A few days ago Dan Fincke and I sat down for a debate as part of his blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. It was the first time I'd done anything of the kind, and I'm trying to look at it in terms of what I can do better, both in terms of setting up the interview (I'm not nearly the night-owl I thought I was, for one thing) and of explaining my thoughts better on the fly. All of which are good, even if I wish I had been better able to explain myself in the actual debate.
You can read the debate here. Basically, we talked about four things: why I support the SSA; why I think Christianity shouldn't condemn homosexuality; what as a Christian I made of the Biblical story where my supposedly all-good, all-knowing God ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites; and what it would take for me to give up what Dan called the "God Hypothesis."
The last point was the most philosophical. Basically, it boiled down to whether I thought I could have any beliefs without having good arguments for why they were true. Dan seemed surprised that a philosopher would think some beliefs didn't need justification, in particular a belief as unlikely as the idea that there's a personal God. And his surprise actually threw me a bit off kilter because I'm actually not the only philosopher to think this. Alvin Plantinga, a very well-known contemporary philosopher of religion, argued that belief in God is what he called "properly basic" – that is, the kind of thing we assume is true as a first principle, rather than the kind of thing we prove using other beliefs.
Another philosopher who has impacted my thought on this question is the late D.Z. Phillips. He invokes a Wittgensteinian distinction surface grammar and weak grammar. According to Phillips, the statement "There is a God" may resemble statements like "There is a cat on the mat" – they both seem to make an indicative claim about the kind of things that exist in the world – but this is only when we look at their surface grammar. Statements can have the same structure without asking for similar meanings. For example, the statements "I have a pain in my thigh" and "I have an ulcer in my stomach" have the same structure, but they're talking about very different things. A surgeon could cut me up and point to the ulcer, but the first statement isn't really claiming there's an actual thing in my thigh a surgeon could find if he looked there. Similarly, Phillips claims, "There is a God" isn't the same kind of statement as "There is a cat on the mat" – namely, the kind of statement philosophers can say is true or false. As Phillips puts it:
To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying: it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question 'Does God exist?' with either an affirmative or a negative reply. From whose mouth does the question come and how is it answered? Praising, thanking, confessing, asking, and adoring before God may have meant little to a man. But, then, it means everything to him. He says that God has become a reality in his life. Has this come about by discovering an object? Hardly. What has happened is that he has found God in a praise, a thanskgiving, a confessing and an asking which were not his beforehand. And if coming to God is not coming to see that an object one thought did not exist does in fact exist, neither is losing faith in God coming to see that an object one thought existed does not in fact exist. 'There is a God,' though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith. (Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation p. 98; emphasis mine)
Put simply: "There is a God" only resembles "There is a cat on the mat" in a surface way. The grammar is similar, but it's not making the kind of claim we should expect logical proof of, like "There is a cat on the mat" does. It's simply not doing that kind of work.
I'm not doing an appeal to authority here, saying "here are two smart dudes who believed the same thing I was arguing for." For one thing, I haven't had the time to study them in nearly the depth they deserve so I can't say with 100% certainty that I'm on board with either of them. But when Dan seemed surprised that someone could actually think "God exists" didn't require evidence, when he thought a philosopher in particular could ever believe something like this, I found myself more than a bit confused. Because here were two eminent philosophers who did believe the same thing. It simply confused me that a philosopher like Dan who writes about religion and atheism wouldn't know about these folks; and if he did know, I couldn't see why he would think it wasn't philosophically respectable to hold those opinions, even if they turned out to be wrong. Chalk it up to the late hour – I just couldn't quite get past that hold-up in my brain, and so I wasn't able to explain my thoughts on this nearly as well as I would have liked to.
On the Canannites story, Dan actually did get me thinking. If you're not familiar in the book of Judges God commands the Israelites to go into their promised homeland and to completely kill and destroy all traces of the people living there at the time. In fact, when they do spare some people God blames them for this in pretty strong terms. Dan asked me how I made sense of this, given God was supposed to be all-knowing, all-good, etc. It's theodicy by any other name in a lot of ways, but this case is particularly hard to sit with. It's God himself commanding the Israelites to massacre women and children because their tribe had the audacity to settle on the wrong piece of land.
So what are the Christian's options? As far as I see it Christians (and Jews, and other people encountering this story as part of a religious narrative) have three main options.
1. The story as related in Judges isn't accurate – the Israelites were trying to justify an ugly part of their own past.
2. God commanded this war, and was right to do so.
3. God commanded this war, and was wrong to do so.
#1 seems a non-starter for anyone who thinks the Bible is divinely inspired or even reliable – you'd expect God to not let himself be slandered so much. #3 bumps up against many of our ideas about God, such as the idea that He is perfect and unchanging. And as for #2, it just seems so wrong on a visceral level. I mean, could I really worship a God that would order me to disembowel five-year-olds? If we really can't accept that the story is wrong, or God did this rightly, or God did this wrongly, then we're at an impasse.
My point with Dan was that this is precisely the kind of thing religious people (and really, all people, but religious people especially) need to struggle with. If you believe God exists and that He really ordered this genocide, you need to either work out why it was okay for him to do this, or why it wasn't okay for him to do this. There are ways to handle this point, and I tried to lay out a few of them for Dan; but I definitely think either approach requires hard thought. As well it should.
Let's take the second option: that God actually commanded the genocide, and that this was the right thing to do. This is an issue philosophers have dealt with a lot in other contexts (though they've not talked specifically about Canaan): can a good God allow bad things to happen? The thinking is that either God could have prevented it and didn't (in which case He's not all-good), or He couldn't have prevented it. If He couldn't have prevented it, this is either because He didn't realize something He allowed would lead to evil (in which case He's not all-knowing), or He knew and still couldn't avoid that happening (in which case He's not all-powerful). Either way, it seems like a problem for Christians and for most people of other people who conceive of God along similar lines, like many Jews and Muslims.
One possible defense against this problem is to say that the evil isn't really evil. Or at least that it's the best of all possible events. The standard philosophical example of this idea is surgery. Under normal circumstances, a stranger cutting into your chest would be a crime because it causes pain and bodily harm, but we all recognize that when a surgeon does this as part of a surgery it's not a bad thing. That's because cutting the chest is necessary for some greater good. So if a Christian wants to say God was actually doing a good thing when He orders a genocide, one way to explain that is to say the genocide is necessary for some greater good. I'll admit, I have a hard time buying that because it just seems such an unnecessarily bloody lesson. But to be fair to the religious people who think this, non-religious people often make a similar argument. Looking at it in terms of human misery and body counts, I'm sure the Iraq War is worse than the one portrayed in the Bible – and that's really just a blip in history, if you look at why the war was fought. If the Canaanite genocide was necessary to teach the Israelites some lesson, it would probably have even higher stakes if only because it happened so early in history. What I'm trying to say is that if any war is justified, then it's not beyond the pale that this particular war could be justified. And that means that God's commanding it would be painful but for the greater good.
I don't actually buy this approach. What I was trying to do with Dan was lay out what it would mean for a religious person to think God actually did the right thing when He commanded this. But I do think there's something worth struggling with even here – it's simply not an approach I find all that convincing.
Which leaves option #3: God commanded that war, and was wrong to do so. That sounds blasphemous, I know, but I actually think it works pretty well, certainly better than all the other options available. Many Christians think of God as something that can't change, but suppose this idea was wrong. In that case, the God who existed at that point in history could have been wrong, but could have gotten better over the years. If God is dynamic and grew better throughout history (even if He was as perfect as anything could have been at that point in history), God could still do things we would never think of as good today, and still turn out to be the kind of God religious people believe exists today.
As far as I see these are the only options available to religious people. And what I was trying to say with Dan was that, while they're all challenging, I think some of these options actually are workable. They may involve changing what we mean by God (for instance, rejecting the idea that God can't change), or viewing the Bible differently. But I don't think any of this proves God doesn't exist; it's a challenge that needs to be addressed but not a fatal one.
It was an interesting debate, even though as I said I hope I'll do better next time. (Among other things, it's made me realize that I'm really more interested in constructive dialogue rather than debates between rivals.) Still, I was glad to do my part for the SSA. Do read Dan and my debate, and the many other interviews he did – there's some really thought-provoking stuff here.