Excusing the Bible?

This post is mostly me just thinking aloud. It seems that much of the anger toward and rejection of Christianity by secularists is rooted in the specifics of the Bible, and not so much against beings like God in general, or the God of Classical Theism. They don’t like a lot of the things Yahweh said and did, nor do they like the creation story (as it contradicts evolution when taken literally).  I get the clearest sense of this focused rejection when a Christian philosopher or apologist makes a general argument for God (in the classical theist sense) or a general criticism of naturalism, and his opponents change topics and start picking at things in the Bible (a perfect example of this is Sam Harris’s reply to the arguments William Lane Craig made against naturalizing ethics: see this debate).

I must admit, there’s a lot in the Bible that’s hard to reconcile with modern sensibility. In a previous post I argued for why this isn’t always a bad thing (in an ultimate sense). But sometimes I get the feeling that I’m really having to do a lot of intellectual, and ethical, gymnastics to make the Bible something I can accept.

One can always save a bad theory if one is willing to make enough ad hoc adjustments to it to handle evidence or reasons against it. Think about a paranoid schizophrenic: he may have paranoid delusions and delusions of grandeur, but when presented  contradictory evidence, he often finds some way to explain away the evidence and keep his delusions. I could think there are aliens on Mars that are oppressing the human race, and when confronted with the lack of evidence, I simply point to some government conspiracy to hide all the evidence. You get my point.

Is this what’s happening with Christians defending the Bible? What does one do when one confronts passages in which Yahweh behaves in ways that seem deplorable to moderns? We could always explain it away, given enough creativity on our part. We can find some excuse, certainly. It really is impossible to prove that Yahweh is a bad god.

What to do? One could just “white-fist” it and hold on to the Bible, all else be damned. That is an option. Or one could liberalize the Bible: accept only parts of it, or interpret parts of it as merely symbolic, allegorical (actually, regarding the creation story, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be a scientific account, but one highlighting God’s power and authority).  One could also come up with independent evidence for God and the Bible. It would have to be fairly powerful, though, to overcome the difficulties. One could also argue, like I did, that we judge the Bible from a modern perspective, and that the modern perspective isn’t necessarily the ground truth regarding morality or reality — we can point out what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Or one could do a combination of all of these. I think that’s what I’m doing at present; a little of all.

Why? Why all the work? Why not just forget about Christianity and turn secular? For me, I find myself frightened by the alternative: something akin to Bertrand Russell’s defiant atlas standing against the alter of chance and the ultimate purposeless ruin of the universe. Russell’s alternative has no appeal to me. There is also “the fear of God” that is in me. That fear is very powerful, and it won’t go away any time soon. There is also hope; hope of a better future life, if not on earth, then in heaven. And there is the peace that I sometimes feel when I do get close to God. At present, these are enough to motivate me to keep at this work. And, let’s not forget, there is a chance that the Bible really is, in some sense, true.

Add to this my dissatisfaction with naturalism. As time goes on, I’m finding the whole notion of the universe that is, ultimately, explainable by science unacceptable. Numbers, math, truths of logic, they don’t depend on science; science depends on them! The apprehension of a realm of moral truth: again, this is apart from science. The naturalist alternative: some form of subjectivism or relativism, some form of moral antirealism. That is, we accept that raping children for fun is neither right nor wrong, ultimately; we just happen to not like it very much as a people, and find limiting it useful. And what about the first person perspective, consciousness? The fact that it exists at all is something that seems beyond a science limited to the third person. So there definitely are cracks in the naturalist/materialist wall. But are they big enough to let the whole Bible through? That’s where I still struggle.

Christians Should Just Admit the Bible isn’t Ethical by Secular Standards

In recent years a moral outcry has arisen against the Bible among secularists. Many of the actions/commandments in the Bible are moral abominations to them. Three noteworthy examples (or types of example): God’s command to Abraham to burn Isaac on the alter, God’s wiping out, or commanding Israel to wipe out, entire peoples, and God’s prohibition of homosexuality.

As a Christian I might feel compelled to defend these actions of God. But I know that such defenses (e.g., God wiped out peoples because they were exceedingly evil and deserved it) would not only fail with secularists, but would make them question my own morality for offering such a defense.

Indeed, I would argue that there is no defense of the actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that could work within a modern, secular moral framework. That is because of some of the assumptions of that framework. These assumptions have been with us for so long, and feel so right, that they seem axiomatic. Here are some of them:

  1. All persons have the same basic rights (e.g., from the American Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).
  2. All of morality is to be based on these.

Things that follow:

  1. We have the right to do whatever we want, just so long as we are not interfering with others.
  2. We have the right to have our lives and property protected.
  3. No one has the right to take away our lives, freedom, or property, except as a means to protect the rights of others, and in ways approved by a government formed by the people on the authority of the people.

If these are true, Israel’s wiping out groups of people at God’s command couldn’t be justified, as no one person or society could ever have that kind of authority to kill. Prohibiting homosexuality is wrong as well; we have the right to whatever lifestyle we want if no one is hurt by it.

In addition to these, there are factual (that is, non-moral) assumptions secularists make that would make the Bible unjustifiable:

  1. There is no life after death.
  2. There is no clear, unquestionable revelation from God.

If these last two are true, no one could have the right to kill because “God told me to,” for there is no clear revelation from God. And killing a person is the worst thing you can do to someone because there is no life after death. A dead person cannot be compensated. Given all of the above, the only possible justification for killing a person would be to prevent further killings. Thus the command for Abraham to kill Isaac (and the genocides, for that matter) has no justification at all! To kill Isaac would be merely a horrible, pointless act commanded by an imaginary divine fiend.

So, at bottom, the Bible cannot be justified within a modern, secular moral framework based on the principles of modern, liberal democracies.

What can a Christian say in reply? To start, Christians cannot accept the two factual claims. As I am focusing on moral principles, I won’t argue against them here. But it’s pretty obvious that secularists and Christians must disagree on these. On to the moral principles.

First I want to admit that the secular moral principles are correct in a human-to-human sort of way. That is, they work in providing rules regarding how human beings ought to treat each other. I also think they are grounding principles for governments: we humans ought not to govern ourselves any other way. But are they the deepest truth regarding morality?

What if they are only a special case? For example, there are also principles regarding ethical treatment of animals that aren’t like the above principles. Not all secularists are vegans or vegetarians — many eat animals. They often have pets. Some visit zoos, Sea World, and other such places. They might kill household pests. They definitely allow the killing of fetuses. That is, they would agree that not all life has the above rights, only persons do. Sure, there are some rights subpersonal life forms have; we might be okay with killing pigs for pork, but we wouldn’t be okay with torturing them for fun. Still, subpersons have less rights than persons.

What about superpersons, beings with a  higher level of consciousness, ability, intelligence, emotion, and awareness than humans have? Might they be to us as we are to pigs? That is, the claim that all humans have the same basic rights might only apply to humans. If, for the sake of argument, God did exist, it seems plausible to me that He wouldn’t be at the same level of rights as human persons.

John Locke

To support this idea, consider, for a moment, the source of human rights. Two basic competing notions have been offered. John Locke, the one responsible for much of the discussion of rights behind the Declaration of Independence, claimed the source was God (so does the Declaration itself). God is the granter of rights. If so, then might he also be the revoker of rights? One thing is clear, the rights God enjoys would have to be of a higher level than our rights if our rights get their authority from God.

Thomas Hobbes

The other notion is that of Thomas Hobbes: we humans are roughly equal in ability and intelligence. Since we know that we are not strong or smart enough to dominate everyone else and keep safe, we agree to sacrifice some of our freedom by granting basic rights to ourselves and others. That is, human rights are really a contract between completely selfish people who know the limits of their own physical and intellectual power. On this view, human rights are the result of a political process, not, as in Locke, the motivation for it. If this is the case, then if God existed, He wouldn’t need to grant any of these rights, as a self-interested being, as he in no danger from the likes of us.

If these are the only two basic kinds of options, then it seems that God would be beyond and above the rights listed above. God is not beholden to them.

But Christians insist that God is good, not merely that he isn’t violating any social contract. In other words, what would be God’s morality that would make Him this wonderful being, if He doesn’t respect our rights? From the Bible we can find two parts: a part about our relationship with God, and a part about how we humans should treat each other. Regarding the former, from what I can tell, it seems that God has both great wrath and great love. Regarding wrath, He wipes out people who deface His name in the Old Testament. He is extremely jealous when it comes to who Israel worships, and punishes them when they “cheat on” Him.

God sounds horrible here, but think of it this way: have you ever been in love? Didn’t you feel jealous when he/she flirted with (or had sex with) other people, especially when you thought you were in a committed relationship with him/her? You felt betrayed, hurt, and angry. The God of the Old Testament is a superperson in love with an unfaithful people. A jilted lover at that. Read the OT yourself with this in mind (a good example the Book of Hosea —There he promises to punish Israel for her infidelity, and then restore His relationship with her, all with rather romantic sounding poetry); it will explain a lot.

Add to this the bad things these people were doing to each other (the lack of justice we find the prophets often preaching against), and we have the reasons God punishes them so horribly.

Now as human beings, we are limited in how we may treat unfaithful lovers. Again, we have agreed to a social contract to live in a democratic society, and we need to respect each other’s basic human rights. All we can rightfully do is break off the relationship with the unfaithful partner (and maybe rant about them to a friend). As for injustice, we can point to the law, or engage in peaceful protest, or, at the very most, defend ourselves. But God isn’t limited in His rights in the way we are. He isn’t in our social contract. Democracy is for us, not for Him. God may be within His rights to destroy an unfaithful creature He brought about.

The above view of a God in love isn’t a very flattering view of God at first glance, I admit — a superperson in love with creatures so far beneath Him that He justifiably wipes them out when they are unfaithful to Him. My justification is very counterintuitive. This is because we (or those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a democracy) have been taught from early childhood that democracy is right, that all humans have basic human rights, and so forth. And I agree with this, as far as human-human relationships go. But I’m treating that as a special case here: if it is, God’s morality might be beyond this.

I maintain that God still would be a good being, nonetheless, with all of the above. The fact that God would condescend to such a relationship with us is noble. And His anger at our refusing it is justified by the fact that God is so much higher than us and worthy of us. And our infidelity is all the more punishable for this. And let’s not forget: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God’s Son was his most beloved; he was willing to give him to us for our salvation.

What about the other part of morality: how we ought to treat each other? There are the God-given rights that Locke and the Declaration of Independence list. But God never speaks of “rights” in the Bible. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” In fact, Jesus captures the whole of morality in this same passage. From Matthew chapter 22:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Modern democracies with their rights don’t go this far. Jesus commands us to love other people as much as ourselves, even our enemies. The key word here is, of course, love. It’s a morality of love, not rights. Modern ethical systems don’t mention it.

Back to the original problems. Regarding genocide, God has this right. God is still good, for God condescends to love the human race, despite its comparative insignificance and ubiquitous evil. And humans are pretty evil; when I look a the thoughts in my own mind, I know I have evil in me. So will you, if you are honest. God commanding Israel to kill, again God has the right. Add to that the view that clear revelation is possible, then Israel is also justified in wiping out groups of people (If the revelation is true, of course. Most of the killings in the name of God are not the result of genuine revelation.).

What about Abraham and Isaac? First, God has this right as creator. Second, there is the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. If God exists and life after death is possible (secularists assume neither is true), then God is justified in asking for this to test Abraham’s faithfulness. He could restore Isaac. And Abraham might have thought this too.

The prohibition of homosexuality is harder. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to this one, other than God finds it offensive. But again, we are talking about God, not us. Just because I might find it distasteful doesn’t mean I have the right to prevent others from enjoying it. I’m a citizen of the United States; so are they. We, as citizens, have a civil right to our lifestyles. But God is not a citizen of the United States (or any other democracy). He’s God. He designed humans to be a certain way, and has the right, as a superperson, to prohibit them from departing from it.

So I did try to justify God, as I said I shouldn’t do. No doubt a secularist would not accept this justification. There’s no way she can, with her assumptions about reality and morality. But if these aren’t the ground truth, and if a case could be made for God and for life after death, then I think my justifications do have some weight.

So what this amounts to is that Christianity is consistent in its own worldview regarding how it views reality and morality. So is secularism. But these views are not consistent with each other.

I did a lot of work to come to an obvious conclusion. I did it to make a related point. The the point is regarding the fact that that secularists think Christians ought to be ashamed when God doesn’t fit into their secular idea of morality, or that God’s not fitting into this morality is a legitimate objection to Christianity. My point is that of course the Bible doesn’t fit into secular morality; it’s not supposed to.

Bottom line: God cannot be justified in a secular moral framework. Nor should He be.