Abolitionist Atheists

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.

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.
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.

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."

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.
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.

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.



Religious Monument in Dixie County

Today we find a letter to the editor about the construction of a Ten Commandments monument in front of the Dixie County courthouse in tiny Cross City. This letter by Curtis Wolf was published today under the heading, “Religion: Separate church and state.”

There is one thing that you can say about those in the "let's turn America into a theocracy" crowd. They are a persistent bunch. Either that or they are deaf. No matter how many times the U.S. Constitution says that the government is not in the religion business, they do not seem to hear it.

Now, the Dixie County Commission has joined the Ten Commandments love fest by placing a 5-foot, 6-ton granite ode to "God's top 10 list" in front of the county courthouse in Cross City. They felt no need to hide their intentions by surrounding the Ten Commandments with other historical documents. The monument even has a message on it that states in bold letters "Love God And Keep His Commandments." Wow, I thought the cross on the city-owned water tower in Starke and Jacksonville's "Day of Faith" were bad enough. But, the Dixie County Commission is even more contemptuous of the First Amendment than both of them combined.

Why is it so hard for religion to remain a private matter? It seems that everyone wants the government to do what should be done by private organizations. There are more than enough churches in Florida to get Christianity's message out. Christianity does not need to drag everyone along for the ride, regardless of his beliefs, whenever it feels the need to thump its chest and declare itself to be king of the hill.
I was somewhat surprised to find this letter in the Florida Times-Union given that Dixie County is outside of the local area, but I was pleased to see another letter in favor of the separation of church and state. I don't have anything more to say about the inappropriateness of government promotion of religion that hasn't already been said.



Divine Land Grant

Today we find a letter which reminds us how dangerous mixing religion and politics can be. This letter by Harvey Weinshenker was published today under the heading, “Israel: Lack of research noted.”

A letter writer's opinion about Israel and the United States was well taken. However, a little research on his part would be in order.

In 1948, the U.S. government introduced and voted in favor of the U.N. resolution establishing the current state of Israel.

But even many thousands of years before that event, a higher authority (God) established the geographic boundaries of Israel. He is still the landlord and holds the deed. Read the Bible.

Although I am far too ignorant of the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to adopt even a general stance toward it, I am confident in saying that such an opinion is the paragon of superstition and tribalism which has fueled the mutual antagonism in this region for millennia. It's sad enough to realize that anyone in the modern world believes that an invisible perfect being has given a certain tract of land to a certain ethnic group in perpetuity, but then one realizes that he expects this claim to be respected merely because it's written down on a piece of paper. He doesn't seem to understand that the vast majority of the world, i.e., everyone who is neither a Christian nor a Jew, does not accept the validity of this divine land grant.

Perhaps the followers of the Invisible Pink Unicorn should ask her to grant them the islands of Hawaii as their homeland.



The Source of Christian Tolerance

Today the discussion of a recent syndicated column continues with another letter to editor. This letter by Dottie Stalter was published under the heading, “God's message: ‘Peaceful compromise.’”

This is in response to the letter titled "Christians: Hypocrites are everywhere."

I agree that it is wrong and hypocritical to speak to anyone in a way that is unkind and derogatory. People can go to the extreme, hence not walking in the light of peace.

Always a freethinker, proud of my rational beliefs, but driven and enamored to critical inquiry of the Bible, I soon discovered that God did get it right the first time. Being "born again" is to appreciate and understand God's grace and love.

Knowing this as Christians, we should all be humble as we walk in his light. God's message is all about peaceful compromise. I don't agree that a Christian school should remove a Christian symbol - the cross - permanently from its chapel as Gene Nichol, president of William and Mary College, recently did.

Removing it temporarily to accommodate other religious events was an example of peaceful compromise. I agree with columnist Shaunti Feldhahn that removing it permanently is an insult to most Christians. This is what prompted Feldhahn's recent column.

There should be no shame in embracing and celebrating our Founding Fathers' principles, whom, I might add, were freethinkers and proud of their rational beliefs.

My response to this letter is mixed. There is nothing I find really objectionable about it, but the author rambles somewhat and relies on muddled logic to support her conclusions.

While I generally support peaceful compromise in civic discourse, I grow weary of hearing people claim to know the message of an ineffable deity, especially when it flatly contradicts the source documents and historical interpretation of the position it purports to represent.

First, there is almost no talk of compromise in the Old Testament. Joshua didn't compromise as he supposedly conquered Canaan, by God's own order, burning town after town, slaughtering man, woman, child and beast. The primary purpose of law of Moses was to maintain a strong distinction between the chosen people and the gentiles. Again and again the prophets railed against compromises and accommodations made by the Jews and consistently blamed Israel's defeats and the Babylonian captivity on lack of zealotry in maintaining their own identity. Where was there any compromise?

Second, there is little talk of compromise in the New Testament. There are indeed certain passages about rendering unto Caesar and such, but there are also passages about hating one's own family, selling all of one's possessions, and about shaking the dust off of one's feet when a town doesn't welcome you. And of course Jesus himself was the absolute antithesis of tolerant toward anyone who didn't accept him as absolute master. Rather he condemned all of those to the eternal fires of hell. Where was the message of compromise?

Third, Christendom wasn't especially tolerant until recent centuries, not coincidentally precisely when it ceased to be Christendom. There were persecutions of Jews and of Christian heretics, bloody wars between Christian sects, and multiple crusades against the infidel Muslims. There was slavery and the subjugation of women. Where was there any compromise? Eventually moral values became more tolerant, but it wasn't because of any message from God.

Let me make myself very clear: It's very good that most Christians are quite tolerant today of most people different from themselves. (If only Islam would undergo such an enlightenment!) I simply object to the claim that their religion makes them tolerant when the truth is the reverse: with their tolerant values, they have changed their religion to make it more tolerant. They are reluctant to acknowledge that their moral standards have changed for the better over time, in accordance to the moral Zeitgeist, because it invalidates their claim to have an immutable message from God and thus their hope for an afterlife.

Let us treat each other with compassion and respect. Let us do it not because an invisible being supposedly said so, but because it's the right thing to do.



Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Let us celebrate the man whose scientific theory of evolution by natural selection has provided a satisfactory explanation of how complex life arose from simpler life without any reference to the supernatural and who thus provided a secular response to the question of life and apparent design. Here's to you, Mr. Darwin!



Insulting Freethinkers

Occasionally the Florida Times-Union prints a syndicated feature in which two columnists, Shaunti Feldhahn and Diane Glass, defend opposing stances toward a particular issue posed as a question. A couple of weeks ago, the pair addressed the issue of whether symbols of specific religions should be displayed on public property. Today we find a letter to the editor in response to Feldhahn's arguments. This letter by George Starkes was published today under the heading, “Christians: Hypocrites are everywhere.”

This is in regard to the column titled "Why is it all right to insult Christians?" by Shaunti Feldhahn.

The blatant hypocrisy of individuals like Feldhahn never ceases to amaze me. They are so quick to denigrate anyone who dares to criticize the Christian belief system, but they remain totally silent when members of their faith insult, attack and vilify those of other non-Christian beliefs.

Just as African-Americans, women, gays and other groups discovered long ago, people have to defend their rights. Most powerful religionists will not merrily grant rights to historically oppressed religious minorities or secular freethinkers. Moreover, no one can win his rights by hiding and trembling in the closet. Human beings can only make progress through courageous agitation.

Hardly a day or night goes by that I don't hear a right-wing radio talk-show host referring to atheists and minority religionists as scum, fools, vermin and many other derogatory terms. Yet, not one Christian has ever called in to tell the host to knock off the bashing, insults and their overt bigotry toward people of other beliefs.

When secular symbols and even minority religious symbols are placed in the public square, the extremist right-wing Christian fundamentalists are quick to remove them, protest them, or harass and threaten those who represent other non-Christian beliefs. It is the typical double standard over and over.

Those of us who are freethinkers are proud of our rational beliefs. We are fed up with the perpetual insults we endure on a regular basis. There should be no shame in embracing and celebrating reason, critical inquiry, philosophical naturalism and the scientific methods of investigation.

As for me, I don't need to be "born again," since I got it right the first time. I suggest that Feldhahn and her cohorts learn to practice what they preach.
I don't really have much to say regarding this letter. The original piece by Feldhahn focused almost entirely on removing a cross from a private university before mentioning the Mount Soledad cross, which is on public land, almost as an afterthought. There's no real substance to discuss. This letter to the editor is somewhat rambling, doesn't address Feldhahn's points, and paints with too broad of a brush in parts for me to give my support. I do wholeheartedly agree with the author, however, that we freethinkers must stand up for our rights and make ourselves visible as a group to demand fair and equal treatment in society and in the law.

UPDATE: A reader has corrected my knowledge by informing me that the university in question, The College of William & Mary, is in fact a public institution. This makes the permanent removal of the cross from the chapel a governmental issue.