William Lane Craig and I (briefly) Agree!

William Lane Craig and I (briefly) Agree! May 1, 2011

P.Z. Myers has a post up lambasting Christian apologist William Lane Craig for his defense of genocides in the Old Testament.  Here’s the damning paragraph:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Don’t worry, this isn’t the part I agree with.  This is just more of the same bizarre situational ethics that I only hear Christians fall back on when it’s time to explain away the Old Testament.  By this logic, Christians should consider killing any children I have, to spare them my heathen upbringing, and I’d be doing a kindness if I waited outside a church to shoot anyone who had just received a plenary indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday  today.  Christians can reasonably view death as not too tragic, because they believe in an afterlife administered by a merciful God, but I rarely hear them speak this way in any other context.

But Craig went on to say something I do find compelling (though P.Z. Myers did not.)

WLC: So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

Myers: No. No, I can’t imagine that. I can imagine parts of it: I can imagine a long, heavy piece of sharp metal in my hands. I can imagine a frightened, unarmed woman in front of me, trying to shelter her children. The part I can’t imagine, the stuff I’m having real trouble with, is imagining voluntarily raising my hand and hacking them to death. I have a choice in that situation, and I know myself well enough that if have to choose between killing people and letting them live, I’d let them live, not that it would be a difficult decision at all. I also have no illusion that, in this imaginary situation where I have all the power and my ‘enemies’ are weak and helpless, I am the one who is being wronged.

The idea that a good God would order his chosen people to commit inhuman brutalities seems unsupportable.  It’s one of the theodicy problems that bothered me when I posted about the slaughter of the Amalekites, and I’m glad Craig can admit that this at least is disturbing.  So this is where I back Craig against Myers.

I think Myers’s response is produced by the kind of cushy, privileged, upper-middle class background we share.  Neither Myers not I have any expectation of facing a situation where we would face the choice to take someone else’s life, so the idea of steeling oneself to kill is abstract.  Maybe Myers will change his tune if he takes a look at the cover story of the New York Times Magazine this week: “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man.”

The story covers the infamous “kill team” of American soldiers in Afghanistan — a group of soldiers who allegedly murdered civilians for kicks and then planted weapons on their bodies so they looked like insurgents.  I recommend reading the entire story, but here’s a small excerpt describing the experience of a whistleblower on the team:

The man, Mullah Allah Dad, was brought outside, where, Winfield told investigators, “Sergeant Gibbs said: ‘Just put him down in that ditch right there. Put him on his knees.’ ” Winfield and Morlock both claim that after Allah Dad was lowered to his knees, they took cover behind a sand berm about 15 feet away. Winfield and Morlock say Gibbs activated an American fragmentation grenade and tossed it at Allah Dad’s feet. In his confession, Morlock says that as he did so, Gibbs yelled: “Kill him! Kill him!” During his initial questioning, Winfield remembered Morlock giving the order to shoot before the grenade detonated.

Morlock and Winfield both admit firing their rifles. Winfield, whose lawyer now claims he deliberately aimed high, told Army special agents: “I took a man from his family. I don’t know if it was my bullets that killed him or the grenade that killed him. But I was a part of it.” Christopher Winfield, who has had many conversations with his son about this moment, told me: “Fear set in for him. He said he was having a huge anxiety attack. He couldn’t feel his fingers. He couldn’t feel his feet. He panicked . . . almost passed out.” Christopher said that for a moment, while trying to decide what to do, his son even considered shooting Gibbs.

With America engaged in four wars (if you’re counting Pakistan, and I do), it’s essential to recognize the way that brutalities warp and damage the person committing them as well as the victim.  Myers is being glib when he refuses to recognize that, whether the Israelites who slaughtered infants were driven to atrocities out of fear of God or chose brutality willingly, they were marked and wounded by their acts.

Craig’s promises of salvation after death don’t address the fate of these Old Testament sin-eaters.  Myers’s dismissal of the damage suffered by someone who has done evil lets us off the hook for sending soldiers into moral (as well as mortal) peril.

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  • I find this post itself to be rather glib — I've got no particular affection for PZ Myers, but his statement that the soldiers aren't the ones who are being wronged is clearly framed in terms of figuring out who's more fundamentally being victimized, the Canaanites or the soldiers (see the fact that he's contradicting Craig's statement that the Canaanites aren't being wronged at all, and the Israelis are uniquely the victims). He's not saying that there's no wounding effect on the soldiers, and it's just untrue that "Myers's dismissal of the damage suffered by someone who has done evil lets us off the hook for sending soldiers into moral (as well as mortal) peril."

  • The question is about what is good or right or moral to do. Pointing me to an article that describes the soldiers as "beasts" and describes the cold-blooded murder of a helpless man does not, I'm afraid, excuse the execution.Also, I agree entirely that some soldiers will feel remorse and may even agonize over their actions while doing them. Their suffering still pales in comparison to that of Mullah Allah Dad, who was freakin' blown up and shot.

  • Hi PZ, thanks for responding!I don't mean to minimize the sufferings of Mullah Allah Dad and the other victims of Briggs's squad. I'm trying to highlight a qualitatively different kind of injury. Do you believe that choosing to behave immorally (or being forced to it) can constrain your ability to act morally in the future? To me, this kind of damage is kind of analogous to the personality damaging injury of Phineas Gage. I think many people would prefer to suffer a physical injury rather than lose our minds, sever a connection to our identity, or limit our will to act morally. This is the kind of damage Craig was talking about, and, although I don't care very much about it in probably fictional Old Testament history, I'm deeply worried about it modern war. The soldiers in that article are beasts, but I can't guess how much of that was intrinsic and how much was inculcated by placing them in a culture focused on killing and dehumanizing an enemy. I think you were too quick to write them off as qualitatively different than you or me or Craig.

  • Woah, back up.The Canaanites are surely not all evil. Even if they were by ordering their execution God not only kills them in this life but damns them to en eternity of torture in hell without possible reprieve. A heck of a way for a benevolent God to act. He also denies them the possibility of salvation by turning their lives around.As for the Canaanite children it's all very well for people like Craig to claim that they all go to heaven, but there are centuries of Christian thinking that flatly refute that not to mention the words of Christ Himself "No-one comes to the Father except through me."So while the soldiers may indeed be victims, that doesn't forgive them their genocidal actions and only adds to the culpability of the deity giving the order.

  • Blamer ..

    Myers' imaginary situation is missing one key element – the chain of command. Of particular importance, is the one ordering the genocide even a moral agent?

  • Every time this comes up, I feel like people get their blinders on and start discussing the wrong things. Craig likes to also use the line (not mentioned here), that "god created me, and so if he wanted to strike me down right here and now, it would be perfectly justified."Sure, everyone suffered in this case. Some were hacked to death, and some might have had a really bad case of Mediterranean PTSD. But that's not really the point.The point is that the omni-max ruler-of-all is the one who commanded this (and thus brought about the resultant negative outcomes)!I have a solution for all of this, which simply extends Craig's statement into the past: simply zap all of the bad people/non-believers off the face of the earth rather than requiring humans to do it themselves. Heck, god of all people knows that it requires inflicting pain on others to get them to die with a sword, and that having to do so will also incur some emotional/psychological damage as well. So what benefit does it bring about to make humans attack humans? Lightning-bolt or local-flood them out of existence. God didn't make a relative of Onan remove him from existence by the sword.I don't understand the equivocation going on between "god removing another from existence" and "god making a human inflict pain and receive trauma to remove another from existence."

  • Jan

    On an individual scale and for the soldiers involved I would agree that what God is doing is barbaric, but on a long view it isn't quite so bad. If Canaanite Baal worship / Phoenican worship had continued to the present day then children would still be sacrificed to appease the Gods. It is apparent from the Old Testament that God hates Baal worship above all else. By removing the Canaanite form of worship God has saved many, many children in the long run. They have found an area in Carthage, part of the Phoenician empire, where it seems that children of the nobility were sacrificied to appease Baal or some other God. I do agree it would though have been better to convert the Canaanites than to have killed them. An omni-max ruler could have killed non-believers by lightning but that would have wiped out other peoples as well e.g. Celts, who also sacrificied people to Gods, as witness the bog bodies found.

  • Patrick

    What amazes me about this subject is this…Intelligent Christians have finally admitted that the Bible is not an accurate account of the creation of the universe. Evolution happened, and they've come to terms with it.More intelligent Christians recognize that a lot of the Bible's stories are allegorical. For example, anyone without religious blinders can pick up the Book of Jonah and recognize that it is a humorous allegory with a moral lesson at the end (a lesson which, for the record, the Canaanite tale SPITS on), not an account of actual events.All the places in the Bible where God's prophets endorse things like mass rape of children are recognized by those who bother to engage with them as not actually being God's orders per se, just the fallible orders of various Kings and Prophets.But murdering the Canaanites? Here Biblical literalism shall make its final stand! No argument is too tenuous to be pressed into service in the defense of this Nazi-like eradication of an entire people! The idea that morality is revealed in our consciences? Throw that under a bus! We don't need it! The idea that God can do anything? No, God can only murder people, so the only options that should be considered when deciding the morality of murdering Canaanite children is whether God should have murdered them personally, or delegated. The fact that this genocidal rampage is no more supported by historical evidence than any of the other ancient tales from the Bible that no one educated believes anymore? No! To concede that God didn't order his followers to go door to door and murder a bunch of sobbing women and children, no, that would be a step too far. It is on this hill that faith in the Bible shall make its final stand!I just don't understand why. What is possibly at stake here that hasn't already been surrendered? And is it worth what its costing you? It makes Christianity look like a demonic faith.

  • @Jan:,—| If Canaanite Baal worship / Phoenican worship | had continued to the present day then children | would still be sacrificed to appease the Gods.`—1) Or cultish-like beliefs would have died out like most other religious beliefs throughout all time.2) I'm not really up to speed, but don't demonic worshipers do some sick shit to date? Christianity validates the existence of this evil non-being and thus perpetuates people thinking they can somehow please this "dark-side" entity by doing evil. Small percentage, sure, but I don't consider it ridiculously smaller than those who might have lived on to worship Baal in sick ways. Honestly, I think it's civilization in general, not Christianity, that improved the quality of things one can and cannot do in modern society.Even grant that all the Israelites had to do was kill enough of their enemies to subdue them and rescue the children. Nope — everything that breathes by the edge of the sword. ,—| An omni-max ruler could have killed non-| believers by lightning but that would have | wiped out other peoples as well e.g. Celts, | who also sacrificied people to Gods, as | witness the bog bodies found.`—Well, an omni-max being could just kill whoever he wanted. So… let's just start by saying he could have sent a death cloud to kill the Amekelites and whoever-else in their sleep on the eve of the day he would have sent the Israelites to do the same with blunt objects. Same people dead, no pain, no psychological trauma.How isn't that an improvement over what's described?

  • Elizabeth K.

    Patrick, I think you make a great point. However, I don't think that William Lane Craig (and I could be wrong about this) takes the initial view of the Bible that you describe. So I think he runs up against precisely the problem of too much literalism and reading all books all the same way: he must justify this massacre in God's defense. As you know, and I know, the issue is much, much, much more complex–but to admit that would be, I think to jettison his entire hermeneutic in favor of one that allows for uncertainty and nuance. And this isn't to bash Craig–I think a lot of the work he does is very strong. But this is where I part ways with him and those like him–we simply do not read scripture the same way.

  • Patrick

    I don't actually know how Craig interprets the Bible. He takes positions for debating purposes that aren't necessarily as strong as the positions he personally holds, so I really can't say.As for whether the issue is a complex one… its not, really. An ancient civilization wrote themselves an origin myth that fit their cultural mores. If it weren't for the fact that some people feel compelled to defend these cultural mores, we'd probably think of these ancient rape-raiders and murderers as no different from any other ancient group of villains. Like real-world pirates, or Vikings, both of whom were utterly horrible people in their own time, we'd probably look at them as fun and cartoony. We'd name a sports team after them and be done with it (Indianapolis Israelites?), because atrocities committed so far in the past have lost their sting.

  • If Canaanite Baal worship / Phoenican worship had continued to the present day then children would still be sacrificed to appease the Gods.But under William Lane Craig's explicitly stated logic, this is doing those children a favor, since they (presumably being innocent) go straight to Heaven. Why is it somehow better when the Israelites kill Canaanite children than when the Canaanites do it?

  • Elizabeth K.

    "An ancient civilization wrote themselves an origin myth that fit their cultural mores." Mmmm, obviously, we disagree about the truth claims of scripture–I misunderstood your original post both in content and intent(sorry). But just as a point of fact, the origin myth we find in Genesis is actually essentially a shared myth of the area (thus we find similar elements in the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh). The origin myth of the Jews, if you'd like to call it that, is theologically inflected so as to work in opposition to the polytheistic version of the story that surrounded them, but I disagree that it's written to advance their personal cultural norms. That's historically impossible. It also seems like you're saying, and I could be wrong, that this particular story falls under the rubric pf "origin myth"–which is highly unlikely. It probably happened–whether or not God had a hand in it, in the way its being both interpreted and described, is what's in question for most Biblical scholars. How we interpret the claims being made about God is what is, in fact, complex, for Biblical scholars and what Craig seems to ignore, IMHO.

  • Patrick

    I'm not referring to the origin myth of genesis, I'm referring to the origin myth of the ancient Israelite state, in which they genocidally slaughtered a bunch of Canaanites. I'm sorry, I should have made that more clear given that the Bible has a big, huge origin myth at the beginning that could easily confuse matters.As for the Canaanite genocide, actually, it probably didn't happen according to historians. At least, it happened nothing like the Bible claims. The Israelites didn't move into Canaan from elsewhere, they started there. They probably WERE the Canaanites, at least ethnically. This story is probably no more accurate than Noah's flood, which is why I don't understand why aficionados of the Bible are always so quick to defend it.As for advancing personal cultural norms, I'm not saying it was written to ADVANCE them, but rather to simply fit within them. Read the rest of the surrounding chapters of the Bible. The cultural norms of the ancient Israelites, as depicted in those pages, precisely fit the sort of culture which would consider a murderous rampage of ethnically motivated eradication to be the sort of thing to be proud of. Its not like this was the only time they claim to have done this (or other slightly less complete genocides, but with added mass rape), after all. Its just the go-to example for critics of Christianity because in this case there are clear statements attributed to God ordering the killings. In the other examples its always a prophet or a king giving the orders, and that gives the apologist an easy out. But for the purposes of my point, those passages are still relevant, because they demonstrate the cultural context in which this story arose.

  • Elizabeth K.

    Thanks for the clarifications, Patrick–you make great points.I'm not sure why it gets defended so frequently either–well, I suppose that if you take everything as absolutely historical, factual, and face-value true, you would have to defend it, wouldn't you? I'm not sure where Craig fits on that continuum.

  • I've never really seen what's so bad about the genocides in the Old Testament. It's just a fairly explicit statement of how ruthless the Christian God's "justice" is and how much the biblical idea of good is based entirely on the will of a god and totally divorced from human welfare.I mean, the vast majority of people who have ever lived weren't even nominally Christian, so by the literal words of the New Testament most people burn in hell forever. This is not a god that cares about people, it's a cruel and callous god.There's the whole rigamarole about Jesus dying for our sins, but even if you accept that the Christian God could always just change his bloomin mind, or not make demands that are unlikely to be followed in the first place. There's just no story-logic to God being good unless you don't care about other people.

  • Anonymous

    "If Canaanite Baal worship / Phoenican worship had continued to the present day then children would still be sacrificed to appease the Gods."Throughout this comment, all that ran through my mind was:blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel blood libel

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  • “Myers’s dismissal of the damage suffered by someone who has done evil lets us off the hook for sending soldiers into moral (as well as mortal) peril.”

    I agree. If only more people recognized the harm of violence done to the violator, we’d see that we’re not “protecting our country” near as much as we think… we’re destroying our soldiers.