Getting the Facts Straight: Religion as Poison?

From Chuck Colson and Breakpoint.“The outstanding film Amazing Grace hits shelves this week in DVD form—and it comes at a time when Christianity is under blistering attack. In his new book, God Is Not Great, subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything, anti-theist Christopher Hitchens states, “religion makes people do wicked things they wouldn’t ordinarily do . . . the licenses for genocide, slavery, racism, are all right there in the holy text.”

It is a rather empty accusation when put alongside a man like William Wilberforce, who as the film Amazing Grace shows, attacked and abolished the slave trade because of his Christian convictions. As you can see, that raises a difficult question for people like Hitchens: If Christianity “licenses” slavery, then why was the abolition of slavery, both in antiquity and in modern times, driven by Christians?

In ancient times in the Roman Empire, slavery was a fact of life—one which the writings of the Scripture reflect. But acknowledging social reality is not the same thing as “licensing” it.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to Philemon and when he wrote that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he planted the seeds that would, one day, lead to the demise of the institution of slavery. Likewise, Paul included “slave traders” among those he identified as “lawbreakers.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark writes about the Church’s embrace around the third century of what he calls “a universalistic conception of humanity.” This conception “[liberated] social relations between the sexes and within the family” and “greatly modulated class differences . . . ” As Stark put it, “more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.”

Given this liberating ideal, it was only a matter of time before Christians sought to eradicate slavery entirely.

It is true that Christians have not always lived up to the moral teachings of the faith: The record of the Church is not without blemish. But it is also true that when Christians kept and traded slaves, they were going against the teachings of their own religion. The theological question had long been settled.

Thus, when Spanish and Portuguese traders brought slavery to the New World, successive popes condemned the practice and even threatened to excommunicate slave traders and slave owners. And when in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, men like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Garrison in America led the fight against slavery and the slave trade, they led, like their early Church counterparts, motivated by Christian teaching on human dignity and equality.

Hitchens’s assertion that economic factors and not Christian abolitionists did away with slavery is, to put it mildly, absurd. Wilberforce and company succeeded despite the economic interests, not because of them.

When Christians obey their teachings, they are the greatest defenders of human rights in the world. Hitchens and company deny this, but the evidence belies them.

So here’s an idea: Buy a copy of the DVD Amazing Grace this week and host a viewing party in your home. What a great opportunity to talk with your neighbors about the real facts: how Christianity, far from poisoning everything, helped purify trans-Atlantic waters once filled with the sickening crime of human trafficking.”

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