Before we get to his apologetic, what does the atheist attack look like?
The atheist contends that the conservative Christian is committed to an inconsistent set of propositions:
- Any act that God commands is morally permissible.
- The scriptures are an authoritative revelation of God’s commands.
- It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit genocide.
- According to the book of Joshua, God commanded Israel to commit genocide.
If the Christian accepts (1) and (2), she must reject either (3) or (4). Matt gets strong support for (3) from his intuitions, but he offers some reasons why (4) is doubtful.
But how could it be? Joshua 10-11 clearly states that Joshua conquered all of Canaan, that he exterminated all its inhabitants, and that God commanded these actions.
The first reason to doubt (4) is that the first chapter of Judges says there were many Canaanites still living where Joshua supposedly “left no survivors.” The Israelites needed to fight the Canaanites all over again, and several tribes could not dislodge them. Such contradictions are found even with Joshua itself.
So perhaps instead the most genocidal phrases in Joshua were meant as hyperbole. Imagine a basketball team speaking of how they “totally slaughtered” their opponents like their coach told them to. In the same way, maybe the Israelites wrote in hyperbolic language about how they defeated their enemies.
Indeed, this kind of exaggeration and hagiography on a nation’s own behalf is common in ancient literature.
I like this apologetics for three reasons.
First, it is accurate. Anyone familiar with ancient history for more than narrow apologetic interests will have already accepted it. Obviously these stories are hagiography – a tribe of people telling fictional and exagerated tales about its glorious history and importance. Every ancient culture that wrote their own history did this. It would be rather shocking if the Israelites were the only ancient people to record a literal, accurate history of their own tribe.
Second, it agrees with the Biblical minimalism already espoused by most atheists, for it says that these events found in the Bible never happened, or never happened much like the Bible records them as happening.
Third, it makes the Christian apologist appear less morally evil to others. Compare Matt’s apologetic for the genocide of the Canaanites to William Lane Craig’s apologetic for those same events. Matt’s apologetic says that genocide is probably wrong (what a relief!), so it must be that these events never really happened as recorded in the Bible, if we read it literally. Craig’s apologetic says that genocide was morally good because (1) God gave the Israelites Canaan as a gift, (2) God can do whatever the fuck he wants, and (3) genocide is a fitting punishment for sin. I suspect those bound at the hip to Biblical literalism will follow Craig’s lead, and those with a shred of conscience will follow Matt’s.
But I would be curious to know: If Matt did think these events happened literally as described in the Bible, would he then conclude that God was an evil monster to command them? Or would he, in the end, agree with Bill Craig that genocide is okay as long as God feels like it?
Finally, it’s worth reminding people that atheists who quote the genocide of the Canaanites as implicating the Biblical God in evil are not really “attacking a straw man” or “taking things out of context” as Matt sometimes says. They are responding to the way that millions of Christian fundamentalists interpret these verses. Fundamentalists like William Lane Craig interpret these verses literally, and still conclude that God is perfectly moral.
Atheists are not, as Matt claims, reading the Bible as fundamentalists. Atheists don’t believe the genocide ever took place! What we atheists are saying is this: If you think these events were literally commanded by God and carried out by the Israelites, then how can you call God “perfectly good”?
If you don’t take the Bible literally with regard to these stories, then the moral problem is not as great as it would otherwise be. And that is exactly the effect of Matt Flannagan’s apologetic. It is certainly an improvement over fundamentalist apologetics.
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