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This is Your Brain on Apologetics

April 30, 2011

The title of this post comes from a line in Thom Stark’s recent review of Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.

Copan is a Christian apologist. His book attempts to fend off the challenge (leveled most recently by various “New Atheists”) that the God of the Old Testament is a rather unpleasant fellow. A straightforward reading of the text might lead one to conclude that the OT God endorsed ethnic cleansing, slavery, unjust laws, draconian punishments and the oppression of women (to name a few of the biggies). Copan comes to the rescue with a variety of alternative interpretive suggestions and the idea that God was accommodating his message to the Ancient Near Eastern culture. In other words, it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best God could do given the cultural baggage of the people he was working with.

Thom Stark’s review of Copan’s book is, to put it bluntly, scathing. Stark systematically pulls apart Copan’s arguments, one after the other, to show that Copan’s interpretive strategies are little more than wishful thinking. He also makes a strong case that Copan’s accommodation argument fails on the grounds that other ancient legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, frequently contain more progressive (i.e. less morally repugnant) laws than those in the OT.

Stark’s review is over 300 pages long and is worthy of a book in and of itself. I’d encourage you to take the time to read it for yourself. The content is fascinating. I’ll whet your appetite with an excerpt that resonated with me in light of my own frustration with Christian apologetics. Stark writes as follows at pp. 132-33:

Politicians and their supporters engage in this sort of thing incessantly, defending immoral policies and laws in the name of this or that ideology, or attempting to hide their existence by distracting attention. This is what Paul Copan does, alongside so many other Christian apologists, and Christians need to get wise and stop accepting dishonest answers just because they’re the kind of answers we’d like to hear. If our faith is such that we have to be dishonest in order to maintain it, then woe to us!

Moreover, apologists like Copan need to get wise and realize that when Christians figure out that the apologists have been lying to them, they’re usually going to become disillusioned and leave the faith. Most likely, they’ll read an argument from an atheist that displays how lame the standard apologetic arguments are, and they’ll assume the only alternative to lame apologetic answers is atheism. People like me, who remain Christian, and who seek to help struggling Christians find ways to maintain their faith without being intellectually dishonest, are fewer and farther between than the fundamentalists on either side of the theistic divide. Christians who are looking for quick answers to throw at non-Christians, in order to buttress a faith they refuse to doubt, will continue to buy books like Copan’s and without any intellectual effort choose to be persuaded by them. But Christians who are genuinely struggling with the horror texts in the Bible, Christians who have heard the apologists’ answers and continue to struggle, they’re not going to be persuaded by these cheap, easy apologetics books. They’re going to read these books, see right through them, throw them down in disgust, and walk away from the faith. Christian apologists create atheists. I know, because atheists have told me so.

Christians need to start sending a message to these pious spin doctors. We demand the truth, and if the truth messes with our comfort, with our institutions, with our doctrines, then we’ll wrestle with that honestly, and figure out how to have a more mature faith. But a faith based on lies is no faith at all—no faith to speak of. If God is truth, then a faith sustained by lies is nothing other than faith in a false god. Apologists like Paul Copan are perpetrators of a false religion, and we have to call them, forcefully yet compassionately, to repent. We understand that they’re trying to be pious. We understand that they’re not being intentionally malicious. We empathize with their need to salvage the Bible in order to feel secure in the faith. But if we’re going to say we believe in a God of truth, then we must condemn any and all less-than-truthful efforts to defend the God(s) of the Bible. Enough is enough!

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37 comments

  1. “If our faith is such that we have to be dishonest in order to maintain it, then woe to us!”

    I love that line. Thanks for helping me articulate what I often think.


    • Thanks Michelle, although I can’t take credit for Stark’s quote.


      • No but you shared it with us! I thought it was interesting that you brought this up because just last week I listened to Paul Copan debate the issue on this podcast: http://www.premierradio.org.uk/listen/ondemand.aspx?mediaid={BD4A5C6A-9C16-417C-8C3D-5D833B5F654C}


      • Darn, the link I posted doesn’t work. The moral monster debate with Paul Copanp can be found here http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable if you scroll down to the Apr 9th podcast.


      • I actually had listened to that podcast just before Stark released his review. Unfortunately, the person Copan was debating clearly didn’t have the background in biblical or ancient near eastern studies to challenge Copan meaningfully. I actually wrote in to Brierley to suggest that he bring Copan back, but this time in dialogue with Stark. Now that would be a good show!


  2. a 300 page critique?! Holy cow that took some time!

    I have to admit that “compared to other codes this was very progressive” argument worked on me. Can you sum up the alternative? Because it is super difficult to reconcile those OT passages.


    • Stark concedes that there are instances where the OT laws were better than those of the surrounding cultures. But frequently they were worse. He points out some glaring examples with respect to slavery and the rights of women (or lack thereof). If the Babylonians could treat slaves more humanely, it’s hard to understand why God couldn’t have commanded the Israelites to do the same. I’m not sure that there are many alternatives except to acknowledge that the laws appear to reflect typical values of the time. Which may, in turn, lead to the conclusion that these portions of the OT reflect the fallible attempts of men to discern the will of Yahweh, rather than laws handed down infallibly by God himself.


  3. “If the Babylonians could treat slaves more humanely, it’s hard to understand why God couldn’t have commanded the Israelites to do the same. I’m not sure that there are many alternatives except to acknowledge that the laws appear to reflect typical values of the time. Which may, in turn, lead to the conclusion that these portions of the OT reflect the fallible attempts of men to discern the will of Yahweh, rather than laws handed down infallibly by God himself.”

    Now, see, this makes me have more questions. Like: If these weren’t laws handed down infallibly by God, but reflect the fallible attempts of men to discern the will of Yahweh does that mean that men have had no direct contact with Yahweh EVER? I’m genuinely searching and want another opinion. If no man has ever had direct contact with the divine what makes us think there really is one or any? What makes us think the one depicted in the Bible is him? I liked believing that God gave his edicts directly to someone. That meant that someone had actually experienced God in some tangible way. I can no longer believe that and it threatens my faith in very real ways.


    • D’Ma,

      I completely understand the struggle you’re referencing. But I think you’ve arrived at a non sequitur. I discuss this in the concluding chapter of Human Faces of God.

      First, the fact that a lot of the material in the Bible isn’t the product of divine revelation, doesn’t mean that none of it is, and in nowise am I implying that we never have access to the voice of God. It’s just more complicated than “the Bible says it, I believe it.” I think the Christian community, enabled by the Spirit, must bring discernment to the text in order to find out what God wants to say through it. But in order to do that, we have to be willing to confront problematic texts; only then can God speak through them. God may want to use the texts to expose the tendencies in ourselves to make God after our own image.

      The process of discernment isn’t easy; it’s messy, and it requires a commitment to listening for God’s voice in multiple places (not just in scripture). The process of discernment requires community, and it is a process that never ends.

      We may not like that, but that’s reality, and the quicker we can come to acknowledge that, the quicker we can begin the hard work of moving forward. This fact itself, I believe, reveals to us something about God’s character. God doesn’t hand us the answers; God wants us to have to struggle with the questions, and it is the struggle itself that makes us the kind of people who can be attentive to truth, to God’s voice.

      Another thing I’ll say about the fact that the other ancient Near Eastern codes (and other codes all over the place) are often better than our own scriptures, is that this tells us something about God’s interaction will all people. Wherever we find justice, or truth, we’re getting glimpses of God, and we need to be willing to look for God even outside our own traditions, in order to properly frame our own traditions.

      This may not be a satisfactory answer, but this is the most honest approach I’ve found, and so far it’s worked for me.


      • First of all, wow! I got a reply from Thom Stark!

        Thank you for your honesty. Having come from the Southern Baptist tradition some of those concepts are really difficult for me to wrap my mind around. My trouble is not in thinking that some of the Bible may be divinely inspired. But which parts? And how do I know God is speaking? Especially when once group senses one thing and another senses something radically different?

        I’m actually on chapter one of Human Faces of God.


      • Thom, thanks for stopping by. I hope I’ve accurately summarized your critique.

        I empathize with D’Ma’s concern. It’s one thing to look at a passage of Scripture and conclude that is doesn’t reflect God accurately – that the author was “making God in his own image” as you put it.

        But when it comes to the task of discerning which voices in Scripture are divine revelation and which are not, we run the risk of doing the exact same thing. I like this passage, ergo, it’s inspired. Don’t like that one, so it’s the fallible part.

        Having said that, I don’t know what other option we have. Perhaps the answer lies in not picking and choosing according to our tastes, but rather deliberately allowing Scripture to challenge us where we are comfortable. Which, in turn, requires that we become aware of our own interpretive lenses and biases.

        As you say, the process of discernment is a messy one. For those of us who come from The-Bible-Says-It-I-Believe-It backgrounds, it’s frightening to lose that handy answer key.


      • “But when it comes to the task of discerning which voices in Scripture are divine revelation and which are not, we run the risk of doing the exact same thing. I like this passage, ergo, it’s inspired. Don’t like that one, so it’s the fallible part.”

        That’s exactly the bit I have trouble with. We then run the risk of becoming ‘cafeteria Christians’ picking and choosing that which suits us, even within communities. What criteria should be used to determine, “yeah ok that part’s divinely inspired”, “but that part’s not”?


      • I discuss “picking and choosing” on pp. 234-36 of Human Faces. There are no set criteria that’s going to guarantee we’re doing it right, nor can there be. But, as I argue, it’s when we try to pretend like we’re not picking and choosing that we’re really susceptible to making bad choices. Conversely, if we can be open and honest about the fact that that’s what we’re doing, then that forces us to find the best reasons we can find for making the choices that we make. “I like this better than that” isn’t a very good reason, obviously. The process I describe is a painstaking one of listening to a variety of voices from perspectives different from our own, forcing us to look outside our zone of familiarity.

        And of course, as I contend in the same chapter, even the condemned texts are still useful. Rather than simply dismissing them as “bad,” they function to challenge us, as we confront them, they must confront us and force us to recognize the ways they have shaped our own thinking and practice. If the condemned text advocates dehumanizing an enemy, for instance, then as we confront it, it confront us and forces us to examine the ways we continue to do this today.


      • I’ve put quite a bit of thought into this response and even as I do so I recognize that I’m not a theologian and that you could run circles around me theologically speaking. And maybe that’s the problem but here goes. With the utmost respect I submit the following:

        What you’ve said so far sounds a bit like this to me: There is a God. You’ve determined Him/Her to be the God of the Bible. We can’t know for certain which portions of the Bible are divinely inspired and which portions are not. And we can’t actually know for certain that the Holy Spirit is directing us to rightly divide the word of God. We can basically only do the best we can, bounce our ideas off each other to see what we come up with and hope that we’re getting, at least, some portion right.

        I take your point about not dismissing all of the Bible as divinely inspired because some of it may not be as a non sequitur. However it seems to me that the converse may also be a non sequitur. Because a lot of the material isn’t divinely inspired it doesn’t necessarily follow that any of it is either.

        Let me say that I am not an atheist looking for debate. These are things that puzzle me and trouble me. They are reasons I cannot sleep at night. They are the thoughts that are in my head.


      • Good comments. I’d say that all truth is divinely inspired, wherever it appears. Christians begin with the Christian scriptures because those are our primary resources. But the search doesn’t end with them. I understand the need to have a textbook that we can be sure is rightly guiding us; it’s a very human need. But no such textbook exists, and so we must do the best with what we have. If we believe that God is active in guiding us into truth and toward justice, then faith means expecting God to do that despite the limitations of our resources. I think that if we need an infallible guide in order to be able to have faith, then what we’d have isn’t really faith.


      • Are you of the opinion that God desires to be known? I’ve been operating on a different definition of faith than that. Albeit maybe the wrong one, but different nonetheless. I’ve been under the impression that the faith we’re supposed to have in God isn’t a wishful thinking, hopeful kind of faith. The definition I’ve been operating on is more of a trust grounded in reality, not blind faith. What you’re suggesting feels infinitely more like blind faith.

        Chris,

        This is going a bit off topic so if you’d prefer that we’d take this to a different location I understand.


      • D’ma,
        By all means, keep the conversation going. I’m just as interested in it as you are.


      • D’Ma,

        Yes, I imagine that God desires to be known.

        “I’ve been under the impression that the faith we’re supposed to have in God isn’t a wishful thinking, hopeful kind of faith. The definition I’ve been operating on is more of a trust grounded in reality, not blind faith. What you’re suggesting feels infinitely more like blind faith.”

        Well, I’m not sure how “blind faith” should be defined. Paul said we see dimly, as through glass. I can affirm that much. And of course, sometimes when we’re looking at glass all we’re able to see is our own reflection; other times we can get a glimpse at what’s on the other side, though the glass is certainly very fogged up and it’s poorly lit on both sides of the glass. That’s just the reality.

        I’m not advocating for a faith that isn’t grounded in reality; it’s just a faith that is aware that it can’t know for certain what reality ultimately is. It’s grounded in what we know of reality, and that means it should be a faith that isn’t prone to false hopes, delusions, and the utterly irrational. But it has to come down to hope. We hope in a God who is just and good. And my definition of faith is action based upon that hope. Faith is not assent to a set a propositional statements that must be ontologically true. We hope for what is good, and we hope that what is good corresponds to the ultimate reality we cannot see, and when we act as if it were so, that’s what faith is. Faith is how we live in light of our hope in God; not blind semantic assent to specific claims we have no way of verifying. At least, that’s my faith. And I do think that certainty and faith are pretty much mutually exclusive. Mind you, I’m not talking about faith in the irrational. To the contrary, we have faith that the world is rational (morally intelligible), despite appearances to the contrary.


    • “Paul said we see dimly, as through glass. I can affirm that much.”

      The author of the book of Hebrews said: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

      This indicates to me that while we may see through a glass dimly, we can see through the glass. In other words, while what we see may be blurry, we can see it. There is an element of certainty which I have not been able to attain since leaving behind inerrancy of the scriptures. Inerrancy is obviously incorrect. I’ve read the first chapter of your book twice now. I will have to read it once more. I plan to do a review of it on my blog. The concepts you present seem heretical to me. Notice, please, that I said seem heretical. I’m not calling you a heretic. I’m in no position to call anybody anything. They only seem that way to me because I’ve spent the last 20 or so years trying to harmonize the scriptures instead of letting them be at odds with one another the way they plainly are. Because of my background and my newness to this critical approach to scripture it’s difficult to lay that down.


      • What the author of Hebrews means is that faith is hope in action. Faith substantiates our hope by embodying it. The word translated as “evidence” refers to something by which a thing is tested. Thus, faith is that by which our hope is tested. In short, we what proves the authenticity of our hope is our own faithfulness, our actions. That’s the point that the rest of the chapter bears out. Faith is what we do, and it’s what we do that tells us whether or not our hope is authentic.

        I’ve no doubt I’m a heretic, but everybody is somebody’s heretic.


      • I’m not big on labels at the moment anyway. We’ll just be heretics together. 🙂

        What is your view of the first five books of the Old Testament? I’m a former YEC who basically turned on a dime to accepting evolution. You may be wondering what this has to do with the price of tea in China, but there’s a point. Since I formerly took all of scripture at it’s literal interpretation this has serious implications for me. Once you get past that first verse in Hebrews 11 the author goes into the “hall of faith”. He speaks of Cain and Abel as real figures as well as Noah and the flood.


      • Yeah, they’re definitely mythical. I view most of the Pentateuch as legend or myth. It’s doubtful Moses was a real historical person, although the biblical character may have been based in some loose way on a Moses. The further back you go, the less historical you get.


      • I’ve kicked this topic over to a post on my blog. Chris, I hoe you don’t mind that I linked to your post and comments here. 🙂


      • *hope, hope you don’t mind.


      • Not at all. I’ll follow the thread over there.


  4. It looks like the apologists get the last laugh. The Google ad at the bottom of your post is for the “Apologetics Study Bible” and a “12 Week Christian Apologetics Curriculum and Powerpoint” LOL!


    • Arg! I can’t even see the ads. If I knew how to disable them I would.


      • Either you figured out how to turn them off or it’s not your blog. I can’t see them either.


  5. Thom Stark said: (quoted) “People like me, who remain Christian, and who seek to help struggling Christians find ways to maintain their faith without being intellectually dishonest, are fewer and farther between than the fundamentalists on either side of the theistic divide.”

    There are no fundamentalist non-theists.


    • Would that this were true!

      Unfortunately, I’ve encountered several.


      • really? specifically who?


      • Well, I doubt you know them. They’re not famous people, and I’d rather not name names of non-public figures in public.

        But perhaps you’re just thinking of a more restricted definition of fundamentalist than I am.

        Anyway, while Dawkins and Hitchens, et al., get a lot right, I much prefer atheists like Jeffrey Stout, Terry Eagleton, etc.


  6. ah, yes, I was unclear – I was talking about prominent atheists. I too have met a lot of fundamentalist non-famous atheists. thanks for the replies, Thom.


    • Boz, have you read Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion?

      http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching


      • I hadn’t seen that before, and I just read it. Thanks for the link.

        I think he misses the mark by admonishing Dawkins for not engaging with the details of theology – the book was aimed at the 90% of christians that have no idea what theology is. And there is also “The Emperor’s New Clothes” reply to Eagleton’s position.

        I remember reading The God Delusion and being persuaded by the argument – “Then what caused God?”. And then being embarassed and pleased when I realised how bad that argument is!


      • Yeah, “Who made God” is a godawful argument.

        “I think he misses the mark by admonishing Dawkins for not engaging with the details of theology – the book was aimed at the 90% of christians that have no idea what theology is. And there is also “The Emperor’s New Clothes” reply to Eagleton’s position.”

        Well, I demur here. I think Eagleton is right to critique him for going after the easy targets, and very right to critique him for conflating all religious perspectives into a monolithic absurdity. And I don’t think it’s at all true that the religion Dawkins critiques represents 90% of religious people. You’ll note that Eagleton praised Dawkins for his criticisms of fundamentalism.


  7. […] the blogosphere include such titles as Paul Copan and the epic fail known as “apologetics” and This is your brain on apologetics. Thom Stark, a self-proclaimed Christian, painstakingly dissected it and exposed error after error […]



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