This is a response to ‘from synapse to byte’s’ [STB] article ‘Scrapping Morality’ found here.
Complaints regarding certain passages, especially in the Old Testament, have been a matter of heated debate on the internet in recent years. None more so than passages regarding certain case laws and moral actions found in the historical narratives and legal sections of the Old Testament. One reason I have not written on this topic before is because there are already so many good replies already in existence (far superior to this one as well – I will provide some links at the bottom for suggestions) but also because there is nowhere near the same level of scandal among academics. The claim that these passages cause Judaism / Christianity such a huge problem they cannot possibly overcome their implications is almost entirely a popularist one. However, since this article was recommended to me by the writer of it I would like to explain why I don’t find his complaints to be seriously problematic.
The first complaint he makes is his idea that a personal being cannot be the proper grounding for an objective morality because a person’s claims are subjective and therefore cannot properly ground an objective truth (true analytically a priori). STB has not given a definition of ‘objective moral values’ (and doesn’t do so properly in the entire article strangely enough) so I’m concerned he’s defining this in a way philosophers would not since the belief that God can be the proper grounding for objective moral values is not contrary to how professional philosophers define objective moral values. Objective moral values are referred to as a view called moral realism in philosophy. Take a couple of definitions by top-level philosophers:
“Moral realism is the theory that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity: such as judgements, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them.”
(Russ Shafer-Landau – ‘Moral Realism – A Defense’ p.2)
“Realism holds that moral judgements can be true or false, that sometimes they are true and that what makes them true is independent from people’s (or groups of people’s) beliefs, judgements or desires.”
(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.77)
“Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”
(Geoff Sayre-McCord – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Moral Realism, 2009)
So the question is whether God’s character can be an appropriate grounding for moral values and yet they can be objective. The obvious answer is yes. The view that morals are objective is merely that there is some reason for thinking moral values can be factually right or wrong on the basis of some factor. It’s actually an equivocation to use the word ‘subject’ to refer to the basis of that objectivity as the personality of God. Of course God is a ‘subject’, in the sense of being a person, but it is not God’s belief that certain moral actions are wrong which make them wrong but rather his nature (his essential character). This would be why all three of these philosophers cited would have no problem with God being a logically possible grounding for objective moral values. This is why Shafer-Landau contrasts them with “human being[s]” and Fisher with “people’s beliefs.” Therefore, to attempt to make the case that God’s character cannot be a legitimate grounding for objective moral values is either to be using the phrase objective moral values differently from professional philosophers or to be equivocating on the word ‘subject’. After all, if that were the case then any objective truth claim made by a person would be ‘subjective’ in the sense that it’s being made by a subject. But an objective truth claim made by a ‘subject’ (in that sense) does not make the truth of the statement ‘subjective’ (in the sense of not being objectively true). If that were the case then anyone claiming 2+2=4 could not make the claim it is objectively true! I seriously doubt STB is claiming there are no facts of any kind made by persons which can be objectively true which is why this criticism is confused (not to mention self-defeating since the claim appears to claim objectivity and yet it’s perpetrated by a person/subject!).
Then STB turns his attention to the claim that the source of morality could possibly be the Abrahamic God. He says:
“This incoherent concept of this subjective objectivity as the foundation of morality reaches absurdity when we add to the mix the actual moral decrees made by the Abrahamic god. A consistent moral law-giver might deserve some respect, but a cursory look at the ever-changing whims of the biblical god makes this god appear as objective as a 3-year-old in a candy shop.”
So his complaint appears to be that Yahweh (the Abrahamic God) has inconsistent and changing moral values over time. He then cites three examples: rape, slavery, and genocide.
The first thing to point out is that anyone can hold to objective moral values and still think that different moral actions are right moral actions in differing circumstances. In short, moral realists do not have to hold to moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is the view that there is only ever one moral response to a certain situation (eg. “Abortion is always wrong”). But one would still be considered a moral realist (again, by the definitions professional philosophers use) if one thought that abortion is always wrong unless it takes place before the eighth week. That is still to have a belief about the factual rightness or wrongness of abortion and so constitutes a moral realist view. So STB needs to be more careful not to imply that any circumstantial change to a moral value does not imply a rejection of moral realism because it’s not. To reject moral realism would be to argue that there can never be any situation where there is a right or wrong moral action and clearly no theist holds that view.
His essentially argument of inconsistency boils down to arguing:
1. Those who hold to objective morality must believe moral commands can never change.
2. Theists claim to hold to objective morality.
3. Theists believe moral commands can change.
C. Theists are internally inconsistent.
The obvious problem is the fallacious definition found in premise 1. Because it’s based on an incorrect understanding of what theists actually believe the argument is obviously invalid (it’s a straw man in other words).
Let us briefly take on these three examples however:
1. STB cites Judges 21:10-22 as evidence that Yahweh once thought that rape is morally permissible. This is a part of the narrative where more than four hundred virgins from Jabesh-gilead are taken for the men of the tribe of Benjamin. It is a shame that STB does not interact with any biblical scholarship at this point since if he had he would have noticed why this is a very bad passage to use for what he wants. For a start there is nothing said by Yahweh in Judges 21 which makes the case look very shoddy. Worse than that, however, is the ending of the story where the writer comments, after telling the story:
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
So not only is there no mention of Yahweh affirming what Benjamin did at this point in the narrative there is actually a strong denouncement of what they did immediately after telling what happened.
As the professor of Old Testament, David T. Lamb states on this chapter:
“The perspective of the text toward the men who committed the gang rape in Judges in highly negative, and the outrage of the men of Israel against the perpetrators of this heinous crime leads to civil war (Judges 19-21)… The Bible includes numerous examples of violent behaviour, but we shouldn’t assume that simply because these stories are included in the Old Testament that the behaviour is being condoned.”
David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.94
So not only does STB fail to note that the text itself condemns the actions recorded in Judges 21 but he also fails to notice that this action by the tribe of Benjamin caused the remaining tribes of Israel to go to civil war against Benjamin in protest to what they were doing.
Quite clearly this passage does not vindicate what STB thinks it does – in fact it does quite the opposite.
2. STB’s second example is slavery. He proposes that Abrahamic religions will today condemn slavery whereas in the OT Yahweh condones such a thing (Leviticus 25:44-46).
Despite this claim, however, there is quite a significant amount of scholarship which has argued that what we call slavery today is a very different phenomenon from the ‘slavery’ (many prefer to call it ‘voluntary servitude’ or ‘bonded service’) of the OT. A great many OT scholars have pointed this out  but STB again fails to interact with any of them which makes his case rather dubious. Here is the OT scholar Christopher J.H. Wright:
“First, slavery in relatively small societies like Israel was qualitatively vastly different from slavery in the large imperial civilizations… We must put out of our mind pictures such as the Roman gallery slaves of ‘Ben Hur’, or the neck-irons, slave-ships and sugar plantations of modern black slavery when we read the word ‘slave’ in the Old Testament. It is not even the most helpful translation of the word ‘ebed, which basically meant a bonded worker, and in some circumstances could be a term of high office when applied to royal servants. In the pastoral-agricultural society of Israel slaves were largely residential, domestic workers. In many cases they would have been debtors working off their debt through bonded labour to their creditor. Secondly, slavery in the Old Testament was not simply tolerated with a ‘rubber stamp’ of uncritical approval. Aspects of Old Testament thought and practice in this area virtually ‘neutralized’ slavery as an institution and sowed the seeds of its radical rejection in much later Christian thinking. Certainly these aspects, to which we now turn, made Israel unquestionably unique in the ancient world in its attitude to slavery. This is a fact unanimously acknowledged by ancient Near Eastern scholars.”
Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.333
Wright then goes on to number a long list of characteristics to Old Testament slavery which are radically different from what we think of when we think of slavery in modern times. The fact that slavery was voluntary, slaves were to be freed in the seventh year and released with what we would today call unemployment benefit, they were protected from bodily harm, and there was a law of asylum for runaway slaves. Listen to Christian philosopher Craig Hovey in his response to Sam Harris on this topic:
“Now, it is true that the Old Testament gives clear commands about the treatment of slaves. But what is most striking is something Harris completely ignores: the Bible’s trajectory of liberation that inspired the abolitionists. In the same way that Jacob sells himself into Laban’s employ (Genesis 30-31) or a present-day soldier agrees to serve for a certain number of years in exchange for college funding, the slavery laws in the Bible regulate a contractual system of debt-payment for those too poor to pay by other means. It was an ancient system that, in Israel’s life, provided an option for people otherwise trapped in poverty. In historical context, moreover, Israel’s specific regulations regarding slavery were much more humane than its neighbours’. The regulations are oriented toward the goal of freeing slaves by forgiving their debts before they have been “worked off.” Freedom rather than ownership is the operating principle.”
Craig Hovey What makes us moral? p.61,2
The New Testament rejection of slave trading can clearly still take a moral realist view of slavery due to the changing social conditions at that time. The severe problems of poverty common in largely nomadic societies were now quite different from the social structures they then found themselves in. This is why, by the way, quite a number of the Old Testament case law was abandoned as well.
3. His third example is “genocide” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). The immediate problem with citing Deuteronomy 7 as a proof text for Yahweh being pro-genocide is that many scholars see this complete destruction in relation to the religion and occult practices of the Canaanites rather than the Canaanites as a people group. (Deuteronomy 7:3–5; 12:2,3; cp. Exodus 34:12,13) As Peter C. Craigie notes on the Deuteronomy 7 passage:
“Any kind of treaty would be a compromise and would lead to disaster; therefore the Israelites were to destroy systematically the physical religious ‘furniture’ of their enemies, indicating thereby their complete lack of recognition for the god of their enemies.”
Peter C. Craigie The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) p.177
Even then it does not appear that it is merely the fact that they worship idols and break the first commandment that God brings judgement on them. Many historians have noted that their religious practices included both bestiality and regular infant sacrifice.
Further evidence that the judgement on the Canaanites was not racially motivated is that later on in the prophets the Jebusites (descended from the third son of Canaan) are incorporated into the new Israelites. (Zechariah 9:7 / Matthew 15:21) [See The Illustrated Bible Dictionary p.737] In other words not only were they permitted to live and not be killed but they were to be reconciled to God and be a part of the chosen people of God (we see this already through the stories of Hagar and Ruth as well by the way).
Yet more evidence exists that no such ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites was even attempted, even less achieved by the Israelites since the most dramatic accounts of the defeat of the Canaanites are found in the book of Joshua which has been noted by scholars as having all the hallmarks of Ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric and hagiography. This is why the book of Judges makes it very clear not all the people were even displaced geographically. As Lamb points out:
“The major point of similarity between the biblical conquest narratives and those of their neighbours is the hyperbolic language. The hyperbolic nature of the two Joshua texts can be seen when they are examined alongside other texts. While Joshua 10:40 and Joshua 11:12-15 speak of everyone being destroyed, elsewhere in Joshua and Judges a very different perspective is given. These other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they couldn’t even drive all of them out of the land (Joshua 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judges 1:19-34)… To reconcile these two divergent perspectives on Israel’s conquest, a nonliteral reading of the texts which speak of “all” people being destroyed is required.”
David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.77
Wright also makes the same point:
“We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare. Israel, like other nations of the ancient Near East whose documents we possess, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality on the ground. Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted. It is well known, for example, that the book of Joshua describes the conquest in rhetorically total terms – all the land is captured, all the kings are defeated, all the people without survivors are destroyed. Yet the book of Judges sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from completed and went on for some considerable time. So even in the Old Testament itself, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is. We need, therefore, in reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what is commanded to be done, or recorded as accomplished, to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.”
Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.474,5
The philosopher Richard Swinburne has made it clear why God has the right to judge human beings in the way he does with the Canaanites (whom he gave four hundred years to repent before judging them and therefore cannot be judged as having done so in a moment of anger or “on a whim”):
“If God is our creator, our life comes as a temporary gift from him; and he can take it back when he chooses. If A has the right to take something back from B, A has the right to allow someone else to take it back for him. And if A is God, he has the right to command someone else on his behalf to end a life. God therefore has the right to order the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. God’s reasons for issuing this command, according to the Old Testament, was to preserve the young monotheistic religion of Israel from lethal spiritual infection by the polytheism of the Canaanites, a religion which included child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. Such spiritual infection was without doubt a very real danger. When monotheism had become more deeply rooted in Israel, such an extreme measure was not, according to the Old Testament, required again. It was a defensive measure necessary to preserve the identity of the people of Israel. While the Israelites would not have had the right to take this extreme measure without the explicit command of God, he had the right to issue that command.”
Richard Swinburne ‘What does the Old Testament Mean?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.224
A hermeneutical warning is also worth raising here too. As philosopher Eleonore Stump warned Louise Antony on this same issue:
“… it is especially important in presenting an interpretation of a text to consider alternative readings. To support one interpretation is to support it over others. But then those others need to be canvassed, and something needs to be done to show why they are to be rejected.”
Eleonore Stump ‘Comments on ‘Does God love us?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.48
This is, unfortunately, the exact same methodology which STB employs. He states his own interpretation of these texts but completely fails to interact with professional scholarship on their interpretation at all. Zero interaction. The principle of charity is also completely ignored. It’s as if the views of the professionals matters not one jot to him. This seriously brings into question whether his interpretation of them is indeed the better one.
Now STB offers a couple more biblical passages but if he interacted with scholarship instead of asserting his own interpretation of them he would be forced to reconsider what he is attempting to draw from them. He needs to realize that many accounts of history in the Old Testament are just that and not every story mentioned is a vindication of what people did in that story (thus there is no vindication of Lot’s behaviour and neither is there a divine ethic being taught in the poetry of Psalm 137:9 instead of a very human emotional outburst in the face of what Babylon has done to Israel in the context of the exile). Since I have already done this at length with the three main examples he chose so far I see no need to comment on all of them. Answers to the other ones can easily be looked up.
Briefly I would also like to suggest that the advocating of the ‘Golden Rule’ by Jesus was not to borrow a ‘secular’ principle as STB claims. Just because there were Jewish Rabbis and other religious teachers who have taught this principle before Jesus does not make his ethical framework any less radical. After all, to the contrary, the Golden Rule is not found in some amorphous consequentialist metaethic but rather in a profoundly religious and teleological one. There are principles in Jesus’ ethics which challenge even this rule of thumb (“love your enemies” and “forgive seventy times seven” – in other words endlessly). It’s important that one does not attempt to suggest, as STB does, that Jesus’ ethics can be summarized by some individualistic or relative interpretation of the Golden Rule – they cannot.
STB finishes by suggesting that he is not a moral realist himself and rather that his ‘morality’ simply ‘works’ for him. This is rather self-destructive to his case however. If STB is claiming that Yahweh’s morality does not work for him personally then that’s fine but that is something very different from offering a logical refutation of either moral realism or the ethical standards of the God of the Bible. In order to do that STB would have needed to have constructed a moral realism of his own and then shown it was more probably correct than any other form of realism and that Yahweh does not meet it. Instead he appears to be suggesting that there really are no moral rights or wrongs in any objective sense. That’s fine but this means his case against Christianity cannot amount to anymore than noting that it has very different standards of ethics than his own personal standards he lives by which leaves him personally with a bad feeling. What moral outrage does not accomplish is to suggest that it makes the other person wrong. It just means he feels outraged by the moral standards of Yahweh. But that does not equate to Yahweh is morally wrong. For him to be morally wrong STB would need to embrace moral realism in some form and his blog makes it pretty clear he rejects moral realism (objective moral truths). Notice that I’m not saying STB cannot attempt to question the internal logic of the Christian view (clearly he attempts that) but what he cannot do is suggest that different moral perspectives to his own are wrong moral perspectives (and he certainly sounds a lot like that by the end).
I therefore submit that we barely even have a substantial criticism of Christian ethics being made by STB and certainly not the logical refutation he claimed to have achieved. But then I think that is true of this criticism as portrayed by the New Atheists of late on the whole anyway. If only they would read and interact with scholarship on this matter.
STB’s responses to this refutation has been essentially to complain that he does not have the time to interact with scholarship on these matters (although appearing to know said scholarship well enough to know it’s a load of hogwash!), to complain that it’s not worth studying a subject formally if scholars have differing opinions (in which case I suppose he does not study any subject at a scholarly level), an ad hominem attack (questioning people’s motivations), and to formulate this handy syllogism:
- P1: Christians hold that whatever their god condones is moral.
- P2: Christians hold that the apparent condoning of activity “X” found in the bible is not immoral because the activity is actually a diminutive “x”.
- C1: Therefore, Christians hold that “X” would be immoral even if their god condoned “X”. (P2)
- C2: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P1 & C1)
- P3: Christians would refuse to follow diminutive “x” because they deem it immoral.
- C3: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P2 & P4)
I wonder if you can figure out why I am not even going to bother responding to this syllogism? I encourage STB to offer it up for publication in a philosophical journal and see what happens. (He also appears unaware that conclusions are supposed to follow from the premises!) I doubt one is well placed to write supposed formal disproofs of Christianity if one cannot even write a basic, logically valid, syllogism and also not manage to assess the religion aright.
This highly superficial approach of STB’s is further evidenced in posts such as this one where he cites a list of reasons he abandoned Christianity. His list of reasons are a complete and utter car wreck all the way through (and also indicate that he did not understand Christianity very well though he claims to have been one once) but he even claims that rape is “condoned or encouraged” in the Bible. No doubt this ludicrous statement comes from his hermeneutical inadequacies evidenced by the fact that he appears unable to distinguish between a report of something and the recommendation of it. The fact that he could not admit to his serious and obvious misreading of Judges 21 was an indication that such a person is not interested in truth or practicing the principle of charity but desperate to sling enough mud in the hope some of it sticks. This is indicative of the desperation of much New Atheism.
 Here are some very worthwhile lectures for further research:
Here are some links showing some slightly different approaches to the issue from a Christian perspective:
I strongly recommend the books I cited in this blog post but especially: