Apologetics: February 2009 Archives

I've recently discovered that an argument I've often seen and sometimes used is based on something untrue. Christians pacifists (and pacifists intending to win over Christians) often make the claim that, since one of the ten commandments says "do not kill", it must always be immoral to kill. I've also seen the sixth commandment come up in lists of supposed Bible contradictions. Most such lists are filled with mainly easily-resolved surface-language differences with the occasional serious difficulty that takes some real work to resolve (although I know of no such difficulties that don't have at least one possible solution, thus showing that it's not actually a contradiction).

One (among several) responses to both of these claims is that the word used for murder in the sixth commandment in fact does not mean killing but simply means murder, so the only kinds of killing that it could be talking about are those that are wrong, leaving it open that there are kinds of killing that are not wrong. It turns out that this isn't true. There are several words for killing in biblical Hebrew, and this term isn't the most common one. It's usually reserved for contexts of killing within the covenant community, usually used in cases where the killing is especially divisive, often with inter-tribal conflicts in mind.

Its most frequent occurrences are all in one chapter, though, and that chapter is Numbers 25, which provides the details of the city of refuge provision of the Mosaic law. The ancient near eastern method of bringing murders to justice was to have an appointed avenger within each extended family or clan unit, who would hunt down and kill anyone who killed one of their own. The city of refuge provision took several of the Levitical cities and made them safe havens from avengers until a trial could take place, thus ensuring justice could be pursued more carefully as long as the accused was willing to flee to one of those cities. If the person was not found guilty of deliberate murder, they could live in the Levitical city until the death of the current high priest atoned for their sin of negligence, but otherwise they could be put to death once convicted.

I don't remember all the details now, but after looking over this with someone who knows Hebrew I discovered that most or all of the occurrences of deliberate murder used the same word as in the sixth commandment, but the term also occurs two or three times of the killing by the avenger, which as far as I can determine is legally sanctioned killing. It's not used of outright death penalties for specific crimes in the Torah, but it is used of the avenger's killing of duly convicted criminals. So what was probably the easiest response to the difficulties I mentioned above doesn't seem to be correct. The pacifist may not be able to claim that what the commandment says not to do can cover every kind of killing, but they can claim that the word can be used for legalized killing. Also, you can't get out of the supposed contradiction simply by saying the word doesn't mean "kill" but means "murder", since the Torah seems to allow instances of killing that use this very word. But I don't think this puts a stop to the kind of view I would defend. It just makes one of the easier and quicker responses no longer as easy and quick as I would have liked.

I've been wanting to post some thoughts on a recent piece by Richard Gray in The Telegraph on a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore that details Charles Darwin's anti-slavery motivations. I've been putting it off, but I decided it would be fitting to write it up on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Gray points to some journals from Darwin's voyages on the Beagle and letters of family members that reveal his disgust at the practice of enslaving fellow humans and involvement in the abolitionist movement. This is so contrary to the false portrayal of him in some circles that applies later Social-Darwinist ideas to Darwin himself, something he never endorsed and would not have tolerated.

This wasn't all that surprising to me, even though I didn't know of his outright abolitionist views. After all, Darwin was such a strong supporter of the common descent of all humans in explicit opposition to views that had different ancestries of different races without a single common ancestor population for humans. Such views were around in his day and had been put to use in support of slavery. In this way Darwin was closer than some of his contemporaries to the view found among many Christians that three races had arisen from Noah's three sons, with further divergence later on at the tower of Babel.

There were alternative Christian (or, I would argue, sub-Christian) views at the time as well, most notably the outright racist idea borrowed from Islam that the curse on Ham's son Canaan was really a curse on all of Ham's descendants (or more precisely the darker-skinned ones, in contrast to Canaan's middle-eastern descendants in what became Israel, who were the actual group referred to in the Genesis curse). This view involved a number of curse elements not in the Genesis text that mentions Noah's curse on Canaan, including intellectual and moral inferiority to other races among the darker-skinned Hamites from Africa and the moral justification of slavery (rather than the text's simple report that Canaan would serve Shem and Japheth without saying whether it would be morally ok for those who enslaved them). So not all support for slavery came from the view that humans arose in different and unrelated races in different parts of the world completely independently. But it's easy to see how Darwin's opposition to that view was part of his motivation for providing an account of human origins that resisted such a view.

Two things have occurred to me while reflecting on this and reading some people's responses to it. One is that it's a clear case of being motivated to adopt a thesis based on ideology. It's true that Darwin's support for the view ultimately is supported by his actual reasons presented in his work. He does in fact give arguments for his view, and he expects people to accept his view based on those arguments rather than because of his ideological motivation. It's probably true that he accepted it at least in part based on those arguments and not because it happened to fit with his preferred social view. At least he believed the arguments supported the view. But he did have an ideological motivation.

The irony is that his intellectual descendants refuse to allow an exactly parallel situation with supporters of intelligent design, who present arguments for their view that don't rely on ideological assumptions, expect people to accept the view based on such arguments, and probably believe the view at least in part because of those arguments. At least they see those arguments supporting the view. Yet opponents of intelligent design regularly deride intelligent design proponents for having ideological motivations to want to find arguments for their theistic view. I haven't yet seen anyone of that ilk deriding Darwin for his parallel motivation. Perhaps that's merely because they happen to agree with Darwin's motivation but don't agree with theism. If so, then it's an unfair double-standard, because it can't be in principle intellectually dishonest to believe something you have arguments for but also have ideological reason to want to be true unless that's true of every case of believing something you have arguments for and ideological reason to want to be true. But it's common among those who are anti-ID to confuse the motivation for an argument with its theoretical basis, as I've pointed out before.


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