Miscellaneous Christian topics – another counter to Marshall

Over at David Marshall’s blog he has posted a response to one of my Unbelievable Project posts (sidenote: I do promise to get back to that project…I have a number of episodes in the hopper, I just need a block of time to type).  At any rate, let me counter again, and see where this goes.

On the topic of “militant atheism”, I pointed out a double standard in the use of the word “militant” to atheists and islamists.  Marshall replies

What causes us to call them “militant,” rather, is the refusal to admit the vast amount of good that the Judeo-Christian tradition has accomplished

I think this makes my point.  Do we call Militant Islamists “militant” because they refuse to see the good in other people?  No, it’s because they blow stuff up.   You might call the New Atheists “agressive”, “obnoxious”, “misguided” or “wrong”, but “militant” they are not.  Marshall continues:

Have more people been killed by angry Christian terrorists per Christian in recent years, or by angry atheist terrorists?  Timothy McVeigh was an agnostic, that would count when atheists take census for the purpose of expanding their ranks.  The Unabomber appears to have been an atheist. The Tamil Tigers, who do more of this sort of thing than almost anyone, may be as well.

Now I could counter with things like anti-abortion violence, and that Timothy McVeigh’s religious views were mixed at best, etc… However I  think that, even if we grant that McVeigh was an atheist and the Unabomber too, that they didn’t do the horrible things in the name of their atheism.  However, the anti-abortion violence, and the historical violence of Christians, has been done in the name of the religion.  That’s a big difference, and one that seems to be conveniently ignored.

Further, to compare the New Atheists (say, any of the four of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett) to any of these people, or to Stalinist Russia, or Hitler, or any of them is totally ridiculous.  No matter how strident they are, the New Atheists are not “militant” in the same way that militant Islamists are.

On the point about “separation of church and state”, which Marshall has stated was a Christian idea, and that I had countered with: “If the separation was truly was a Christian idea, then I’d expect a totally different European history from 0 AD to 1700 AD! “, he counters with:

But Blais is again not being reasonable about that history, either.  First of all, Christians didn’t attain much power until almost 400 AD.  And secondly, the world in which Christians then attained power had fixed political structures, which transformed Christianity about as much as Christianity changed it.  It is anachronistic to judge the 5th Century by what humanity has attained since.

So, what you’re saying, is that the Christians were victims of the political structure such that the fundamental Christian belief of “separation of church and state” was not able to be implemented for the 1300 year Christian rule?  Sorry, but that seems like a dodge to me.

Jesus also said, “Forgive your enemies.”  The claim that this, too, is a Christian idea, is not rendered “ridiculous” by the fact that Christians have often actually killed and cursed, not forgiven, their enemies.  An idea can be a Christian idea, even can come from Jesus’ mouth, without therefore determining all subsequent Christian history.

Sure.  However, since there is no statement “separation of church and state” anywhere in the NT, it seems like quite a stretch to make the same claim.  One can probably find a decent number of examples of people throughout the last 2000 years putting “forgive your enemies” to good use, or at least claiming it is a Christian idea.  Can you find any examples prior to the enlightenment of any Christian espousing the separation of church and state, except in the most limited cases (e.g. you pay taxes to government not to the church).  Clearly every European monarchy was founded on the establishment of a direct connection between church and state.

Marshall didn’t seem to like my response concerning the topic of slavery.  I said: ” It is faint praise indeed that the best you can say about the Christian stance on slavery, historically, is that some slaves were freed so that 700 years later (!!!) some small areas in the world, that didn’t feel that they needed slaves anymore, didn’t have slaves. ”

His response?

Faint praise?  Tens of millions of slaves have been freed, due to the abolitionist movements that began with praying Christians.

To be clear, I am definitely against slavery, and I definitely think it is a great thing that tens of millions of slaves have been freed.  That wasn’t the point.  The point was that Marshall said in the Unbelievable episode:

Beginning in the fourth century slaves were set free so that by the eleventh century there were areas of western Europe free of slaves.

So, put another way, Christian doctrine was so anti-slavery that, when the Christians had the most power, the best they could do was to take 700 years to rid some areas of Europe of slaves…areas that just didn’t need slaves anyway.  I don’t think that’s an impressive record.

Sixty percent of anti-slave organizers were Christian pastors.

Where does this come from?  I’d like a citation for this.  Regardless, it doesn’t surprise me.  I would also guess that most of the pro-slave organizers (like George Whitefield) were also Christian pastors.  Why?  Because, at that time (and still now, in the US) most of the people were Christians, and further, pastors were social and political organizers.  So as a matter of probability, this claim would seem to be likely, and thus carries no weight in the argument.

Marshall continues

It is clear the New Testament condemns the slave trade, though.  It is clear Paul told Philemon he should accept Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother.”  And it ought be clear that “loving your neighbor as yourself” is pretty hard to do if you put chains around your neighbor’s neck.

But Paul also says this:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free .”(Ephesians 6:5-8)

Paul is not being particularly anti-slavery here.  This is part of the problem – the message in the Bible is not clear, despite Marshall’s claims to the contrary.  Like fables and proverbs, you can find opposite messages, enough to justify whatever you’d like (e.g. too many cooks spoil the broth; many hands make light work).  As a result, you get perspectives like:

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts – Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

Is he reading the same Bible?  Is he simply dense and uninformed?  Is the Bible so unclear that people can have such a diverse set of opinions on it?

Finally, on the slavery issue, we have Marshall saying:

But it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the Bible to institute a crusade against slavery from the get-go.  Slavery was not, in fact, an unambiguous evil in the ancient world: the alternative (as in Herodotus, and even in Homer) was often to just kill enemy soldiers (or even civilians) whom you captured.  What the Bible did, was slowly create a society, and a set of moral ideals, that made slavery less and less important, and liberation of slaves more and more admirable, even while glorifying labor, and enriching ordinary workers.

Ok, let me get this straight.  Marshall seems to be saying that the same God that created the universe, inspired the writing of the Bible, created our moral sense, and had a direct and personal hand in human affairs from, say, 4000 BC to 50AD (at least!) couldn’t come up with a way to solve the slavery problem?  Really?  The best God could do was to drop in some conflicting perspectives on the issue into a book so that 1500 years after that we could finally get rid of slaves?  Is it truly unreasonable to expect a clear condemnation of slavery in a book purporting to deliver the message of absolute morality from an all-knowing source?  This is a remarkable claim!

On to ID.  One point of clarification I want to make is the following.  Marshall tires of the lying label that I used:

As for “lying,” the charge grows tedious.  New Atheists are so eager with this charge — even against C. S. Lewis, recently, and often against me — one just wishes they would choose to argue like adults, frankly.

However, I was not quoting New Atheists here, I was referring to what the conservative, Bush appointed Judge Jones said in his decision:

It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

I’ve also read a fair amount about ID, read many of the sources (Behe, Dembski, others), read all of the Dover documents, followed Ken Miller’s seminars, etc…  I do not arrive at my opinions about ID entirely uninformed.  ID is religion masquerading as science.

Finally, Marshall on corporal punishment and child abuse:

Though I’m a little curious about calling corporal punishment — what, spanking a bratty child on the behind? — “child abuse.”

The classics work.

I was thinking of more extreme examples of corporal punishment than “spanking on the behind”.  Either way, however, no matter your attitude toward spanking, the act of simply calling a child “Christian” is even less worthy of being labeled “abuse”.  I find Dawkins’ language in this example so over the top that it ceases to be useful.

That’s it for now!


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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14 Responses to Miscellaneous Christian topics – another counter to Marshall

  1. Tim says:

    Marshall says: “the alternative [to slavery] (as in Herodotus, and even in Homer) was often to just kill enemy soldiers (or even civilians) whom you captured.”

    Umm.. is he forgetting that God himself in the Bible commanded the armies of Israel to slaughter entire cities — every man, woman and child — even animals? This so-called “alternative” is the very thing God is recorded as having commanded on (I think) far more occasions than he allowed for them to keep a few as slaves!

    • Tim says:

      This reminds me of reading (or beginning to read) Alister McGrath’s book “The Dawkins Delusion”. I stopped reading when he claimed, as evidence that the Bible was ahead of its time, that a revolutionary feature of the Old Testament scriptures were how they “prohibited slavery”! As evidence of this, McGrath (who I generally enjoy listening to, by the way) cited Leviticus 25:39-43, in which God forbids the buying and selling of fellow Israelites. But the *very next verse* (verse 44) starts out: “Your male and female slaves will come from the nations around you. From them you may buy slaves…”. Talk about cherry picking!

      • brianblais says:

        I’ve never read McGrath, but have listened to a number of extended interviews with him, including an interview with Richard Dawkins. I find him immensely slippery. I found after an hour or two, I still couldn’t figure out what he was actually claiming.

    • brianblais says:

      It’s like, “which would you prefer – to get shot in the chest, or shot in the leg?” personally, I’d prefer neither! the argument “being shot in the leg is way better” doesn’t move me very much… are we really to believe that slavery was the best solution God could come up with at the time to the execution of prisoners?

  2. Brian: Thanks for responding.

    Probably a simpler way to respond to your criticism of my use of “militant” is to cite Funk & Wagnall:

    “militant adj. 1. Combative or warlike in nature or tendency; aggressive.”

    Notice the little word “or” here. This means that one need not be “warlike” to be described as “militant;” one can also be “combative.” The authors then give the further possibility that one is “aggressive.”

    Now do you really deny that it is reasonable to describe Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, P. Z. Myers, or, say, Hector Avalos, as “combative” or “aggressive?” The last thing they resemble, is the cool bohemian fellow with the beer in that cartoon you linked to. (I don’t think the League of Militant Atheists engaged in any actual warfare, either.)

    As for the distinction between killing people for your metaphysics or for some other reason, that really doesn’t get you off the hook. The abortion assassinations were conducted to save babies from being killed, not “for God,” simply, but for a developed ideology of which belief in God was a part. Same, for the most part, with ideological atheist terrorists: atheism tends to be an important part of the overall ideology, though they also give nationalistic, technological, class, etc reasons for their actions that are also part of that ideology.

    But I’ll respond to the rest at christthetao.blogspot.com; this may be a little longer.

    • brianblais says:

      I was going to bring a dictionary into the discussion, but find that when that happens it usually is pointless. I agree, that the term “militant” is perhaps most often used in the less-than-violent interpretation of it. So, a militant Red Sox fan is unlikely to cause anyone serious harm. However, I would have the same objection comparing militant Red Sox fans to miltant Islamists – the word has come to mean something very different in that context. At that point, I believe it is best to avoid the word altogether, in the religious context, because it leads to needless confusion.

      • Given all that violent atheists have achieved in modern times, far worse than the worst of the inquisitions, I frankly don’t think skeptics have a right to be overly sensitive on this point, or to compare “Christian terrorists” who shoot abortion doctors to sardonic professors, as you did. As a student of communism, the angry tone of some popular New Atheists reminds me very much of the tone of the Left Hegelians who influenced a young Karl Marx. I do not mean to say Dawkins et al advocate actual violence against their targets, or that they are “jihadists” (so far) in any but an metaphorical sense. But I think it is overly sensitive to complain about how I used the word “militant,” which was in this case used well within the normal, every day range for the term. If I actually did explicitly compare Gnus to the Taliban, as Richard Dawkins repeatedly does to conservative Christians, then I agree that might have been an exaggeration. Did I?

  3. Tim: No, I’m not forgetting about those passages, nor do I defend them. I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy, which is the main reason people might defend them. (Most secularists would say the incidents simply did not occur.)

    The issue, as best I recall (I haven’t listened to the debate recently) was the influence of Christianity. When it comes to slavery, that influence was fitful but ultimately revolutionary. Sure, many Christians owned slaves, and many justified it from the Bible. But the larger story, I think, is one of liberation, spreading out from the gospels themselves, not just for slaves for many other classes of human being. Read my post linked above, plus maybe this history of liberation before the abolition movement got into full swing:


    • brianblais says:

      This sounds like 20-20 hindsight to me. Slavery is found to be wrong *now*, so we can go back and find examples of people who were (somewhat) anti-slavery. If we felt that slavery wasn’t wrong, guess what? We could do the same type of argument to justify it with Biblical quotations and pro-slavery Christians. For example, from the site you just referenced, if we take Augustine – he never says that slavery is *wrong*, only that it is not part of God’s plan – but is an unavoidable part of the current world due to sin, much like I would imagine, the pain of giving birth. In the next life, there won’t be slaves, but in this life, no problem! See how easy it is to do this?

      • Brian: Why do you suppose that you think slavery is wrong? How do you know it isn’t because you are at the end of a long process of Christianization of morals within western thought, that I (briefly) describe? This is not hindsight, this could be a case of pigeons fowling the statues they rest on.

    • Tim says:

      David, thank you for your reply. I found that blog entry very interesting.

      So when you say “What the Bible did, was slowly create a society, and a set of moral ideals, that made slavery less and less important…, etc.”, are you referring only to the New Testament as “The Bible”? If you include the whole Bible in that statement, how did the Old Testament help the anti-slavery cause?

      • Tim: That’s a very interesting question, and I probably can’t do it justice right now. A couple points come to mind, though. First, progress often begins with compassion and brotherhood for one group, and expands from there. The Torah established both the concept of loving one’s brother (and sister) as oneself, and also the idea (expanded all through the Wisdom literature and Prophets) that God’s compassion is borderless, extends eventually to all peoples. (People like Richard Dawkins completely overlook this major theme in the OT — but then, so often did the Jews themselves.)

        There are examples already in the OT of that compassion and God’s grace extending to the Gentiles, but it only kicks into high gear in the NT.

        Also, the liberation rhetoric of the prophets is powerful stuff, mined for instance by Martin Luther King to great effect — along with the narrative of Moses rescuing the enslaved Jews from Egypt. Of course, King was reading the OT through Jesus — but for Christians, that’s how the OT is supposed to be read.

        Those are a few quick answers — the question deserves more thought, including critical thought and consideration of the various passages that seem to or actually do justify slavery, as well. I’m not claiming that all of the Torah is as obviously revolutionary in a universal way as the NT, or even as Isaiah. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to go into more depth on this in the future, beginning with more reading and pondering on my own part.

    • brianblais says:

      David, here is a detailed response to one of the questions below:


  4. Pingback: Christianity and morality | Professor Brian Blais' Blog

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