How to respond to an atheist who complains about slavery in the Bible

I often hear atheists going on and on about how the Bible has this evil and that evil. Their favorite one seems to be slavery. Here are three things I say to atheists when they push this objection.

The Bible and slavery

First, you should explain to them what the Bible actually says about slavery. And then tell them about the person responsible for stopping slavery in the UK: a devout evangelical named William Wilberforce.

Here’s an article that works.

Excerpt:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-inemployee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.3

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Atheism and moral judgments

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Dawkins has previously written this:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85)

When people like Dawkins talk about morality, you have to understand that they are pretending. To them, morality is just about personal preferences and cultural conventions. They just think that questions of right and wrong are arbitrary. Things that are wrong in one time and place are right in another. Every view is as right as any other, depending on the time and place. That’s atheist morality.

What’s worse than slavery? Abortion!

Third, you should ask the atheist what he has done to oppose abortion. Abortion is worse than slavery, so if they are sincere in thinking that slavery is wrong, then they ought to think that abortion is wrong even more. So ask them what they’ve done to oppose the practice of abortion. That will tell you how sincere they are about slavery.

Here’s Richard Dawkins explaining what he’s done to stop abortion:

That’s right. The head atheist supports killing born children.

21 thoughts on “How to respond to an atheist who complains about slavery in the Bible”

  1. “That’s right. The head atheist supports killing born children. And that would fit in nicely in atheist China.”

    Ouch.

    I quiz them to see how much they actually know about slavery in the Bible, and once I am satisfied that they are sufficiently ignorant, I send them to my blog for a roundup of facts about slaver from the Pentateuch.

    If that doesn’t work (read: they refuse to be educated), I ignore them.

      1. I know how it is. yesterday was a key day for me too, turning in my projects but now I can focus on studying for finals. Take your time.

  2. I’m very interested in this. I’m a Christian, and I definitely agree with your second line of argument (it doesn’t exactly make sense for atheists to care so much about slavery). One secular (effectively atheist) commenter in particular on my own blog keeps coming back to the slavery argument (most recently here) whenever he wants to discount the Bible and Christianity.

    So, I’m no Bible expert. I would love to be corrected by someone more familiar with the text than I am. But doesn’t the Bible actually have some stuff that’s worse than what Paul Copan (the article you linked to) deals with? For some of what he says, he seems to be talking about the slavery (or indentured servitude, whatever we call it) for fellow Israelites. Leviticus 25 says this about foreigners as slaves (verses 44-46):

    And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=leviticus%2025&version=NKJV

    I still think this is perfectly defensible. God is not “creating” or “ordaining” slavery, as the atheists would prefer to put it; the Old Testament is permitting a pre-existing institution to continue (and also reforming and regulating it to some extent), much as God permits a lot of our evil in this world to continue, until He finally returns and puts everything back in order for good. (It wouldn’t be the only time God permitted—but not ordained—behavior that wasn’t perfectly good in the Old Testament, to be improved on later:
    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+24&version=NKJV
    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2019&version=NKJV )

    But if I understand this correctly, slavery for foreigners under the Old Testament law sounds worse than Professor Copan makes it sound, and I suppose we have to deal with that when atheists make this argument.

    1. Actually, the worst charge that can be brought against foreign slavery in the OT is actually what you just quote. i.e. That they did not have to be freed after 6 years like the Hebrews. I do not know how that qualifies as horrible if they were not maltreated. (unless one argues that they have a fundamental human right to be freed after 6 years). I do have a table comparing the slavery for foreigners with slavery for Hebrews on my blog here and from what I’ve read, it was pretty decent. You should read it. Here is the link:
      http://ferlans.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/comparing-foreign-and-native-slaves-in-the-books-of-the-law/

      Does your atheist commenter have any particular charges against slavery in the Bible?

    2. Thanks, your table is helpful.

      I don’t think the commenter has any particular charges, exactly; I think he just takes for granted (absorbed from the current American culture around him, perhaps unexamined) that slavery is abhorrent, and thinks he can use that as a cudgel against Christianity. I’ve sort of tried to get him to explore why slavery is bad (he didn’t), but maybe I should push harder there—as Wintery Knight said above, it doesn’t exactly make sense for an atheist to care.

      1. Yeah, you probably should push him harder, assuming he’s one of the reasonable ones. If he isn’t it might work better to pretend he doesn’t exist. Or maybe I’m saying that because I lack patience. Either way, it’ll be tough. Pray for him.

        I’m glad you found the table helpful. It helped me a lot too.

  3. LOL… Here are a couple of suggestions that will stop the slavery argument in a heartbeat

    I.
    – England didn’t abolish slavery till 1833
    – Quakers harbored escaped slaves and federal law made such an act a felony
    – Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Toms Cabin was a Calvinist that contributed to the Christian Quaker catalyst that prompted the start of the civil war.

    II.
    There was NO forced slavery that Israel committed in the OT ( it was the other way around)
    The Gibeonite voluntary deceived Joshua into taking them as servants. The Gibeoniteas new they were going to be the next city to be taken ( Joshua 9). Hence they tricked Joshua and it was voluntary and not forced slavery.Btw, God took revenge on the House of Saul for breaking the Gibeonite vow that Joshua made 2 Samuel 21:1-9.

    In addition, in Torah a slave is set free after a certain period of time (Year of Jubilee)and a slave can become a bond servent.

    God abhors slavery – that is one of the reasons why He decimated Egypt.

    1. Foreign slaves didn’t have to be set free in the year of Jubilee and I don’t know how one would go about arguing that God decimated Egypt because of slavery itself and not just because they refused to let the Israelites go.

      But I think your other point is a good one to remind them of. Kidnapping anyone (Hebrew or foreigner) and selling them as a slave was punishable by death. In fact, kidnapping anyone was punishable by death.

      1. Good point – in review of Levitical law (Leviticus 25:38-46). There is a distinction between servant, bond servant, and slaves. Slavery was permitted.
        God harden Pharaohs heart (ie fattened him up for the slaughter of ALL of Egypt and their plunder – interesting lesson when I think about it. The scriptures and Levitical Law show God abhors forced slavery big time especially His chosen people).

        A totally forgotten historical point is how England handled the Jewish slaves after the WWII holocaust – The story of the SS Exodus 1947 is worthy of reading (it brought me to tears).
        God is always faithful – because of Englands and other countries actions with the previous slaves – the nation of Israel was born.

  4. Yes, slavery encountered by early Christians in Roman times was quite different from what we think of. We think of 18th and 19th century style slavery used in the New World and picture that as the type of slavery Paul or Peter condone in certain passages. However, Roman era slavery was more like indentured servanthood as you mention.

    Roman era slavery:
    1) Slaves in many settings looked similar to freed men in clothing, race or speech.
    2) Slaves were not segregated from the rest of society
    3) Slaves made the same wages as free laborers and were not usually poor
    4) Slaves could buy their freedom at some point and were rarely slaves for life. Most were free after 10 to 15 years or by their late 30’s.

    New World style slavery:
    1) “Chattel” style where the whole person was the property of the master
    2) Race-Based
    3) Funded and resourced via kidnapping and systamatically brutal
    4) Lifelong servanthood with no hope of freedom

    So while early first century Christians did not speak forcefully to abolish slavery in their communities, Christians centuries later who saw the brutalities of New World era slavery and that it did not square with Biblical teaching went to work to end slavery (Wilberforce and countless others).

  5. Regarding foreigners and slavery, Exodus 12:48 says:

    “And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.”

    I take this to mean that foreigners could be “nationalized,” (become “proselytes”) after which all laws pertaining to native born Israelites would apply to them as well, including servant release laws. It would also be an incentive for foreign slaves to convert to the Israelite religion. If foreign slaves knew this, in addition to how well servants in Israel were treated, they would probably be begging to be bought by an Israelite.

    1. Good point. I’ll keep it in mind and think more about it. Slight correction: The last line should read, “If foreign slaves knew this, in addition to how well servants in Israel *were to be* treated, they would probably be begging to be bought by an Israelite.”

      The law said that slaves were to be treated well and criminalized abuse, but everyone knows the Israelites didn’t do much about keeping God’s laws. (If you have information that shows that they did keep these laws, I would really like to see it). I know that on one occasion, slaves that were to be freed were not, but I don’t know if it was the norm or the exception. The bottom line is that these laws were prescriptive, but I do not yet know how they were applied.

  6. I’m curious on how one should deal with the issue of the destruction of the Canaanites as it is described in the Bible – destroying down to man, woman, child and herds. I’m a Bible study teacher and youth minister, and I know my Bible pretty well. I’ve always had difficulty with those passages, though. I understand that God had withheld judgment for a few hundred years at least prior to the occurrences in late Deuteronomy and in Joshua, so it’s not like this was a knee-jerk reaction, and I understand that God has the right to judge in this fashion, being holy and just. I just have a hard time explaining this in a way that is both truthful and makes sense to people whose idea of genocide (as it appears to be) is equated to things like what has gone on in Iraq, Sudan, or other places where there has been mass killing, rape or other such occurrences.

    1. You want Paul Copan’s new book “Is God a Moral Monster?”. That’s the state of the art right now, and it just came out. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it does the job.

    2. I agree that those passages are hard for us to hear, but I guess my advice (from an ignorant layman’s perspective) would be to explore with the other person why we think murder or genocide is bad in the first place.

      I think my answer would come down to something like “playing God”. If my neighbor dies of natural causes, it means that God chose when he would die, and I haven’t sinned. If I go and murder my neighbor, I have in effect taken the decision about when he would die into my own hands, a decision which rightfully belongs to God alone. In this case, God chose when the Canaanites would die, and was only using Israel as His instrument; so they’re not committing murder.

      Of course you can imagine any group of people that wants to kill another claiming that God told them to, but as far as I’m aware, they usually don’t. Even if they did, well, we believe that the Bible is true; so we can take it that God really did tell the Israelites to kill the Canaanites, whereas we can assume that anyone today claiming divine authority to kill a people has no such authority.

      As far as rape goes, do I remember that part of why God wanted the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child was so that Israel wouldn’t be claiming slaves and concubines from among them (or otherwise being influenced by their pagan ways)?

      1. And maybe talk about the presumption that God has no other purpose for humans other than to make us feel happy and safe, even if we ignore him completely, or actually rebel against him.

        1. thanks. Both of you are saying pretty much what I’m thinking, but I definitely want to grab that book and maybe a few other things. I try to do my best to not gloss over the difficult parts of Scripture, which is why I want more learned backup.

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