Chapter 16: Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?, by Matthew Flannagan
In this final chapter the author Matthew Flannagan argues that the stories of slaughter and genocide in the books of Judges, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua are nothing more than “common hyperbolic rhetoric of warfare rather than descriptions of what actually occurred.” (185) Flannagan provides this argument in response to those “critics of Christian theism [who] often ask a rhetorical question: How could a good and loving God command the extermination of the Canaanites?” (177)
I would agree that most of the battles depicted in these books did not take place, but of the battles that did it is “not clear from the record that these sites were actually destroyed by Israelites.”  Other than this fact, I am confused by this line of argumentation since this rhetorical question is most often asked because Christians continually argue that their god is the source of all things good and moral. But, then we find passages where the Christian god demands child sacrifice (which is not even addressed by the author), murder, and genocide. In this case, the genocide of the Canaanites. This argument is most often brought into play when Christians argue that the bible is a holy book, a moral book, and this is where they derive their morality from. But how could a Christian possibly get their morals from a book that contains such senseless violence, real or not? I do not believe this argument that these episodes are exaggerations or are mere hyperbole effectively respond to this criticism.
This makes me wonder who this chapter was written for. Flannagan cites unnamed “critics of Christian theism,” but does not provide any context into exactly how or why this complaint might be used. This only leaves Christians who are likely unsure of how to respond to these kinds of accusations, but as I said, I don’t believe this response effectively answers the objection.
Clearly, the men (and likely women) who wrote the bible obviously believed their god could not just be a god of love, but could also be a god of war. While I am by no means a pacifist and believe violence is necessary in some circumstances, the violence employed by god is never justified. This is not about whether or not these stories actually occurred, it’s about the moral of the story. And what kinds of morals can you derive from stories about genocide? About the kidnapping and enslaving of young women? (Numbers 31:35)
In the end, I would have to agree with Flannagan that most of these stories did not occur, and of those that did, they were not nearly as brutal as depicted in the bible. However, this still leaves that main question unanswered. How can Christians derive morality from a book that contains such immoral stories? Such gratuitous violence against the innocent? This response, while largely true, does not answer the question.
1. Is God a Moral Compromiser? A Critical Review of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? – Second Edition: Revised, Reduced, and Expanded, by Thom Stark, Self-Published, 2011; 209 – accessed 5-16-14
In the Epilogue editor Carson Weitnauer sums up this anthology: “We’ve looked at two tantalizing questions throughout this book: are the New Atheists reasonable? Do they reason well? And what about Christians and Christianity? Do they manage any better?” He answers: “[W]e conclude that New Atheist leaders often represent reason quite poorly, both in their irrational habits and because of their angry, demeaning outbursts about religion. By contrast, we find that the leading Christian respondents, while offering firm disagreement, generally seek to integrate both respect and reason as they join the conversation.” (193)
He continues to cite a number of examples from a number of sources to demonstrate the “name-calling” and attacks on “our character” by many of the New Atheists against Christians. (194) One of them was Richard Dawkins’ reply when asked about a potential debate with William Lane Craig: “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a ‘theologian.’” Weitnauer continues with what he sees as an unnecessary personal attack:
Dawkins ends this deeply misleading piece with a bit of nasty name-calling, mis-identifying Craig as a “deplorable apologist for genocide.” (194)
Richard Dawkins made this statement after learning that Craig defended the genocide of the Canaanites in the OT. In the article cited by Weitnauer Richard Dawkins explains why he wrote what he did (conspicuously missing from Weitnauer’s Epilogue):
But Craig is not just a figure of fun. He has a dark side, and that is putting it kindly. Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament. Anyone who criticises the divine bloodlust is loudly accused of unfairly ignoring the historical context, and of naive literalism towards what was never more than metaphor or myth. You would search far to find a modern preacher willing to defend God’s commandment, in Deuteronomy 20: 13-15, to kill all the men in a conquered city and to seize the women, children and livestock as plunder. And verses 16 and 17 are even worse: “But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them” […]
[Richard Dawkins cites an essay by Craig defending and rationalizing away the slaughter of these innocent people and responds:]
“I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.[…] Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples. It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair.”
So, apparently it was the Canaanites’ own fault for not running away. Right.
Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.
And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig’s words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.
Judging by these facts, yes Craig is an apologist for genocide, as is every other Christian who whitewashes and/or defends the brutal, unjust passages in the bible. If someone is unable to see the unjustness of such a statement from Craig it is not the New Atheists who have the problem, the person complaining does. Will some Christians accuse me of being rude as they did Dawkins? Probably, but I don’t understand why. It is only right and moral to condemn acts of murder in a just and moral society. When someone defends such actions those people ought to be condemned for their skewed moral compass and lack of proper judgment.
Other than this, many of Weitnauer’s comments contradict what we find both in the book and in the real world. While Weitnauer applauded the book for its rational and polite tone, in a number of the essays the authors decided to deride the atheists they were discussing. A few examples: In William Lane Craig’s chapter he belittled Dawkins by crowning his argument “the worst atheistic argument in the history of Western thought.” (22) In Chuck Edwards’ chapter he likewise belittled Dawkins with comments such as, “So much for Dawkins’s ‘incisive logic.’” (29) There were others, but I think that’s enough.
In the real world, I have been witness to (not to mention the target of) numerous slanders, insults, and put-downs by Christians. I recall one instance many years ago when I was discussing Christianity with a number of Christians, some of whom proceeded to get rather rude. But to my surprise and my appreciation, several of the Christians I had been talking with came to my defense, telling these immature posters to back off, that I was a nice guy, and that we were having a good discussion before we were rudely interrupted. I recall one Christian woman from these forums who I had a number of friendly debates with, both on that same forum and via email, and we often chitchatted as well as debated and she was very nice. Still to this day I sometimes wonder how she is doing.
My personal experiences highlight an important point. Unlike how Weitnauer paints the situation, there are Christians who can be the nicest of people, and then you have Christians who fly off the handle over the slightest criticism of their work or they simply assail you without a second thought. Luckily, not all Christians are like this and I’ve had the privilege of discussing a wide range of interesting topics with many nice Christians (in the second link the discussion took place in the comments).
In the course of writing this response I have come to find out that there had been a second edition published. It is titled True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel Publications, 2014) and I’ve read that it contains two new chapters about how reason and faith relate in a historical Christian context and about atheism and the argument from reason. In addition to two new chapters I have read that the authors edited and improved some of their essays, even including some responses to a few of the critics of the first edition. I’ve read what little I could of the newest edition online and I wasn’t too convinced by the very few edits I saw. Unless new information comes to light, for the time being I believe this review will suffice for both editions.
Now, on to the current edition. I am sorely disappointed with the caliber of these essays. I think what made the book so unappealing was the constant claims of reason and rationality by Christians, all the while they were making mistake after mistake. Most of the authors did not appear to have a solid grasp of the topics they were discussing or they neglected to check primary sources for their accusations and claims. Given this fact, I am utterly astonished at the many positive reviews I’ve seen. Yes, it is a well-written book and nicely put together, but there was an enormous lack of effective argumentation throughout.
While I would agree with the authors that atheism is not synonymous with reason there is a distinct pattern that appears to be emerging after all of my years of reading apologetics literature. While atheists are only human too, it seems that atheists typically are often better able to utilize logic than Christians. This certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it does appear to be an observation I’ve seen over the years. At the same time, I cannot ignore those minority of atheists who do not always check their own facts when it comes to religion (or other topics for that matter). But this does not describe the New Atheists. While the New Atheists are not perfect, and their books do have a handful of minor errors in them (which most Christians can never seem to find…), their books have stood the test of time despite hundreds of critiques leveled against them and gallons of (printer) ink spilled.
True Reason is a book that seeks to argue that reason and clear thinking belong to Christians and to Christianity, but they ended up proving the New Atheists’ point: more often then not, Christians cannot reason well and Naturalism (and atheism) has been vindicated from the ineffectual attacks upon it by Christian apologists yet again.