Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

How to respond to an atheist who complains about slavery in the Bible

I often hear atheists going on and on about how the Bible has this evil and that evil. Their favorite one seems to be slavery. Here are three things I say to atheists when they push this objection.

The Bible and slavery

First, you should explain to them what the Bible actually says about slavery. And then tell them about the person responsible for stopping slavery in the UK: a devout evangelical named William Wilberforce.

Here’s an article that works.

Excerpt:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-inemployee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.3

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Atheism and moral judgments

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Dawkins has previously written this:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85)

When people like Dawkins talk about morality, you have to understand that they are pretending. To them, morality is just about personal preferences and cultural conventions. They just think that questions of right and wrong are arbitrary. Things that are wrong in one time and place are right in another. Every view is as right as any other, depending on the time and place. That’s atheist morality.

What’s worse than slavery? Abortion!

Third, you should ask the atheist what he has done to oppose abortion. Abortion is worse than slavery, so if they are sincere in thinking that slavery is wrong, then they ought to think that abortion is wrong even more. So ask them what they’ve done to oppose the practice of abortion. That will tell you how sincere they are about slavery.

Here’s Richard Dawkins explaining what he’s done to stop abortion:

That’s right. The head atheist supports killing born children.

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Paul Copan on whether the Bible endorses slavery

Before I link to Paul Copan’s article, (H/T The Poached Egg), I want to say that I actually don’t see why atheists are so bothered by slavery, since there no such thing as morality if atheism is true. If atheism is true, then slavery isn’t wrong. It’s just unfashionable in some societies who have evolved one way, versus other societies that have evolved to think slavery is OK. Whatever has evolved is right, on atheism – there is no transcendent objective standard by which atheists can condemn any practice as wrong. They also can’t prescribe moral behavior, for at least two reasons. First, there is no reason to be moral on atheism if you get more pleasure from being immoral and you can escape the consequences. Second, there is no free will on atheism, because matter is all there is and the interactions of particles in motion is determined by the laws of physics that govern matter.

Having said that, let’s assume slavery is wrong, which it is on Christian theism, and see what Paul Copan has to say about the practice of slavery and the Old Testament.

Excerpt:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-in employee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.3

Through failed crops or other disasters, debt tended to come to families, not just individuals. One could voluntarily enter into a contractual agreement (“sell” himself) to work in the household of another: “one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself” (Leviticus 25:47). A wife or children could be “sold” to help sustain the family through economically unbearable times — unless kinfolk “redeemed” them (payed their debt). They would be debt-servants for 6 years.4 A family might need to mortgage their land until the year of Jubilee every 50 years.5

Note: In the Old Testament, outsiders did not impose servanthood as in the antebellum South.6 Masters could hire servants “from year to year” and were not to “rule over … [them] ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:46,53). Rather than being excluded from Israelite society, servants were thoroughly embedded within Israelite homes.

The Old Testament prohibited unavoidable lifelong servanthood — unless someone loved his master and wanted to attach himself to him (Exodus 21:5). Masters were to grant their servants release every seventh year with all debts forgiven (Leviticus 25:35–43). A slave’s legal status was unique in the ancient Near East (ANE) — a dramatic improvement over ANE law codes: “Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood.”7

An Israelite servant’s guaranteed eventual release within 7 years was a control or regulation to prevent the abuse and institutionalizing of such positions. The release-year reminded the Israelites that poverty-induced servanthood was not an ideal social arrangement. On the other hand, servanthood existed in Israel precisely because poverty existed: no poverty, no servants in Israel. And if servants lived in Israel, this was voluntary (typically poverty-induced) — not forced.

Read the whole thing. And if you think that’s interesting, you can listen to this debate on slavery and the Bible.

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MUST-HEAR: A great debate on whether the Bible condones slavery

From Justin Brierley and the Unbelievable radio show, also known as the “If You Like” radio show.

Topic: “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?”

The MP3 file is here.

Details:

The Bible is often criticised for either supporting or not condemning the institution of slavery.  So how should we treat portions of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments that relate to slavery?  Why does the Old Testament contain laws regarding the treatment of slaves? Does Paul condemn or affirm the institution?

Bob Price is a former US church minister whose doubts about the Bible led him to ultimately reject evangelical Christian faith.  He says that the Bible is a book that reflects the time it was written in.  Slavery was acceptable and the early Christians regrettably followed suit, and did not challenge the prevailing status quo.

David Instone-Brewer is a New Testament Scholar at Tyndale House, Cambridge.  He says that, in its cultural context, the Bible goes as far as it can towards an anti-slavery message and that Christians have been at the forefront of anti-slavery movements.

My previous post on this topic is here.

My thoughts

This debate is the greatest debate I have heard in months! This is that Robert M. Price guy who is an expert in the historical Jesus who hates evangelical Christianity and has 2 PhDs. He’s extremely radical. But in this debate he was totally awesome. He was so easy to listen to, and he made perfect sense. Everything he said was moderate and reasonable.

And the Christian guy that Justin lined up was solid and well-prepared. About two-thirds of the time, the Christian they get is some useless pastor with no training. But this time Justin got a great scholar – winsome and informed. He made our side look good.

Related goodness

I noticed that Brian Auten linked to this Tawapologetics review of Rodney Stark’s book on history and Christianity, and it includes a section on Christianity and the practice of slavery. In my home, we have all of Rodney Stark’s books on our bookshelf.

Here are the main points from the slavery part:

  • First, slavery has been an institution in human cultures since before the Egyptian pyramids, all around the world.
  • Second, while European nations did delve into widespread slavery, the Church was hardly complicit in the practice.
  • Third, how monotheism provided the moral framework to condemn and outlaw slavery.
  • Fourth, details on the formation of the anti-slavery movement and Christianity’s involvement in it.
  • Fifth, enlightened secularism had little impact on the abolitionist cause.

I knew some of that stuff already from reading about the history of slavery and the abolition movement in Thomas Sowell books. But if you don’t know about it, you should read the book review.

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Does the Bible condone slavery?

Matt and Madeleine Flanagan have a wonderful post up to answer this thorny question. These guys are professional apologists, not amateurs, like me! They have footnotes in their post!

Your strategy

If someone asks you a question like this, there are two responses you need to make:

  1. Explain why the Bible does not condone slavery
  2. Ask the challenger why slavery is wrong, on their worldview

Let’s start with number 1.

Does the Bible condone slavery?

MandM’s response is based on the writings of John Locke in his “Second Treatise on Civil Government”. Locke based his argument on a reading of Exodus 21, where the rules of “slavery” are defined.Locke’s argument is that the definition of slavery in the Bible is not the same as the slavery of modern times.

MandM quotes Locke’s argument. Then they summarize it:

[1] If a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”
[2] The institution referred to in scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.”

Then they explain some reasons why the indentured servitude in the Bible is not the same as slavery in the last few hundred years.

  • there was no kidnapping of an indentured servant, they served voluntarily in order to get rid of a debt
  • there was no racial component to indentured servitude
  • killing an indentured servant was a capital offense, striking one was illegal
  • indentured servitude was for 6 years, not for a lifetime
  • if the indentured servant fled from an abusive master, it was illegal to return teh servant to his master

References are provided for each of these points.

So the Biblical concept of “slavery” wasn’t what we mean as slavery when we look at British, Arab, or American slavery in history. Instead, the Bible is talking about indentured servitude.

What’s wrong with slavery, on atheism?

I think a more fundamental question that needs to be pressed on the atheist is whether slavery is wrong on their worldview. I’ve argued elsewhere that worldviews like atheism do not support the minimal requirements for rational morality.

Specifically, atheism does not ground:

1) Objective moral values: where is the standard?
2) Objective moral duties: to whom are moral duties owed?
3) Moral accountability: will I get caught if I am immoral?
4) Free will: are humans capable of free choice?
5) Ultimate significance: does it matter ultimately?

NEVER let atheists get away with making any moral statements, because even though an individual atheist might get lucky and act morally based on the objective moral law that God actually made, their actions are not rationally grounded by their worldview. Call them out!

This actually came out in the comments for MandM’s post, where John W. Loftus, a prominent lay-atheist, chimed in.

Here is a sample comment:

Rob says: (from Manawatu Christian Apologetics)

I presume John Loftus is a born-again atheist? If this is so, then upon what grounds would he criticize slavery at all?

If atheism is true truth, then I fail to see any possible ground that could provide a basis for outrage against moral evil, since moral evil cannot exist.

Indeed, if the universe is material only, then at what time did atoms create morality?

So John Loftus has to assume a Biblical morality to attack Biblical morality, but he would then be rejecting the basis for his indignation at slavery in the South, or any other slavery for that matter. He cannot logically have his cake and eat it too.

I can’t recommend this post and the comments enough. This is a great post and the comments are totally awesome, although you may find them difficult to understand. You will learn a lot from this post and exchange.

I am really impressed with MandM’s blog. Please pay them a visit and have a look yourself.

Related questions

You may be interested in similar challenges made by atheists that I answered in previous posts.

More questions here.

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