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When Theologians Defend Genocide and Infanticide

May 29, 2011

Greta Christina is right to be aghast at theologian William Lane Craig’s moral defense of divinely commanded infanticide, but wrong to see his defense as a reason why religion is so messed up.  It’s messed up, of course, but not because a theologian tries to get God off the hook for ordering the slaughter of newborns.

As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, the religious narrative that interprets God as actually having ordered genocide and infanticide doesn’t simply clash with Christianity’s meta-narrative of salvation history; if incorporated into it, the Christian story is fundamentally rewritten.  Salvation becomes not merely dependent on God’s suffering of violence freely and sinfully chosen by human beings, but on humankind’s obedience to the role of annihilator, a role that purifies the way for Mary’s “Yes” and the Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This revision grants the infliction of genocidal violence a sanctifying and salvific role—a necessary divinely-intended part to play in salvation history. Purifying violence committed by human beings becomes a prerequisite for God’s redemptive suffering, and as a result, a new gospel that marries violence and salvation is written.

Religious defenses of mass murder result not from religion itself, but from religious thinking divorced from sound moral reasoning.  I’m a religious believer, but when someone insists that a horrendous evil was or is morally permissible because God apparently gave it a thumbs up, I lower my thumb to this conception of God.

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  1. addicted permalink
    May 29, 2011 3:02 pm

    “Religious defenses of mass murder result not from religion itself, but from religious thinking divorced from sound moral reasoning”

    But since for most religious people, all their moral reasoning is derived from their religious thinking.

    Doesn’t it all just become a tautology at this point? If your religious thinking tells you that genocide is good because God commanded it, well, your moral reasoning will probably lead to the same conclusion too.

  2. May 29, 2011 3:15 pm

    Greta Christina is usually incapable of following basic philosophical arguments, so I don’t expect much from her, but I’m a little surprised the looseness of your argument here. Craig’s point is that how one faces a question like this depends on one’s account of moral obligation; since Craig is a divine command theorist, obligations don’t work in this kind of case the way they would elsewhere. The assumption of moral licitness derived from necessity that you presuppose in the Per Caritatem post, for instance, is simply not operative here, nor (as far as I can see) do any of the consequences you are suggesting actually follow from the assumptions Craig actually makes in his argument; the association with Craig’s argument seems to be purely by vague analogy — at least, I don’t see anything here that suggests otherwise.

    Really, the only adequate response to Craig is serious argument for a better theory of obligation and dispensation; anything else amounts to an attempt to overcome reasoned argument with emotional associations, and that, however right the emotional associations and however wrong the reasoned argument, will never do much good, and runs the danger of degenerating easily into cheap, self-satisfied kudos for our superior moral taste without our having done anything actually to address the problem.

    • May 29, 2011 5:56 pm

      You’re expecting more from my post than I intended to give. As you note, I didn’t directly respond to Craig’s argument, his understanding of moral obligation, or his divine command theory. Had I done so, I may have produced a better post, but doing so wasn’t my aim. My response was more to Christina than to Craig, to her association of this reading of Scripture to religion in general than to Craig’s handling of the hermeneutic problem. Hence my reference to previous things I’ve written in response to a reason given for why God seemed to order genocide.

      I’m not sure I’m in much danger of “cheap, self-satisfied kudos” for my absolute condemnation of genocide and infanticide. It’s not as though I’m taking a dismissive, morally superior stance toward arguments in opposition to my political or economic opinions. No matter the hermeneutic or moral gymnastics taken to get there, a literal reading of the “commanding of genocide” passages in the Bible results in a repugnant and abominable idea of the divine, one I have no hesitation rejecting. I don’t feel the need to “address the problem” because I don’t see it as a problem. I don’t need to get God or those apparently following his orders off the hook for murder. I don’t believe God actually made such a command.

      • May 29, 2011 7:39 pm

        No matter the hermeneutic or moral gymnastics taken to get there, a literal reading of the “commanding of genocide” passages in the Bible results in a repugnant and abominable idea of the divine, one I have no hesitation rejecting.

        But this is precisely what I mean: it’s one thing to recognize absolutely that genocide and infanticide is wrong; you’ve again reduced the matter to how you feel about an idea, which raises the danger of smug self-satisfaction at the superiority of one’s moral taste rather than an actual addressing of the problem (you’d never believe anything so awful of God, etc.). Not that this is necessarily what you’re doing, since I don’t think so, but your suggestion that your argument isn’t in any danger of enabling such an attitude is (as far as I can see) just plain wrong.

      • May 29, 2011 11:50 pm

        I’m judging the idea of a God who orders genocide as repugnant and abominable (I’ve called it perverse elsewhere), but I don’t see a reduction here. I could discuss in detail and actual argumentation the reason why I judge it as such, but is this really necessary given my limited aim? It’s pretty clear, I think, that I’m asserting much much more than I’m arguing. When I wrote, “religious defenses of mass murder result not from religion itself, but from religious thinking divorced from sound moral reasoning,” I didn’t follow that claim with explanation or argumentation. I just said it. I didn’t support it. I didn’t make an argument for it. I didn’t mean to.

    • May 29, 2011 6:31 pm

      On the other hand, Craig does make the “purification of Israel” argument that I consider incompatible with the Christian narrative of salvation history, so what I say in my post does relate to his article, even if I didn’t give his theory of obligation sufficient treatment:

      But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7.3-4). This command is part and parcel of the whole fabric of complex Jewish ritual law distinguishing clean and unclean practices. To the contemporary Western mind many of the regulations in Old Testament law seem absolutely bizarre and pointless: not to mix linen with wool, not to use the same vessels for meat and for milk products, etc. The overriding thrust of these regulations is to prohibit various kinds of mixing. Clear lines of distinction are being drawn: this and not that. These serve as daily, tangible reminders that Israel is a special people set apart for God Himself.

      I spoke once with an Indian missionary who told me that the Eastern mind has an inveterate tendency toward amalgamation. He said Hindus upon hearing the Gospel would smile and say, “Sub ehki eh, sahib, sub ehki eh!” (“All is One, sahib, All is One!” [Hindustani speakers forgive my transliteration!]). It made it almost impossible to reach them because even logical contradictions were subsumed in the whole. He said that he thought the reason God gave Israel so many arbitrary commands about clean and unclean was to teach them the Law of Contradiction!

      By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

      • May 29, 2011 8:36 pm

        I think you are conflating two distinct issues here, since the narrative of salvation history on the one hand and salvation history on the other are not the same thing. It’s already in the the narrative of Christian salvation history; I mean, Craig can point you to specific chapter and verse of the narrative, and we Christians don’t get to pick and choose what we’re going to count as Scripture, which is the only narrative of Christian salvation history. (And this is true even given that, since the conquest narrative is following standard conquest narrative conventions of the time, including ritualistic figures of speech about total destruction, the literalistic reading Craig presupposes is almost certainly wrong.) Given this, the questions, “What role does this have in the narrative?” and “What role does this have specifically with the respect to Christ as salvific end?” are two different questions. Saying, “it doesn’t have any” to the latter doesn’t get anyone out of answering the former, and an answer to the former doesn’t carry over to the latter. And Craig is clearly answering the former, not the latter; he just thinks, as do the objectors he has in mind, that the narrative describes a history. But not all history, even Scriptural history, has straightforward and specific application to salvation history, which is a set of thematic bonds between events in the narrative.

        I think, strangely enough, that you, unlike Craig, are not doing justice to the objections. Craig’s answer is not correct for a number of reasons, but it is specifically formulated to be proportionate to the objections. However, you seem to be treating them as much more easily dismissed than they are. We can talk all we wish about how our God would not actually command genocide; we still have to give an adequate account of why our sacred text says, apparently quite specifically and explicitly, that He did and, unless we deny that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with Scripture as canon, why God would permit the canonical text of His Church to have passages of this sort. The problem of Why does not vanish simply on the dismissal of the view that God actually commanded it; the Why question is a weaker question then, but it’s still there. Unless we start cutting and pasting Scripture, this requires looking at the actual function of the commands in the historical narrative, whether we are taking it literally or not; and this is what Craig is doing. It just comes out as a bit of a slap in the face because Craig does, in fact, take the narrative literally. As Craig notes, the whole thing turns out to be a question of (1) views of Scripture and (2) theories of obligation.

        Craig is a famous debater, and one of the reasons he tends to trounce people in debates is that (1) he is good at proportioning his arguments to the objections to which he is responding and (2) he is very good at laying rational traps. If he sets things up in such a way that there seems a nice and shiny moral high ground for you just right there and obvious, you can be completely sure that he’s deliberately rigged things so that he’s herding you in that direction — he rarely leaves an opening unless he’s doing it to argue that someone has no non-question-begging response to his argument, or that rejecting his argument requires a great deal more than his opponents are admitting. It’s easy enough to find obvious examples in his answer, but I think there’s a more subtle case here. Craig also picks and chooses his priorities carefully; and it’s pretty clear in his response that one of his primary goals is to herd atheists who might make this objection into one of two situations: either one in which their only response is a purely emotional for which they are giving no non-question-begging arguments or one in which they have to concede an interpretation of the narrative that assumes definitely Christian principles. In fact, he as much as notifies everyone he is doing this in the first half of his response, and alludes to it throughout. The actual thrust of the full argument is something like: if you condemn genocide, you do so because you presuppose principles the Christian can recognize as Christian, and the most the Christian has to do is give up biblical inerrancy; determining whether the Christian actually has to do this even given condemnation of genocide. depends on precise details of one’s ethical theory; on some ethical theories, such as Craig’s, event his wouldn’t be necessary; so the problem has no necessary negative implications for Christian doctrine. The latter is not a side issue; it’s the whole point, for all that he doesn’t come out and say, “This is the whole point.” The only weaknesses here are the assumptions of literalism — which, however, carry over from the objections and so don’t affect the overall argument considered as a response to them– and assumptions about obligation. I suspect (and I think it conforms to how Craig has handled similar disputes elsewhere) that faced with your argument, Craig would simply respond, “OK, but now we’re dealing with a very different matter: a purely in-house discussion among Christians as to the best way to interpret passages in Scripture. It has very little to do with the original objections.”

      • May 29, 2011 11:53 pm

        I think you are conflating two distinct issues here, since the narrative of salvation history on the one hand and salvation history on the other are not the same thing.

        I would speak of multiple narratives of salvation history, but also of salvation history itself as being a narrative.

        I think, strangely enough, that you, unlike Craig, are not doing justice to the objections.

        Strangely enough, I agree! I haven’t dealt with the objections at all. Wasn’t my purpose.

  3. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    May 29, 2011 10:39 pm

    What a creepy idea for a post, though I am not attributing the bulk of the creepiness to you. Frankly, I give as much seriousness to this as one of those recent commercials for something (a car, an erection remedy, or a flavored juice, I really can’t remember) which features epic and archetypal Mayan figures hoorahing next to a sun-drenched Temple presumably after their human sacrifice. Can we all just leave off the attenuated brutal savage bit, and just concentrate on what really bites about modern religiosity?? Somehow the dramatic Tarzanesque vibe about savage practices is used to hide the more tawdry, and to me more stupid daily facts of religious life. If you want to confront something hard, confront those, not some Abrahamic-Mayan fantasy. There are a million Catholic bloggers on line engaged in, what seems to me, endless onanism to defend and rationalize a simple fact. The Church to which they belong, which has a very interesting and profound history in its own way, is now engaged in the most silly political campaigns which actually often militate against the very goals they seem to espouse. There is a bizarre immolation in that very fact. Pardon me for being a little flippant, but dramatic sacrifices are not nearly as damaging as the now perpetual denial that this ancient Church engages in. And if I can get terribly serious for a moment, think of all the people who have chose self-immolation because of the deadly conundrums of this ancient Church, engaged in so much chicanery, which often kills people’s spiritual and psychological lives, rather than face the implacable face of an ever-evading institution which they are told to love. In my view, it takes a special kind of devotion to love such a church. But special is not — and I am not trying specifically to be cruel — virtue in any way. Or holiness. That is the moral reasoning to face.

  4. Miguel permalink
    May 30, 2011 6:51 pm

    Doesn’t all this presuppose the legitimacy of applying certain moral categories to God, if such a thing can be done at all?

    It seems to me if we are to ask why the texts portray God (even if meteorically) as having commanded people to do something we deem atrociously repugnant, we need to ask ourselves from whence exactly does the value of this moral reasoning derive from, first.

    Otherwise, I personally can think of quite a few moral categories that would paint such a pacifistic God “who suffers violence ” as equally repugnant as a God who commands it outright.

  5. May 30, 2011 8:27 pm

    …filia Babylon vastata beatus qui retribuet tibi vicissitudinem tuam quam retribuisti nobis

    beatus qui tenebit et adlidet parvulos tuos ad petram

  6. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    May 30, 2011 10:29 pm


    Oh well, Miguel, if you are going to use that kind of reasoning then I am going to use the insight of Woody Allen: “One thing you can say, if there is a God, then he is an under-achiever.”

  7. Rodak permalink
    May 31, 2011 6:56 am

    Marcion was right about the “Old Testament.”

  8. May 31, 2011 8:11 am

    An interesting question for me is the following: If God commanded genocide, how exactly did it work in practical terms?

    With Saul and the Amalekites, allegedly God speaks to Saul through Samuel. Then, presumably, Saul commands his soldiers. How is Saul supposed to know that Samuel speaks for God? And, perhaps more importantly, how are Saul’s soldiers to be sure enough that Saul’s orders come from God that they are “comfortable” slaughtering women and children? Saul, after all, does not do what he is supposed to. Considering the depiction of Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Would you go out and slaughter women and children because Saul says God has commanded it?

    Also, assuming that Saul’s men had some compunction about slaughtering women and children, one might ask what kind of God would order them to do so, even if it is moral because he commands it. How are soldiers who slaughter women and children at God’s command supposed to feel? Apparently God feels that slaughtering women and children is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Traumatic stress disorder is not too high a price to pay for carrying out God’s command to slaughter women and children.

    I wonder what William Lane Craig’s advice would be to someone currently alive if they were convinced God was commanding them to kill women and children. Is it only the Old Testament God who can give such orders? I would like to be able to say to people that if they think God is commanding them to slaughter women and children, they are necessarily mistaken, because God would not give such a command. But if he did in the past, who’s to say he won’t do so again?

  9. May 31, 2011 8:16 am

    It seems to me it makes a very big difference if God actually did order genocide, or if he is merely depicted as ordering genocide in the “narrative of Christian salvation history.” If God actually did command genocide, then we have to explain his actions. If the Bible is not inerrant in the way William Lane Craig believes it to be, then all we have to explain is the literary approach of the authors and compilers of certain passages.

    • June 3, 2011 7:02 pm

      Both of these claims seem obviously controvertible; and, indeed, it is precisely part of Craig’s point that the first is wrong. In your second claim (about doing away with inerrancy), you are making so many assumptions about what follows from dropping inerrancy that I hardly know where to begin.

  10. May 31, 2011 8:32 am

    Really, the only adequate response to Craig is serious argument for a better theory of obligation and dispensation . . . .

    I don’t see the need to argue with Craig on his own terms. As an Evangelical Christian, his basic assumptions are different from those of Catholics. He approaches the Bible and inspiration differently from Catholics. I am wondering if there isn’t a role for faith here. Would it be wrong to say to Craig, “Based on what Jesus taught us about God as a loving Father, all your cleverly reasoned argument can’t convince me that God commanded genocide.” Anyone who has seriously debated the existence of God could sit down with average persons with very modest (if any) knowledge of philosophy and theology, pummel them with all the arguments against the existence of God, and leave them with nothing left to say but, “I can’t answer you, but I still believe in God.” Would we accuse such a person of having degenerated easily into cheap, self-satisfied kudos for his or her superior moral taste without having done anything actually to address the problem?

    • June 3, 2011 6:58 pm

      It would be futile and provide no response to Craig’s actual arguments, which still would float around convincing people (which they often do). It’s not a matter of arguing with Craig “on his own terms”; what you are suggesting is simply that people simply refuse actually to argue with Craig. This is just a way of surrendering that preserves the illusion of a moral high ground; what one has actually done is merely shown that one cannot point out the actual problem in Craig’s own reasoning. And that is simply and obviously disgraceful, just as it is disgraceful to find people who can’t actually explain why and the way in which racism is wrong. If you can’t explain why racism is wrong, you are deadweight, and you have no business pretending to be morally superior to the racist — it’s obviously only accidental that you ended up on the right side. And so here.

  11. Rodak permalink
    May 31, 2011 12:12 pm

    Coincidentally, I came across the following just today in the recently published book Blake and the Bible by Christopher Rowland:

    “…[W]e see that Blake will have no truck with apologies for those parts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in which God is represented as sanctioning genocide:

    ‘To me, who believe the Bible & profess myself a Christian, a defence of the Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under the pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous. Wherefore did Christ come? Was it not to abolish the Jewish Imposture? Was not Christ murder’d because he taught that God loved all Men & was their father and forbad all contention for Worldly prosperity in opposition to the Jewish Scriptures…?’ (Keynes 387; E614)

    “Care is needed here to avoid assuming anti-semitism on Blake’s part. The language is unfortunate, but the ‘Jewish imposture’ is less an ethnic or religious categorization than a hermeneutical one, in which the term stands for any kind of religion based on divine fiat (he often criticizes Christians on the same grounds.)”


  1. Genocide and Divine Command Theory « Vox Nova

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