Thursday, 2 January 2014

Review of "Is God a Moral Monster" by Paul Copan

Well, is God a moral monster?  In looking at Copan’s answer to the question I’ll draw a distinction between “factual” monstrosity and “moral” monstrosity.

A factual statement does not automatically coincide with a moral statement.  If person A clenches his fist and brings the fist, at speed, into contact with the face of person B then person A has punched person B.  This is just a plain fact. 

Whether person A, though, did wrong depends on other factors.  If person B was trying to rob person A then person A has a good case for arguing that he bears no guilt for the punch.  The fact is unavoidable, the guilt not.

Absent God and a certain view of ethics, though, there are some actions that are universally condemnable and, so, we can move straight from establishing the facts to (adversely) judging the morals of the situation.  Genocide, for example, has no excuses.  If person A attempted to wipe out a complete people, then there is no argument about whether they did so wrongly.  Establishing that person A did attempt to wipe out a complete people is enough to establish the fact of genocide and moral culpability.

Let’s call acts and characteristics where establishing the facts also establishes the moral judgement “monstrous”.    Dawkins’ characterisation of the Old Testament God gives some examples:
“(J)ealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Whether someone is jealous is a fact, as is whether they are proud, or petty or (given a concept of “justice”) unjust, and so on.  If they exhibit these characteristics we can say that they are “factually monstrous” and, as all of these (especially together) need only the fact to be established to establish moral culpability, if they are factually monstrous then they are morally monstrous.

There is a problem with this reasoning where one subscribes, as Copan does, to the idea that morality derives from God (“divine command ethics” or “DCE”).  If morality derives from God then God can do no wrong.  Were God to exhibit these characteristics then He would not be morally monstrous, under DCE the idea is absurd.  God would, though, still be factually monstrous: if He were jealous then it would be a fact that He was jealous.  
-          Ignoring DCE anyone who is factually monstrous is also morally monstrous,
-          With DCE the factual and moral monstrosity are separate issues.

As a result, without DCE, a defence of the Old Testament God requires an argument that these apparent facts are nothing of the sort.  Either that the events described did not happen, or they have been mischaracterised as jealous, proud, petty and unjust ethnic cleansing, misogyny, homophobia and so on.
DCE, though, gives Copan an alternative defence.  Yes, God may be a jealous, proud, petty and unjust….but He is morally entitled to be.  A God may be a jealous, proud, petty and unjust…. and still be good.

And this argument Copan relies on. 

Perhaps, rightly, thinking that showing that God is not a factual monster is more persuasive, Copan begins by arguing that the straightforward reading is incorrect.  Things have been misinterpreted, the Mosiac law was an “interim” measure, the laws on slavery were a great improvement on other laws in the region at the time, and so on.  But there are places where this argument fails. 

Copan seems to realise that he is not persuasive in arguing that the genocides and ethnic cleansing were not genocides and ethnic cleansing and argues, in effect, that God judged and if He judged then it’s right.  No argument is offered to persuade us that the supernatural killing of Uzzah for touching the ark in order to protect it was not petty, unjust, and vindictive other than it not being petty, unjust, and vindictive if God decides that’s what should happen.  Copan defends the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath by referencing other draconian punishments.  “Often, when first-time violations were committed in the midst of this fledgling nation, a harsh punishment came with it.” (p 89) Copan admits the facts of the monstrosity and relies on this being God’s decision for a moral defence.

The starkest example of the application of DCE comes when Copan references a study on attitudes to the destruction of Jericho.  Two versions of the story of Jericho were put to schoolchildren, the biblical story and one re-set in China without the intervention of God.  The children disapproved of the actions when in a non-theological setting but assessed the self-same facts approvingly when God was involved.  Copan approves of this difference: God could morally require factually monstrous acts because He had judged the Canaanite culture “irredeemable” and had the right so to do (p161).

This is disturbing.  That there are adherents to DCE means there is a class of person for whom nothing is so vile, so monstrous, so disgusting that, were they to believe it was commanded by God, they would give the vile, monstrous, disgusting actions their wholehearted approval.  More, we must be wary that there might be no act so vile that these people would not, on that account, refuse to believe that it was commanded by God.

Disturbing, but is the book any good?  I do not hold to DCE, but there are arguments for the view that can be made.  Following from this there is a defence of the Old Testament God that could be made: it doesn’t matter how factually monstrous He is, He is not morally monstrous.

As noted above, though, Copan does not limit himself to this defence.  Copan also seeks to remove the impression that the Old Testament God is factually monstrous. It’s a difficult task and, ironically, the attempt just makes matters worse (at least to this reader).   There is always the retort to the Dawkins-like objector that they simply misrepresent the Old Testament.  Perhaps the objector has not even read the Old Testament.  Or, if they have, they haven’t studied it.  Or if they have then they have missed out historical context, or their understanding of Hebrew is poor, or...  But here we have someone who has studied the Old Testament, who has researched the historical context, who has looked into the Hebrew behind the translations.  Reading Copan we can be confident that, no, the death penalty for dissolute sons is not a misreading.  Neither are God’s fits of rage when the Israelites flirt with other gods, or His prohibitions against intermarriage.  As one, vicariously, studies the Old Testament it seems to be better established that God really is all those things Dawkins accused him of being, not less.  Together with that, many of Copan’s defences fall well short of the mark.

Take God’s “jealousy”.  Copan points out, rightly, that some jealousy is good.  He gives the example of a woman who, hyperbolically, threatens to shoot her husband if he were ever unfaithful.  (p 35).  This would be fine for a defence of a God who emphasised His devotion to a people by, jokingly, threatening to enslave them all if they ever crossed him.  It’s not a defence of a God who actually does that (Judges 3:8).  The jealousy of God described by Copan is not the jealousy of the not-actually-trigger-happy wife.  God’s jealousy is the jealousy of the husband who slaps his wife for smiling at the waiter.  It is the jealousy of the wife who hits her husband because he went to the office Christmas party, were there were other women in a social situation.  

Misogyny?  One of Copan’s counter-arguments is that mothers are mentioned alongside fathers in a number of places! His counter to the enforced marriage of a raped woman is that was for her benefit. I find this argument rather repulsive, it’s reminiscent of slave owners and colonialists pleas that their actions were there to help the (inferior) slaves and natives. 

The nadir is Copan’s argument that the Israelites’ interactions with the Canaanites, Amorites, Perizzites, Amalekites et. al.  weren’t “ethnic cleansing”. 

There were other peoples in Canaan when the Israelites turned up.  Sometimes the Israelites moved in and intermingled, sometimes the Israelites accepted others into their lands, sometimes the Israelites had good relations with their neighbours.  But sometimes the Israelites invaded other people’s lands with the express aim of moving them off the land and the Israelites on.  

To move into a people’s territory with the express intention of removing that people from that territory so the territory can be occupied solely by another people is ethnic cleansing.  And when Israelites invaded other people’s lands with the express aim of moving them off the land and the Israelites on they ethnically cleansed.  It is as clear as forming a fist and bringing it rapidly into contact with someone’s chin is punching them.  It’s a simple fact of the matter.

Copan argues that, elsewhere in the Bible, God issues demands for racial inclusivity.  That, elsewhere in the Bible, the Israelites followed this command.  That, elsewhere in the Bible, the Israelites were pretty hard on themselves. (p 163) This is all utterly irrelevant.  It matters not whether they had a consistent policy of ethnic cleansing, whether ethnic cleansing was an aberration or whether they were otherwise really nice guys.  It matters not whether the Canaanites deserved to be ethnically cleansed (p 164): if x is an instance of justified ethnic cleansing then x is an instance of ethnic cleansing.  

Copan though, just will not have it.  We can add to the faults of the DCE adherents the tendency not just to justify the monstrous, not just to accept the monstrous as the word of God but also the willingness to deny the clear evidence of monstrosity staring them in the face.

And a simple refusal to accept the facts in front of you cannot make for a worthwhile work.


Anonymous said...

Damn you're a stupid fucktard...
Dumb fuck brainwashed sick fuck hypocrite!

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for your comment. Although I don't see why an American would get so worked up about the UK's membership of the EU.

Did you intend to post this comment against my review of "Cold Case Christianity"? Feel free to post to "Why is Britain in the EU?". Please, though, don't be "anonymous".