Devil’s Bookmark: How Not to Defend God

Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of The Old Testament God
by Paul Copan
Baker Books , 2011

Anybody who sets himself the task of acquitting God from the charge of being a “moral monster” has his work cut out for him. Paul Copan knows this, but in his attempt to acquit God he seems to be standing at the bottom of a pit wielding a shovel. How do you get out of a hole with that tool?

The pit, of course, was dug by the New Atheists, and the shovel represents Copan’s biblical counter arguments against their charges of Yahweh’s moral repugnance.

But there’s a profound mismatch between the prosecutor’s accusations and the defense strategy—there is no common ground between the two sides of the argument. When New Atheists lament the monstrosity of Yahweh, they lament the villainous shortcomings of a fictional character. They are not talking about a real entity. Hence, New Atheists might as well be railing against the stinginess of the tooth fairy or the bad taste of Santa Claus. They merely state their case against a hypothetical God-idea. At the same time, they challenge those who (mistakenly, they think) take God to be real.

Copan, on the other hand, talks about God as an existing person. These two camps—the atheists and the believers—inhabit two different universes.

It’s a bit like trying to set up a date with Harry Potter or scheduling a physical with Dr. Jekyll. It’s perfectly absurd to schedule an appointment with a fictional doctor, a character who, moreover, dies at the end of the story in which he figures. Everybody would agree, right?

Now, imagine a similar scenario. Assume that you are an atheist whose sibling, Jimmy, is an evangelical Christian. Jimmy prays to God and talks to him as if he were an interlocutor. Maybe, Jimmy even wants to schedule an appointment for a one-on-one mystical session with God. You say “look, Jimmy, you can’t meet God or talk to God because the thing you call God doesn’t exist.” Jimmy looks baffled. Since God exists for him, meeting God for a chat is not outside the confines of rationality. For you (his brother), however, it is precisely that—a sign of irrationality. The two brothers inhabit two different worlds: in one world gods, angels, and miracles exist; in the other they don’t.

So, if the two brothers talk about God, they talk about two fundamentally different things: Jimmy talks about God like he talks about his brother; his brother, on the other hand, talks about God like he talks about Dr. Jekyll or Hamlet or Emma Bovary. To pretend that the two brothers talk about the same thing would be a logical fallacy.

And this is where Paul Copan stumbles.

Surely, even a limited overview of some major God definitions yields a tapestry of differences. Here is an admittedly incomplete overview of various God conceptions:


Any book dealing centrally with the nature of God skirts such distinctions at its own peril.

“God is a Wounded Husband”

Richard Dawkins, for one, doesn’t fall into this trap. Right at the outset of The God Delusionhe clarifies what God definitions are in play: “if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.” Against this lowest-common-denominator definition of God, Dawkins offers his own take a few pages later: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”

To argue against that conception of God without acknowledging that Dawkins talks about a “fictional character” is equivalent to making a category mistake. 1:0 for Dawkins.

And Copan doesn’t quite recover from that deficit. When he writes about the time “when God created human beings” he has already lost me (as well as most other secular humanists, I presume). God created me? What are you talking about?

Instead of supplying a God-definition, Copan boasts a firm, albeit implied, knowledge of God that would have embarrassed the likes of Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, or Maimonides.

This confidence about God surfaces at every point: “God is bursting with joy and love to share his goodness with his creatures.” “God is self-sufficient and content in and of himself.” “God opened himself to repeated rejection from his people. He was continuously exasperated with and injured by his people.” “God is a wounded husband who continually attempts to woo his people back.” “God’s jealousy isn’t capricious or petty. God is jealous for our best interests.” And so on and so forth. Copan knows every facet of God’s intentions, feelings, characteristics, and wants. In a way, he smothers God with his own all-knowingness.

As a result, God becomes small, knowable, reduced, common. There’s none of the mystery associated with an awesome God who is not directly accessible to human intellection. A far humbler stance than this inspired the 12th-century anonymous Book of Twenty Four Philosophers to suggest that “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.”

The Madoff Defense

There are more problems with Is God a Moral Monster? than I can deal with in this space. So, let me select a few lowlights.

Copan spends considerable energy absolving God from blame for asking Abraham to murder his son Isaac. He bases his argument on three main pillars: first, that God had given Abraham a promise that his rejected consort, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, would not come to harm after being sent into the wilderness. Second, that he had made a promise about Isaac becoming the founder of a great tribe. And third, that God was believed to be able to resuscitate the dead. Ergo, Abraham could slaughter his son in obedience to the Lord’s command because 1. the Lord had made, and kept, some promises in the past, 2. he had currently made promises (i.e. about Hagar and Ishmael’s survival and about Isaac’s founding a nation) that pleased Abraham, and 3. the Lord had the power to restore the dead back to life.

Let’s transpose this scenario into the language of Wall Street. A powerful investor, let’s call him Bernie, promises you that he will give you great returns for your investment. You give him some money, and for a while your investments grow, according to the promise. Bernie further promises that some of your investments will turn into veritable emporiums. And just in case something should go wrong, lets say if the whole economy tanks, Bernie says he could work some miracle to bring your dead assets back to life. “Now, give me ALL your money!”

Would you do it?

Doubtlessly there will be some who take the bait, especially if the promises sound extravagant enough. Not surprisingly, Elie Wiesel called Bernie Madoff, who caused him to invest (and lose) 15 Million dollars, “a God.” [See my previous post, “Loving an Abusive God.”] Basically, Copan pulls a Madoff defense for God: since God had promised great things, one should not hesitate to give everything to the promisor. But promises don’t count for much when push comes to shove, and this line of argument might have worked better before people became wary of quasi-divine financial promises.

To continue reading this article, head to Religion Dispatch where it was originally posted.

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