Hitchens's Distortion of Christian History

Suspended License

Christopher Hitchens's new book, God Is Not Great, is subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. Everything is a big word, but I guess Hitchens means it. According to him, "religion makes people do wicked things they wouldn't ordinarily do . . . the licenses for genocide, slavery, racism, are all right there in the holy text."

By "holy text" he means the Bible, which raises a difficult question for people like Hitchens: If Christianity "licenses" slavery, then why was the abolition of slavery, both in antiquity and in modern times, driven by Christians?

As I write in my new book, The Faith, about to be published early next year, in the first-century Roman Empire, slavery was a fact of life—one which the writings of the New Testament reflect. But acknowledging social reality is not the same thing as "licensing" it.

When the Apostle Paul declared that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," he planted the seeds that would, one day, lead to the demise of the institution of slavery. Likewise, Paul's inclusion of "slave traders" among those he identified as "lawbreakers" made it clear what he thought about slavery.

Historian Rodney Stark writes about the Church's embrace around about the third century of what he calls "a universalistic conception of humanity." This conception "[liberated] social relations between the sexes and within the family" and "greatly modulated class differences . . . " As Stark puts it, "more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ."

Given this liberating ideal, it was only a matter of time before Christians sought to remove slavery from the Christian culture entirely. By the Middle Ages, it was agreed that "no man, no real Christian at any rate . . . could thereafter legitimately be held as the property of another."

It is true that Christians have not always lived up to these teachings: The record of the Church is not without blemish. But it is also true that when Christians kept and traded slaves, they were going against the teachings of their own religion. The theological question had long been settled.

Thus, when Spanish and Portuguese traders brought slavery to the New World, successive popes condemned the practice and even threatened to excommunicate slave traders and slave holders. The fact that they could not force European monarchs to obey them should not be held against Christianity—especially not by those who complain about Christians trying to impose their religion on others.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fight against slavery and the slave trade was led by Christians like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Garrison in America. Like their early Church counterparts, they were motivated by Christian teaching on human dignity and equality.

Hitchens's assertion that economic factors and not Christian abolitionists did away with slavery is, to put it mildly, absurd. Wilberforce and company succeeded despite the economic interests, not because of them.

True, there are shameful episodes in Christian history. But what makes them shameful is the failure of Christians to live up to what Christianity requires—not what Hitchens imagines as its "licenses."

How odd, then, that Hitchens and other militant atheists feel they have license to distort the facts when arguing against religion.

This is part one in a five-part series.


From BreakPoint®, October 8, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship

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