Hitchens' Comment on Slavery and Racism

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."[19] 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."[20] 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.


Daniel said…
Hey Bill,

Did you get the chance to hear the recent "Great God Debate" between Hitchens and Mark D. Roberts on Hugh Hewitts radio show?

If so, what are your thoughts?
BK said…
No, sorry. I didn't hear it. Is it available on-line?
Kevin Rosero said…
BK, you make a key point here:

"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."

I would be surprised if an atheist disagreed with this line of thought. Indeed atheists share this thought with Christians, namely that our racism and other moral failures do not come from God but from our own (human) nature.

What's so surprising is how Hitchens seems not to deal with this line of thought, since it is such a natural and necessary conclusion flowing from atheism.

Maybe -- and this is just a guess -- Hitchens does not think this thought, or embrace it, or deal with it, because it is a thought that Christians share.

What I'm suggesting is that when you're at war, you don't tread the common ground you share with your opponent; you think mostly those thoughts that are antithetical and damaging to your opponents way of thinking. The thoughts of your opponent -- even if they are in some ways your own thoughts -- are not to be used. That might end the war and actually promote understanding.

Maybe that's how such a thought that should have come to him so easily instead escaped him so easily.
BK said…
That's an excellent observation, Kevin. And it's also something we Christians need to keep in mind from our side -- in the battle we undertake to defend the truth of Christianity, are we failing to see common ground?
Daniel said…
Hey Bill,

You can listen to the "debate" on Hugh Hewitt's page.


I must warn you...you are going to cringe at how the debate goes. Mark D. Roberts is a great Pastor and Theologian, but man he really disappointed me. Throughout the debate I kept thinking, "Where is Koukl or William Lane Craig? This guy is isn't doing anything but agreeing!" It's pretty frustrating. Take that as a warning...then let me know what you think when you get around to listening to it.
John R. said…

Your A-F argument along atheistic lines reveals the two-dimensional thinking that characterizes atheism.

It is very predictable and self-defeating. Somebody once called it a "boys philsophy."

I think he was right.

cosmicFool said…
"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."

What if that something inside humanity that makes people racist is the same thing that makes people religious?

Religions form groups not just by including people but by excluding people. You know the old "We are the chosen ones, they are not" stuff.

And then two tribes with two different gods both need the same resources and there's only enough for one tribe. Do the chosen ones get the resources or the ones who are not chosen. And then the un-chosen are hated for trying to take the resources that "belong" to the chosen.

Of course, both tribes believe they are the chosen ones and the others are not. So the cycle continues in a feedback loop of hatred generating more racism with time.

War between tribes decreases as more resources are made available. This is often done through basic science.

Science only accepts the latest versions of the theories so while Darwin "may" have been racist (from other parts of his work it would seem that he wasn't) evolution theory as it stands today definitely does not support racism. Darwin could have also claimed that 1 in 10 monkeys was a space goblin and that if you stood on one foot on a wednesday after an hour you can taste yellow. Science would then go, "Well we accept the natural selection and random variation has a good deal of evidence but you don't offer any for the space monkey one, so you can keep that theory.

So the atheist does not have to check old, dusty and possibly misinterpreted texts after they've been translated from a language with a fraction of the lexicon of a modern language. Instead they just have to check what the latest accepted theory is and the accumulated evidence (though I think it is important to know the whole story).

What that means is the theory of evolution can not be used to justify racism because it does not say that any more (if it ever did).

Whereas the bible talks about slavery and has such lines as "Don't beat your slave too much".

It's a mis-use of the bible in your eyes but it's easy to see how that line justifies slavery. It doesn't say don't own slaves, that's wrong, it says don't beat the salves that you own.

Evolution says there's no such thing as a sub-human and what makes us human is in our dna, not our skin colour (which is of course also in the dna).

Someone would have to be mental to think that evolution today justifies racism/slavery but they'd only have to read the "inerrant" word of god to see how this perfect and infallible book actually contains examples of good christians owning slaves. There's a big difference there.

I feel I may have come across as a little bit...combative but I would like to offer some common ground. I don't have a problem with religion in general but they do divide people into us and them and when taken too far this causes problems. The problem isn't so much theist vs atheist but people who believe in equality vs those who don't.
Unfortunately, I feel that the likelihood of a theist being against equality is far higher. e.g. christianity being used against homosexuals in the u.s. and parts of africa.
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