Monday, June 10, 2013

Why does Brian Blais oppose slavery?

Physicist Brian Blais has been challenging my historical defense of Christianity on his web site.  Brian hasn't read any of my books, so far as I know, but began by critiquing a few remarks I made on Justin Brierley's Unbelievable radio program on Premier Christian radio in London, as part of a series responding to the Unbelievable programs.  I responded last week, then Brian replied with this second and then this third post.

The most recent issue, which I would like to focus on, is how Christianity dealt with slavery, an issue that Christians and atheists have debated fiercely in recent years.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens all bring the subject up, blaming the Bible for not forthrightly condemning it (which Harris supposes was the patently obvious thing to do), and blaming the Church for at best,  turning a blind eye.  I responded in The Truth Behind the New Atheism by arguing that ending slavery was not really all that obvious, but zealous Christians reading their Bibles accomplished it anyway, not just in the West, but around the world. 

More recently, after I pointed out numerous errors in his harsh attacks on the Christian record, Iowa State Religious Studies professor Hector Avalos came after my 3-4 page argument on slavery in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and myself as a scholar, in a long and no-holds-barred piece.  I responded willingly, and I think pretty effectively, first here and then here.  Avalos subsequently published a long book on that very subject, and sent me a manuscript copy, which I still hope to read and report on some day. 

Thankfully, Brian argues at a lower decibel level.  He does make a couple interesting points, but I think still needs to look at the bigger historical picture.    

In a comment to one of my posts about miscellaneous Christian ideas, David Marshall asks the following question:
Why do you suppose that you think slavery is wrong?  How do you know it isn’t because you are at the end of a long process of Christianization of morals within western thought, that I (briefly) describe?
I think this is a fair question, and felt it needed some thought, so I took a few days to ponder it. I’m sure there is more to be said on this, but let me outline my thinking process on this.

Where did I come by the concept of why slavery is wrong?  I’d say it starts with the way I was brought up, where I learned to treat people well.  From there, learning history, I could see that history is filled with examples of people treating others badly (including owning other people as property) and people treating others well.    Of course, this part is cultural, and if I had been raised in the South in the 1830′s, slavery would not immediately seem obviously wrong . . .

I'd say a large part of this is cultural, indeed.  School text books labor hard to strengthen the moral views that Blais echoes here, and I would say rightly so, in this case.  But Samuel Huntington argues that while many reform movements have sprung up within Islam, no such movements traditionally challenged Islamic teachings on the low status of three groups of people:

None of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman, and the unbeliever. (What Went Wrong? 83) 

One needn't pick on Islam, either.  My impression is that it is also rather hard to find early reform movements within Hindu culture that challenged caste.  Mohandas Gandhi came at the tail end of reform inspired by outside forces (Christian missions), as John Farquhar shows in Modern Religious Movements in India.  In China, while some ethnic groups refrained from binding the feet of women, like the Hakka, it took an outside agent -- Christian missions, again -- to challenge it inside the Han Chinese culture as a whole. 

So to understand his own moral intuitions, and how they were informed, I think a modern westerner needs to take a broader view of history, beginning not in the 1830s, but going back at least to the Jewish prophets.  (And certainly to Jesus.) 

Blais goes on to explain autobiographically how he has come to rationally evaluate moral claims, and then explains his present position:

I’ve come to accept that morality relates to the suffering and well-being of conscious creatures.  As such, we can make objective evaluations about how to increase well-being and decrease suffering.  It becomes clear, then, that owning people as property needlessly increases suffering, and as such is objectively wrong.  I can then apply this principle in cases where I was raised with a different moral perspective, and find that some of these are wrong.  For example, banning gay marriage is wrong (sorry for the double negative!), even if I was raised with the opposite.  It needlessly adds to human suffering.  So, I can override my cultural teachings on morality, and in the same way I am able to judge other worldviews for obvious cases of immoral behavior (e.g. suicide bombing, genocide, etc…)

It is certainly true that those raised with one set of moral values often embrace understandings of life that allow or force them to revise those values, and no doubt that happened to Dr. Blais.  Nor would I necessarily claim that those revisions are all for the worst.  (Though the full calculus of how much well-being will increase, and suffering decrease, due to "gay marriage," is I confess entirely beyond me, and I suspect beyond Blais as well.  It would be hard for me to even evaluate my own conventional marriage that way -- one of the problems I have with utilitarianism.)

But how "objective" are Blais' moral values, or yours, or mine?  Can we even know how deeply our own desires and the swirls and eddies of the Zeitgeist form the beliefs we take to be our own? 

Sam Harris thinks it is obvious that owning slaves is wrong.  Brian Blais thinks it obvious that gay marriage is OK.  I think it is obvious that both beliefs are formed in a particular culture due to that culture's heritage, pulled in certain directions by particular lines of thinking, and would not likely take the same form in, say, Aztec or Wahhabi societies so readily. 

There are two moral issues, here: (1) Why should we care about "increasing suffering" that is not our own suffering, or (a Confucianist may ask) of that of people we are intimately related to?  (2) Why should we assume that in fact, these particular "evils" really do cause more suffering?  (More than, say, pornography?  Or growing up with Dad?  Or abortion?  Or intellectual arrogance?) 

If Blais were not a professor at a liberal educational institution, would what he now thinks obvious, appear equally obvious? 

One might suppose John Stuart Mill and his followers were wiser than the common run of humanity, and more likely to formulate true beliefs -- the "old, wise, and skillful" Aristotle spoke of.  

What does this water taste like?  (A stream in
Northern Taiwan hills inhabited by the Taya
hill tribe, who once thought it right to for
young men to hunt the heads of lowlanders.
That, of course, does not define their full
set of virtues or vices.)
But there are other sets of wise men and women, in thousands of different cultures, and our own of different ages and social groups, who have set different priorities, after sincere consideration.  How does Blais know his own set of values is superior to all those others -- drinking, as it were, downstream from a particular river, and never having tasted the water in most of those other rivers, or the springs from which they pour?

But the immediate question is, in a culture in which "progress" has been defined for so many centuries in reference to the teachings of Jesus, in particular his concern for the poor and marginalized, can Blais be sure that (1) and even (2) were not largely determined for him by the Sermon on the Mount?  We all live downstream of this spring, and cannot be sure we are outside of its influence unless we go outside not only of Western Culture, but out of regions of the world influenced by the West -- and thus travel not just in space, but in time as well. 

How do I know it isn’t because I am at the end of a long process of Christianization of morals within western thought?  I prefer to rephrase, slightly, saying “why do I believe it is likely…” instead of “how do I know…”.  This is a matter of probability, and I don’t think it is possible to demonstrate the truth of a claim like this to the level of probability that I would consider knowledge.

Fair enough. 

So why do I believe “slavery is wrong” is unlikely to be simply the end of a process of Christianization?  First and foremost, I see no clear evidence that Christianity as revealed in the Bible has a clear message against slavery.  You can find passages vaguely against particular slave-master situations, and you can find dictates about how you should treat your slaves.  There is never a case where it says, clearly, that slavery is in fact wrong.

I didn't say "simply" the end of that process.  Historical influence is always complex.  And so, as Blais admits here, is the Bible.

But the Gospel does say, very clearly, that we are to care even for our enemies, return good for evil, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  There's nothing "vague" about that: it's repeated hundreds of times, in different ways, and as eloquently as anything ever written.

And that clearly does, and historically its pretty clear that it did, destroy slavery.  Rodney Stark gives some of the history in For the Glory of God.

Even if we grant that the biblical message on slavery is mixed (certainly it is complex), it does not follow that it could not have ultimately influenced us against slavery.  To offer an analogy, let us say (plausibly) that the Seattle Mariners are a bad baseball team.  Would that make it implausible that, say, Felix Hernandez will inspire several young men to become pitchers who will affect the state of the sport for the better twenty years from now?  Christianity, after all, is not defined by "what the Bible says," as much as "who Jesus is." 

In addition, can we really be sure that slavery always and necessarily caused more harm than good?  In the ancient world, as I have pointed out, often the choice was not slavery or freedom, but slavery or putting enemy combatants to death, so they would not fight again another day.  In other cases, it was slavery, or starving to death. 

Finally, one might argue, from a utilitarian point of view, that the Athenians increased total happiness by enslaving half their population, so that free men could sculpt, debate, write philosophy, and invent science.  Might there not be a larger total sum of happiness in such a Republic, than among a people that is all free, but fails at such achievements?  Or would the Athenians have increased the world's total future happiness without those slaves? 

As a Christian, I think that would be morally wrong, because I am not a utilitarian.  On what grounds would Blais oppose ancient Greek slavery, if this were the case?  Perhaps I am assuming too much about his moral position, though, and stand to be corrected. 

Second, there is historical precedent for Christians to argue for slavery based on a Biblical reading – and this wasn’t just a fringe reading.  One might argue that they are using a wrong reading, but how do we know?

By beginning with Jesus, and interpreting the rest of the Bible through him. 

Thirdly, following on this, my experience with legitimate searches for truth is that they converge after some initial state of disagreement.  Take any previously contentious argument in science that is currently well understood – say, the origin of heat.  Over the past couple hundred years there were many theories about what heat was – the elemental theory of heat, a fluid theory, a statistical theory, etc…  Once the scientific methodology was improved to the point where this problem could be explored rationally, the ideas started to converge.  There were fewer interpretations of the evidence considered valid, and now there really is just one.  This is true for every branch of science, and I would contend, any approach that addresses the truth – you start off with divergent ideas when you don’t fully understand a topic, and converge to a single understanding.  I see no evidence of this in Christianity.  There is more disagreement now than 1000 years ago about pivotal doctrines.  This is not the pattern we see for something that is true, but is a pattern for something we see a cultural.

This seems a little off topic, but it's an interesting argument, and I'm pleased to hear it.  (Being, like the Athenians, always interested in hearing new things.) It's a little hard to answer, though, without knowing exactly what Dr. Blais has in mind. 

A thousand years ago, the Catholic Church had a near religious monopoly in Europe.  (Aside from Jews, and a few pagans tucked away in Lithuania and parts of Scandinavia.)

One of the things we have learned, from Adam Smith and modern disciples like Rodney Stark, is that in the absence of a monopoly, a raucous market will emerge, and all sorts of intellectual as well as physical wares will be put up for sale.  This is true of atheistic beliefs as well as theistic beliefs: Objectivism and Freudianism and Behaviorism and Existentialism, Socialism in a hundred schools, and so forth and so on.  Even the New Atheists are waging verbal civil war on one another, based on different ethical positions they take in regard to feminism. 

By contrast, when I read St. Augustine, a 4th Century, Latin-speaking North African "Catholic" in the dying Roman empire, or Justin Martyr, or Clement of Alexandria, or even Jing Jing in central China in the early 9th Century, or Dream of the Rood in Northern Europe, most of what they write still speaks to my heart.  Of course our understanding of some aspects of Christian theology has grown with the expansion of general knowledge, in which Christians have played so important a role -- I know how large and how old the Earth that "declares the glory of the Lord" is, for instance.  But I don't think educated Christians are so starkly divided, compared to the various schools of atheism.  I am sure Augustine would find modern astronomy fascinating. 

Finally, I do see evidence of Christians changing their doctrines to suit their particular ends.  Most of the Old Testament is conveniently ignored, interpreted away, because it has become untenable in a modern society.  Christian’s don’t do this because it is a natural, obvious step in the faith but because modern, secular progress has demonstrated that many of the doctrines are either wrong or simply useless.  The authority of religion has been battered from all directions.

Well, again, we are Christians, not ancient Jews.  Our faith does focus "naturally" and "obviously" on Jesus Christ, not on Joshua. 

Thus, I see evidence of cherry-picking, an inconsistent message in the Bible which allows for nearly any philosophical stance to justified with the proper cherry-picking, and a lot of post-hoc argumentation.  I see immoral acts not only allowed by God, but commanded by God, and thus at best an inconsistent moral picture from the “good” book.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “great book of multiple choice”, and I believe that this interpretation is more consistent with all of the aspects I’ve seen about Christianity, both present and historical.

I don't want to merely refute this argument, I would like to turn it upside down and inside out, and argue that the truth of the Gospel is now manifest in a much fuller way than it once was. 

Jesus is the heart of the Old Testament.   He makes sense of all that confusing mass: he is the "seed of Abraham" who will bring blessings to all the world, the Passover Lamb, the Son of David, the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, the one who makes all those promises about the "ends of the Earth" and the "people dwelling in darkness" come true.  All the Old Testament makes fuller sense in light of the life, death, resurrection, and influence of Jesus. 

But it goes even deeper than that.  I think Jesus also brings sense out of the chaos of world religions, generally.  This was Paul's point in Lystra, then on Mars Hill.  Krishna Banarjea made the same point in India, along with J. N. Farquhar and (in his own way) Ram Mohan Roy.  Jing and Ricci and Legge and Richard and Yuan Zhiming echoed this insight in China, as did far-sighted thinkers in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Africa, and Wilhelm Grimm, G. K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis in western Europe. 

Focus on Jesus, and you can bring in a great deal else.  But you cannot justify beating and chaining a fellow human being, just because you have the power to do so, and she cannot resist you.  You can easily justify liberating slaves, educating women, ending foot-binding, stopping human sacrifice, opposing abortion, and being a father to children being brought up by unwed mothers.  But you cannot justify enslaving, binding feet, sacrificing humans, killing the young, or running out on a woman who bares your child. 

Anyone who cannot see this, has just not read the gospels rightly.  And that's my statement of dogmatism for the day. 

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