From their book Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists, Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow respond to some of the most emotionally-driven critics of Christianity among the New Atheists and address their questions and arguments.
This post is edited from their chapter "Does God Intend for Us to Keep Slaves?" Some atheists contend that the Bible, including its Author (God), affirms and condones us in proactively keeping slaves. They intentionally misrepresent (read lie about) Christianity in an effort to substantiate a claim that, even if the Judeo-Christian God of Scripture exists, He is not worthy of worship. McDowell and Morrow, moderately edited here, engage the subject of slavery in the following.
Consult the Bible and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves. -- Sam HarrisLet's be honest. The first time we come across a verse like, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ," who doesn't squirm a little bit? After all, I thought the Bible taught kindness and love, but slavery? Does this mean that Sam Harris and the other New Atheists are right to conclude that the Bible is morally and socially regressive, even dangerous? . . .
Appearances can be deceiving. Unfortunately, the New Atheists' approach to the Bible and Christian theology reveals that they are far more interested in gathering ammunition against Christianity than in truly understanding it. We are not alone in this assessment. Secular critic and agnostic Terry Eagleton observes,
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.That is why it is so important to develop a thoroughly Christian understanding of human dignity and the issue of slavery.
This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.
CHRISTIANITY DID NOT INVENT SLAVERY
I (Jonathan) remember sitting through a U.S. history class in college while my teacher went off on the Bible and Christians for advocating slavery in the Old Testament. The unspoken implication was that if there had been no Bible, there would have been no slavery.
This is a common, yet mistaken, understanding of history. As Dinesh D'Souza observes, "slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China and India to Greece and Rome, and most cultures regarded it as an indispensable institution, like the family. For centuries slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics." Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death surveys sixty-six different societies that practiced slavery, indicating that slavery has been a part of human history from early tribal cultures to modern times.
This observation is instructive because it reminds us that slavery was a universal phenomenon that predated Christianity. More importantly, slavery didn't have any critics before Christianity came on the scene. Therefore, we need to understand Christianity as entering into an existing situation -- not creating it.
If we do this, then we will see just how revolutionary and countercultural the message of the Bible really was during the time it was composed. The reality is that slavery is not God's intention; it is a consequence of life in a broken and sinful world. . . .
WE MUST PUT THE BIBLICAL DISCUSSION IN ITS CULTURAL CONTEXT
The topic of slavery is emotionally charged and rightly evokes in us repugnant images that remind us of a shameful [and violent] chapter in American history. . . . Needless to say, there was no United Nations or diplomacy over high tea in this violent culture [the Old Testament]. Against this backdrop, we are in a better position to assess laws in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy regulating slavery within the nation of Israel [emphasis added]. The fact that it was regulated at all is striking given the moral poverty of surrounding nations. . . .
Concerning the Old Testament, it is beyond dispute that slaves in Israel had a "degree of status, rights, and protection unheard of elsewhere." Scholars universally recognize this fact. Slaves ["bonded servants"] were included in religious life, were granted a weekly Sabbath rest (i.e., had a day off), had to be set free if they were inflicted with bodily harm, had the opportunity for freedom every seven years, and were promised asylum as runaway slaves from other masters. . . .
DOES ATHEISM NATURALLY LEAD TO HUMAN DIGNITY AND EQUALITY?
As we admitted at the beginning . . . a superficial reading of the Bible could lead one to conclude that God has a positive view of slavery. However, we have discovered a much different perspective by engaging the historical context and relevant theological issues. The Bible unequivocally teaches universal human dignity because all are made in the image of God.
What is often forgotten is that atheism rose to prominence only after centuries of Judeo-Christian ethic and thought had shaped modern civilization. Atheism did not lay the ground-work for inherent human dignity and equality; it borrows that from a Judeo-Christian worldview. If you remove God from the equation, you also remove inherent human dignity and equality. Atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who was carefully read by Adolf Hitler) explains:
Equality is a lie concocted by inferior people who arrange themselves in herds to overpower those who are naturally superior to them. The morality of "equal rights" is herd morality, and because it opposes the cultivation of superior individuals, it leads to the corruption of the human species.History stubbornly does not let us forget that ideas have consequences. Which idea do you think is more dangerous: that all people are created in the image of God and possess inherent dignity and value, or that the concept of equal rights leads to the corruption of the human species?
Some may argue that if there had been no Bible, advocates (including preachers!) of colonial slavery couldn't have (apparently) justified the practice. Perhaps. But by this line of reasoning, we would also have to say that if there were no physics -- if E didn't equal MC2 -- then there would have been no atomic bomb.
When you think about it this way, the common denominator that emerges yet again is people. What is most needed is the transformation of the human condition. And that, in stark contrast to the worldview of atheism, is exactly what Jesus of Nazareth offers.
Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 148-55.