Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Whip it, whip it good

One of the cruelest legacies of the Abrahamic religions, was the normalisation of slavery.  Slavery in the Western Christian world persisted largely until the 1800s. Islamic countries did not ban slavery for the most part until the 1900s.  Even then it survived in extremist groups as with Islamic militias in Sudan or ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

This slavery presents a major problem for theists.  It is in direct conflict with a range of claims. These include the moral character of their prophets.  Abraham owned slaves. Mohammad owned slaves. The benevolence of God of Abraham and the origin of morality with this deity, does not survive the reality of slavery.

Christians throughout history have used two main arguments to defend slavery.  These are that their version was more humane, and that slavery was in some sense, a necessary evil.

The Nice Version of Slavery Argument.

This is often seen in pop-apologist defenses of ancient Judeao-Christian slavery.  Apparently all slavery in the ancients kingdoms of Israel was voluntary debt-bondage, of limited scope (rolls eyes).  There's nothing wrong with slavery therefore, if it is practiced by ancient Israelites or Christians.

This is a completely made-up argument. The OT rules on slave ownership make it clear manumission-guarantees were limited to Jewish males. Foreign slaves did not get the right to be freed after 6 years. The OT also describes slaves taken in warfare. Exodus 21:20-21 contradicts alleged humane nature of this ancient slavery by sanctioning the beating of slaves, and more explicitly, defining them as property rather than human beings.

Despite many Christians today wanting to distance themselves from pro-slavery arguments, this 'nice slavery' defense is echoed in later centuries. The motif of the kind slaver-owner, solicitous of their slaves' welfare, was commonly employed to defend slavery.
"We ought to consider whether the negroes in a well regulated plantation, under the protection of a kind master, do not enjoy as great, nay, even greater advantages than when under their own despotic governments" - Michael Renwick Sergeant
This tries to justify slavery as welfare-enhancing. While slavery isn't a good thing per se, the slaves are better off than in their own countries.  Or even better, by being exposed to Christianity they would become Christian and so, save their souls. Slavery was a small, temporal price to pay for an eternity in heaven. And with such justifications, moral slippage occurs.
The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder's moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name.
- Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

The Necessary Evil Argument

This argument is duplicated by slavery apologists, both modern and historical.  Arguments from the 18th (and 19th Centuries in antebellum US) were that slavery had benefits. It civilised or Christianised the barbaric and pagan peoples of Africa.  

The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. - Robert E Lee. 
Modern apologists do not balk at similar arguments. Slavery was necessary for ancient societies and economies. 
Noting that Jesus did not instruct followers to abolish slavery ignores the fact that slavery was often voluntary and civil and a component of societal functioning in Biblical times - Pop-Apologist Stephanie Thomson
I note that there are other forms of 'unfree' labour that ancient economies could use instead. Ancient Egypt and China used a corvee system of mass labour conscription in agricultural slack-months, to undertake public works.  And while slavery did exist in Ancient China, there were attempts to abolish it. The Han emperor Wang Mang did so in 9 CE- during the lifetime of Jesus. Serfdom in various forms was also possible. Slavery was not necessary.

But wait, Christians ended slavery

It seems always odd the Christians also want plaudits for ending slavery in the West.  While I appreciate the efforts of all who were involved in abolition movements, the reality is they were also strongly opposed by Christians. Some were still defending slavery when the Federal Army's guns reached Richmond.  Most people for much of Christendom's history, were not like Wilberforce.  

One thing that also struck me is how much the abolition arguments emphasised the cruelty and brutality of slavery, rather than Christian arguments for ending it. It seems odd that if the argument against slavery really was theological, that this was employed so rarely. 

The problem is also that Christians had to end slavery because no-one else could. They had the political power in the West. It wasn't the Atheists or Buddhists in Western countries that could abolish slavery. They had no power to do so.  And when slavery has been legal for say, 90% of your religion's history, it's not earning the religion much credit to finally abolish it. That's taken far too long and the agonising suffering slavery produced reached too great a scale. 


It seems ironic that modern apologists use arguments that mimic those from people they claim to oppose.  The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was terrible. Antebellum slavery was not wonderful. Both were defended by Christians for centuries. 

Overall, I find the arguments defending historical slavery inadequate and unconvincing.  They lack a proper moral justification.  It seems instead they require a degree of moral slippage that people outside these faiths, would balk at. In ancient times, few had the courage and moral character to seek the abolishment of slavery. Moses, Jesus and Mohammad were not among them.  I cannot reconcile slavery with the alleged morality of the Abrahamic prophets and deity. 

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