Today we find two letters to the editor in response to a guest column by Los Angeles Times contributor Joseph Loconte published last week in The Florida Times-Union. In his piece, Loconte rightfully extols the abolitionist activities of William Wilberforce in Great Britain, but makes the demonstrably false claim that atheists did not help lead the campaign against slavery.
The first letter by Jay Mooney was published under the heading, “History: Human bondage was not right.”
Joseph Loconte's Feb. 23 Point of View column titled "Religious faith ended slavery" is an example of turning history on its head.This is a good letter. It directly counters the false claim that atheists didn't contribute to the abolitionist movement. It also discusses the traditional acceptance of slavery by the religious.
Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, extols the leadership of people with "deep Christian convictions" in ending slavery. But, he conveniently forgets that many other Christians used biblical Scriptures to justify slavery. Indeed the Bible - both the Old Testament and New Testament - is rife with language that clearly and unequivocally states that slavery was a positive thing.
Loconte says that it was Christians, not atheists, who led the effort against the slave trade. Perhaps he forgets that slavery was abolished in France in 1791, not by the church, but by the atheistic founders of the revolution. In the United States, the early critics of slavery - Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams - were all either atheists or deists. Later, the abolitionist cause was taken up by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister turned atheist; William Lloyd Garrison, an atheist; and Robert Ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic." Indeed, the "Great Emancipator" himself, Abraham Lincoln, never acknowledged being a Christian and was (at the very least) thought to be a freethinker in matters of religion. In England, atheists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were leading abolitionists.
Atheists and freethinkers of all stripes worked closely with progressive Christians to abolish slavery and to fully extend voting and civil rights to African-Americans. To suggest otherwise is an affront to the rich history of free thought in America.
Like Loconte, I look forward to seeing Amazing Grace, a new biographical film about William Wilberforce, a Christian activist and member of the British Parliament. Indeed, he was a great leader in the worldwide anti-slavery movement.
I realize there is a nonliteral way to read Scripture that provided people like Wilberforce a way to attack slavery from their religious perspective. But, let's be fair. It does not take reading Scripture to know that human bondage was not right. That just took common sense and a commitment to human rights, something that most of us freethinkers have in abundance.
The second letter by Hugo Borreson was published under the heading, “History: Churches owned slaves.”
A lot of historians will be surprised to read the Point of View column titled "Religious faith ended slavery."This letter is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps due to ignorance, the author doesn't correct Loconte's assertion that atheists weren't involved in the abolitionist movement, and the statements about a corn tax seem irrelevant to the discussion at hand. At least it does attempt to respond to the ideas of the original piece.
Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches owned slaves; Baptist churches owned the most. Christians obeyed the 10th commandment that forbids coveting a neighbor's "manservant" and "maidservant" (slaves). In the Civil War, some 250,000 Southern men died defending states' rights and slavery.
Atheists could not lead the effort to end slavery because they had no political power. Just as today, they have little chance to be elected to public office. Christians have accepted slavery for centuries. William Wilberforce did, indeed, end slavery in Great Britain by the end of his life. He overcame the policies of an empire that relied on slaves.
But, he also voted in favor of the corn laws, which taxed corn. Corn was the basic food of poor people in England. He wanted their main food taxed.
Loconte's piece is a perfect example of the rewriting of history. Slavery is explicitly approved in the Old Testament and implicitly approved in New Testament. The international slave trade arose and thrived during a religious era. Many abolititionists were religious, but so were many of those supporting slavery who cited the Bible to justify their practices. Today now that all of society agrees that slavery was wrong, someone like Loconte comes along to claim that religion “ended” slavery. The same is true of the civil rights movement. There were religious people on both sides of the issue, yet some claim that religion “ended” segregation. Today our society struggles with homosexual rights, with the religious on both sides of the issue. In several decades, when homosexuality has become completely acceptable, I predict the religious will claim that religion “ended” homophobia.
It's just like prayer. God gets all of the credit and none of the blame.