Skeptics and the annoyance of the little things…. like facts.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a pattern. I’ve seen plenty of skeptics present arguments against Christianity or certain aspects of Christianity like its moral code, its metaphysical beliefs and so forth. What I’ve noticed is that when a spokesperson presents an argument (say, against the “horrible” God of the Old Testament) and the fans or fellows gather around and agree loudly, it is seen as not merely mistaken, but actually inappropriate or somehow bad form – ruining the party I guess – to step forward and point out that whatever its logical merits (or lack thereof), the argument actually gets the facts wrong.

I can recall discussions on abortion, for example, where skeptics have regarded me as “pedantic” for explaining the meaning of biblical language in Exodus 21 or Genesis 2:7 (even where the meaning of this language was central to their own argument). I’ve encountered skeptics who try to argue that the Old Testament teaches polytheism, and they’ve gotten literally angry with me when I explain the way the plural elohim is used in Scripture (because that word forms a key part of their argument). Sometimes the facts are just annoying, and to bring them up is just nitpicking and anti-social.

The most recent case is that of John Loftus. Loftus has complained in the past about the fact that the Old Testament endorses slavery. He describes the brutality of slavery in the southern states (when people were kidnapped in Africa and sold to slave traders traveling to the New World ) including the vicious beating and mistreatment of slaves, and connects this to the Old Testament, saying “Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?”

One response that has been available to this challenge for a very long time is that offered by John Locke and by a whole range of Christian thinkers as well. For a good summary of these argument check out a recent blog by Matt over at M and M. The thrust of the reply is to point out certain facts about “slavery” as described in the Torah. The word `eved refers to anyone who works (or worships, actually), and is related to the verb for “work,” so that a farmer who “works the soil” slaves away at the soil. The actual description of Old Testament slavery is revealing. As Matt notes, 1) Kidnapping is a capital offence in the Torah (Ex 21:16), and slave trading appears to be condemned in a couple of New Testament texts as well, 2) an `eved is stated to be a person with the same value as other people, 3) harming or killing an `eved was prohibited and subject to punishment, 4) being an `eved was a temporary arrangement and did not last indefinitely, and 4) it was against the law to return a fleeing `eved to a master.

Given what the Bible actually prohibits and condemns in these requirements, the Old Testament actually condemns what we call “slavery” as it was practiced in the southern states. Check out Matt’s post and the comments for a fuller explanation. In short, if the facts presented by Locke and others are indeed facts, then the Old testament does not endorse “slavery” but clearly condemns it. But what I noticed in particular is that Loftus has now replied with a post of his own – not a post about how Matt has the facts wrong. No, nothing of the sort, but instead a complaint that what Matt is doing is “nit picking”! In his post, “Nit pickers have started to attack,” he replies:

What I find interesting, Matt, is that you have not addressed my main question in my book: “Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?…why didn’t God tell his people, “Thou shalt not own, buy, sell, or trade slaves,” and say it as often as he needed to?

Apparently it’s just in poor taste and really just skirts around the edges to point out that contrary to the claims that some skeptics love to make, the Old Testament does not endorse what we call slavery. But I daresay that annoyance has clouded John’s vision, for what has been shown is that in fact God did condemn kidnapping and/or mistreating people, the very things that Loftus is concerned about and which he is calling “slavery.” it may be irritating to have the rug ripped out from under your argument, but getting annoyed and demanding that people deal with the “main” argument by pretending that the rug is still there (for the sake of your argument and nothing else) is a bit of an ask, don’t you think? Why not just graciously thank the other person for their helpful explanation and remove the argument from your repertoire? Does skepticism really need this argument to work that much? Are the facts really that annoying that when they are brought up you dismiss them as side issues or distractions?

But as if this isn’t enough, look at the emphasis given to the false claim about a “side issue”:

Was your God as clear on this issue as he was about murder? Oh, that’s not a good analogy because, well, you know, genocide, the witch hunts, heresy trials and the crusades. Hmmmm. Okay, let’s try this one: Was your God as clear about this as he was that we should love our neighbors? Oh, that’s not a good analogy because, well, you know, the question was “who is my neighbor?” right? But once you get my point you’ll have no good answers to this problem and you know it, so instead you side-step it as you did here. That’s what it takes to believe, Matt, side stepping problems because you cannot reasonably explain them.

Notice two things: Firstly, virtually everything in the above quote is in fact a case of “side stepping.” It makes literally no attempt to engage the facts that the Christian reply raises, instead it leaps away to other “bogeymen” type argument full of rhetorical flourish. But secondly, Loftus repeats the claim that the facts that Christians bring up here (namely, the fact that biblical servitude was very different from the case of southern slavery that Loftus describes, and that God actually condemns those practices explicitly and on more than one occasion) are side steps, and that to even mention them at all is just an attempt to get away from the challenge altogether because the Christian has “no answers.”

That’s right. To actually reply by saying that the skeptic has the facts wrong is just not the thing to do, because it distracts from the fun of, well, skepticism! What a bunch of party poopers those Christians are. 🙁

Glenn Peoples

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14 thoughts on “Skeptics and the annoyance of the little things…. like facts.

  1. Hm, I thought the same things as I read Loftus’ post on nitpickers. The other thing he does is tell Christians that we “have” to argue these things because we “have” to believe them, and so therefore we are very ver biased. In your analysis (which is reasonable), he’s actually binding himself to never giving up a point either. Funny how we fit ourselves into paradigms, isn’t it? Even though, technically, his is “looser”, it doesn’t allow him much room for manoeuvre.

  2. I’m not at all shocked that there are intellectually dishonest persons.

    However, I find that I shock (and anger) others when I point to intellectual dishonesty and call it by name.

  3. In short, if the facts presented by Locke and others are indeed facts, then the Old testament does not endorse “slavery” but clearly condemns it.

    This is a stretch not warranted by either Biblical verse or historical practice. If anything can be said, it’s that the Bible merely regulates slavery. And if it “clearly condemned” slavery, why did it take its readers thousands of years to figure that out?

    God, whom Christians describe as omniscient, would surely have known the inhumane depths to which the institution of slavery would plumb, and for so long. This is the essence of Loftus’s question why didn’t God or his appointed representatives in no uncertain terms condemn slavery.

  4. Robert, the key is the word “slavery” as a description of what took place int he American South. If that is what people mean by slavery, then the Bible condemns it. If they mean something else, then they are being dishonest to associate southern slavery with what the Bible permits.

  5. Glenn, slavery took many forms, but the principal underlying it – involuntary servitude of one human to another – was not only never condemned in the Bible, but sanctioned.

  6. Robert, I think you see the point: The equation of what happened in the South with what was condoned in the Bible is careless at best and just dishonest in most cases.

  7. Robert,

    “why didn’t God or his appointed representatives in no uncertain terms condemn slavery”

    If you read M & M article, you’ll find that The Bible does condemn the slavery we understand today.

    Also, The Good News is about freeing human race from the very root of slavery which is called sin.

    “slavery took many forms, but the principal underlying it – involuntary servitude of one human to another”

    Don’t make stuff up, Google it up

    – Slavery is a form of forced labor in which people are considered to be, or treated as, the property of others. …

    – Slavery is a social-economic system under which certain persons — known as slaves — are deprived of personal freedom and compelled to perform …

    Which are condemned in The Bible

  8. “involuntary servitude of one human to another”
    If thats how you choose to define slavery two problems loom.

    First, in the bible the institution people refer to as slavery was typically voluntary. Being kidnapped and placed in slavery was condemned.

    Second, by that definition slavery is not always wrong, criminals who are required to do community work as a sentence for a crime are engaging in servitude involuntarily, and hence slaves, yet this does not seem obviously wrong.

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