Paul Copan and the epic fail known as “apologetics”

Thom Stark has just published an extensive critical review of Paul Copan’s recent book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.

Is Paul Copan a moral thinker?
Is Paul Copan a moral thinker?

And I do mean “extensive”: by page count, the review is actually longer than the original book. But most messes take longer to clean up than they do to make, don’t they?

As messes go, Copan’s book is certainly a doozie. An apologist par excellence, Copan pulls out all the stops to argue that God as pictured in the Old Testament is not in conflict with the God most Christians worship as the foundation of absolute morality. With Copan’s guide in hand, you’ll be more than equipped to do battle with non-inerrantists and other atheists who raise objections about the morality of the Old Testament:

  • Q: Why did God tell the Israelites to slaughter people groups wholesale?
    A: He didn’t! Unless He did, or commanded something marginally less unconscionable, in which case it was unfortunate but necessary.
  • Q: Wasn’t Torah misogynistic, responsible for the institutionalization of slavery, and the product of benighted ethnocentrism?
    A: Au contraire, the laws of Torah were wonderfully enlightened! Except when they weren’t, in which case they were the best thing going at the time.

And much, much more!

I’m trying to be light-hearted, but it’s probably coming off as snark. It’s just that I get a little annoyed whenever I talk about apologetics tactics: they’re characteristically shoddy, and do a lot better job keeping people from answering the good questions raised by outsiders than they do answering those questions for the outsiders’ benefit as advertised. It’s a pep talk for the choir and little else, yet apologists are lauded as the evangelical Christian version of real life intellectuals — which I guess kind of works in the same way that the Left Behind movie is the Christian version of a real movie.

I don’t want to uncharitably smear the motives of the leading apologists with too broad a brush; there’s far too much of that going around these days on all sides. But when you read some of Copan’s arguments it’s clear at least that even the well-intentioned occasionally let the need to make an argument get the better of their desire to make sure the argument is actually valid, whether by the requisite research or mere common sense.

Thankfully, contrary to popular opinion, apologetics and the inerrantist presuppositions they are formulated to prop up are not the only things standing between the faithful and godlessness. Our faith is only ever justified when placed in a God worth serving, a God who can indeed be found within Scripture but who would surely rather the whole thing be burned than to have people making careers out of passing off slick and ingenious (or not) justifications for every misconception about Him recorded in its pages. Further, I’d be willing to stake real money on my guess that apologetics are a more significant factor in both 1) the deconversion of people tired of pat answers and clever dismissals of hard facts and 2) the hostility toward Christianity as a system of irrational belief.

Thom’s review is more than a take-down of Copan’s book: it’s devastating for apologetics as an industry (I almost said “discipline”). Thankfully, we have all been provided easy access to the antidote:

This review may be freely distributed, reposted on your personal blogs and websites, printed off, emailed to friends and enemies, or completely ignored. If you do post it online or quote from it, please link back here or cite the source.

So once again, here’s the source: Is God a Moral Compromiser? A Critical Review of Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?” via Religion at the Margins.

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  • A line in your review reminded me of others I’d read years ago in Deistic works, namely your line: “Our faith is only ever justified when placed in a God worth serving, a God who can indeed be found within Scripture [see note] but who would surely rather the whole thing be burned than to have people making careers out of passing off slick and ingenious (or not) justifications for every misconception about Him recorded in its pages.”

    NOTE: In the eighteenth century Deism and Christianity lay along a spectrum, differing as to how much of “God’s inspiration” could be found in the Bible — from slightly Deistic Christians to slightly Christian Deists. Not to mention the Bible-loving Unitarian and Universalist churches that rose to prominence during that period.

    Evangelical apologists attempt to prove that the collection of writings dubbed “the Bible” are the only true words of God and hence lay at the center of the cosmos — where the earth was formerly believed to lie, incapable of being moved, and around which everything else turns. [sic] Any sensory datum, any rational or commonsense point not in conformity with the recognition of the Bible as the one true infallible word of God (“from cover to cover”) must be dealt with by such apologists. So they shift from possibility to possibility, for example, arguing that maybe there were no mass slaughters, or, if there were, God was right to commit them (since as Copan put it, God is an “untame lion” [sic]). So long as the apologist can convince himself and others that the Bible might still be the one true word of God. All it takes is a might or a maybe, a mere possibility, and they will continue to preach their doctrine of Scriptural infallibility.

    Copan’s “mights or maybes” extend to his superficial and selective knowledge and selective presentation of ancient Near Eastern laws, and his superficial and selective interpretations of passages from the Hebrew scriptures, and avoiding much discussion of the scholarly studies of the differing ages of composition of different parts of the Pentateuch, and internal evidence of different motivations of the writers from different periods, editorial changes over time, etc.

    But once the apologist for the Bible’s infallibility comes into contact with the full range of questions posed by biblical scholars (as Thom has employed), the apologist grows vulnerable at so many points, that the effort to defend every “possible” solution is recognized for the game it is. The apologist is caught, one might say, in a Ptolemaic system of epicycles and yet more epicycles, starting with, “The Bible is True Because The Bible Says It’s True,” and continuing onward in like fashion.

    To paraphrase James Barr, “The infallibilist will use every logical or factual means at his disposal to avoid the meanings and implications of the Bible’s ‘difficult’ passages (and avoid the meanings and implications of the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern milieu), in order to harmonize what he thinks to be the meaning of such passages with what he thinks to be logical, factual, or historical reality. This he does in obedience to his belief in what he calls infallibility.”

    “Such qualities of reason as he had [in this case, Copan], he devoted not to examining the testimony which his doubting sniffed out, but to examining and vanishing the doubt itself. He had it as an axiom that doubt was wicked, and he was able to enjoy considerable ingenuity in exorcising it. He had a good deal of self-esteem and pleasure among the purple-embroidered ambiguities of religion.” [Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry]

    “No matter how assured we may be about certain aspects of our belief, there are always painful inconsistencies, exceptions, and contradictions. This is true in religion as it is in politics, and is self-evident to all except fanatics and the naive.” [Steve Allen]

  • I have read neither Paul Copan’s book nor Thom Stark’s review, so thanks for writing this post.  What I would be even more interested in reading – whether it is written by Paul, Thom, or someone else – is a study of how Jesus (to borrow from Paul’s title) “made sense of the Old Testament God.”  (I read Paul’s table of contents and the subject appears unaddressed, at least in any major way.)  Could it be that the moral sensibilities of the new atheists are just more acute than those of Jesus of Nazareth?  Why was Jesus willing to die for the honor of such “a moral monster”?  And if the “atrocities” of the Old Testament are merely human and erroneous portions of Scripture, why didn’t Jesus do more to defend the honor of His Father from such false testimony?  It seems to me that Jesus’ attitude on this subject is the most important attitude we could seek to uncover.

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