Slavery, Tokenism and the Atheist PR Debacle

Atheist activism is hardly news these days. Folks are feeling increasingly convicted about taking their disbelief public, and more specifically, pointing out the damage done my religion in the past.

But it seems the most recent publicity campaign by a group called American Atheists has gone a little too far, even for those not in the religious sphere.

Human rights groups howled when the following billboard appeared in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

Following a public uproar, the billboard promptly was replaced with one for the local symphony.

There are some more obvious concerns this kind of campaign raises, while others are more subtle. The point of the billboard is well taken, at least for me; the Bible has some messed up stories and rules in it. But cherry-picking isolated quotes like this from scripture is something that most in mainline Christianity consider a no-no. It’s called proof-texting, and it’s seen as tantamount to using the Bible as a weapon to further a personal agenda.

So in a way, the atheist group that did this is guilty of the very transgression for which they would criticize, say, a religious group for using the Bible to discriminate against the LGBTQ community or women. To me, this hollows out an otherwise reasonable point and an opportunity for discussion, and it also serves to discredit the organization that paid for the ad.

I’ve struggled much of my life with things like the treatment of slaves and women in scripture. And though I still see those kinds of rules or stories as patently wrong and dehumanizing, I have benefited from learning some historical and cultural context around the scriptures that helps me understand why they’re there.

The early Rabbinical laws were primarily about creating a sense of order in society. And sometimes, the rules were meant to attenuate chaos or violence that tended to spiral out of control. For example, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law sounds really harsh, and is still used by some to justify direct retribution. But that law is actually a response to the “avenge sevenfold” tradition of the culture which said, “You kill one of my sheep, I can kill seven of yours.” To stem such escalation, this type of law was meant to mean ONLY eye for eye, tooth for tooth. No more of this avenged sevenfold stuff.

Think of it as a step toward something that Jesus ultimately fulfilled with his Great Commandment to hang all other laws on the principle of loving God and neighbor first. It’s kind of like Clinton’s old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy.” It was less than perfect, and many of us who advocated for unrestricted equality despised it. I don’t even think if you asked Bill Clinton himself, he’d say he loved the bill. But he saw it as a necessary step toward an ultimate goal, which recently was achieved in the American Military.

Now, if you looked back in a hundred years at “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and considered it in isolation, without that context, you could easily argue that Clinton was actually trying to oppress LGBTQ folks, rather than afford them a graduated measure of equality.

The same might be said about something like this “Slaves, obey your masters” rule. I don’t know if the authors of this meant for it to actively oppress other human beings in the name of God. I suppose it’s possible. But given the cultural norms of slavery at the time,. and given the value of greater order – more so than the value of any individual life – it’s reasonable to assume that this rule was an attempt to stop some cycle of disorder and abuse.

Now, to call that a divinely ordained law? I’m with the atheists on that one. That’s messed up.

The problem is in presenting this kind of Biblical reference this way, there’s no opportunity for dialogue. And it appears there’s no desire on part of the atheist group to engage in one. Again, in this way, the group reflects more of the characteristics of the fundamentalist Christians they object to so much by engaging in a one-sided shouting match, rather than actually putting in the work to talk to each other and work for common ground.

Finally, there’s the matter of tokenism, which is really why the human rights groups got so bent about this campaign. Though the underlying implication from the atheist group is that religion does not value all human beings as they should (a valid and historically supportable position), they reduce the symbol of the slave to being a convenient vehicle for their personal agenda. For me, this places them in a similar boat, once again, as those they aim to criticize.

We can all do better than this. Really. Fundamentalism is ugly and dangerous, regardless of it’s religious stripe, or even opposition to it. It places the our collective humanity second chair to ideology. And in this particular case, it de-fangs an otherwise worthwhile position, simply because the atheist group in question ends up looking so curiously like the very thing they claim to hate.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/ElizaAnderson1 Elizabeth Anderson

    It’s really sad that this happens, and you’re right, it’s exactly the same thing some Christians do to bash gay rights, etc.  Why must there be so much hypocrisy?  It’s all so annoying.

    • PC Geek

      Where is the hypocrisy here?

  • Oakland Peters

    The billboard makes much more sense if you interpret it as a critique of people who believe that the Bible is infallible, rather than an attack on all Christians.

    • PC Geek

      not really…as I stated above, slavery in Biblical culture and the slavery of the american south are totally different things…this whole mess is nothing but semantic equivocation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kerry.keseygrogan Kerry Kesey Grogan

    Groups like this also conveniently overlook or forget the fact that it was also people of faith who catalyzed the abolitionist movement…

  • http://lifebeforethebucket.blogspot.com/ Adrian Waller

    I’ve been seeing all of the updates on this billboard, and I think you summarized my feelings about the whole matter quite well. Thanks for being willing to be a voice for us who don’t have the platform that you do.

  • PC Geek

    A bit of very important historical background required to make sense of this:

    http://christianthinktank.com/qnoslave.html
    In order to understand what the Bible is talking about, you have to know a bit of history and a tiny but about semitic cultures.

    It is important to know that what is referred to as ‘slavery’ wrt american history, and what was the Bible refers to as slavery are *very different things* – so this whole billboard thing is pure bs from the very beginning. 

    It is just tilting at windmills and trying to obscure the truth behind painful emotions stirred up by a tragic chapter in american history.

    The atheists are up to their usual ignorant blathering.

    Once again we see that no one should spout off on something before they have done *any* reading/research about the issue. The level of historical ignorance on display wrt that skeptical group is absolutely stunning.

  • http://www.area-f.ca LadyIslay

    Catholics aren’t usually considered to be “mainline” (are they?), but the Church also encourage reading scripture in context. This particular passage is about creating harmony in households, so for it to include slaves along side of instructions for other family members (wives, husbands, children and parents). It could be argued that by including slaves in this list, they’ve actually been elevated to a position of family member rather than material property.
    Atheist proselytism is rampant. Removal of the billboard was probably just the kind of response they were looking for, as it garners them more attention, and they can blame Christians for persecuting them.

    • PC Geek


      Atheist proselytism is rampant. Removal of the billboard was probably just the kind of response they were looking for, as it garners them more attention, and they can blame Christians for persecuting them. ”

      Good call there – unfortunately I suspect you are 100% correct here.


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