Commonsense Atheism and the Canaanite Massacre

Luke Muehlauser at Commonsense Atheism has written a review of my argument on the genocide of the Canaanites (Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I and Part II). Luke’s comments are largely positive (and I appreciate that a critic of Theism and Christianity sees merit in my position) he does, however, raise a few issues I would like to respond to.

First, Luke summarises my conclusion as:

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.

This is not quite right; I did not state “perhaps” the passages are hyperbolic. I argued a hyperbolic reading best fits the context, as it explains why the author uses stylised phrases in some passages which, if taken literally, contradict what he affirms elsewhere in the text did literally happen. Furthermore, I did not suggest that such exaggeration and hagiography is common in ancient literature. I suggested it was common in literature of the same general time and place, which used the same literary conventions and rhetorical techniques as the Bible does in the Book of Joshua – namely Ancient Near-Eastern war and conquest accounts.   

Second, Luke states that my position “agrees with the Biblical minimalism already espoused by most atheists, for it says that these events found in the Bible never happened.” This comment is intriguing because much of my research drew from the writings of biblical maximalists who were criticising minimalism. My repeated citation of Kenneth Kitchen is an obvious example. Minimalists point out that the archaeological record does not fit the picture of total conquest and genocide and hence conclude the Bible is inaccurate. Maximalists, such as Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier, respond by arguing that the text is not inaccurate because, having examined the literary conventions of Ancient Near-Eastern historiography, one finds it does not actually teach total conquest and genocide as it is written according to the hyperbolic and to some extent hagiographic rhetoric of Ancient Near-Eastern historiography. So I am inclined to think my position is a development of a rejoinder to minimalist challenges.  

This is of course another area where my perspective has merit. It resolves not only some of the moral questions people have with the narrative; it also resolves the apparent contradictions within the text cited by critical scholars, answers the challenge of archaeology and fits what we know about the conventions of such literature. If we know that Joshua is written according to certain literary conventions and we know that these conventions frequently are hagiographic and hyperbolic, then to insist on a literal reading is implausible. This is particularly so when it makes the text contradictory, contrary to archaeological record and seemingly immoral.   Luke goes on to ask,

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?

I will make two points in answering Luke’s questions.

One, it seems to me one could only conclude that Joshua actually carried out a divinely authorised Genocide if, in addition to taking Joshua literally one also accepts that the Bible is inerrant. But Joshua is not the only text in the canon, the Bible also in various other places teaches that God is good, just, and so on. So it’s hard to see how a person could coherently draw the conclusion Luke mentions. A person who concluded that God is evil, would have to conclude that much of what the Bible teaches about God is mistaken, but if this is the case then one has reason for doubting that it is accurate in its description of Genocide in the first place.

Two, Luke asks if I “agree with Bill Craig that genocide is okay as long as God feels like it?” It is important to note is that this is not Craig’s position. Craig claims that killing non combatants in war is permissible if a loving and just God commands it. He also contends that God in fact did not command this in the biblical narratives hence his view is about a hypothetical conditional.1 Once this is realised the issues are not as simple as Luke appears to think.   Either it is possible for a just and loving omniscient person to command genocide or is not. If it is, then genocide would only be commanded in situations where a just and loving person aware of all the relevant facts could endorse it, and under these circumstances its hard to see how genocide could be evil.

On the other hand if it is impossible for a perfectly good omniscient being to ever command genocide, then the situation Luke mentions is one with an impossible antecedent. On the standard accounts of counter factual logic, conditionals with impossible antecedents are true. Of course this is a disputed point of modal logic, the debate however is technical and complex and certainly not one with an obvious answer. As I have argued elsewhere every ethical theory is such that under impossible circumstances it entails that genocide is permissible.

Finally, Luke argues that atheists are not “‘attacking a straw man’ or ‘taking things out of context’ as Matt sometimes says” but rather, “they are responding to the way that millions of Christian fundamentalists interpret these verses.” He states,  

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”?

But here Luke is quoting me out of context.  The argument I responded to was developed by Ray Bradley. Ray’s conclusion was not that fundamentalist Christianity is false but that theism is false, and that all forms of theistic ethics are false. This only follows if you assume either,

(a) that fundamentalist readings are the only defensible ones or,
(b) all theists as a matter of fact do make such readings.

To affirm (a) is to adopt a fundamentalist hermeneutic as correct interpretation.

To affirm (b) is to attack a straw man.

Of course someone might adopt a more qualified argument along the manner he suggests. But if he does, then it is not an argument against theism, nor is it an argument against Christianity, it is not even an argument against a form of Christianity committed to a strong view of inerrancy. It is an argument against anyone who accepts these things and also accepts an interpretation of Scripture which reads these passages as a literal description of what actually happened, as opposed to hagiographic or hyperbolic description. Now showing this combination of positions to be indefensible might be  interesting and useful, but it is extremely limited in its conclusion. Anyone appraised of such an argument can respond simply by moving to a less literalistic hermeneutic and retaining every thing else. I suspect this is much less than atheists typically want and certainly less than they typically maintain this argument shows.

1. In Divine Command Morality and Voluntarism William Lane Craig writes “I’ve come to appreciate that the object of God’s command to the Israelis was not the slaughter of the Canaanites, as is often imagined.” The command rather was primarily to drive them out of the land.” He goes on to state “But I’m assuming a “worst case” scenario for the sake of argument.”

Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament? 

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