would have disagreed. Also, by Augustine’s time some Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca and Musonius Rufus, had already argued for better treatment of slaves in general, if not abolition of judicial torture specifically.

This is important because if you’re going to say that God allowed lots of horrible stuff into the Bible because he was using Judaism and later Christianity to morally improve humanity, it has to actually be true that Judaism and Christianity have been responsible for morally improving humanity. However, when you compare what ancient Christians were saying to what many pagans were saying, especially the Stoics, there’s no reason to think that Christian thinkers were generally ahead of their time, and arguably they were often behind the Stoics.

A Christian apologist could respond that the Stoics were flawed in various ways compared to modern standards, and therefore the Stoics couldn’t have given us our modern morality, but Christian thinkers like Augustine were also clearly flawed by modern standards, so it would make just as much sense to conclude that Christianity couldn’t possibly have given us our modern morality. The truth is that humanity’s gradual moral progress is reflected in many traditions, and while the causes of our moral progress may not be clear, there’s no basis for thinking Christianity was the key factor.

Furthermore, if Christianity is responsible for our modern moral sensibilities, there was really a heck of a lag in there. Van Inwagen claims that our horror at the Old Testament genocides is the result of Christianity, but plenty of influential Christian thinkers have thought those genocides were just fine. One of the things that sticks with me from studying for the comprehensive history exam in philosophy when I was at Notre Dame was that all the leading medieval philosophers who dressed the question agree that God can make it right to kill anyone just by commanding it. The disagreement between them was that Ockham notoriously said that God can command anything and make it right. He can make it right to murder, he can make it right to hate God, whatever. Aquinas on the other hand, took the view that God can’t make murder right, but if God tells you to kill someone that it’s not murder. So if God tells you to kill your son, as he did with Abraham and Isaac, then that automatically makes it not murder, even if your son hasn’t done anything in particular to deserve being killed (see Summa, I-II, Q100, A8, reply to objection 3).

If the end result of Christianity is supposed to be to make us realize that God would never order the horrible things in the Old Testament, shouldn’t we have gotten to that point by the Middle Ages after a thousand years of Christianity? Also, van Inwagen claims that when Christians read the Bible God guides them in understanding it, which is presumably supposed to help them realize which things attributed to God aren’t really what God wanted. But if that’s true, why didn’t great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas get that guidance? The truth is that what’s guiding van Inwagen when he reads the Bible isn’t God, it’s a modern moral sensibility that has progressed beyond what Christianity originally gave people.

Since I mentioned the Enlightenment as the source of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, I feel like I should mention that in other essays and van Inwagen has written, the Enlightenment ends up being his big boogie-man. The big one is an essay called “Quam Dilecta,” which goes about it in a particularly ridiculous way and is in fact a perfect example often attack atheism by attacking ideas that don’t actually have anything to do with atheism.

As an aside, before anyone accuses me, I know perfectly well that pointing out the particular flaws of Christianity, Islam, and so on, doesn’t refute belief in God. I would never dream of refuting Thomas Paine’s deism by attacking Christianity, since I know he’d agree with me about Christianity. To refute Tom Paine I go to the problem of evil and things of that nature. But van Inwagen really seems to think that he can vindicate Christianity and discredit atheism by attacking this imaginary bogeyman he’s built up in his head which he calls “the Enlightenment.”

Normally the Enlightenment is understood as a broad intellectual movement of the late 17th century and the 18th century which included Christians, deists, skeptics, atheists, and Spinoza. It had no body of doctrine. Historians normally recognize this diversity within the Enlightenment. Jonathan Israel, for example, makes a distinction between the radical Enlightenment and more moderate strands of the Enlightenment. And I think it’s pretty clear that the Enlightenment had good ideas and bad ideas. I tend to agree with the critics who find totalitarian tendencies in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. On the other hand, the idea of limited government made great strides during the Enlightenment, something you can see in the works of Spinoza and Locke and the American founders.

But van Inwagen has this weird definition of the Enlightenment as a body of doctrine including atheism, strict materialism, and, apparently, the view that human nature is either innately good or infinitely malleable. Bizarrely, some of his main examples of Enlightenment thinkers weren’t atheists. Thomas Jefferson, one of van Inwagen’s examples, didn’t belong to any established church, but always professed belief in God. Rousseau, another one of van Inwagen’s examples, rejected the orthodox belief in original sin but believed in God and spent his life as alternately a Catholic or a Calvinist (he converted to Catholicism at a young age, later converted back to Calvinism, and apparently died Calvinist). Conversely, van Inwagen seems to want to be able to attack atheism by attacking the idea that humans are either innately good or at least a blank slate. Plenty of atheists, though, have had a dim view of human nature, from Thomas Hobbes on down to today’s evolutionary psychologists.

The other big problem with van Inwagen’s attempts to discredit the Enlightenment is that he seems willing to give credit for anything good that came out of the Enlightenment (and the scientific revolution that preceded it) to Christianity, since these things happened in a Christian culture. But if all good things are attributed to Christianity, and only the bad things are ever attributed to the Enlightenment, the Christianity will be vindicated and the Enlightenment discredited no matter what the facts are. Also, it would make just as much sense to say that because Judaism and Christianity arose out of a pagan environment, paganism should get credit for anything those later religions produced.

Van Inwagen’s general strategy for dealing with the bad stuff in the Bible is one that seems the popular among more liberal Christians: acknowledge the bad stuff, but then say Christianity deserves credit for a lot of good stuff. Often, this takes the form of saying something like, “sure the Old Testament was bad, but Jesus was a with great guy. Where would we be without him?” Well, the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels isn’t always such a great guy, and where we’d be without him is probably pretty much the same place we are now. Paul’s declaration that there is no Jew or Gentile in Christ is an improvement over the tribalism of the Old Testament, but you can see parallel improvements in Greek philosophy. Plato and Aristotle show little concern for “barbarians,” by which they meant anyone who was not Greek, but later on in the history of Greek philosophy the Stoics preached an ethnic of the universal brotherhood of all mankind. As Cicero puts it in one of his dialogues, the Stoics saw all people as citizens of a single worldwide city, who therefore had a duty to put the common good above their own.

To hear some Christians talk about Jesus, it’s almost as if they think that without Jesus, people wouldn’t know to love each other. I guess that’s going to look kind of plausible if you’ve never it exposed to any kind of ethical thinking outside of a religious context, but anyone with a broader understanding of history, philosophy, and human nature, it’s just obvious that that’s not true.

Also: I sympathize with Christians and Jews who aren’t much bothered by trivial little contradictions in the Bible. But to those believers who recognize that the Bible gets major things wrong, like whether or not we should kill people for blasphemy and having gay sex, or what you have to do to be saved, I have a message for you: what’s the point? It isn’t God who’s guiding you as you cherry-pick your way through the Bible. With guiding you is the fact that you grew up in a culture that’s progressed morally a lot since when the Bible was written. And given that, I just don’t see the point in pretending that you still get your morality from the Bible.

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