I commented recently on post called “Mild Paedophilia in Light of Atheism”1. The post decried Dawkins for his use of the phrase “mild paedophilia”, and I didn’t mention in the comment that without context the phrase may have been entirely legitimate2. What I did mention is that the blogger was being inconsistent: where the blogger would not accept Dawkins’ suggestion of some sort of low-level and culturally acceptable paedophilia (via some sort of history-based moral revisionism), the blogger himself is at no odds with the slavery of the Bible. When I pointed this out I got some predictable excuses and responses, so I wish to discuss them on my blog. I’ll quote the blogger and then respond. If you are worried about me taking him out of context, the source material is linked at the top3.
“A popular critique of the Biblical God often involves slavery, but it shows a great misunderstanding of both God and the Bible’s description (not prescription) of slavery. God allowing slavery to exist was a concession, not a decree, because of the hardening of man’s hearts. God knew mankind was heavily inclined to engage in the practice, so He gave them over to their own sin, but regulated it (Ex. 21:16) to keep it from getting worse.”
The first issue with this is that of an accommodationist God, who allows us to get away with whatever our culture permits. It is of no moral value to look at a crime (even systematic and cultural crime) and simply permit it because it is rife. An accommodationist God could not overturn slavery; humans could. And we did this as we got a better understanding and experience of the supposed difference between people being simply untrue4. An accommodationist God, who allows for the crimes of society, is an immoral God; humans bother to enforce laws.
The second issue is more damning: it’s an outright lie. God did not just describe slavery. I wrote a post about this (Slave!), but I thought I’d share a few quotes again: “you may purchase male or female slaves” Leviticus 25:44; “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years” Exodus 21:2. I don’t mean to be overly patronising about this, but compare those two sentences to something that is a description: The Hebrews purchase male and female slaves; When the Hebrews buy male5 slaves, he serves his master for 6 years before he goes free. You will notice the present simple tense and the lack of permission words (e.g. “you may”) in my examples. God did not just describe slavery, He permitted it.
“Something else to note is that slavery in ancient times was unlike the race-based slavery we have come to know in the last few centuries.”
Is it not race-based, because I thought “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Leviticus 25) Again, slaves are foreigners and Israelites must not treat fellow Israelites ruthlessly. How is that not race-based?
“Slavery was often entered into willingly to pay off debt (Lev. 25:39-43; Dt.15:12). Slaves were often trusted and esteemed (Gen. 15,24). Slavery was the merciful option for captured enemies (Num. 31:26-27; Deut. 20:10,11), and a means of restitution for crime (Ex. 22:1-3)(We do this now by imprisonment–prisoners are slaves to the state). Slaves were ceremonially freed after a set time (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). God does not regard the free over the slave (Gal. 3:28), and His followers encouraged respect and fairness for them (Eph. 6:8, Col. 4:1).”
Imagine that in front of me is a delicious steak; a medium rare, juicy steak marinated in a chilli and lemon sauce. As a side I have homemade, crisped-to-perfection lightly salted chip, and roasted vegetables with an Italian herb coating and mature cheddar cheese melted through. You walk past me as I describe the brilliance of my meal and how perfect the chef must have been to create it, and you notice that someone has clearly defecated right on top of it all. You point out the defecation smeared across my otherwise delightful meal and all I do is respond that you are cherry-picking and then repeat my description of the bits of the meal I like. I am wrong to accuse you of cherry picking; the fecal matter has ruined my meal, and I just don’t seem to want to accept it. That’s what’s going on here, the blogger is going on and on about the acceptable (arguably… certainly not the ‘good’) mandates of slavery and simply ignoring “If, however, the slave survives [being struck by a rod] for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property” (Exodus 21:21, the defecation). Even if it could be deemed acceptable to own another human being, the permitted and mandated accessories to the slavery in the Bible mean that the system is barbaric.
The moral outlook gets bleaker when we consider the idea that slavery is the merciful option for a prisoner of a religiously commanded war. If slavery is the merciful option, then “turn the other cheek” obviously was not an option on the table; religious warriors couldn’t choose to win a war and announce “I hope you’ve learned a valuable lesson” or start a new system of government. Clearly, God left two options: genocide or slavery. Why or when is that ever good? Jesus wouldn’t put up with that.
“Abuses no doubt occurred, and slavery was never the ideal, but God’s attitude is clearly against slavery–but FOR the slave. From the times of freeing the entire nation of Israel from Egyptian slavery to the atonement of Christ intended to free us from the slavery of sin (Rom. 6:18), God is an abolitionist (1 Cor. 7:21-23).”
Abuses not only occurred, but God allowed them. Slave owners are not to be punished if their slave can hold on for two days after a beating with a rod. And the idea that an omnipotent Being cannot meet, and a moral Being did not obviously try to meet, the ideal is simply ridiculous. The closest God got to abolishing slavery is God preference for the Israelites, as the blogger himself admits6. Maybe Christians did lead the way to abolition (and in a society where it was very good for your health to proclaim to be a Christian, it would very much have looked that way), but the Bible itself isn’t exactly dripping with passages to support that.
The rest of this post is going to be bit-responses to other fragments of conversation that are available in the comments section of the post I linked. They relate to God’s self-righteous indignation.
“Christians believe in a God who is jealous because God alone is justified in His jealousy. As Creator He owns everything and has the inherent right to feel the pain of loss when His people are unfaithful.”
You will, undoubtedly, have noticed that these same “inherent rights” are not extended to the people who more immediately created you: your parents. And there is no pattern of increasing these rights as we look at people who less directly created you: your grandparents, your great grandparents, and so on. But the assertion is that when you get to the Being who least-directly created you–the Being who created your very earliest ancestors, Adam and Eve–suddenly infinite rights are granted.
“Christians believe in a God who waged war in judgment against evil nations because God must judge sin, and as author of all life has the right to give it and take it according to His plan that we as finite beings would logically not expect to be able to see and understand fully.”
Actually, “God’s plan” was easy to understand; it can be understood by its remarkable resemblance to the blood thirsty and vindictive cultures that existed at the time, and it can now be understood by its commitment to post-Enlightenment understandings of the universe. God used to judge sin by waging war (in a time when having God talk to you wasn’t going to get you sectioned). Now, with video cameras, God judges sin by letting us succumb to natural death or natural disaster.
“Christians are absolutely concerned, as God is, with the well-being of others, improving their experiences, and minimizing suffering in others. But as our ultimate standard for morality, this doesn’t go far enough. You still use even more basic moral principals to justify why well-being is important, why improving life is a good thing and what makes suffering bad. Accepting God as the origins and authority of objective morality is, like atheism, naturalism, or any other religion, an act of faith. But it is a position (the only one I’m aware of) that rationally makes sense of how we treat morality. That we are created in the image of a God (Gen. 1:27) who possesses the same type of morality provides a logical basis for morality. Otherwise you’re left with a shallow definition of morality (i.e. preserving well-being) or no way to account for objective morals, order and direction that can’t exist in an orderless, directionless universe.”
Let me first express my deep confusion at the idea God made us in His image: I find it unlikely that I look like you, or think like you, or that our moral intuitions line up exactly. Which one of use was made in God’s image? There seems to be no part of my identity that lines up with everyone else, so there is no way we are all made in God’s image.
I also find it very difficult to imagine how the safeguarding of the wellbeing of all conscious things is a shallow definition of morality, but “accepting God as the origins and authority” is deep. There seems to be nothing particularly complicated or encompassing about morality being built on compliance to an authority or command. However, taking the time to think about and realise the importance of wellbeing, and how it doesn’t really make sense to think of anything being more important7, seems to be much more encompassing and deep.
1 – Sometimes I think I shouldn’t draw attention to the drivel I read, and only engage with things that look intelligent. But then I run out of material
2 – I have complained in the past about the word “rape”; there is, and should be, a real difference between something at its mildest (even if that is still immoral) and it at its worst (where it is highly likely to be absolutely heinous).
3 – The post links to a Salon article, which in turn does not give a raw transcript of the Times Magazine interview in question. In fact, I can’t find it. There are certain parts of the quotes that make me think Dawkins is trying to make the same nuanced point I made about rape and a comment on historical culture. I disagree with Dawkins, if indeed he is suggesting that we need to engage with some level of historically based moral revisionism; what’s wrong is wrong. However, if he is saying that we shouldn’t condemn people throughout history as if they had access to the same information we have today, that is a different discussion.
4 – We still enslave dogs because the differences between people and dogs are demonstrable. Dogs actually enjoy serving. That said, most of us still condemn the abuse and mistreatment of animals.
5 – The rest of the quote makes it clear the passage is only talking about male slaves: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are” (Exodus 21:7)
6 – The reference to being freed of slavery to sin is a stretch, and I’m not inclined to deal with cryptic metaphor.
7 – Importance is a thing that arises in our conscious experience. So if we think we have prioritised something over our wellbeing, we simply haven’t realised the extent to which that thing affects our wellbeing8. To think that making money is more important that our wellbeing is simply to not understand that you think the money will make you happy. Because happiness is the real goal, you should focus more directly on it.
8 – Yes, that’s where we are now; I’m doing a footnote out of a footnote. It seems easy to assume that because our wellbeing is the more important thing that the reasonable response is selfishness. The point is more nuanced than that; wellbeing is the most important thing, and if the net wellbeing is raised by your own suffering then so be it. However, we would understand if you refuse to do that.