The Abolition Spirit Is Undeniably Atheistic

Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I’ve previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I’d like to add some more evidence on that subject.

Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. – the highest elected position in that body – and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that “Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion” and praised “his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching”, which “gave him such power… as few of the Lord’s ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church”.

But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln’s election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that “I have never intermeddled with political questions,” but that he was compelled to speak on politics because “we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation”. Since Palmer was the representative of “a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance”, namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.

And what vital message did he have to impart?

A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual…. this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken… If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.

Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn’t just the South’s divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since “their character fits them for dependence and servitude”, and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon “relapse into their primitive barbarism” and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South’s side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was “recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God”.

Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension… My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!

And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too:

…in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.

…This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs – but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I’m happy to accept it.

We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist – and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)

Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That’s because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn’t nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they’re quite right – because we’re the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • LindaJoy

    “Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That’s because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn’t nearly so flexible and accomodating.”

    Adam- I love the composition of these remarks. A great quote. Thanks!

  • Em

    “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

    So, he’s actually saying freedom is slavery. Paging George Orwell!

  • Dustov

    “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre. We hear echos of this attitude in Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Any secular social movement intent on improving human life is evil. If it does not have its origins in religion, or there is no profit to be made from it, it must be the spawn of Satan.

  • Paul

    “That’s because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn’t nearly so flexible and accomodating. ”

    Mere humans are the ones interpreting the deity’s will as well as the ones figuring out what human rights from humanism are, so that’s a wash. The difference is that the religious are the ones effused with the absoluteness and grandeur of the deity, which makes their mistakes all the more abhorrent and difficult. What they get right the humanists would, too, being people just like them.

    It’s a no-win.

  • lpetrich

    “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

    I think that Rev. Palmer was referring to how the French Revolution turned out.

    The rise of Communism gave the right wing a new big villain, though some right-wing Catholics continue to have a hate-on for the French Revolution.

  • kennypo65

    Every improvement of the human condition has had to fight the priests to come about. This is because religion is not about gods at all, it’s about control. Change of any kind is a threat to that control. This control is exerted by the belief that the church is THE moral authority, and when the population changes its mores, the church has to rewrite history so as not to appear that they supported an immoral thing. Truth is, religion supports whatever will keep it in control over others. We often argue that religion has no place in politics, when, in truth, religion IS politics.

  • Sarah

    “We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist, and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along”

    Allow me to fix that for you:

    We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the conservatives, religious or otherwise, of its day as sinful, heretical, (and if religious) atheist; every social or political reform movement is hailed by reformers, both religious and not and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation rightly claim that it was a religious movement all along.

    All you are saying here is that religious people (like all people) have differing opinions about new reforms, then when one wins out, the resultant religious people claim that the correct religious opinion was the one in favour of reform… well yuh.
    And what do you suppose would be different without the religious? Some people would support reform, others would oppose, and if it happened later on people would claim that the correct opinion was the one that supported reform.

    Really, this frank tribalism that you see between the rabidly theistic and the rabidly atheistic is embarrasing. Look, we get it, you think the other side is shit. Mr Preacher man thinks you're all well evil, and will try to tie historical crimes and historic character flaws to being atheist, and people like you will try to do the reverse. You're all foolish, and fooling no moderate people. We understand that there a good and bad people on all side, mistaken and less mistaken, honest and dishonest, and all this pathetic scrabbling to place a heavier burden of blame or responsibility on the other side does no one any good.

  • Sarah

    “the believers of the next generation rightly claim that it was a religious movement all along”

    To clarify, it’s right to claim it was a religious movement. It would be stupid to claim it was exclusively a religious movement.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello Sarah,

    All you are saying here is that religious people (like all people) have differing opinions about new reforms, then when one wins out, the resultant religious people claim that the correct religious opinion was the one in favour of reform… well yuh.

    Yes, I am saying that, but I’m not just saying that. What I’m saying is that religion is used to justify both good deeds and great evils, but you don’t need religion to justify doing good – those acts stand on their own as self-evidently worthy – whereas you do need it to excuse evil. And to emphasize this point, I’d add that in many of these historical conflicts, the religious conservatives were correct, at least in scriptural terms.

    For instance: I mentioned the U.S. Constitution, which includes guarantees of free speech, freedom of religion, republican democracy, and equality under the law. Does the Bible support any of those things? No: it says that apostates and blasphemers should be put to death, that countries should be ruled by theocratic divine-right monarchy, and that some people are God’s special favorites who should get preferential treatment. Yes, there were Christians who supported the ratification of the Constitution, but clearly, they didn’t do it because they were Christians; they did it because they had absorbed Enlightenment ideas about secularism and the natural rights of human beings (another notion entirely absent from the Bible).

    We understand that there a good and bad people on all side, mistaken and less mistaken, honest and dishonest, and all this pathetic scrabbling to place a heavier burden of blame or responsibility on the other side does no one any good.

    Do you also understand that the Bible which religious moderates and liberals still use, believe in, and venerate as the sacred word of God contains numerous explicit endorsements of slavery? Or how about those Christian apologists who are literally defending genocide?

    Yes, in case there was any doubt, I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that there are good people who believe in the Bible. That doesn’t change the fact that, as long as people in general continue to believe in and venerate the Bible, there will be some who will read its frightening, bloody, violent verses and conclude that, if this book is as holy as everyone says it is, those evils must be God’s will and should be perpetuated. As Sam Harris puts it, “Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while he may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate… Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?”