People occasionally ask me why I don't believe in God. There are a lot of reasons, but I've never bothered to write them down before because most of my reasons are pretty basic and uninteresting: no evidence for God, lots of evidence against the Bible being divinely inspired, yada yada yada. But there is one argument I've started to articulate lately that I've not seen come up very often, and which no one I've presented it to has been able to give an adequate response to. (Well, no one has been able to give an adequate response to any of my reasons because if they could I would change my mind! But this is an argument for which no one has been able to produce any response at all beyond something like, "Well, you can't possibly understand this unless you give yourself over to God." As you will see, that is a big ask.)
The argument has to do with the story of the Exodus. Everyone thinks they know this story, just as everyone thinks they know what the Ten Commandments are, but the movie got both wrong. The popular conception goes something like this: Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. God, after mulling it over for countless generations, finally decides to intervene and recruits Moses to be His messenger to demand that Pharaoh "let my people go". Pharaoh refuses, and so God lets loose a series of plagues on the people of Egypt, culminating in the Passover and the killing of the firstborn, which finally persuades a recalcitrant Pharaoh to accede to God's demand.
But that is not actually the way the story goes. Pharaoh does not actually decide to refuse of his own free will. Instead, God hardens Pharaoh's heart and forces him to refuse! And it actually gets much, much worse than that, but just to make sure that there can be no doubt on this particular score, here is the most unambiguous verse:
Exo9:12 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.
There are actually two things here that should make you very queasy. The first, as I have already mentioned, is that it's not Pharaoh making the decision, it's God pulling Pharaoh's strings. But the second thing is almost worse, which is that it seems as if this was not something that God decided to do in the moment, but actually part of a plan! And indeed, it was part of a plan:
Exo4:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. [Emphasis added]
And God reiterates this in chapter 7:
Exo7:3 And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. [Emphasis added]
In other words, God is going to force Pharaoh to refuse! And why? So that God will have an opportunity to show off how bad-ass He can be!
That would be bad enough if God just took it out on Pharaoh, but He doesn't. All of the Egyptian people suffer despite the fact that most of them probably don't even have clue what is going on, let alone a say in the decision-making. Egypt is not a democracy. The proceedings inside Pharaoh's palace are not being streamed live on CNN. But the plagues come regardless.
And they culminate, of course, in the Killing of the Firstborn, which was also, it turns out, always part of God's Plan:
Exo4:22-23 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.
Of course, everyone focuses on the firstborn of Pharaoh, because it's a lot easier to justify the killing of an innocent child if that child happens to be the son of a hated ruler. But what about all the others?
Exo11:5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
I can't even begin to imagine the emotional pain that God inflicted on the mothers and fathers of Egypt that day, none of whom had any moral culpability in the enslavement of the Israelites. Certainly the maidservant that was behind the mill didn't have a say in the matter, but she lost her child nonetheless.
(My sister died three years ago, and it nearly destroyed my mother. And my sister wasn't even the firstborn.)
These are not the actions of a kind, loving God. These are the actions of a barbarous psychopathic madman. A core tenet of Christianity is supposed to be that killing innocents is not justifiable under any circumstances, and yet this is exactly what God did. And He did it not in service of a higher goal, not to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go (because, as I noted earlier, even Pharaoh didn't actually have a choice) but just to give Himself an opportunity to show off. It is hard for me to imagine a more evil act. (And yet God actually manages to top Himself with eternal punishment for non-believers, but that's another story.)
This would be bad enough by itself, but then later, at God's command, the Israelites go on a genocidal spree through Canaan that makes the Killing of the Firstborn look humane by comparison:
Deu2:34 And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain:
Deu3:6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.
Deu20:16-17 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:
Josh6:21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
And that's just a small sample.
Apologists will tell you that all this slaughter was justified because the Canaanites (and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites) were utterly corrupt and evil and deserved to be destroyed down to the last man, woman, and child. And what is the evidence that they were so irredeemably corrupt? They were sacrificing their children to Molech.
Now, I will concede that sacrificing children to Molech is definitely not cool, but there are still two problems here. First, God demanded a human sacrifice from Abraham, so it is far from clear that God considers human sacrifice to be an unalloyed evil. At best one could come away with the impression that sacrificing children might be acceptable under some circumstances, like if God demands it (and fails to change His mind at the last minute). But there is a second, more serious problem: even if we grant (and I am happy to concede this) that sacrificing children is always Really Really Bad, could God not have come up with any better solution to the problem than genocide? Like, oh I don't know, talking to the Canaanites and telling them that what they are doing is not cool? Because I'm pretty sure that the Canaanites were not sacrificing their children because they enjoyed it, I think they did it because they had a sincere belief that Molech was real and that sacrificing a few children was necessary in order to avoid an even more fearsome fate from befalling them.
And it must have been only a few children. The Canaanites could not possibly have been sacrificing all of their children, or they would have gone extinct within one generation. But God's answer to the problem of the Canaanites killing some of their children is to kill all of the children. And their parents. Some of whom were undoubtedly pregnant women. Sorry, Christians, but you can't have it both ways. Either killing the unborn is acceptable under some circumstances or it's not.
There are two arguments of last resort that I've had people muster against this. The first is the potter's-clay response. The idea is that if a potter makes a pot then he has the moral right to do anything he wants to to that pot, including destroy it. In this analogy, of course, God is the potter and we are the pots. The problem with this argument is so obvious that it almost seems condescending to point it out: pots aren't sentient beings. Humans are. So even if we were created by God, that does not give Him the moral license to dispose of us however he sees fit. I believe that sentience entitles one to certain inalienable rights, including the right not to be treated as someone else's property (c.f. Lev25:45-46).
The second response is the one I mentioned at the outset: that I can't possibly hope to understand this until and unless I "give myself over to God" or "submit to God's will" or some such thing. I honestly have no idea how I would do that, or even what those words could possibly even mean. But even if I did know, I would be very leery of acting on this advice. If God exists, and if He really is as described in the Bible, then He is a monster. He has no moral compass. Some Christians will actually concede that I'm right about this: God doesn't have a moral compass, God is the moral compass. OK, fine. But of what use is a compass that points every which way depending on how the wind is blowing? Sometimes killing is bad, sometimes it's good, and sometimes it is even obligatory. How can you tell? What use is a moral compass that doesn't point in one direction?
My moral compass tells me that I should treat all sentient creatures with some measure of respect and kindness. That has served me pretty well so far, and so, for now, that's what I'm sticking with.