The Scientist and Communicator: Reflections on Carl Sagan

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It has been twenty years today since we lost Carl Sagan, the beloved astronomer and science communicator at the age of 62. His untimely death still feels prescient, especially in light of our seemingly chaotic and irrational world. However, I know that if he was still alive, Sagan would have found a way to be optimistic, looking ever forward to new horizons of knowledge and exploration.

I came to learn about him as an adult. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I received an abysmal science education, which left me largely ignorant and uninspired. I went into the humanities, history specifically, and found it to be my calling. I love studying the human race’s march toward betterment, through understanding ourselves and the universe around us.

As a result, I came to Sagan as an undergraduate in college. I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, so it’s surprising that I didn’t get to Sagan earlier. But once I watched Cosmos for the first time, I was hooked. His ability to interweave science, history, and philosophy in way that is eloquent, engaging, and entertaining is unmatched by anyone. Even after all these years, Sagan is still the master.

From there, I began to read his books, which were even more rewarding than Cosmos. My all-time favorite is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Published shortly before his death, this book is easily his best. In it, he stresses the importance of not just learning about science, but about critical thinking and skepticism. As he writes:

“One of the reasons for its [science’s] success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

The more we think critically, the more we test ideas against the evidence, the more we learn and grow as a people. As he said countless times, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

In his own career, he was a pioneering scientist. A professor at Cornell, Sagan’s research on the greenhouse effect on Venus and his work on the Viking and Voyager missions for NASA solidified his position as an astute scientist. Alongside his popular books, he published numerous scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and continued his research into the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life for most of his career. Despite all this, he was never admitted to the National Academy of Sciences (they did give him a distinguished public service award, but not full membership).

His snub by the NAS was likely the result of his role as “popularizer” of scientific ideas, which was an unheard of endeavor during his time as a scientist. Most scientists were content with researching, publishing, and teaching, but Sagan took it a step further. He didn’t just want to be a great scientist; he wanted to be a great communicator of ideas. Even though some of his peers derided his public advocacy of science, the court of public opinion held him in the highest-esteem.

This is why Carl Sagan matters, why his work stands the test of time. When I started my search for graduate schools in history, I was inspired by Sagan to do something different. As such, I became a public historian, dedicated to quality research and analysis but interested in sharing this knowledge with the public. I didn’t just want to be a historian. I wanted to be a history communicator, someone who not only shared history with others but explained the importance of history to my fellow citizens and the world. I got this lesson from Carl.

Carl wasn’t just a great scientist; he was an amazing champion for skepticism, critical thinking, and intellectualism. His powerful voice, decades on, still inspires me to be a better thinker, a better communicator, and a better person. I have such a deep admiration and affection for someone I’ve never met, but whose mind and life compel me to be the man I am today.

Carl, thank you for all you did for the world. We love you and we miss you.

Aron Ra announces intention to run for Texas State Senate

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Aron Ra, the charismatic science educator and atheist activist, has announced his intention to run for Texas State Senate in 2018. On a recent episode of Dogma Debate, Aron Ra explained why he felt the time was right to announce his intention to run. Inspired by Bernie Sanders and California State Senate candidate Steve Hill, Ra remarked that “in 2018, when I run for Texas State Senate, I’m going to do an advertising campaign along those lines, and I think people are going to be completely outraged at what they’ve had to put up with for the two years leading up to that point before I do.”

What he was referring to was the phenomenal success that both Hill and Sanders had as unconventional candidates. Hill ran for the California Senate as an open Satanist during the 2016 Democratic primary, garnering nearly 12% of the vote. Sanders ran as a “democratic socialist” and won 23 states, 1865 delegates, and over 13.2 million votes against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This makes Sanders the most successful non-Christian (he’s a secular Jew) Presidential candidate in US history.

Ra faces an uphill battle in his race for the Texas State Senate. He lives in Garland, which likely puts him in either district 2, 8, or 16. These districts are Republican strongholds, where Democrats and even Libertarians haven’t had much luck against the incumbents. Nevertheless, Ra is an extremely successful activist and science educator, using his YouTube channel, podcast, and other outlets to educate the public about the dangers of creationism in public schools. He was also a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, which means that he likely cares about combating climate change, income inequality, and money in politics.

Aron Ra would be a welcome addition to the local politics in Texas and would show to the country that atheists and secularists are becoming a more influential voice in the United States.

On Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism

 

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“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Dread Scott.

In 1989, this installation, created by artist Dread Scott, was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. As Scott’s website describes:

The installation is comprised of: a photomontage (the montage consists of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch’ and flag draped coffins in a troop transport; text printed on the photomontage reads “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”), books (originally with blank pages) on a shelf, ink pens, a 3’x5′ American flag on the ground and an active audience. The audience was encouraged to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” As they did so, they had the opportunity to stand on the flag as they wrote their response. When this work has been displayed, thousands of people filled hundreds of pages with responses. Many many of those stood on the flag as they added their comments to the work.

The installation’s main goal was to critique the often sycophantic and narcissistic displays of so called “patriotism” in our society. President George H.W. Bush condemned the exhibit and the US Congress even moved to make displays like this illegal. Protesting Congress’s action, artists burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol, which led to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that defended their right to burn the flag as “protected speech.”

I bring this up because of the recent controversy concerning the actions of pro Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, as a protest against the continued violence against minorities in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.

The backlash was predictable and typically myopic. People burned his jersey, called for his firing, and publicly railed against his actions, yet did not actually acknowledge or understand why, as a person of color, he might do this. But that’s the specific circumstances of this incident; I wish to speak of its larger implications.

In my estimation, Kaepernick’s protest is just as legally defensible and morally consistent as “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” His action was exactly what people of privilege and tradition fear: showing them what’s wrong with our society and making them deal with it.

We have violence in our cities, continued high unemployment within minority communities, homelessness, and the chronic mistreatment of our past and present service members who need vital healthcare and social services. And yet this is what dominates the news.

We have a society that obsesses over meaningless objects of idolatry, like the flag or lapel pins, but ignores and actively undermines alternative acts of patriotism.

Kaepernick’s act was that of patriotism, just as much as any person who stood proudly during the anthem and sang their hearts out. Who is to say what is and is not patriotic? If patriotism is nothing more than blind deference to symbols and slogans, than we are no better than the fascists the democratic world defeated nearly 70 years ago.

Patriotism is not a showy display of hero or symbol worship; it is embodying the idea of what your nation believes in. In the U.S., our cornerstone ideal is liberty. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, when Dread Scott created their art with the flag on the floor, and when a young kid refuses to say the pledge of alliegence because of the divisive and unconstitutional phrase of “One Nation Under God,” they are all reaffirming the true nature of our Republic, which is that of freedom.

Freedom to think, freedom to act, freedom to worship or not to worship. These ideals mean far more than some piece of cloth, a metal pin, or some national song. These symbols mean absolutely nothing if the ideals upon which they stand for cannot be lived out.

Therefore, until every homeless person is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Until every child can achieve a good education and live in communities that are safe. Until every act of patriotism, both traditional and unorthodox, is honored. And until every veteran and active service member is cared for with dignity and respect, shut the fuck up about national anthems, pledges, lapel pins, and flags.

Symbols do not deserve unadulterated respect; only people do.

The End of the Road (For Now)

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Like John Oliver’s segment on the Democratic primary process, I can hear the more overzealous Bernie Sanders supporters now, getting ready to blast me as a “shill” and a “turncoat” for what I’m about to say. But I don’t care.

I am a Sanders supporter. I donated to his campaign, voted for him in the Indiana primary (which he won), and was enthusiastic about his effort to shake up the Democratic Party and electoral politics. I think he is a genuine, honest, and passionate man who speaks his mind and fights for what he believes. He’s not insane like Donald Trump and he’s not the calculating, Nixon-esque strategist like Hillary Clinton. However, after his 13-point loss to Clinton in the California primary, the writing’s on the wall.

Politico recently released an article describing the Sanders’s campaign as in complete disarray, with key strategists on the inside throwing their candidate under the bus. Many of the problems the campaign came, in their estimation, from Sanders himself, including his call that Clinton was “unqualified,” the proposed debate with Trump, and his response to the Nevada Democratic Convention’s chaos. Bernie started this race as a hopeful gadfly, a protest candidate who had a vision for America that I saw as positive. However, as the mistakes and resentment grew, I’m beginning to see a very different candidate that I originally supported.

Instead of his optimism about what America and its politics can be, I see his cynicism over the “rigged” nature of the Democratic primary. To be fair, he’s quite right about the Democratic Party’s seemingly undemocratic system of “superdelegates” and party insiders, and how its sudden shifting gave Clinton the edge to be the presumptive nominee before the California primary. Nevertheless, Clinton earned far more votes in this election than Sanders, and no amount of mid-game system changing is going to reverse that. If he didn’t like this system, he should’ve never run as a Democrat.

The reason for my frustration is that Bernie’s current demeanor as a sore, but defiant loser is going to hurt his legacy. He’s the first non-Christian in the history of American politics to win primaries and caucuses for a major political party. He’s shown the American people that a professional, strong campaign can be waged without big money donors and Super PACs. He turned his candidacy from being a mere asterisk into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, all the while heavily criticizing its system. His vision for America is the future of the Democratic Party, and his candidacy helped make that vision a reality. He’s pushed Clinton to the left on issues of trade, immigration, and finance that she would have never taken without him in the race. And he’s about to squander all that over petty electoral math.

In my estimation, for the good of his legacy and the future he wants to build, he needs to suspend his campaign and actively fight for what he believes either through helping congressional candidates or, e gads (!), the presumptive Democratic nominee. As I’m torn over whether to vote for Clinton in the fall, Bernie’s choice to support her or not weighs heavily in my decision. As he pushes the party to the left, as many of us have clamored for, he might even be her Vice President if he wants. Or, he could secure that Elizabeth Warren is her VP, which would create one of the most unprecedented presidential tickets in history.

If he decides to abandon the Democrats, I will admire that as well. The party establishment certainly hasn’t given him much to work with and I wouldn’t blame him for telling them to go to hell. It could give him the impetus to do what Theodore Roosevelt did in 1912: run as a progressive, third-party candidate that would change the nature of the race for the fall.

Regardless of what he decides, he needs to make a decision quickly, for the good of the country and the causes he cares so dearly for. Bernie Sanders is certainly one of the most important presidential candidates in the history of American politics, but it’s the end of the road. He needs to choose another path.

 

The Peril and Promise of Democracy

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It’s been a while since I’ve written for the blog, and in particular, about the election. Honestly, it has depressed me more than anything. Even if he wins California, Bernie Sander’s electoral chances are nil, making Hillary the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump has unfortunately become the presumptive Republican nominee. The sheer fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for the major parties is truly an indictment of our system. In fact, polling suggests that they might be the most disliked major candidates in all the history of contemporary public polling. So, what does this say about Democracy?

It reminds me of a little book that I read in college by one of my favorite authors, polemicist H. L. Mencken. Notes on Democracy, originally published in 1926, presented his critique of democratic government and the means by which it gains and retains power. Mencken’s libertarian, often elitist outlook nonetheless shines light on some of the lesser angels of the democratic process. I find his words valuable in understanding this mess of a presidential election.

Here’s Mencken’s skepticism of the supposed “distinction” between “representative democracy” and “direct democracy”:

The truth is that the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen: they become politicians ex officio, and usually end by selling such influence as remains after they have used all they need for their own ends. Worse, both forms of democracy encounter the difficulty that the generality of citizens, no matter how assiduously they may be instructed, remain congenitally unable to comprehend many of the problems before them, or to consider all of those they do comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner.

The choice this year of Clinton or Trump is based on a false assumption that Mencken destroys in this passage: democracy somehow produces the best results. Now, it would be unwise to assume that authoritarianism or anarchy would be better (even though I haven’t ruled out a theoretical, market-based version of the latter), but democracy exists as a game of averages. When you go in casting a ballot for the “lesser of two evils,” not only do you still get evil, you get something much more depressing: mediocrity.

Hillary Clinton is a hawkish, neoliberal establishment policy wonk who has trouble acting like a real human being. Donald Trump is a “short-fingered vulgarian” whose manic and megalomaniacal persona only attempts to mask the dangers of his rascism, xenophobia, and economic ignorance. Both options suck, and Hillary definitely sucks less, but is this really the best we can do as a citizenry? While things look bleak, I think there are also fantastic new opportunities this election opens up.

First, what about Bernie? He has done very well, and seems poised to win the majority of the remaining primaries, but he will not be able to shore up the nomination. However, he has been able to select known progressives like Bill McKibben, Dr. Cornel West, and Representative Keith Ellison to the Democratic platform committee. This is a start, even though the majority of the electorate don’t know or care about the platform. It’s just a kind gesture to Sanders, nothing more.

Now, the thing I’d like to see happen, because it would help the Democrats and Clinton, would be the name Sanders as her VP. It would ensure many Bernie supporters (myself included) would vote for him and would mend the wounds of the primary. This is exactly what Obama did in 2008, when he named Clinton to be his Secretary of State. The centrist wing and the progressive wings of the party would have a top ticket that balances out their interests and it would signal that Clinton is serious about being a change-maker. Also, Sanders has consistently polled far better against Trump than Clinton has, so his name would add more points to her column. He has said he would be open to it, and I think the Democratic party would be tremendously helped.

How has this post become more optimistic, even though I used Mencken to slam democracy towards the top? The reason for my optimism is two-fold: the hope that Sanders could be a major player in the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party and the rise of the third-party candidates.

Not since 1992 and 1996 have we had a better moment for a third-party insurgency. Jill Stein, perennial favorite of the Green Party, has positioned herself as an alternative to Bernie voters put off by Trump and Clinton. And then there’s the Libertarian party, whose presumptive nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, can attract disaffected fiscal conservatives and social liberals who are tired of the status quo. Of all the third-party candidates, Johnson is the one I like the most. His commitment to getting America’s fiscal house in order, ending the drug war, fighting crony capitalism, and encouraging entrepreneurship inspires economically-conscious liberals like myself.

While the major candidates thoroughly blow, the plethora of second-tier candidates like Sanders, Stein, and Johnson represent the best of American democracy. Their visions of America, while differing, give voters a chance to select candidates for ideas, rather than just personalities or recognized names. Democracy is often messy, counter-intuitive, and sometimes flat out terrible, but if we start choosing candidates for values over bluster and popularity, it might start to suck a whole lot less.

As H. L. Mencken wrote 90 years ago:

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself—that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating.

With that in mind, let’s enjoy the spectacle and make the best choice for ourselves.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – In Defense of the Superhero Epic

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2009 was an intense year. We saw the inauguration of the first African-American President, the economy was in complete freefall, and our society was facing an existential crisis. The cultural touchstones of that year reflected the nation’s anxieties. In particular, the film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, emphasized these stresses. Its bleak, dark approach, mixed with morally ambiguous characters, created a tone that mirrored American hopelessness. In that respect, director Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic was spot on, but the critics were fairly mixed upon its release.

Now it is 2016, and in some respects, we face the same anxieties and frustrations that we did seven years ago. America has become a place bereft of heroes, and the heroes that remain often disappoint us. What happens when our leaders fail us? What do we do when they don’t live up to our expectations? What if we even question the very validity of their existence?

These are all questions that, for good or ill, get addressed in Snyder’s newest epic, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I recently saw this film, and intend to see it again, but I must share my thoughts as a bulwark against unnecessary nitpicking and fan disappointment. BvS is not a perfect film, far from it. Its narrative issues and complicated plot often drag the film down. (Film critic Chris Stuckmann addresses many of these problems fairly in his review on YouTube.) But when this film works, it works beautifully. I would argue that this film might be one of the most ambitious, if not the most ambitious, superhero film ever made. And I’ve already mentioned Watchmen.

The overly pessimistic criticism of this film, in my view, stems from its inability to live up to people’s expectations. It also felled victim to the “hype-machine.” Warner Brothers has been teasing audiences with this film for three years, and the trailers did not always represent the film properly. (In one trailer, the studio gave audiences way too much). I will say, though, that Snyder and company can be consoled by the fact that this film may garner more respect in the future, not necessarily for what it could have done better but for what it did right.

So, since most reviews focus on its failings, I’ll offer a more balanced view. First up, the tone. Snyder’s failings as a storyteller are often redeemed by his ability to capture mood, tone, and thematic through lines. He does this perfectly in BvS; the opening scenes that reintroduce Batman and his tragic past are beautifully haunting. Additionally, this new Batman is older, more cynical, and morally ambiguous. This is the kind of Batman that movie goers like me have wanted for a while; a Batman that isn’t sure what the right thing to do is anymore. While the film doesn’t address it as concretely as I would have liked, future films can flesh this out and build on what this film established.

Superman also feels the weight of heroism. One of the film’s themes that I really liked was whether the world really needed a Superman. Does the benefit of his heroism outweigh the costs of life and liberty? This question comes through the character of Senator June Finch (played by Holly Hunter), whose own misgivings about the Red-Caped alien from Krypton get used against her by the menacing and over-the-top Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg). Like Batman’s moral ambiguity, the film fails to really play with this theme as much as I would have liked. However, when it does address these anxieties, it is powerful and thoughtful.

Next, let’s talk about casting. The best thing about BvS is Batman/Bruce Wayne, played by the controversial pick Ben Affleck. While many derided his choice for the role in 2013, I was delighted. I thought he was a perfect choice for the caped crusader, and I can confidently say that I was not wrong. Affleck’s pathos and intensity in this film are perfect for Snyder’s tone. He’s also an excellent Bruce Wayne, maybe the best we’ve seen on screen. I also really liked Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth and hope to see more of him in future films.

Henry Cavill returns as Superman, and is very strong in the role, but he does feel a little underdeveloped. I would have liked to see more of his life at the Daily Planet and his relationship with Lois Lane, but hey, the movie was already two and a half hours long. It may have been difficult to balance everything this film wants to do. (We will come back to that later.)

The most controversial casting choice for me was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. I found his appearances in the trailer to be annoying and campy, as if he was in a different movie. But having seen his entire performance in the context of the film, I was pleasantly surprised. His menacing demeanor and almost spastic body language works, for the most part. There are a couple of scenes where it is a bit too much. In particular, there’s a philanthropy dinner scene where Luthor attempts to give a speech, but the character basically rambles and then yells at the audience. While I appreciate the attempt to make him unsettling to the filmgoer, it came off more awkward and unpolished. However, his other scenes, especially a rooftop scene with Lois Lane, are pitch-perfect. He serves as an adequate villain for the film.

However, I can’t finish this review without discussing Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She is one of the best parts of the film. She steals every scene she’s in. I think that it is high time that a female superhero is front and center in this type of film, and I look forward to seeing her in future installments of the DC Universe.

As with Zack Snyder’s other films, the cinematography and production design are gorgeous. The film is never boring to look at and there’s a lot to take in. However, there are times when narrative and character are sacrificed for tone and visual appeal. This is oft-repeated criticism of Snyder, whose problems with storytelling do appear in this film. He often has a hard time balancing all of the characters and plot points that permeate the movie. In a nutshell, this might be the film’s biggest problem. Dan Murrell of Screen Junkies was correct when he remarked that the movie was like five separate movies smashed into one and the filmmakers had trouble carrying everything effectively.

All of these criticisms are valid. I think the script really needed one more rewrite or edit before they started shooting. Having said that, the film we did get was good and it didn’t deserve the level of vitriol it received.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, warts and all, gave movie-goers a powerful introduction to the DC Universe. It could’ve been easy for the studio to make something like Marvel, but they didn’t. They gave audiences something completely different than most superhero films, and for that, I can applaud it. The best thing I can say about this film is its ambition, its willingness to take risks and be bold. Does it always work? No. But when it does, it’s great. This film is certainly better than other big superhero films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, which had all the same problems but not nearly as much hate.

Art is supposed to challenge us. It is supposed to throw things at us and make us deal with them. Within the comic book genre, this film achieves that. The fact that it has divided so many people speaks to its ability to challenge audiences and make us question the very idea of heroism. Whether you loved it or hated it, this film compelled you to speak your mind. That might be its biggest victory.

Overall Grade = B+

Slavery, Morality, and Christianity: A Dialogue with Pastor Chad Damitz

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I  recently had a very passionate and interesting exchange through social media with Chad Damitz, associate pastor at Bible Baptist Church in Kokomo, Indiana. We have known each other for years and even participated together in a public debate on the origins of morality. (It can be found on YouTube.)

This polite, but heated exchange was spurred by my post of a quote from Alice Walker, celebrated African-American novelist, whose view of Christianity Chad took issue with.

Here’s the quote:

“What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure; that one is born into evil rather than into
joy. . .

It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found. And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”

Our unabridged dialogue is as follows:

Chad:

This quote is blatantly misleading. There are several scripture references that denounce the idea of kidnapping or man-stealing, which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century. Africans were stolen by slave hunters, sold to slave traders, and these slave traders forced them into harsh labor. These practices will always be loathsome to God.

Here are a few verses to confirm this: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death (Exodus 21:16).” 1 Timothy 1:8-10 lists “enslavers” along with liars and murderers, condeming their acts against humanity too. I think the Bible even has a stricter stance against slavery than today.

Currently, there are 27 million people in the world that are subject to slavery. This includes forced labor, human trafficking, and inheritable property. Why aren’t there stricter penalties for these atrocious acts against humanity today? Just look at the Norweigein Bodnariu family who the government is taking their children away from them without duable cause. This is supposed to be one of the most progressive countries in the world and the government is literally stealing children away from law-abiding citizens. This is progressive?

With that said, the Bible did talk about slavery (Deut. 15; Eph. 6; Colossians 4:1), but people were not enslaved because of their ethnic background. People who owed a debt actually voluntarily sold themselves to owners since that was the only way to provide for their families, some of them even being doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It wasn’t always the poor that this happened to.

And let’s be honest. Just look to William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton, all Christians, who took on the cause of abolition because of their idea that all men are created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). In my opinion, this quote is academically and historically dishonest.

Justin:

I’m really glad you ended this comment with, “in my opinion,” because your comment is about as blatantly misleading to me as this quote was to you.

Slavery is an extremely murky subject in the Bible. You can read passages in both its defense as well as its rejection. For example, your comment on slave trading is misleading.

In Exodus, there are restrictions for slave masters on the attainment of Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:7-11 NASB), but not so much on non-Hebrews. Here’s an extended passage from Leviticus 25: 44-46 (NASB) on this point:

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.”

If you look at the Reverend E. W. Warren’s 1864 tract, Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible, this same argument is made in defense of American slavery. I am in no way denigrating the strong abolitionists who were religious, like Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greely, or even John Brown. My point is that it is not a clear-cut as you see it.

The Bible was used, from the earliest days of the Republic, to both defend and refute the “peculiar institution.” Even Thomas Paine, the freethinking deist, showed this point in an excellent essay from 1774 called “African Slavery in America.” Here’s a quote from his essay that illustrates his view:

“Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came, under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours; and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just? — One would almost wish they could for once; it might convince more than reason, or the Bible.”

Your argument about indentured servitude makes sense within the context of scripture, but the moral point remains. Is indentured servitude a moral action? I would argue that it isn’t, since it is still founded on the unequal rights and treatment of human beings. Contracted labor is fine, especially if someone has a right to exit (key to a free society), but indentured servitude is a barbaric practice that should end, much like witch killing and death by torture.

I read up a bit about this family in Norway that you speak of. The claim that they were taken with no doable cause is nonsense. This issue is complicated enough to warrant an investigation by authorities. In Norway, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment on children is illegal, and the children accused their parents of abuse. Now, the children could be lying, and in which case, an investigation could display that. But when there’s the potential abuse of children at play by what seems to me as radical, Pentecostal parents who have no respect for civil laws and civil society, I have no issue with Norway’s version of CPS to come and help these children. Your equating this incident with slavery is morally problematic, and if I was a believer, I wouldn’t have used it as an example.

You’re a smart guy, and you clearly are moral and kind. It must be hard for a believer like you to constantly have to circle a square, which is what religious people have to do when it comes to claims about the Bible. As I’ve said, it is the “Big Book of Multiple Choice.” It can be used to defend or denounce just about anything.

Slavery is upheld, both by the Old and New Testaments. It would’ve been easy for God in the Ten Commandments to add, “thou shalt not own another person as property,” but for some reason he wastes the first few commandments reminding you of how much of a petty, jealous god he is. This, along with not clearly stating that rape and abuse of children is wrong, pretty much nullifies Christianity in my estimation.

Alice Walker is right, and your attempt to justify this Bronze Age religion, is wrong. (If you wish to continue this discussion, let’s do so in a message. It will be easier to type to one another.)

Chad:

Justin, let me first start by apologizing for being brash in our conversation the other day. My desire is not to be mean-spirited but have a reasonable discourse concerning biblical ethics. I want you to know I respect your viewpoint.

I want to start by sharing Job 31:13. It states here: “If i have denied injustice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? How will I answer when called to account? Did not He who made me in the womb also make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job is agreed upon by most scholars as one of the oldest books in the Bible. This suggests that the concept of equality and human dignity was taught from the beginning.

You made the comment that all forms of servitude, even voluntarily servitude, is immoral. I do agree that no one should be forced into labor, but what if someone needs to earn a living or learn a trade? Shouldn’t they be “highly encouraged” to provide for their family? Also, what about criminals in jail. Is it wrong for them to be mandated to have certain jobs, like washing dishes or taking care of their laundry? They do receive free food, housing, and clothes. The same happened in the Bible. When some of the foreigners who were at war against the Israelites were captured, they were treated just like prisoners today.

And I know you selected the passage about non-Israelites being captured, but even they were not constituted to a life time of bondage. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 15 they were able to earn their freedom.

Moreover, the institution of slavery was deeply rooted in the culture. Every historical record confirms the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ammonites, Edomites, etc were involved. That doesn’t justify the Israelites being involved in this practice, but there was a major difference. The OT Mosaic Law limited and regulated the practice and was determined to correct its inhumane abuses. See Exodus 20:10 and 21:20-27. Also, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines.

In the New Testament, Jesus, who Christians believe to be the God-Man, taught through the disciples that there is neither slave nor free, but that all are part of Christ’s church and equally accountable to God (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 6:5-9). Also, Jesus was a revolutionary. He told people to love his enemies. This was unheard of.

Finally, you are correct in mentioning that the South promoted slavery because of their religious viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean it was a biblical viewpoint. I already shared with you the passage that condemns antebellum slavery by the very fact that people were “stolen.” This was punishable by death in the OT. Also, as mentioned, it was not racially motivated. Remember how I mentioned Moses and other Israelites were able to intermarry among different races? A few examples are an Egyptian Cushite, Ruth a Moabite, Rahab from Jericho, etc. These were different nationalities accepted into the Israelite community.

When we look at our culture today, anyone can take the Bible out of context. Just take a look at Fred Phelps and his “hatred speech” towards everyone. Or think about Jim Jones and others who have enticed people to take their own lives from preaching “the Bible.” This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the Bible.

I understand we will be at a stalemate, but I would like to hear your response. Thanks again for listening to my worldview and  being gracious to sympathize as best as you can. Have a good day.

Justin

I appreciate your response and your willingness to intellectually spar a bit.

I certainly agree with you that the Bible has been used, and will continue to be used, as an instrument or good or ill. But that isn’t the main issue.

My issue is that God could’ve easily said, “Thou shalt not own another person as property.” But he didn’t. Instead, there are obscure and often contradictory statements made in the Bible

The passage of Job is a good one, and its overall point is sound but it still doesn’t address the issue. By calling them servants, which in this context are slaves, Job is still considered superior to them in his society. Even if he is kind and righteous and moral to them, his ownership of them is still morally wrong. I also wouldn’t go so far as to the say the Bible endorses equality in the passage. Concepts of equality, that we often think of today, come from humanistic traditions that both pre-date and supersede Biblical traditions. Overall, this is a difference of opinion for us.

Race has nothing to do with this issue from a Biblical view; this is where we also agree. Whether they are black, white, brown, whatever; people should not be owned as property. The Bible still doesn’t get that across clearly.

And while Jesus does say that we are equal in the eyes of God, that means nothing for the here and now. While you may be equal in the next life, you are still desperately unequal in this one. This may not matter to you that much, but this means everything to me, since I have no belief or interest in the afterlife. Since it is an “if,” I would rather focus on this life and improve things here. However, for the sake of argument, if we’re all equal in the eyes of God, according to your view, it shouldn’t matter if we want to improve things here. But apparently, slavery is still something that goes on the Biblical narrative.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB) in detail:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.”

Again, it reaffirms what I said earlier, which is that a person will receive equality in the next life if they are ignorantly obedient in this one. Still pretty murky to me.

And while 1 Timothy 1:10 does decry against “menstealers,” its context relates more to those who steal others to sell them into slavery, rather than slave traders in general. So, to be more accurate, the Bible is against a certain form of slavery (human trafficking spurred by kidnapping) rather than slavery broadly. Good, but not quite good enough.

I do not believe that prisoners should work for free. They should be compensated for their work, but it does not have to be at the same value. Most prisons do not make their incarcerated work for free; they may earn bad wages but it is still a wage. Far more moral in my book than servitude.

We should also work towards a society where no person should have to sell themselves into servitude, where all free men and women should be able to work, or not work, as they please. Labor should have just as many rights as the owner. Abraham Lincoln agrees with me on this point. In his first annual message to Congress, Lincoln wrote that, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Lincoln’s strongest opponents, those who favored slavery, still continued to use Christianity to defend slavery. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, gave a speech in 1861 where he said, “They [meaning the North] were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”

He also stated that, “It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.”

Like Phelps and Jones who came after him, Stephens used his own view of religion to commit himself to terrible ideas, ideas he got from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

We are at an impasse. You continue to use post hoc rationalizations for the barbarism within the Bible. I respect the fact that you make an effort to make the book more moral than it actually is. It speaks to what I said in our debate last year, which is that most Christians are far more moral than the religion they actually believe in.

I always enjoy our discussions and appreciate your criticisms. It helps me be a better thinker and writer. I hope I have done the same for you.

In that vein, would it be ok if I published our exchange on my blog? I will not edit a single thing (other than typos, ha) and you will have final say on whether it goes up. Let me know what you think. My blog is at www.armyofprinciplesblog.wordpress.com.

Best wishes.

Chad

Hey Justin, thanks for your response. Yes, you can publish our exchange on your blog. Thanks again for the discussion and valid points you brought up.

Justin

Excellent. Thanks for letting me do that and your willingness to discuss things. You made great points as well. It was too good of a discussion to be left to Facebook.

While we disagree on much, Chad and I had a very respectul, if at times  confrontational, dialogue. He’s a really nice guy and very bright; he’s the kind of religious person I always enjoy talking to.

More importantly than our own personal views, it is good that the two of us can have these discussions and remain civil. That’s the goal of free inquiry and expression. I hope to have many more of these discussions in the future.

To learn more about slavery in the Bibile, I highly recommed the Rational Wiki’s entry on the subject.