Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peter Boghossian and Philosophy of Religion - Take 2

Apparently my last post on Peter Boghossian, though winning me some positive feedback and some new friends, has also earned me a lot of enemies all of a sudden. With this follow-up post, I'd like to make some clarifications, particularly after seeing some of the response on Ed Brayton's post (which I am very grateful for).

Does Mr. B rely on pseudo-science and superstition in his arguments? No? Then why Deepak Chopra?

As I explain in the post, Chopra "spouts wisdom that's eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish." Boghossian may not rely on pseudo-science and superstition as Chopra does, but that was not the point of comparison I was making. I could have perhaps compared Boghossian to political pundits for a more accurate contrast, but alas. Part of my decision to compare him to Chopra was to be provocative in a way that Dr. Boghossian very clearly likes to provoke others, and the outraged reaction of most of his supporters is interesting indeed. I continue to notice a prominent double-standard in that camp.

Is Carr aware of precisely how much utter nonsense has been written on an academic level?

I am, which is why my post did not offer a sweeping defense of all philosophers of religion. I listed a handful off the top of my head who I consider credible and intelligent. Boghossian's tweet maligned all who publish in philosophy of religion, and to challenge that I don't need to adopt the view that all academics are sensible adults, I only need to show that some are.

John Loftus has also written a response to remarks made by Jeff Lowder, Justin Schieber, and myself. John claims to be giving the charitable view, notes that he's gotten explanation from Boghossian, and elaborates that what Peter was actually saying was that "if no one accepted anything based on insufficient evidence this discipline [philosophy of religion] wouldn't even exist." However, Loftus goes on to say something notably different (italics are mine):

So people who do bad philosophy of religion without sufficient evidence should be disqualified to sit at the proverbial adult table, and if this were to take place then the discipline might not even exist. After all, if there was no bad philosophy then good philosophy wouldn't have to exist [...] What we would have instead is neurology, physics, astronomy, psychology, etc.

Now the problem with philosophy of religion is not a general one, but a distinction between good and bad philosophy of religion. I don't doubt that there is such a distinction, but the extent John takes this to strikes me as a bit hasty. What constitutes sufficient evidence for the claims made in philosophy of religion? There are such a wide range of them, spanning from ethics and causality to language and history, not to mention that different thinkers make different claims in each of these sub-fields. Loftus mentions that "scientifically uninformed philosophy" is what he and Boghossian are targeting, but even Daniel Dennett has agreed that there is no such thing as "philosophy-free science". Philosophy that goes against established science is problematic without a doubt, but science itself rests on certain philosophical assumptions. Loftus and Boghossian have an anti-metaphysical stance, which I can sympathize with, but that stance is not founded on philosophy-free science.

I have heard no other argument endeavoring to show that philosophy of religion would or could collapse into other fields of study, like in a game of Jenga, if only some magic piece were to be removed from it. As I pointed out to John in one of our exchanges, the nature of religious language seems like a part of religion that is best dealt with in the philosophy of religion. Anti-metaphysicalists claim that such language is senseless because it cannot be scientifically verified, but this is imposed to reform language rather than to explain it as it naturally exists. And as so many atheists like to say, what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. Thus, while I am somewhat sympathetic to the project of anti-metaphysicalists, I am also very hesitant.

What I truly don't understand is why the cry is for the demise of philosophy of religion rather than its reform. Even if it collapses into other disciplines, there will still be the philosophy of religion, albeit in a less organized and unstructured form. Questions of religious ethics will still arise, so will questions of religious psychology, religious history, religious language, etc. What will be the victory in tearing down the label of philosophy of religion and dispersing its contents that are not dismissed as meaningless? From this perspective, it really does seem that Boghossian, Loftus, and others want to set up an a priori win for atheism. I honestly find that hard to stomach. Like the ontological argument tries to define god into existence, we're just going to define atheism into victory?

There is still a big difference between saying the philosophy of religion is superfluous and saying that anyone who publishes in the field should not deserve to be at the "adult table". So I'd like to end with something I said to Loftus on his blog before he took pot shots at me being a college student without his degrees and eventually blocked me...

Before I wrote my review of Boghossian's book, I read up on him a lot. I listened to interviews with him, and I even did email him, albeit on a separate issue. I do consider him a bright guy, even if we disagree. Because I want to be charitable to him and take him seriously, I operate on the assumption that he means what he says, and if he makes a mistake or is misunderstood, he will clarify himself. But why everyone should be expected to privately email him regarding what he put out publicly and did not amend publicly with any corrections is beyond me. That is a very specific idea of what is charitable, yet I think it lays the responsibility entirely on the opposite side of where it should be.

This is not about being disrespectful to anyone, it is about being respectful enough not to sugarcoat someone's uncorrected statement or make excuses for them because I like them as a person. This is never an all-or-nothing game. The instant it becomes that it seems to me that we lose some of the credibility we claim for ourselves in trying to be objective and rational. However one feels about Boghossian, about the philosophy of religion, or about the unity of the atheist movement, I think that is far too high a price to pay.

[Edit: The Saga Continues]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Peter Boghossian: The Deepak Chopra of Atheism?

Peter Boghossian is an interesting figure. Back in January I wrote a review of his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, which intends to teach non-believers how to lead the faithful out of their faith. I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching. The methodology is well-researched, but the substance underlying it leaves much to be desired. Portraying faith as "pretending to know what you don't know" is not likely to help in deconverting most theists, but even worse are tactics like spreading unbelief through comic books and TV shows starring "Epistemology Knights" and "Faith Monsters".

I feel like I achieved a nice compromise in my review by being generally charitable, yet directing criticisms where necessary. After all, Boghossian's wilder remarks are not the overall tone of the book, and perhaps playing into the propaganda game is what will be the most effective against the actual disinformation campaigns, like those commandeered by Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. I was prepared to give Dr. Boghossian the benefit of a doubt - that is, until I came across his Twitter feed.

Agnosticism is arrogant. It asserts there's enough evidence to conclude that god's existence is possible.

This comment is something I wouldn't be surprised to hear from Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss, or anyone who isn't well versed in philosophy. Peter is a philosophy professor, though, which obviously means philosophy is, you know, his job. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, he specifically draws attention to the philosophical field of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, as an important part of understanding religious beliefs and leading people out of them. It seems like Dr. Boghossian should be quite aware that the evidentialism he endorses throughout his work is just one epistemological theory among several. It seems like he should also be aware of the difference between belief and knowledge, how that plays into probability and possibility, and how those all relate to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.

For a long time now, philosophers have commonly understood knowledge as justified true belief. In the 20th century, this definition was called into question by famous experiments establishing what has become known as the Gettier problem. Some have attempted to move forward by switching focus from justification to warrant, but the main point here is that knowledge is seen as a subset of belief. To know something is to have a certain belief that is true and justified, or true and warranted. On evidentialism, the more and better evidence one has for a belief, the more justified they are in holding that belief. However, if someone has no evidence for a belief, it does not mean what they believe is impossible, it merely means they are unjustified in holding that belief.

Agnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, for knowledge, and the prefix a-, meaning without. An agnostic is someone who doesn't claim to know something. This is different from an atheist in that an atheist is someone without theism, where theism is belief in god. Thus, while an agnostic says she doesn't 'know' whether or not god exists, an atheist says she doesn't 'believe' god exists. One view is about knowledge, the other is about belief, and so while they are separate in meaning, they aren't mutually exclusive. I often call myself an agnostic atheist because I don't claim to be certain that there is no god, but I think the probabilities swing far enough that I am justified in doubting the existence of god.

Evidence does not establish possibility or impossibility, especially not when we're talking about logical possibility. Scientific studies even do not rule out sheer possibilities, they either support or don't support a hypothesis. Likewise, the reasons one may have for being an agnostic may not have to do with the quantity or quality of the evidence at all. You might see the god concept as so confused and incoherent that you simply can't pronounce to have knowledge on it either way. If, like me, you accept that evidence can't ever give us absolute certainty, or such strong claims about possibilities and impossibilities, you might be an agnostic because you think there are other considerations we don't or can't have access to.

It seems like a professional philosopher should know better than to make such an incendiary and naive remark. However, just the other day, Dr. Boghossian again posted something at least as absurd to his Twitter feed:

Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table.

Many of the most devastating critiques of religion have come from philosophers of religion. The field may have a majority of religious believers in it, but there have been quite a few notable atheists published in philosophy of religion journals, too, such as J.L. Mackie, Paul Draper, Ted Drange, Graham Oppy, Erik Wielenberg, Stephen Maitzen, and William Rowe. Theistic philosophers have also done their share of worthwhile criticism of theistic arguments, among which would be Tim and Lydia McGrew for their attack on fine-tuning, as well as Wes Morriston for his work against the cosmological argument.

These philosophers who Boghossian would exclude from "the adult table" are far more deserving of those seats than Peter and (many of) his New Atheist buds. I say this not just because of Boghossian's childish behavior, but also because each of them writes on an academic level that just is miles above the others. Many of the arguments against god proliferated in atheist circles today are owed to these philosophers of religion. Dr. Boghossian frankly doesn't know what he's talking about, and his principal objection seems to stem solely from the fact that "religion" is part of the philosophy of religion name.

I've seen a few comments on Facebook calling Boghossian "our version" of young earth creationists, saying that he almost seems like a viral marketing gimmick for the God's Not Dead film. To this I'll add that he's like the Deepak Chopra of atheism. Chopra is a new age 'guru' who spouts wisdom that's eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish. In similar fashion, Boghossian plays to an audience that he knows, one that disdains anything and everything remotely connected to religion. These "cultured despisers" of religion, as Schleiermacher once called them, are quite happy to agree with whatever fits the us vs. them narrative they've constructed, along with its clear emphasis on the inherent and unavoidable evils of religion, while little things like arguments, facts, and honest dialogue take a backseat.

The annoying thing is that men like Boghossian thrive off of the criticisms sent their way. In their minds, it validates what they have to say, it exposes 'anger' in their critics (a frequent theme in Peter's Twitter feed), and it serves as an opportunity to circle the wagons yet again. As they say, bad press is better than no press, and Mr. Atheist Manual is doing all he can to elicit controversy and stir the pot. One can only imagine where he will go next. Maybe he'll found his own atheist scholarly journal where only his favorite kinds of atheists will be allowed to publish, then sweepingly declare anyone not publishing there must sit at the kids' table.

Just as we denounce Chopra for his juvenile nonsense, we should denounce even fellow atheists for theirs. In the past, non-theists have done well in taking Alain de Botton, S.E. Cupp, and others to task for some of their overly-generous statements regarding religion. We should be equally willing to critically examine statements that are so poisonous in their characterization of belief and faith. I don't think Boghossian is helping anyone but himself in his simplistic treatments of complex philosophical issues.

[Edit: read the follow-up and the latest fiasco in the ongoing 'debate'.]

Monday, June 9, 2014

God or No God? Schieber v. Symington

A Christian walks into a debate full of himself, giving a very one-sided story, and dissolving into emotional appeals... stop me if you've heard this one before.

Recently Justin Schieber of the Reasonable Doubts podcast met with Scott Symington to debate the question God or No God? While Justin serves on the advisory board of the Michigan chapter of the Center For Inquiry, co-hosts a popular podcast examining religious and philosophical claims, and has prior debating experience, the most I've been able to find about Scott is that he has a degree in educational leadership and currently works as a "medical physicist". During his opening speech, Scott admits this is his first debate, yet it doesn't prevent him from making some rather bold moves.

Schieber begins by noting that the god he wants to argue against is the god of classical theism, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly loving. To make his case, he contends that three observations about our world are more likely if metaphysical naturalism is true, as opposed to supernaturalism being true. Metaphysical naturalism is the view that the natural world is all that exists - there are no gods, no angels, no souls, no afterlife. The three observations Justin puts forward are non-resistant unbelievers, pointless suffering, and the hostility to life in the universe.

Scott begins by attacking the 'negativity' of atheism, denouncing the fact that non-believers rarely propose explanations, or a positive worldview, of their own. This criticism is often directed at atheists, but over the years I've increasingly come to suspect that it may be disingenuous. Do we not know that it isn't true that any old suggestion is better than none at all? If we think about the pre-scientific idea of illness being caused by demons, it's easy to see how certain hypotheses can be harmful and may distract inquiry from where it needs to go to find the truth. There is likewise nothing inconsistent about refuting a hypothesis before one has an equally compelling alternative to put in its place.

Believers in the paranormal make the same criticism of skeptics, insisting that all we do is tear things down. Of course, skeptics frequently do offer explanations for paranormal phenomena, such as a trick of lighting, a lens flare on a camera, or fraud, and complex psychological ideas like cognitive dissonance and terror management theory are hallmarks of their work. Nonetheless, these alternatives seem rather mundane and unexciting compared to ghosts, aliens, government cover-ups, and the like. What believers are concerned about is not really that skeptics propose no 'positive' explanations, but that the explanations being discarded are the ones they want to be true. Justin gave three observations in his opening speech, and he offered the explanation he thinks is best suited to them. Perhaps the actual root of Scott's complaint is just that it differs from his own view.

One of the more astounding comments made by Symington is that if something is outside of nature, it's supernatural "by definition". Certainly this is the understanding of some people, but it is confronted by the long-debated problem of what we mean by nature. It's commonly thought that the natural world is synonymous with the physical world, but not all naturalists are physicalists. Does nature include just what the laws of physics describe? If there is another universe outside our own, would it be part of nature, too? Philosopher John Shook has cataloged nine varieties of naturalism, including reductive physicalism, liberal scientism, and eliminative pluralism, to name a few. [1] There are naturalists who prefer a strict definition and naturalists who prefer a broad definition. Some even define naturalism as the view that nothing supernatural exists, which would make Symington's simplistic statement circular.

The problem is that Scott needs his naive definition of supernatural to make his first cause of the universe resemble something more like a god and less like... well, a mysterious cause. Countless times throughout the debate, he claims that "all" of science shows there was a beginning to the universe. Although Justin counters by noting that the spacetime boundary is better thought of as the point where our current scientific understanding breaks down, by citing the reservations of physicist Sean Carroll, and questioning the usefulness of the god concept in explaining our origins, Scott plows relentlessly ahead, as if enough repeated assertions will make his one-sided portrayal of a hotly disputed interpretation of science into an indisputable reality. When Justin references a Hebrew scholar who argues that Genesis 1:1 shows a creation from pre-existing material rather than creation ex nihilo, Symington contests that the Hebrew words shamayim and aretz constitute a compound word that means "all natural things in the universe."

I haven't been able to locate any sources confirming Scott on this, but it may be a moot point anyway. As John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, explains:

...the lexical analysis suggests that the essence of the word that the text has chosen, bara', concerns bringing heaven and earth into existence by focusing on operation through organization and assignment of roles and functions... Matter was not the concern of the author of Genesis. The authors concerns were much like those in the ancient Near East. There the greatest exercise of the power of the gods was not demonstrated in the manufacture of matter, but in the fixing of destinies. [2]

If Professor Walton is correct, the act of creating heaven and earth was not seen as bringing everything into existence out of nothing, but something more like assigning a role to, or organizing, heaven and earth, perhaps as separate realms formed out of pre-existing material. Surely this sounds like pure heresy to the religiously conservative, but the fact that it also accords with the cosmological beliefs of other ancient Near Eastern cultures - which have been shown to have had an influence on the Bible's cosmology, despite Mr. Symington's careless dismissal of the Epic of Gilgamesh - makes it hard to refute without falling into special pleading.

Another argument Scott hammers on repeatedly is the resurrection argument. He refers at least twice to a survey of scholars taken from 1975 to the "present" that establishes four facts. Though he doesn't mention any names or further details, the survey is clearly one conducted by Gary Habermas and published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus in 2005. [3] To my knowledge, Habermas has not published any recent updates of his study, which would mean the data is nine years old now, but there's plenty of better objections to it.

For starters, the survey doesn't poll a random sample of scholars, instead it chronicles scholarly publications on the subject of the resurrection. It includes articles in English, German, and French, yet there is no exact number given for how many Habermas documents in his study. He mentions that there are "more than 1400" publications on the resurrection, and then says in the next sentence that he "tracked these texts". The only figure Gary provides on any of the so-called trends in scholarly consensus is that "approximately 75%" of scholars - from some number that may or may not be 1400, who have published articles on the resurrection in English, German, or French between 1975 and 2005 - favor "one or more" of the arguments for the empty tomb chronicled in the study. Needless to say, this flimsy excuse for research, which holds up so many resurrection arguments made by apologists, is rife with problems.

Last but certainly not least, Scott fills out the debate with lots of digs at Justin. When he's not decrying speculation and subjectivity at every turn, Mr. Symington is accusing his opponent of thinking he 'knows better than god', of getting overly emotional, and of sitting in god's lap "to slap him in the face". He seems to think that only alternative explanations for every claim he makes, meeting all the evidence in all the right ways he wants, would be able to challenge the Christian worldview. Though I can appreciate the frustration of dealing with someone who just wants to criticize everything you say, this is not always what the debate between theists and atheists looks like, and it is not how things go in "God or No God?" Schieber presented his own arguments for atheism and addressed many of Scott's claims from a variety of angles, but Scott was apparently unsatisfied, even while he let plenty of important points slip by him unanswered.

Overall, this one was a clear win for Justin, though I think he could have responded better to the resurrection argument and fine-tuning. Scott's performance is exactly what Schieber hints at a couple times: arrogant, disrespectful to opposing views, and downright juvenile at times. He reminds me of the youth pastor who relies on bad jokes, over-confidence, and thinly-veiled ridicule to keep the attention of his audience. Hopefully this first debate will be a learning experience for him.

1. John R. Shook, Naturalism and Science (2007).
2. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (2006), p. 183.
3. Gary Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present (2005). 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Henotheism and the Great Wrath in 2 Kings 3

In its third chapter, the biblical book of 2 Kings tells the intriguing tale of how the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom set out to battle the Moabites for refusing to pay tribute to Israel. On their way, the armies ran out of water for themselves and their animals, and so Jehoshaphat king of Judah called for consultation with a prophet of their god. Elisha came to see the kings and told them,

...this is what the Lord says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink. This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord; he will also deliver Moab into your hands. You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones.

By the next morning, the land was filled with water. The Moabites, having heard the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom were coming to meet them, rose and saw the sun shining on the water, giving it a red shade that they mistook for blood. Thinking the three armies had turned against each other in the night, the Moabites rushed to finish them off, only to find they had been wrong.

The Israelites took their advantage, destroying Moabite towns, throwing stones on every good field, stopping all the springs, and cutting down every tree. Distressed by this drastic turn of the tide, the king of Moab called on 700 men to try and break through the Edomite army, but was unsuccessful. In a desperate final effort, the king took his firstborn son and heir to the throne and sacrificed him on the city wall. Then "there came great wrath against Israel", writes the author of 2 Kings, and the Israelites left and returned to their own land.

Whence the Wrath?

A cursory reading of this chapter might lead one to assume that the wrath spoken of in verse 27 originates from the Moabites.  This is highly unlikely, though, as the passage recounts the miserable situation of Moab leading up to the mysterious wrath. The Moabites were "slaughtered", their towns and springs were destroyed, and the 700 soldiers commanded by the Moabite king failed to gain even a fighting chance. It is safe to presume that when the king sacrificed his heir and child, he did it out of dejection, having nothing left to wage against the advancing Israelites. The wrath could not have come from the Moabites.

Another interpretation one might take could be that the wrath came from the Israelites' own god. However, the Israelites were following the sanction given to them by Yahweh through the prophet Elisha. Not only were they instructed to enact the destruction that they leveled upon Moab, but they were even given a sign of god's favor when they awoke to find water throughout the land. Furthermore, the Hebrew god is depicted numerous times throughout the scriptures as strongly opposing child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 12:31, Ezekiel 20:31), making it more likely that an idolater's sacrifice of a child would anger the Israelite god against Moab rather than against his own people. So it doesn't seem the wrath came from Yahweh, either.

From whence, then, did the great wrath originate?

In ancient times, sacrifice played a vitally important role in earning the attention of the gods. Animal sacrifice was practiced by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Aztecs, in addition to the Hebrews themselves, and was used for expiation and worship. Human sacrifice and child sacrifice have been practiced by a number of cultures historically. These rituals were not simply ways of appeasing divinities, but were sometimes a bit like drawing them out into the spotlight. 1 Kings 18 reports on how hundreds of prophets of Ba'al scrambled in a sacrificial competition of sorts with the prophet Elijah, each side attempting to demonstrate the power of their god through specific deeds supposed to invoke its attention or participation.

Although one could interpret the slaying of the Moabite king's son as a political move, basically conceding authority to the Israelites by ending his own legacy in front of their eyes, the fact that it is mentioned as a sacrifice and not a mere execution makes all the difference. A sacrifice would generally not be a concession to a rival tribe, especially in this instance where the rival tribe worships a deity (Yahweh) known for his hatred of child sacrifice. In sacrificing his son, the Moabite king was not surrendering to, or placating, the Israelites, he was calling out for help in repelling them. The logical conclusion, therefore, would be that the great wrath against Israel was the consequence of the sacrifice; the king's call was heard and answered.

Chemosh the Subduer

The god of the Moabites was known as Chemosh, a name thought to mean "destroyer" or "subduer". In the 19th century, an Anglican missionary discovered an inscribed stone dating around 840 BCE which has been called the Mesha Stele. The text on the stone tells of Mesha king of Moab and his interactions with Israel. Mesha believed Chemosh had been angry with him and allowed Moab to be oppressed by the Israelites, yet after a time the Moabite god returned to his people and "Chemosh drove [Israel] out before me". The stele appears to reference the same events described in 2 Kings 3, with some new light cast on the great wrath against Israel.

Religion in the ancient world was often territorial in nature. Different regions had different patron deities, yet there was acknowledgment of other gods. The term henotheism has been used to describe this religious system, which differs from monotheism in that while it emphasizes the worship of one particular god, it does not deny the existence of others. In 2 Kings 5:17, Naaman asks to take two mule-loads of Israelite soil back with him to Syria, after being healed by Elisha. The purpose of the soil is for making offerings to Yahweh, who Naaman apparently sees as having jurisdiction in Israel, but not Syria. Though one could argue that Naaman's view was not the Israelite view, the encounter with Mesha in 2 Kings 3 seems to challenge such a claim.

It's hard to miss the implication in the story; right after Mesha sacrifices the Moabite prince to Chemosh, a great wrath comes against Israel, driving them out of Moab. The Israelites were on foreign soil ruled by a foreign deity, and when the Moabite king invoked that deity, the Israelites were forced to retreat. It's open for speculation whether their retreat was out of fear or some other provocation, and the text neither praises nor condemns the Israelites for leaving, but it appears beyond doubt that their reaction had something to do with the religious significance of Mesha's sacrifice. Also interesting is that the Hebrew word for sun, used in 2 Kings 3:22, is shamash. Perhaps Chemosh was not always an enemy of Israel.

Hebrew Henotheism

I am certainly not the first person to suggest that the ancient Hebrews once believed in other gods. The Bible itself tells the familiar tale of Israel falling into idolatry time after time. Passages like 2 Kings 3 seem different, however, because there is no strong denouncement of foreign gods like there is in a passage like Deuteronomy 13:12-18. Even the famous commandment to have "no other gods before me" in Exodus 20:3 looks cast in henotheistic terminology, as plenty of scholars have noted. Why not just 'have no other gods', period - or 'have no god but me'? The concern is placed on prioritizing the Hebrew deity, not really with believing in him to the exclusion of all other gods.

Of course, this idea of ancient Israelite religion doesn't sit well with many Christian apologists. Some of them attempt to explain away the issue by attributing the wrath to Yahweh or to the Moabite people, though we've already discussed why these explanations don't suffice. Others try to downplay the wrath by proposing a lesser meaning of the Hebrew word qesep, suggesting that after witnessing Mesha's sacrifice, the Israelites were "displeased with themselves, lost heart, and disengaged from the battle." [1] However, qesep's numerous occurrences are in the context of divine wrath, delivered by a deity, not pity or the kind of anger an army would dish out. [2]

There's a lot more evidence than this supporting the view that the ancient Israelites were henotheists, including an inscription associating Yahweh with the Canaanite goddess Asherah. [3] It's very easy to come up with hand-waving dismissals of many of these arguments, but what continually strikes me while learning about the complex world of ancient Israel is learning how unexceptional they were. They might have been Yahweh's chosen people, and yet Moab was Chemosh's chosen people, and Babylon was Marduk's chosen people, and so on and so forth. They were trying to find their unique place in the world of their time, just like everyone else.

Perhaps the lesson we should take from these ancient cultures in our past is one of unity, not under one and only one god, but as one world, one species, one tribe. Many of us seek the same things out of life as our fellow humans seek, struggle with the same struggles, and walk down the same roads. One might hope that is reason enough not to cling to the same prejudices and rationalizations to which we clung in our past.


1. Explaining 2 Kings 3:27, (Sept. 3, 2009).
2. Strong's Hebrew: 7110.
3. William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? (2005, Eerdmans)