Is the Issue of Slavery an “Ace in the Hole” for Atheists?

Is the Issue of Slavery an “Ace in the Hole” for Atheists? February 9, 2024

First off, any attempt at a discussion of slavery today presents some challenges. I (and the Catholic Church) condemn slavery. However, the fact remains that God allowed slavery among the Jewish people (and provided laws on holding slaves). St. Paul wrote a letter to a Christian slave owner named Philemon, yet did not demand he give up owning slaves. The Catholic Church had a former slave as a pope (Callixtus I).

Indeed, the subject of slavery does present a significant challenge to both Jews and Christians. Considering this challenge, many modern atheists appeal to slavery as a sort of “ace in the hole” to disprove a good God reveals Himself in the Bible. Furthermore, they do this while also relying on, in some way or another, the very same Judeo/Christian morality that greatly contributed to repudiation and the ending of legal slavery in the West. Christian countries in the West were the first to outlaw slavery, and a Christian country (Great Britain) was the first to direct resources to stopping the slave trade, including their vast Royal Navy.

Contrary to the atheist’s “ace in a hole,” theists can offer explanations within historical contexts that also gives God (and His Church) the benefit of the doubt in not outright condemning the practice until the 19th century.

In short, in my opinion, history shows that God dealt with slavery gradually. In other words, instead of another blanket command for humans to ignore, God used a pedagogical approach whereby humans learned to despise the practice.

Some, at the end of the hard learned lesson, cast judgment on the lesson, and the Teacher, only AFTER the fact. To make such a judgment requires we learn the lesson first, not the other way around.

A World Marred by Sin

In the beginning, God made all things good. Humans, as initially intended, did not subjugate one another. In the creation story, God creates Eve from Adam’s side, not his head (to rule over him) or feet (to rule over her). After the fall, God says to Eve, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you…” Here, we see the first reference to one human ruling over another because of sin.

Furthermore, Jesus in Matthew 19: 8 states:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Clearly, by Jesus’ own admission, God allowed immoral acts due to the hardness of men’s hearts, including divorce, that were contrary to how God intended things “from the beginning…” So, too, “from the beginning” God did not intend for one person to subjugate another, but allowed it due to “hardness of heart.”

The 7th Commandment and Slavery

Moreover, the Catechism, tying slavery to the seventh commandment states:

2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Therefore, the claim that God does not outright condemn slavery proves false. As the above states, slavery violates the seventh commandment. However, the application and understanding of this violation took time to reach fruition within the Church and the wider world, but it did reach it. We see this in the 1888 papal encyclical In Plurimim. In it, Pope Leo XIII states:

that slavery may be banished and blotted out without any injury to divine or human rights, with no political agitation, and so with the solid benefit of the slaves themselves, for whose sake it is undertaken.

Here, Pope Leo XIII clearly and authoritatively calls for the abolition of slavery. Why did this take so long?

Slaves in the Ancient Household

In the ancient world, households represented the foundation of societal security. Those attached to the house were either family or servants (slaves), neither of which involved choice. To lack either family or household meant social insecurity and potential poverty. We see such poverty reflected in those unattached to a household, like orphans and widows. Therefore, in this context, attachment to a household (even as a servant) represented a greater good than insecurity without one.

Moreover, the medieval serf, while not bought and sold as individual people, were still unfree, attached to land, and traded between different feudal lords. Like the ancient household, the arrangement between serf and lord constituted an arrangement of societal security. In this arrangement, the lord provided protection, while the serf provided service.

Jesus and St. Paul on Slavery

In the Gospels, Jesus mentioned slavery often. For example, in Matthew 6:24,  Matthew 20:27, John 15:15, and John 8:34-38. Often, Jesus uses the imagery of slavery in discussing service and sin. For example,

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

St. Paul, too, speaks about slavery. He encourages Christian slaves to obey their earthly masters as they “would Christ” and masters to treat their slaves as “beloved brothers.” Furthermore, he employs similar ideas regarding slavery to sin. In Romans 6:16-18, he states:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

In the above examples, one could argue, God uses the evils of slavery to illustrate the effects of sin’s evil on the person. Slaves obey and those who give into sin make sin their master and must therefore obey sin. Here, God uses evil for good. As with God using Joseph’s slavery for the ultimate good of his people, Jesus, and St. Paul carry on this theme as it concerns sin.

Finally, St. Paul does place enslavers outside the kingdom of God in 1 Timothy 1:10.

the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, [emphasis added]

Conclusion

To conclude, the intent of this article was not to “justify” or give an “apologetic” for slavery in the Bible and throughout Church history. Instead, the intent was to show that both Jews and Christians possess enough evidence to give God the benefit of the doubt as to why He did not outright condemn the practice and allowed His Church (and the wider world at large) the responsibility and authority to finally condemn and abolish it.

In closing, I give Fr. Hugh Barbour the last word. Writing for Catholic Answers, he provides a key to understand this issue lies in the progress of human reason. Regarding slavery, a lesson was required. He states:

In our own time, we can safely say that all forms of slavery are contrary to the natural law and are not permitted to Christians. This is because the natural law is the work of human reason in determining the good to be done and the evil to be avoided. So progress can be made in the natural law, since progress can always be made in human reason. But once this progress has been made, one may not go back to the earlier position, even if, in the past, something now forbidden by the natural law was permitted. Another example of this kind of progress is the universal current prohibition of polygamy, even though it was permitted in the past.

Is slavery an “ace in the hole” for atheists? Only if atheists admit they got said “ace” from a Judeo/Christian morality that learned to repudiate, condemn, and curtail the practice, a morality many atheists now reject and cast judgement upon.

Thank you!

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