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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Interview with Paul Copan: Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

We interviewed Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, about his forthcoming article in our Summer 2008 issue of Philosophia Christi (10:1). Paul is also the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics Palm Beach Atlantic University (West Palm Beach, FL)

His Philosophia Christi article is titled, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics."

Who are the "new atheists" and what makes them new?

The new atheists include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens - the "Four Horsemen," they've been called. Perhaps because of the fading Judeo-Christian cultural consensus or worldview in our culture, they have been emboldened to take on a new stridency and, in some cases, even anger and hostility. God is "not great" (Hitchens) and a "monster" (Dawkins). (Dan Dennett strikes me as more even-handed. I've met him and have enjoyed cordial conversation with him, and we've contributed to a forthcoming book with Fortress Press, which I mention later.)

One feature many critics acknowledge about the new atheists is that their case against God tends to be fairly flimsy and not very tightly argued at all. In his book I Don't Believe in Atheists (New York: Free Press, 2008), Chris Hedges writes of Harris's book The End of Faith: "His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist" (2). Though Hedges shares the new atheists' disgust - as do I! - with "the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists" (3), he believes that their confidence in reason and science is profoundly misplaced and their optimism about human nature and utopian visions is equally misguided.

Hedges says that we should carefully distinguish between religious values or certain religious figures and religious institutions: "Religion, real religion, involved fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, cultivating empathy and defying the powerful" (5-6). I think that if Christians took "real religion" (or, as James 1 says, "true religion") seriously, many of the points made by the new atheists would be greatly weakened.

Why should thoughtful religious persons pay attention to what the new atheists are claiming?

These new atheists are getting quite a bit of attention with their claims that God and science conflict or that Christianity (or "religion") is bad for people. They are rhetorically effective and happen to be churning out best-sellers, influencing the minds of many. Yes, the new atheists have plenty of critics. For instance, atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse writes that Dawkins's argumentation in the God Delusion "makes me embarrassed to be an atheist." Many critics of the new atheists see them as strident. But this hasn't prevented a lot of people from taking the new atheists very seriously.

How should theists listen to these claims?

I think that theist and atheist alike should listen fairly and even-handedly to them. The reader should sort out legitimate arguments from the anger, the rhetoric, the anecdotal and ad hominem argumentation, the exaggerated claims (such as the God-science conflict), the red herrings and caricatures (e.g., all Christians are young-earth creationists), and so forth.

Christians of course, need to be well-grounded in their faith, being able to graciously respond to some very legitimate questions the new atheists raise. (Indeed, many Christians themselves have grappled with questions that about the Old Testament's harshness and, in places, inferior moral standards that are permitted because of human hard-heartedness). Christians must also be clear-minded and discriminating about what in Scripture is normative and what is not, about what is enduring and what is temporary, of what springs from human sin and what is rooted in the character of God.

Christians also should carefully guard what is articulated in the Declaration of Independence - that all humans "have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." We are experiencing a crisis in the West as to what our moral foundations are. If God does not exist who has made human beings and thus nature's mindless, valueless processes have produced us as merely advanced animals, then such a crisis of moral foundations will only deepen.

What appears to be the main claim(s) of the new atheists when it concerns Old Testament ethics?

The main claims of the new atheists are these: (1) They see the "Old Testament God" as mean-spirited, cruel, capricious (e.g., God's command to Abraham to kill his son, God's permitting slavery or commanding the killing of the Canaanites). (2) They consider moral standards and practices in the Old Testament to be repugnant and strange (e.g., Lot's daughters having sex with their drunken father out of a desire to have children). (3) These new atheists make the faulty inference that to be thoroughly biblical means embracing the death penalty for adulterers or idolaters and, further that the Mosaic Law is the presumed enduring moral and legal standard for all nations. (4) The new atheists point out that we can know moral standards without needing to appeal to Scripture.

Why would the new atheists be interested in "Old Testament ethics" and the "Old Testament God"?

If the character of "the God of the Bible" can be rightly questioned, then one has all the more reason for rooting the standard of objective goodness in something natural rather than supernatural. Attacking Old Testament ethics appears to be the best way of making quick work of dismissing God altogether.

What sort of reasons and evidences are presented by the new atheists when they offer support for their main claim(s)?

The new atheists appeal to science, history, and reason/philosophy to make their case for a decent world without God. They seem unaware of how the Christian faith helped give birth to modern science and early on shaped the philosophical assumptions that scientists - theistic or atheistic - utilize today. The new atheists downplay the remarkable cultural/moral influence the Christian faith has played in the West, and they overplay horrors committed in the name of Christ while underplaying the destructive role of atheistic ideologies in the twentieth century. Finally, the new atheists are remarkably out of touch with, say, sophisticated theistic arguments for God's existence. Their arguments against God tend to be very superficial (bordering on village atheist argumentation that is often ad hominem or hasty generalization) and often naively tout science as the arbiter of truth, following in the barren footsteps of their positivistic forebears.

Your Philosophia Christi article claims to offer a "nuanced response to the new atheists." Please briefly explain your response and why you take it to be significant to this discussion.

The new atheists are skillful rhetoricians. They commonly use one-liners, distorted descriptions, and emotional zingers to make their points. They generally do not give an accurate, well-rounded picture of Old Testament ethical questions, but they score a lot of rhetorical points with many readers. I'm trying to respond to this strategy with more nuanced description and reasoning to put such criticisms in proper perspective. While I am not here responding in kind rhetorically, I want to give adequate, well-researched material that others can utilize in response to the new atheists' witty, but weak, argumentation on Old Testament ethics. I hope to write a fuller treatment on Old Testament ethics that is more popularly accessible.

In the "Final Thoughts" section of your article, you offer three final claims against the new atheists. Please summarize them and say how they compliment your "nuanced response."

First, the new atheists reject the very theistic foundations that have made modern science possible, that have shaped the direction of the West's moral progress, and that stand as the basis of human rights and dignity. Theism affirms humans have value because they have been made in the image of God. A supremely valuable being - not valueless, mindless processes - has endowed us earthly creatures with dignity and value. To get rid of God is to get rid of the kinds of values that these new atheists would like to affirm.

Second, the new atheists assume that theocracy or a nation ruled directly by God is the ideal when in actual fact a theocracy is simply one of several developments in Israel's history. Indeed, the Old Testament itself looks beyond ethnic Israel as the true people of God to an interethnic, international body of believers who are the true Israel in Christ.

Third, as I noted earlier, the new atheists assume that the Old Testament proclaims and enduring moral standard for all nations for all time. However, we can rightly agree with Daniel Dennett, who thanks "heaven" that the numbers of those who believe this are dwindling!

So we can side with the new atheists on these last two points but without jettisoning God's moral authority over humankind.

Can you recommend any other Christian responses or resources about the new atheists?

One can gain a lot from looking at Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?; John Haught, God and the New Atheism; John Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?; David Marshall, The Truth Behind the New Atheism; Francis Collins, The Language of God (to some degree); Dinesh D'Souza has debated new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett (available at Youtube). See also Alister McGrath's interaction with Daniel Dennett in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart (Fortress Press, forthcoming) - a book to which I have contributed on the topic of "Naturalism, Theism, and the Foundations of Morality"; and, as previously mentioned, Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists (though responding to the new atheists from a distinct vantage point).

If Christians are to effectively respond to new atheist challenges, can you offer recommendations and encouragement in this area?

I have tried to take seriously these sorts of challenges. My popular-level books True for You, But Not for Me, That's Just Your Interpretation, How Do You Know You're Not Wrong? and When God Goes to Starbucks have attempted to address many Old Testament ethical topics (and lots more!) in user-friendly, accessible ways. I'm working on another book that tackles Old Testament ethical issues specifically, again at a popular level.

In general, I would say that Christians need to be well-informed about their faith and its robust intellectual strength as well as common challenges to their faith. This will require turning off the TV and doing research and deeper thinking. We must also help equip the next generation of Christians to be more thoughtful about their faith rather than presuming upon the fading Judeo-Christian heritage that many Christians in our culture seem to cling to. Although the church throughout the world is growing dramatically, the church in North America is facing great challenges from within and without.

Along these lines, Christians need to see that much of the criticism directed toward the church stems from deeper problems such as hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, and a host of other concerns. I would recommend David Kinnaman's helpful corrective, the book unChristian (Baker) - an excellent wake-up call to the church.

More of Paul Copan can be found at his website: He blogs at Parchment & Pen and recently posted "The Moral Indignation of Richard Dawkins."

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Blogger Clayton Littlejohn said:

There are two issues I'd like to address.

The first concerns the charge that Yahweh is a moral monster. Paul Coplan remarks:
(2) They consider moral standards and practices in the Old Testament to be repugnant and strange (e.g., Lot's daughters having sex with their drunken father out of a desire to have children). (3) These new atheists make the faulty inference that to be thoroughly biblical means embracing the death penalty for adulterers or idolaters and, further that the Mosaic Law is the presumed enduring moral and legal standard for all nations.

Coplan doesn't actually say that they are wrong to reject those moral standards and doesn't actually say whether, say, God's decision to drown the vast majority of people was morally wrong. It would be nice to know what he thought. At any rate, I don't understand (3). I take it that a standard view held by new atheists is something like this. It is morally wrong to impose the death penalty on adulterers and bizarre to think that while _now_ such actions would be wrong there was a time when such actions were perfectly acceptable (and not just accepted). It's a bit disappointing not to see Coplan address this. Is he really committed to saying that it used to be perfectly fine to kill adulterers? Most new atheists would say that such a commitment is one we'd be wise to avoid. I don't see any explanation as to how that commitment is avoided.

Coplan is quick to dismiss the philosophical abilities of the new atheists, but I don't think this sort of remark would be accepted by significant numbers of sophisticated philosophers:
Theism affirms humans have value because they have been made in the image of God. A supremely valuable being - not valueless, mindless processes - has endowed us earthly creatures with dignity and value. To get rid of God is to get rid of the kinds of values that these new atheists would like to affirm.

I think a not insignificant number of philosophers would say that humans have an inherent value that does not depend on their causal ancestry in virtue of their capacities for pleasure and pain, their cognitive abilities, and the capacity to freely act from moral motives. To say that we are valuable because we are God-like as opposed to saying we are valuable because we have these good-making features (that, incidentally, we might share with a god) will strike many if not most philosophers as a pretty elementary mistake.

By Blogger Clayton Littlejohn, at April 11, 2008 at 2:29 PM  

Blogger Johnny-Dee said:

Clayton, I'm not sure how closely this blog is being monitored by Paul Copan or other members of the EPS. Since there hasn't been a reply to your comment for the past few days, I'll jump in, although I'd like to say that I'm not necessarily wedded to Dr. Copan's view; nor am I interested in taking up the mantle as the designated comment-responder for this post. We should, of course, exercise charity (and all of that) when reading a brief blog post that is addressing a difficult topic. (I would strongly recommend reading the entire article to accompany the quick thoughts expressed in this interview.) Having a short post on a complex topic naturally gives rise to questions, and I see that you have a few about Copan's position.

Your first question concerns whether Copan has understood the new atheists' objection to the soundness of the Bible's moral instruction based on certain passages from the OT. The problem, as I understand you, is that there is some kind of inconsistency between affirming a moral rule (such as adulterers ought to be put to death) is acceptable at one place & time, and also saying that the same moral rule is not acceptable now. It looks like what Copan is endorsing is that the OT represents an improvement in moral standards compared to other Ancient Near East Cultures (this comes out more clearly in the complete article this interview promotes). Copan, it seems, would say that Christians today should not think that the OT embodies ideal moral standards. Rather, the OT shows the progressive way of compassion and mercy that ultimately are expressed in the NT. The moral rules of the OT would be acceptable then and not now, presumably because those rules represented a higher moral standard compared to the moral rules of the surrounding cultures. So, when you ask, "Is he really committed to saying that it used to be perfectly fine to kill adulterers?", the answer seems to be something like this: "no, it wasn't morally good to kill adulterers back then, but it was morally progressive compared to the ANE cultures, and that's why we don't endorse these rules today."

I'm not sure what you are referring to when you write, "God's decision to drown the vast majority of people was morally wrong." I presume you mean Noah's flood here. Several answers seem available. First, the circumstances are setup such that all people (besides Noah & his family) are utterly wicked. Given the extremity of the circumstances, I don't see how it is impossible to imagine that they are so evil that everyone deserves the death penalty. Second, it might be the case that this text is not telling literal history, but rather is a piece of divinely inspired fiction, which is inerrant when interpreted as the appropriate kind of literature.

I think your final criticism raises some good points that need to be addressed with philosophical arguments -- arguments that I'm not going to provide. But the crux of the debate seems to turn on this question: can we be justified in believing that human life is valuable if human nature is the product of solely materialistic forces and physical laws? Copan seems to think the answer would be no. You, along with many other philosophers, would answer the question affirmatively. I think this is an important part of the debate, and I'd like to see more arguments from both sides to help sort this one out. I don't think counting the number of philosophers who agree or disagree with a given answer to this question is the right way to see which position is right. (Nor do I think Clayton is necessarily making the kind of mistake that I am highlighting in my previous sentence.)

By Blogger Johnny-Dee, at April 14, 2008 at 2:30 PM  

Blogger Nacisse said:

that certain acts are acceptable at one time and place and not at another time and place just seems obviously true - to me ... that it may be right for a person in situation X to kill someone committing crime N and yet not right for person in situation Y to kill someone committing crime N seems not bizarre but true.. suppose that person in situation X has a stun-gun and can stop crime N without killing - so killing would seem wrong. yet for person in situation Y who has no non-lethal way to stop crime N (say he only has a gun) then it would seem right to kill in order to stop crime N (assuming it is seen to be a sever crime -- the severity of a crime can also be dependent on place and time, too I'd say.).

something can be good for one person (or culture, i'd say) to do and bad for another person (or culture) to do. for example, it might be good for a bachelor to go to Africa and spend all his time and money helping the poor. yet it would be wrong for a family man with dependents to abandon them and do the same, i'd say... so it doesn't seem bizarre to think the rightness or wrongness of actions is dependent on things like time and place; if the family man had gone to Africa in a time before he had dependents it would have been fine but now not so much ...

i think there are real goods (charity, for example) and real wrongs (adultery) but whether a person or group should try and pursue a good or how they should deal with a wrong would seem to be time and place dependent... so It is morally wrong to impose the death penalty on adulterers now but it could have been right at another time and place - at lest the idea doesn't seem that bizarre..

By Blogger Nacisse, at April 14, 2008 at 6:15 PM  

Blogger Steven Carr said:

Why not send the article to so that they can let their readers know that theologians answer the claims of Dawkins?

By Blogger Steven Carr, at April 16, 2008 at 11:09 AM  

Blogger Paul Copan said:

Thanks to you all for your comments!

I appreciate your clarifying response to Clayton, Johnny-Dee, and I don't have much to add. Yes, I think I've taken pains throughout the article to make distinctions between the covenant conditions under which national Israel lived in the Old Testament given its civil and judicial laws (think of the fitting, useful analogy of Israel's making marriage vows to be faithful to Yahweh) and the church's being an interethnic community scattered among the nations whose ultimate citizenship is a heavenly one.
Johnny-Dee was right when he commented that naturalism has a difficult time moving from valueless processes to valuable, rights-bearing human beings. A valueless context makes a lot less sense of the emergence of value than does a context of a supremely valuable Being who makes humans in his image. I have written extensively on this topic, and I have an essay coming out in October in Robert Stewart, ed. The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (Fortress Press) that deals pretty comprehensively with this topic.

As for Nacisse's comments, I see that you rightly do note that there are objective moral standards. There are certain things that are always wrong, no matter what the era or civilization (torturing babies for fun, committing adultery). I've also pointed out that Jesus himself mentioned that certain inferior conditions and structures were permitted because of the human hardness of heart (Matthew 19:8). And, as I mentioned above, the special conditions of being God's covenant people brought with it certain temporary, stringent requirements that are not necessarily intended to be for all time.

Stephen Carr's point seems to miss mine. He assumes that God, if he existed, would have prerogatives no different than human beings. As for his "no wonder" comment (that people are looking to the new atheists' arguments--rather than Christian philosophers--for more coherent and substantial arguments), I think Richard Dawkins' own comments in the recent "Expelled" movie are both humorous and telling. (I don't think I need to comment further!) In fact, I'm coediting a forthcoming book with B&H Academic in which various philosophers respond to the philosophical naivete of Dawkins and much of the new atheism. Also, I'm contributing to another forthcoming book in which scientists, theologians, and philosophers respond in force to the range of anti-theistic/-Christian arguments marshaled by the new atheists.

Yes, a lot of people are taken in by the rhetoric of certain new atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, but their blustery argumentation lacks philosophical rigor and substance--a point noted by friend and foe alike. Michael Ruse, an atheist himself, confesses that he is embarrassed to call himself an atheist in light of Dawkins' non sequiturs and, I'm sorry to say so, emotional tirades.

Again, I appreciate your interaction.

Best wishes,


By Blogger Paul Copan, at April 22, 2008 at 6:21 AM  

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