April 17, 2009

My Response to Jessica Thomas

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences, The Bible tagged , , , at 10:46 am by Andrew

Christian Science Fiction fan (and author?) Jessica Thomas, in the comments to a previous post, references a post she made elsewhere that responds to my basic question as to why God doesn’t prohibit slavery in the Bible, as well as makes some original points. I think it’s worth reproducing here and responding.

Jessica says:

The Bible tells us God is loving, and he is also just. Let me give you a metaphor. My little boy is 16 months old. When he was twelve months old, he started to climb up on our console table. Every time he did, I gently told him no, and if necessary I went over and physically picked him up off the table. I didn’t punish him for doing it because I knew, if I did, he’d have no idea why he was being punished, given he hardly understood the word “no”. Also, he wasn’t doing it to spite me, he was just being curious.

Four months later, he understands what “no” means. He’s been climbing up on the table more and more, and now when he does it, he gives me a sly look that tells me he’s defying me on purpose. So, I say “no” much more firmly now, and if he keeps doing it (to spite me), we go to another room. Point is, as he matures my level of discipline has to change to match his level of understanding. To discipline him like he is ten when he is only one would not be loving or just.

I understand this argument; I just think it makes no sense when it comes to slavery for at least three reasons.

First, I think it’s a bad analogy to compare any set of persons to a year-old child. The ancient Israelites weren’t stupid; they were simply men of their time. They were capable of understanding the Golden Rule, for example. Postulating that they weren’t morally ready to a proposition as simple as “you should not own another human being” strikes me as a difficult claim to substantiate. In any event, moral psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg show us that the Israelites were unlikely to develop such a principle on their own or appreciate the reasoning behind it until exposed to it in the first place.

So if God wanted the Israelites to understand why slavery was wrong, he should have prohibited it in the Ten Commandments, just as he did with murder. That would have facilitated their moral growth process rather than hindered it.

Second, Exodus chapters 20-23 do not just set down moral laws; they set down civil laws as well. Some overlap (e.g., the prohibition against murder). But even if you think that the Israelites somehow “weren’t ready” to be told that slavery is wrong, God was perfectly willing to enforce arbitrary injunctions so as to structure the Israelite society. Leviticus 11:3-12 absolutely forbids eating pigs, rabbits, shellfish (and camels, which I understand from Anthony Bourdain are considered quite the delicacy among the Bedouins). There’s no moral prohibition against eating camels; it just happens to be what the Jews thought was required for their society to function.

Indeed, when it comes to basic moral laws, I don’t think you can make a serious argument that those foundational laws are calibrated to human desires or understanding. Instead, they’re calibrated to enforce the basic minimum codes that a society thinks it needs to function. So, for example, the Fifth-or-Sixth Commandment (depending on your particular flavor of Christianity) says “thou shalt not kill.” Period. It doesn’t ask whether you understand why murder is wrong — and certainly, despite that commandment, many people have continued to desire to kill (and a smaller number, though still signficiant, act on that desire). It doesn’t matter: the commandment is not to kill.

The absence of a similar commandment instructing the Israelites not to own slaves shows that their social group felt as though they could function in the absence of such prohibitions. (And clearly, they could.) It indicates to me that the Bible is a product of its time.

Third, if you think that slavery is as much of a basic moral evil as murder — as I do — then it makes no sense to claim that people require further moral development to appreciate its wrongness. Slavery is wrong because of a central moral proposition that was not articulated and defended until the enlightenment: that persons are not property. That sentiment is not only not articulated in the Bible; it’s counter to it. (Listen to the Friel-Hitchens debate below for a good summary of what I understand to be the Christian position — that persons are property, and that God owns us.

Jessica continues:

If you think of history as a line that starts with the birth of humanity. Consider, at some point on that line God decided, “I’m going to reveal myself to them”, He couldn’t just swoop down from the sky and say “Here I am guys.” (Well, He could, but would that be the most loving way to go about it? Would it be just?) So, instead, He set a plan in motion. He assessed the spiritual maturity of His children and had to decide, what are they ready for? What is going to work within society as they currently understand it?

Wait, why couldn’t God just swoop down and say “Here I am, guys” to anyone who asks? Wouldn’t that be a really good way of convincing people like me that he really exists and is worth investigating?

As we walk the line of history, God continues to reveal Himself, and our collective understanding of His truth and character deepens. When we are ready for more of truth, He gives us more. The how, when, why—that is up to Him. He’s in charge of the timeline.

I don’t see a progressive timeline; I see two points. I see the Old Testament, in which God mingled with people all the time, and then I see the New Testament, in which God allegedly sent his son down to mingle with a tiny group of people in Jerusalem. So: (a) it looks like over time, God reveals himself less often and to fewer people, and (b) that revelation seems to have stopped 2,000 years ago.

[snip]

He doesn’t tie puppet strings on our arms and make us do His will. He reveals His will and His truth slowly over time and lets us decide if we think He’s a God worthy of entering into relationship with. When we decide, “Yes, I want a relationship with You”, then the relationship starts going two ways. (This is what is meant when you hear a Christian say God is/was pursuing them, or that the invitation is always open. He’s in relationship with us, despite our efforts to push Him away. He will keep pursuing us in hopes that we will reciprocate.)

Please don’t take this the wrong way. What I would like to know is if you can give me a criterion (or criteria) to differentiate between the kind of relationship you describe in this passage and something that I’ve just made up in my head.

Let me be very clear here, because I’m trying to tread carefully. I am not saying that your relationship with God is made up. Only you can be the judge of your own thoughts. I am saying with respect to what I do, I understand that my mind can be fooled rather easily, so I would like to know if there is some touchstone or dividing line whereby I can tell what’s “real” for purposes of a relationship from something that my subconscious just makes up.

Does that make sense?

[snip to end]

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2 Comments »

  1. You are analytical, indeed. I am as well, and as the years go by, I recognize my analytical abilities can be both a benefit and a detriment.

    At twelve months, my son was not stupid, he was just in a more primitive developmental state. I think it is quite reasonable to compare a child’s development to the development of humanity as a whole. Take art, for instance. We started drawing on cave walls, and now we create movies via computers. Computers used to take up entire rooms. Now there’s a computer chip in everything. If God were to dictate Genesis to us today, He could use more complex language thanks to science. He might talk about the atom, or the big bang, or he might give us a more definitive timeline. In other words, the Old Testament would read much differently; however, the overall picture of God’s character would remain the same.

    My point then, is, perhaps God knew slavery was wrong from the very beginning, but he also knew humans, in their limited capacity could only handle a few rules at a time. So, He gave the 10 commandments, picking the most important laws from which a plethora of other laws could be deduced. Although the 10 commandments do not specifically say slavery is wrong, as our understanding of God’s character grew, we were able to look back at the 10 commandments and realize, “Oops, this slavery thing is wrong.”

    As an aside, this is where repentance comes in. Jesus does not condemn, but He expects us to leave our lives of sin. In other words, when you mature enough to realize you are committing a particular sin, He does not condemn you for it, but He expects you to stop engaging in that sin.

    As another aside, you believe in Darwinism right? Which means you believe in the concept of evolution. Is it that far a stretch, then, to say humans are evolving emotionally and spiritually as well? (Again, do not confuse this with the new age idea of evolving towards “oneness” with God. We are offered eternal community with God, not eternal oneness. The two concepts are very different and lead to very different conclusions.)

    “God was perfectly willing to enforce arbitrary injunctions so as to structure the Israelite society. Leviticus 11:3-12 absolutely forbids eating pigs, rabbits, shellfish…” There’s another way to look at this. The Bible tells us God is interested in the most intimate details of our lives. He is concerned not only with the “big” but also with the “small.” Perhaps God knew shellfish can cause deadly allergic reactions, and therefore forbid them. Point being, he wants to know us intimately and wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives.

    I don’t know if you notice, but you and I approach the Bible differently. I read it to learn about God’s character. You are trying to connect all the dots. I am learning about God’s character. You are missing Him entirely.

    “Wait, why couldn’t God just swoop down and say “Here I am, guys” to anyone who asks? Wouldn’t that be a really good way of convincing people like me that he really exists and is worth investigating?”

    Maybe you would like that sort of introduction, but perhaps it would scare someone else into a heart attack. Perhaps God knows our feeble brains would explode from just one ounce of His knowledge. Perhaps He is protecting us? Again, I can only speculate.

    “I don’t see a progressive timeline; I see two points. I see the Old Testament, in which God mingled with people all the time, and then I see the New Testament, in which God allegedly sent his son down to mingle with a tiny group of people in Jerusalem. So: (a) it looks like over time, God reveals himself less often and to fewer people, and (b) that revelation seems to have stopped 2,000 years ago.”

    Actually, that’s backwards. In Old Testament times, God spoke through prophets. When Jesus left this earth (after the resurrection), He sent the Holy Spirit, which enters into us when we become baptized. We have a direct line to God, whereas before, only the prophets did.

    “Please don’t take this the wrong way. What I would like to know is if you can give me a criterion (or criteria) to differentiate between the kind of relationship you describe in this passage and something that I’ve just made up in my head.”

    Have you tried praying? That’s how I learned the difference. I thought prayer was bogus, until I tried it with a willing heart (i.e., willing to be proven wrong.)

  2. Andrew said,

    Jessica, I wanted to cut in with a brief response, and I’ll get to more later:

    As another aside, you believe in Darwinism right? Which means you believe in the concept of evolution. Is it that far a stretch, then, to say humans are evolving emotionally and spiritually as well?

    I wanted to highlight this as a very common misconception of evolution. (Not “Darwinism” — that’s in inaccurate word used as a slur by creationists. Evolution. Or “the modern evolutionary synthesis,” if you want to be more precise.)

    The thing is: evolution does not postulate some sort of directionality or progression. Things that are “more highly evolved” in the sense of being more recent descendents are not necessarily “better” or “improved.” Let me give you three different ways in which this occurs.

    First, evolutionary changes are driven by an organism’s ability to adapt to its environment. When that environment changes, the previously beneficial evolutionary “advances” can become deleterious. For example: consider two creatures that date from opposite ends of the Cretaceous — (a) mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, hero to children everywhere, and (b) tiny eomaia, the ancestor to all living placental mammals.

    Take a look at these two beasties. There is absolutely no normative argument one can give that eomaia is “better” than T. rex; the dinosaur is stronger, faster, smarter, and — in every conceivable way we can think of minus one — altogether superior to eomaia. Ah, but that one is a doozy: when the environment changed after the Chicxulub impact, little eomaia could adapt to that changed environment and mighty T-rex could not.

    Second, because of similar but isolated habitats, some species may undergo evolutionary changes considerably later than others, but the newly-emergent species may still lag behind the older species in terms of fitness to the same environment. Here’s what I mean by that. Sharks have been around in their present form for about 100 million years; they’re very well adapted to their environment and continue to be so to this day. So there’s not much for evolution to work with to improve upon the nearly perfect aquatic killing machine.

    On the other hand, African cichlids speciate rapidly, with many new species emerging in the past 50 years. Under the directionality view, the cichlid is “more evolved” than the shark — it has undergone phenotypic changes much more recently than the venerable shark. But I don’t know anyone who would claim that the cichlid is somehow “better” than the shark. In a contest between a shark and a cichlid, I know where I’m placing my bets. 🙂

    Third, evolution within a single branch of the tree of life can also result in reduced general fitness over time when a narrow fitness criteria within a particular habitat itself changes. That’s the point of the famous “peppered moths” experiment, which I won’t delve into here due to rampant creationist propaganda misrepresenting it.

    But here’s another example: the extinct Irish elk. One hypothesis suggests that a contributory factor to Irish elk extinction was the disproportionately huge size of the elk’s antlers — which extended out nearly twelve feet in length and weighed nearly 90 pounds! Under this theory, a variety evolutionary pressures drove the increase in both elk and antler size, until the point where the Irish elk antlers become so specialized that they undermined the elk’s abilities to function on a day to day basis. (You can also see this with artificial selection and the breeding of “toy” animal species so small they can barely walk.)

    So the bottom line is that evolution does not say that we are all improving, getting better along a line. Evolution says that organisms change over time. That’s all.

    I know this is a tangent, but promoting a good understanding of evolution is one of my pet causes. 🙂


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