Genocide is OK if the True God commands it – but how to know which God is the right one?

Richard Dawkins in recent writings has referred a number of times to a charming fellow named William Lane Craig, also known as "the Genocide Preacher". For those who have not heard of him he has a webpage with the preposterous title of "Reasonable Faith". In a recent Q & A page he explains why it was perfectly reasonable for Yahweh to command the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children so that his chosen people could have their land. His argument is that whatever God commands is necessarily good, so therefore killing people, even innocent children is not only perfectly fine, but morally obligatory if God has said that it must be done. He thinks this is perfectly compatible with his vision of God as being all-loving, compassionate and good. The destruction of the Canaanites was morally justifiable because these people were "wicked" and had come under His divine judgment. Why a compassionate and all-loving God would make such harsh judgments is far from clear but who are we mere mortals to question God? 

So the adults were "wicked" enough to merit Yahweh's judgment, but what about the children? Is not killing children including babies,just because their parents are wicked  a bit  harsh, even for Yahweh?

Yahweh on wheels (Image source: The New Oxonian)

Craig explains why this is not actually morally wrong:

Well there we have it. Children who are put to death go to a place that is ten times better than any life they could have on Earth, so the Israelites were actually doing them a favour! Craig claims that they are actually "happy" to quit this life - so their apparent screams of terror are really cries of joy! 

Maybe I'm just a killjoy but personally I think this is an indictment of the whole idea of life after death as being "better" than life in this world. I have read historical accounts of early Christian martyrs who not only welcomed  death, but actually provoked people into killing them because they were assured that they would experience the eternal bliss of paradise. At least they didn't go around killing children. Apologists for religion sometimes try to argue that without religion, people have no reason to be moral and therefore atheism opens the way to an "anything goes" principle where any atrocity is permitted. But this argument is easily turned on its head because as we have just seen, "anything goes", including infanticide and genocide, as long as God has commanded it. And after all, if there is a better world awaiting the martyrs, life in this world has little value by comparison. 

Craig does set some moral boundaries though. Let's examine his argument why killing people in the name of Allah for example is not morally defensible:


Let's repeat what Craig says just for emphasis: the problem with killing people in the name of Islam is not due to the wrong moral theory, the real problem is that they have the "wrong" god. As Craig points out Allah hates non-Muslims (no argument from me there) but Yahweh loves everyone - even those who are so "wicked" they must be killed. Allah is utterly "arbitrary" in his dealings with mankind, but any atrocity commanded by Yahweh is automatically good because "He can give and take life as he chooses." (Craig's actual words.) See the difference? No, neither can I. 

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is some substantive difference, and that the choice of "right" versus "wrong" god matters. How can anyone honestly know which god is the right one? Personal experience? If I hear a voice commanding me to kill infants, how do I know that this command really does issue from the "true" god and not one of the "false" ones? Nowadays, most people, even devoutly religious ones, would think that I had gone mad if I started claiming that God had given me such an order. What about faith? Craig expresses complete faith that Yahweh is in fact the true god. But Muslims also have complete faith that Allah is the true god too! How is one to choose? 

I think that if one is completely honest, one would have to admit that even if it turns out that there is a real god somewhere, there is no way of knowing which of various competing gods is the "true" one. Therefore, there is no sensible basis for choosing. Geoffrey Berg has argued that even if God is real there is no way that humans could ever recognise him or truly know that he exists. He calls this "the Man and God comprehension gulf argument." The implication is that even if God revealed himself to humanity and attempted "proof" by performing all sorts of miracles, we could never really know if the being in question really was God and not just a very powerful being. (Star Trek fans might consider the omnipotent character "Q" who could easily pose as God if he had felt so inclined.)    

 This article has also appeared on my blog Cosmic Cogitations.

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Comment by CJoe on October 5, 2012 at 10:59am

The implication is that even if God revealed himself to humanity and attempted "proof" by performing all sorts of miracles, we could never really know if the being in question really was God and not just a very powerful being.

The idea of a god performing miracles is weird to begin with. This Being allegedly created everything, including the Laws of Nature, and breaking his own "laws" isn't really impressive at all. It would seem that he only created these "laws" to convince us he was doing something extraordinary when, really, it's not such a big deal for a god to change it up on a whim. Either the "laws" existed before he did and he really is performing a miracle, or it's just a pathetic show.


Comment by Scott A McGreal on October 8, 2012 at 6:54am

That's a very good point. Victor Stenger once pointed out that if there was a being who created everything, he could have set up any laws he wished, including allowing humans to live in space and travel to other planets at will. If he didn't create the laws then he's not really a god, but if he did create them then they are just arbitrary rules with no special meaning. 


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