July 12, 2008

In Defense of the God of the Old Testament

My response to An Objective Moral Standard for Atheists and Agnostics? by Casey Huxley, originally posted on ZealForTruth.org:

Casey,

Let me start by saying that the world would be a better place with more people like you. You seem to be sincere and truth-seeking. Ever think about running for Congress? We could use you!

A few comments on your post.

First, you write, “One cannot call the god’s standard good without presupposing a morality that exists outside of it.” I think I understand your thinking here: you seem to be saying that the only way in which we could judge the morality of God’s actions would be if there existed an independent standard by which to judge those actions. Makes sense. But your argument isn’t necessarily sound. It’s possible that morality stems from God himself. In other words, it’s possible that God IS morality--that God IS love, that God IS justice, etc. If such is the case, then it wouldn’t follow that there must be an independent standard by which to judge God’s actions--because God himself would be that standard.

Your Old Testament examples are good ones. But let me briefly play the devil’s advocate. (And yes, I realize the irony in that statement.)

1) You reference a number of "weird" injunctions from the Lord--e.g., those dealing with menstruation, as well as the genital grabbing example from Deuteronomy. But I’m sure you’d agree that being weird isn’t necessarily the same as being immoral.

2) You say the following about Exodus 21.20-21: “If you beat a slave to death, you will be punished. That seems reasonable…But if you beat a slave and he doesn’t die until the next day, then you get no punishment. That’s just insanity and certainly not justice.” In this case, I think you’re misinterpreting the Bible. I don’t know Hebrew, but the New International Version makes it clear that the slave in the second instant was only injured, not killed.

3) You cite a number of passages in which God’s punishments seem excessively harsh--e.g., “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” and “No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation.” Well perhaps these commands made sense and were good ones AT THE TIME. Perhaps God looked down at the Israelites and saw that they were an especially reprobate bunch, a people who didn’t see the importance of obeying their god. Perhaps he knew that the only way to drive home his point--that sin is a big deal, a REALLY big deal--was to issue such harsh commands. Take a modern-day analogy. Let’s say that my son enjoys playing with matches. Let's also say that he has an especially reckless personality. Given all this and given the fact that matches are so potentially dangerous, it might be very reasonable for me to really lay down the law with him--for instance, to threaten to ground him for two entire months if he’s ever again caught playing with matches. Now an outsider might think I’m being too harsh; but perhaps that’s the only way to effectively protect my son.

4) Regarding the passage in Genesis in which God punishes the households of Pharaoh and Abimelech because they added Sarah to their harem--I would just say that we might not have all the facts here. Perhaps these people suspected that Sarah was married but took her anyway. Perhaps God knew they would have killed Abraham had he told the truth. Perhaps God was teaching these people a lesson they needed to learn. Perhaps, in the long run, God’s actions were in these people’s best moral interest. We’re simply not in a position to say.

All this said, I’ll be the first to admit that many of the things found in the Old Testament don’t make sense to me. (As you point out, many passages do seem misogynistic.) But, as the Bible says over and over again, God’s ways are not our ways. From our perspective, he may seem like a total asshole. But perhaps we’re no better equipped to judge his motives than a dog is to judge our motives.

I’m just as perplexed as you are regarding the injunction in Deuteronomy to commit genocide, to wipe out everyone, including the women and the children. That makes absolutely no sense to me. But again, perhaps God had morally sufficient reasons for doing this. Perhaps God--able to see men’s hearts, able to view the future with perfect clarity--saw that this was the only way to teach Israel the gravity of sin. And perhaps, in the long run, this was the only way that humans in general, whom God has given free will, would be able to morally develop.

In sum, I agree that, by today’s standards, many these commandments seem atrocious. But how are we to know that they weren’t what the ancient Jews needed? Perhaps such harshness was the only thing that could break them from their corrupt ways. A kind of shock therapy, if you will.

If I were god, I would’ve been a lot more lenient. “You disobeyed your parents? Kill you? No, I'm not going to kill you. How about you go and write some lines on the chalkboard, that’ll teach you.” But maybe my leniency would have really screwed things up for humanity. Who’s to say?

Anyway, I’m sympathetic with your agnostic beliefs. Sometimes I wonder how any rational person can be religious. But then I remember that, though there are some good arguments for atheism, there are also some good ones for theism. And then I think about death, and the thought of dying, the thought of oblivion, is utterly terrifying to me. So, using the logic of Pascal’s wager, I sort of will myself to believe: if God exists, I reason, then believers win and skeptics (might) lose; if God doesn’t exist, believers and skeptics both lose; therefore, since being a believer might be the only chance we have of winning, why not be a believer? Sometimes I feel like my faith is just a shot in the dark; but given the desperate situation in which we find ourselves, I think it makes more sense than anything else.

* * * * *

Casey's response:

Don, I’m simply saying that if “God IS morality” is true, then nothing can be called “good,” you can just say it meets God’s standard. You can’t even say meeting God’s standard is a good thing, you can only say meeting God’s standard meets God’s standard.

1) Yes, but I’d expect a omni type god to do better. As I’ve said the Mosaic Law is no improvement on the Code of Hammurabi.

2) Even if that translation is accepted, it’s still saying it’s ok to beat slaves very badly.

3) I think you will agree that grounding your kid is on a totally different level than killing him. And I won’t accept a “it was good at the time” excuse for punishing people for something someone 11 generations ago did. If that was the best God could do that I still say he’s incompetent (or not all-good).

4) We never have all the facts. Though drawing from a narrative account is much tricker than from declared laws. It’s not necessary for the argument in any case.

In regard to your “perhaps … perhaps” argument - perhaps the God of the Bible is made up, just like the other ones you believe are made up. Or perhaps he is less than perfectly good.

I’ve never thought much of Pascal’s wager, maybe I’ll write about that sometime.

* * * * *

My response to Casey’s response:

Casey,

“I’m simply saying that if ‘God IS morality’ is true, then nothing can be called ‘good.’” That’s false. Saying that “God is morality” is essentially saying that “God is the good” or “God is goodness itself.” Therefore, if God is morality and thus goodness itself, it would NOT follow that “nothing can be called ‘good’”–for anything conforming to God–i.e., anything conforming to goodness itself–would be good.

Regarding the rest of your article:

I imagine that it would be difficult for a modern Orthodox Jew to justify many parts of the Mosaic Law. But a Christian does not have the same difficulty. For the New Testament makes it clear that some parts of the Law served a temporary purpose–but were not intrinsically good.

For instance, in Matthew 19 Jesus amends a portion of the Mosaic Law, telling the Pharisees that, contrary to Deuteronomy 24, adultery is the only permissible grounds for divorce. “Moses,” he says, “permitted you to divorce your wives [for reasons beyond adultery] because your hearts were hard.” Implied in Jesus’ words: this portion of the Law is not intrinsically good; it was valid for only a time.

In Galatians, Paul writes that the Law was given “because of transgression,” that it was “put in charge to lead us to Christ.” In other words: the Law was good on utilitarian, not necessarily deontological, grounds.

So, according to the New Testament, parts of the Law were good because of the results they were to bring about, but they were not to be normative for all people during all times. In the same way, a sign stating “Keep off the grass” may be good for a time, but only for a time: perhaps the earth just needs a few weeks to revegetate.

Today, we might look at certain Old Testament injunctions and say, That seems irrational, or harsh, or unjust. And, if applied to twenty-first century standards, they certainly might be. But these laws were not intended for modern people. And perhaps they were only instituted back then because doing so was the only way that, given human free will, God was able to ultimately bring about certain ends. Perhaps the good of humanity rested on the Jews learning certain moral lessons, and perhaps issuing such harsh commandments was the only way these lessons could be learned.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, if that’s the case, if God could only secure the best interests of humanity by temporarily instituting such crazy rules, then he certainly isn’t much to write home about.” But, as finite humans, we’re in no position to make such statements. In the same way, if I, a mediocre chess player at best, saw a chess master deliberately sacrifice his rook, I would be in no position to criticize him–even though I might personally think the move foolish.

In conclusion, let me address your statement, “In regard to your ‘perhaps … perhaps’ argument - perhaps the God of the Bible is made up, just like the other ones you believe are made up.” In response, I would say–yes, perhaps. In our brief conversation, I’ve made no attempt to prove God’s existence. I’ve simply tried to caution you from falling into dogmatism.

You bring up some good points; I genuinely mean that. But these “problem passages” no more disprove God’s existence than, as Alvin Plantinga illustrates, does the existence of suffering. They pose difficulties for the believer, but they don’t win the argument. And remember, the believer has a number of very powerful arguments up his own sleeve: namely, the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. (People stopped understanding the ontological argument a few hundreds years ago.) And let’s not forget the evidence for the resurrection. N.T. Wright’s work “The Resurrection of the Son of God” shows just how overwhelming some of this latter evidence is. Wright doesn’t prove his point with absolute certainty, but he does make you think.