Monday, January 7, 2008

Onward Atheist Soldiers, Marching As To War

Defenders of religion have sometimes told me that as an atheist I should be careful, because I might throw out the good parts of religion as well as the bad. They have it exactly backward. As an atheist, I can choose what to keep and what to discard from religion – which is just what I do. It’s the believers who are stuck with the whole distasteful mess, though that doesn’t stop them from picking and choosing too.

The other day I was cruising a sleazy area of the Web, looking for action, when I stumbled on the aftermath of a turf war. (Mother warned me to stay away from those parts of town!) Some Christians were up in arms because arch-atheist Richard Dawkins has declared himself a “cultural Christian”, likes to sing Christmas carols, and thinks that three or four of the Ten Commandments are worth keeping. The blogger declared Dawkins a “moral Christian” also, who wants to have his cake and eat it too by denouncing Christianity while keeping its moral base. There ensued over 150 comments, Christians arguing with atheists like Kilkenny cats. It wasn’t pretty, on either side. Some of the Christians in the comments thread listed numerous evils that Judaism and Christianity supposedly repudiate, unlike paganism.

Religious believers like to ask, “But without God, how can you know what’s right and wrong?” My response is that with God – or rather, with people who claim to speak for gods – I can’t know what’s right and wrong. Religion does not provide an absolute, certain, reliable guide to morality. There’s a tendency even among some atheists to claim that all religions have a common base of moral teaching, which even atheists can agree with, even if we don’t believe in gods. This is false. Adherents of a given religion don’t even have a common base of moral teaching among themselves.

The one sure lesson you’ll learn if you look closely at religious morality is that it is not absolute. Lying, polygamy, adultery, human sacrifice, genocide – all these are acceptable, and indeed required under certain circumstances. Just about the only absolute no-no in the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to be homosexuality. Let's look at some of the wickedness that Yahwist religion shares with pagans. (This doesn't let the pagans off the hook either, of course.)

Genocide. There are several places in the Bible where Yahweh orders the massacre of whole human populations along with their livestock (Numbers 21, Joshua 6, 8, 10, 11, etc.); it was for failing to carry out such an order that King Saul fell out of divine favor (1 Samuel 15). The New Testament book of Revelation (chapter 14) promises a worldwide slaughter, which dwarfs anything found in the Old Testament.

(This sort of thing isn’t specific to Judaism and Christianity. In the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, for example, the god Krishna persuades a reluctant warrior to go to battle against his kin, butchering thousands: “With the exception of you,” Krishna tells his hearer, “all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain” (11:32). Some modern Hindus have managed to reinterpret this material as an endorsement of pacifism.)

A Christian graduate student once told me that the biblical massacres were regrettable but necessary: otherwise the inhabitants of those countries would have been enslaved and raped, a fate which God wouldn’t inflict on anyone. It’s a nice thought, but Yahweh didn’t always require total annihilation. In some places he ordered that all males and non-virgin females be killed. The remaining virgin females were to be enslaved (Numbers 31:18: Deuteronomy 20:13ff). “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out” (Judges 2:28). As for rape of captives taken as booty, that too was okay as long as you gave them time to mourn their slaughtered families (Deuteronomy 21:10ff). And it doesn't really matter why Yahweh permits genocide at some times but not at others; what matters is that any apologist who tries to justify it is rejecting the Bible as a source of absolute, unchanging morality. Such an apologist is basically adopting situation ethics, a major bugbear of reactionary Christians in the 1960s for its rejection of absolute moral rules in favor of flexible judgment.

Polygamy and polygny. You need examples? Just about every major male figure in the Hebrew Bible: Jacob, Judah, Moses, David, Solomon -- you name him, he couldn’t keep his tadpole out of the nookie jar. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; Abraham was married to his half-sister (incest is best!), but when she proved barren she gave him her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to impregnate. When Yahweh “opened her womb” and she gave birth to Isaac at the age of 100, she then ordered Abraham to get rid of both Hagar and her son Ishmael (Genesis 21:8ff).

Adultery / whoredom. Judah copulated with a woman he thought was a prostitute he met along the road. Under the veil she was his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, trying to get pregnant after Yahweh had struck both her husband and her brother-in-law Onan dead. When she turned up pregnant a few months later, the family was going to burn her for adultery (even though she had no living husband), but when she proved that Judah was the sire, they let her off. It didn’t occur to anyone to burn Judah for adultery, of course (Genesis 38).

Lying. Yahweh put a lying spirit into the mouth of his prophets to entice Ahab to defeat in a disastrous battle (1 Kings 22). If you want to argue that it’s okay for Yahweh but not for humans to lie (relativist!), consider the bunco racket that Yahweh, Abraham, and Sarah ran in the Near East. They’d come into town and the local king would be so stunned by Sarah’s beauty that he’d beg Abraham, who posed as her brother, for her hand. Abraham would accept a hefty bride price. Then Yahweh would appear to the king in a dream and tell him he was a dead man for marrying a married woman. The king would run to Abraham in terror, asking him why he had told him Sarah was his sister. Well, Abe would drawl, she is my half-sister as well as my wife; I just told you she was my sister so you wouldn’t kill me to get her. He would not insist, or even offer to return the bride-price, and they’d move along to the next town and the next sucker. One time could be brushed off as accidental; but it happens twice in Genesis, chapters 12 and 20. (As Voltaire reportedly said when invited to repeat his experiment with homosex: “Once, a philosopher; twice, a sodomite!”) If my tone here is flippant, the moral level of these episodes is low enough to justify it.

Infanticide. As I mentioned before, Sarah ordered Abraham to drive her slave Tamar and Abraham’s son by Tamar, Ishmael, into the wilderness so Isaac would have no competition as Abraham’s heir. Yahweh assured the reluctant Abraham that he’d protect them. The story makes it clear that without Yahweh’s protection the two would have died in the desert. As far as I can find, the Bible contains no prohibition of infanticide – the killing of “excess” or deformed children as a method of family planning – and this story does not imply anything out-of-the-way about Sarah’s demand. Abraham is upset, but he doesn’t protest that what Sarah wants is wrong, nor does Yahweh rebuke her. In the absence of other evidence, it’s reasonable to suppose that exposing unwanted infants was acceptable in ancient Israelite culture and religion.

I did a cursory search for references to infanticide in the Christian Bible, and it seems that there really aren’t any, even according to a conservative Christian site like this one. Yahweh did forbid the sacrifice of children to Moloch, a rival god, but he also required the “dedication” of Israel’s firstborn to him; like Isaac, they could be redeemed by substituting livestock for sacrifice – which indicates that in earlier times, the children themselves had been sacrificed (Exodus 13, Numbers 18: 14-16).

The passages mentioned as bearing on infanticide include those in which a wicked king – Pharaoh, Herod -- orders the killing of Hebrew infants because a prophecy warned him that one of them would one day overthrow him. In other words, we can kill your kids, but don’t kill ours! The sentiment is understandable, but it’s hardly a pinnacle of moral thought.

What annoys me most about some books I’ve read recently, which attempt to construct morality ‘without God’, is the way they use the Holocaust as the touchstone of moral evil. If it is, you can’t prove it from the Bible, or by Christian history. If modern “secular society” hasn’t left behind the tradition of genocide, it’s not because it rejected biblical teaching. Rather, mass slaughter of enemies is one of those Judeo-Christian cultural values, like singing “Silent Night,” which secular society has preferred to keep. The same Christians who growl about parasitic atheists don’t generally seem to be among the Christians who oppose war, either -- very much the contrary.

In her very effective reaming of Richard Dawkins (Harper’s, November 2006), Marilynne Robinson reminds us: “The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule.” I agree completely, but I am not sure where divinely ordered genocide fits into her argument. Since the biblical massacres are not only in Holy Writ but appear therein as the express command of Yahweh, they cannot be regarded as human misconduct, as the failure of men to live up to His will. On the contrary, it was Saul who fell short of Yahweh’s high standards when he held back on the slaughter of the Amalekhites. Killing babies is not only acceptable but mandatory when they’re heathen babies. The trouble with Higginson’s principle is that believers, and unbelievers too, do not agree on the best elements of religion. Since I gather that Dawkins is a supporter of the war on “Islamofacism” – his fellow “New Atheists” Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens certainly are – he’s not really in a position to cast the first stone at religion. The religiosity of the architects of that war, including the fundamentalist Bush, doesn’t seem to bother him. If anything, this is just one more thing he’s taken from religion for his own, along with Christmas trees.

This is why I wrote elsewhere that “I think we should be more aggressive, and challenge Authoritarians to specify just why, by their lights, they would condemn Eichmann. After all, he obeyed orders without question, just as they want others to do. ‘Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out!’ is a hallowed Judeo-Christian value, so a better question is whether tradition can object to the Holocaust.” I think that the Holocaust (as well as these Biblical genocides, and historical slaughters of populations down to the present) was wrong, but I’m an atheist with no basis for my morals. What is clear is not only that the “Judeo-Christian tradition” can’t oppose the Holocaust, but that the Holocaust fits snugly into that tradition.

I also wrote in the same post that contemporary "traditionalists" are basically relativists, indeed "cultural atheists," who rely on Enlightenment values to justify their demand to practice their beliefs freely, instead of submitting to duly constituted authority. But then the New Atheists rely on the same sleight-of-hand, presenting themselves as absolutists and attacking liberal relativists who won't join their jihad against the Islamofascists, while claiming to stand in the Enlightenment tradition.

Personally I haven't figured out whether I'm an absolutist relativist or a relativist absolutist. There’s obviously much more to say on this subject; I’ll try to return to it soon.