16 October 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 15

So close... so very close. I'm quite ready to be done with this unintentionally funny book. It's going out with a whimper too, with two chapters that seem completely superfluous and don't address any major arguments regarding the veracity of Christianity. This chapter, by Glenn Sunshine, is on slavery; the last, on the slaughter of Canaan. Alright... deep breath, and let's get this over with.

Chapter 15: Christianity and Slavery

I'm going to start out by saying that right out the gate, the whole premise of this chapter is bogus. Sunshine lays it out as follows:
Christianity comes with promises and expectations, one of which is that those who follow Jesus Christ will do good. Biblically, then, we would expect that some who claim the name “Christian” would do evil, but that many would do good, and that on the whole the influence of Christ on civilization would be positive.
I'm not sure where he gets the idea that "Biblically", we ought to expect that some people who say they're Christians do bad things (sounds like a setup for a classic No True Scotsman fallacy, where he says all the evil Christians weren't "true" Christians). Or good things, for that matter. First of all, whether people use their beliefs toward good or ill speaks nothing to the truth or falsity of those beliefs; and secondly, to quote Obi Wan Kenobi, many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view. The Catholics running the Inquisition thought they were doing God's work. Ditto with the witch hunts, the Crusades, the Saxon Wars, Encomienda... well hell, I'd be here all day listing horrible things Christians have done. But at the time, from their point of view, they thought they were supremely righteous followers of Christ.

The Bible doesn't really support slavery... right?

But I'm going to humor Sunshine here and see what he has to offer. First he trots out the canard that the Bible doesn't really support slavery:
First, it was not permanent: the “slave” was to work for six years and be set free without condition on the seventh year (Ex. 25: 2). 2 The “slavery” was thus closer to indentured servitude than to the slavery of the other nations or of the American South. J. A. Motyer even argues that “Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only servanthood.” 3 In essence, this institution functioned as a neighborhood social welfare program, in which the master paid the servant ahead of time for the number of years of work he would perform and provided the servant’s room and board. By doing so, the master allowed his neighbor time and resources to clear his debts and get a fresh start. In fact, the master was instructed to give generously to the released servant to help him reestablish himself (Dt. 15: 13-14).
Yeah yeah, we've all heard this before. The problem is that this was only true of Hebrew slaves. Old Testament law is quite clear on slaves from surrounding nations:
"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." [Leviticus 25:44-46] 
Here's what really kills me: this directly contradicts what Sunshine claims in the very next paragraph:
Another critical difference between Israelite servants and the slaves in the surrounding areas is that the Israelite servant was recognized as a person, not as property, and was given rights accordingly that were unknown elsewhere.
Bullshit! Notice above, the verse clearly says "You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life."

But that's not all. Sunshine is referencing Exodus, and a claim contrary to his own is right under his nose. He claims:
Servants who had been injured by their masters were immediately set free (Ex. 21: 26-27), and if a servant died soon after being struck by a master, the master was considered guilty of murder (Ex. 21: 20).
Actually, verses 26 & 27 say that a slave could only be set free if the master knocked out their tooth. In verse 20-21, it says "Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property".

Seriously, did this guy even read the verses, or is he just quote mining some other apologist? 

I hate it when apologists try to rationalize Biblical slavery as some sort of kinder, gentler slavery. The Bible gives provisions for how badly you are allowed to beat them and says that they are your property and you can own them for life, and even pass them on to your children. Stop sugarcoating it! It's fucking slavery. Here's an idea for a great moral revolution in the Bible – the 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not take another as property, for all who walk this Earth are my children." Or whatever. God remembered to tell the Jews to cut their hair properly, and that women are "unclean during their monthly period", but he forgot to mention that it's wrong to own people. Oops? 


The New Testament's silence

 Sunshine pretty well screwed the pooch so far. Now he moves on to the New Testament:
First, although a number of Pauline epistles and 1 Peter instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters, they also tell masters to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, in essence recognizing their humanity. This was a radical idea in the Roman world, more than we in the 21st century Western world can easily appreciate. Even more radical was Paul’s insistence on the spiritual and moral equality of all people when he says that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3: 28).
Paul isn't making the case that people deserve legal equality. He just says that they're all the same "in Christ". Take that to mean whatever you will. It's a great moral oversight that at no point in time does the Bible, in either Testament, outright condemn slavery as the inhumane practice that it was, by definition. Sunshine responds:
The New Testament authors have been condemned for not calling for an end to slavery, but their not doing so in no way implies approval of the practice.
To which I will quote the movie Boondock Saints:
“Of course we must fear evil men, but there is another evil that we must fear more… and that is the indifference of good men.”
The indifference of the Biblical authors is tacit approval of slavery. If the Bible is a timeless moral work, why didn't Christ himself speak against it, and speak against it firmly?

Sunshine says that abolition would have caused "a total social and economic breakdown", it's better to get rid of it gradually. That's speculative, and point of fact, the abolition of slavery in the South did cause great social and economic distress. Even if Christians had passionately opposed slavery, its abolition still wouldn't have come about overnight. But instead of simply going with the flow for nearly two millennia, early Christians would have been pioneers in human rights.


Historical opposition to slavery

The rest of the chapter is a loose chronological collection of historical Christians who opposed slavery. To which I say, big fucking deal. Obviously, there were a great many more Christians who didn't oppose slavery, until it was finally stamped from the world slowly and with much conflict. There was clearly not a central movement in the church to abolish slavery; rather, the church often took part in its perpetuation (such as Encomienda). If equality was so central to Christianity, why didn't it make its way to the most influential people in the church?

Sunshine even flatly states, quite wrongly:
No other culture, no other religion, tried to end slavery
Wrong. Slavery was banned in the first Persian Empire in the 6th Century BC; Zoroastrianism, the predominant religion of the empire, explicitly forbade slavery. Japan officially banned slavery in 1590, under the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Ashoka, the Buddist ruler of the Maurya Dynasty in 269 BC, condemned slavery as immoral and though he didn't ban the practice, encouraged people to treat their slaves well. In 424 B.C., the Greek writer Euripides wrote in his play Hecuba, "Alas! how cursed is slavery always in its nature, forced by the might of the stronger to endure unseemly treatment." Even Muslims, during the Crusades, forbade each other from taking another Muslim as a slave. There are plenty of other such examples if you're inclined to dig around, but it's unquestionably evident that Sunshine didn't do his homework. Clearly, there's no basis for treating such values as uniquely Christian or pretending that Christianity was some sort of pioneer in the abolition of slavery.

The fact that Christians, through a great deal of in-fighting and secular pressures, finally got around to abolishing the atrocities they had spent centuries perpetuating doesn't demonstrate anything special about Christianity. It demonstrates that humanity is, at its core, capable of overcoming such cruelty despite the irrational dogma of religion. Ultimately it was religion and its practitioners that were reformed to fit the mold of secular modernity, and that is a trend that continues to this day. 



This chapter was quite possibly the worst one. Not because of bad argumentation as in previous chapters, but because the author is guilty of piss-poor scholarship that wouldn't fly in a high school level course. He makes an argument that slaves in Israel weren't 'property', and then the very verses he references describe them as property. Then he says that Christianity was some sort of pioneer in abolition, something that twenty minutes between Google and Wikipedia would have cleared up. How did this stuff make it past the editors?

 

 

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