Slavery, Christianity, and Religious Illiteracy

I have a piece up over at Fare Forward on slavery, Christianity, Jim Crow, and the President’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. In it, I discuss the distinction between a Christian (or a Muslim) using a religious justification for something and that justification actually being Christian or not.

Three additional thoughts that wouldn’t have fit with the flow of the FF piece:

  1. In case it wasn’t totally clear, I do believe that Jim Crow and slavery in the American south were unequivocally evil. I’m not in the business of whitewashing history or making Christians simply look good. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between what a religion actually teaches and what it’s adherents end up practicing. So I can condemn slavery as malicious, cruel, and evil, without thinking that Christianity is malicious, cruel, and evil. The problem is not with Christ’s teachings, the problem was with his supposed followers who seem to have missed the point.
  2. What this makes me wonder is where the church today has missed the point, where we might be unaware of the ways we oppress the poor and powerless or of the ways in which our entire economic structure is built on oppression. What would the Christians from 150 years from now look back and condemn us about? My first thoughts: probably the ways we let credit-card and other companies lure the poor into inescapable debt, probably the American criminal justice system which incarcerates people more than any other country in the world does and in which rape is simply a punchline to jokes rather than a problem to be solved, probably the consumeristic mentality which says that we can’t be satisfied until we have the latest gadget, the closet full of clothes, the nicest cars – even if that comes at the cost of quality of life for others around the world. I am powerless to erase the evils done under slavery, but I do have the power to think about and change the problems that do exist in our world today. And I think Christianity has the power to address some of those issues more than any other body or philosophy or idea.
  3. It’s an open-question whether groups like ISIS are relying on Islam itself or whether they are simply using religious reasons coached in the language of Islam. Answering that question would take more research than I can truly commit right now. But I will say this: it’s worth noting that once slavery was finally eradicated and condemned, the orthodox have almost universally stood opposed to it. The breakdown never became between literalists who support slavery and the liberals who condemn it. (Not like the breakdown in Judaism over bacon, for example.) That is, Christianity deployed its theological resources to reform orthodox opinion and practice almost universally. The question I have for Islam is this: does it have the internal resources to truly condemn and to reform the deplorable behavior of ISIS and the like? Or will its break down be between fundamentalists who interpret literally vs. reformers who interpret liberally?
MLK priests

Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with priests in the fight for equal civil rights. Religion played a key role in motivating these reformers.

The Atlantic has a fabulous article that addresses ISIS and its religious roots up right now. If you read it, you’ll probably have a good guess as to where my sympathies lie for the question above, based on what knowledge I do have. But I’m also open to changing my mind, if I heard a compelling case.

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Atheism & Objective Morality

Since my story was published in Christianity Today, I’ve been getting a lot of negative feedback about the lack of evidence presented in the article. I don’t have time to write down all my thoughts, especially because I’ve been trying to write emails back to everyone who has written me so far. [A particularly trying task in light of the fact that lately I’ve been spending 8 hours a day at work looking at a computer screen.] Your letter will be put at the top of the response pile if you send it via snail mail.

One student wrote me:

You said that John Joseph Porter pointed to your inconsistency in believing in objective, universal moral categories. What do you think about consequentialist theories (i.e. preference utilitarianism) or even deontological theories (i.e. contractualism)? You seem to make a big jump; there are many moral theories that are objective but not theistic.

This depends on what you mean by “objective.” Do consequentialist theories or deontological theories work for constructing answers to our basic ethical questions? Yes. A utilitarian can give an explanation for why he chooses to push the fat man over the bridge to save the lives of five other people (I’m hoping you’ve read this example, else you’ll think I’m a weirdo, but I suppose all us philosophers are). But the utilitarian cannot explain why he values those people. In other words, he cannot answer the meta-ethical question of “why should I strive to maximize value?” So I would argue that my ethical philosophy was internally consistent but lacked sufficient meta-ethical justification.

Of course, you can ask the same questions toward Christians – why should I strive to love God? And I think the answer iles in Lewis’ response “God is goodness.” This is a bit of a Platonic resort, and I suppose I could have adopted a Platonic view of the good without believing in God. But then you’d have to wonder – what is this weird form of goodness and how did it get there? A self-caused universe didn’t seem to offer sufficient explanation on that front. (Again, not to say it’s impossible. But just that it would be rather unusual.) [Also note that here Christianity has a distinct advantage: the Trinitarian view both allows God to be personal and permits him to therefore be impersonal qualities like, for example, love!]

I would say this: when you’re choosing a worldview, you don’t have time to parse through every single possible question that might be posed nor to tease out every single possible contradiction. It’s taken centuries and the project is still unfinished! I appreciated the introduction to one of Hume’s books – “Amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” To me, this means: you still have to go on living your life. You can’t be the philosopher pondering it all without acting. You must eat, work, live, and love. As you do so, you will approach these actions with a particular perspective and philosophy. You cannot remain agnostic forever. There is no completely neutral perspective. With that in mind, you have to plant your flag somewhere. Christianity is where I plant my flag.

I chose Christianity because I think it offers the most complete framework for approaching the world: explaining ethics and meta-ethics, showing my sin, offering not only forgiveness but also redemption.