D’Souza rewrites history (again)

Dinesh D’Souza continues his war on historical accuracy with another revision, this one giving Christianity credit for ending slavery.

Isn’t it remarkable that atheists, who did virtually nothing to oppose slavery, condemn Christians, who are the ones who abolished it?Consider atheist Sam Harris, who blames Christianity for supporting slavery. Harris is right that slavery existed among the Old Testament Jews, and Paul even instructs slaves to obey their masters. During the civil war both sides quoted the Bible. We know all this. (Yawn, yawn.)

He seems proud of the fact that he simply doesn’t care that Christianity did nothing to oppose slavery, for thousands of years. No doubt he’s also proud to flaunt his ignorance of the fact that abolitionists like Robert Ingersoll were atheists too. Anything’s good, as long as it lets him boast that Christians abolished slavery.

But what makes him so sure that’s a good thing? Sure, slavery is evil, but how do we know it’s evil? The Bible certainly does not tell us so. Such notable atheists as Moses, Jesus, and Paul did absolutely nothing to oppose or condemn the practice of slavery. Whence, then, comes this idea that all men are inherently equal in dignity and worth to all other men? For the answer to that question, we must look outside the church to secular humanism.

The phrase “secular humanism” isn’t as popular a boogeyman as it used to be during the days of the so-called “Moral Majority.” Back before the “New Atheists,” however, the “secular humanist” used to be the favorite scapegoat of conservative Christians. It was secular humanists who were trying to use public schools to indoctrinate children in their so-called “religion.” It was secular humanists who were to blame for the “moral decay” that was supposedly destroying society. It was secular humanists who were allegedly tempting God to pour out His divine and righteous wrath on America for its manifest failure to be a Christian nation. The secular humanists, in other words, filled the same role as atheists are being cast in by today’s conservative believers.

Humanism had its roots in the Renaissance re-discovery, so to speak, of the ancient works of the pagan philosophers and poets. Though the Catholic church was the de facto dominant influence in Western civilization and education, the works of the early humanists emphasized individual autonomy and the value of reason rather than revelation as a tool for discovering truth–a tendency that put these nominally-Christian humanists in danger of being accused of heresy. The culmination of this trend was the trial of the humanist Galileo, who had the audacity to suggest that reason and evidence should be given precedence over the dogmas of the church (an event which D’Souza has already re-written to suit his conservative readers).

Long centuries of stagnation under Christian rule had created an environment that, while remaining nominally Christian, was hungry for the new and productive insights offered by the increasingly secular humanism. Slavery (and the closely related practice of serfdom) was a natural fit for an institutional religion that proclaimed the saving virtues of enslaving oneself to Christ, but the growing humanist emphasis on the individual, and individual reason, and individual worth and dignity, was putting cracks in the edifice of Church authority. The seed of rebellion had been sown, and had borne fruit in the form of new discoveries that were only made possible by independent thinkers throwing off the dogmatic bondage of Church authority and Church tradition.

The Protestant Reformation was the natural, not to say inevitable outcome of this trend, as was the rise of purely secular humanism and the belief in the inherent worth of every man. These humanistic virtues, arising as they did in defiance of dogmatic ecclesiastic authority, set men free from a religious slavery that had held them in thrall for centuries, and inspired a new zeal for the idea that no man should ever be enslaved to another, religiously or politically or economically or whatever.

Humanistic ideals proved so successful that they had enthusiastic supporters from within the Church from the very beginning, men and women who could see the inherent virtue of the equality of man (and woman!) and the inherent evil of subjugation and slavery. These, of course, were the most liberal and secularized of the Christians–the conservatives (then as now) held secular and humanistic values in disdain, even accusing abolitionists of being atheists, on the grounds that slavery was a God-ordained and God-sanctioned practice, and those who opposed it were thus necessarily opposed to God.

But the liberals, the humanists, did follow through on their humanistic ideals, and worked to free the slaves (and to right other social wrongs, like child labor and the subordination of women). Though nominally Christian, their opposition to slavery, and their belief in the worth and dignity of all men, came not from Biblical sources, but from the secular humanism that had its roots in the writings and culture of the ancient pagans in Greece and Rome.

I suppose the next topic D’Souza should re-write for historians is to give Christianity credit for bringing equal rights to women and freeing them from their role of forced subordination to men. That one’s going to be a bit tougher, though, because conservative Christians are still working pretty hard to keep women in subjugation to men. But D’Souza is probably up to the task. He’s too good a revisionist to let an inconvenient fact get in the way.

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