Monday, March 29, 2010

In the Battle of Imaginary Friends, Is the Jewish-Christian god Yahweh Really Less Evil/More Moral, than Zeus?

The Washington Post has a regular column called “On Faith”. Sometimes the articles are quite good and insightful. I just finished reading one written by John Mark Reynolds entitled, “Why I believe”, in which he is responding to some of his atheist friends on well, why he believes.

Specifically why he believes in the god of the Hebrews whose name as best can be figured out is Yahweh, rather than any of the other some 2,500 gods or goddesses known to human kind.

Actually I already know why (see my last post).

Now John Mark Reynolds is a Professor of philosophy and the Director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University which is a Christian school in southern California, so I expected another grammatically well spoken diatribe on how he just has “faith” and “just feels” that it is right.

However I was only partially right… he does end up putting forth the “just feels” argument (which is the answer ANY religion gives of course) at the end of his piece, but he also makes a much rarer argument. One in which he basically claims other gods are evil and Yahweh isn’t… specifically he cites Zeus as his example.

Here is his argument in his own words taken from the article:

My friends are mistaken, however. I don't reject Zeus, because he does not exist, but because he is evil. The Zeus revealed to me in Homer is not worthy of worship, because he uses his power for evil. Now my friends who are atheists might immediately reply that the God of the Old Testament also commands or does things that appear evil to us, but this is different. The God of the Old Testament is presented as good and some of His reported actions are difficult to square with that goodness. At the worst a believer need only doubt the report, but the gods of the Greeks are presented as intentionally acting for our harm."

Well there you have it, simple!

He doesn’t reject Zeus because he doesn’t exist, but rather because Zeus is evil… according to him.

The “my god is better than your god” argument isn’t anything new of course.

In fact, the whole mentality of the argument is carried on daily in most households that have children. I can’t tell you how many times at home I’ve heard yelling, and then crying, finally followed with, “Daaaaaaad, he said his Spiderman toy is better than my Hulk toy!”

Ahhh kids. They are so cute.

So I am familiar with the line of reasoning Professor Reynolds is putting up, juvenile though it is.

What catches my eye however are his two statements that even though Yahweh’s actions are often evil in the Old Testament, that Yahweh is in fact different because as Professor Reynolds claims, “…the god of the Old Testament is presented as good”, and, “At worst a believer need only doubt the report, but the gods of the Greeks are presented as intentionally acting for our harm.”

To be sure, Zeus is often portrayed as a moody son of a bitch and doesn’t hesitate to use his magic powers to whip up on offending mortals… but evil as compared to Yahweh?

Really?  Maybe?  Let’s do some comparison.

Neither Zeus nor Yahweh’s followers believed their god was evil. In fact, although rather moody, jealous, wrathful, vengeful, and with a consistent need to glorify himself, just like Yahweh, Zeus is emphasized as being essentially “good” too.

The key characteristics of Zeus, according to his followers, include the following:

- Patron of hospitality and guests

- Avenger of wrongs done to strangers

- Keeper of oaths and promises (exposed liars were often required to dedicate a statue to Zeus)

- Punisher of dishonest traders

- Striker of terror into the impious and his enemies

And there are more of course… but the point is that NONE of these traits are associated with evil. Quite the contrary actually.

So far, no points for Professor Reynolds.

Now let’s take a look at actions attributed to Zeus and Yahweh together.

Sure, Zeus turned Pandareus into a stone statue for stealing the golden dog which had guarded him as an infant… but Yahweh turns Lot’s wife into salt for taking a sneak peak back at Sodom… a city in which Yahweh is in the process of destroying including the infants, the unborn infants, little children, the elderly, the animals, and everything in-between. Not much difference, in fact it is arguable that Yahweh is far worse.

Yes, Zeus killed Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to impersonate him by riding around in a chariot and loudly imitating the sounds of thunder, but in 2 Kings 2:23 – 24, Yahweh has two bears kill 42 children for literally calling Elisha “Baldy”.

Not much difference at all. Both Yahweh and Zeus should probably be heavily medicated and attend Anger Management Courses.

And there are many more examples of course from both. Both are equally willing to use their magic powers to make mortals suffer if they happen to piss them off.

But what of SPECIFICALLY ordering babies, children, women, and the elderly to be slaughtered… IN MASS?

Was it Zeus or Yahweh that did this repeatedly?

What of SPECIFICALLY ordering women or virgins to be raped… IN MASS? Did Zeus or Yahweh do this repeatedly?

Many Christians will be shocked to learn that in fact it was Yahweh who repeatedly ordered such things… not Zeus.

Oh yes you can bet the farm that Zeus was every bit as petty as Yahweh, but in terms of scale, Zeus never lived up to Yahweh’s level of evil.

Think I’m pulling your leg? Think I’m just making it up or taking things out of context?

Look then if you will, probably for the first time, at the specific instances.

What happens in the story of the Midianites in Numbers 31:7-18? Have a read:

They attacked Midian just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men. All five of the Midianite kings – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived. After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. "Why have you let all the women live?" he demanded. "These are the very ones who followed Balaam's advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.

Keep in mind that Moses is the mouthpiece for Yahweh… they talked all the time and Moses did the bidding of Yahweh... so if you believe Moses wrote it then you don't get to use the "doubt the report option".

Clearly Yahweh approves of rape of virgins. It’s a good thing that people have generally outgrown such barbaric behavior actually in spite of, Yahweh’s examples. Today, we would take Moses and Yahweh (if we could get our hands on him) and put them on trial in the Hague for Crimes Against Humanity.

SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #1: The Argument from Culture

And if you are typical of most Christians in the USA (at least the southern half), please don’t complain at this point that “people were different then” and that it “was ok for them in that time period”, UNLESS you want to admit that morals are relative? I have yet to meet an Evangelical Christian who espouses Moral Relativism… just the opposite.

What of Yahweh’s other tid bits of unwavering, unchanging, universal wisdom… as handed down of course through Moses in Deuteronomy 20:10? Have a read:

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.

Murder, rape, and slavery yet again.

What of Yahweh’s Law concerning the rape of a woman, as handed down of course through Moses in Deuteronomy 22:28-29? Have a read:

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.

Wow! If you rape someone, you just have to pay a fee to her father… AND AS A BONUS, you marry her too (this could actually be punishment). Just ignore the woman in the background screaming she doesn't want to marry her rapist... silly women.

But wait, there is more on rape, see Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Have a read:

If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbors wife.

The only thing clear about these rules is that he could care less about the rape victim… but he is very concerned about possible violation of another man’s property… and that’s exactly how women were seen… as property.

Luckily for most societies today, we have gone beyond the shallow morals of Yahweh, and prosecute rapists to the full extent of our various human laws… which don’t require a raped woman to have screamed “loud enough” in order to avoid a death punishment. Actually, I'm quite sure Israel also does the same these days.

How about this one, it’s a good one, you'll like it (or maybe not)! See Deuteronomy 21:10-14:

When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house. But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive's garb. After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife. However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion.

Once again, it’s crystal clear how important women are to Yahweh… just as important as a favorite pet or a highly valued clay pot.

How about Exodus 21:7-11… just in case you were thinking of selling your daughter as a sex slave? Just make sure you don’t allow the person you sold her to, to re-sell her to some foreigners and you’ll pretty much be ok.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.

Women today, should really run screaming or at least feel sick to their stomach anytime Yahweh is mentioned.

SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #2: The Laws of Man vs. the Laws of Yahweh

Now I’ve heard many Evangelical Christians say that these are the laws of men, not the laws of Yahweh.

Oh but au contraire, see Deuteronomy 17:12.

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel.

Remember, the Laws of Deuteronomy came from Yahweh through Moses… and doubt or outright rejection of the Laws in Deuteronomy means that one is wrong. One simply does not get the option of dismissing the Laws of Deuteronomy as simply being the laws of man.

And there is more, much more, even without mentioning the most genocidal evil act ever attributed to ANY god… the drowning of the entire planet… unborn babies, babies, children, EVERYTHING. That alone puts Yahweh on display as being a rather petty, and sometimes patently evil deity. To be fair, there were other gods involved in big flood myths too... Yahweh is just the most famous at the moment and Zeus was never involved in something like planetary genocide.

Think about it this way, what is the one common on-going theme in all comics that keeps popping up, whether you are talking about Superman and the Justice League in DC Comics, or The Avengers of Marvel Comics?

It is the good guys versus a powerful bad guy who wants to destroy the entire world.

It runs like this, there is some being or group of beings so evil that they want to bring down a dooms day on an entire planet. Well, it just so happens that one of the gods worshiped today happens to be one of those beings that all of our comic book heroes would fight against. That god is of course Yahweh, the Jewish and Christian god.

A good comic book would be The Justice League, or The Avengers going back in time to thwart the evil Yahweh from killing... everything!

So what is the point? The point is that while I can find various evil gods scattered throughout the various Pantheons across this great planet… more evil than both Zeus and Yahweh... Yahweh is still not any better than Zeus… not by a long shot.

SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #3: Argument from Special Pleading

Now I do know of a Christian Apology for the evil acts of Yahweh and it is a classic form of the, “Argument from Special Pleading”.  William Lane Craig even subscribes to this one.

It goes like this. Yahweh is the source of good and morality… the absolute source. Therefore, anything Yahweh does is good no matter how evil the act is. How is this Special Pleading? Keep reading.

I always like to point out that by this logic there is NO ACT THAT THE CHRISTIAN SATAN COULD PERFORM, no matter how immoral, no matter how evil, no matter how barbaric or disgusting, that Yahweh couldn’t do and have it be called good and wholesome for the whole family.

The reason for this is that apologists will say that Yahweh knows more than we do and that if we just knew what Yahweh knew, then we would understand why it “appears” that Yahweh is doing something evil. But with our limited knowledge, we just can’t really recognize the difference between good and evil... because we just don’t know enough.

Don’t laugh, this is seriously the argument used and I hear it over and over, but there are a couple of serious flaws with this argument.

Aside from just being silly, because now it becomes instantly apparent that any follower of any god that is considered “basically good” can at re-define at will ANY evil act attributed to that particular god as “good”. Why is that? Because if one could only know what their god knew, then well, you get the picture.

SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #4: Man can’t Really Know Good n’ Evil Like Yahweh

I’d be willing to bet that Professor Reynolds would start to whine and complain at this point that Yahweh is, “all knowing” but the other gods aren’t.

But many of the other gods WERE actually considered all knowing, and even the ones that weren’t had powerful god/goddess buddies that could feed them information on anything. For instance, the Egyptian Ra might not have been “all knowing”, but he could chat with Hathor, who was “all knowing and all seeing”.

Finally, there is a biblical reason to reject this line of reasoning that we can’t really know what is evil and what isn’t.

The answer is in Genesis chapter 3.

As you will probably recall from Sunday School, Yahweh tells Adam not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil.

The sneaky serpent tells Eve exactly why later in verse 5:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And after she eats of the tree and gets Adam to as well, Yahweh confirms what the serpent said in verse 22:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever…

So, if you are a Jew or Christian and this is your scripture… then humankind does in fact KNOW evil when we see it… the same as immortal beings like Yahweh and his divine council do.

Yahweh, your god, specifically says so.

In fact, in the verses following, 23-24, Yahweh gets worried about humans ALSO gaining the power of eternal life and has to place Cherubims with flaming swords as guards for the Tree of Life… so that we humans don’t become immortals ourselves.

23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
So, the “Argument from Special Pleading” fails any way one wants to view it.

The bottom line is that Professor Reynolds has his heart in the right place but is simply ignorant about what he is claiming.

My recommendation is that he round out his impressive background in Philosophy and Theology by taking more courses in the Anthropology of Religion and Classical Mythology.

So let’s take a final look at Professor Reynolds arguments.

Some of my atheist friends assert that since I don't believe in many gods, I am just an atheist who has refused to go all the way. After all, having given up on the worship of Zeus why do I cling to the worship of the God of the Bible?

My friends are mistaken, however. I don't reject Zeus, because he does not exist, but because he is evil.
This statement by Professor Reynolds, I’m sure gives him some personal comfort even if it is a patently incorrect statement as I have explained.
Professor Reynolds continued:
The Zeus revealed to me in Homer is not worthy of worship, because he uses his power for evil. Now my friends who are atheists might immediately reply that the God of the Old Testament also commands or does things that appear evil to us, but this is different.
Wrong again Professor… special pleading is not allowed, especially when Yahweh actually outdoes Zeus on the scale of good and evil.
The God of the Old Testament is presented as good and some of His reported actions are difficult to square with that goodness. At the worst a believer need only doubt the report, but the gods of the Greeks are presented as intentionally acting for our harm.
Once again, Professor Reynolds logic does not hold up.  Here is the same paragraph with a slight modification:
Zeus, son of Kronos, is presented as good and some of His reported actions are difficult to square with that goodness. At the worst a believer need only doubt the report, but the god of the Hebrews is presented as intentionally acting for our harm.
This modification of Professor Reynolds words holds truer than his original statement.
So hopefully after reading all of this, the next time you hear zealous Christians “defending” the evil acts of Yahweh, you will recognize their arguments as one of the following and respond accordingly:
SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #1: The Argument from Culture
SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #2: The Laws of Man vs. the Laws of Yahweh
SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #3: Argument from Special Pleading
SPECIAL CHRISTIAN APOLOGY #4: Man can’t Really Know Good n’ Evil Like Yahweh