Monday, January 28, 2013

Kill all Amalekites!

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Yet another post springing from a recent episode of the Unbelievable show...

The discussion on the show on Saturday 12th January (link to the show audio) concerned the "Amalekite genocide" in I Samuel 15. My summary of the main points of the Biblical story is as follows:
  1. God instructed Saul, through Samuel, to slaughter all the Amalekite people as a punishment for what they did to the Israelite people on their way out of Egypt, several centuries before. 
  2. Verse 3 is explicit: "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." - This is presented as the direct Word of God.
  3. Saul carried out an attack on the Amalekite people, but did not utterly destroy them.
  4. God, through Samuel, chastises Saul for not carrying out the total destruction, and rejects him as king over Israel. 
  5. Samuel himself kills the king of Amalek who was spared and, in a later chapter, David destroys the remaining Amalekites. These two show obedience to the command of God, which Saul did not.
The discussion on Unbelievable was between the Revd. John Allister, an Anglican vicar, and Justin Schieber, an atheist (former Christian) and host of the podcast Reasonable Doubts. I have to say that the role played by Schieber in this debate was mostly to be incredulous and point out the plain meaning of the text, which is apparent to anyone.

John Allister's defence of the Biblical story and the God portrayed therein would have been comical, had the subject in hand not been such a horrible one of slaughter and genocide. His take on the issue was basically as follows:
  1. God did issue the command, as given.
  2. But armies are slow moving things and people have plenty of time to run away, so the only people who should have fought the Israelite army were soldiers; all able bodied women, children and non-fighting men would have easily got away and would therefore not have been slaughtered.
  3. It is reasonable to assume that no children or infants were actually killed as a consequence of this command.
  4. The Amalekite people who escaped could have assimilated into other tribes - the aim of this was not to destroy individual people, but a tribal identity.
So, in summary, his defence is that God commanded it, but it never happened, even though the bible stories are true...

This is nonsense on so many different levels. But so is the response of several of the people who called or e-mailed in to Unbelievable the following week. A common theme in their responses was that the slaughter of the innocents must have been necessary, but it is morally acceptable because all innocents who died would have gone to heaven. Once again, this is the use of an unseen, but infinite, good to explain or justify a seen, but finite, evil.

Come again? It appears that a commonly held belief is that any infant or innocent child who dies goes straight to heaven. What about original sin? What about freewill? If the people who believe this actually considered the implications of their belief, they would find that the only logical conclusion - assuming that the general aim of Evangelicalism is to get lost souls to heaven - would be to kill all infants at birth, bypassing their freewill and assuring their salvation. If we let children grow up then we run the risk that they might reject God and be damned. Of course, I'm not advocating this, I'm merely pointing out how this argument - as used by William Lane Craig, I believe - is inconsistent nonsense and provides no solution to the problem inherent in this passage.

John Allister's case is no better. He believes that no children actually died. But if, as he believes, the command came from an omniscient God, then why would God give the command? If God knew that no children would die, then why command anything to do with children? No, that doesn't wash. If the command came from an omniscient God, then he knew there would be children there and he knew that they would die, and furthermore, following my reasoning above, that some of them would be going to hell.

I can't see an acceptable way to understand this passage within an Evangelical mindset. Either we have to abandon an inerrant/inspired view of the passage or we have to abandon a view of an omnibenevolent God. There is no middle ground.

So what are the available options of what happened:
  1. That the events happened as described.
    As I've noted above, this necessarily entails that God is not a God of love.

  2. That the events happened as described, that Samuel genuinely believed he had a revelation from God, but that he was misguided and God never issued such a command.
    This option gets God off the hook, but undermines any claims about the inerrancy or inspiration of scripture. It also casts doubt over any and all claims of revelation from God. I mean, if Samuel got it wrong and didn't hear from God clearly, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

  3. That the events (battles, slaughter) happened, more or less as described, but that the command of God and the human dialogue was added by a later storyteller in an attempt to explain why the events happened as they did.
    The supposition here, made by the later historian/storyteller is that the events must have happened because of a divine command, so a divine command was invented to explain an otherwise senseless slaughter. For several years I have found myself drawn to this line of reasoning when dealing with problem passages of Israelite history where God appears to command an immoral action. The assumption is that the history is basically true, but the analysis was fabricated to shift the blame for the immoral actions from the people to their God. An immoral action becomes acceptable if God commands it, right? Or it could simply be a way to insert God into a story which he really had nothing to do with. But all history is God's story, isn't it? So he must have been involved. However, I have come to realise that the only reason to hold to this line of thinking is an attempt to maintain some sort of inspiration or authority of scripture. Even though logic led me to the conclusion that the whole story couldn't be true because of the problems described above, my natural inclination was to preserve some of the authority of the bible by finding a way to ensure that some, at least, of the story was true. But if we're honest with ourselves here, that simply doesn't wash. Which brings us to the final possibility...

  4. That the events simply did not happen.
    Once you've given up on this passage as being in any way an inspired account of a historical event, you have to consider why this passage is included in the bible. Well, its there to teach us about God, isn't it? But if we've rejected the view of God which this passage paints, that is, God simply cannot be like the character described here, and we realise that the main intent of the story is to convey a message about God, not a message about history and human battles, we have to consider the option that perhaps the whole incident is simply made up. Certainly, as far as I know, there is no historical evidence (outside of the bible) for these events. This is just the same as the alleged Canaanite genocide from the days of Joshua, there we get the same arguments, but there we have a greater amount of archaeological evidence. Evidence that the biblical stories of conquest and slaughter simply did not happen. Maybe there were some minor skirmishes, and some children died, etc., but there was no genocide, commanded by God or otherwise.
So a serious consideration of the facts, the evidence and the arguments leads me to the conclusion that the story of the Amalekite genocide in the Old Testament is simply fiction. It was probably written many (tens or hundreds of) years after the time of the alleged events and reflects more the beliefs and wishes of the storyteller than anything in real history.
If that's the case here, why can't that also be the case for the rest of the old (and new) testament?
If the Bible is not true here, then where - if anywhere - is it true, and how can you distinguish the truth from the fiction? I still haven't found an acceptable answer to that question.

A couple of the responses to this Unbelievable show which were read out in subsequent weeks expressed the opinion that because God is the author and originator of life, it is therefore entirely within his rights to take it away. Everyone dies at some point, right? And presumably God determines when that point is? So whether you live or die, and how long you live for is all God's choice. He has the right to end life as he sees fit, even if this is the life of an ostensibly innocent child. Right?

No. I can't accept that. Suppose I give you a gift for Christmas. I can't reclaim it in January. That would not be right. So how can it be right for God to take away the gift of life? But even if God has the right to reclaim life at any time, claiming the life of an innocent child, before the child has had the opportunity to exercise their freewill in choosing whether or not to follow God, is still wrong. As we've seen above, the child's eternal destiny cannot be assured, so reclaiming the life of innocent children must mean consigning some of them to hell or, at least, annihilation.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How do you define 'atheist'?

Just listened to the recent Unbelievable podcast on the topic of defining the word 'atheist'. Is an atheist someone who actively believes that there is no God, or merely someone who lacks belief that there is a God?

It was an interesting, if ultimately pointless, discussion. Not everyone can be adequately labeled by a single word. Not everyone fits neatly into categories on a Venn diagram.

I'm not even sure where I'd fit in a Venn diagram of belief. I probably fall into some people's definition of 'Christian', while almost certainly falling into other people's definition of 'agnostic', possibly even falling into someone else's definition of 'atheist', though I certainly wouldn't use that word to describe myself.

As usual with Unbelievable, there was something in this show that I found frustrating, largely (as ever) because there was no guest on the show representing my side in the debate... In this instance, the most frustrating thing was that for the whole programme they attempted to nail down definitions of the word 'atheist' without ever once considering what was meant by the word 'God'.

The Christian guest on the show stated his God concept at one point, but nobody really got to grips with precisely what it is that atheists don't believe in.

It seemed to be assumed that theists generally believe in a supremely powerful being who created the universe, while atheists reject this notion. But what of the person (much like me!) who considers that there might be a powerful 'supernatural' being, but that this being might be part of the universe, not transcending or pre-existing it? Is creation a necessary part of the God concept as defined by atheists?

I suppose the best point made in the show was made by considering the 'screen name' of one of the guests, "NonStampCollector". You really can't define someone in terms of characteristics they don't have.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Truth" and liberal interpretation...

Was he?
I've just been listening to a recent Unbelievable podcast featuring a discussion between an evangelical Christian and a liberal Christian on the subject of the Christmas story. The question was basically are the nativity stories historically accurate? But I'm not going to look at that question in the current post.

What interested (and frustrated) me more in the discussion was the repeated claim of the liberal Christian that the gospel stories were not intended to be understood as factual, but were created as a teaching tool to convey truth.

In other words, the intent of the gospels is to use fiction to explain truth in a way better than mere facts can.

Now this is all well and good if the fiction is used to explain a philosophical or scientific concept which is otherwise evident, though hard to explain, but an allegorical explanation cannot be used as the basis for an otherwise unattested belief. That just makes no sense. If something is true, give me evidence for it. Saying that something is true and explaining it by fictional analogy gives me no access to real truth.

For example, the claim that Jesus was the "offspring of a virgin's womb". Here the liberal Christian dismissed the suggestion that this was historically true, but spoke of the deeper meaning that Jesus was both human and divine. Now I can see why such a story could have been created to explain how a human-divine being could have originated, assuming that there is other, attestable, evidence (or at least an established pre-existing belief) that there really was a divine-human being, but this story is of no evidential value in itself. If it is fiction and there is no other reason to suppose that Jesus was born of a virgin, then this story conveys nothing. It might be true, but it is highly, highly probable that it is false. Yet the majority of Christians believe in the virgin birth precisely because the gospels claim this. If this claim was not in the bible I am sure that far fewer folk would hold this belief. It is only because this claim is in the bible and is presented as fact that people believe it.

And surely the same goes with all other assertions in the gospels. They only have value if they are claiming to be true. The gospels claim that Jesus walked on water. If - in actual fact - he did not and could not do this, then the story contains no truth, allegorical or otherwise. The story is often expounded to mean that if you have faith (keep your eyes on the Lord) then you can overcome anything the world can throw at you. But would it not be better to demonstrate this by some example that actually happened, rather than by fiction? If this story isn't true then the message is: Faith can overcome anything, even the force of gravity; well, actually no, faith can't overcome the force of gravity; but it can overcome some other things, honest; no, really, it can... surely you believe me...? If this story is understood to be fiction, it loses all power.

But liberal Christians seem to be able to derive meaning from fiction. I just can't see how you can do that with any honesty or integrity. This effectively reduces "truth" to anything claimed in a compelling manner. If you can convey truth by analogy, then anything which is sincerely believed by someone and expressed in a meaningful way becomes "truth". Whether this "truth" corresponds to reality is another matter entirely.

I was going to stop here, then had this other thought:

A further problem this raises for me lies with the parables of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. The majority of Christians I know fundamentally base their God concept on the "truth" of God, expressed by analogy in the parables. Jesus doesn't present any evidence that God is like these claims, he simply explains his God concept in parable form. Now, IF the gospels are an accurate account of the things that Jesus said, AND Jesus really is/was the Son of God in such a way that did not limit his divine understanding of reality, THEN we could accept these claims as being an accurate representation of God. But given that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the gospel reporting, and there is reason to doubt the extent of divine knowledge that Jesus had (even working under the assumption that he was God incarnate!), then we really shouldn't take any of these claims about God as, erm, gospel truth... We should use the analogies for explanation if (and only if) we have external evidence that supports the claims.

Hmmm. That means that it is reasonable to accept the claim that God is like an absentee landlord, but not to accept the claim that he will return and expect an explanation from his unfaithful servants...