I quit attending church nearly a decade ago, and up until that point I had already been an atheist for a couple of years. Let me tell you, it’s not easy attending “big church” as an atheist, much less attending Sunday School as one. Today, I’d like to tell you about the last time I was able to stomach going because that was a major turning point for me.
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For me, this was the culmination of years of struggle and tension. Back when I was still a teenager, I had only been a devoted Christian for two or three years before I began to see some glaring inconsistencies between Pauline theology and my denomination’s superficial religious fixations. Reading the letter to the Galatians (which most scholars accept as one of the authentic letters), I saw a focus on freedom from law and external rule-following. But turning to look at my evangelical surroundings, I saw an almost obsessive preoccupation with appearances, image-keeping, and tradition.
Before long, I realized that I more readily identified with the edgier, non-conformist Christian subcultures—the misfits if you will—and I found these people to be more authentic and loads more fun to be around. Thankfully, for significant chunks of my young adult life I was able to get out of attending traditional Southern Baptist worship services, for which I was ill-suited anyway, having so little natural patience for formality. But to make a long story short, by the time I reached my mid-thirties I found myself once again attending adult Sunday School.
A Jarring Lesson
Now, this probably wasn’t your typical Sunday School class. People didn’t shuffle in half-asleep and sit in rows for 45 minutes to listen to someone teach from a generic curriculum. This was a small class comprised mostly of medical folks, generally intelligent and upper-middle class, with big hearts and, as far as I can tell, exemplary personal character. The teacher, who wrote out the lessons himself, was a well-respected medical specialist who routinely flew to Europe to chair a committee on research protocols in his field. In other words, it was a highly intelligent group. Perhaps that’s what made our coverage of the next issue so jarring to me.
One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying the book of Joshua. Knowing how intelligently he approached our previous studies, I looked forward to hearing him delve into the historical and contextual issues surrounding the book. And he did that thoroughly, as always. The class was attentive and interactive, as they always were, but then we came to the matter of the Canaanite conquest.
Leaving aside the historicity of that series of tales (archaeologists have concluded there isn’t any real-world evidence that these battles ever took place), I was eager to hear how he and the rest of the class would reconcile the violence of the book with the loving character of God as portrayed (in some places) in the Bible.
I expected him to distance the God of Jesus from the violent portrait we get from reading the conquest stories. Many interpreters, even some conservative ones, simply conclude that the Hebrews got it wrong. People are fallible, and their perception of “what God wants” can be flawed (more on the issues this raises in just a second).
But a high view of the inspiration of the Bible constrained the good doctor to maintain that Israel correctly understood that Yahweh wanted them to run swords through the men, women, children, and babies of occupied Canaan. This I found unconscionably bad—so bad that it was difficult to sit through those lessons. By the time we got done with that book, I was ready to leave for good.
The Straw that Broke the Camel
Since I had a pretty decent theological education from a conservative seminary, it was easy for me to participate in a discussion-oriented class like this. At this point, I probably could’ve taught a class like that in my sleep.
But something clicked in me when we got to Canaan. All of a sudden, the appalling injustice of the whole storyline came crashing down on me. I became physically ill listening to our teacher rationalize why it was okay for the Hebrews to rob the Canaanites of their land through violent conquest. Retributive justice, he said, comes from God one way or another, and they had it coming.
For my Sunday School teacher, this was an object lesson in anticipation of the future judgment of the whole world which God would one day execute on the Day of Judgment. And for those of you who are eschatologically inclined, his was no premillennial sensationalism; the good doctor was a preterist, but even they anticipate some future judgment, even if it’s just in Hell.
Related: “Why I Reject Hell and Why You Should, Too“
I tried objecting to this interpretation, but I didn’t want to cause a scene. I did my best to present an alternative understanding that preserved some kind of moral integrity on the part of the Bible. I had my reasons for that at the time—I was looking to build as many bridges between my own views and the views of my loved ones as I could manage.
But this was too wide a gulf for me to overcome. Sometimes you happen upon a mess so gnarled and tangled that you throw your hands up and say, “Forget it. This is impossible to straighten out.” I’m a pathologically conciliatory person—a peacemaker to a fault—but even my powers of accommodation have their limits, and this story brought them out.
It Always Goes to Hell
The story of the conquest of Canaan should throw up several red flags for any person committed to critical thinking; if nothing else, it should warn against a “high” view of the Bible.
If you maintain that the Bible is infallible then you have to accept that the Hebrews were commanded by God to kill every man, woman, and child who stood in the way of them getting the land occupied by the Canaanites because that’s what it says. Presumably those attacked were to be given the option of fleeing for their lives, but that’s little consolation since in either case the Hebrews were told to take their “promised land” by violent force. No one was to be left alive—not women, children, babies or even livestock.
For many Christians (well, non-Calvinists anyway) this is just too much. If you maintain that Jesus was the real-world expression of the nature and character of God, and if you maintain that Jesus taught love for all people—not merely those like us—and that you should turn the other cheek, then this story presents a major problem. Here you have Yahweh personally commanding the killing of thousands of people, not only adults but also infants and children who could not possibly be held responsible for whatever their parents did to deserve genocide. This essentially makes Yahweh a war criminal.
[And no, it doesn’t make the situation any better if in some cases only some but not all of the women and children were killed, contrary to the language of the text cited above. I can almost hear someone objecting, “When he said to ‘kill everything‘ he didn’t really mean it like that.” But maybe you should go back and read it again.]
William Lane Craig famously argued that God was acting in mercy when he commanded the execution of those children because they would have grown up to be something awful, like child-sacrificers (Killing babies to appease a god? Anybody besides me see the irony there?) Craig went on to theorize that this was okay because these children would have gone directly to heaven when they died since they had not yet reached the age of accountability (still waiting to hear which Bible verse teaches that, btw). By this logic one could construct a justification for abortion which would make evangelicals sick to their stomachs.
In the end it was a belief in Hell which enabled our Sunday School teacher to accept this story at face value because, as he reasoned, if God’s just going to punish everyone who disobeys him anyway, then this mere physical destruction pales in comparison.
He had a good point. In the end, the doctrine of Hell justifies absolutely any injustice we could imagine.
Related: “Absolving God from Hell“
Your Moral Theory Sucks
Religious dogma can put you in the most uncomfortable positions of cognitive dissonance.
Not too long ago I read a comment from a woman attempting to reconcile a high view of inspiration with an acknowledgement of the obvious brutality of this story. She began by saying that God can kill anybody he wants because that’s one of the perks of being in charge of everything. He makes the rules.
But then two sentences later she turned around and suggested that those were “different times” and that it is hard for people today to conceive of how violent and brutish life was back then. In other words, don’t blame God for their brutality; that’s just how ancient tribes rolled.
She couldn’t seem to make up her mind about who was to blame for this atrocity. If you credit the Hebrews for this action, you’ve just admitted the Bible incorrectly attributed the decision to Yahweh. But if you credit God, you are stuck trying to justify the actions of a divine monster. Perhaps she is trying to argue that God behaved differently back then because it was a different time? Did he grow up and mature out of the temper tantrum phase? My Sunday School teacher would argue that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and that something much worse is coming on Judgment Day, so deal with it.
Another great irony is that these same people have a habit of telling people like me that ethics without God leads to moral relativism. But when I survey atheists, I can’t find anyone who believes you can morally justify the kind of ethnic cleansing this story represents. I’ve never had one even try. They seem unanimous.* But then when I put five Christians in a room and ask them the same question, I get five different answers even though they’re all working from the same religious text.
So which worldview really leads more to relativism, here? The ethical theory of most evangelical Christians stems from what Craig and others call the Divine Command Theory, which says that “whatever God does is good.” This means that if at one point God tells a man to kill his son, that’s cool. I mean why not? God did that too, right? If God wants to drown millions of people with one massive flood, that makes it alright.
Any action you can think of has a possible justification under Divine Command Theory. All you have to do is say “God told them to do it” and you’ve got your justification right there. You can’t get any more relativistic than that.
Related: “Father Abraham Had Many Psychoses“
A Bedtime Story
Not too long after this, one night at bedtime my kindergartner asked for a story from her Story Bible. As the only atheist in their lives, I have had to pick my battles carefully, so at the time I chose to oblige her request. I opened it at the bookmark to find that the next story was the conquest of Canaan. This children’s Bible tells its stories at an elementary level using cute cartoons, so I figured I could handle it.
With clenched teeth, I read her the story of the conquest of Canaan as her older sister listened in from her bed nearby. As the story concluded, my little girl asked why God was being so mean to those people. Her sharp little mind instantly knew this situation was wrong on so many levels.
I didn’t know what to say. My mind flooded with things to say which would not have gone over well with the older daughter listening nearby (my situation is complicated). I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that at the time I think I dodged the question for fear of saying something which would upset a delicate balance that existed in my family life during those days (and frankly hasn’t yet gone away).
Related: “Parenting Children Who Still Believe“
Those who have been in a situation similar to mine will understand how difficult it can be to know what to do when moments like these occur. I quickly changed the subject and finished putting the girls to bed because it was late and I didn’t think this was the best time to open up such a large can of worms.
Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I don’t think I handled it the way that I should have. In fact, thinking back over my interactions with my children the last few years, I see that I have been overly accommodating, keeping my opinion to myself on so many things that I became guilty of complicit silence. It’s hard to know which battles are worth picking, you know? I am often unsure, and I tend to err on the side of keeping the peace.
But I finally learned to draw the line at Canaan. That conversation changed my mind. When something is so clearly wrong that even your kindergartner is thinking more clearly than a world-class physician, it’s time to say something out loud. No one benefits from reinforcing the kind of convoluted logic that justifies ethnic cleansing and territorial wars (even the fictional kind), much less eternal conscious torment.
I will continue to do my best to foster constructive dialogue with all of my believing friends and family who are willing to have rational discussions with me about their beliefs. But they can’t expect me to give things like this a free pass anymore, because I won’t.
[Image Source: Unsplash]
* I didn’t interview any despotic dictators for my ethics question because all the ones I could think of were either dead or didn’t return my call (and President Trump’s too busy conducting rallies and playing golf); but despots don’t follow a moral code, anyway…they just do whatever they want, so frankly they’re irrelevant.
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