Justifying Evil

The thing I like about the various e-book reader apps for [insert mobile computing device here[1]] is that they allow me to read the first chapter of most recently-published books, without all the bother of having to brush the Cheeto dust off my shirt, putting on pants, and emerge from my mom’s basement into the burning light of day to go to the library.

And so, when Denyse O’Leary, William Dembski’s official in charge of dispelling all positive stereotypes about Candada, recommended Rabbi Moshe Averick’s book Nonsense of the Highest Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, I downloaded and read the sample chapter.

After a brief introduction about running into Gnu Atheist books at a bookstore, he attacks the new atheists as intellectual lightweights, picking as his first example the most famous quotation from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Actually, Averick doesn’t quote the whole thing. He writes:

I had hoped to find in these manifestos at least a little bit of cutting-edge intellectual searching and honesty. I was sorely disappointed. While Richard Dawkins’ pronouncement in The God Delusion, that “the God of the Old Testament is…petty, unjust, vindictive, bloodthirsty, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, etc.,”[1] may, for some, have an irreverently bold and strident ring, it is more the proclamation of a stance than it is the outcome of intellectual inquiry. Can an intellectually honest and open minded person ignore the fact that this same deity commands the Israelites not to take revenge or bear a grudge, to view the use of inaccurate weights in business as an abomination, to view all human beings as created in the image of God, to open our hands wide to those in poverty, not to oppress the stranger who lives among us, to leave a portion of every field unharvested for the poor, never go to war against an enemy without first offering peace, that “justice, justice shall your pursue”, to “love your neighbor as yourself”?

Jewish Scripture is the single most influential piece of literature in the history of mankind. Is Dawkins obligated to agree with distinguished historian Paul Johnson who writes in his monumental historical treatise, A History of the Jews, “to them [the Jews and their Scripture], we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption…of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the moral furniture of the human mind”[2]? Perhaps not; but even if Dawkins has decided to completely reject the biblical worldview, it stands to reason that a slightly more nuanced evaluation would have been in order. It’s clear to me that the chain of venomous one-dimensional invective cited above, offers us much more insight into the inner workings of the soul of Richard Dawkins than it offers us any meaningful insight into understanding the biblical narrative or the concept of the One God who is at the center of it all.

Now, it’s true that the Old Testament does say to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “use honest scales” and so on, though I’ve read enough divinely-ordered bloodshed in the Old Testament that the “sanctity of life” bit raised my eyebrow.

But the thing that really struck me about Averick’s defense is that he doesn’t actually say that Dawkins is wrong.

Go reread the bit that I quoted, and go to Averick’s web site to put it in context. I think you’ll agree that his defense basically boils down to “he’s not all bad”. He might convince someone that YHWH isn’t the most unpleasant fictional character, but he completely ignores the “bloodthirsty”, “misogynistic”, “homophobic”, and “genocidal” parts.

So rather than wonder about this, I took advantage of an invention that allows us to find out what’s going on inside people’s heads, called “writing them and asking”:

Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2011 22:55:48 -0500
From: arensb

	Dear Rabbi Averick,

	Your book, "Nonsense of a High Order", was recently mentioned
on Uncommon Descent as a good rebuttal to some of the recent books on
atheism.
	One thing that struck me was in Chapter 1, which you have at
http://rabbimaverick.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=62&Itemid=87#_edn3
Specifically:

	While Richard Dawkins' pronouncement in The God Delusion, that
	"the God of the Old Testament is... petty, unjust, vindictive,
	bloodthirsty, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal,
	genocidal, etc.,"[1] may, for some, have an irreverently bold
	and strident ring, it is more the proclamation of a stance
	than it is the outcome of intellectual inquiry. Can an
	intellectually honest and open minded person ignore the fact
	that this same deity commands the Israelites not to take
	revenge or bear a grudge, to view the use of inaccurate
	weights in business as an abomination, to view all human
	beings as created in the image of God, to open our hands wide
	to those in poverty, not to oppress the stranger who lives
	among us, to leave a portion of every field unharvested for
	the poor, never go to war against an enemy without first
	offering peace, that "justice, justice shall your pursue", to
	"love your neighbor as yourself"?

You go on to list some of the contributions of Jewish scripture to the
history of humanity.
	But it seems to me that you didn't rebut most of Dawkins's
point. Your examples may counter the accusation that the God of the
Old Testament (I hope you'll forgive me for referring to it that way;
I was brought up in the Christian tradition) is unjust, but you do not
address the rest.
	It is not inconsistent to say that on one hand, God is
homophobic, racist, bloodthirsty, etc., and that on the other hand, he
tells his people to deal fairly and help the poor.
	Given how easy it is to find Bible passages that seem to
support homophobia, the subjugation of women, and killing people for
seemingly minor offenses, I would have thought that these points would
deserve rebuttal. As it stands, the part that you've posted reads as
though you have conceded the charges that God is petty, infanticidal,
genocidal, etc. and are arguing that he's not all bad.

	I wonder how you might respond to this. And since I suspect
that answer might be of interest to others, would you mind if I posted
your response, unaltered, on my web site?

	Thank you,
Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2011 23:54:22 -0600
From: m averick

Andrew,
 
Your point is well taken. I was not attempting to formulate a comprehensive defense of Judaism in the opening chapter of the book. If you read that section carefully, my point was to express my dismay at the intellectual laziness on the part of Richard Dawkins in his depiction of the “God of the Old Testament.”  As I stated at the end of that paragraph, “It stands to reason that a slightly more nuanced evaluation would have been in order.”  If Richard Dawkins wants to take it upon himself to provide an analysis of the Jewish Bible, it would have made sense to consult with an Orthodox rabbinic scholar to hear how Jews have understood the passages in question, it is obvious that he did not. Nearly a third of my book is devoted to the issue of the origin of life. I am not a scientist, and I consulted with many top notch experts in the subject before I submitted the final version.
 
The second chapter of the book is called “The Ground Rules.”  These are the important philosophical and conceptual paradigms and underpinnings for the discussion of the existence of God and atheistic ideology that follow in subsequent chapters. I give you permission to print this section from that chapter that addresses the issues you raise in a slightly expanded form. [I also ask you to include the following]: From Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist,  Traditon and Reason Press, Inc. (c) 2010 Moshe Averick. This book is available through Rabbi Averick’s website at www.RabbiMaverick.com or on Amazon.com and Kindle.
 

Ground Rule #5: Even though I am a Rabbi, this book is not about “defending the faith” of Judaism

     Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and other atheist propagandists lambaste many different religions and their scriptures in their writings and speeches. As I made quite clear, this book is not about scripture or a particular religion. Therefore, excepting the few remarks I will make here and perhaps some tangential remarks scattered throughout, I do not even intend to put forth a comprehensive defense of Judaism against these vituperative railings. Suffice it to say the following…

     Generally, these atheist writers display spectacular ignorance about what Judaism is, and most crucial of all, how Jews have understood and related to the Torah (Bible) for the past several thousand years.    

     A pilot’s manual for an F-15 fighter-bomber is not written to enable the average person to pick it up, read it and attempt to fly an F-15. The manual is written with certain assumptions about the knowledge, background and training of the person who is reading. Without this knowledge, background, and training there is no possible way for the uninitiated reader to have a proper understanding of what the manual is and what it is supposed to accomplish. The Jewish Torah is no different. Speaking as an ordained Orthodox Rabbi who has been a Jewish educator for three decades, I can categorically state the following: It is not possible to have a coherent or accurate understanding of either the mission and nature of the Jewish people, Jewish law and Jewish religious obligations, nor the weltanschauung of the Jew, by reading an English adaptation, of an English translation, of a Latin translation, of a Greek translation of a Hebrew Bible. The Torah as a Jewish Scripture does not mean whatever any particular reader thinks it means any more than the manual for the F-15 means whatever any particular reader thinks it means. Judaism has its own guidelines, parameters, and traditions, regarding the study, interpretation, and applications of, the Torah. Any explication of the Torah that is made in ignorance of, or outside of these guidelines (no matter how fascinating, creative, or novel it may be), has nothing to do with Judaism. Judaism and its Torah are not beholden to, nor defined by the personal musings or speculative theories of a group of new age atheists. If an individual wants to criticize the Torah worldview he should first and foremost take the trouble to find out what it actually is. As I pointed out above, a superficial reading of an English translation of the text is at best, a scratching of the surface of a real understanding of Judaism. (To put it colloquially: The devil can and does quote Scripture for his own purpose)

     As long as we are on the subject of the devil quoting scripture, if awards were given out for grotesque distortions of Judaism by atheistic authors, Christopher Hitchens would be in a class by himself (ironically enough, he is Jewish). His obscene depiction of a Jewish circumcision ceremony[i] could have been plagiarized from the pages of Der Sturmer, the rabidly anti-Jewish, quasi-pornographic tabloid published by Julius Streicher, a Nazi war criminal who was executed by the Allies in 1946. The way in which Hitchens portrays the ceremony is so vulgar and divorced from reality that one could justifiably pause to wonder whether it might not be a projection of some unresolved issues of his own regarding the genitals of infant boys. At the very least, it indicates some sort of pathology, be it emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. If that weren’t sick enough, he also informs us (obviously after months of painstaking research on the subject) that Orthodox Jewish couples have intercourse through a “hole in the sheet.”[ii] It would have been closer to reality if he had informed us that the earth was flat. After all, at least from our limited perspective the earth looks flat. Where did he dig up this disgusting lie? It is obvious that he simply made it up. In light of the above, we can safely assume that unless presented with conclusive evidence to the contrary, anything Christopher Hitchens writes about Judaism is either a distortion, an outright fabrication, or presented so out of context that it is the equivalent of an outright fabrication. Having said that, I will resist the temptation to speculate about other unresolved issues that are afflicting his soul.   

     In any case, if Hitchens, Dawkins, or Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis) want to read the Torah and understand it in their own distorted way, they should at least display some basic integrity (again I caution the reader against holding his or her breath while waiting for this to happen), and call it Stengerism, Hitchensism, Dawkinsism, or any other name that suits them. Just don’t call it Judaism. My assumption is – and I believe it is a quite reasonable assumption – that they have grossly distorted facts about other faiths as well.



 

 

If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Sincerely, Moshe Averick
 

Okay, it’s true that the Bible you can find in your hotel room is far removed from what the Israelites originally wrote down, and that if, like most people, you’re relying on the best efforts of scholars and translators and don’t understand the culture in which the manuscripts were written, then you’re missing something.

But the God in an English translation of the Bible kills people by the millions, orders the deaths of many more, demands worship and sacrifice, treats women as inferiors, and so forth. So what gives?

(Oh, just in passing, Christopher Hitchens has apologized for and retracted the “hole in a sheet” thing. But that’s neither here nor there.)

I replied:

Date: Thu, 3 Mar 2011 22:38:23 -0500
From: arensb

	Thank you for your response. If I understand your plane manual
analogy correctly, then, the Torah is written in a way that may not be
intelligible to a reader without the requisite background knowledge.
	Thus, to pick a few concrete and well-known examples, an
untrained lay reader might pick up an English translation of the Torah
or Bible, read the passages where God kills the firstborn of Egypt, or
sends a flood to cover the earth, and think that God is committing
genocide. But someone who is understands how to read the Torah
properly, reading the most reliable extant manuscripts, would
understand that this is either not genocide, or else justifiable
genocide.
	Is that more or less correct?

	Thank you,

Averick’s reply:

The truth is that it goes a little deeper than that. There is no possible way to understand the Torah (Bible) the way Jews understand it unless one first believes in an infinite transcendent Creator/God along with the all-encompassing worldview that is implied by such a belief. First and foremost of these implications, of course, is the notion that every human being has an inherent preciousness that transcends all material boundaries. We are here because the infinite Creator and source of all reality wants us to be here. This is radically different than viewing a human being as a highly developed bacterium that emerged out of a pond of scum 3.7 billion years ago because the right molecules happened to bump into each other at the right time and place. It is obvious then that this God needs nothing from his creatures, wants nothing from his creatures, and ultimately can receive nothing from his creatures. Anything they could “give” him was created by God in the first place. He could create as much of it as he wants! To describe this God as “genocidal” is clearly absurd. People who are driven by hate, prejudice, lust, etc. can be “genocidal” not God. How then do we understand the story of the Flood when God causes the death of almost every living human being on the earth? The story must jibe with this concept of God. However you are going to explain it, one thing is certain: The infinite, transcendent, One God is not genocidal.
 
On the other hand if God does not exist, then frankly, who really cares what the Bible is or isn’t? It is worth as much or as little as your subjective opinion evaluates it to be worth. There is therefore something rather ridiculous about an avowed atheist like Dawkins describing what he thinks of the “God of the Old Testament”. He’s describing a “God” who as far as he is concerned has no reality at all. He’s describing a comic book figure, a big superman in the sky. In short, he’s describing not “God”, but a “god”, like Zeus, Neptune, or the sun-god of the Aztecs.
 
It does not have to do with “extant manuscripts.” It has to do with how you understand the whole universe and mankind’s place in that universe. In WWII, both the Imperial Japanese soldier and the American G.I. fired rifles and killed people; both the Japanese and American air forces bombed cities and killed civilians. Unless one has studied and understood the unbridgeable chasm between the values, philosophy, worldview of Imperial Japan and that of the United States, it is impossible to comprehend that while the killing of hundreds of thousands of Chinese by the Japanese in Nanking was unspeakably evil,  the killing of  hundreds of thousands of Japanese in Allied bombing raids over Japan was just, moral, and even blessed. Unless one first has a comprehensive understanding of the Jewish understanding of reality, there is no way to understand how to piece together the intricate puzzle that is the Torah.  
 

Once you strip away the irrelevancies, it seems that that response boils down to “it’s okay for God to kill millions of people[2] in the flood, because he doesn’t need to.” Or maybe it’s “because he’s bigger and stronger than us, and he makes the rules”; which, to be fair, is the reason God gives in Job 38.

But the end of the first paragraph sounds positively Nixonian: it’s not genocide when God does it.

So I asked one last question:

Date: Fri, 11 Mar 2011 00:14:08 -0500
From: arensb


	Thank you for your response. I think I understand your
position better now. However, one thing you said raises a question for
me:

On Fri, Mar 04, 2011 at 12:14:57AM -0600, m averick wrote:
> He could create as much of it as he wants! To describe this God as
> "genocidal" is clearly absurd. People who are driven by hate,
> prejudice, lust, etc. can be "genocidal" not God. How then do we
> understand the story of the Flood when God causes the death of
> almost every living human being on the earth? The story must jibe
> with this concept of God. However you are going to explain it, one
> thing is certain: The infinite, transcendent, One God is not
> genocidal.

	Is there anything God could do that you would not consider
good? It's just that here you've defended the premeditated killing of
however many million people were on Earth at the time of the flood.
	It seems to me that either you consider this to be within the
scope of morally-acceptable actions -- in which case, where are the
boundaries? What actions are never acceptable? -- or else you feel
that anything that God does is automatically good, even if those
actions would never be acceptable if performed by humans.

	Thank you,

I haven’t heard back. I thought that was a perfectly reasonably question, but I’m guessing that Averick decided that I was a troll or something (or maybe he got distracted by the Internet; he does seem to be a prolific commenter).

But even so, I thought his responses were telling. He seems to fall squarely on the “good is whatever God says it is” side of the Euthyphro dilemma. And if killing people isn’t wrong when God does it, how can it be wrong when God commands it? That kind of thinking scares me.

I’ve recently started reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape. He spends a big chunk of chapter 1 in arguing that even if we can’t all agree on what “moral behavior” or “well-being” mean, there are some opinions that are so obviously wrong that they can be disregarded. While there are, and always will be, people who deny the existence of atoms, scientists can safely dismiss these people as kooks with nothing useful to contribute to science, and go on studying nuclear physics. In the same way, some opinions about morality are so obviously wrong that they can be dismissed while the rest of us try to work something out.

In the same vein, allow me to suggest that if you don’t think that killing millions of sapient beings in any situation short of an Ender’s Game scenario is evil, then your moral compass is so skewed that your view can safely be disregarded.

(HT alert reader Fez for one of the links. I’ll let you guess which one.)


[1]: But not literally. It would be supremely stupid to try try to shove an iPhone through a monitor. Unless you’re trying to talk yourself into upgrading both.

[2]: Assume an initial population of 2 (Adam and Eve), and a flood 2000 years later. An annual growth rate of 0.7% gives us 2×1.0072000 for a total human population of nearly 2.3 million people drowned in the flood. And no, I have no good reason to pick the figure of 0.7%.

6 thoughts on “Justifying Evil”

  1. My simple heuristic for understanding the Torah/OT is to consider it a sourcebook for exploring various game-theoretic situations. You have your tricksters such as in Jacob and Esau, liars, people doing whatever they can to survive and compete. And you have your tyrants, including the one played by god. In terms of survival lessons, it is important to consider the option of toadying to the tyrant by conceding that whatever he chooses is good. Genocide is a good thing for your tribe when you can get away with it. Etc.

    At certain relative levels of power, we can be partly constrained by ideas of justice. At higher levels of power, those constraints fail. The Torah/OT considers both of those situations, which is why there is so much atrocity in it. Recognizing when you can seize a low-consequence opportunity for a high-consequence gain is very adaptive.

    Modern liberals aim to make a just society by providing checks and balances to achieve some constraint by justice even of the highest levels of power. At least to members of our society: we are reluctant to hobble ourselves in our dealings with outsiders who are not checked by our mechanisms of justice. Else the outsiders may have an advantage over us.

    So yes, Dawkins is right that the god of the bible is an unpleasant character. As such, he is useful for teaching some methods of surviving unpleasant characters that you cannot defeat. Religious Judaism makes the mistake of believing in the fictions. Cultural Judaism is a survival-oriented, opportunistic, conservative and Machievellian tradition that can align with modern liberalism in most situations. IMHO.

  2. Just came across this. sorry for not answering your last question, it simply got away from me. I appreciated your questions and your giving me a fair hearing. Quite frankly, your analysis of my replies leaves a little to be desired. My point was that in WW2 we justified killing hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians. If there is a time when it is justified for humans to kill men, woman, and children, then it is certainly possible to understand that there might very well be a time when the infinite creator of the universe (assuming he exists) would be justified in killling huge numbers of people. It does not seem to me to be a very difficult point to understand. In any case if you would like some more grist for the mill, check out these:

    http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/04/01/an-open-letter-to-dr-jerry-coyne-atheistic-biologist/

    http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/04/14/rabbis-without-god/

    All the best, Moshe Averick

    1. it is certainly possible to understand that there might very well be a time when the infinite creator of the universe (assuming he exists) would be justified in killling huge numbers of people.

      Well, sure. I’ve read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. But you haven’t answered the question: is there anything God could do that you would consider to be immoral?

      That is, presumably you would agree that killing a man in self-defense can be acceptable, but killing a man for fun is not. Do you hold God to a comparable standard? If, for instance, he killed someone just for fun, would that be immoral?

      The reason I ask is that a lot of apologists, and you appear to be among them, seem to think that anything God does is by definition good, or are eager to imagine scenarios that justify everything God is claimed to do, up to and including killing the entire population of the earth (minus eight people). But that, as I wrote above, is Nixonian, and make sentences like “God is good” meaningless.

      There’s also the practical matter that if anything God does is automatically good, then presumably you should obey anything God tells you to do. So if someone sincerely believed God had told them to kill their child (or worse), is there any basis on which you would be able to say “No, God would never tell anyone to do that, because it’s evil”?

  3. There’s so much wrong that an entire web site could be dedicated to deconstructing this one provided link but let’s start with this.

    Moshe Averick writes in http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/04/14/rabbis-without-god/ :

    Epstein writes in the preface of his book that people can “lead good and moral lives without super-naturalism, without higher powers, without God.” What he really means, of course, is that if people treat each other as if they are created in the image of God,as if they have been endowed with unalienable rights by their infinite Creator, as opposed to treating each other like the highly evolved bacteria and cockroaches that they actually are, then they can lead good and moral lives even while ostensibly dropping God out of the picture.

    Really? You have Rabbi Greg Epstein on record explaining to your query that this is what he “really” meant when he wrote the preface to his book? Because from where I sit you are drawing a conclusion based on facts not in evidence.

  4. My point was that in WW2 we justified killing hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians.

    We did? My understanding is that killing civilians in wartime is widely considered to be a bad thing.

    It’s understood that it will sometimes happen accidentally. When it’s done intentionally, it’s called a war crime.

    And, yes, we (the U.S.), have done it and tried to justify it. The key word being tried. There is certainly no consensus that, say, dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified.

    Apologies in advance if I messed up the HTML. And BTW, I’m here because of your post on Pharyngula.

    1. I’ll grant that many of the horrors of WWII can be justified (or at least one can make a strong case for them). But it’s also easy to come up with actions that clearly cannot be morally justified. To quote Dave Barry Slept Here:

      It was Truman who made the difficult decision to drop the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the rationale being that only such a devastating, horrendous display of destructive power would convince Japan that it had to surrender. Truman also made the decision to drop the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the rationale being that, hey, we had another bomb.

      Basically, I’d like to hear a theist say “If God told me to pick up a rifle and start shooting people because he finds it amusing, I wouldn’t do it because that would be wrong.”

      But instead, we get people like Averick and William Lane Craig justifying genocide.

      And BTW, I’m here because of your post on Pharyngula.

      Nice to see ya! Feel free to look around. Take your shoes off and stay a while.

Comments are closed.