Christopher Hitchens is a Liar: Christianity and Slavery

One of the things I noted in my recent read through of Christopher Hitchen’s book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [sic] was the serious problem of a large number of factual errors.[1] While reading through the book, I noted his section on the New Testament and the Old Testament, and numerous errors of fact. There are additional issues of disagreement (for example, the use of the term religion) but in general, these problems mar the entire book.

In general, I tend to avoid ad hominem argumentation; I’d rather assume these mistakes are purely accidental oversights; New Testament studies is a massive and controversial field of studies, and I would not expect him to have greater expertise in that field. Yet, Hitchens’s discussion of slavery makes this preference to assume the best difficult. Hitchens implies that it was free thinkers that ended slavery, with a few Christian hangers on, but here, his work with the evidence is so shoddy, that it is inconceivable that this mistake is accidental.

Significantly, Hitchens seems to only discuss the United States, but as a former British citizen this mistake is nearly inconceivable (at least if it were accidental). American slavery is neither unique nor unusual. The US’s story is not unusual for the era, sadly slavery of Africans and Indians was common in the French, English, Spanish and Dutch colonies in the Americas. In point of fact, slavery has been nearly ubiquitously practiced throughout most of world history, at least until slavery was largely outlawed in the west, largely at Christian instigation.[2] What is unique is not that some Christians still defended the ancient barbarism in the 1860’s, what is unique is that Christianity historically provided the impetus to end slavery. During the abolitionist period it was largely Christians in Europe who pushed for the eradication of slavery in European colonies.[3] For example, in Hitchens own native England, the opposition to slavery was distinctly an enterprise of Evangelicals within the Anglican tradition and various dissenting churches, including the most notably figure, William Wilberforce (as Hitchen’s surely learned as both a child and at while at Oxford, or for that matter the film Amazing Grace a short two years before his book was published).[4] Of course, discussing this period doesn’t bode well for Hitchens’s case; selective choice of sources became necessary.

                  Nor is Hitchens correct in his discussion of the United States. For example, he admits that “a few Menonites and Quakers in America began to call for abolition.”[5] While this sounds like a reasonable concession, it is actually a radical understatement, and groups, such as Puritans in New England are completely ignored. It was, in fact, largely religious groups that led to the abolition of slavery in the Northern States and organized most of the anti-slavery societies of the period. Hitchens focuses on a few select individuals, late in the period, particular John Brown and Abraham Lincoln (who was not an abolitionist until after the election of 1860[6]); of course there are some problems with this approach. First, the subjects (as he himself admits) are muddy and not necessarily the types of free thinkers needed to make his case. Brown, if he were a free thinker, is useful only when there are no credible abolitionists to discuss. Brown likely provided emotional fears leading to southern secession, by building up already existing fears southerners had about a repeat of the Haitian Massacre of 1804 in the American South. Secondarily Hitchens, like many modern authors, fails to understand that free thinkers were often influenced by Christian thought and morality in a way that modern atheist consider inconceivable. (For example, Thomas Jefferson, who was probably a deist, thought the Bible to be a book that was admirable for instructions of morality, Benjamin Franklin, who almost certainly was a deist was a great admirer John Whitfield and sought to emulate Jesus in many respects). A third issue of course, is in studying Lincoln and Brown so intently he shows a better than average knowledge of the subject, so like his ignorance of Wilberforce, his errors appear to be intentional; his arguments then are not merely bad, but fraudulent.

APPENDIX – BASIC SOURCES

Hitchen’s main arguments are found on pages 177-79 of when it comes to abolition.

There are two invaluable books that discuss the Christian roots of the abolitionist movement, links are to the Amazon listing.

Philip Sampson – 6 Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization.

Rodney Stark – For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery

There is also a history on South Carolina that I have found useful in understanding the development of slavery in this country, though it does not discuss some of the more crucial moments that happened outside of that state, but Edgar does a good job of presenting the issue in terms that seeks to understand (even as he does not condon) the very human causes that led to this institution, it is also perhaps a reminder that our fears and baser natures can lead us to inhumanity we would not consider in other areas of our lives. I heard it read by the Author on NPR, if you can find the recording, it’s well worth listening too, my love of books on CD and Tape extends largely from that programming.

Walter Edgars South Carolina: A History.

                  [1] These include 1. Outright mistakes, for example he argued that Jesus was born no earlier than 4 AD (most scholars date Jesus birth to 6-4 AD), and that the Talmud is the oldest book of monotheistic religions. Some might dismiss this as typos or minutia, but what it raises the question of competency – we would not afterall, trust an “expert” on US history, who noted the importance of Benjamin Franklin’s presidency. At this time I would not borrow from Hitchen’s arguments on either Eastern religions or Islam; if he has made such serious mistakes in discussing the Old Testament and the New, then I consider his work in areas I cannot verify to be suspect. 2 He often confuses theories as facts, for example, he implies the gospels were written decades after the events they record and that it was not written by eyewitnesses, but this is a theory, it is not a proven fact, and the external evidence (ie quotations and discussions by the fathers) conflicts with this theory. 3. There are additionally problems with the fact that many of the arguments he makes do not follow from the facts he deduces, for example, he spends time discussing textual criticism of the Pericope de Adultura, but this does not invalidate the New Testament. A good rule of thumb would be, if Christian theologians have known a fact for centuries, and have not understood that fact to be a problem for the Christian faith, it likely is not a problem for the Christian faith.

[2]When slavery ended in Western Europe will depend on how to interpret serfdom. Serfs are often compared to slaves, but serfs at least had recognized rights and their lords understood duties to their serfs. The same cannot be said for slaves in earlier pagan Rome, or for that matter to slavery in the Americas. Before the colonization of America, much of Christian Europe had officially outlawed slavery. A loophole, however was used and later expanded; these earlier codes applied only to national boundaries, not to colonies. Of course, throughout Europe, the theory and practice of a serf’s rights might differ incredibly, but it was at the least a start to recognize that both poor and great were made in the image of God.

[3]Hitchens regularly makes a link between Christianity and Imperialism, but fails to note that in many cases, colonial governments were generally unfriendly to missionary endeavors, because missionaries were concerned with people, not profits, and tended to therefore cause problems for those who were interested in profits, and not people. This is true both with Catholics in Brazil, and Anglicans in India.

[4] In 1807, the slave trade was outlawed (and the royal navy began hunting slave ships), and in 1833 slavery was completely abolished in the English colonies, although, unfortunately, colonialism itself was not.

                  [5]Hitchens 177.

[6]Abolitionists favored laws ending slavery immediately, Lincoln campaigned on preventing the spread of slavery further west, believing slavery, if not given the ability to spread, would die of its own accord in time. Lincoln also appears to have believed that preserving the Union was more important than eliminating slavery.