Devil’s Bookmark: How Not to Defend God

Anybody who sets himself the task of acquitting God from the charge of being a “moral monster” has his work cut out for him. Paul Copan knows this, but in his attempt to acquit God he seems to be standing at the bottom of a pit wielding a shovel. How do you get out of a hole with that tool?

The pit, of course, was dug by the New Atheists, and the shovel represents Copan’s biblical counter arguments against their charges of Yahweh’s moral repugnance.

But there’s a profound mismatch between the prosecutor’s accusations and the defense strategy—there is no common ground between the two sides of the argument. When New Atheists lament the monstrosity of Yahweh, they lament the villainous shortcomings of a fictional character. They are not talking about a real entity. Hence, New Atheists might as well be railing against the stinginess of the tooth fairy or the bad taste of Santa Claus. They merely state their case against a hypothetical God-idea. At the same time, they challenge those who (mistakenly, they think) take God to be real.

Copan, on the other hand, talks about God as an existing person. These two camps—the atheists and the believers—inhabit two different universes.

It’s a bit like trying to set up a date with Harry Potter or scheduling a physical with Dr. Jekyll. It’s perfectly absurd to schedule an appointment with a fictional doctor, a character who, moreover, dies at the end of the story in which he figures. Everybody would agree, right?

Now, imagine a similar scenario. Assume that you are an atheist whose sibling, Jimmy, is an evangelical Christian. Jimmy prays to God and talks to him as if he were an interlocutor. Maybe, Jimmy even wants to schedule an appointment for a one-on-one mystical session with God. You say “look, Jimmy, you can’t meet God or talk to God because the thing you call God doesn’t exist.” Jimmy looks baffled. Since God exists for him, meeting God for a chat is not outside the confines of rationality. For you (his brother), however, it is precisely that—a sign of irrationality. The two brothers inhabit two different worlds: in one world gods, angels, and miracles exist; in the other they don’t.

So, if the two brothers talk about God, they talk about two fundamentally different things: Jimmy talks about God like he talks about his brother; his brother, on the other hand, talks about God like he talks about Dr. Jekyll or Hamlet or Emma Bovary. To pretend that the two brothers talk about the same thing would be a logical fallacy.

And this is where Paul Copan stumbles.

Surely, even a limited overview of some major God definitions yields a tapestry of differences. Here is an admittedly incomplete overview of various God conceptions:


Any book dealing centrally with the nature of God skirts such distinctions at its own peril.

“God is a Wounded Husband”

Richard Dawkins, for one, doesn’t fall into this trap. Right at the outset of The God Delusion he clarifies what God definitions are in play: “if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.” Against this lowest-common-denominator definition of God, Dawkins offers his own take a few pages later: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”

To argue against that conception of God without acknowledging that Dawkins talks about a “fictional character” is equivalent to making a category mistake. 1:0 for Dawkins.

And Copan doesn’t quite recover from that deficit. When he writes about the time “when God created human beings” he has already lost me (as well as most other secular humanists, I presume). God created me? What are you talking about?

Instead of supplying a God-definition, Copan boasts a firm, albeit implied, knowledge of God that would have embarrassed the likes of Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, or Maimonides.

This confidence about God surfaces at every point: “God is bursting with joy and love to share his goodness with his creatures.” “God is self-sufficient and content in and of himself.” “God opened himself to repeated rejection from his people. He was continuously exasperated with and injured by his people.” “God is a wounded husband who continually attempts to woo his people back.” “God’s jealousy isn’t capricious or petty. God is jealous for our best interests.” And so on and so forth. Copan knows every facet of God’s intentions, feelings, characteristics, and wants. In a way, he smothers God with his own all-knowingness.

As a result, God becomes small, knowable, reduced, common. There’s none of the mystery associated with an awesome God who is not directly accessible to human intellection. A far humbler stance than this inspired the 12th-century anonymous Book of Twenty Four Philosophers to suggest that “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.”

The Madoff Defense

There are more problems with Is God a Moral Monster? than I can deal with in this space. So, let me select a few lowlights.

Copan spends considerable energy absolving God from blame for asking Abraham to murder his son Isaac. He bases his argument on three main pillars: first, that God had given Abraham a promise that his rejected consort, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, would not come to harm after being sent into the wilderness. Second, that he had made a promise about Isaac becoming the founder of a great tribe. And third, that God was believed to be able to resuscitate the dead. Ergo, Abraham could slaughter his son in obedience to the Lord’s command because 1. the Lord had made, and kept, some promises in the past, 2. he had currently made promises (i.e. about Hagar and Ishmael’s survival and about Isaac’s founding a nation) that pleased Abraham, and 3. the Lord had the power to restore the dead back to life.

Let’s transpose this scenario into the language of Wall Street. A powerful investor, let’s call him Bernie, promises you that he will give you great returns for your investment. You give him some money, and for a while your investments grow, according to the promise. Bernie further promises that some of your investments will turn into veritable emporiums. And just in case something should go wrong, lets say if the whole economy tanks, Bernie says he could work some miracle to bring your dead assets back to life. “Now, give me ALL your money!”

Would you do it?

Doubtlessly there will be some who take the bait, especially if the promises sound extravagant enough. Not surprisingly, Elie Wiesel called Bernie Madoff, who caused him to invest (and lose) 15 Million dollars, “a God.” [See my previous post, “Loving an Abusive God.”] Basically, Copan pulls a Madoff defense for God: since God had promised great things, one should not hesitate to give everything to the promisor. But promises don’t count for much when push comes to shove, and this line of argument might have worked better before people became wary of quasi-divine financial promises.

Did God Lower His Standards for Us?

Another standard accusation against Yahweh is that his moral manual, i.e. the Bible, endorses slavery, which Mosaic law merely seeks to regulate, not to outlaw. Let’s see how Copan defends God against this charge. Basically, God is let off the hook because “the ancient Near East” turns out to be wholly corrupted and rife with “fallen social structures and human hard-heartedness.” Such summary declarations of collective human fallenness in the “ancient Near East” are rarely substantiated in the book.

I’m not a historian, but something smells fishy. Surely, no everyone comes to the conclusion that the “ancient Near East” was so collectively corrupted that barbarisms abounded. Here’s Timothy Beal about the socio-cultural context from which the Old Testament arose: “Nor do we know very much for certain about the ancient life situations—ritual practices, oral traditions, legal systems—in which these texts had their beginnings.” Sounds a bit more humble than Copan’s assertions about the “fallen” state of “the ancient Near East.”

But even granted Copan’s possibly unhistorical claim, the question remains why God did not bother to demonstrate better values to the supposedly so wicked ancient Near Easterners. Copan’s answer to this tricky question is that God is a gradualist, a kind of Celestian Fabian. According to Copan, “God didn’t impose legislation Israel wasn’t ready for. He moved incrementally… Being the practical God he is, Yahweh… met his people where they were… he met Israel partway.” Now this is convenient: God’s people advocate slavery. God in his good heart thinks that this is not a very nice practice but, hey, what can you do? So, God sets about “incrementally ‘humanizing’ ancient Near Eastern structures [which]… meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.”

One can call this prevaricating. But Copan digs himself yet a little deeper into the hole: “God accommodated himself to human hard-heartedness and fallen social structures.” In plain English: God lowered his standards to meet humans as the jerks that they are.

Now, this gets me wondering. According to that line of reasoning, what would the “practical God,” the gradualist God, the God-who-is-ready-to-lower-his-standards say about the treatment of victims in the German concentrations camps? Meet the Nazis halfway? Let’s spare the children and only send adults to the crematoria? Or feed the concentration inmates on better food and clothe them more decently before exterminating them?

And here’s the problem: God is excused on grounds of “gradualism” and adaptation to evil when he is supposed to be categorical in his opposition to moral wrongs like slavery; at the same time, God is excused for being categorical when he should have been gradualist, i.e. by reforming his self-created human race instead of exterminating it wholesale, with the exception of Noah’s family. This curious imbalance smacks of a moral double-standard.

Another thing we learn from Copan’s defense of the Bible’s take on slavery is that the Mosaic law really is relative. It has to be taken with a dose of salt. “Mosaic law was temporary and, as a whole, isn’t universal and binding upon all humans and all cultures.” So, it’s a document of its times, after all. Who would seriously go out to stone Buddhists for believing in “idols” or kill shoppers for violating the Sabbath? OK, but the problem with the relativistic excuse is that it undermines the divine, supreme, and righteous status of the supernatural author of these laws. Try to tell Antonin Scalia that the Decalogue is relative, a document of its time!

Inevitably, such apologetics raise the question of why exactly we need a God, if a) God cannot create people who behave decently, and b) if, after behaving badly, God cannot teach his own created beings decent moral imperatives? Sure, murder is bad and the Mosaic Laws says so. But slavery is also bad, and so is rape, torture, and securities fraud, but the Decalogue remains silent about them.

I wish to add one more facet to this discussion. Just as Copan fails to frame his apologia with a preamble about which God definitions are in play, he also conflates the debate over God’s moral character with the debate over God’s existence. But these are surely two separate issues.

Copan complains that the “[New Atheists’] arguments against God’s existence aren’t intellectually rigorous.” Well, are Copan’s arguments for God’s existence any more rigorous? According to Copan, “God reveals himself to humans through conscience, reason, human experience, and creation.” This list gets me wondering: what about it, exactly, is supernatural by definition? The first three aspects (conscience, reason, human experience) belong firmly in the human realm. In fact, primatologists like Frans de Waal (Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved) would argue that conscience and reason belong to both humans and primates. So, if Christian apologists argue that having a conscience is God’s gift to man, they should extend this argument to monkeys as well. As for human experience, I can’t even begin to conceive how my experience is evidence for God’s existence. Then there’s the fourth “proof” of God’s self-revelation: creation. Nobody knows where matter and life come from, so the jury is out on that claim. But to say that God created the cosmos at the very least invokes the classic rejoinder: “who, then, created God?”

The fact is, whether or not we believe that God gave us experience and conscience it doesn’t alter the fact that experience and conscience are real. It is equally clear that belief in God has no causal connection to morality. Some atheists are more moral than some religionists, some religionists are more moral than some atheists. Just as morality is not dependent on religiosity, existence is not dependent on belief in a creator God. The baby in the cradle, the cat on the roof, the non-contacted tribe member in Papua New-Guinea—they all exist without a shred of knowledge about God, and are doing just fine, most of the time.

As an apologia for God, Copan’s book may work for those who don’t need an apology. But for religious skeptics, god-Haters (misotheists), and atheists, Copan’s book can do very little to dispel their doubts about God’s foresight, wisdom, goodness, and even existence. The book takes too many theistic premises for granted to be intelligible to secular humanists. Curiously, New Atheists seem to be perfectly intelligible to theists, but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. While disbelief can work its way to belief, belief cannot easily work its way to disbelief. In the long run, this imbalance may prove to be fatal to belief.

Of course, there is another defense of God, the humanistic defense, which can prevent the apologist’s hole from getting even deeper: God is just a human construct and reflects human flaws as well as human nobility. No more and no less than that.