Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Adam Lee spin-doctors abolition

What is the relationship between Christianity, slavery, and abolition?  In The Truth Behind the New
Atheism, and elsewhere, I have argued that Christianity implicitly, if not always explicitly, undermines human bondage.  I have also suggested that Christian teachings were the main
motivational force behind the abolition movement.  These claims have often been contradicted, and sometimes confused.  (For instance, with the claim that the Bible clearly renounces slavery, or that Christians never owned slaves or engaged in the slave trade.) 

Recently, discussing this and the larger issue of how Christianity may secretly influence western secularists, Brian Blais linked an old  Patheos article by New York writer Adam Lee, which tries to minimize Christian influence on abolition, and maximize skeptical influence.  This is an interesting article for three reasons: (1) It illustrates the historical ignorance found in so many skeptical circles. (2) All one has to do is dig a tad deeper, and its "strongest points" are transmuted into ironies. (3) Those ironies illustrate the larger issue we were discussing, how people within western civilization can never be sure they are not being influenced by the Bible, even when they toss the book that shaped their own minds in secret onto the rubbish bin of history.  (Though on the other hand, we Christians are also often moved by baser motives.) 

Lee starts off with a bang:

If you’ve got an ugly or uncomfortable historical record that you’d like to have whitewashed, then Christian fundamentalists are the ideologues for you. Here’s their latest bit of doggerel: Christians deserve the credit for abolishing African slavery! . . .
I’ll gladly grant that Christians played a major role in the abolitionist movement (as did freethinkers, a point I’ll come to shortly). However, there’s a gigantic, inconvenient fact that Sarfati strives to ignore: Who were the people who instituted slavery in the Western world in the first place? On this point, the answer should be obvious: The slave trade was created by Christians.

Now the funny thing about these two paragraphs is that the first calls Christians "ideologues" for "whitewashing" our "ugly" historical record with "doggerel" (sic), and the second admits that the "doggerel" is actually true! 

In between these two conflicted paragraphs, Lee confuses things further by accusing one Jonathan Sarfati of "diverging from reality" by "implying" (watch out for that word, it often means "I am about to make stuff up") that Christianity deserves all the credit for abolishing slavery and fighting against racism in the Western world  (my emphasis).  But then the actual words he cites from Sarfati don't say that at all, they say merely that many Christians campaigned against slavery, and that Uncle Tom's Cabin was especially influential -- which demonstrates not the slightest "divergence" from historical truth at all, even from what Lee has already admitted:

However, America had a huge number of Christians who wrote and campaigned extensively against slavery… There was also the heavily Christian-based novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), widely recognized as a major cause of people in the North turning so strongly against slavery.

Where does this say that Christians deserve all the credit for fighting racism?  Where does it come within a mile of saying that?  Make stuff up, indeed. 

Christians have a lot to apologize for, when it comes to racial sins.  This is true, precisely because the Gospel calls us to something higher.  So these two truths need to be held in tension.  But Lee, clearly, is a writer one needs to keep a skeptical eye upon.

Who were the people who instituted slavery in the Western world in the first place? On this point, the answer should be obvious: The slave trade was created by Christians. Specifically, it was created by European imperialists – the colonial powers such as France, Spain, Great Britain and Portugal – whose explorers were colonizing the New World and needed a steady stream of labor to work their mines and their plantations. Papal bulls such as Nicholas V’s Dum Diversas granted Catholic rulers the explicit right to enslave non-Christians; it’s safe to assume that the Protestant nations came up with their own theological justifications for the practice. But Catholic or Protestant, all these nations at the time were theocracies, ruled by popes and kings who claimed divine right. It was Christians, not atheists, who began the slave trade!

What Lee appears to mean by saying that "Christians began slavery" is that Europeans who considered themselves Christians began the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Of course that's true, though probably a larger number of people were enslaved by the Muslim empires beginning well before that, including millions of Africans, so it's a little odd to call that the beginning.  What the slavers' state of mind was is an historical question that is worth asking.  In both cases, of course, the motive was profit, as it always has been.  That's the norm.  But abolishing slavery among a despised racial group against financial interests, that's unusual: it runs against the warp and woof of human inclinations. 

Also, Lee is not being fully accurate about Papal Bulls.  As Stark shows, there were bulls issued against enslavement, which were simply ignored by colonists, or worse.  So the "Catholic" peoples of South America do not always seem to have been moved by actual, as opposed to theoretical, Christian belief.   

Lee later describes William Lloyd Garrison as a "free-thinker."  Actually, while Garrison quarreled with preachers frequently, and leaned what we might call "liberal" in this theology, he seems to have been pious literally to his dying day, tapping his foot to his favorite hymns with his family around him.  His mother, a very pious woman, deeply influenced him.  (His alcoholic father had run off.)  Garrison was then converted to abolitionism by a Christian (Quaker) making religious arguments, Benjamin Lundy.  And of course abolitionism was more than a century old by that time, and the ancient movement against slavery in Christendom much older still.  One thing that alienated Garrison from more effective abolition leaders, like James Birney, was his hatred of the American Constitution. 

So this incident illustrates the three points above: that Lee should have done more research, that his attempt to credit Garrison's abolitionist sentiments to "free-thinking" becomes ironic in light of the historical facts, and that if you dig deeper, you usually find the influence of Jesus on most great reform in the Western World. 

The same pattern repeats itself when Lee talks about Robert Ingersoll, the firebrand skeptic.

And Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic orator, fought for the Union in the Civil War and was likewise an unflinching foe of slavery.

Good for Colonel Ingersoll.  He seems to have been an impressive man, in many ways. 

But Robert Ingersoll was a bit player who came in at the tale end of the abolition of slavery at best.  Furthermore, he caught abolitionist sentiments from his father, a Christian pastor.  (And a friend of Charles Finney, the great abolitionist and revival preacher, whom Lee fails to mention.)  Good that Ingersoll fought on the Union side, along with two and a half million other men.  But his presence there does absolutely nothing to undermine the claim that abolition was inspired by Christian teaching: he was neither important, nor was he free of Christian influence. 

A poster at Blais' site responded to my claim that Christianity was behind abolition in a slightly different way:

Slavery is obviously an economic activity. Slaves provide muscle power. When the steam-engine was invented, steam became a cheaper source of power than slaves. Historically, it seems that it wasn’t until the economic need for slave power decreased, that abolitionism really took root. The rise of steam-power began in Northern Europe. Early abolitionism was also strong in Northern Europe. But it was probably the steam-engine, not religion, that was pulling that particular train.

The economic laws of supply and demand seem a likely, perhaps even inevitable, explanation for the decline of slavery. And economic laws do not seem to depend on religious preference.
The presence of Christians during the rise of abolitionism seems about as meaningful as the presence of the MMR-vaccine in a child who develops autism.

But historians of the era generally recognize that in fact, it was Jesus who was "pulling that particular train." 

The abolition of slavery was enormously costly in England. That’s why it was fought, tooth and nail, by those who profited by it. See Rodney Stark’s overview in For the Glory of God. Or here, from Seymour Drescher’s Abolition: The History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery (245):

William Wilberforce: bad
for the economy.
In terms of tropical production, the combined impact of British abolitionism on the Atlantic slave trade, revolutionary emancipation in the French colonies, and legislated emancipation in the British colonies, altered the distribution of slave-produced cash crops in the West Indies. The Anglo-French colonies had produced 89 percent of the value of Caribbean exports in 1770, compared with 1 percent for the Spanish colonies. But 1850, the now free labor Anglo-French colonies share of output had decreased to 35 percent. The Spanish share had risen to 57 percent.

That's quite an economic collapse! 

Armchair neo-Marxism is no substitute for historical research, and observing who actually did what to change things, and why.

These sorts of arguments illustrate the great need for more sophisticated and careful historical thinking about the impact of Christianity on the world.  It is not a simple or straightforward story: there is plenty of room for shame, even repentance on the part of Christians.  But the power of the Gospel is real, and has had a traceable effect on human history: I think we can assert that with all due humility, and historical accuracy.     


domics said...

OK. let's see the contribution of the free-thinkers and secularists in this topic.
Do you know this man, the father of the free-thinking movement in Britain and then in Australia?

Here something you could not find in his official and apologetic biographies (wikipedia too):
"Southwell's racism exploded on seeing bishops and missionaries back Maori land rights over settler claims. He boosted the Auckland Examiner's sales by deriding the mission's ‘amalgamation of races’ doctrine. Then he sent fellow radicals at home tirades to be fired at the Exeter Hall philanthropists, carrying the implicit message that, since the ‘savages’ cannot be civilized, they had best be exterminated."
(Desmond, Moore, "Darwin's Sacred Cause", p. 222)

Furthermore the two most influential anthropologists of the time asserting the inferiority of the blacks and so sanctioning slavery 'scientifically', Knox in England and Nott in America, were "defiantly secularists." (again in Desmond and Moore's book)

David B Marshall said...

Hmmn. Don't know these guys. Stark mentions some others in For the Glory of God. Would be interesting to see a systematic study of the issue.

domics said...

for Southwell there is this article:

Regarding Josiah C. Nott and Robert Knox I kwew that they were 'secularists' only after reading Desmond and Moore's book about Darwin: despite having read several books on scientific racism I did not know this fact.