The Times Online has a piece from William Ress-Mogg today entitled Religion isn’t the sickness. It’s the cure, and as you can imagine it’s a very painful read. Mogg jumps right into the fray with this gem
From the earliest days Christianity has been opposed to slavery. In his Letter to the Galatians, St Paul wrote: “As many of you that have been baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. We were all one in Jesus Christ.” Undoubtedly Christians have compromised with slavery — as with other social evils — in the course of history, but the orthodox Christian doctrine is one of liberty and equality.
Either the newly-released William Wilberforce-centered film Amazing Grace was on his mind or he’s presupposing one of the most often-contested aspects of religion; it’s tolerance for (and even endorsement of) slavery. Many Christians attempt to dismiss the Bible’s passages on slavery with a wave of the hand, saying that God only condemns some forms of slavery (i.e. based upon race) but other forms really weren’t “slavery” at all. I find this to be an awfully flimsy argument, attempting to uphold the “inerrancy” of clearly unethical and immoral social policies because “God said so.” I’ll let the verses speak for themselves;
If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The above verses primarily concern themselves with the “proper treatment” of slaves, but others are far more disturbing, as can be seen in Exodus 21
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
To this we can add the strange and often disturbing rules found in Leviticus
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
There are plenty more verses to select from, but this smattering of material from the NIV translation clearly shows that rather than outlawing slavery and regarding it as a sin (why not make “Thou shalt not keep slaves” as the 11th commandment?), it is to be structured and condoned, women (of course) having even less rights than male slaves, and non-Hebrew people being worse off all around. You would like to think that such an unconscionable practice would have disappeared in antiquity, for surely Christians would have understood how you cannot love your neighbor when you keep him in chains. Such optimism would be misplaced. Here is the statement of a much more eloquent man, Frederick Douglass, on the subject;
But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst. No, a darker feature is yet to be presented than the mere existence of these facts. I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the greater sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. (Deep sensation). While America is printing tracts and Bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign lands, the slave not only lies forgotten—uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America? Why we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward, and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed (Loud cries of “Shame!”) They stand forth as the foremost, the strongest defenders of this “institution.” As a proof of this, I need not do more than state the general fact, that slavery has existed under the droppings of the sanctuary of the south, for the last 200 years, and there has not been any war between the religion and the slavery of the south.
Whips, chains, gags, and thumb-screws have all lain under the droppings of the sanctuary, and instead of rusting from off the limbs of the bondman, these droppings have served to preserve them in all their strength. Instead of preaching the Gospel against this tyranny, rebuke, and wrong, ministers of religion have sought, by all and every means, to throw in the background whatever in the Bible could be construed into opposition to slavery, and to bring forward that which they could torture into its support. (Cries of “Shame!”) This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery, and the most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity. Yes, those with whom I have been labouring, namely, the old organization Anti-Slavery Society of America, have been again and again stigmatized as infidels, and for what reason? Why, solely in consequence of the faithfulness of their attacks upon the slaveholding religion of the southern states, and the northern religion that sympathizes with it. (Hear, hear.)
I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again, even since I came to this country, but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. (Loud cheers.)
I love the religion of our blessed Saviour, I love that religion that comes from above, in the “wisdom of God, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. “‘a I love that religion that sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of him that has fallen among thieves. I love that religion that makes it the duty of its disciples to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction. I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man (cheers); which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by. If you demand liberty to yourself, it says, grant it to your neighbours. If you claim a right to think for yourselves, it says, allow your neighbours the same right. If you claim to act for yourselves, it says, allow your neighbours the same right. It is because I love this religion that I hate the slave-holding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America. (Immense cheering.) It is because I regard the one as good, and pure, and holy, that I cannot but regard the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. Loving the one I must hate the other, holding to the one I must reject the other, and I, therefore, proclaim myself an infidel to the slave-holding religion of America. (Reiterated cheers.)
Such is the dilemma I myself have often faced in my own mind; who is to blame for the atrocities in the name of God? Him or His followers? It cannot be ignored that the Bible sanctions slavery (regardless of how some of the faithful try to downplay it) and that Christians have supported or at least allowed for its practice to this day (slavery still exists in many parts of the world). Now, religious folks did play a large role in the abolition of slavery and their accomplishments should be noted, but it is important to remember that (as Douglass notes) they were like infidels to the established majority, fighting against the long-accepted idea that slavery was acceptable. Religion had even gone as far to say that dark skin was the “Mark of Cain”, and thus enslaved dark-skinned peoples was acceptable because of their link to the first murderer as told in Genesis. Indeed, abolitionists were fighting against religion and entrenched dogma, regardless of their motivation, and it would be foolish to suggest that all Christians everywhere were supporters of the Underground Railroad or freed their slaves because it was the right thing to do.
Back to the article that launched my little tirade; Moggs would have us believe that the “Christian belief” that slavery was wrong inspired William Wilberforce on his long campaign to end slavery. This may be true to the extent that Wilberforce correctly noted that slavery is immoral, unethical, and irreconcilable with a loving God, but Moggs implicitly suggests that such an idea was inherent in Christianity at the time when in reality it was not (otherwise we would have never heard of Wilberforce’s long fight to get slavery abolished; everyone would have said “Hey, you’re right” and that’d be the end of it). Moggs goes on to say how many atheists are becoming worried about current religious trends (and I think rightfully so, although some more vocal members of the group lack tact), and of course no essay on the subject would be complete without a misconstrued assertion about Charles Darwin
The modernist attack on religion was based on the victory of science, and particularly of neo-Darwinism. Yet science was open to the same challenge as religion; it could explain only half the world. The scientists, or some of them, sneered at religion for being unable to explain the developments of nature. Yet science itself was unable to produce a science-based morality for society. Marxism attempted to create a scientific social order that ended in monstrous and bloodthirsty tyranny. Social Darwinism either meant eugenics and the slaughter of babies who were not thought fit to survive, or it meant nothing. The Social Darwinism of George Bernard Shaw, or indeed that of Adolf Hitler, has been rejected by mankind.
Ugh. Science is not, and should not be, a moral system; I would immediately reject any social system based on the habits of chimpanzees, Brownian motions, electron orbits, or anything else someone might try and come up with. Religion set the foundation for laws, but today law and morality are dictated from society, morality no longer the exclusive province of religion. People aren’t going to immediately start killing each other in the streets if they become atheists, but there is this belief among the religious that if you even start to question God you’re going to become a serial rapist/murderer without remorse. It’s impossible to deny that religion has indeed shaped our social values and morals, but morality is not the exclusive property of religion. Even if morality did solely stem from religion, which one would be right? There are plenty of belief systems that can be broken down to accommodate just about anything, so even among Christians the idea that any particular group has the answer when it comes to absolute truth and morality is ludicrous. Moggs also incorrectly faults Charles Darwin for the evils of Social Darwinism, but as has been gone over time and time again such a bankrupt system was not endorsed nor founded by Darwin and Hitler’s evil practices have more to do with the artificial selection of farm animals than anything from actual science.
I won’t go on much longer, but I found this passage especially interesting. Moggs writes
Broken families, drugs, booze, youth gangs, crime, neglect of children and the old, the sheer boredom of shopaholicism, terrorism, the inner-city slums, materialism itself, are all the marks of a global society in decline.
Yes, all those problems are brand new and have never existed before. It’s not like they’re mentioned in the Bible or anything. If these are the benchmarks by which we measure the decline of society, we have forever been in a state of decline or disrepair; they are inescapable. There is no such thing as a utopian society and no matter how well-intentioned people may be, there will always be some work to do. What bothers me is that Moggs suggests that religion is the answer to all these problems when in reality the #1 religion in the West is Christianity, the majority of people that make up the public and government directly contributing or causing these problems. I tire of the idea that if you believe in God you get some sort of special privilege where you can do no wrong, just so long as you think God told you to do it. As far as I’m concerned, religion is not exclusively bad and is not without virtue, but let’s look beyond the eternal battle between believers and non. What about critical thinking? I don’t care what religion someone decides to be just so long as they actually use their minds, whether they believe their brains are God given or the result of evolution (or both). Just because someone is a Christian doesn’t make them a better person than an atheist and just because someone is an atheist doesn’t necessarily make them smarter or more logical than a Christian; you can ascribe to both without really thinking deeply about your own position. Reform is needed not only in religion but in people’s lives at large; we are losing our ability to think and trading it in for the instant gratification of fast food meals and beliefs that we dare not question as the answers may be unsettling. I don’t want to be comfortable or just “have faith”; I want to know, and unfortunately I am unlikely to receive the answers I desire. At least I’m trying.