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The “Enlightenment” and slavery

November 11, 2014

It is fairly commonly believed by many atheists that the abolition of slavery was an inevitable product of the “Enlightenment” and progressive thinking. Yet this overlooks the fact that many key figures of the “Enlightenment” were firm advocates of slavery.

Rodney Stark in his provocative book, For the Glory of God, outlines a series of influential Enlightenment figures who fully accepted slavery. Stark describes these characters as a virtual ‘Who’s Who of the Enlightenment’ (and hence not a straw man caricature).

Stark notes that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke ‘openly sanctioned human bondage’ and Locke invested in the Atlantic slave trade. Voltaire supported the slave trade and believed in the inferiority of Africans. Comte de Mirabeau accepted slavery and David Hume did not favour abolition. Edmund Burke dismissed abolitionists as religious fanatics and explained that ‘the cause of humanity would be far more benefited by the continuance of the [slave] trade and servitude … than by the total destruction of both or either’.

As an interesting aside, Burke’s rationale for the continuance of slavery rests on a consequentialist ethic. This again demonstrates the inherent problems of consequentialism as an ethical system which I’ve previously outlined in critiquing Sam Harris and Peter Singer.

Now this is not to say that all figures of the Enlightenment favoured slavery, there are notable exceptions e,g, Samuel Johnson, Condorcet and Diderot, but ‘most accepted slavery as a normal part of the human situation’. Stark writes,

It was not philosophers or secular intellectuals who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was a sin… It was the natural theologian William Paley, not his atheist opponent David Hume, who considered slavery as an ‘odious institution’ and did so on the basis of Christian ‘light and influence'”.

Therefore it is incorrect to propose that slavery arose as a product of Enlightenment thinking. Instead, as I proposed in my recent One Minute Answer on this topic, moral opposition arose because of the influence of Christian theology.

  1. James Garth permalink

    From my reading of history, it seems that the abolitionist cause was promoted by a coalition of religious folk (including Quakers & Methodists), freethinkers, rationalists, deists and others. On the flipside, it is undeniable that arguments in favour of slavery were advanced by some on theological grounds, notably in the Southern states. But it is difficult to draw an unambigious straight line from Christian doctrine to support for slavery. Going back further in history, we find Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father, was one of the first ancient writers to explicitly denounce the ownership of slaves and the institution of slavery. As for Enlightenment thinkers, as you point out, their stances on this issue were mixed.

    • It’s not very difficult to draw a logical and unambiguous line between Christianity and slavery. Christianity relies on the authenticity of the old testament to support the belief that Jesus is god. The old testament certainly doesn’t prohibit or indicate that slavery is immoral or wrong, and in fact Leviticus makes it pretty clear that according to the Jewish and thus Christian god, slavery is totally cool. In the new testament, Paul, probably the most important Christian tells slaves to be good to their masters, and Jesus never repudiates the old testament claims about slavery, and is even quoted as saying he came to fulfill the laws not abolish them

      That many Christians were against slavery is not ironic, because in their readings they gloss over the justifications and support for slavery, and look at the very act. It’s the same reason why a large number of Humanist and Enlightenment thinkers were Christians themselves, despite the ultimate conclusion of both lines of thought being that there is no god.

      • Thanks for the comment. I’ve just written another clarifying post on this

    • Thanks for the comments James. Yes I tend to agree that it was certainly a ‘battle’ to abolish slavery. I think that Rodney Stark is somewhat polemical in his claims and hence makes his points very strongly

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    I’ve spent some time following the links from the ‘Abolitionism’ page in wikipedia. I am interested in the British scene leading up to the popular political movement of the 1780’s onward. I agree the leading activists were all Christians. No case can be made to show that the Enlightenment was on the causal path that led to the movement. Even if it did affect their thinking, I can’t see how that could be demonstrated.

    I was surprised to see Edmund Burke given as an Enlightenment figure. While I knew he used rational arguments, it was to defend the old order. On his religious views, his wikipedia page reports “Burke’s religious thought was grounded in his belief that religion is the foundation of civil society. He sharply criticized deism and atheism, and emphasized Christianity as a vehicle of social progress”. I want to claim he was a Christian thinker whose faith did not lead him to see the immorality of slavery.

    I conclude that it is entirely valid for Christians to celebrate that their faith was vital to Abolitionism, but they should also acknowledge that most Christians needed to be argued over to the Abolitionism side, it was not inherent in their Christian beliefs. We all need be humble on this, how can I know that I would have been an early advocate for Abolitionism if I were alive at the time and was steeped in that culture.

    • Thanks for the heads up. This is a case of trusting your sources! I was paraphrasing some of Rodney Stark’s book (have you read it, perhaps a bit polemical, but an interesting read) and it quoted Burke as an enlightenment thinker. My apologies, I’ll have to do some more original research. I hope you can forgive my research failure 😦

  3. “Therefore it is incorrect to propose that slavery arose as a product of Enlightenment thinking.”

    I fully agree.

  4. Rob,

    I’ve posted a response to this on my blog:

    Your response ( on your blog or mine) would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Love the work of Stark. Great post.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Does the Bible condone slavery? | Atheist Forum
  2. An Abolitionist Bible? | counterapologistblog

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