History’s verdict on religion is unequivocal: religion has caused more death and suffering than any other single factor. In addition to this, there is an equally unbelievable number of people who have been exploited and victimized by the church and its power-lusting leaders. This article will focus on just one aspect of religion’s guilty legacy: slavery and its corollary, racism.
All this misery is due to many factors, one of the most important of which is the ethnocentrism inherent in religious belief. Devoutly religious people, despite their claim to humility, often seem to have a “superiority complex” which manifests itself in a belief that their religious values, morals, and culture are superior to all others; after all, that is why they adhere to that particular religion. As soon as a given group of people arrogantly assume such notions, the seeds of racism and bigotry are sown. When one group calls itself the “chosen people” or “god’s own,” we may rest assured that discrimination will follow once this group obtains political power. History has conclusively demonstrated this fact, over and over again. While the roots of the word “religion” mean “to bind” what religion in fact actually does is to create a clannishness that divides the community against all other communities, since these various “others” are, after all, not the “chosen” ones. Since all religious truth claims are objectively unprovable and rest only on faith, they cannot be proved to doubters. This means that a massive campaign must be undertaken to show the alleged verities of the religion and the penalties for unbelief. Lies, deception, and other underhanded means are the only ways for a religion to become dominant, and truth itself becomes its first victim. Once it controls a given community, the only way for a religion to grow and sustain itself is by force. The result is that the history of religion has been the history of warfare, yet this undeniable truism of history is a lesson that has yet to be learned by the world community.
One of the rallying cries of today’s Religious Right is that one of the great evils in the world is what they refer to as moral relativism, meaning that everybody has different standards of moral behavior, from which we have sown the seeds of disunion. According to this way of thinking, we need an absolute standard of morality, one that is not to be questioned, in order to become a moral people again. Not surprisingly, their idea of moral absolutism dovetails perfectly with their own absolutist religious ideology. One must obey the commands of their god/religion, and not pick and choose what we want to follow.
This is exactly what the Religious Right demands today. Presumably, few of them would argue that human slavery was a great moral wrong. Yet, how do they justify this conclusion? Certainly it cannot be by quoting scripture, as there is not one single word in either Old or New Testament condemning the institution (neither, for that matter, does the Qu’ran or any other major religious text condemn slavery). Indeed there are many quotes supporting and regulating slavery. To cite but one example, Luke 12: 47 has Jesus discussing the “proper” way of beating recalcitrant slaves. If today’s Christian fundamentalists were honest and consistent (certainly not high priorities with them), they would support rather than condemn slavery.
Of course, devoutly religious people are quite adept at rationalizing away any discomforting facts. When faced with the obvious support of slavery in the Bible, some have argued that there were political reasons why the biblical writers were unable to condemn slavery. Another rationalization is that, since the Bible elsewhere tells us to love our neighbor, this obviates the “alleged” support of slavery.
These arguments are specious at best, and outrageously dishonest at worst. After all, isn’t the Bible supposed to be the standard for moral behavior? Aren’t Christian “values” supposed to transcend political issues? The first Christians certainly did not hesitate to condemn the many things they didn’t like in the Roman Empire; why did they not condemn one of the most egregiously immoral transgressions in the entire Empire? Were politics an issue when the absolutist Ten Commandments were composed and written down? If not, why were the New Testament authors playing such a deceitful moral and political game? How does the acceptance of human bondage coincide with the notion of an all-good god? The Bible is its own worst enemy. Christians simply cannot have it both ways; either slavery is acceptable, or the Bible is wrong.
One would think that an all-intelligent and all-good god would have come up with a way to make his wishes clearly known on the slavery issue, assuming of course that he opposed the institution. This god, if he exists, cannot be very bright.
God’s Christian followers obviously felt that their deity supported slavery, since not a single early church leader spoke out against it. While Christians continue to venerate such men as St. Augustine and St. Tertullian, their silence on a true moral issue such as slavery speaks volumes about their religion’s alleged moral superiority.
In fact not a single word against slavery was written (or at least has not survived) until the ninth century CE, and then only because it had been replaced by feudal serfdom, which in reality was little more than slavery under another name.
In the early days of Christianity, before it took over Western civilization and plunged it into the Dark Ages, it was an underground cult and, like all underground cults of the time, had its own symbols and codes known only to its practitioners. This was necessary if it were to survive. Some of these symbols, such as the fish, have survived to this day. If the Christians knew slavery to be wrong, surely they would have devised some sort of code or underground text that would have made their hatred of slavery obvious. If they had done so, slavery surely would have disappeared once they attained power.
In fact not only did they fail to do this, human bondage became much more brutal under the Christians than it had ever been in the Greco-Roman world. In Greece, slaves had rights that were unheard of during the Christian Dark Ages: they owned property and were generally well-treated. Most were domestic servants who did not have to endure back breaking work. Dissenting voices were often raised during those times, but they disappeared once Christianity took over.
Admittedly, early Roman slavery could be extremely brutal, but thanks to the philosophies of the Stoics (who incidentally were secular) a slave’s lot improved and by the beginning of the second century CE they had rights protected by law. These too disappeared once Christianity took over. Even so tyrannical an emperor as Caracalla, who reigned from 211 to 217 CE was humane enough to pass a law forbidding parents from selling their children into slavery. However Constantine, the first Christian emperor, abolished this reform and added some really inhumane new laws, one of which stated that if an abandoned or wandering child were found, the person finding it could sell it into slavery.
By the late Middle Ages, the slave trade was a most lucrative business. When Protestantism first emerged in the early sixteenth century, it soon proved itself to be just as guilty in condoning and promoting the slave trade as the Catholic countries. One particularly devout Christian slave trader, a captain Hawkins, saw no contradiction in naming one of his slave ships “Jesus” and regularly preached the love of Christianity both to his crew and human cargo.
When slavery was finally banished from England, it was due to secular influence stemming from the Enlightenment, an action opposed by the church hierarchy. It is not a coincidence that the freedom of the slaves around the world coincided with the church’s loss of much of its stranglehold on the state. Humanitarian sentiments, held in check for a millennium and a half by the strong arm tactics of the church, inspired by the Age of Rationalism sweeping over Europe and the fledgling United States, ultimately spelt slavery’s doom.
It speaks volumes about the moral values (or lack thereof) contained in the Bible that sexual pleasure is viewed as the “original sin” while real evils such as slavery and war receive no condemnation at all. If one cannot look to the Bible for guidance on such obvious moral issues, why should we look to it at all?
- The Arrogance of Faith by Forrest G. Wood. Published 1990 by Alfred a Knopf, New York
- Christianity and Slavery by Joseph McCabe. Published 1927 by Haldeman-Julius company, Girard Kansas
By: Jon Nelson