Come Ye Weary, Heavy Laden – Come Ignore Your Deepest Moral Intuitions

Deanna Laney was the mother of three children: an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 15-month-old.  She murdered both of the oldest and permanently impaired the youngest by beating them over the head repeatedly with a rock because she “believed that God had told her the world was going to end and ‘she had to get her house in order’, which included killing her children” [1]. Horrible situations like this beg an interesting question – what would it take for you to abandon your most basic intuitions about right and wrong?  Would you be willing to carve up kids if you sincerely believed that your deity was telling you to? If not now, how about if you were living in the Ancient Near East with no written revelation? If no one but the psychopathic among us would do such a thing, why do people have such an easy time rationalizing it when it shows up in the Bible?

Let’s start with an overview of biblical violence, shall we? Whether it’s mass drowning, destroying entire towns with fire, eliminating the Egyptian firstborn because of their naughty parents, or swallowing entire households into the earth along with their “little ones” – we already know where Yahweh stands on killing kids. No big deal. But there are also prominent examples where he commands human agents to do the butchering, notably the Israelites in the conquest narratives. According to Deuteronomy 20:10-20, “God will be right there with them making sure they come up winners. He will be at the side of the Israelite soldiers as they gut young non-Canaanite husbands and take their wives and children into slavery. He will stand watch as they run their swords through every living thing in Canaan: men, boys, infants, someone’s grandmother, or pregnant wife, and even livestock. God will be with the Israelites, pleased as they level town after town, deaf to screams and cries for mercy” [2]. Whew! Sucks to be the Canaanites! If only Ham hadn’t sinned against Noah resulting in the perpetual curse of his son Canaan for something he didn’t even do. Seems like they were screwed from the get-go.

Anyways…I would venture to guess that killing children is something that rightfully disturbs pretty much everyone, and that most would agree that it’s always terrible [3]. Why do people rationalize it then? Because they are constrained by a conservative view of the Bible that forces them to engage in obnoxious a posteriori reasoning. After all, if some other terrible action was depicted as a command of Yahweh in the bible, such a person would be required to defend it as not inherently bad in the same way they defend slaughtering children [4]. At the end of the day this kind of position requires that if there are moral truths, we can’t know things like “killing kids is always wrong” a priori-only a posteriori.  Only after checking to see if Yahweh is depicted as commanding an action that offends our deepest intuitions can we truly know that action is wrong [5]. This type of reasoning just seems silly on it’s face, since concluding “that one’s most basic moral knowledge (i.e. the inherent immorality of executing infants or perpetuating genocide) is errant in favor of a contentious reading and appropriation of an ancient text is a case of misbegotten priorities” [6].

But suppose genocide apologists concede that most of their reasoning about values is after the fact. So what? Well, it forces some rather difficult questions to arise. Why couldn’t God command something like rape? If our faculties are so flawed that we can’t know that butchering babies is always wrong, then why should we trust them to tell us that non-consensual sex is always wrong? If Yahweh can order a soldier standing over a weeping mother holding a little child in her arms to run both of them through with his sword, then why couldn’t he order sexual violation as an act of judgement? It’s not like Yahweh is afraid of using sexually violent language when describing his own actions, so he’s not really giving his followers much help navigating this dilemma [7]. The point is, once you trivialize a priori moral reasoning to the point of insignificance, you’re left with absurd consequences. But hey, if you want to bite the bullet and admit that a depiction of your deity commanding such a thing in the bible would turn you into a rape apologist, more power to you.  In fact, shout it from the rooftops!

Before I get too excited with my rhetorical jabs, let’s land this plane with an actual argument.

1. If x is not worse than y then if God can command y God can command x.
2. Rape is not worse than genocide.
3. Therefore, if God can command genocide then God can command rape.
4. God can command genocide.
5. Therefore, God can command rape.
6. God cannot command rape.
7. Therefore, God cannot command genocide. [8]

I think this is a clever syllogism because the ways out of it are fairly costly. Will the genocide apologists argue that rape is somehow worse than decimating an entire population and slitting the throats of toddlers? Will they bite the bullet and admit that God could conceivably command rape? Or will they see the light and realize that a perfect being (if such a being exists) wouldn’t command rape or genocide? [9]. I mean, if we can know a priori that it’s always wrong for human agents to rape, then it seems perfectly sensible to think we can know a priori that it’s always wrong for human agents to carry out a genocide. The reason it is helpful to think in these terms is because people are so used to rationalizing one particular kind of horrific thing that pairing it with another might be just what is needed to shake them out of their moral schizophrenia [10]

So if you are a Christian, will you really let your commitment to a pet theory of inspiration be enough to overturn your most basic moral knowledge?  Wouldn’t it be more consistent to trust the direct revelation to your conscience than to trust an *interpretation* of what it would mean for a text to be “inspired” [11]?  I hope you will consider it.  If not, let’s hope that if Christianity turns out to be true God isn’t disappointed in you for believing stupid things about him.

 

Notes

  1. CNN, Attorney: Woman Thought God Told Her to Kill Sons
  2. Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, p. 36. I understand that there are Christians like Enns who don’t believe Yahweh’s behavior reflects the character of God, but nevertheless he is still depicted in certain ways in the text.
  3. Even if you imagine a convoluted scenario like shooting a child in wartime because their parents armed them, that would still be a “lesser of two evils” type of calculation.  Such an assessment wouldn’t make the action itself inherently moral.
  4. Randal Rauser, Rape, Moral Perception, and Biblicism
  5. Ibid
  6. Randal Rauser, see this tweet
  7. Susanne Scholz, Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice, and the Study of the Old Testament (Second Edition), p. 99-105.  See also Isaiah 3:16-17, Jeremiah 13:22-26, and Ezekiel chapters 16 and 23 (NRSV)
  8. Randal Rauser, Can God Command Anything At All? If you’re hung up on Randal’s argument, consider another way of thinking about it:
    1. A morally perfect being would never command actions that are intrinsically wrong for human agents to perform
    2. It’s intrinsically wrong for human agents to rape people or butcher babies
    3. Therefore, a morally perfect being would never command a human agent to rape people or butcher babies
  9. As a side note, trying to turn this into a discussion of moral ontology is an exercise in missing the point.  This is an argument from moral epistemology that is available to everyone. All you have to do is phrase it in conditional terms – if real moral knowledge is possible, then we can be extremely confident that the premises in the argument are sound through moral perception.  One doesn’t have to make any claims about moral ontology in order to use it.  Additionally, for people who are going to quibble over the term “genocide” in the argument, just replace it with “putting an infant to the sword” or something like that.  
  10. Randal Rauser, Is Rape Worse Than Sacrifice?
  11. Randal Rauser, Christian Moral Schizophrenia and Psycopathy

*This is an update of a previous post that was titled “On Biblical Violence”.  The update was made 5/11/2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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