Atheists Attack God as a Monster, Bible as Dark
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ROME, FEB. 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- One of the arguments made by the latest wave of atheists is that religion promotes violence and injustice. They point to a number of passages in the Old Testament that are in sharp contrast to modern values.
Paul Copan answers these accusations in a book just published, “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” (Baker Books).
The book’s title comes from an attack by atheist Richard Dawkins, in which he called God a “moral monster.” Dawkins accused God of being jealous, petty, unjust, and vindictive, Copan noted, citing some of his statements.
Fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens alleges the Old Testament provides justification for human trafficking, slavery and massacres. Meanwhile Daniel Dennet portrays God as being insatiable for praise, claiming that by creating humans in his image he reveals his vanity.
Copan responds by pointing out that by creating humans in his image God is actually expressing his kindness and enabling us to relate to him, to think rationally and to be creative. “This is privilege, not bondage,” he exclaimed.
Far from being a manifestation of egoism God’s desire for us to worship him reflects his wish that we do not detach ourselves from the ultimate reality, Copan explained. Our worship is an expression of awareness of our proper place in things.
Our praise of God flows naturally from our enjoyment of God. Praising God comes from our enjoyment of God’s presence and the realization of what is supremely valuable in our lives.
Copan also points out that we can see God’s humility in the incarnation of Christ, who took on our human nature, and who, moreover, died on the cross for us.
Several chapters of the book examine what atheists have termed the “weirdness” of the Bible when it comes to the laws on food, slavery, the treatment of women, and other issues.
Copan referred to Matthew 19:8, where Jesus explains that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. A patriarchal society, slavery, primogeniture and other customs were the norm for the time.
The Mosaic law was only meant to be temporary and if the laws were weird or crude they were, nevertheless, an improvement on the customs and social structures in the Near East at that time.
For example, the Old Testament limited the punishments that could be given to slaves, unlike the situation in surrounding countries where slaves were at the complete mercy of their masters. As well, runaway foreign slaves were to be given shelter in Israel.
Codes such as as that of Hammurabi had far less regard for human life when compared to the Mosaic code. Moreover, many of the laws were restricted by additional laws. The Old Testament prescribed the death penalty for 16 crimes, for example, but in 15 of these, a judge could impose a lesser penalty. So, overall the Mosaic law is far less strict than other Near Eastern codes, Copan concluded.
Another difference between the codes that Copan identified was that of the value of unborn life. A number of passages in the Old Testament affirm the intrinsic value of the unborn child.
Some atheists claim that by its very nature religion is violent, Copan noted, so they argue we need more Enlightenment values and less religion. We actually need more religion, not less, he replied.
Our Biblical faith actually supports tolerance, for despite our disagreements, we affirm that all human beings are made in God’s image. So St. Paul proclaims that Christ has broken down the divisions of race, class and gender (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2: 11-22) and that we are called upon to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
We do need to keep in mind, however, Copan added, that not all religions are alike. Christians were persecuted by Roman emperor-worshipping polytheists for their refusal to worship other gods.
When it comes to violence carried out by Christian nations, Copan argued that it is simplistic to reduce the cause to a purely religious factor. The political and social influences need to be considered, along with the political abuses of religion. While war may be waged in the name of religion it can also be a convenient label to justify conflict due to other causes.
We certainly do encounter in the Old Testament practices that fall short of the ideal set out in the first two chapters of Genesis, which affirms the principle of human equality and dignity, Copan admitted. We don’t have to defend these practices and we can also point to the New Testament, where a contrary witness is found, he argued.
God did not impose laws that Israel was not ready for. Instead, he moved incrementally and gradually moved them along the path of moral improvement, Copan continued. So, for example, when we read about the massacres of the enemies of Israel, we don’t have to justify such actions. These acts took place in circumstances of a less morally refined culture. Moreover, they show us that God can work out his redemptive purpose in spite of such limitations.
Old and New
The Catholic Church addressed what it termed the “dark” passages of the Bible in “Verbum Domini,” the postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the “Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” dated Sept. 30, last year (Nos. 41-2).
The New Testament does indeed acknowledge the Old Testament as the word of God, Benedict XVI explained, as it frequently cites it and uses it as proofs for arguments.
The roots of Christianity are found in the Old Testament and we draw nourishment from them, the exhortation affirmed. Moreover, Christian teaching has always resisted the attempt to set the Old Testament in opposition to the New, the Pope continued.
Nevertheless, it is in the life and teachings of Christ that the scriptures of the Jewish people found their fulfilment. The exhortation noted that this concept of fulfilment is a complex one with three dimensions.
The first is that of a an aspect of continuity, then there is an aspect of discontinuity, and finally an aspect of transcendence.
“The paschal mystery of Christ is in complete conformity -- albeit in a way that could not have been anticipated -- with the prophecies and the foreshadowings of the Scriptures; yet it presents clear aspects of discontinuity with regard to the institutions of the Old Testament,” the Pope stated.
“The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New,” he said, quoting St. Augustine.
When it comes to the passages of the Old Testament that prove difficult due to their depiction of violence or immorality, the exhortation urged that we need to remember that revelation is rooted in history.
“God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance,” the exhortation observed.
So, God reveals himself within a particular cultural and moral level and there is a description of facts and customs that are prevalent at the time. This is why someone in today’s world can be taken aback by the “dark” deeds described.
Even so, the exhortation pointed out that the Old Testament prophets consistently challenged all type of injustice and this was a way of God preparing his people for the reception of the Gospel.
“I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ,” the Pope concluded. Something to keep in mind when we next hear the superficial attacks of atheists.