Rationalizing Genocide

How did I spend my Sunday morning?  Writing out a long comment to a pastor who was attempting to defend the genocides of the Old Testament.  Here’s my response to his rationalizations:

Thanks for the time you took in writing out this response.  I can tell you put a lot of time and energy into it, and I would be open to reading a book you’d write on the topic!  I do have a few issues with some of your explanations.

But before I get too picky, can I just state the obvious?  Can you hear yourself defending (rationalizing!) acts of genocide?  I’m always dismayed when I hear someone mentally disconnect the argument they’re making from the act they’re defending.  To be honest, it was one of the primary motivating forces that helped me reject my faith.  I got tired of having to condone God’s go-ahead for genocide.

You say that applying our “cultural mores” onto the horrors of genocide is an “anachronism.”  I’m not sure what to make of that statement.  So genocide (ie., the systematic act of killing a racial/cultural group) is a value that is relative to the time one lives in?  I’m having a hard time imagining a period of time in human history when it would be excusable to slaughter an entire people group.

So proving to me that I’m being anachronistic is going to be a tough sell.  You’re going to have to show me that the moral precept we hold that genocide is wrong was somehow NOT wrong back then.  I have a feeling we’ll come back to the supposedly-moral framework of “God is moral, God told the Israelites to murder, Murder is moral.”  You may be content in such a framework, I am not.

I know that there are other examples of ancient literature where these acts of systematic murder are described, and I find those passages equally horrifying as well.  But the difference between reading the Illiad and reading the Bible is that people don’t put any spiritual credence in the former.

I’m disappointed that you describe genocide as simply “distasteful.”

To summarize your arguments rationalizing genocide:
1. Genocide was not as evil of an act back then as it is today, so applying our 21st-century standards to this act is “anachronistic”.
2. Other people groups back then were committing genocide, so the Israelites were just following warfare protocol.
3. The ends justify the means argument: wiping out Israel’s enemies may have been unfortunate, but necessary — akin to the violence necessary to resolve other human atrocities such as slavery, racism, and fascism.
4. God compromised morality on behalf of the Israelites, and allowed them to commit such acts.
5. Israel is God’s “covenant people”, so “to maintain their cultural and religious distinctiveness”, wiping out a few ancient near eastern cultures is completely excusable.
6. The Midianites were bad people in their day, so they had it coming to them.

I asked you specifically about  Numbers 31.  I find it telling that you completely avoided commenting on the another morally “distasteful” passage in that chapter. Not only does God condone genocide, but he also mandates rape.

The Israelites went and destroyed all the males of the Midianites, but brought back as captives the “women and the little ones” (verse 9).   Moses then specifically goes to the Israelite army and tells them to KILL all the “women who had known a man” along with all the male children — *BUT* they could keep all the young virgin girls for themselves (verses 17-18).  As the chapter closes, these (32,000!) young girls were counted — along with the livestock — in the list of Israel’s war “booty” (32-35).  I don’t think I’m being anachronistic in being horrified by such actions on the part of such a God, and such a “covenant” people.

As I close, I noticed you describe yourself as a “good historian” — have you watched the PBS documentary of “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”?  This doc consults many historians, scholars, and archeologists who have the thesis that much of the OT as history is inaccurate.  The genocidal atrocities weren’t military coups, but more of a social/cultural revolution.

I’m curious how he’ll respond. I, for one, am feeling pretty sick inside after having to think about such atrocities. But, at the same time, I’m also glad I got out of the business of finding theological reasons to condone such cruelty.

In the meantime, it looks like Luke has posted a pretty comprehensive list of articles from theologians and non-believers who have responded to the OT genocides.  Check it out.

EDIT: I responded again, and here’s what I wrote:

Let’s take a step back — you keep accusing me of being anachronistic — but the way you’re using that term is brand new to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word applied in terms of assessing the ethics of a past act.  In fact, most dictionary definitions I’ve seen for the word have applied more to “persons, events, objects, or customs” that are chronologically misplaced, not judgements.

But suppose I give you the claim that I am indeed being anachronistic — are you saying that the moral revulsion associated with slaughtering entire people groups is a new ethical phenomenon?

I understand that the people groups of the past may not have had moral issues with killing others, but does that mean they cannot be accountable for what they did?   What if, in 2000 years from now, there’s some kind of evolved rationale that excuses the actions of the Nazis in their systematic killing of Jews?  It’s clear that most of the Nazis didn’t have ethical qualms in committing such atrocities on fellow human beings.  In that future context, would we be accused of being “anachronistic” if we don’t accept rationalizations for that particular genocide?

If I’m actually guilty of being anachronistic (according to your definition), does that mean that humankind has evolved to possess a better standards of morality today than back in the ancient near eastern days?  No problem, I’d buy that — but uh-oh, there goes any claim to the absolute morality most Christians like to tout.  That is, unless your absolute morality is merely a robotic “Whatever God says is moral”.

To keep track, I’ll add a few more of the justifications you give for biblical genocide (to be appended to the list above):
7. It’s wrong for anyone to assess the morality of mass killings of biblical genocide, because “it’s not equipped” to provide an answer.
8. Only in the last 500 years has “life” been given any philosophical value, therefore life means “something now that it didn’t then.” So because we have to study “each culture in its context”, we should excuse the divinely-mandated mass murders of entire culture groups.
9. God may not condone genocide now, but because the Israelites didn’t view genocide as immoral back then, perhaps God was okay with it?

[sidenote: If I follow your rationale, when young girls are genitally-mutilated by their parents (who have no moral qualms in performing such acts) should I just look the other way and excuse such barbarity, because their culture doesn’t “know” any better or don’t see the excision act as immoral? (–>see your judging each “culture in its context” comment)  It’s funny how nonbelievers are the ones often accused of having relativistic morality.]

I’m sorry if you think I’m being contrary — I just find your rationale for defending genocide inadequate.  You accuse me of cherry-picking “a few passages that clearly form the tiny minority of scriptural witness”, but have you read the Old Testament?  If I’m to consider the Bible as a historical document (which I don’t, along with most academic scholars and archeologists), it’s not just a minority of passages that glorify violence to people groups who happen to fall outside God’s chosen “covenant people.”

Lastly, I’m disappointed you brought up the cliche “atheists committed genocide” argument.  Yes, some of the atrocities of the 20th century were done by godless people, but I don’t think you’ll find their rationale for mass murder was motivated by their lack of a belief in the supernatural.  Atheism itself isn’t a philosophy, in fact.  To be an atheist is to answer one question: “Do you believe in god/gods?”  When you say “no,” that means you are without (“a”) belief in god/gods (“theism”).  If you’re interested in what I do believe in, that’s another conversation entirely.

It’s clear we are on different sides of the issue here.  I’ll end my part of the conversation by referring to what I said at the beginning of my first response — do you hear how you are in the position of defending and JUSTIFYING genocide?  If you are content to be in such a position, I’ll not attempt to dissuade you.  That said, I want nothing to do with the genocidal God you are rationalizing for.

One thought on “Rationalizing Genocide”

  1. I am an atheist, I think we have strong grounds for believing there is no intelligent being responsible for the universe.
    At the same time, I think there is no objective meaning of life and no objective moral values, I think that moral realism is false.
    Apparently, you disagree with me on that.

    Now, I have the following question: you are certainly materialists, and believe that everything which is real can be entirely reduced to the interactions of elementary particles like quarks or perhaps strings. There is no conceptual problem to think the chair I am sitting on can be reduced to a collection of quarks with certain configurations in space and time.
    Consider however the following statement: “it was morally wrong for the israelites to slaughter the canaanites”.
    For you, it is a real fact of the universe.

    Now, to which collections of atoms, electrons or quarks would you reduce it ?

    I’m looking forward to hearing your responses !

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