Does God Expect Us To Practice Slavery?

imagesThe outspoken atheist of today argues that morality can be grounded by science.  Religion is not only unnecessary, he contends, it’s downright “bad” for us.  And Christianity, dominant all these centuries in the West, is clearly in the cross-hairs of this “modern” view.

Searching the internet not long ago, I ran across this conversation between well-known atheist, and author, Sam Harris and Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show.  Harris argued that “the God of Abraham gets slavery wrong, and slavery is probably the easiest moral question we’ve ever had to face and if this book was written by an omniscient deity who is the true source of moral wisdom in this universe, it should at least get the question of whether it’s right to own people and treat them like farm equipment right.  It doesn’t get that question right.  The God of Abraham clearly expects us to keep slaves.”    Strong words, and a stinging indictment, with a rhetorical flourish matched only by the stunning ignorance of the position he takes.

Let’s take a closer look. Harris rightly concludes that slavery is a moral evil, but in so doing, he is borrowing from the capital of the worldview he is attacking. Christianity makes positive claims about morality, about human behavior and about moral good and evil. But Harris has rejected that view, seeking to substitute in its place a worldview in which there is no God.  With no God, the only explanation for what we find when we look around us is “evolution,” a process of change over vast periods of time operating randomly  through natural selection.  In other words, we see species adapting to meet changing conditions.  Some individuals within a species are better at adapting than others. They are stronger, swifter, smarter, or in some way superior, so they begin to gain a competitive advantage.  Over time, these advantages multiply.  The strong become stronger, and more dominant, while the weak either die out or seek some accommodation.  What is the natural consequence of this:  one group will eventually dominate another, because by this natural process they have developed abilities and strengths not shared by the majority.  Whether it is size, physical strength or mental abilities, it is obvious that over time the strong will have the ability to dominate the weak, resulting eventually in, you guessed it, slavery.  But the ultimate expression of this process goes beyond slavery, as the Nazi experiment showed us. It inevitably ends in genocide.

Harris “god” of “science” and rational thought can provide no solution, no way out of this result. If there is no God, no source of good to whom we are ultimately accountable, why shouldn’t the strong dominate the weak and force them to work without recompense?   What is “irrational” about organizing others to do your bidding, if you’re smart enough and strong enough to enforce your will? Because such behavior offends your sensibilities?  But such feelings are a source of weakness, and nature abhors weakness.  Because you “should” treat others the way you want to be treated? “Should” implies a duty to someone else, but if the strong get to set the rules, why should they agree that they “should” do anything they don’t want to do? After all, the lion doesn’t justify its actions when it devours its prey.  The leader of the wolf pack doesn’t feel guilt when it dominates those around it.  Why, then, in Harris’ worldview, should human beings be any different?

Christianity, by contrast, makes better sense of what we see around us, and our intuitive sense – that even Harris shares – that there is something very wrong with it.  Man was made for something much better than this, but through his act of rebellion, he has been separated from God. His mind is darkened and thinking himself wise, he is often quite foolish, rejecting those things of God. Yet, Christianity teaches that we all bear the imago dei, the image of God, and in that sense, we are all “created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  Our founders understood this, and they grounded this experiment in self-governance on a proper worldview. 

Does God “expect us to keep slaves,” as Harris claims? Yes, I think he does, but not in the sense that Harris probably meant.  God doesn’t want us to enslave others – there is simply no way we can love our neighbor as ourselves consistent with such treatment.  The New Testament makes that point unmistakably.  But he does expect it, in the sense that he knows it will happen. That man, in his fallen state, is capable of great evil, is no surprise to God. 

So fallen man, left to his own devices, practices slavery as one of the many manifestations of his darkened heart.  And how did slavery end, in those places where it has been outlawed?  Through the efforts of committed Christians, like William Wilberforce in England, and the Northern Abolitionists in the U.S.  Applying a Biblical worldview created the impetus for that change, and for so much more, like the many charitable organizations founded by Christians.  Is it any wonder that hospitals and other philanthropic organizations are so commonly named for Christian saints?

No, Mr. Harris, you won’t arrive at the just society you want by modeling humanity after the animal kingdom.  There is a better way, but you won’t find it in a lab book. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    We’ve already discussed slavery in the Bible here, Al. I’ll just repeat a few points I’ve made earlier.

    You say

    Does God “expect us to keep slaves,” as Harris claims? Yes, I think he does, but not in the sense that Harris probably meant. God doesn’t want us to enslave others – there is simply no way we can love our neighbor as ourselves consistent with such treatment.

    I’m glad you interpret the Golden Rule in this way, Al. That reflects well on you and on the Christian abolitionists. But you might want to read Leviticus 25:44-46 again. You know, where it says “you may take your slaves…” If God didn’t want the Israelites to take slaves, why is it explicitly allowed?

    The New Testament makes that point unmistakably. But he does expect it, in the sense that he knows it will happen. That man, in his fallen state, is capable of great evil, is no surprise to God.

    Agreed, the NT is an improvement on the OT, in this and many other regards- I guess God just got nicer, as many of us do. But why would God explicitly allow the Israelites to hold slaves if slavery were evil? After all, He came down hard on all kinds of other “evils” that were also to be expected- working on the Sabbath, eating shellfish, and wearing linsey-woolsey- or looking at a woman with lust. Somehow, He didn’t find it worthwhile to say one single word against slavery. Sorry, this just doesn’t wash.

    cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

    • John says:

      It’s common today to compare the slavery of the pre 1865 United States with the slavery in the old testament. They are quite different. In the old testament God didn’t condone slavery but he didn’t outlaw it either because of the economic realities of the day. People that got into a financial bind that they had no way out of would voluntarily sell themselves int slavery in order to pay their debts. God however wrote protections for them and and commanded that they be released from this financial burden after 7 years of service. The slaves were not kidnapped or forced into that position as were the slaves in the US. It was Christians that were instrumental in freeing the slaves in the US however because it is of course immoral to own another person.

  2. Jordan says:

    Zilch is right: he, Al, and I have thrashed this issue out rather heavily elsewhere. So for Al, Zilch, John, and everyone else reading, let me suffice it to say my views differ slightly from Al’s and John’s, and they differ greatly from Zilch’s. Here’s a couple of articles where the issue is discussed both by Al, Zilch, and I, as well as the authors of PCM.com in a much more comprehensive fashion. There was one other article that served more or less as our stopping point on the slavery issue and I wasn’t able to find it right away. Any idea which one that was, zilch? Anyway, here’s the articles:

    • zilch says:

      Jordan- sorry, I don’t know offhand where all the slavery discussions were. Maybe Al can help us here- he seems like a good guy. If you tried to post links, they didn’t work- I don’t see anything here.

      John- as has been said here before: why would “economic realities” stop God from forbidding slavery? Murder can be profitable too. Is God more interested in profit than in life and death?

      • Jordan says:

        Sorry, I’ll try again. Here are the ones I had before plus several more I found with a good site search for “zilch jordan slavery.” Should have most or our discussions now:

        • zilch says:

          Thanks, Jordan. I do believe I’ve already invited you to lunch, have I not?

          cheers from cool Vienna, zilch

          • Jordan says:

            Absolutely! Invitation is extending similarly if you are ever in Colorado! Pardon my disinterest in rehashing this one. Time is precious, and I think we’ve both adequately described our views to one another on this. Posting links allows me to give to those reading an in-depth view of the two sides of the issue without my having to write a book again. =)
            Been trying to think of other topics to discuss. Most everything we’ve talked about began with your rebuttal to Al’s “I believe in Christianity because…” articles. Was thinking it would be interesting to have you give a couple statements that would fit the pattern, “I DON”T believe in Christianity because…” and then have us respond. Maybe that would bring us to something new and interesting. I’d also simply be interested to hear what your top 5 “proofs” (term used loosely) are against Christianity.
            I do hope to get a chance to do a lunch with you eventually: back-and-forth online is much more complicated than face-to-face.
            Best wishes till next time,

  3. BGA says:

    The point Harris was trying to make is that in the OT the god seems to be trying to communicate some rules to the Isrealites. That would have been an excellent opportunity for him to mention the indisputable objective moral truth that it is wrong for any human to own another human. He didn’t. Jesus could have as well, he could have said, by the way, those rules in scripture about how long you can hold each other in servitude, that doesn’t mean it is ok to own, by and sell each other. Just point it out so that you don’t get centuries more slavery and a terrible civil war in the US with both sides claiming god is on their sides. And while you’re at it don’t hit your kids either. No.

    The character called The Lord in the Bible obviously felt it necessary to communicate rules. A prohibition on slavery would have been radical at the time, but incredibly obvious to a deity with an insight into what Christians consider objective morality. It’s absence calls into question whether this deity was the source of the text, or existed in the first place.

  4. Al says:

    The question is not whether God intended to communicate rules to the Israelites. The question is why he did so. You assume that his reason would be to set forth “indisputable objective moral truth,” including that no one should “own” another human. But there are problems with your assumption: 1) the rules were designed to separate the Israelites from all other then-living cultures so that from them the Savior might emerge; the rules where designed to make them a distinct people. God had something much different in mind than creating a perfect society on Earth; man’s chance for that was (is) already over. In the fallen world, we will never have “perfect living” regardless of how many rules God gives us. His point was to save us for the life to come, and his revelation and his actions in the form of man accomplish that purpose.
    2) Slavery as practiced at the time did not involve the kind of ownership that we rightly condemn in the antebellum South. It was more like a form of indentured servitude. You might condemn God for making men unequal in ability, which is of course what led to this practice. But even in the atheistic worldview, such inequality is a given. Indeed, it is a part of the natural order of things. If survival of the fittest is the rule, as it must be if nature is all there is, then one man, or group of men, dominating another is itself part of the natural order. 3) Moreover, with no God to set the standard, where do you get the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” or that you can identify truths that are “indisputable objective moral” ones? The whole concept is nonsensical without God to ground such assertions. If nature is all there is, we are no different than any of the animals of the world. They do what nature allows them to do; they don’t hold to lofty principles about how they should act.
    Yes, it’s possible that Christians are getting it wrong. But noting that the Lord failed to provide a rule book for civilization won’t get you there. That’s not what he was doing.

  5. zilch says:

    Agreed, Jordan- I do hope we can do lunch someday. My best friend from school days lives in Golden, so maybe we can work something out.

    After talking about these issues with you and many others online for several years now, I too think it’s about time I had some links of my own to put up. As time permits, I’ll see if I can collect my thoughts into articles- as you point out, neither of us has unlimited time to repeat the same old arguments over and over. I’ll certainly let you know when I’ve got something up.

    As far as my answer to “I don’t believe in Christianity because…” goes, the quickest answer would be this (nothing new; I believe I’ve said as much at various times here before): I don’t believe in Christianity because I haven’t seen any evidence for the existence of any gods. And I have seen evidence that people make up gods all the time, for various reasons: to incorporate their feelings of awe and fear about the unknown, to provide the carrots and sticks that help make people behave in such ways that make society possible, and to provide punishment in the hoped-for afterlife for evil and rewards for good.

    cheers from autumny Vienna, zilch

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