A Review of Chapter 8 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 8 is entitled “Yahweh is a Moral Monster” and is written by Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies at Iowa State University.  The chapter is a reply to Paul Copan’s article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?  The New Atheism and Old Testament Ethics.”

In the first section Avalos accuses Copan of misrepresenting ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures in three major ways.  First, Avalos accuses Copan of being wrong in claiming that the biblical law is unique by being embedded in a surrounding narrative that explains the history and principles behind the laws.  Avalos points to the Code of Hammurabi (CH) as an example of an ANE law code that has a narrative and that enunciates the principles for the laws.  But even Avolos admits that Copan may not consider the CH to contain a narrative.  The biblical narrative is lengthier than the prologues and epilogues in the CH.  Second, Avalos states that Copan is wrong to deny that other ANE law codes contain motive clauses (reasons to follow the laws).  Third, Avalos accuses Copan of distorting ANE slavery laws.  Avalos cites the CH saying the law is for the enhancement of the well-being of the people to show there is a parallel to the blessing of humanity in Gen 12:3.  But it is not clear whether “the people” referred to in the CH are all humanity or all the people of a given location.  Avalos goes on to compare Hittite law 24, which fined anyone who harbored a runaway slave, with Deut 23:15-16, which said runaway slaves should be given safe harbor, and asks why Copan does not characterize the Hittite law as more humanizing than the CH 16, which sentenced those helping runaway slaves to death.  The Hittite law is more humanizing than the CH but the fact remains that Deut 23:15-16 is more humane than either.  There are, of course, many similarities between biblical law and other laws in the ANE.  However, Avalos is too quick to point out alleged injustices in the Bible.  For example, he thinks it is cruel for God to command Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away but he ignores that God blessed Ishmael.

In another section Avalos accuses Copan of special pleading based on his religious beliefs.  I take Copan to be speaking from his own perspective and thus see no problem in him taking certain things for granted for the purpose of his article.  As an example, he assumes that Christ is correct in his teachings.  That seems okay if we are trying to understand how a Christian understands his religion’s ethics.  Whether Christ is correct or not can be a debate for another day. However, Avalos is correct that Copan’s justification for killing the Canaanite children (it would send them immediately to heaven) undermines Christian opposition to abortion (why not send them to heaven too).  A number of other factual error’s in Copan’s article are summarized briefly (pp. 227-232).  If and when Copan writes a rebuttal he must be careful to get his facts right and avoid moral relativism.

In the final section Avalos tries to show that atheism offers a better way to construct moral rules.  This is a foolhardy endeavor to try and complete in one and a half pages.  First, he does not explain why secular morality must be much different from faith-based morality.  There is the possibility for a lot of overlap.  Second, he does not explain why we ought to follow any moral rules he creates.

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