The Humanist Dilemma: Biblical Slavery and the Modern Fundamentalist

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Fundamental Morality: I’ve been a fundamentalist Christian for nearly twenty years and have started re-examining my beliefs. One of the largest hurdles I’m dealing with is morality in the Bible. The foundation that God’s word is essential for morality has influenced my life for many years. Now, I’m finding out the things I thought were moral may not be so.

The area I’m trying to figure out is slavery. I’ve listened to both the skeptics and the apologists on this issue. I’m still torn about the notion that biblical slavery is immoral. I always thought that God provided righteous guidelines on how the Hebrews were to treat their slaves. In addition, I find the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans for several centuries to be completely immoral. I know my thinking is inconsistent on this topic. This article gave a strong defense for biblical slavery and now I feel confused again. When I hear atheists discuss this topic, it seems like they cherry pick the bad scriptures.

Could you provide some additional perspectives on how to view this moral dilemma? This will help on my journey to get closer to the truth.



Dear Uncertain,

Congratulations on your journey. Let me warn you, leaving the certainty of your previous belief system does not guarantee new certainty in the future, whether you continue to consider new ways of thinking or choose to go back to your old beliefs—which you may never view in the same light again.

But the discomfort of seeking answers you may never find is better than sticking with answers that may not be true or ethical.

Despite what you’ve been taught, what is ethical or moral is simply a human construct that varies from one society to another and over time. The Bible doesn’t typically get updates. Rather, it gets new interpretations— which to me feels like the Wizard of Oz instructing, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” The biblical dietary laws that are the basis of kosher customs are ignored by Christians and many Jews, as are pronouncements about what fibers can be worn. Some religious groups cite certain passages calling for the death of homosexuals or that defend slavery, while other groups choose to ignore them. In the ancient world, slavery was widely instituted and accepted, and thus considered moral. In the modern world, it is not. Most people today disregard what antique scrolls or slick apologists have to say about it. We wouldn’t want to be enslaved ourselves, so we don’t justify slavery for others. The golden rule extends far beyond the Bible.

I would also add that when you say atheists cherry pick the “bad” scriptures—or when others claim that believers ignore those in favor of the “good” ones—you have to wonder about a so-called good book that’s riddled with bad stuff. That alone should cause people to question the Bible as the ultimate authority on morality.

As someone who is so removed from giving any credence to this sort of thing, I found the article you suggested stomach-turning and head-spinning, and I won’t engage in arguing it point by point or even generally. Instead, I suggest you read this piece from Hemant Mehta (‘The Friendly Atheist”), excerpting a new book, Mere Morality, by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a former Christian clergyman.

Please keep asking questions and seeking answers, even if you find yourself confused, ambivalent, mired in contradictions, and otherwise unmoored. It’s preferable, and more moral, to live with the discomforts of reality than to seek comfort deep in dogma, especially when it’s no longer working for you.