Like other people, Christians react with horror at the idea of a divinely commanded rape. “God would never command rape!” they insist. So you might expect that they would be equally incredulous to the prospect of God commanding the killing and mutilation of a child as a sacrifice. But no. On this point many believe they are compelled to buck powerful moral intuitions and claim that sacrificing children is not inherently wrong. The genocide of Canaan, for example, was a devotional, sacrificial act in which the spoils of war were given over to Yahweh for destruction, and this included infants and small children. The same is true for the slaughter of the Amalekites. Thus, they conclude, there is a difference between the rape of a person and the killing and mutilation of a person in sacrifice. The former is inherently wrong (i.e. there is no circumstance in which it could be morally permissible or praiseworthy) but the latter is not inherently wrong (e.g., it is right if God commands it).
I have spent the last several posts critiquing this moral morass of cognitive dissonance. But now Crude has stepped up to the plate and addressed a very specific claim I made. My claim in my previous post, “The Problem of the Moral Perception Faculty,” was that people normatively view the rape of a child and the devotional killing and mutilation of a child as equal moral atrocities. This counts strongly against the moral analysis offered by the Christian anxious to exonerate biblical accounts of God commanding the killing and mutilation of children.
So then Crude made the claim that rape strikes him as morally problematic in a way that killing and mutilation for sacrifice does not. This prompted me to ask: “do you care to explain what it is about rape that makes it worse in your mind than killing a child and mutilating the corpse?”
And this brings us finally to the topic of this post. Here is Crude’s explanation for why rape is worse:
Because a rape in this context is necessarily tormenting, prolonged, and seems vastly more difficult to detach the horrendous psychological component from. A killing can, in principle, be rapid, with pain and suffering minimized, and far easier to detach that component from.
I think you could make the argument that rape is less harmful (‘Well, the child is still alive. They can go on to live a happy life after that, though they’ll have to somehow put that behind them.’), but I still think in context the rape will be worse. And I think it’s almost entirely obvious that the two cases are very different and don’t get equated so easily, at the very least.
I’m going to focus on Crude’s first paragraph. His key claim there is that the victim necessarily suffers physically and psychologically in the case of a rape but not in the case of a sacrifice of killing and mutilation. Is this true? And assuming it is, does it constitute the difference between a moral atrocity and a non-moral atrocity?
The answer is no on both counts. That is, the evil of rape is not essentially tied to the suffering of the victim (though it is certainly intensified or deepened by that suffering). And this means that moral atrocities are not identified essentially by the suffering inflicted on their victims. Let’s start with the first point, viz. the relationship between rape, suffering, and moral atrocity.
Rape, suffering, and moral atrocity
Crude’s underlying assumption appears to be that a moral atrocity derives its moral status from the physical and psychological harm experienced by the victim. This surely is true in part but it is just as surely not the whole story. Consider a woman who is raped after a date rape drug is slipped into her drink. The whole act takes less than thirty minutes and she remains unaware that it ever happened. For all she knows, she suffered nothing more than a moderately bad hangover from too much drinking. To be sure this is not as prima facie horrifying as a woman raped at knife-point. But that doesn’t mean it is not a moral atrocity. Indeed, it is a moral atrocity, and yet it is one which lacks the psychological component of distress that Crude associates necessarily both with rape and moral atrocities.
So Crude’s reason for identifying rape as a moral atrocity is inadequate. The evil of the action consists in much more than the trauma suffered by the victim.
Child killing, mutilation, suffering and moral atrocity
This same lesson applies to cases of the devotional offering of children to God through killing and mutilation of the body in preparation for sacrifice. These are atrocities in part, but not solely, because of the intense suffering inflicted on the child.
This can be made clear by considering (with merciful brevity) a case where a child is sacrificed but does not suffer psychologically or physically (save the obvious fact that the child loses his life).
So here is the scenario. Three year old Billy is watching Sesame Street and eating Pop Tarts when his father kills him with a gunshot from the back of the head. Billy is killed instantly and thus does not suffer. His father then prepares the body for sacrifice.
It is a truly perverse ethic that would deny this action is a moral atrocity because Billy didn’t suffer.
Child sacrifice in the Bible
Finally, let’s note one more unhappy fact. The acts of child sacrifice narrated in scripture are not the kind where children are killed with no warning while watching Sesame Street and eating Pop Tarts. Rather, they occur within the context of genocidal slaughter. Can we begin to imagine the psychological terror these children would have experienced while their families were butchered before their eyes?
Joshua 5:1 gives a hint of the kind of psychological terror that began to grip the ruling elites of the land prior to the invasion and slaughter: “Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.” That was the fear of the kings. Now try to imagine the fear of the children.
And what happened when an Israelite soldier only managed to deal a non-fatal blow to the neck before the child wriggled free and desperately scrambled to hide under some rubble? What happened if it took six hours for that child to die? How long and intensely would that Canaanite child have to suffer before that horrifying end would constitute a moral atrocity?
It is truly shocking how many Christians will defend the moral atrocity of slaughtering and mutilating children as devotional sacrifices even as they attempt a lame condemnation of rape.
But one of the things that irks me the most about this kind of moral reasoning is that many of these same Christians are the fiercest opponents of abortion. Life begins at conception and all life is sacred. But apparently not if you’re a Canaanite.