Atheists Rejecting the Bible Due to OT Morality: Bound To Be a Bad Tradeoff

Atheists rejecting the Bible due to OT morality are making a bad tradeoff. Yet they do it anyway. The other day an atheist online told me he could never follow a Bible with Old Testament laws like Exodus 21:7-11:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Obviously we have a moral problem with a man selling his daughter as a slave. What kind of a problem is it, though? I suggest it’s one of these, in decreasing order of “problem”:

  1. It’s not resolvable in principle. There is no answer that could possibly make this a moral thing to do.
  2. It’s not resolvable given all that we know and all that we could imagine knowing.
  3. It’s not resolvable given what we know.
  4. It’s resolvable given what we know.
  5. It’s been resolved.

When a skeptic says he can’t accept a Bible that contains that instruction, he’s saying there’s an irresolvable moral problem there. Meanwhile some apologists, notably Paul Copan, have dug into the historical context on problems like these, and said they are either resolved or at least resolvable given what we know.

What’s a Non-Specialist To Do?

Now, which of these approaches is more intellectually responsible? Especially considering that we’re all laymen here when it comes to Ancient Near East studies: which answer should non-specialists trust? I think clearly the answer is:

A. Sometimes possibly the apologist’s answer, but

B. Never the skeptic’s answer.

Am I playing favorites with apologists? By no means! I’m taking the reasonable approach instead.

Suppose a specialist in the field says a problem like this has some reasonable solution, he might be right. We laymen won’t be able to assess how good that answer is without doing a whole lot of study on their own. But unless there’s some obvious clinker in what the apologist has said, for all we know there’s at least a chance he’s got it right.

Maybe, for example, the word “slave” had a completely different meaning then. Maybe it had something to do with perfectly ordinary marriage customs. It doesn’t read that way to us in the 21st century Western world, but why would be surprised at the thought that something written so long ago, in such a foreign culture, might mean something different to us now than it did then?

Putting Too Much Stock In Their Imaginations

Indeed, when skeptics point out their so-called obvious clinkers in apologists’ arguments, usually it’s easy to see where they’re importing today’s language and culture into the text, where it has no right to be.

So it’s very difficult in principle to say there’s no chance there could ever be any moral resolution to the question. We could never say that unless we knew enough cultural/historical context to make that conclusion certainty.

But when skeptics reject the whole Bible due to passages like these, typically they’re saying that the moral problems they present belong either to group 1 or group 2. They’re not resolvable in principle, or maybe not resolvable given all that we know or could imagine knowing.

The Most a Skeptic Should Try To Say

But I’d say that’s putting way too much faith in the range of their imaginations. The Ancient Near East was more different from our world than you think. Or at least that could be the case, and you have no way of knowing that it isn’t.

So the most a skeptic should ever try to say is #3, that it’s not resolvable given what we know. Which leaves the door open to the possibility that new knowledge could lead to a satisfying moral answer. Until then, at best, we really only think we know; we don’t know for sure. Nothing more definite than that can be rationally or reasonably justified.

So with that in mind, let’s take another look at the atheist’s statement I opened with here: he could never follow a religion that includes instructions like we see here in Exodus 21.

What Do We Actually Know?

My answer would be that it’s better to look at what we can know than what we cannot.

We can know that the Bible presents the highest example of moral character in all history: Jesus Christ.

We can know that the world would be a crazy better place to live if people would just follow the Ten Commandments. It would even be better if we all treated one another according to just numbers 5 through 10 (1 through 4 are tied more to worship than to interpersonal ethics).

We can know that while there remain some gaps, and not everything in it is corroborated, the Bible’s historical record is completely consistent with all the definite external information available through documents and archaeology.

We can know that God revealed himself thoroughly and uniquely as a God of love.

We can know that he expressed that love through the highest possible means, self-sacrifice on the Cross.

The Tradeoff: Good or Bad?

What’s apparently bad in the Bible is (admittedly) apparently outrageously bad. What’s good in the Bible is certainly, knowably, outrageously, stupendously good.

We can make our decisions based on what we know or what we don’t know. Choosing such a great, known good that is perfectly reasonable. It tells us a great deal about the character of God. If there’s any reason to think God is consistent in character — and there is, though I don’t have space to go into it here — and if there’s also reason to think the same God who was responsible for the Old Testament laws, it’s also reasonable to think he had good reasons for those laws. Even if we don’t get it.

An atheist who rejects all the outrageous good that we do know, based on some questionable, unknown passage about which we can’t know nearly enough, is making a bad tradeoff, rationally, morally, and experientially.

Image Credit(s): Ramdlon.

15 thoughts on “Atheists Rejecting the Bible Due to OT Morality: Bound To Be a Bad Tradeoff

  1. If we laymen can’t properly assess Bible passages without doing a whole lot of study on our own, does that suggest the Bible is flawed?

    Maybe everyone hearing that passage in Biblical times understood immediately its wisdom and goodness. That would suggest the Bible was not flawed back then. So the question becomes whether the Bible is timeless or not.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if the Bible updated itself automatically as human languages changed? The words could simply transform right there on the page, conveying the timeless meaning in the latest dialect, so all people would understand.

  2. No, it isn’t a flaw, it’s just a caution to employ appropriate humility. There’s plenty there that we do know, as I said.

    The changes and updates you imagine here would be great if God had intended it to be a constantly current systematic theology. But he interacts with people relationally. We learn of him through the stories of those interactions, not just through the didactic passages. And those stories are still important for grounding us in our history–even if some aspects habe become fogged over through the passage of years.

  3. I often find that skeptics fail to consider the fact that God is having to condescend to interact with fallible human beings, which often means that what we are talking about is provisional rather than the objective itself.

    Take an infant in a highchair. We want to get them to the point in their development where they will be able to dine in polite society without embarrassing themselves. We don’t start off with salad forks. We start off with a spoon. At first everything can be eaten using the spoon in an inarticulate bicycle handlebar grip. Just because we allow them to use that grip and eat everything with a spoon doesn’t mean that we forever want them to exhibit those particular behaviors. We are just happy that the food is going in their mouth and not on the floor. As time goes on we move them up until they are ready to have the fullness of our culinary revelation revealed to them.

    Atheists disdain prescriptive regulations regarding slavery in the OT because modern society is so far removed that the idea of even being a slave is considered prima-facie the most abhorrent of states to be in. Atheists demand that God should have revealed to the Israelites how to be good little capitalists using a free market wage labor economy, just like ours because we all know that our system doesn’t have any problems at al… oh. That’s right, our modern economy can be in some ways exploitative as well (look at the poor people who get sucked into payday loans and the like).

    All labor systems and relationships will ultimately be tained by human sin until the Second Coming. We’re the indignant child right now trying to remember which spoon you use to stir the tea and which spoon you use to sip your soup. I’m sure that when we finally master the etiquette of the banquet we will understand.

  4. Tom and Friends,

    The Bible translation of Matthew 5:17 that has given me the most insight into Jesus’s relationship with and teachings about the Law is this from the New Living Translation:

    Matthew 5:17

    “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.

    This passage leads me to explore the purpose of the law. Laws in the Old Testament are contextual, but always written to serve God’s purpose for His people. If a examine the purpose of a law such as Exodus 21, it is, as I interpret it, to prevent the mistreatment of women who are totally dependent on their “masters” in every way and are vulnerable to being cast aside casually and left with no means of self-support. Jesus reiterates the underlying principle of this law in his teachings when he exhorts us to take care of widows and orphans, the most vulnerable members of society.

    I believe that it is incumbent upon Christians to explain our interpretations of the OT to atheists who reject the OT based on “OT morality.” We must ourselves analyze the purpose of any law and the principles of love, kindness, charity, and responsibility for each other that these laws present to the ancient Hebrews. I also think that we need to keep in mind that atheists, whose atheism neither articulates or promotes any particular system of moral reasoning or moral law, are not in a good position to be self-righteous about the laws of the Old Testament.

    Thank you, Tom, for your thoughtful and insightful analysis.

    Jenna Black

  5. I don’t think this article gets at the skeptic’s real problem with a biblical passage like the one above that’s meant to regulate slavery. The problem is that a unique book containing revelations from a personal creator of the universe wouldn’t contain any such passage. The book itself would be miraculous; otherwise, Occam’s Razor dictates that a thinking person should opt for the simpler, more familiar interpretation that the Bible is a library produced entirely by fallible people, containing books assembled and edited over some centuries which reflect only the human interests at those times and places.

    No skeptic would dispute that a harmonizer can conceive of an interpretation that smooths over a problematic biblical passage. Our species is highly imaginative and intelligent. We can see things like the shapes of trains and rabbits in the clouds even though the shapes are accidental concatenations of water vapor. We can find Jesus’s face on a piece of burnt toast. So of course we can imagine possible defenses of a preferred view of the Bible. The interpretation will be more or less plausible depending on the Christian’s and the skeptic’s underlying beliefs, and these they don’t share.

    So when the thinking Christian author here says we can know that Jesus is the paragon of morality and that God revealed himself in a loving act of sacrifice on the cross, he’s begging the question. We’re supposed to know these things from the Bible, but if the Bible reads more like one of many other human-made, historical records of a particular ancient culture’s beliefs and practices, not like miraculous divine revelation, we know nothing of the kind. You can choose to believe what you want based on faith or a religious experience, but the fact is that the above passage that merely regulates slavery doesn’t read as if it were inspired by a god who hates slavery. Sex slavery was widespread because humans are animals, male humans are stronger and more aggressive than female ones, and so societies tend to be patriarchal. It doesn’t take rocket science to explain the prevalence of sex slavery or sexism in an ancient religion. So this is evidence for the skeptic’s view of the Bible as a mere historical, literary document.

    As to how a Christian can explain away the ancient Jewish view of slavery, that’s easy. The Jewish view of God evolved from the tribal one that distinguishes itself by its antisocial monotheism (its denial of the existence of other gods), to Christian universalism. That transition was obviously influenced by the fact that the early Christians were Jews living under occupation by the Roman Empire. The drive to evangelize, to spread Christianity around the world derives from Jewish syncretism with Roman imperialism and from Alexander the Great. After all, those pagans likewise wanted to spread their way of life everywhere, the difference being that they left alone the harmless idiosyncrasies of the foreign cultures they conquered, whereas Judaism added the antisocial element, the interest in controlling everyone’s mind and ethics rather than demanding only minimal displays of respect for Rome.

    So there were two covenants between Jews and their god, and thus we have the two testaments, and the second one is less tribal and more universal in its morality. So a Christian will read the tribal parts of the Old Testament and thank God for finally sending his Son to die on the cross to teach everyone the importance of love. A skeptic will interpret the difference between the two testaments and religions as having arisen without the need of any divine intervention at all.

    As I said, Jews finally made their peace with their occupiers, by compromising with them, injecting monotheism into their secular empire. The pagans (especially Paul) modified Judaism, in turn, by ditching the stringent concern with elaborate ethics and rituals, and making Judaism universal by putting all that hard stuff on Jesus. Jesus did us the service of perfecting Jewish behaviour and sacrificing himself so no one else would have to live like a perfect Jew. All we have to do is trust in Jesus’s sacrifice to receive those benefits.

    So it’s a dumbing down of Jews’ absolutist ethics, and we know that dumbing things down does wonders in spreading a message far and wide. Today, the most popular songs, books, movies, and YouTube videos aren’t the ones that are the greatest in quality; on the contrary, they’re almost all dumbed down to reach the widest possible audience. It’s the same with comedy: the stand-up or late night comedy that pleases the most people is the kind that taxes their mental powers the least, that simplifies things the most to reach only the lowest standards. That’s also why Fox News is more popular than its competitors, and why most people watch TV rather than read anything. The majority normally goes with the easier option, because critical thinking and intellectual integrity are hard and rare.

    Indeed, the above article itself is dumbed down for the sake of SEO optimization. The needless headings and short words, sentences, paragraphs, and article length are all simplifications to cater to the low standards needed to reach the widest possible audience on the internet. That’s what the Roman Empire did for Judaism: it packaged Jewish monotheism and ethics in a more appealing form (Jesus did all the work so you don’t have to) to reach the lower-quality masses.

    That’s how a skeptic understands these matters, and the above article doesn’t really address the heart of the matter.

  6. Quick response while waiting at the fast food drive through. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen subheadings used as evidence that my article is dumbed down. Bravo! Well played, sir!

  7. The problem is that a unique book containing revelations from a personal creator of the universe wouldn’t contain any such passage.

    Oh. So the book should be so miraculous that every person in every culture in every period of history would be able to understand its meaning without needing to know its original historical context.

    Actually, that could work if the book were a systematic theology. It’s much more relational than that; more of a story. It’s a story with theology embedded, not vice versa.

    If the Bible reads more like one of many other human-made, historical records of a particular ancient culture’s beliefs and practices…

    In some ways it does, but in several very significant ways it is utterly unique. I can specify some of those if you’re interested.

  8. Just regarding my SEO comment, I was talking more about the style than the content of your blog. I didn’t mean to suggest that you’re dumb or anything like that.

    Alas, I have a hard time believing you’re not aware of techniques for SEO optimization. As I only recently found out, from a website where I post some satirical pieces, the Yoast SEO software explicitly calls for section headings to increase your SEO score.

    Here’s a quote from its assessment of one of my articles which got a 46.5 on the Flesch reading ease test, “The text does not contain any subheadings. Add at least one subheading.”

    As you can tell from my blog, I couldn’t care less about SEO optimization if it means dumbing down my writing style. I write long sentences, long paragraphs, long articles, and I use big words if that’s what the subject matter calls for–and it typically does if we’re talking philosophy.

    So no offense intended, but the style of your articles speaks for itself, as does your high ranking in the blogosphere. Which supports my point about how Christianity is dumbed down Judaism. (I’m a Jewish atheist, by the way.)

  9. May I comment on your article, “Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian?” even though its comments section is closed?

    Site owner’s answer to the question: No.

  10. The core deficiency in both [A] Sinai / Moses and in [B] Non-Theism is, in one sense though not in all senses, where they Start and Stop. I say “but not in all senses” simply because, obviously, the Christian ethic lands in the irreducible contours of Self-Giving vis-à-vis the Trinitarian Life, whereas, the Absolutist modes of Law-Full-Stop is, in the end, found in both this or that version of Sinai-Full-Stop (…as opposed to the Christian metaphysic which both precedes and out-distances Sinai…) and in any Non-Theistic normative library.

    While there are other reasons, that is one of the reasons which betray an unawareness in any premise which describes the Christian metaphysic as a simplified version Judaism. Where Judaism just is the landscape sandwiched between the FAR BETTER of all things Edenic (…whatever it was…) on the one hand and, on the other hand, the FAR BETTER of that which the Prophets of the OT speak of in referencing that which is not yet present (there in the OT, there in Sinai), that which is up ahead and yet to arrive in full – those Ends which Sinai itself lacked the necessary Means to actualize.

    Regarding Non-Theism itself:

    I Value X” just is the ontic equivalent of “I Devalue X” as per, say, Hume’s “-Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of one’s finger…” as there is no “Real X” which reason can in fact distinguish. And reason’s proper role is that of truth-finder, as in, fact-finder. It is at this stage when, too often, the Non-Theistic argument begins to morph as he then begins removing “value exists” as per Moral Facts which exist independent of any Contingent Conscious Observer and therefore also as per “is valuable” and, after pulling back from all of that, he begins inserting in its place “I can value” with something akin to, “Sure, moral facts don’t exist but we can choose to value one another…” Now, that is a half-narrative, which is fine in many respects, but which is a problem too. Why? Because the attempt to create such an ontological cul-de-sac is the attempt to create a logical impossibility.

    If there is no such thing as “X” (irreducible moral fact, or value) then reason does not go out and “find” said “X” (fact, or value) in, whether such be in one’s own feeling, preference, hope, and so on. Intuition-Full-Stop just is Contingent-X-Full-Stop and when it is that bit about “contingent” which forces the painfully circular attempt at the logical impossibility of the ontological cul-de-sac.

    The equivocation which our Non-Theist friend must to be careful of is between “I value x” on the one hand and, on the other hand, any sort of “breaking-free” of that flat (non-inclined) plane (surface) of colliding ontological equals in what just is a metaphysical armistice amid eternally colliding ontological equals. Why? Because thereby we’ve no means by which to find any (ontic) moral distinction. To put that another way, for Non-Theism the flat plane that is our very Being finds that distinction is achieved only by violence among converging equals.

    That is borrowed from D.B. Hart who notes that, given Non-Theism, “Being” is conceived of as

    “….a plain upon which forces of meaning and meaninglessness converge in endless war; according to either, being is known in its oppositions, and oppositions must be overcome or affirmed, but in either case as violence….”

    The Non-Theist at best pits his proverbial Noble & Heroic Lie up against what is, on Non-Theism, the Theist’s proverbial Error or Comedy or Whatever. Then, after setting up that dog and pony show which is in fact void of any ontic (moral) distinction he then finds himself in the embarrassing location of claiming to break free of the force of logic vis-à-vis an unavoidable metaphysical armistice even though he’s not shown us, nor can he show us, by what means there in our very Being he has done so.

  11. Holy mackerel, scbrown, were you trying to speak to me? The only hints are your references to Christianity somehow not being a simplified version of Judaism and to something about nobility, heroism, and comedy.

    I’m sorry to say that 95 percent of your comment is gibberish. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, so I’ve graded lots of papers that read like yours. I’m going to offer you some honest advice that I hope you’ll take to heart in all your writing, assuming you write the same way elsewhere: do yourself a favour and try restating your points in plain English. Don’t rely so much on jargon and philosophical affectations. That will be the true test of your thinking, if you can show that you have something to say when you don’t resort to those stylistic crutches.

  12. B. Cain,

    Sorry, no, it’s not addressed to you.

    That said, I liked and referred to your analogy of Comedy and Tragedy as I did find it helpful and also interesting, and, although at bottom it is merely the former things dressed in different garb, it is quite insightful as to the “WHY” lurking within the subjective impression that the Non-Theistic “moral attempt” is in fact more worthy, as it were, than, say, Sinai. More generally, the fact that some of the premises overlap your content isn’t unusual given the topic. Stoicism and Noble Lies saturate the Non-Theistic equations of the Moral.

    Obviously you know the difference between different kinds of writing and, obviously, you get it that it’s a Saturday morning comment to demarcate a few points of distinction and interest and not a formal defense of anything. For example:

    There on the Trinity, or the Trinitarian Life, and what comes with that as far as the Christian’s definitions, the post wasn’t intended to unpack, say, the sentence of,

    “…the Christian ethic lands in the irreducible contours of Self-Giving vis-à-vis the Trinitarian Life….”

    For one thing, that sentence houses a ton. Secondly, the aroma of cinnamon hazelnut on a Saturday morning is somewhat soothing, and, well, there’s little need to cluster up the morning eezz with the rigorous.

    Instead, and I know you know this, it’s just a brief reference to the intertwined discussions within Christendom when it comes to Trinity, relationship, love, self-giving, ontology, and so on.

    A quick look “there” at those Trinity thing-y’s (…crutches…?) in juxtaposition to a quick look over “there” at Noble Lies and then THAT in juxtaposition to a quick look “over-there” at David Hart’s “metaphysical armistice” (…D. Hart is easily accessible online…).

    It’s curious. We have:

    2-Comedy, 3.Tragedy,
    4-Sinai, 5. Law (theistic, non-theistic etc.),
    6-Trinity, 7. Self-Giving,
    8-Noble Lies
    9-the concept of “Being“,
    10-the concept of ontological equals,
    11-an armistice,
    12-the label of Crutches
    13-on a Saturday morning ~
    14-SEO Optimization
    15-The first 12, every bit of it, sums to a Dumbed-Down Version of An X.

    Such is the Whole that is the Christian Metaphysic.

  13. It’s always interesting when a person declares:

    1- I’ve a PhD
    2- Your entire metaphysic is a dumbed-down version of some other body of non-truths.

  14. Thanks Tom.

    I think the point you make in the article stands as fair, and I appreciate your response in the comments. I particularly appreciate your self-control in not responding to objections that are sufficiently covered elsewhere, and sticking to defending the topic of the article instead. Very refreshing!

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