Greta Christina has already taken William Lane Craig down for his defence of genocide, but it seems to me that a bit more needs to be said, if only to keep alive the spectacle of the smug Christian apologist William Lane Craig trying to justify genocide. Genocide is alright, says Craig, so long as God commands it, for the simple reason that God is the source of all value, and if God commands genocide then, not only is it okay, it is an obligation! The interesting thing is that Craig calls his website “Reasonable Faith”! Who does he think he’s kidding?
Craig’s answer is to two questions, one having to do with Islam and violence, the other having to do with the commandments of God to slaughter the Canaanites. Craig thinks that the problem with Islam is that they’ve got the wrong god. Well, since there isn’t one, there’s no right one either, so the really interesting question is how he sets about trying to justify the wholesale murder of whole populations, men, women, and children, combatants and non-combatants. He might have added livestock as well, since this was also often required, that all human beings and their domestic animals should be consecrated to destruction (to use the language of the Bible).
First of all, let us consider one of Craig’s unsupported asides. In the course of saying why we find the biblical genocide so evil, he points out that it is due to values inculcated by the Bible itself. In one sense this is true. If you read through the Tanach, or Jewish scriptures, you will find an evolution of belief. According to the Ten Commandments in Exodus, the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. However, if we read Ezekiel or Jeremiah, we will see that the injustice of this has occurred to someone along the way, and people are to be punished for their own sins, not for the sins of their fathers. This is moral progress, even though Craig still thinks that the Ten Commandments are somehow a peerless source of guidance.
The fact that there is such moral progress or evolution in the Bible indicates as well as anything else could that the work is the work of human beings who, in time, come to develop more and more sensitive ideas of morality. Morality, in other words, is not dependent on the commands of a god, as Craig unwarrantedly holds, but is something which human beings construct as a way of organising their relationships and making human life more sensitive to human needs. Signs of the evolution of morality are evident throughout the Tanach, and Craig’s failure to see this is not only evidence of a kind of unintelligent reading on his part, but also of a doctrinaire way of understanding the significance of this collection of ancient literature.
Perhaps the most important point to be made is that there is simply no historical or archaeological evidence for the slaughter of the Canaanites. Indeed, there is no evidence for an exodus from Egypt, or for the conquest of the imagined Promised Land. All this is the story of myth and legend. Why, then, should a people tell such an horrific story of cruelty and genocide? The likeliest account that I can think of is that proposed by Tom Thompson in his “minimalist” theory of the history of Israel, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. Basing his argument on the known fact that the Persians did this in other cases, Thompson surmises that the story of the conquest of Canaan is part of an elaborate story composed for colonial purposes. People, whom we think of as Jews returning from exile, were a group of colonialists chosen by the Empire to inhabit Palestine. In order for them to maintain themselves as a distinct community, a story was necessary which would provide for them an identity which would separate them from the indigenous inhabitants of the place. This was provided by the completely horrendous tale of conquest and genocide, which would not only give the imperial settlers an identity, and cohesiveness as a community, but would also make them feared by the local inhabitants. In other words, it was a clever piece of imperial propaganda used for purposes of intimidation and control. (This account, of course, is subject to dispute, but it is a plausible explanation for why such stories should have come to be told with so little apology.)
However, for Craig, since this is the inerrant Bible, the story must not only be true, it must also be shown to be morally legitimate. It’s worth mentioning here that the idea of an inerrant text makes no sense. This is something not often acknowledged by religions that claim revelation through a sacred text, but the truth is that texts are almost never univocal, unless they refer to specific, identifiable objects or dangers. Thus, the word ‘brake’ on a brake pedal indicates clearly the purpose of the pedal, and what will happen if it is pressed. The words ‘Danger: flammable’ on a container indicates clearly that the contents will burn and should be used with care where there are open flames, sparks or other sources of combustion. Other than those few cases where words are limited in meaning, text is interpretable, and interpretation cannot be fixed except by authority. While the church attempted for hundreds of years to restrict the biblical text only to church officials, and hermeneutic only to interpretations approved by officialdom, there is no way to restrict the meaning of a text. Thus, the idea that the meaning of any text can be contained is ludicrous, and the idea of inerrancy must be empty.
Nevertheless, Craig is committed to the historical truth of the events recorded in the Bible, and therefore, he has a problem. He argues that, since God is the source of morality, God himself has no moral obligations. Whatever he commands is, therefore, by that very fact alone, good. Thus, no doubt, God was within his rights to order to sacrifice of Isaac, or to drown every living thing on earth — except, of course, for fish and other animals that live in water, and Noah, his family, and the floating zoo. This was justified just by God doing it. Since God has no moral obligations, God is under no compulsion to keep anything he creates alive, nor is he forbidden to kill anything he has created.
It is important to see this, because Craig himself seems to misunderstand it. He thinks that what justifies the slaughter of the Canaanites is that the Canaanites were evil and deserved to die. Even Canaanite children, and infants at the breast, we are to suppose, would carry the taint of that evil, and therefore deserved to die, since the Israelites (Craig calls them Israelis, but that is surely an anachronism) were chosen and set apart by God to fulfil God’s purposes in the world. But none of this was necessary, on Craig’s assumptions. God’s decision was enough. “God gives and God takes away,” as is often said at funeral liturgies, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Craig thinks that the Canaanites had to be so evil that all they deserved was death, but there is no reason for that, on Craig’s assumptions. All that was necessary was God’s command.
And Craig even manages to do a Himmler on us, except that, unlike Himmler, no one said that it was a story never to be told. No, the story was told. But the really cruel part of the slaughter of the Canaanites was not the slaughter itself, the carnage, the suffering caused by so much horrific violence and cruelty. No, not a bit of it. According to Craig, what was really so so terrible was what it did to the Israeli (sic) soldiers — as we see in this quote from Craig!
“So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”
But why should it be brutalising? After all, they are doing God’s
will, and know that they are doing so! Couldn’t they have said, with Himmler, something like this (taken from Himmler’s infamous speech about the Holocaust)?
Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet – apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness – to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written.
Of course the story did get told, and is such as to horrify any human being of normal sympathies. That Craig is not normal in this respect is a clear indication of how poisonous religion can be. Here is a man who is widely known as a Christian apologist. He defends Christianity against its detractors. And yet he speaks words that a Nazi spoke on the very same subject, without apology. In fact, he even remarks on the harm done to those doing the killing, just like Himmler did! Imagine being more concerned about the Israelite soldiers than about the women and children so cruelly murdered. Cruelty does not become something else, just because it is imagined to be the command of a god.