Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has been interviewed by FrontPage Magazine in an article entitled (appropriately enough) god is Not Great. (I don't know if the small "g" in god is a typo or intentional, so I left it in.) During the course of the interview, Hitchens makes a rather strange statement.
As to the "good" that religion has done, I state very clearly in "God Is Not Great" that many believers have done exemplary things. But I insist that they are valued for qualities and deeds that any humanist can applaud, and that supernatural authority is not required to oppose Hitler or Stalin, say, or slavery. Whereas scriptural authority WAS required, for example, to justify racism and slavery in the first place.
Now, I agree in part that religious teachings have been used (or, in the case of Christianity, misused) to support racism and slavery. I have heard (but have never looked for myself) that Islam, as an example, directly teaches that enslavement of non-Muslims is religiously acceptable. So, in that sense, religion is definitely used to justify racism and slavery. But does Hitchens believe that if religion didn't exist, there would be no slavery or racism? Does he imagine that without religion, people wouldn't be able to justify these practices?
First, I think that's historically inaccurate. Darwin's theory of evolution can certainly be used to justify slavery and racism as can be demonstrated by Darwin himself. Consider the following from Darwin's Racism by Harun Yahya:
Most Darwinists in our day claim that Darwin used the expression "By the Preservation of Favored Races" in the subtitle to The Origin of Species only for animals. However, what those who make this claim ignore is what Darwin says about human races in his book.
Darwin claimed that the "fight for survival" also applied between human races. "Favored races" emerged victorious from this struggle. According to Darwin the favored race were the European whites. As for Asian and African races, they had fallen behind in the fight for survival.At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. (Charles Darwin, "The Descent of Man", 2nd edition, New York, A L. Burt Co., 1874, p. 178)
As we have seen, in his book, The Origin of Species, Darwin saw the natives of Australia and Negroes as being at the same level as gorillas and claimed that these races would disappear. As for the other races which he saw as "inferior," he maintained that it was essential to prevent them multiplying and so for these races to be brought to extinction. So the traces of racism and discrimination which we still come across in our time were approved and lent justification by Darwin in this way.
Now, I don't want to get into arguments over whether racism is inherent in Darwinian evolution. I don't think it is inherent, but that's not the point. The point is this: if a person is looking for a justification to be racist or to promote slavery, the belief that there are some races that are evolutionarily inferior to others provides just such a justification. As stated by Joe Conley in his article Is Darwinism Racist?: Creationists and the Louisiana Darwin-Racism Controversy which argues that Darwinian evolution is not inherently racist:
What is obscured by this tack is the fact that social Darwinism and Darwinian racism were by no means straightforward applications of Darwin’s ideas to human society. As historian Robert Proctor has trenchantly observed in his study of the German racial hygiene movement, "People generally found in Darwin what they wanted to find." There has been no intrinsic logic to any particular appropriation and application of Darwin’s work in relation to human society. The meaning of Darwin’s message in social thought has depended almost entirely upon the particular social and economic context in which Darwin’s theory has been interpreted. "Where Carnegie saw competition," writes Proctor, "Kropotkin saw cooperation. Where Morgan and Alexander found the glory of God, the American pragmatists found the liberation from teleology. Where Spencer found the necessity of struggle, Bebel found the possibility of symbiosis." Darwinism has been a multivalent set of beliefs, adaptable to a wide range of often contradictory ideological positions. Socialists and laissez-faire capitalists, militarists and pacifists, progressives and conservatives—all found different messages in Darwinism which harmonized with their particular interests.
In other words, the teachings of Darwinian evolution have been used by people to justify pre-conceived ideas that have existed independent of Darwinian evolution. But it's this ability to justify those things that people want to do (regardless how dark or ugly) that's the real problem -- not religion.
Here's an exercise: try to reason this through from the point of view that religions are false. If I believed religions were false, then my reasoning might proceed along these lines:
A. All religions are false.
B. If all religions are false, then all religious teachings must have been created by humans.
C. If all religious teachings have been created by humans, then the teachings in religion that support slavery and racism must have been created by humans.
D. If the teachings supporting slavery and racism were created by humans, then something inside humanity must make humans racist and desirous of owning slave independent of any religious teachings.
E. When humans want to do something, they can come up with a multitude of ways to justify doing it.
F. If religion didn't exist, people would find other ways to justify racism and slavery because the underlying desire to be racist or engage in slavery does not arise from religion.
Thus, even if I were an atheist, I would disagree with Hitchens when he says "scriptural authority WAS required, for example, to justify racism and slavery in the first place". Scriptural authority was certainly used (and misused in the case of Christianity) to justify racism and slavery, but it wasn't required. People are much more clever than that. If religion didn't exist, racism and slavery would still both exist and other things, such as evolutionary theory, would be used to justify them. Moreover, in my view, if religion didn't exist, there would be no moderating influence of religion on these deep and ugly desires that are found in people, and both racism and slavery would be much more prevalent today.