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A while back, I wrote a post about professional Christian apologists who defend genocide as a moral and holy act. As revolting as this is, it’s unsurprising on one level: these people have devoted their careers to defending Christianity, and as such, their living depends on not admitting any flaws whatsoever in Christian doctrine. If the Bible commands an act as evil as genocide, they have no choice but to defend it, even if it means doing violence to all rational notions of morality.

But as I found out recently, it’s not just professional apologists who believe this. Their genocide-excusing logic has filtered down even to lay believers, whose only stake in these doctrines is personal and emotional rather than financial, with the result that ordinary people now are defending the Bible’s war crimes as just and good. I’ve already written one slightly incredulous post about this, but it deserves a more thorough analysis.

Here’s how one commenter put it:

…according to Christianity, death isn’t the end of the story. What if, instead of “God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites”, we read it as “God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony”? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

This is the same logic that was used by inquisitors throughout the medieval ages. In their theocracies, everyone was required by law to profess the same beliefs, and if there were any dissenters, they would be imprisoned and tortured until they recanted their error. And why not? After all, if it saved their souls, it had to be justified. Subjecting someone to the rack, thumbscrews, strappado, waterboarding, the iron maiden, etc., might be unpleasant, but in the scheme of eternity, it would be like stubbing your toe while you step onto the teleportation pad.

This same commenter went on to explain:

…yes, I believe that God, as the author and owner of life, has the right to order the murder of a child.

If you’re still reading, I do not believe he will order any such thing. If Jesus appeared next to me and ordered me to go murder a child, I would first seek psychiatric help and, assuming the wiring checks out, seek spiritual help. I firmly believe that God will not order such a thing, not because a child’s death is incongruous with God’s nature, but because it is incongruous with the plan of salvation as revealed to the Catholic church.

As I pointed out in a comment (and as he agreed, to my horror), this isn’t saying that genocide or child-murder in the name of God is morally wrong, just that it’s not expedient at the present moment. There’s a vast difference between these claims.

Another atheist commenter on Unequally Yoked, Patrick, put it well:

I think a surprising number of Christians are willing to posit that they WOULD be horrific murderers of children, and that this would be perfectly ok, except for a few lucky happenstances of history that meant that all the horrific murdering of children that needed to happen got done before they were born. And I think that these Christians are happy to posit this because its all just a big fantasy to them, a sort of suspension of disbelief surrounding ancient tales that happened long ago to other people who don’t really count anymore… So they pretend to believe that they’d swing an axe into the neck of a child if God asked them to, and that it would be Righteous.

In a follow-up thread, a different theist commenter offered a different justification:

God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge. We don’t. Not only does he have over several billion years past experience, He also knows the future. If there is something that appears evil now, but does a tremendous good in the future, was it really evil?… How can you say with any authority that the destruction of those societies did not benefit humanity?

Not only would you have to ask why God, who is omnipotent, couldn’t have accomplished his ends through a different and less evil method, there’s also the problem that this theodicy explains too much. It could be used just as easily to excuse any evil, however horrendous, on the grounds that God intends to use it to justify some future good. And after some prodding, this commenter eventually agreed:

I was saying, the Amalekite [genocide] was done for a purpose, and the Holocaust was allowed for a purpose. Without knowing what that purpose is, no human is in a position to impose a moral judgement for either.

And then there’s this amateur apologist, whose post came up in the discussion. He has not one but two genocide-excusing explanations:

In working with the early Israelites, God was dealing with a blunt instrument. He wasn’t working with a people who had already been broken of their tribal mentality and who were used to distinguishing those who were personally guilty from those who were fellow-members of the guilty party’s tribe.

This may shed light on why God allowed a total tribe-on-tribe warfare situation to result, because this was what the people of the day understood. The development and purification of their ideas about collective versus individual guilt and innocence had not yet taken place.

This apologetic is based on the bizarre assumption that God’s methods of justice were constrained by what people believed to be moral. If the ancient Israelites believed in corporate guilt and found it proper to eradicate an entire culture, then God had no choice but to act accordingly, even if that wasn’t actually the right thing to do. Akin never even tries to explain why this should be so.

Probably recognizing that this is a non-starter, he moves on to a backup explanation:

Suppose that there was a Canaanite child who was four years old–young enough to still be an innocent, but old enough to experience the horror of watching her civilization killed around her before being killed herself.

From a purely human perspective, that is HORRENDOUS. My heart is SICKENED at the thought of what such a child would go through.

But is God–who is infinitely powerful–INCAPABLE of making it up to this child?

No, he is not incapable of making up to her the sufferings that she experienced on earth, however horrible they were.

This apologetic rests on a different, but no less bizarre, theory: that it’s perfectly OK to commit a terrible evil against someone if you intend to make it up to them afterwards. By this logic, a billionaire should be allowed to molest children, just as long as he recompenses them afterwards by buying them all the toys and presents they could ever want. (You can judge for yourself how plausible religious people find this defense when it’s an actual wealthy person who stands accused.)

Now, I don’t think any of these people are actually in favor of genocide, whatever they say. I think they think of this as a harmless intellectual game they’re playing, a thought experiment they engage in to justify other beliefs they value more. But what they fail to recognize is how dangerous this is, because the same reasoning can be used – is used – by violent fundamentalists to justify inquisitions, suicide bombings, terrorist attacks, torture, and all the other evils of religion we’re so familiar with. By supporting this cold and amoral theology themselves, they give aid and comfort to those who don’t stop at making it a thought experiment, but go ahead and put it into practice. And what happens if some day, the Pope or some other allegedly moderate religious figure does command believers to start waging war for the glory of God? Can they be so sure they’d still object, when they’re already used to subordinating their consciences to faith?

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...