An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: Y. Has Christianity made the world a better place?

When one is assessing the credibility of a religion, impact matters: has it been a force for good or for evil? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his followers how to discern false prophets: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, NASB). This is a test that can be applied not only to prophets, but to entire religions. What I am proposing in this essay is that while a religion which makes our world a better place may not necessarily be true on that account, its positive influence on the course of human history at least renders it worthy of consideration. On the other hand, we can probably disregard the truth claims of a religion which leaves the world no better than it was before, and ignore altogether the claims of a religion which actually makes the world a worse place in which to live. So the question we need to ask, before examining the intellectual claims of Christianity, is: has Christianity made the world a better place?

After carefully considering and rebutting objections to this way of framing the issue, I identify five key areas in which Christianity has arguably had a positive impact on the course of history. I then identify six common fallacies committed by apologists, when arguing for the moral superiority of Christianity. I conclude that only one of the five key areas (charitable giving) constitutes a powerful argument for Christianity – and even this change points not towards Christianity as such, but towards the Abrahamic religions in general (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), without favoring any one in particular. Christian charity has arguably saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people down the ages, but the active involvement of Christians in the slave trade (which I document in detail below) has ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of people as well. It is thus very hard to tell if Christianity has had a net beneficial impact on the course of human history, although I’m inclined to think it has.

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My essay will be divided into five parts. In the first part, I anticipate objections which might be raised against my pragmatic approach to evaluating world religions by asking if they have made the world a better place. In the second part, I examine five key areas that are commonly cited by apologists who argue that Christianity has made the world a better place: charitable giving, the virtual elimination of infanticide, advances in the status of women, changes in popular attitudes towards suicide, and the abolition of slavery. In the third part, I identify six argumentative fallacies commonly committed by Christian apologists attempting to show that Christianity has indeed made the world a better place. I have labeled these fallacies as the fallacy of under-specification, the fallacy of mistaken attribution, the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative, the fallacy of temporal narrowness, the fallacy of cultural narrowness, and the fallacy of ignoring the negatives. In the fourth part, I address the five examples listed above of how Christianity has made the world a better place, and show that in each case, the apologetic arguments designed to show that Christianity has improved the world in this particular area contain one or more of the six fallacies listed above. In the fifth part, I take a bird’s eye view of the arguments, and conclude that while charity is the best argument for how Christianity has made the world better, it faces a final obstacle: showing that the benefits it has brought to the world outweigh the enormous harms done in the name of Christianity. To my mind, this obstacle is an insuperable one.

1. Forestalling objections to my pragmatic approach

(a) The case against a pragmatic approach to world religions, in a nutshell

Fishing for souls by Adriaen van de Venne (c. 1589–1662). 1614, oil on oak wood., Rijksmuseum. In the picture, Protestants (shown on the left) and Catholics (shown on the right) are competing with one another in their attempts to rescue lost souls from the threat of damnation.

I am perfectly well aware that there are certain Christian apologists who would reject the question in the heading of my post as a fundamentally misguided one. These apologists contend that an idea may still be true even if it leads to bad consequences, just as it may be false even if it leads to good ones. For instance, the proposition that 2 + 2 = 4 would remain true, even if the act of asserting this truth somehow sparked World War III and the annihilation of the entire human race. And I think everyone would agree that no matter how socially useful a belief may happen to be, that doesn’t make it true: it might simply be what Plato calls a “noble lie” in Book III (414b-415d) of his Republic – a necessary falsehood, if you like. Apologists who deny that there is any strong connection between the truth of an idea and its consequences go on to argue that the purpose of Christianity is not to make the world a better place (although many of them would argue it has in fact done so), but to rescue people in danger of going to hell. Christianity is thus a quest to save lost souls, as depicted in the painting above. In its attempts to save people from damnation, Christianity will inevitably create social discord, pitting neighbor against neighbor (think of the many arguments there have been over LGBT issues, euthanasia and abortion, in our own times) and sometimes even provoking violence, but that is only to be expected. Truth is often divisive, especially when it concerns matters of morality and worship. Jesus himself is said to have declared, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35, ESV). To be sure, Christianity will, in the long run, lead to a much better and more harmonious world when the Kingdom of God is established, but in the short term, it can often tear a society apart.

(b) Five reasons why the above arguments fail

Mediterranean diet foods: a spread of fruits, bread, olive oil, and wine. Image courtesy of G.steph.rocket and Wikipedia. The search for the best religion is, I would argue, similar in many ways to the quest for the best diet.

In response to these apologists, I’d like to make five general points. First, it is utterly ridiculous to compare the truth of Christianity with the truth of arithmetic propositions, such as the statement that 2 + 2 = 4. For Christianity, unlike arithmetic, is a very practical matter, whether one conceives of it in individual terms (saving one’s own soul) or in social terms (spreading Christ’s love around the world by helping the needy). Even revealed truths about God are practical, as they have a bearing on how we conceive of God, and how we pray to Him. Case in point: should we pray to God as He, She, both or neither? That’s a very practical question. Even the dogma of the Trinity is first learned as a practice: a Catholic or Orthodox child learns to make the sign of the Cross long before he or she learns the Nicene Creed. The doctrine of the Trinity also has practical repercussions, in terms of how we are to address God while praying: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Or should that be Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier?) In a similar way, it can be shown that all of the truths of Christianity are linked with practice. And when one is dealing with practical truths, one has to look at consequences.

One advantage of this focus on consequences which I am proposing here is that it throws the search for the true religion open to everyone. It is difficult for a layperson to assess the merits of competing arguments as to whether the doctrines of Christianity are rationally defensible, whether they are clearly taught in the Bible and/or by the Church Fathers, and whether they have been faithfully transmitted to us by the Church founded by Christ. Such arguments require a solid grasp of several academic disciplines: philosophy, Biblical scholarship and/or Patristics, and Church history. A person may be well-versed in one of these areas, but few indeed are well-informed in all of them. Such a theoretical approach to the quest for religious truth is truly daunting for ordinary people, causing many of them to throw up their hands in despair, as experts can often be cited on both sides of the issues under consideration. By contrast, it is much easier for people to address the practical question: has Christianity had beneficial consequences for humanity, overall? All they have to do is look around them.

Instead of likening the quest for religious truths to mathematical truths, I believe a more apt comparison with the search for the best religion would be the quest for the best diet. One can only find the answer to this question by testing different diets on large populations, and similarly, I would propose that the world’s religions can be tested by carefully examining the different societies that uphold their respective tenets and practices. A diet which has adverse effects on many people’s physical health is not a good one; and a religion which has adverse effects on many people’s mental health and weakens the social fabric is not a good one, either. Both are, in their own different ways, unbalanced. Incidentally, the analogy I am proposing here is a very Biblical one. It is a telling fact that again and again, within the Gospels, we see Jesus making reference to fruit. Believers are expected to bear fruit, thereby proving that they are Jesus’ disciples (John 15:8), and in St. Paul’s writings, the fruits of the Spirit are contrasted with the works of the flesh, which include “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” (Galatians 5:20, ESV). It is thus perfectly Biblical to say that “bad fruits” undermine the moral truth claims of an ideology, including Christianity.

The second point that needs to be made is that Christianity is a religion – a banal observation, but a significant one nonetheless. While the ultimate derivation of the word “religion” remains shrouded in obscurity to this day, it is noteworthy that Christian thinkers as diverse as Lactantius and Augustine, as well as many modern writers, have linked it with the Latin verb religare: “to bind fast,” either by imposing powerful reciprocal obligations upon members of a community of worshippers, or by creating a bond between humans and their God or gods. In either case, religion is not a purely personal affair between me and my God, but a very public affair. Religious people, the world over, worship together. Strengthening social connections is therefore a key aspect of what religion is all about. A religion which weakens these connections and foments division and strife wherever it takes root is thus an aberration: it is the very opposite of what a religion should be.

Some Christian apologists might responding by arguing that orthodox Nicene Christianity did in fact create create a more harmonious society, after it became the State-sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius the Great issued the Edict of Thessalonica. In other words, a religion can unite a society when it is (almost) universally adopted. The point is dubious: it could be plausibly argued that religious orthodoxy has an inherent tendency to fragment. Within Christianity, one only has to think of the enormous social upheaval caused by bickering between new and emerging sects (e.g. Nestorians versus Dyophysites versus Miaphysites and Monophysites; Monothelites vs. Dyothelites; Iconodules vs. Iconoclasts) from the fifth to eighth centuries. And as Christian historian Philip Jenkins points in his book, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years (New York: HarperOne, 2010), the violence inflicted by Christians upon one another during the Christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries led to tens of thousands of deaths. But even if it were true that a society in which Christianity is the religion of the State is a more peaceful one, the same could also be said for state-sanctioned Buddhism or Islam; and in any case, I would maintain that this harmony is an artificial one, if the penalty for publicly criticizing the State religion is imprisonment, exile or even death, as was the case in Christian Europe for many centuries. A society which is incapable of tolerating criticism is not a strong society, but a fragile one: like a porcelain vase, it can shatter very easily.

Distribution of emergency food packages by UNICEF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2008. Image courtesy of Julien Harneis and Wikipedia. Giving assistance to the hungry is a beautiful illustration of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – a term which literally means repairing the world. Likewise, in the Christian parable of the Last Judgement, it is those that help the poor and needy who enter into eternal life, not those who loudly profess to follow Jesus.

A third observation I’d like to make is that Christianity cannot divorce itself from its Jewish roots. The concept of tikkun olam – a term which literally means repairing the world – figures prominently within Judaism, and has done so at least since the time when the Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic teachings) was codified, around the year 200. Back then, the term referred to social policy legislation aimed at giving extra protection to disadvantaged people, such as widows and the poor (see Gittin 4:2-9). Going further back in time, it is evident that concern for the poor in Judaism can be found within the Hebrew Bible itself: chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus denounces oppression of the poor and urges fair treatment of the vulnerable, as do the Jewish prophets, both major and minor. Likewise, we can see that Christianity has a strong social orientation from the fact that in the New Testament, the epistle of James defines pure and undefiled religion in practical as well as personal terms: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV). And who can forget Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), where it is those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners and the sick, who inherit eternal life? It is therefore relevant to ask whether Christianity has practiced what it has preached, and whether Christian charity has in fact transformed the world for the better.

My fourth point is that in real life, we often do evaluate religious, philosophical and political ideologies on the basis of their practical consequences. Of course, not even the most ardent pragmatist would claim that the social utility of an ideology thereby renders it true; at most, it suggests to us that the ideology’s truth claims may warrant serious examination. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty safe bet that any ideology leading to disastrous social consequences is a false one. An example that springs to mind here is Communism. Timothy Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale University, has estimated that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was directly responsible for at least 6 million deaths (notably, in the Ukraine in 1930-33), and as many as 9 million altogether (not 20 million or more, as some scholars, such as Robert Conquest and Rudolph Rummel, mistakenly calculated before the Soviet archives in the 1990s were opened), if we also count foreseeable deaths resulting from deportation, starvation, and imprisonment in Soviet labor camps; while the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and researcher Ian Johnson concludes that Chairman Mao Zedong was responsible for between between 35 million and 45 million deaths in China during the Great Leap Famine of 1958-62 (which was mostly man-made), plus an additional 2.5 million who were killed in the Cultural Revolution and other political campaigns initiated by Mao. These facts alone are enough to put ordinary people off Communism, without even bothering to read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, in order to ascertain whether Stalin and Mao were indeed following Marx’s teachings. And I would say they are quite right: even if Stalin’s and Mao’s policies were wildly at variance with what Marx advocated, the mere fact that morally depraved individuals like them were able to rise to the top within a Marxist society would be more than sufficient to damn Communism as a political system, since a system in which monsters can easily become masters is by definition a flawed one. The same considerations apply to Christianity. And one could certainly argue that if Christianity had created as much misery as Communism, ordinary people would be perfectly right to disregard its claims to truth, as well. The only thing that would warrant a reconsideration of its claims would be solid historical evidence that Christianity, despite the numerous atrocities linked to it, actually saved a much greater number of lives than it destroyed.


Photo of the “Victims of Communism Memorial” in Washington, DC. The statue is a recreation of the “Goddess of Freedom” statue erected during the protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989, where the original statue was brutally destroyed and thousands killed by the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China.

Now, it might be objected that the cases of Communism and Christianity are not parallel, as Communism openly espouses violence in the form of class warfare, whereas Christianity rejects it: Christians are enjoined to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39, ESV). At first blush, this injunction appears to make Jesus sound like an out-and-out pacifist. However, many Christians (including members of mainstream denominations of Christianity) have attempted to explain away this inconvenient verse by distinguishing between individuals (who are forbidden to resort to violence) and the State (which sometimes finds it necessary to do so, in order to maintain law and order). And Jesus’ own parables frequently feature rulers inflicting violent punishments on miscreants. What’s more, there’s nothing in the New Testament which explicitly prohibits religious persecution of non-Christians by the State, and enjoins tolerance. That being the case, it is perfectly legitimate to inquire whether Christian states have been responsible for episodes of mass violence in the name of religion, down the ages. In most Christian countries, these barbarous episodes thankfully ceased long ago, but we would do well to remember that the Inquisition remained active in the Papal States until the late nineteenth century, and that as scholar and historian Professor Bart Ehrman has elaborated in his book, The Triumph of Christianity (London: Oneworld, 2018), religious mob violence instigated by Christians first became common in the late fourth century, shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the fifth and sixth centuries, things were even worse, as Christian historian Philip Jenkins chronicles at the beginning of his book, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years (New York: HarperOne, 2010):

Each side persecuted its rivals when it had the opportunity to do so, and tens of thousands — at least — perished. Christ’s nature was a cause for which people were prepared to kill and to die, to persecute or to suffer martyrdom… Horror stories about Christian violence abound in other eras, with the Crusades and Inquisition as prime exhibits; but the intra-Christian violence of the fifth-and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition and occurred at a much earlier stage of church history.

One can therefore truthfully say that mainstream Christianity has been violent throughout most of its history.

My fifth and final point is that appealing to the long term in order to verify the positive effects of Christianity on human society – for example, by appealing to the future coming of God’s kingdom, which will right all our wrongs and establish perfect harmony – falls foul of a maxim originating with Lord Keynes: “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” In coining this adage, Keynes was not espousing short-term thinking, but he was asserting “the primacy of the present over the past and the future,” as History Today editor Paul Lay acknowledges. In judging the merits of a religion, we cannot look to the distant future. Instead, we have to ask: has it made the world a better place in the past, and is it making the world a better place, here and now?

(c) Two fundamental objections to judging religions by their results, and why they miss the mark

Left: John Calvin. Right: Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

We are not quite done yet, for there are two radical objections to the whole enterprise of judging religions by their results which need to be addressed. The first objection has not (as far as I am aware) been explicitly endorsed by any Christian apologist, but it is one that may strike people with only a superficial knowledge of Calvinism as plausible, nonetheless. This objection is based on the Calvinist tenet of the total depravity of human nature. If one grants this premise, then it seems to follow that a sinner who converts to Christianity will never become a better human being in the process. On the contrary, he will still be a very sinful human being, the only difference being that he is now fully aware of his depravity, and of the fact that he can only be saved through faith in Christ. That being the case, even a society made up entirely of saved individuals (i.e. “the elect”) may be no more pleasant for its members to live in than one made up of unrepentant sinners: it may still be filled with strife, violence and misery.

The second objection is that a properly Christian society has never been implemented in the first place. As the writer and Catholic apologist Gilbert Keith Chesterton memorably put it in part 1, chapter 5 of his book, What’s Wrong With The World (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1910): “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” It would be a serious misreading of Chesterton to view him as making a fallacious “No true Scotsman” argument in this passage. As we shall see below, the Christian ideal which he is referring to is not the Christian faith as such, but a distinctively Christian (or more precisely, Catholic) political system in which the temporal power of the State is subordinated to the spiritual power of the Church, as our ultimate and eternal end (union with God in Heaven) is a spiritual one. What Chesterton was claiming was that the ideal of a society governed by the Church had never been realized: even during the Middle Ages, the State was too powerful to be governed by the Church.

Calvinists themselves acknowledge that good works are a sign of election, without being the cause of it


Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), a great philanthropist and benefactor, who embraced the Calvinism of British preacher George Whitefield and who was at the same time a keen supporter of the Methodist movement.

Both of these objections miss the mark. The first objection overlooks the common teaching of Calvinism that the performance of good works is an outward sign of one’s election by the unmerited grace of God. Putting it another way: if you’re a Calvinist and you claim to have had an experience of being saved, but your outward conduct is as self-centered as it was before your saving encounter with Christ, then your fellow Calvinists may well come to view your experience as either a lie or a delusion on your part. For Calvinists, good works are a part of a godly life, even though they won’t save you. Thus the Canons of Dort (a statement of doctrine drawn up by the Reformed Synod of Dort in 1618-1619) refer to “the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word — such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on” (First Main Point, Article 12 on “The Assurance of Election.”) One of the signs that a person belongs to the company of the saints is “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (Fifth Main Point, Article 10 on The Ground of This Assurance). From this, it follows that a model Christian society, such as the one set up by the reformer John Calvin in the city of Geneva in the sixteenth century, should display these good works – and in particular, show care for the poor, which Calvin viewed as a requirement not of charity but of justice, as Matthew Tuininga, assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains in his article, Why Calvin Had Good News for the Poor (The Gospel Coalition, October 26, 2016). On a Calvinist view, then, the fruits of Christianity should be visible to all.

Catholic integralism and its perils


The wax effigy of Pope Gregory VII (also known as Hildebrand) under glass in the Cathedral of Salerno (Italy). As Pope, Gregory VII exercised enormous power, humbling even Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who was compelled to kneel in the snow for three days and fast at Canossa (Italy), before the Pope would agree to meet him.

The second objection relates not to Christianity as such, but to the full implementation of what Chesterton refers to as “the Christian ideal,” or “the great mediaeval conception that the church is the judge of the world,” and not the other way round. The social and political ideal which Chesterton is defending here is known as Catholic integralism, which Fr. Edmund Waldstein defines as follows:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

In Part One, chapter V of his book, What’s Wrong With The World, Chesterton explains that according to this ideal, upheld by the English martyr St. Thomas Becket, kings could be tried by the clergy, but the Christian clergy could never be tried in a court of law. He goes on to argue that in England, at any rate, “the church never was a supreme church,” as it was often under the thumb of princes, who appointed bishops. Chesterton argues that in order for the Christian program to be thoroughly implemented, it needed “a common scheme of life and thought in Europe,” but contends that Europe began to fragment intellectually before this could be achieved.

In response: even if we concede that the Catholic clergy were often under the thumb of the State in medieval Europe, it is equally true that frequently, it was the Church, and not the State, that wielded the real power. One only has to think of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who was compelled to kneel in the snow for three days and fast at Canossa, before Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand), pictured above, granted him an audience and eventually revoked his excommunication. The issue at stake between the Pope and Emperor related to whether the Church or the State should have the ability to choose and install bishops, and in this episode, the Church handily won and the State was soundly humiliated. The investiture controversy, as it was called, was eventually resolved on terms that were broadly favorable to the medieval Church: bishops had to swear an oath of fealty to the secular monarch, but they were appointed by the Church.

It should also be borne in mind that the medieval Church was very powerful. As Baptist pastor Dr. Gavin Ortlund explains in his video, “Why Reformation was needed”, “the medieval Roman Catholic Church claimed the authority to exterminate heretics, and to do that through the secular authority, over which she claimed jurisdiction” [21:43]. Canon 3 of the ecumenical Fourth Lateran Council (1215) stipulated that if a temporal lord who was instructed by the Church to “cleanse his territory” of “heretical foulness,” neglected to do so, he would be excommunicated by the bishops. The canon then went on to say that if such a lord failed to persecute heretics within a year, the Pope could free his subjects of their obligation to obey him and offer the lord’s territory to someone who was prepared to exterminate heretics: “If he refuses to make satisfaction within a year, let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff [i.e. the Pope], that he may declare the ruler’s vassals absolved from their allegiance may offer the territory to be ruled by Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance and preserve it in the purity of faith.” Dr. Ortlund also quotes from Pope Boniface VIII’s bull, Unam Sanctam (1302), which refers to the “two swords”: the sword of spiritual power wielded by the Church and the sword of temporal power wielded by the State. As Boniface VIII put it, “The former is of the priest; the latter is by the hand of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.” The Pope then added: “However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.” That’s about as fulsome a declaration of ecclesiastical supremacy over the temporal realm as one could possibly get. Chesterton’s claim that his ideal of a Christian society has been “left untried” is therefore at odds with the facts.

2. Has Christianity actually made the world a better place?

Triptych showing the Hôtel Dieu, a public hospital in Paris and possibly the oldest continuously operating hospital in the world, around the year 1500. The comparatively well patients on the right were separated from the very ill patients on the left. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are five key areas that are commonly cited by apologists who argue that Christianity has indeed made the world a better place:

(i) Christian charitable institutions. Even Professor Bart Ehrman, a notorious critic of Christianity, has admitted in a blog post titled, “The Invention of Charity” (June 21, 2022) that Christian charities have been a major force for good in the world:

The Christian tradition made a radical intervention in public rhetoric and social practice connected to the use of wealth, in particular to the question of how those with resources should help those without. Why and how should the rich assist the poor? This was not a question raised in the Roman environment out of which Christianity emerged.

It is not that Christians invented the idea of “charity”: they inherited a concern for the needy from their Jewish forebears. But they, not the Jews, converted the Roman world, and, in the end, universalized and, to some extent, institutionalized the imperatives, incentives, and practices of charity. Prior to the Christian conquest of the Empire, the Western world knew of no such things as hospitals, orphanages, private charities, or governmental assistance to the poor. These are Christian innovations…

[I]n the Roman world at large, those with wealth showed almost no concern for those in need, even desperate need. They had no compulsion, incentive, or reason to give to the poor, homeless, and hungry, and in fact they were urged by their fellow elites – including their moral philosophers – not to do so. As a result, in the world into which Christianity appeared, there was almost nothing that we would consider “charity” to the poor. In the emerging Christian tradition, on the contrary, the poor became a focus of religious, social, and economic discourse.

(ii) Infanticide and abortion. The following quote is taken from sociologist Rodney Stark’s book, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (HarperOne, 2007, pp. 320-321):

The advantages of Christian females began at birth. Infanticide was widely practiced by Greco-Romans, and it was especially female infants who were dispatched. A study of inscriptions at Delphi made it possible to reconstruct 600 families. Of these, only six had raised more than one daughter. As would be expected, the bias against female infants showed up dramatically in the sex ratios of the imperial population. It is estimated that there were 131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome, and 140 males per 100 females elsewhere in the Empire.

…Once married, pagan girls had a substantially lower life expectancy, much of the difference being due to the great prevalence of abortion, which involved barbaric methods in an age without soap, let alone antibiotics. Given the very significant threat to life and the agony of the procedure, one might wonder why pagan women took such risks. They didn’t do so voluntarily. It was men – husbands, lovers, and fathers – who made the decision to abort. It isn’t surprising that a world that gave husbands the right to demand that infant girls be done away with would also give men the right to order their wives, mistresses, or daughters to abort. Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle advocated mandatory abortions to limit family size and for various other reasons.

Christian wives did not have abortions (nor did Jewish wives). According to the Didache, a first-century manual of Church teachings, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

After the Roman Empire became Christian, legislation outlawing infanticide rapidly followed, as the historian William Lecky narrates in volume 2 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1891; Third edition):

A law of Constantine, intended principally, and perhaps exclusively, for Africa, where the sacrifices of children to Saturn were very common, assimilated to parricide the murder of a child by its father;4 and finally, Valentinian, in A.D. 374, made all infanticide a capital offence,5 and especially enjoined the punishment of exposition.1 A law of the Spanish Visigoths, in the seventh century, punished infanticide and abortion with death or blindness.2 In the Capitularies of Charlemagne the former crime was punished as homicide.3
(Vol. 2, New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1891; Third edition, pp. 53-54)

Ecclesiastical efforts to reduce the incidence of infanticide continued well into the Middle Ages.

Left: Fresco of Pope Innocent III at the cloister Sacro Speco, c. 1219. Right: The baby hatch, or “foundling wheel,” which Innocent III ordered all churches in Italy to install in an attempt to reduce the incidence of infanticide, which was common in medieval Christian Europe. The picture shows the baby hatch at the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia (Rome).

During the Middle Ages, the Church made concerted efforts to rescue newborn babies who would otherwise have been abandoned and left to die, as May Overmyer relates in an article titled, The Bell That Saved Abandoned Babies In The Middle Ages (Religion Unplugged, May 29, 2019):

In 1198, Pope Innocent III promulgated an unusual decree for all churches in Italy: each was mandated to install a small, wooden architectural feature. These “foundling wheels” have been saving hundreds of thousands of lives ever since.

Foundling wheels were roughly two feet tall and were located on a church’s street-facing wall. From the outside, they looked like rectangular windows, however they were actually rotating cylinders, just large enough to fit a newborn baby.

Foundling wheels were created to protect at-risk babies, while preserving the anonymity of their mothers. Many towns and villages in twelfth century Italy faced economic hardship, making it difficult for families to provide for their children. Thus began the harrowing trend of impoverished parents abandoning babies in city centers or disposing them into the river Teverne.

Within his first year of papacy, Pope Innocent III became aware the local needs and used untapped church resources to offer a far better alternative.

After a probable great deal of contemplation and typically under the veil of nighttime, mothers would place their babies into the cubby and pull a string, ringing a bell on the other side of the wall. This bell, which operated at all hours, would alert, or wake, the nurse on the opposite side.

The nurse was either a nun who lived in the foundling room of the church or an older volunteer woman from the town or village.

Although the first institutions for foundlings were established in such towns as Trèves, Milan and Montpellier in the seventh and eighth centuries, and other foundling hospitals were set up in Italy and France during the Middle Ages, it was not until the eighteenth century that these institutions began to proliferate throughout Europe, in countries as far-flung as Great Britain and Russia.

Today, we live in a world where in most countries, infanticide, and especially female infanticide, is utterly unthinkable. Surely, urges the Christian apologist, it is only fair to say that the Christian Church deserves a large portion of the credit for this moral transformation in our outlook.

(iii) The status of women. John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and Glenn Sunshine, a former professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, describe how Christianity elevated the status of women in an online article titled, How the Church Has Been Good for Women… and Other Ways It Is “Essential” (Breakpoint.org, August 9th, 2022):

In ancient Rome, women were permitted to engage in business, but their primary role was in the household. Men had public roles, but women engaged in domestic work were subservient to their father or husband. As in other historical periods, elite women had more options. However, the vast majority of women were seen as not much better than slaves.

Twelve was the legal age for girls to marry in Rome. If not married by 20, women were generally marginalized. Though divorce was available to both men and women, husbands caused most divorces since women rarely had other financial means. Ex-wives and widows were often left destitute.

In contrast, Christianity saw women as the spiritual and moral equal of men. Women and men shared the same created dignity, the same problem (sin), and the same solution, Jesus. As result, women in the Christian community had a higher status and more freedom than women in the broader Roman world.

The Christian rejection of divorce and sexual double standards, and its insistence on strict monogamy reflected this. Further, women were given more choice about whom and whether to marry and tended to marry later than their Roman counterparts. While widows were encouraged to remarry, the Church provided aid for those who did not or could not.

Stonestreet and Sunshine also point out that during Roman times, women predominated within the Christian community, that “more women converted to Christianity than men,” and that “many men who converted did so under the influence of their wives.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, contends that Christianity gave Roman women more choices by allowing them to marry later, and in so doing, elevated their status:

The advantages of Christian women continued into the teens. Roman law suggested that girls not marry until age twelve, but there were no restrictions on earlier marriage (always to a far older man). A study based on inscriptions determined that about 20 percent of pagan girls married before the age of thirteen, compared with 7 percent of Christian girls. Only a third of pagan girls married at eighteen or older, compared with half of Christian girls.

(iv) Suicide. The historian William Lecky, in volume 1 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1869; Third edition), contrasts the relatively tolerant Greco-Roman attitude to suicide with its fierce condemnation by Christian writers, notably the fifth-century bishop and theologian, St. Augustine (354-430):

The wide divergence of the classical from the Catholic conception of death appears very plainly in the attitude which each system adopted towards suicide. This is, perhaps, the most striking of all the points of contrast between the teaching of antiquity, and especially of the Roman Stoics, on the one hand, and that of almost all modern moralists on the other…

A general approval of it floated down through most of the schools of philosophy, and even to those who condemned it, it never seems to have assumed its present aspect of extreme enormity…

The doctrine of suicide was indeed the culminating point of Roman Stoicism. The proud, self-reliant, unbending character of the philosopher could only be sustained when he felt that he had a sure refuge against the extreme forms of suffering or of despair.
(Vol. 1, New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1917; Third edition, pp. 212, 214, 222)

In volume 2, he describes how the medieval Christian Church, as well as Islam, which “borrowed its teaching from the Christian Church, and even intensified it,” managed to virtually eradicate the hitherto common practice of suicide:

Under the empire of Catholicism and Mohammedanism, suicide, during many centuries, almost absolutely ceased in all the civilised, active, and progressive part of mankind. When we recollect how warmly it was applauded, or how faintly it was condemned, in the civilisation of Greece and Rome; when we remember, too, that there was scarcely a barbarous tribe, from Denmark to Spain, who did not habitually practise it, we may realise the complete revolution which was effected in this sphere by the influence of Christianity.
(Vol. 2, New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1891; Third edition, pp. 53-54)

(v) Slavery. While it is widely acknowledged that many Christians owned slaves, well into the nineteenth century, and that they attempted to justify the practice by appealing to Scripture, it is not so widely known is that the abolitionists’ crusade against slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was rooted in their profoundly Christian convictions, as John Coffey, professor of history at the University of Leicester, explains in his online article, The abolition of the slave trade: Christian conscience and political action (Cambridge Papers, June 2006):

[I]f ‘the spread of moral convictions’ was not a sufficient cause of the rise and triumph of abolitionism, it was a necessary one. Ideas mattered, and the leading abolitionists cannot be understood without reference to their Christianity. They believed that all people are God’s offspring and bearers of the divine image; they believed that you must love your neighbour as yourself and do to others as you would have them do to you; they believed in a God who heard the cry of the oppressed, and a Messiah who had come to bring deliverance to captives; and they believed that sooner or later, God would punish a nation that failed to repent of its iniquitous exploitation of another race. These simple religious convictions lent a special intensity to the campaign against the slave trade, turning it into a sacred cause. If we doubt the power and promise of Christian beliefs, we should remember the abolitionists.

3. Did Christianity make the world more moral? General considerations

Before I address the foregoing arguments for the moral superiority of Christianity, I’d like to make a few general observations about what counts as a good argument in support of this claim. I’d also like to highlight six argumentative fallacies committed by Christian apologists attempting to show that Christianity has indeed made the world a better place.

First, an argument for the moral superiority of Christianity has to be just that: an argument for Christianity. It is not enough to demonstrate the moral superiority of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), as that still leaves us with three major world religions to judge between. An apologetic argument that overlooks this point commits what I will call the fallacy of under-specification: it fails to specify one religion that stands out from all the rest.

Second, a rationally persuasive argument for the moral superiority of Christianity has to show that Christianity was, at the very least, the primary cause of the changes it cites, that made the world a better place to live – even if it wasn’t the only cause. If it turns out that some other cause was responsible for the change in question, the argument fails: it commits the fallacy of mistaken attribution.

Third, an argument for the moral superiority of Christianity is severely undermined if it can be shown that there was, at the time, another competing philosophy or religion, or even a rationally obvious course of action, which could have brought about all or most of the positive changes wrought by Christianity, and that it could have done a better job. Such an argument commits what I’ll refer to as the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative.

Fourth, any good argument for the moral superiority of Christianity has to hold true for the entire period of time from Christianity’s first appearance (c. 30 A.D.) until the very end of human history. Otherwise, it is vulnerable to the objection that Christianity may have been useful once, but we don’t need it any more, as it has been superseded. An argument which fails to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity at all times commits the fallacy of temporal narrowness.

Fifth, any plausible argument for the moral superiority of Christianity has to apply to all cultures. It is not enough to show that Christianity transformed one culture for the better. Rather, it has to be shown that Christianity is able to transform each and every non-Christian culture it comes into contact with. If there is some culture that has been made worse as a result of its contact with Christianity, then a person belonging to that culture might consider themselves justified in rejecting Christianity on that account, which weakens the argument for Christianity’s moral superiority. An argument which fails to demonstrate that Christianity has been able to improve all cultures commits the fallacy of cultural narrowness.

Sixth, any convincing argument for the moral superiority of Christianity has to make a powerful case that its positive achievements outweigh the harms resulting from it, down the ages. By “harms resulting from Christianity,” I mean harms caused intentionally by people acting in the name of Christianity, as well as any foreseeable negative side-effects of actions done in the name of Christianity. An argument for the moral superiority of Christianity which makes no attempt to show that the benefits wrought by Christianity far outweigh the harms resulting from it commits the fallacy of ignoring the negatives.

4. Did Christianity make the world more moral? A response to the issues raised by apologists

I’d now like to address the five examples listed above of how Christianity has made the world a better place: charity, the elimination of infanticide, advances in the status of women, the condemnation of suicide, and the abolition of slavery.

(a) Charity

OVERVIEW: This is probably the best of the apologetic arguments for Christianity having made the world a better place. However, it suffers from several flaws. Christian apologists pointing to charity as evidence for the moral superiority commit no less than three argumentative fallacies: the fallacy of under-specification, the fallacy of cultural narrowness and the fallacy of ignoring the negatives. Since charitable giving is mandated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, the practice cannot be used to argue for Christianity in particular. Also, there have been many cultures (e.g. Native American cultures) that practiced charity on a much more comprehensive scale than Christian Europe: the practice of begging was unknown amongst them. Finally, actions performed in a spirit of Christian charity have led to disastrous consequences (e.g. cultural genocide), as well as having unintended but foreseeable side-effects, such as creating a dependency syndrome, making it difficult to be certain as to whether the positives of Christian charity outweigh the negatives, although Christian hospitals and care for the destitute and dying seem to tilt the balance heavily in the positive direction.

Fallacy of under-specification

At the very most, the argument from charitable giving establishes the superiority of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in general, without establishing the superiority of Christianity in particular. As Professor Bart Ehrman remarked in the passage quoted above on charity, “It is not that Christians invented the idea of ‘charity’: they inherited a concern for the needy from their Jewish forebears.” If Judaism is the source of Christian charity, shouldn’t we credit the source?

Additionally, the argument overlooks evidence for charity among Muslims. For instance, recent surveys show that Muslim-Americans contribute more of their wealth and income toward charitable causes than the general population, and volunteer at a much higher rate than non-Muslims. And in the U.K., a 2012 poll conducted by ICM Research indicates that Muslims give about one-third more money to charity than Jews, almost twice as much as Christians, and three times more than atheists. Finally, according to the CAF [Charities Aid Foundation] World Giving Index 2022, “Indonesia is the most generous country in the world for the fifth year in a row” (p. 6). During the past month, some 58% of people surveyed had helped a stranger, 84% had donated money, and 60% had volunteered time. Averaging these three indices of charitable activity yielded a mean score of 68% – some seven points ahead of its nearest rival, Kenya, and nine points ahead of the U.S., where fewer people surveyed had donated money in the past month (61% vs. 84% for Indonesia) and fewer had volunteered time (37% v. 60%). According to the CAF report, “Religious giving strongly influences Indonesia’s giving culture, with zakat [a form of almsgiving practiced by Muslims – VJT] driving the philanthropic work of many. Zakat defines giving to the vulnerable and needy as a religious duty for all Muslims who meet the necessary wealth criteria.” Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world today, comprising 12.7% (or just over one in eight) of the world’s Muslims. Based on civil registry data from 2022, some 87% of Indonesians identify as Muslims, out of a total population of about 278 million (Worldometers).

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind the conclusion reached by scholars Ahmad Sobiyanto and Nurwahidin Nurwahidin in their 2023 article, “Philanthropic Traditions in Religions; A Comparative Study of Jews, Islam, and Christianity” (Journal Middle East and Islamic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, Article 7, DOI: 10.7454/meis.v10i1.161): “Jews, Muslims, and Christians each have their own concepts and practices regarding philanthropic teachings” (2023, p. 14).

Insofar as the Christian apologetic argument from charitable giving fails to identify one religion which stands out from all the others when it comes to charity, it commits the the fallacy of under-specification.

Fallacy of cultural narrowness

Three Huron-Wyandot [Wendat] chiefs from the Huron reservation (Lourette) now called Wendake in Quebec, Canada. Portrait by Edward Chatfield, 1825. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Additionally, what the argument overlooks is that historically, other cultures have exhibited far more charity than Christian Europe – a fact which first became apparent a few centuries ago, when Europeans started colonizing the New World and sending back reports on the various tribes that lived there. In their groundbreaking book, The Dawn of Everything (Penguin Books, 2021), Professors David Graeber and David Wengrow describe how French missionaries in New France (a large swathe of territory colonized by France, in what is now the U.S. and Canada) were dismayed to find that Native Americans living in the territory considered their own society to be far superior to that of the French, whom they severely upbraided for their lack of generosity:

Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual: ‘They consider themselves much better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread, we share it with our neighbor.” They are saying these and like things continually.'(14)…

Twenty years later Brother Gabriel Sagard, a Recollect Friar,(15) wrote similar things of the Wendat nation… Much like Biard’s Mi’kmaq, the Wendat were particularly offended by the French lack of generosity to one another: ‘They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being any indigent beggar in their towns and villages; and they considered it a very bad thing when they heard that there were in France a great many of these needy beggars, and thought that this was for lack of charity in us, and blamed us for it severely.’(17) (2021, pp. 38-39)

The same generosity could be found among the tribes of the Amazon:

In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals. To these were occasionally added war captives, especially children taken in raiding expeditions. (2021, p. 520)

A Christian apologist would be on strong ground in arguing that Christianity introduced the concept of charity to Roman Europe in the fourth century, but it has to be squarely admitted this form of charity was vastly inferior to that practiced by many Native American cultures in the seventeenth century.

Finally, according to the CAF [Charities Aid Foundation] World Giving Index 2022, “Indonesia is the most generous country in the world for the fifth year in a row” (p. 6). Indonesia is not a Christian but a Muslim country. Myanmar, a Buddhist country, is sixth on the list, while Sierra Leone, a predominantly Muslim country, is seventh.

I conclude that the apologetic argument for the moral superiority of Christianity based on charity commits the fallacy of cultural narrowness.

Fallacy of overlooking the negatives

Native American pupils at Carlisle Native Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900). Source: Frontier Forts. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sometimes, charitable intentions can do more harm than good. Misplaced charity can kill. Church-run boarding schools for Native American children provide an excellent illustration of this point. These schools were set up in the United States from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries. Their purpose was to assimilate Native American children into white culture. Initially, they were run by Christian missionaries, but eventually by other religious organizations. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government paid religious orders to provide a basic education to Native American children on reservations, and later established its own schools. Undoubtedly, these schools were charitable institutions: they educated the children they accepted for free, and many of them were run by religious orders. But did they actually do more harm than good? In May 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report on the federal Indigenous boarding schools designed to assimilate Native Americans in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Its key findings were summarized by Olivia Waxman in an article in Time magazine, titled, “The History of Native American Boarding Schools Is Even More Complicated than a New Report Reveals” (May 17, 2022):

Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. ran or supported 408 boarding schools, the department found. Students endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” and the report recorded more than 500 deaths of Native children—a number set to increase as the department’s investigation of this issue continues.

According to an online Webpage run by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, titled, “US Indian Boarding School History”, what the US government did to generations of Native Americans is tantamount to cultural genocide, practiced in the name of Christianity:

There were more than 523 government-funded, and often church-run, Indian Boarding schools across the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indian children were forcibly abducted by government agents, sent to schools hundreds of miles away, and beaten, starved, or otherwise abused when they spoke their Native languages

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act Fund of March 3, 1819 and the Peace Policy of 1869 the United States, in concert with and at the urging of several denominations of the Christian Church, adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy expressly intended to implement cultural genocide through the removal and reprogramming of American Indian and Alaska Native children to accomplish the systematic destruction of Native cultures and communities. The stated purpose of this policy was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

The brainwashing was evidently quite successful: the article adds that by 1926, nearly 83% of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools.

The disastrous effects of these boarding schools on Native American culture is highlighted in an online article by Erin Blakemore, titled, “A century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children” (nationalgeographic.com, July 9, 2021):

Native languages began to die out, fueled by children’s absence from the reservation and their forced use of English. Traditional parenting skills were not passed on to younger generations. And over the years, children at the schools reported widespread neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

“The most debilitating message was one of self-hatred,” writes Mending the Sacred Hoop, a Native-owned nonprofit that works to end violence against Native women. In a 2003 report on the boarding school experience, the nonprofit traced violence in Native American communities — which experience an order of magnitude more violence than their majority white counterparts — to the abuse and trauma many children suffered during their educations.

A Magdalene laundry run in Ireland in the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Apologists today might be inclined to dismiss the above case on the grounds that the worst abuses that were perpetrated occurred a century ago, but there have been other cases in our own times of charities that harmed people, often intentionally. One such case that continued right up until the mid-1990s was the Magdalene laundries (see also here). These were institutions that were set up to house “fallen women,” who had become pregnant out of wedlock or who wished to escape a life of prostitution, as well as young girls who did not have a family to support them. Magdalene laundries, which were also known as Magdalene asylums, operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries in countries such as England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the U.S., Canada, Australia and even Sweden. The first Magdalene laundry opened in Whitechapel, England, in 1758, while the last one closed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1996. In the very first Magdalene institution, which was founded by a silk merchant, women worked at services and crafts to help provide financial support for the house, and received a small stipend. Later on, the laundries operated as workhouses, serving a large clientele, with women working for no pay under harsh, prison-like conditions. Readers might be surprised to learn that the first Magdalene laundries were Protestant institutions, even in Ireland, where they were originally run by the Church of Ireland. Later, Catholics and Presbyterians set up their own Magdalene laundries in Ireland. The most notorious Magdalene laundries were the ones run in Ireland by Roman Catholic orders of nuns, and it is these that will be discussed here. The treatment meted out to women in these laundries was rough and psychologically abusive, although women working there were seldom physically beaten, and sexual abuse seems to have been very rare.

The Magdalene laundries operated as income-driven businesses. However, as Fr. J. Anthony Gaughan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin who worked as a chaplain at one of the laundries in the 1960s, points out in an article titled, A different view of the Magdalene laundries (The Irish News, 1 March 2018), they were originally set up as charities. The first Our Lady of Charity Refuge in Dublin, established in 1853, was intended to be a charitable institution: “As set out by the founder, its aim was to provide a house, where women who wished to turn their lives around from crime or prostitution could feel safe and secure.” As for the laundries, they were “simply a means for generating an income and in them the sisters worked side by side with the women and girls in the refuge.” Sadly, over the course of time, these laundries witnesses scenes of horrific instances of cruelty. In 2022, the BBC commissioned a six-part TV drama about the Magdalene Laundries, starring Ruth Wilson, who co-produced the series. BBC reporter Steven McIntosh, who interviewed Wilson, describes what happened there in his article, The Woman in the Wall: Ruth Wilson drama examines Magdalene Laundries (24 August 2023). The treatment of girls who were pregnant out of wedlock was particularly harsh:

“Another thing that shocked me, and this didn’t happen in all of them, but in some of them, the girls gave birth, and then they’d have to nurse their child for two years, and then their child was taken away from them,” says Wilson.

“Stuff like that is horrific; the fact that girls weren’t given any gas and air or weren’t stitched up after birth. The nuns wouldn’t let them. Things like that, you just go, wow, it’s pure horror.”

Some women who stayed at the former institutions have told of being physically or sexually abused, and many said they spent their time scrubbing floors and doing other physical labour.

The article estimates that about 30,000 women were confined in the laundries over the years. Even today, the laundries have their defenders: in his above-cited article, Fr. J. Anthony Gaughan maintains that the laundries have gotten a bad rap. He writes: “I witnessed at first hand the generosity of the sisters as they spent their lives helping the women and girls in their charge and noted their solicitude for each one of them.” Kind intentions notwithstanding, the women and girls who were confined in the laundries were the victims of an injustice. An online article titled, “About the Magdalen Laundries” by Justice for Magdalenes Research, expresses the point aptly:

Whatever the reasons why women and girls were sent to the Magdalene Laundries, the State had duties to all of the women and girls in the Laundries (a) to prevent them from being held against their will, (b) not to exploit or benefit from their forced labour or servitude and (c) to care for these women and girls in terms of their rights to a safe workplace, to social welfare and (in terms of school-age girls) an education.

What can we conclude from all this? Clearly, an enormous amount of harm has been perpetrated by charitable institutions run by Christians. While many of the people working there may have had good motives, their intentions were, objectively speaking, fundamentally immoral: attempting to eliminate an entire culture (cultural genocide) and confining girls and women against their will (imprisonment). Undoubtedly, these charitable institutions did more harm than good.

Other harms inflicted in the name of charity are more accurately described as foreseen, but not intended. Arguably, the harms inflicted unintentionally in the name of charitable giving are even more widespread and insidious than the cases of institutional cruelty described above, as the following examples illustrate.

Salvation Army Thrift Store, Santa Monica, California: a force for good or evil in the world? Image courtesy of J. G. Klein and Wikipedia.

It is disconcerting to realize that charities that we tend to think of as paradigms of forces for good in the world today (such as the Salvation Army, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Missionary Sisters of Charity) may actually be doing more harm than good. Urban activist (and committed Christian) Robert Lupton, founder and president of FCS (Focused Community Strategies) Urban Ministries, has argued in a hard-hitting book titled, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It (HarperOne, 2012) that most charitable work is either ineffective or actually harmful to the people it is intended to help. The blurb in the back cover succinctly sums up the central thesis of Lupton’s book:

In his four decades of urban ministry, Lupton has experienced firsthand how our good intentions can have unintended, dire consequences. Our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency. We converge on inner-city neighborhoods to plant flowers and pick up trash, battering the pride of residents who have the capacity (and responsibility) to beautify their own environment. We fly off on mission trips to poverty-stricken villages, hearts full of pity and suitcases bulging with giveaways — trips that one Nicaraguan leader describes as effective only in “turning my people into beggars.”

Dr. Dambisa Moyo, Baroness Moyo. Dr. Moyo is the author of the best-seller, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (2009). Official portrait, 2023. Image courtesy of Roger Harris and Wikipedia.

Aid to Africa is another example of charity gone wrong. Dr. Dambisa Moyo is a black African woman, an international economist, and a best-selling author. She was born and raised in Zambia and educated at Harvard (where she obtained a master’s from the John F. Kennedy School of Government) and Oxford (where she got a Ph.D. in economics). Moyo worked for the World Bank as a consultant and then moved to Goldman Sachs. In a hard-hitting book titled, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), Moyo argues that aid has compounded Africa’s problems. “Millions in Africa,” she writes in her Introduction, “are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.” In chapter 4 of her book, she contends that “Foreign aid props up corrupt governments – providing them with freely usable cash.” Aid also has a crowding-out effect: although it is meant to encourage private investment by providing loan guarantees and subsidizing investment risks, it tends to have the opposite effect in practice. In addition, aid chokes off the export sector and reduces the recipient country’s economic competitiveness. The solutions Dr. Moyo proposes in place of aid include new bond markets, microfinancing, and revised property laws. Dr. Moyo’s book has been highly praised by reviewers, including Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who says that she “makes a compelling case for a new approach in Africa” and that “her central point is indisputable,” although he adds that she is “hard — perhaps too hard — on the role of aid.”

If you were to ask Christian leaders around the world what Africa urgently needs today, most of them would nominate foreign aid. Here’s a typical example from the Los Angeles Times (William D. Montalbano, “Pope Begs Rich Countries to Give Africa More Help,” January 30, 1990): “In the keynote address of his African tour, Pope John Paul II appealed to the rich nations of the world Monday to provide more generous aid to the afflicted, have-not region of sub-Sahara Africa.” Yet as we have seen, the harms resulting from foreign aid may well exceed the benefits.

The key point I wish to make is that although it has undoubtedly helped billions, it is difficult to say for certain whether Christian charity, down the ages, has done more good than harm. I acknowledge that Christian alms have fed many people who would otherwise have perished of hunger, Christian hospitals have nursed and healed many sick people who would otherwise have passed away, and Christian volunteers have consoled many emotionally wounded people who would otherwise have taken their own lives. But I also know that Christian institutions, including charitable, educational and medical institutions, have physically and emotionally scarred many people for life, just as I know that modern-day charities often rob recipients of their dignity and their ability to stand on their own two feet, which in many cases hurts them far more than the help they receive benefits them. So we need to ask: does the good work carried out by Christian charities outweigh the harm done, or is it the other way round? Insofar as popular apologists arguing for the moral superiority of Christianity fail to even ask this question, they are committing the fallacy of ignoring the negatives.

(b) The virtual eradication of infanticide

OVERVIEW: The apologetic argument that Christianity is principally responsible for the virtual eradication of infanticide in the modern world suffers from three flaws: the fallacy of mistaken attribution (in fact, it was not Christianity but the invention of cheap, popular birth control that brought about the decline of infanticide), the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative (for over 1900 years, Christian clerics combating infanticide rejected the better method of birth control as sinful and contrary to God’s will) and the fallacy of ignoring the negatives (historically, the Christian prohibition of contraception as well as abortion and infanticide led to an increase in the number of children born in poverty, whose parents were unable to take care of them, this exacerbating an already bad situation). Insofar as Christianity prevented the adoption and implementation of sensible measure which could have drastically reduced the incidence of infanticide centuries earlier, it retarded social progress.

Fallacy of mistaken attribution

Russian woman throwing her babies to wolves by Charles-Michel Geoffroy, 1845. Source: Lacroix, Frédéric. Les mystères de la Russie: Tableau politique et morale de l’empire Russe. Paris, Pagnerre, 1845.

When it comes to the eradication of infanticide in most countries around the world, Christianity has often been given credit by apologists for results that it did not achieve. These apologists commit the fallacy of mistaken attribution.

For instance, sociologist Rodney Stark credits the elimination of infanticide in ancient Rome to Christianity, baldly asserting that “Christian wives did not have abortions (nor did Jewish wives).” To support his claim, Stark quotes a command from the Didache, a first-century manual for Christians: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

What Stark naively overlooks is that infanticide did not go away when the Roman Empire became Christian: indeed, there is no evidence that it became any less common than it was previously. While there are many religions which condemn infanticide, their efforts to prevent its occurrence have mostly been futile. The same goes for Christianity. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374, but offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted. (See Radbill, Samuel X. (1974). “A history of child abuse and infanticide”. In Steinmetz, Suzanne K.; Straus, Murray A. (eds.). Violence in the Family. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. pp. 173–79.)

In his carefully researched study, Neonaticide, Infanticide, Filicide (Israel: B.N. Publication House, 2017), Professor Emeritus Liubov Ben-Nun of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Faculty of Health Sciences, Beer-Sheva, Israel, acknowledges both the universal condemnation of infanticide within the Christian Church and its utter inefficacy in eradicating the practice:

Christianity rejects infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said “You shall not kill that which is born” (31). The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command (32). Apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act (33). In 318 AD, Constantine considered infanticide a crime, and in 374 AD, Valentinian mandated the rearing of all children (exposing babies, especially girls, was still common). The Council of Constantinople declared that infanticide was homicide, and in 589 AD, the Third Council of Toledo took measures against the custom of killing their own children (34).

Theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents (35). Exposure “was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, with most frigid indifference” (36). At the end of the 12th century, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber River in daylight (37). Unlike other European regions, in the Middle Ages the German mothers had the right to expose the newborn (38). In Gotland, Sweden, children were also sacrificed (39). (2017, p. 14) ….

Churches and society continued to vilify illegitimate birth, thus enhancing rather than preventing infanticide. The Habsburg-German legislation of 1532 ordained to torture any woman who had concealed pregnancy and birth and claimed the infant was stillborn. Legislation developed similarly in other countries, albeit at a different speed. French (1556) and British (1623) legislation reversed the burden of proof and demanded the death penalty for concealing pregnancy and birth when a dead infant was found (2).

After Antiquity and the Middle Ages, no legislative reforms were carried out during the last 400 years. Despite dreadful punishment, the practice remained frequent until safe abortion became available. In the 17th century, the rate of executions of women for this crime was 1 per 100,000 inhabitants. The incidence [of infanticide – VJT] greatly exceeded this figure. The death penalty failed to deter, and punishing fornication promoted rather than prevented infanticide. Well into the 18th century, severely malformed infants were killed. (2017, p. 86)

While Professor Ben-Nun is correct in highlighting out the prevalence of infanticide until relatively recent times, I would query his contention that it was the availability of safe abortion that rendered it unnecessary, as abortion did not become legal until the 1970s in most Western countries. Rather, it appears that the widespread availability of contraceptives in the late nineteenth century was what made the difference, as we’ll see below.

In a thought-provoking essay at Aeon titled, “Infanticide” (27 November 2017) American author Sandra Newman points out that infanticide occurs within every human society, and that its historical roots run deep. Historically, the most common form of infanticide involved leaving a newborn infant to die alone. Newman cites the nineteenth-century historian William Lecky, who observes in his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne that infanticide by exposure was “practised on a gigantic scale with absolute impunity” in antiquity, and that it was, “at least in the case of destitute parents, considered a very venial offence.” The practice continued in medieval times, when parents would often suffocate, or lie on top of, their babies. Periodic attempts to eradicate infanticide in the late Middle Ages by punishing offenders failed due to public stonewalling. A law passed in England in 1624, aimed at preventing mothers from passing off murdered newborns as stillbirths, remained a dead letter with almost no convictions resulting. Newman goes on to describe how infanticide remained common in the eighteenth century and even the nineteenth century, despite the existence of foundling hospitals, where women could leave babies they were unable to take care of. In the end, it was science, not the Christian religion, that made infanticide rare, through the invention of the condom:

Thomas Coram, who helped to found the London Foundling Hospital in the 1730s, was motivated by seeing, on his daily walk to work, the large number of infants thrown on dunghills or on the sides of the road, ‘sometimes alive, sometimes dead, and sometimes dying’…

This 18th-century foundling hospital movement was the first large-scale attempt to solve the problem through charity, and it swept through Europe on a wave of public good will. Mothers of illegitimate children, previously stigmatised as lewd women who deserved their miserable fate, were now invited to leave their offspring, anonymously, at a hospital… Mothers travelled from villages for miles around to leave unwanted infants… Unfortunately, most of those foundlings died

In the 19th century, the further innovation of ‘baby farming’ allowed mothers to pay a foster mother directly to care for their unwanted babies. In order that these mothers could walk away unimpeded, baby-farmers were often paid a single lump sum. But they soon became notorious for killing their inconvenient charges, either by neglect or with opiates. Actual rates of child murder did not significantly decline in Europe until the popularisation of condoms in the late 19th century eliminated much of the necessity. That is: we stopped killing our babies only when we started having fewer of them.

Lest Newman be considered a biased source, let me quote from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil (London: Henry Colburn, 1845). In Book 2, chapter 10, the author remarks:

Infanticide is practised as extensively and as legally in England, as it is on the banks of the Ganges; a circumstance which apparently has not yet engaged the attention of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. (1845, p. 221)

Previously, we discussed May Overmyer’s article, The Bell That Saved Abandoned Babies In The Middle Ages (Religion Unplugged, May 29, 2019), which relates how the medieval Church rescued newborn babies who would otherwise have been abandoned and left to die by introducing the “foundling wheel” as a safe way for mothers to dispose of babies whom they were unable to take care of. However, Overmyer acknowledges that these babies “frequently died in the care of the church” – a fact which she attributes to the babies often having diseases or disabilities. What she is missing here is the bigger picture: the quality of care that these babies received was not very good. Sandra Newman’s article, “Infanticide” (27 November 2017), cites some grim statistics for foundling hospitals in nineteenth-century Europe:

In 1818 in Paris, the number of foundlings left in the hospital was equal to a third of the babies born in the city. Unfortunately, most of those foundlings died. Of the 4,779 infants admitted to the Paris hospital that same year, 2,370 were dead within the first three months. Throughout Europe, the numbers were similar. The improbably luxurious St Petersburg hospital, housed in the former palaces of counts Andrey Razumovsky and Aleksei Bobrinsky, cared for 25,000 children at its height, and was considered a model of its kind, employing 600 wet nurses and countless foster mothers in nearby villages. Yet half of its charges died in the first six weeks. Fewer than a third lived to age six.

We can safely assume that the mortality statistics for foundlings would have been even higher during the Middle Ages.

So, how much of a practical difference did foundling hospitals make? Despite their good intentions, the answer seems to be: not much. Overmyer belatedly acknowledges this point in her article: “Baby Hatches are not the ultimate solution to lowering infanticide rates. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the two factors most strongly connected to high infanticide rates are poverty and overpopulation.” Or as Sandra Newman puts it: “we stopped killing our babies only when we started having fewer of them.” Perhaps the real credit for the reduction in infanticide rates belongs to the nineteenth-century inventor of vulcanized rubber, from which condoms were later manufactured: Charles Goodyear.

Fallacy of ignoring the better alternative

Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), the inventor of vulcanized rubber, which was used to make condoms in the nineteenth century. Photo by Southworth and Hawes. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As we have seen, the key factor that was ultimately responsible for reducing the prevalence of infanticide was the widespread availability of birth control – a practice that goes back to ancient times. Common sense supports this conclusion. Clearly, the best way for parents to avoid killing children that they cannot afford to feed is to avoid procreating them – either by engaging in non-procreative forms of intercourse, or by resorting to contraception. And yet for over 1900 years, Christian clerics combating infanticide consistently rejected birth control as sinful and contrary to God’s will. It is unclear whether the Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (which was probably composed sometime prior to 100 A.D.) actually condemned the use of contraceptive potions, or whether it was instead condemning the practice of witchcraft. The earliest explicit condemnation of contraception can be found in the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria, who in 191 A.D. declared, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2). St. Clement, who was influenced by Stoicism, also taught that sex was for procreation only. Later, in the year 307, the Christian writer Lactantius counseled complete abstinence for couples who could not afford to raise a child: “Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife” (Divine Institutes 6:20). St. Augustine (354-430), writing in the early fifth century, condemned the Manicheans not only for using contraceptives, but also for attempting to track the times during a woman’s cycle when it was safe to have sex. It was not until 1930 that the Church of England, at its Lambeth Conference, cautiously opened the door to the Christian use of contraception, much to the consternation of Pope Pius XI, who condemned contraceptive sex as “a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious,” and a “horrible crime” that God “at times has punished … with death,” in his encyclical Casti Connubii (paragraphs 54 and 55). Even the use of the rhythm method was not approved by the Catholic Church until Pope Pius XII permitted its use in his Address to Midwives, on October 29, 1951. (Contrary to certain assertions, Pope Pius XI did not sanction it in his 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii.)

The great irony here is that contraception was practiced in the Middle Ages by a heretical sect called the Cathars. But because they were dualists who held that matter itself (and hence, procreation) was evil, the medieval Church swung to the other extreme, maintaining vigorously that any form of contraception or non-procreative sex was unnatural, and a crime against God – a position championed by its greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. Had the Church adopted a sensible intermediate view that affirmed procreation was good while also affirming a couple’s right to avoid it by resorting to contraceptives and/or non-procreative sex during times when circumstances rendered them unable to care for an extra child, it could have prevented the loss of life of millions of innocent children.

By overlooking the Christian Church’s historic failure to advocate the sensible use of birth control by couples, thereby prolonging the barbaric practice of infanticide, Christian apologists are guilty of the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative.

Fallacy of ignoring the negatives

Historically, the Church’s prohibition of contraception, as well as abortion and infanticide, led to an increase in the number of children born in poverty, whose parents were unable to take care of them, in Christian countries. This increase was entirely foreseeable, as the only moral alternative that the Church offered to couples living in dire poverty was to refrain from having sex at all, if they could not afford to care for a child – a lofty but unrealistic exhortation that was likely ignored by the masses. Insofar as the Christian Church’s universal prohibition of birth control had the foreseeable effect of prolonging the frequent practice of infanticide and increasing the incidence of poverty, it undoubtedly caused needless suffering to hundreds of millions of people, down the ages. Christian apologists who overlook this fact while extolling the Church’s prohibition of infanticide are guilty of the fallacy of ignoring the negatives.

(c) Advances in the status of women

OVERVIEW: Historically, it is true that Christianity improved the status of women in ancient Rome, which is why they flocked to Christianity in much greater numbers than men, as sociologist Rodney Stark documents in his book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. However, the apologetic argument that Christianity has elevated the status of women suffers from several defects. Insofar as the advances made by women worldwide in the past 200 years have little to do with Christianity and more to do with secular feminism and the values of the Enlightenment, the argument is guilty of the fallacy of mistaken attribution, as well as the fallacy of temporal narrowness. The argument also suffers from the fallacy of cultural narrowness, as there have been many cultures where women enjoyed a far higher social status than in Christian countries at the time – e.g. women in Native American cultures and Viking women. Finally, and most damagingly of all, the argument commits the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative. Even at the time when it first arose, Christianity was by no means the most enlightened movement of its day, in its treatment of women: Roman Stoicism (especially that taught by the philosopher Musonius Rufus) was far more egalitarian, while in the past two centuries, secular feminism has done more for women in campaigning for rights such as the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to receive the same education as men, the right to equal pay and the right to freedom from discrimination.

Fallacy of mistaken attribution and fallacy of temporal narrowness

Christianity is often credited with elevating the status of women. And if we look at the Roman Empire, in which women were legally regarded as the sexual playthings of their husbands and their (usually male) slave-owners, the adoption of Christianity was undoubtedly a blessing at the time, as it liberated millions of women from male oppression and enhanced their dignity. But what is true of fourth-century Rome is not necessarily true today. We can see this by looking at a period in between: the Middle Ages. How did the medieval Catholic Church view women? To help answer this question, it may be instructive to begin by examining the writings of its foremost theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas’ teachings on marriage are handily summarized in the Supplement to the Third Part of his Summa Theologiae. It has to be acknowledged that some of his views are frankly shocking. For instance, Aquinas approved of a husband beating his wife (Suppl. 62, 2) if she was guilty of fornication and had not repented of her sin. Aquinas also held that a husband was perfectly justified in demanding the death penalty for an adulterous wife (Suppl. 60, 1), in a court of law.

Regarding the “marital debt,” Aquinas did not (as some mistakenly believe) authorize a husband to force himself on his wife against her wishes. Nevertheless, he held that a husband could justly demand sex from his wife (Suppl. 64, 9) at any time (so long as they were not in a public place), and that she was morally bound to comply, since the husband is given entire power over his wife’s body (Suppl. 64, 4) with regard to the marriage act. Indeed, he held that a wife is morally bound to have sex even with a husband suffering from leprosy (Suppl. 64, 1), if he demands it, despite the slight risk of her getting infected as a result. However, Aquinas also taught that wives could also demand sex from their husbands (Suppl. 64, 5): in marriage, a husband and wife “are equal in paying and demanding the debt.”

Summing up, Aquinas taught that “husband and wife are not equal in marriage; neither as regards the marriage act, wherein the more noble part is due to the husband, nor as regards the household management, wherein the wife is ruled and the husband rules” (Suppl. 64, 5). At the same time, he recognized that “just as in both the marriage act and in the management of the household the husband is bound to the wife in all things pertaining to the husband, so is the wife bound to the husband in all things pertaining to the wife.” In this sense, husband and wife are equal partners in marriage.

Not all Christian theologians approved of wife-beating: St. John Chrysostom, writing around 400 A.D., vigorously denounced domestic violence. Nevertheless, St. Thomas’s views on the permissibility of wife-beating were widely shared. UPDATE: Dr. Naomi Graetz, who is Emerita Professor of English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, cites various sources in her article, “Wifebeating in Jewish Tradition”, Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women (31 December 1999), Jewish Women’s Archive. The Dominican Nicolaus de Byard, a French preacher and moral theologian (d. 1261), wrote: “A man may chastise his wife and beat her (verberare) for her correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the Lord may chastise his own, as it is written in Gratian’s Decretum (Bologna, 1140 c.e.).” Friar Cherubino of Siena, Italy, in his 15th-century treatise, Rules of Marriage (Regole della vita matrimoniale, Bologna, 1888), instructed a husband who sees his wife committing an offense to “scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn’t work … take up a stick and beat her soundly … not in rage, but out of charity and concern for her soul.” Another source frequently cited by feminists is Bernardino of Siena who, in a sermon delivered in 1427, warned husbands that they should be gentler with their wives: “consider the noble fruit of the woman, and have patience; not for every cause is it right to beat her.” Clearly, he believed that wife-beating was justifiable in at least some circumstances. In his sermon, Bernardino lamented the fact that “there are men who have more patience with a hen, which lays a fresh egg daily, than with their own wedded wife… Many a cross-grained fellow, seeing perchance his wife less clean and delicate than he would fain see her, smites her without more ado.” Evidently, wife-beating was still common in Christian Europe in the fifteenth century.

What about the Church as a whole? Did the church advance the status of women in the Middle Ages? UPDATE: Dr. Graetz’s overall assessment of the role of the medieval Church is a negative one:

Frances and Joseph Gies, G. G. Coulton, Shulamith Shahar, Erika Uitz, and Heath Dillard have all pointed to the fact that in the Christian-dominated areas, the overall context is misogynist and patriarchal. In many Christian European countries, legislation established women as chattel, to be protected, chastised, and controlled. Men were empowered to rule and punish their wives. The Christian Church advocated male dominance and displayed misogyny.

A more positive, but nevertheless critical assessment is given by Joshua J. Mark, a former Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, who has taught history at college level. The conclusion of his well-researched, balanced and informative article, titled, “Women in the Middle Ages”, is worth quoting in full:

Women in medieval times were not the passive victims of the religious and political patriarchy, no matter how often that claim is repeated. Women frequently found ways around the obstacles placed in their path or forged new paths when a challenge proved too great. They took over their husband’s businesses and ran them successfully, continued to work in guilds, or even formed their own guilds as the textile guilds of Italy attest.

The Church, while upholding and encouraging the understanding that women were of less value than men, made some important concessions in recognizing the value of women like the authors mentioned above and, equally important, ruling that women were individuals of value and not just a man’s possession. In Denmark, in the 12th century, the church ruled that rape was a crime against a woman and not – as had previously been held – a crime only against her father or husband. Even so, women’s success and advances in the Late Middle Ages could not overturn the status quo supported by the patriarchy of the Church and aristocracy. Further restrictions were placed on women even as society entered the more enlightened era of the Renaissance.

To sum up: whatever the Church may have done in Roman times and early medieval times to advance the status of women, it seems to have acted largely as a retarding force in the late Middle Ages, despite some concessions. Christian apologists who compare the status of women within the Christian Church with their status in ancient Rome and ignore the Middle Ages are thus guilty of the fallacy of temporal narrowness.

John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790-1791. Mary Wollstonecraft is commonly regarded as a founder of feminism, due to the publication of her classic work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she advocated equal rights for women, and identified class and private property as the basis of discrimination against women. Image courtesy of Tate Britain and Wikipedia.

This conclusion is reinforced as we move nearer to our own times. If we look at the major advances made by women during the past 150 years – advances such as gaining the right to vote, the right to access birth control, the right to equal pay, and the right to freedom from discrimination in employment and education – we find that Christianity had almost nothing to do with these accomplishments. Christianity treated the family as the basic unit of society, but it was the notion of a society centered on the individual, first put forward during the seventeenth- eighteenth-century Enlightenment and later on, during the French Revolution, which provided the spark from which feminism sprang. Christian apologists, in overlooking this historical fact and crediting their own faith with these improvements in the status of women, commit two fallacies: the fallacy of mistaken attribution and the fallacy of temporal narrowness.

The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company), in its article on “Woman” by A. Rössler and W. Fanning, illustrates this point beautifully. The authors freely acknowledge that the women’s movement is of secular origin, the role played by Protestantism in the women’s movement was small, and that Catholics were the last to start pushing for women’s political rights:

It should be emphasized here that man owes his authoritative pre-eminence in society not to personal achievements but to the appointment of the Creator according to the world of the Apostle: “The man . . . is the image and glory of god; but the woman is the glory of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:7). The Apostle in this reference to the creation of the first human pair presupposes the image of God in the woman. As this likeness manifests itself exteriorly in man’s supremacy over creation (Genesis 1:26), and as man as the born leader of the family first exercised this supremacy, he is called directly God’s image in this capacity. Woman takes part in this supremacy only indirectly under the guidance of the man and as his helpmeet… This doctrine, which has always been maintained by the Catholic Church, was repeatedly emphasized by Leo XIII. The encyclical “Arcanum”, 10 February, 1880, declares: “The husband is ruler of the family and the head of the wife; the woman as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone is to be subordinate and obedient to the husband, not, however, as a hand-maid but as a companion of such a kind that the obedience given is as honourable as dignified. As, however, the husband ruling represents the image of Christ and the wife obedient the image of the Church, Divine love should at all times set the standard of duty”…

…[T]he natural basis of society and the natural position of woman and the family were shaken to such extent by the French Revolution that the germ of the modern woman’s suffrage movement is to be sought there. The anti-Christian ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a complete break with the medieval Christian conception of society and the state. It was no longer the family or the social principle that was regarded as the basis of the state, but the individual or the ego. Montesquieu, the “father of constitutionalism”, made this theory the basis of his “L’Esprit des lois” (1784)[sic – should be 1748], and it was sanctioned in the French “Rights of Man”. It was entirely logical that Olympe de Gouges (d. 1793) and the “citizeness” Fontenay, supported by the Marquis de Condorcet, demanded the unconditional political equality of women with men, or “the rights of women”. According to these claims every human being has, as a human being, the same human rights; women, as human beings, claim like men with absolute right the same participation in parliament and admission to all public offices. As soon as the leading proposition, though it contradicts nature which knows no sexless human being, is conceded, this corollary must be accepted…

[T]he Protestant Church party in the agitation for women’s rights in predominantly Protestant countries is much smaller than the liberal and radical parties.

Catholic women were the last to take up the agitation [for women’s rights – VJT]. The main reason for this is the impregnability of Catholic principles. Owing to this woman’s suffrage did not become a burning question as quickly in the purely Catholic countries as in Protestant and religiously mixed ones…

Where family rights and duties and womanly dignity are not violated in other fields of action, the Church opposes no barrier to woman’s progress. As a rule, however, the opinions of the majority of Catholics seem to hold the political activity of women in disfavour.

Here, we have a Catholic writer from 110 years ago, freely acknowledging that most Catholics weren’t active in the women’s rights movement at the time, and that even Protestants played a relatively minor role. This is damaging enough to the Christian apologist’s case, but there’s more.

Fallacy of ignoring the better alternative


Musonius Rufus: The Little Known Stoic Philosopher Who Revolutionized Education. Musonius Rufus (c. 25-95 A.D.) upheld an egalitarian view of men and women. Courtesy of
The Stand-up Philosophers.

Even if Christianity had a more enlightened attitude toward women than than most other rival philosophies and religions in Roman times, it was by no means the most enlightened movement, even in its own day: there were better alternatives. The Christadelphian writer Jonathan Burke candidly acknowledges this point in his book, Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith (Lively Stones Publishing, 2013):

What the scholarly consensus says: Neither Jesus nor Paul expressly addressed the issue of egalitarianism or women’s advocacy, unlike the 1st century Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, 1904 1905 1906 1907 who would not have considered Jesus to be egalitarian given his exclusive appointment of male disciples. Jesus and Paul may even have disappointed egalitarian minded Jewish women, who were able to hold synagogue leadership positions.1908 1909 1910 (pp. 413-414)

Jesus had Jewish, Greek, and Roman contemporaries who were not only at least as egalitarian as he was, but in some cases were even more egalitarian. Stoic views were traditionally egalitarian,1945 they condemned gender discrimination,1946 and they have even been identified as having at least inclinations towards feminist views.1947 (pp. 421-422)

Musonius Rufus is still regarded highly for his egalitarian attitude. 1960 1961 Unlike Paul, Rufus did not make any call for women to be subject,1962 and opposed explicitly a range of misogynist prejudices.1963 He also challenged the view of any form of gendered division of tasks,1964 with a statement which has no Biblical parallel.1965 Women in 1st century Jewish society enjoyed active religious participation,1966 1967 and some even held leadership positions.1968 1969 1970 The first century Jewish Essenes are believed by many scholars to have been egalitarian,1971 1972 and the Therapeutae of the same era are known for their egalitarian attitudes towards the division of labor.1973 1974 Unlike Musonius Rufus and the Therapeutae, neither Paul nor Jesus opposed a gendered division of tasks. Unlike Jewish inscriptions, we find no sisters as elders or titled ecclesial leaders in the New Testament. (pp. 423-425)

Now imagine an honest seeker after truth, living in the time of Jesus, who is strongly committed to the idea of women’s equality. Such a person might ask: “Why should I adopt the religion of Christianity when there are other religions and philosophies which are friendlier to women?” By failing to address this seeker’s question, Christian apologists commit the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative.

Fallacy of cultural narrowness

The argument that Christianity improved the status of women within the Roman Empire also suffers from the fallacy of cultural narrowness, there were many other civilizations in which the status of women was far higher than it was in Christian Europe. I shall mention just two cultures that were encountered by Christian missionaries: the Vikings and Native Americans.

Reconstructed Viking costumes on display at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. The woman is wearing a white underdress, a red hangerock or smokkr, and brooches. Image courtesy of Wolfmann and Wikipedia.

A 2023 BBC video titled, Jelling Stone: 3D scans reveal power of Viking queen, quotes Adam Bak, Curator of the National Museum of Denmark (Kongernes Jelling) as saying that “women had way more importance in old Viking society than they had in early Christianity.” The museum’s official Website, in its online article, Women in the Viking Age, notes that “Compared to women elsewhere in the same period, Viking women had more freedom,” although it qualifies this statement by adding: “Even if women had a relatively strong position, they were officially inferior to men. They could not appear in court or receive a share of the man’s inheritance.” According to an article by Professor Judith Jesch, professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham, titled, “What was life like for Viking women?” (BBC History magazine, March 2019), “Viking women enjoyed a high degree of social freedom. They could own property, ask for a divorce if not treated properly, and they shared responsibility for running farms and homesteads with their menfolk. They were also protected by law from a range of unwanted male attention.” The article also declares: “The female head of the family often doubled up as its spiritual guide.” Interestingly, Professor Jesch observes that “Scandinavian women were drawn to Christianity, with devotion to the Virgin Mary confirmed in 11th-century Viking runic inscriptions from Sweden and Norway.” Still, it would be difficult to argue that Christianity improved the status of Viking women; the reverse seems more likely.

Native American women provide an even better illustration of a culture where women enjoyed a higher status than Christian women of their day. In their ground-breaking book, The Dawn of Everything (Penguin Books, 2021), Professors David Graeber and David Wengrow describe how Jesuit missionaries in the New World territory of New France were shocked at the liberties enjoyed by Native American women, which they described at length in their missionary chronicle, The Jesuit Relations:

The Jesuit Relations are full of this sort of thing: scandalized missionaries frequently reported that [Native] American women were considered to have full control over their bodies, and that therefore unmarried women had sexual liberty and married women could divorce at will. This, for the Jesuits, was an outrage. Such sinful conduct, they believed, was just the extension of a more general principle of freedom, rooted in natural dispositions, which they saw as inherently pernicious. The ‘wicked liberty of the savages,’ one insisted, was the single greatest impediment to their ‘submitting to the yoke of the law of God’.(23) (2021, pp. 43-44)

Some (but by no means all) Native American societies could even be described as matriarchal. In their book, Graeber and Wengrow define matriarchy as a situation in which “the role of mothers in the household similarly becomes a model for, and economic basis of, female authority in other aspects of life (which doesn’t necessarily imply dominance in a violent or exclusionary sense), where women as a result hold a preponderance of overall day-to-day power” (2021, p. 219). While conceding that such matriarchal arrangements are “somewhat unusual … in the ethnographic record” (2021, p. 220), the authors add:

Looked at this way, matriarchies are real enough. …Iroquoian-speaking groups such as the Wendat lived in longhouses of five or six families. Each longhouse was run by a council of women – the men who lived there did not have a parallel council of their own – whose members controlled all the key stockpiles of clothing, tools and food. (2021, p. 219)

Native American suffragist Marie L. Baldwin (Métis Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians). Image courtesy of Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

There’s more. An article in the New York Times (“In 1920, Native Women Sought the Vote. Here’s What’s Next”, July 31, 2020) quotes Professor Cathleen D. Cahill, a historian who has written about Native suffragists, as saying:

White feminists were inspired by the matriarchal traditions of Native people. They especially looked to Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) women’s power to appoint male political leadership, control their property, and have custodial rights to their children — those were legal rights white women did not have.

An article by Stephanie Hernandez on the League of Women Voters blog, titled, “How Native American Women Inspired the Women’s Suffrage Movement” (last updated November 29, 2021) describes how the early suffragettes, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lucretia Mott, were deeply impressed by the power that was exercised by Haudenosaunee women in their communities – power that they lacked within their own European culture. The advances that women have made within the past 150 years were in large part inspired by European women’s observations of Native American women wielding power within their own communities.

Finally, I’d like to quote a brief excerpt from an article originally published by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) on April 17, 2020, by Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, who has taught women’s studies courses for the past 50 years, titled, “How Native American Women Inspired the Women’s Rights Movement”:

Alice Fletcher, an ethnographer studying Native American cultures and a suffragist, addressed the 1888 International Council of Women, the first United States meeting of women’s rights advocates from throughout the Western world… Fletcher explained to the International Council, “As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: ‘As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.’”

Now imagine a Native American woman, living in the early seventeenth century, who is used to enjoying a fair degree of sexual autonomy, and who suddenly encounters French missionaries urging her to adopt the religion of Christianity, in which women enjoy far less liberty at the time. What would you do, if you were in her position? The question matters, because in the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples are commanded by Jesus to preach the good news to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19, ESV). To such a woman, adopting Christianity might have seemed like a backward step. How would a Christian apologist convince her otherwise?

(d) The Condemnation of Suicide

OVERVIEW: To give credit where credit is due: the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have collectively transformed attitudes to suicide on a global scale. No longer is it seen as a socially acceptable way of avoiding shame, disgrace and poverty, as it was in Roman times, 2,000 years ago. However, the apologetic argument that Christianity virtually eradicated suicide in the Middle Ages is very naive, as it assumes that chroniclers from that time period were reporting deaths accurately. Often, they weren’t, because of the stigma attached to suicide. The argument also commits the fallacy of temporal narrowness, by focusing exclusively on one period in the history of Christianity: late antiquity. Additionally, it suffers from the fallacy of under-specification, as Judaism and Islam also strongly condemn the practice of suicide. (Incidentally, as we’ll see below, all three of the Abrahamic religions have, at times, made exceptions in special cases – notably, martyrdom.) Another key flaw in the apologetic argument that the near-abolition of suicide in European cultures demonstrates the moral superiority of Christianity is the fallacy of overlooking the negatives: the Christian Church’s refusal to give suicide victims a Christian burial led to the stigmatization of people who commit or attempt suicide as wicked individuals worthy of damnation, which must have caused untold anguish to their bereaved family members. A more compassionate approach, in which suicide victims were viewed as people suffering from mental illness and prayers were said on their behalf, would have helped these families. Finally, the apologetic argument commits the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative. Arguably, treating suicidal feelings and attempts as symptoms of mental illness has done more to lower the suicide rate than condemning such behavior as a sign of moral turpitude. From a medical standpoint, it is the more enlightened view.

Can we trust the medieval data on suicide?

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection. Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery and Wikipedia.

In Volume 2 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, the historian William Lecky wonderingly notes that during the Middle Ages, “Direct and deliberate suicide, which occupies so prominent a place in the moral history of antiquity, almost absolutely disappeared within the Church.” (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1891; Third edition, p. 49) However, Lecky’s assessment strikes me as being somewhat naive. One may legitimately doubt whether suicides during the Middle Ages were really as rare as they were alleged by Christian apologists to have been. As Dr. Ralph Houlbrooke of the University of Reading explains in a review of Alexander Murray’s monumental work, Suicide in the Middle Ages. Volume I: The Violent against Themselves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), suicide in medieval Europe was something that people simply didn’t talk about, because of the social stigma attached to it:

Medieval accounts of suicide describe it as a private deed which its perpetrators did their best to conceal. It was often difficult to prove, and commonly the subject of discreet allusion by means of euphemism, metaphor and circumlocution. Suicide was widely felt to be too terrible to talk about, and though the word suicida was coined as early as c. 1178, it was not accepted into general use, and seems to have vanished until well after the end of the Middle Ages. Chronicles, largely devoted to the deeds of the great and famous, were extremely reticent on this subject.

The stigma attached to suicide can lead to under-reporting of its frequency in many countries, even today. An online article at Our World in Data on “Suicides” (2023) by Saloni Dattani, Lucas Rodés-Guirao, Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, sounds a note of caution against relying on recorded data relating to suicides:

In many countries, suicides are under-reported for a number of reasons. A major reason is that deaths in general – not just suicides – are not well-recorded in many countries…

Researchers typically define suicides as deaths which were classified as deaths caused by ‘intentional self-harm’ in the International Classification for Diseases (ICD)…

Self-harm deaths tend to be under-recorded, even among countries that have a large share of deaths registered.7

This is partly because, in many countries, suicide is highly stigmatised. In some countries, suicides and suicide attempts can be a criminal offence.8 For these reasons, suicides may be misclassified, especially as deaths due to “events of undetermined intent”, accidents, homicides or unknown causes.9

Bearing the above considerations in mind, the skeptic is therefore entitled to ask: did suicide really disappear during the Middle Ages, or was it massively under-reported? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Fallacy of under-specification

When it comes to the early Church’s condemnation of suicide, Christian apologists frequently overlook the other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam), which also condemned the practice, and in so doing, commit the fallacy of under-specification.

Judaism, from which both Islam and Christianity are derived, strongly condemns suicide. An article titled, Judaism and Suicide on the website, My Jewish Learning, explains that “suicide is fundamentally incompatible with Jewish law and values.” Suicide contravenes the fundamental value of preserving human life. Additionally, “in traditional Jewish thought, the body belongs to God, and as such ending one’s life not considered within the scope of a person’s authority.” Suicide can be regarded as “stealing from God.” Martyrdom is the only exception to the Divine prohibition on taking one’s life, as “Jews are traditionally obliged to sacrifice their lives rather than violate the three cardinal sins of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality.”

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Minkowitz M.D., in his online article, Suicide in Judaism at chabad.org, explains the Jewish rationale for prohibiting suicide at greater length:

The prohibition of suicide is based on a verse in Genesis: “And surely your blood of your souls I will demand.”3 The Talmud quotes Rabbi Eliezer, one of the great Tannaic sages, who interprets this verse as meaning, “And surely from your souls (‘from yourselves’) I will demand your blood (‘I will hold you liable for taking your own life’).”4 So we know that suicide is prohibited, but what is the rationale?

At its heart, the rationale stems from the basic concept in Jewish thought that one’s body is not his own property but a loan from G‑d; one has no autonomy over his own body or the bodies of others.5 Based on this concept, just as one may not murder his fellow, one is similarly forbidden from “murdering” himself. Indeed, Maimonides rules that one who commits suicide is guilty of murder and will be held accountable in the Heavenly Court.6

Maimonides writes that when one commits suicide, we withhold all traditional rites and rituals from him, such as mourning him or eulogizing him, but any rite or ritual that is performed as an honor for the living is not withheld.10

Islam has been even more forceful than Christianity in its condemnation of suicide, down the ages. The historian William Lecky, while noting that reports of deaths by suicide almost disappeared in medieval Europe, also mentions in Volume 2 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne that Islam was even more successful than Catholicism in eradicating it: “The influence of Catholicism was seconded by Mohammedanism, which, on this as on many other points, borrowed its teaching from the Christian Church, and even intensified it; for suicide, which is never expressly condemned in the Bible, is more than once forbidden in the Koran, and the Christian duty of resignation was exaggerated by the Moslem into a complete fatalism.” (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1890; 9th edition, p. 53).

The most that we are entitled to conclude, then, is that the transformation in popular attitudes towards suicide worldwide is due to the combined influence of the Abrahamic religions. As such, this transformation cannot be legitimately used as an argument for the moral superiority of Christianity.

Fallacy of temporal narrowness

Another problem with the apologetic argument that it was Christianity that transformed the way we think about suicide towards suicide is that it focuses exclusively on a particular period in human history: the world of late antiquity (c. 250 – 750 A.D.). During the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, suicide was seen as a socially acceptable way of avoiding lifelong shame, disgrace and poverty; by the early Middle Ages, suicide for these reasons was universally condemned. But even if Christianity were entirely responsible for this transformation in popular attitudes, it was still an event that took place more than a millennium ago. As an apologetic argument, it has no contemporary relevance. In putting forward this argument, Christian apologists commit the fallacy of temporal narrowness.

Fallacy of overlooking the negatives

Another key flaw in the apologetic argument that the near-abolition of suicide in medieval Europe demonstrates the moral superiority of Christianity is the fallacy of overlooking the negatives: the Christian Church’s refusal to give suicide victims a Christian burial led to the stigmatization of people who commit or attempt suicide as wicked individuals worthy of damnation, which must have caused untold anguish to their bereaved family members. A more compassionate approach, in which suicide victims were viewed as people suffering from mental illness and prayers were said on their behalf, would have helped these families.

In Volume 2 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, the historian William Lecky graphically describes the hideous treatment that the corpses of people who committed suicide were subjected to in certain European countries during the Middle Ages:

St. Lewis originated the custom of confiscating the property of the dead man, and the corpse was soon subjected to gross and various outrages. In some countries it could only be removed from the house through a perforation specially made for the occasion in the wall; it was dragged upon a hurdle through the streets, hung up with the head downwards, and at last thrown into the public sewer, or burnt, or buried in the sand below high-water mark, or transfixed by a stake on the public highway. (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1891; Third edition, p. 50)

Even if we grant that the laws applying in medieval Europe had the beneficial effect of deterring significant numbers of people from committing suicide, can we really be sure that this benefit outweighs the harm caused by subjecting the families of suicide victims to public disgrace, and telling them that their deceased loved ones were damned in Hell?

Fallacy of ignoring the better alternative

The apologetic argument that Christianity helped eliminate suicide in Europe also commits the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative. Arguably, treating suicidal feelings and suicide attempts as symptoms of mental illness has done more to lower the suicide rate than condemning such behavior as a sign of moral turpitude. From a medical standpoint, it is the more enlightened view. An online article at Our World in Data on “Suicides” (2023) by Saloni Dattani, Lucas Rodés-Guirao, Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, explains why:

Mental illnesses are a major risk factor for suicide

There are many risk factors for suicide, including bullying, financial distress, and trauma.14

A large risk factor is mental illness, especially if it is not treated. On average, people who are diagnosed with a mental illness tend to have a higher risk of suicide…

…[T]he vast majority of people – with or without a mental illness – did not die by suicide. Even among those diagnosed with a mental illness, the risk of suicide can be reduced substantially with treatment.15

In another section of the article, the authors describe how counseling and mental health treatment have dramatically driven down the suicide rate in Western Europe, in the past two decades:

Suicide rates have declined in many countries

In many countries, suicide rates have declined substantially.

You can see this in the chart, which shows the change since the year 2000. It shows estimates for countries in Europe that surpass an indicator for data quality on suicides. These include Spain, Italy, Norway, Austria, Luxembourg, Finland and France.

These large declines in suicide rates have been partly driven by greater awareness and help for people at risk, improvements in mental health treatment, and restrictions on some of the methods of suicide.3

This tells us that suicide is preventable…

From the above, it appears that suicide is best treated as a mental health issue, rather than as a morally depraved act. Counseling and mental health treatment appear to achieve better results in preventing suicide than sermons do. Insofar as Christian apologists overlook this point when lauding the Christian Church’s track record on suicide, they are guilty of the fallacy of overlooking the better alternative.

Exceptions to the prohibition on taking one’s life were allowed by all three of the Abrahamic religions

Finally, some Christian apologists might attempt to argue that while all of the Abrahamic religions condemn suicide, only in the Christian religion is the prohibition of suicide an absolute one. However, it turns out that all three of the Abrahamic religions make, or have made, exceptions to the prohibition on taking one’s life.

Judaism allows people to kill themselves in order to prevent themselves from giving up their faith or committing an act of sexual immorality. Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Minkowitz M.D., in his online article, Suicide in Judaism, explains why such acts are not considered suicides within Judaism:

There are multiple other stories in the Talmud of suicide; of those that are not condemned, one of the extreme extenuating circumstances of either internal or external coercion can often be applied… [A famous] example is the tragic saga of hundreds of Jewish children who are being taken captive to Rome for purposes of prostitution. All commit suicide en route.33 The early Talmudic commentators suggest that their suicide was driven by their fear that they would be tortured into sinning,34 and therefore it was not considered a suicide

During the tragic years of the Crusades, Jews were often forced to convert to Christianity under threat of torture or death. Many Jews chose to take their own lives rather than face the prospect of succumbing and undergoing baptism; indeed, there were even those who preemptively killed their loved ones as well to prevent this outcome. With respect to those that took their own lives in this setting, one of the most prominent Talmudists from that era, Rabbenu Yakov ben Meir Tam, known as Rabbeinu Tam, ruled that if one suspects that he will be tortured into apostasy, then it may indeed be a mitzvah to take one’s life.38 39

These cases may shock Christian readers, but I would remind them that the Christian Church tolerated two forms of suicide during its first four centuries, the second of which strongly parallels the Jewish suicides described above, as the following quote from Lecky’s explains in volume 2 of his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1869; Third edition):

There were, however, two forms of suicide which were regarded in the early Church with some tolerance or hesitation. During the frenzy excited by persecution, and under the influence of the belief that martyrdom effaced in a moment the sins of a life, and introduced the sufferer at once into celestial joys, it was not uncommon for men, in a transport of enthusiasm, to rush before the Pagan judges, imploring or provoking martyrdom; and some of the ecclesiastical writers have spoken of these men with considerable admiration,1 though the general tone of the patristic writings and the councils of the Church condemned them. A more serious difficulty arose about Christian women who committed suicide to guard their chastity when menaced by the infamous sentences of their persecutors, or more frequently by the lust of emperors, or by barbarian invaders… A Christian lady of Antioch, named Domnina, had two daughters renowned alike for their beauty and their piety. Being captured during the Diocletian persecution, and fearing the loss of their chastity, they agreed by one bold act to free themselves from the danger, and, casting themselves into a river by the way, mother and daughters sank unsullied in the wave3... Some Protestant controversialists have been scandalised,1 and some Catholic controversialists perplexed, by the undisguised admiration with which the early ecclesiastical writers narrate these histories. To those who have not suffered theological opinions to destroy all their natural sense of nobility it will need no defence. (pp. 45-46)

It was not until the time of St. Augustine that Christian attitudes towards these suicides began to change. Lecky recounts that unlike St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, who commended these acts, Augustine, “while expressing his pitying admiration for the virgin suicides, decidedly condemned their act.” So powerful was his influence on Catholic thought that to this day, Catholic theologians are compelled to “pretend that … Domnina acted under the impulse of a special revelation” (1869, Vol. 2, p. 47).

That leaves us with Islam. S.K. Burki, in his 2011 article, “Haram or Halal? Islamists’ use of suicide attacks as ‘Jihad'” (see also here) (Terrorism and Political Violence, 23(4), 582–601), discusses the question of suicide from a Muslim standpoint, explaining that since the seventh century, suicide “has been strongly condemned as being the path to eternal damnation in hell,” as “only Allah has the power to determine one’s time on this earth.” However, he acknowledges that in recent years, some Muslim scholars have attempted to argue that “certain types of suicide attacks constitute ‘acts of martyrdom’ that ensure a quick entry into paradise” – a view which, he correctly points out, has no historical precedent, but which is unfortunately gaining ground.

In short, none of the Abrahamic religions has consistently taught from its inception to the present day, that taking one’s life is wrong under all circumstances.

(e) The Abolition of slavery

OVERVIEW: The apologetic argument that Christianity deserves the lion’s share of the credit for abolishing slavery is nothing short of embarrassing. Even if we granted that the argument’s premise was true (which is debatable), one could still justifiably ask why it took Christians so long to recognize that slavery is wrong. For over 1,700 years, Christianity did little or nothing to mitigate (let alone abolish) the institution of slavery, so the argument commits the fallacy of temporal narrowness. In addition, the argument commits the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative. Even in Jesus’s day, there was a Jewish movement that condemned the institution of slavery as fundamentally immoral: the Essenes. The Christian Church could have adopted the Essenes’ moral code. Instead, it made a conscious choice to conform to Roman practice, tolerating even the beating of slaves and prohibiting only their sexual exploitation. Finally, the apologetic argument from the Church’s anti-slavery record is guilty of the fallacy of ignoring the negatives: Church councils which condemned entire groups of people to perpetual slavery, Popes who actively encouraged the African slave trade in the 15th century, kings and queens who bought and sold slaves, preachers who justified the practice of slavery for centuries by appealing to Scripture, and finally, the slaves themselves, who were captured and transported across the Atlantic Ocean in their millions. It is hard to see how the anti-slavery reforms achieved during the past 200 years outweigh the dismal record of the previous 18 centuries.

Slavery – background reading

On the subject of slavery, I would strongly recommend that Christian apologists read All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books [2022]) by Fr. Christopher Kellerman S.J. In his book, Fr. Kellerman punctures several widely believed myths about slavery. I would also urge them to view the following video featuring Dr. Josh Bowen (who has a Ph.D. in Assyriology with a minor in Hebrew Bible) talking on the topic, “Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?” The second edition of Dr. Bowen’s book, Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?, which deals exhaustively with the subject, is now available from Amazon. Readers who wish to thoroughly investigate the subject are encouraged to watch Dr. Bowen’s 11-part video series, Did the Old Testament endorse slavery?. A useful three-minute summary of his findings can be found here.

Dr. Bowen’s talk should leave viewers with no doubt that the authors of the Hebrew Bible did indeed endorse slavery, and that the laws on slavery in the Bible were much the same as those in other parts of the ancient Near East, except that they were more generous regarding how masters were expected to provide for slaves that had been released. Dr. Bowen also makes it clear that some of the slaves kept in Old Testament times were chattel slaves: they were the property of their master, who was under no obligation to ever release them.

A much more in-depth discussion (3 hours long) between Dr. Josh Bowen, Professor Kipp Davis, Professor Jennifer Bird, Professor Matthew Monger, Dr. Dan McClellan, and the host, David McDonald, on the subject, “Does The Bible Condone Slavery?” (March 12, 2023) can be found here:

Dr. Bowen defines slavery at 11:00 as “a condition in which an individual – including rights to their physical capacities (both physical and often sexual) – is owned by another, either temporarily or permanently.” He then distinguishes three kinds of slavery found in the Old Testament: debt slavery (generally temporary; contingent on the repayment of a debt), chattel slavery (generally permanent; not contingent on the repayment of a debt) and sexual slavery (being forced to perform sexual acts, and not being free to leave the place where one is kept or stop doing the work one is being forced to do). He makes it clear that chattel slaves could be purchased from foreigners. Sexual slavery is also found in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 22). These views are not controversial among Biblical scholars. As Dr. Bowen puts it (33:23): “Everyone’s echoing exactly what we’re saying, and they’re the subject matter experts in the field.” What’s more, Judaism traditionally defended the legitimacy of slavery: Philo, Josephus, the Mishnah and the Talmud all supported slavery and based it on the text of the Hebrew Bible (55:40). Professor Jennifer Bird provides a list (1:35:00) of theologians, bishops and councils in the early Church who either endorsed or were involved in slavery: Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (3rd century), Lactantius, the Acts of Andrew, Ambrose, Jerome, Basil of Caesarea, the Council of Gangra (mid-4th century), John Chrysostom, Augustine, the archdeacon Felix (4th or 5th century), and the Council of Chalcedon (451). In the last hour of the video, starting at 2:17:50, the panelists address common arguments raised by apologists attempting to mitigate the force of the Old Testament regulations regarding slavery. Their rebuttals are devastating.

Slavery: sanctioned by the Bible and never condemned by Jesus, despite the existence of anti-slavery schools of thought in his time

It is common for Christian apologists to distinguish between chattel slavery and indentured servitude. However, as Kellerman remarks (2022, pp. 4, 8, 9, 13, 14), this is not a distinction made in Scripture: “The Old Testament gives no hint that it is wrong to consider human beings to be one’s property, harshly beat them, force them to work their entire unpaid lives, and then keep their children… Slavery in both practice and concept is present throughout the New Testament… Slavery is part of Jesus’ world, and he never directly condemns or praises it. The Acts of the Apostles is similar in this regard… There is no hint in the New Testament that slaveholders had a moral obligation to end their slaveholding. To the New Testament authors, there was a Christian manner in which someone could own, force to work, punish, and keep enslaved another human being and their children all the while considering them to be fellow members of the Body of Christ with spiritual equality before God. Baptism did not free the enslaved… I also think it is impossible to argue that the New Testament letters find slaveholding as such to be sinful.

Caves at Qumran, which was inhabited by a Jewish sect of the late Second Temple period, which most scholars identify with the Essenes. The Essenes opposed slavery as unjust and immoral, and held that God created all men brothers. John the Baptist may have been an Essene. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

What is particularly embarrassing for Christian apologists is that even back in those times, there were a few people who condemned slavery as inherently evil, as Fr. Kellerman acknowledges:

Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery was written partially as a response to people whom he wrote believed slavery to be unjust because it was against natural law and seemed to be based entirely on who could dominate whom. The Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, wrote that the Essene sect of the Jewish people was against slaveholding because Essenes considered it “injustice in outraging the law of equality” and “impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like has born and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name but in very reality.” He also mentions a mysterious religious sect called the Therapeutae that denounced slaveholding as “entirely against nature” because “nature had borne all men to be free.” (2022, pp. 14-15)

Slavery in ancient Roman Empire from the fourth to the seventh centuries

During the Patristic era, there were four Church Fathers who strongly influenced the subsequent thinking of the Church on the morality of slavery: Saints Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus (or Gregory Nazianzen). In Fr. Kellerman’s words: “These four theologians directly commented on the morality of slaveholding. In one way or another, each of them found slaveholding to be compatible with Christian life. Nazianzen and Basil were even slaveholders themselves.6” (2022, p. 17) Two of these Fathers (Augustine and John Chrysostom) defended the corporal punishment of slaves. Two of these Fathers (Augustine and Basil) also taught that the enslavement of captives during war was, in some mysterious way, God’s will. In the fifth century, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) decreed that Church monasteries were forbidden, under pain of excommunication, to allow slaves to become monks against the will of their masters. Over a century later, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) both purchased slaves and gave them away as gifts, but nowhere did he declare the liberation of slaves (manumission) to be a moral obligation. On one occasion, Gregory gave an 18-year-old slave to Bishop Felix of Portua, telling the bishop he could “have him, possess him, and claim him by your right of ownership.” As Felix’s property, Gregory declared that the bishop was legally empowered to “do whatever you want with him.” A few decades later, in the year 633, the Fourth Council of Toledo (in Spain) enslaved the sexual partners of clergy who had broken their vows of celibacy, decreeing that free foreign women or enslaved women who had formed relationships with clerics should be sold by the local bishop. Worse was to come: “The Ninth Council of Toledo in 655 added to the punishment, declaring that the children of any clerical unions would never receive an inheritance and would become permanent slaves of the Church.” (2022, p. 29)

During the first millennium of Christianity, we find just two Christians who condemned the practice of slaveholding as inherently immoral: Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and Abbot Smaragdus of St. Mihiel in the ninth. Unfortunately, their writings had no impact on the Church’s teachings regarding slavery. Fr. Kellerman comments: “Compared to the voice of the much larger crowd of proslavery popes, councils, bishops, and theologians in the first millennium of Christianity, the theological opposition of Nyssen and Smaragdus amounted to barely a whimper” (2022, p. 32).

Was slavery abolished in Europe during the Middle Ages? The views of St. Thomas Aquinas

Christian apologists commonly claim that that during the Middle Ages, slavery had effectively disappeared in Europe, under the influence of the Catholic Church. This is simply false. To quote Kellerman (2022, p. 33): “Slavery did not disappear during the Middle Ages, despite what later abolitionists and historians would claim… Children, like those given away by Gregory the Great, continued to be enslaved and treated as moveable property. Institutions of the Catholic Church owned slaves throughout the medieval period, and … there is no evidence that the Church tried to end slavery.” Pope Benedict VIII’s Council of Pavia sanctioned the enslavement of the children of the clergy in 1022. What’s more, “The Church in the early Middle Ages did not simply ‘tolerate’ slaveholding; it rather enthusiastically embraced it” (2022, p. 29).

Stained glass window depicting St. Thomas Aquinas. Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Mechelen (Belgium). Image courtesy of Eddy Van 3000 and Wikipedia.

Kellerman also points out that the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), defended the practice of keeping humans enslaved, on theological grounds:

In many ways, Aquinas’ own thought followed that of the Patristic authors. Like Augustine, he wrote that slavery did not exist before the fall of humanity. There were no true slaves by nature. And yet he did not think slavery was against the natural law. Nature desires that all be good, Aquinas wrote, but when we fall short of that, nature inclines toward us being punished: “and thus slavery was brought in as a punishment of sin.”19 It was part of positive law created by humans (specifically the ius gentium), and like clothes and private property, was “devised by human reason for the benefit of human life.”20But Aquinas did not go so far as Augustine to say that an individual’s enslavement was a result of God’s will to humble or punish them. (2022, p. 37)

…[D]espite Aquinas writing so negatively about the pain of war-captive slavery, he still accepts its legitimacy as part of the ius gentium.26 He also accepts the principle of the enslaved status of a mother passing to her children, finding this in civil, canon, and even divine law (see Ex. 21:4). Aquinas says that slave status is reasonably passed on through the mother since slavery is a condition of the body and the child derives “the substance of the body from the mother.”27… (2022, p. 38)

Only slaves’ bodies are bought and sold as chattel, and only the body is truly subject to the master… (2022, p. 39)

Aquinas accepted the moral legitimacy of chattel slaveholding just as many of the theologians before him had done and, perhaps even more importantly, as the Church’s canon law did. He recognized that it was not part of God’s original plan, yet he found a way to morally justify its existence… He knew [some] people disagreed with the justice of slaveholding, but he chose to uphold it.34 (2022, p. 40)

In fact, Aquinas not only approved of slavery (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 57, art. 4); he also believed that masters could beat their slaves (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 65, art. 2), but not kill or mutilate them, as a form of correction. Aquinas backed up his position by approvingly citing a passage from the Catholic Bible: “Torture and fetters are for a malicious slave” (Sirach 33:28). He also viewed slaves (or more precisely, their bodies) as chattels, writing that “a slave belongs to his master, because he is his instrument” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 57, art. 4) and quoting the authority of Aristotle’s Politics (Book One, Part II) in support.

The Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade

Four Popes who authorized the Atlantic slave trade. Left: Pope Nicholas V. Portrait by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610s. Second from left: Pope Calixtus III. 1455 portrait by Sano di Pietro. Third from left: Pope Sixtus IV. Portrait of Sixtus IV by Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete. Right: Pope Leo X. Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Leo X with two Cardinals, c. 1518-1520. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Commenting on the Atlantic slave trade of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, Kellerman notes that it was authorized by several Popes:

Pope Nicholas V had given permission to the Portuguese to engage in slave raids in Africa and purchase slaves, and he gave this permission with some of the strongest invocations of papal authority available to him. These permissions were confirmed or renewed by Pope Callixtus III in 1456, Pope Sixtus IV in 1481, and Pope Leo X in 1514. These renewals are important to remember. The beginning of the Atlantic trade in African slaves was approved by not just one pope but four over the course of seventy-five years. (2022, p. 54)

Of particular significance were the two papal bulls, Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus pontifex (1455), issued by Pope Nicholas V. It was these two bulls that ultimately set in motion the events that led to the Atlantic trade in African slaves. Discussing these bulls, Kellerman notes that “Nicholas’s decision to allow the Portuguese to invade, conquer, enslave and take all lands and possessions of anyone (‘infidels and pagans’) who wasn’t a Christian, even those ‘situated in the remotest parts unknown to us'” (2022, p. 54), was something of a theological novelty, as it allowed the enslavement of people who hadn’t even had the chance to have the Gospel preached to them. Despite being “far outside the theological mainstream of the greatest thinkers of previous centuries,” these two papal bulls had the full force of law, and their effects were far-reaching: “Theologically speaking, these documents gave the Portuguese free reign (sic) in conquering and reducing people to slavery in Africa.” (2022, p. 54)

Papal apologists often point to the bull, Sicut dudum, authored by Pope Eugenius IV in 1435, as evidence that the Popes condemned slavery from the outset. However, what Eugenius IV condemned was not the slave trade as such, but slave raids of people living in the Canary Islands, who had already converted to Christianity, having been evangelized by Spaniards. Another widely-cited papal condemnation is that of Pius II, who is said to have referred to slavery as “a great crime” in 1462. As Fr. Kellerman points out in an article titled, Slavery and the Catholic Church: It’s time to correct the historical record (America magazine, February 15, 2023), this is a misreading:

Pius II’s condemnation had nothing to do with the general Portuguese trade in enslaved Africans; it instead concerned a particular instance of Catholic converts being kidnapped. Nicholas V’s bulls had specified that only non-Christians could be seized and enslaved. Pius II’s letter was in accordance with Nicholas’ permissions, not against them.

It is indeed true that from the sixteenth century onwards, numerous popes condemned the enslavement of Native Americans, but they did not condemn that of Africans. As Kellerman points out, “When Pope Paul III and some of his successors wrote bulls against the enslavement of indigenous peoples, … [t]hey were in support of something that Catholic kings were already trying to do. Though it might be tempting today to try to apply the logic of Paul III’s bull to the Portuguese slave raids in Africa, no one at the time would have interpreted Paul’s document as having anything to do with the Atlantic slave trade.” (2022, p. 66)

How much harm did the Atlantic slave trade do?

Public punishment in Santa Ana Square, Brazil by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The human toll of the Atlantic slave trade was enormous. Patrick Manning, in an article titled, “The Slave Trade: The Formal Demographics of a Global System” in Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman (eds), The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Duke University Press, 1992), estimates that about 12 million Africans entered the Atlantic slaves trade from 1500 to 1900, but about 1.5 million died on board ship. About 10.5 million slaves arrived in the Americas. (Manning estimates that approximately 6 million Africans were sent to Arabian slave markets in the Orient over the same period, of whom 15% [900,000] died; a further 8 million were enslaved and retained within the African continent, of whom 15% [1,200,000] died.) Manning concludes: “An estimated 4 million people lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement within Africa, while many others died young because of the hard conditions of slave life.” It is difficult to estimate how many people died as a result of slave raids, wars, and during transport to the coast for sale to European slave traders, but historians are agreed that the death toll must have been in the millions. Millions more slaves would have died in seasoning camps in the Caribbean, after they arrived in the New World.

Two papal myths punctured

Two Popes who condemned the enslavement of Native Americans, but failed to condemn the enslavement of Africans. Left: Pope Urban VIII. Portrait by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1631–1632. Right: Pope Benedict XIV. Portrait by Pierre Subleyras, 1746. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Papal apologists sometimes allege that Pope Urban VIII condemned slavery in the seventeenth century, and that Pope Benedict XIV renewed this condemnation in the eighteenth century. Neither allegation is correct. It is indeed true that Pope Urban VIII forbade the enslavement of the Native American inhabitants of Brazil, Paraguay and the West Indies in 1639; yet it is also true that he purchased slaves from the Knights of Malta for the Papal galleys.

In his monumental work, The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839 (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2017), Pius Onyemechi Adiele chronicles the papal involvement in the purchase of galley slaves to support the papal fleet in its war for control of the Mediterranean Sea against Saracens and Turks. In the course of his research, Adiele cites Fr. John Francis Maxwell’s study, Slavery and the Catholic Church (London: Barry Rose, 1975):

Also Francis Maxwell made an exposition of the papal politics on the issue of slavery and the slave trade in the Papal States. In his exposition, he recorded that the popes kept the institution of slavery and the slave trade alive for many centuries with their practice of keeping slaves in the Papal States for the papal Galleys. According to him: “There are records which show that from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries some of the popes were personally involved in the purchase and use of Galley-slaves for the Pontifical squadron in the almost continuous warfare with Saracens or Turks.”356 Maxwell further revealed that pope Urban VIII, who condemned Indian enslavement in his Bull “Commissum Nobis” of 1639 did not only encourage the slave trade and slavery but was also deeply involved in the traffic in slaves during his Pontificate. His participation in the slave trade is evident in his Fleet policy in the Papal States. Maxwell maintained that in his Fleet policy, Urban VIII commanded his Treasurer General Monsignor Durazzi in 1629 to buy 40 slaves for the maintenance of the papal Fleets in the Papal States.357 Also in his Motu Proprio of January 31, 1629, Urban VIII ordered that the private slaves which some officials of his government kept for hiring be bought rather than using them as rented slaves.358 (2017, p. 385)

356 Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church, p. 76.
357 Ibid.
358 Bertolotti, La Schiavitu in Roma, Dal Secolo XVI al XIX, pp. 20-22. Cf. Priesching, Die Verurteilung der Sklaverei unter Gregor XVI., in: Saeculum, 59/1 (2008), p. 151

As for Pope Benedict XIV, it is entirely true that he condemned the enslavement of Native Americans in Brazil, in the papal bull Immensa Pastorum in 1741. However, he said nothing in this bull about black Africans, who also worked as slaves in Brazil. Adiele comments on this striking omission in his work, The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839:

The failure to mention Black Africans or to condemn their enslavement in this Bull is a clear indication that pope Benedict XIV accepted their enslavement as a just slavery. Otherwise, what prevented him from including millions of enslaved Black Africans in Brazil as among those who should enjoy protection and aid of the Church as he indicated in his Bull with the following wordings?: “That help, aid and protection should be given to those who lack faith, and that neither injuries nor the scourge, nor chains, nor servitude, nor death should be inflicted on them.”336 (2017, p. 378)

336 Benedict XIV, “Immensa Pastorum,” in: Benedict XIV Bullarium, Vol. I, pp. 99-102. English version in: Panzer, The Popes and Slavery, pp. 92-96.

The Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina and his influence on the decisions of the Holy Office in the seventeenth century, regarding the Atlantic slave trade

Watercolor by English painter Augustus Earle. Punishing negroes at Cathabouco, in Rio de Janeiro. 1822. National Library of Australia.

In his book, Fr. Kellerman also discusses the writings of the acclaimed Jesuit theologian, Fr. Luis de Molina (1535-1600), which had a great influence on future theological discussions of the morality of slavery:

In 1594, Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina became the first theologian to publish an in-depth moral analysis of the African slave trade… His work on slavery, found in the second volume of his De iustitia et iure, was seminal due to Molina’s presentation of his own investigation into the trade and some new ideas about slave purchase and ownership.

Molina defended the legitimacy of slavery using Scripture, canon law, and Roman civil law… He wrote that the enslavement of prisoners of war could legitimately include entire populations, including the women and children of the towns captured… He cited the Church’s past directives on the enslavement of the wives and children of clerics, the enslavement of those who helped the Saracens, and the reenslavement of freed persons for ingratitude. He accepted self-sale and the sale of one’s children in certain circumstances and defended the passing of enslaved status from the mother to the child… (2022, pp. 78-79)

In his work, Molina was highly critical of some aspects of the Atlantic slave trade, maintaining that while some African slaves had been acquired in a legitimate manner, most of those who had been purchased from African (as opposed to Portuguese) slave dealers had not been acquired lawfully. Transporting slaves who had been captured illegally was a mortal sin. However, as Fr. Kellerman explains, Molina wasn’t so scrupulous when it came to the purchase of these unlawfully acquired slaves:

Despite his partial condemnation of the trade, Molina took a further step that would prove disastrous in the history of the Church’s engagement with the slave trade: he analyzed the moral situation of someone in the Americas purchasing an enslaved African… How could the purchaser know if the enslaved African they were purchasing was enslaved justly or not? Molina wrote that you could not believe the slave, who would surely lie in such a situation to obtain freedom. Therefore, if the buyer began to doubt the purchase, he should investigate to see whether the enslavement was licit or not. If a slave he had purchased was proven to have been enslaved unjustly, emancipation and restitution were required. But if proof could not be obtained, even in a case of some doubt, the possessor had the better moral position and could keep the slave in good faith. (p. 81)

Molina’s work was highly influential, shaping the opinions of Roman ecclesiastical authorities. But for Molina, the Holy Office might have condemned the African slave trade as early as the seventeenth century. It is sometimes alleged that the Holy Office condemned the African slave trade in 1686, but as Fr. Kellerman demonstrates, this is not the case. Although the Holy Office insisted that slaveholders were obliged to emancipate and even compensate Africans who had been unjustly enslaved, the document did not condemn enslavement as such, and it failed to provide guidance in cases where it could not be ascertained whether Africans had been “justly” or “unjustly” enslaved:

Everyone in the Catholic theological tradition agreed that if someone had been unjustly enslaved, they should be set free and given restitution. This was not a point of controversy. The problem was that people in Europe and the Americas were buying slaves without certainty as to whether or not the Africans they were purchasing were justly or unjustly enslaved. On this question, the Holy Office’s document went no further than what [Spanish Jesuit Luis de] Molina had affirmed. The buyer should ask, they said. The Holy Office confirmed that baptism itself did not free anybody from slavery. And the wounding, burning, and exposure to “manifest danger of death” of slaves was prohibited only if the slaveholder was doing these things by their own personal authority, implicitly affirming that these things were acceptable if the government had authorized them…

The document of the Holy Office did not solve any problems. It told people not to do anything illegal and not to buy enslaved people from Protestants… The document punished no one and freed no one. Innocent XI and his curia chose to go with the status quo, and the many injustices inherent to the slave trade would continue unchallenged by the Roman Catholic Church. (2022, p. 104)

The result was that Catholics continued to be allowed to keep chattel slaves. In his article, Slavery and the Catholic Church: It’s time to correct the historical record (February 15, 2023), Fr. Kellerman describes how this lax ruling impacted the clergy:

The Jesuits, for example, by the historian Andrew Dial’s count, owned over 20,000 enslaved people circa 1760. The Jesuits and other slaveholding bishops, priests and religious were not disciplined for their slaveholding because they were not breaking church teaching. Slaveholding was allowed by the Catholic Church.

In his book, All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church, Fr. Kellerman goes on to explain that the Catholic Church in the United States also owned slaves:

Like most of the Church throughout the Americas, the Catholic Church in the United States engaged in slaveholding. It is well known that the Georgetown University Jesuits were slaveholders, but Jesuits in other parts of the United States also practiced slaveholding, as did Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne and the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Vincentians, Sulpicians, Capuchins, Ursulines, Carmelites, Visitation nuns, Dominicans, Sisters of Loretto, and other religious orders, bishops, and priests in the United States.32 Even John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, was a slaveholder.33 The Church allowed for all of this, of course. And when the Jesuit Superior General Father Jan Philip Roothaan gave permission to the Maryland Province of the Jesuits to sell their 272 slaves at Georgetown, he followed Catholic theology in doing so. (2022, pp. 134-135)

Britain’s role in the slave trade

Total number of slaves embarked to the New World from 1450 to 1866 by country. Image courtesy of slavevoyages.org and Wikipedia.

As the above graph shows, the major Atlantic slave trading nations, in order of volume, were Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, and Denmark. Britain’s role in the slave trade was second only to that of Portugal.

An article by David Conn in The Guardian (6 April 2023), titled, “The British kings and queens who supported and profited from slavery”, notes that over a period of 270 years, “12 British monarchs sponsored, supported or profited from Britain’s involvement in slavery, according to historians,” beginning with Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), who “gave a large royal ship to the slave trader John Hawkins in 1564 in exchange for a share in the profits of the voyage,” to William IV (1830-1837), who “was king at the time slavery was abolished in 1833, but … devoted speeches in the Lords to defending slavery, arguing that it was vital to prosperity.” During this period, several monarchs owned shares in companies that profited from the slave trade – notably the Royal African Company (of which Charles II was a patron and James II was a governor) and the South Sea company (of which George I, George II, George III and George IV were governors). The article also mentions that the reign of George IV (1820 -1830) was marked by “ruthless suppression of uprisings by enslaved people in the Caribbean.” Not until 1833 was slavery outlawed within the British Empire.

The example of Britain illustrates the fact that the morality of slavery was upheld within both Catholic and Protestant countries in Europe, until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Denmark was the first country to ban the Atlantic slave trade through legislation in 1792, which took effect in 1803. Britain followed suit in 1807, levying severe financial penalties for any slave found aboard a British ship in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. After 1807, abolitionists tried to set up international agreements to abolish the slave trade. Between 1810 and 1814, Britain organized treaties with Portugal, Sweden and Denmark, in which they agreed to either end or limit their trade in slaves.

Finally, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna issued a general declaration condemning the slave trade. The Declaration of the Powers, on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of 8 February 1815 (the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna/Act XV) condemned the slave trade as “repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality,” and as “odious in its continuance,” referring to the public outcry against it in “all civilized countries.”

The last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade was Brazil, in 1831.

The beginnings of the anti-slavery movement

Left: Profile of Charles Montesquieu, by an anonymous artist, painted 1753-1794.
Centre: Portrait of Benjamin Lay (1790) by William Williams.
Right: Anthony Benezet instructing Black children. Illustration by John Warner Barber in a book from 1850. Images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution) and Wikipedia.

The Atlantic slave trade commenced in 1526, when Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil. However, the first public protest against the enslavement of Africans did not occur until more than a century and a half later, in 1688. This protest, known as the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, took place in America’s Thirteen Colonies. It was issued by four German settlers: the Lutheran Francis Daniel Pastorius (the founder of Germantown) and three Quakers. The Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery based itself principally upon the Golden Rule, arguing that distinctions of color were morally irrelevant: “There is a saying, that we shall doe (sic) to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb (sic) men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike?” The protest sparked a lively debate amongst Pennsylvanian Quakers over the next few decades, regarding the morality of slavery.

Initially, the fight against the slave trade (abolitionism) was led largely by Quakers. Quakers such as William Southeby, John Hepburn, Ralph Sandiford, and Benjamin Lay, took an active part in protests against the slave trade, and vigorously opposed it in writing. In a fiery tract published in 1737, titled, All slave-keepers that keep the innocent in bondage, apostates pretending to lay claim to the pure & holy Christian religion, Lay, who had lived for many years in Barbados, recalled the shiploads of starving Africans he had seen arriving by the thousands every year, and urged all slaveholders to acquit themselves from “so Hellish a Practice.” Invoking the ultimate authority and justice of God and citing Acts 17:26, he declared, “I suppose the pure holy eternal Being, which made of one blood all nations of men to dwell upon the face of the earth, did not make others to be slaves to us, any more then we to be so to them.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, English Quakers first voiced their official disapproval of the slave trade in 1727. Anti-slavery sentiment among Quakers acquired critical mass in the 1740s and 1750s, when prominent abolitionists protested against the institution of slavery itself, and demanded that Quaker society cut ties with the slave trade. Among these were: John Woolman, who in his Journal expressed his belief “that Men having Power too often misapplied it; that though we made Slaves of the Negroes, and the Turks made Slaves of the Christians, I believed that Liberty was the natural Right of all Men equally“; Anthony Benezet, commonly viewed as the founder of the antislavery movement in America, whose anti-slavery views were influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, African travel narratives, Quakerism, practical life and the Bible; and David Cooper, the author of a 22-page anti-slavery tract addressed to the “Rulers of America,” denouncing the slave trade as contrary to “the immutable laws of nature” by which people are naturally “entitled to life, liberty and property,” and invoking Scripture to support his case: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10). The abolitionists’ campaign was successful, and in the 1750s, Pennsylvanian Quakers began tightening their rules. By 1758, they had effectively made it an act of misconduct to engage in slave trading.

Meanwhile, over on the Continent, the French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu attacked the morality of slavery in his anonymously published The Spirit of Law (1748), which was received well in both Great Britain and the American colonies, and frequently cited by abolitionist campaigners. In Book XV of his work, Montesquieu argued on naturalistic grounds that slavery is an inherently corrupting institution:

Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel.

Another prominent Enlightenment philosopher who criticized the slave trade was the French freethinker Denis Diderot, in his Encyclopédie, published between 1751 and 1772.

In Britain, a petition from the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, which was signed by over 300 Quakers, was presented to Parliament in June 1783, protesting the slave trade. In their petition, the Quakers set aside the Old Testament’s authorization of slavery as a one-off dispensation given to the Jews because of the hardness of their hearts in those times, and cited the Golden Rule and Acts 17:26 as arguments for abolishing slavery:

The arguments which have been advanced by the few writers, who have attempted to justify this in­human business, can have no weight with generous minds. Those, in particular, which are drawn from the permission to hold slaves amongst the Jews, can in no wise be applied to the practice amongst us: for, blessed be the God and Father of all our mer­cies *, who hath made of one blood all nations of men, we now live under a dispensation essentially different from that of the law; in which many things were permitted to the Jews, because of the hardness of their hearts. All distinctions of name and country, so far as they relate to the social du­ties, are now abolished. We are taught by our blessed Redeemer to look upon all men, even our enemies, as neighbours and brethren, and to do unto them as we would they should do unto us.

That year, an anti-slavery movement sprang up among the British public to end slavery throughout the British Empire.

Left: William Wilberforce (1759–1833), politician and philanthropist who was a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Portrait by John Rising, c. 1790. Right: Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire, who helped found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Portrait by Carl Frederik von Breda. Public domain. Images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery (London) and Wikipedia.

In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, with nine of the twelve founder members being Quakers; the rest were Anglicans. Thomas Clarkson, who had been influenced by the writings of Anthony Benezet, became the group’s most prominent researcher, gathering vast amounts of data on the trade. Another founding member, Granville Sharp, was a lawyer who had long been involved in the support and prosecution of cases on behalf of enslaved Africans. During the same year, William Wilberforce was persuaded to take up their cause; as an MP, Wilberforce was able to introduce a bill to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce first attempted to abolish the trade in 1791, but could only muster half the necessary votes; however, after transferring his support to the Whigs, it became an election issue. Abolitionist pressure had changed popular opinion, and in the 1806 election enough abolitionists entered parliament for Wilberforce to be able to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. (By this time, slavery had already been abolished in all French territories and possessions during the French Revolution in 1794, only to be reinstated under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.) However, it was the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which was passed one week before Wilberforce’s death, that ended slavery throughout the British Empire, over a period of several years, from 1834 to 1838. Slavery within the East India Company, Ceylon and St. Helena ended a few years later.

I shall end my brief narrative here, as my concern is merely to trace the genesis of the anti-slavery movement. In summary, the first point I wish to make here is that the anti-slavery movement began among a fringe group of Christians, the Quakers, a little over 300 years ago. Quaker opposition to slavery arose not only from their reading of the Bible (and in particular, the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – a rule which is found in many cultures around the world, in both East and West) but from a variety of sources. According to Maurice Jackson, an assistant professor in the history department at Georgetown University and author of the biography, “Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism”, Benezet’s anti-slavery views were influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, African travel narratives, Quakerism, practical life and the Bible. In an article titled, “The Social and Intellectual Origins of Anthony Benezet’s Antislavery Radicalism” (Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 66, Explorations in Early American Culture (1999), pp. 86-112), Jackson writes:

Benezet combined his recollections and observations with long quotations from intellectuals such as the French Baron de Montesquieu and the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson. Beginning with A Short Account and continuing through most of his other tracts, Benezet started a tradition followed by other anti-slavery crusaders of mixing large passages from Enlightenment thinkers with those from slave trade journals and travelers’ accounts. (1999, p. 93)

In other words, the Quakers’ insight that slavery was wrong did not come from the Bible alone; it was the product of a cross-fertilization of ideas between various independent thinkers in the eighteenth century, coupled with a deep-seated humanitarian sentiment: a willingness to recognize people of all races as fundamentally the same.

My second point is that while the anti-slavery movement succeeded in its aim of eradicating slavery throughout most of the world over the course of the nineteenth century, by the time it did, tens of millions of people of African descent in the New World had already lived and died under the iron heel of slavery. We have seen that it was generally believed among Christians that slavery could be justified by appeal to Scripture and Christian tradition, that it was Christian leaders (namely, the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Popes Nicholas V, Callixtus III, Sixtus IV and Leo X) who authorized the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade, and that there were many Christian kings and queens who profited from it financially. The responsibility for this barbarous trade therefore lies principally with Christianity.

When did the Popes start condemning the Atlantic slave trade, and slavery in general?

Popes Pius VII, Gregory XVI and Leo XIII. Images courtesy of Library of Congress, Stephen C. Dickson and Wikipedia.

The Catholic Church took a long time to condemn the Atlantic slave trade. In fact, as Fr. Kellerman observes (2022, pp. 127, 128), “The first Pope to denounce the Atlantic slave trade in any fashion was Pope Pius VII in 1814″ (by which time it had already been outlawed by the US and Britain), and “It was Pope Gregory XVI who issued the first public papal condemnation of the slave trade in 1839. Britain once again was the instigator.”

Even at this late stage, however, the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery as such. Indeed, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) upheld its legitimacy. In 1866, the Holy Office issued an Instruction (signed by Pope Pius IX himself) in reply to questions from a vicar apostolic of the Galla tribe in Ethiopia. The full text can be found in Fr. John Francis Maxwell’s work, Slavery and the Catholic Church (London: Barry Rose, 1975). Here is an excerpt:

Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. For the sort of ownership that a slave-owner has over a slave is understood as nothing other than the perpetual right of disposing of the work of a slave for one’s own benefit — services which it is right for one human being to provide for another. From this, it follows that it is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or donated, provided that in this sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors likewise describe and explain. Among these conditions, the most important ones are that the purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue or Catholic faith of the slave who is to be transferred to another’s possession. (1975, p. 78)

Pope Leo XIII was the first pope to teach that slavery as such was evil, in his encyclicals In plurimis (1888) and Catholicae Ecclesiae (1890).

Fr. Kellerman concludes his article, Slavery and the Catholic Church: It’s time to correct the historical record (February 15, 2023), with a plea:

As Catholics, we must consider the human beings affected by the church’s actions. How many people died chained to the disease-ridden hulls of ships because the popes before Gregory XVI repeatedly failed to take a bold stand? How many enslaved people were sexually assaulted because they were placed in a legal position allowed by the popes before Leo XIII that left them vulnerable to such abuse? How many enslaved people fell away from the Catholic faith because priests told them that the oppression they were experiencing was occurring with the approval of Holy Mother Church?

A process of reconciliation is needed. Our church needs to admit these past injustices.

Apologetic fallacies in relation to slavery

Christian apologists are wont to claim that whatever the sins may have been committed by Christian slaveholders, it is Christianity that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for abolishing slavery. As we have seen, most of the credit in this regard goes to Quakers, who were influenced by the Golden Rule and by natural law (neither of which is specific to Christianity). However, even if we give Christianity the credit for the abolition of slavery, one could still justifiably ask why it took Christians so long to recognize that slavery is wrong in the first place. For over 1,700 years, Christianity did little or nothing to mitigate (let alone abolish) the institution of slavery, so the argument commits the fallacy of temporal narrowness.

In addition, the argument commits the fallacy of ignoring the better alternative. As we have seen, even in Jesus’s day, there was a Jewish movement that condemned the institution of slavery as fundamentally immoral: the Essenes. (Interestingly, John the Baptist may have belonged to this group.) The Christian Church could have adopted the Essenes’ moral code. Instead, it made a conscious choice to conform to Roman practice, tolerating even the beating of slaves and prohibiting only their sexual exploitation. As we have seen, theologians of the stature of St. Thomas Aquinas endorsed the beating of slaves as a form of correction, and viewed slaves’ bodies as the chattels of their masters.

Finally, the apologetic argument from the Church’s record of opposing slavery over the past two or three hundred years is guilty of the fallacy of ignoring the negatives: Church Fathers who endorsed slavery and even (in some cases) owned slaves, Church councils which condemned entire groups of people to perpetual slavery, Popes who actively encouraged the African slave trade in the 15th century, kings and queens who bought and sold slaves, preachers who justified the practice of slavery for centuries by appealing to Scripture, and finally, the slaves themselves, who were captured and transported across the Atlantic Ocean in their millions. It is hard to see how the anti-slavery legislative reforms achieved during the past 200 years outweigh the dismal record of the previous 18 centuries.

In his humorous article, “Which Has Killed More People? Christianity or Gun Control?”, Matthew White, author of Atrocitology: Humanity’s 100 Deadliest Achievements, proposes a scale for measuring Christian culpability for various atrocities, based on five questions:

1. Were the perpetrators Christian?
2. Were the perpetrators from a traditionally Christian society?
3. Was the Christianity mainstream?
4. Was the conflict mostly religious?
5. Was the conflict partly religious?

Discussing the slave trade and the conquest of the Americas, White concludes that the answer to the first three questions must be Yes, while the answer to the fourth question is No. For the slave trade, White answers No to the fifth question, but Yes in the case of the conquest of the Americas. I therefore think it is fair to assign about half of the responsibility for the people enslaved and human lives lost as a result of the Atlantic slave trade to Christianity. That still leaves us with millions of people. And when one includes the many generations of people of African descent who lived and died under slavery in the New World between 1526 and 1888 (when slavery was abolished in Brazil), then we can legitimately speak of tens of millions of people for whose enslavement Christianity is 50% responsible.

5. Summing it all up: a bird’s eye view

In this article, we have examined five key areas in which Christianity is said to have made the world a better place: charitable giving, the virtual elimination of infanticide, advances in the status of women, changes in popular attitudes towards suicide, and the abolition of slavery. As we have seen, Christian charity is by far the most convincing example. Although Christian charity has caused harms as well as benefits, it is probably fair to say that it has benefited hundreds of millions, if not billions. (Think of hospitals for instance.) But even if we grant that Christianity has done an enormous amount of good in this area, we have to also acknowledge that people acting in the name of Christianity have also brought about harms in other areas that have hurt or even killed tens, if not hundreds of millions of people. One thinks of the African slaves brought to the New World, who suffered and died under the iron heel of oppression for hundreds of years. This slave trade was authorized by four Renaissance Popes. One thinks also of infanticide, which was common in Europe during the Middle Ages and right up until the late nineteenth century. Billions of children were born in dire poverty during this long period. Many of these children were killed shortly after their birth by parents who were unable to look after them, but their deaths could have been prevented if the Church had not waited until 1930 to endorse birth control – and then only in certain quarters (mainly Anglican and Protestant) – or if the Church had had the good sense to allow married couples to engage in non-procreative forms of sex, which were practiced among the Cathars during the Middle Ages. Summing up, it is difficult to demonstrate that the benefits Christian charity has brought to the world outweigh the enormous harms done in the name of Christianity. For that reason, it is impossible to say whether Christianity has really made the world a better place. As a Christian, I’m inclined to think it has, but other people may differ in their opinions.

Let me conclude by leaving readers with a video of a debate between Bart Ehrman and Glen Scrivener on the topic: “Did Christianity give us our belief in equality, compassion & consent?” (Premier Unbelievable, 1 April 2022)

27 thoughts on “An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: Y. Has Christianity made the world a better place?

  1. This is a massive post for the benefit of the few who read this blog. Is it being published anyplace else with the idea of reaching a sizable audience? I can’t imagine anyone reading it carefully with the intent of comprehensively responding.

  2. Hi Alan,

    You are entirely correct. I’ll be letting Gavin Ortlund know, over at Truth Unites (his blog on Youtube), and Edouard Tahmizian, over at Internet Infidels.

    Hi Aleta,

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading my post. Cheers.

  3. To address most of these issues, what is needed is some sort of control group. And by golly, during most of Christianity’s history, most of the world’s population has not been Christian. For much of that time, they’d never even heard of Christianity (and where missionaries had some effect, the resulting faith tended to be only nominally Christian, and mostly had a Jesus-veneer plastered over traditional beliefs.

    So Let’s consider the populations of sub-Sahara Africa, and basically all of India, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan (until recently). These regions a) comprise most of the world’s population; and b) are not Christian. So we might ask, in very general terms, are these regions more or less moral, charitable, respectful of women, accepting of suicide or same-sex relationships, etc.

    I certainly can’t answer those questions. I know that at least the evangelicals continue to fight against womens’ rights, same-sex marriage, and the separation of sex from marriage. In some regions slavery is still practiced, but the Bible takes slavery for granted, as a normal part of social life. In Muslim nations women have been battling for generations for really basic rights. I couldn’t begin to speculate on whether the Chinese have made the world a better or worse place, but there are more Chinese than Christians, and probably more Hindus as well.

    I personally suspect that the social sea changes we observer over the last couple of millennia would have occurred, largely as they have, if Christianity had not existed. I think economic forces have been as important. Also, ever nation on earth except Saudi Arabia claims to be a democracy. Few of them actually are in practice (the powerful have a tendency to use their power to perpetuate their power), but the seeds of democracy didn’t grow in Christian soils – People like Locke, Mills, Rousseau, Jefferson, etc. did not integrate Christian beliefs into their philosophies, and made active attempts to keep it out of their governments. The essence of democracy, however structured, is allowing public input into government decisions and practices. I don’t see this philosophy being a necessary part of faith in Jesus. (Then again, I don’t see any abiding faith in Jesus coloring Christian Nationalism, which is basically concerned with power).

  4. Flint:
    To address most of these issues, what is needed is some sort of control group.

    Moreover, to address most of these issues, what is needed is an understanding of what the issues are. For example, I find all discussion about slavery misguided. Anti-slavery arguments purport to be principled in condemning all slavery, while actually failing to condemn all slavery. E.g. wage slavery in our current civilisation is considered perfectly normal mainstream professional work life, instead of slavery. Since modern wage slavery is considered normal, then one should have to extend the same charitable normalisation to the same aspect of ancient slavery also, but I have not seen anybody do it.

    Consider the dynamics of a household. Rarely one encounters an academic historical work that comprehends what a household is. Vincent quotes, “In ancient Rome, women were permitted to engage in business, but their primary role was in the household.” My response: How the hell can there be a “but” there? Household *is* business. You have to buy stuff from the market for your kitchen. In the kitchen (of a household) you have to assign tasks to servants (“household slaves”, actually equivalent to modern restaurant employees) and to your children, and that’s all (viz. buying from the market, managing the kitchen and garden) housewife’s job. Thus the “role in the household” was not something contrary to business, but rather close to modern chief operative of an agricultural/culinary business!

    And so on and so forth. I can easily pick apart every point in Vincent’s writings and demonstrate his lack of understanding of family, society, history, scriptures and religion (including his own denomination), but better keep this short.

    Flint:
    (Then again, I don’t see any abiding faith in Jesus coloring Christian Nationalism, which is basically concerned with power).

    American Christian Nationalism is the strongest argument against Christianity these days. It is not too much of a stretch to see it as leading to a next wave of actual crusades. Of course, in the minds of Middle Eastern Muslims, Western-led anti-Islam crusades never stopped (examples just in this century: wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, and Israel-Palestine conflict).

  5. Hi Erik,

    For example, I find all discussion about slavery misguided. Anti-slavery arguments purport to be principled in condemning all slavery, while actually failing to condemn all slavery. E.g. wage slavery in our current civilisation is considered perfectly normal mainstream professional work life, instead of slavery.

    In my article, I quoted a definition of slavery provided by Dr. Josh Bowen, in a panel discussion with Professor Kipp Davis, Professor Jennifer Bird, Professor Matthew Monger, Dr. Dan McClellan, and the host, David McDonald, in a podcast on the subject, “Does The Bible Condone Slavery?” (March 12, 2023). In the podcast, Dr. Bowen defines slavery at 11:00 as “a condition in which an individual – including rights to their physical capacities (both physical and often sexual) – is owned by another, either temporarily or permanently.” Nobody on the panel of experts dissented from this definition.

    Nothing like this condition exists in the Western world today. While many people are unhappy with their jobs, they can always quit them and look for alternative employment. And even if they are unable to quit, they still have a place to go home to at night. For 15 hours of the day, they are free. And even while they’re at work, there are many things that their boss can’t do to them without incurring a prison sentence. To compare the plight of workers today with that of slaves (whether in ancient Israel, Rome or the New World) is like comparing a mountain with a molehill.

    Rarely one encounters an academic historical work that comprehends what a household is. Vincent quotes, “In ancient Rome, women were permitted to engage in business, but their primary role was in the household.” My response: How the hell can there be a “but” there? Household *is* business. You have to buy stuff from the market for your kitchen. In the kitchen (of a household) you have to assign tasks to servants (“household slaves”, actually equivalent to modern restaurant employees) and to your children, and that’s all (viz. buying from the market, managing the kitchen and garden) housewife’s job. Thus the “role in the household” was not something contrary to business, but rather close to modern chief operative of an agricultural/culinary business!

    Just to set the record straight, the passage I quoted, stating that “In ancient Rome, women were permitted to engage in business, but their primary role was in the household,” was co-written by Glenn Sunshine, a former professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. He was attempting to describe how Christianity elevated the status of women. I quoted him because I was trying to make the Christian apologist’s case as fairly as I could, before critiquing it. It did not express my own sentiments.

    In any case, methinks you are doing Professor Sunshine an injustice, as you neglect to quote the next sentence he writes: “Men had public roles, but women engaged in domestic work were subservient to their father or husband.” The role of women was not at all like that a “modern chief operative of an agricultural/culinary business,” as women in Roman times had no autonomy, unless they were wealthy. I would be surprised if you could quote a single history professor who makes a similar comparison to the one you did, when discussing women in ancient Rome.

    I can easily pick apart every point in Vincent’s writings and demonstrate his lack of understanding of family, society, history, scriptures and religion (including his own denomination), but better keep this short.

    May I remind you that the topic of this post is not, “How clever is Vincent?”, but rather, “Has Christianity made the world a better place?” If you think the answer to this question is “Yes”, and if you believe that I have not stated the Christian apologist’s case fairly, then I invite you to do so.

  6. Just a quick note to Vincent.

    I did read this post. Yes, it is too long, and I skimmed through parts of it. But, overall, I do appreciate it. It seems reasonably fair, though I am no expert in these areas.

  7. Hi Flint,

    To address most of these issues, what is needed is some sort of control group.

    I like this idea that you’re proposing. Christianity should make a measurable difference to people’s lives. The difficulty is getting a comprehensive, unbiased data set. For most of the past 25 years, I’ve lived in Japan, and despite the fact that only 2% of the country is Christian, I’d say that people here are at least as virtuous as people in Christian countries.

    I personally suspect that the social sea changes we observer over the last couple of millennia would have occurred, largely as they have, if Christianity had not existed.

    Regarding democracy (the example you give), I agree that the idea would eventually have arisen somewhere. Back in 1994, while backpacking my way around the world on a seven-month trip in which I visited 30 countries, I came across a 1988 book by Jack Weatherford titled, “Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World.” One of the author’s claims was that the American idea of democracy, as expressed in its Constitution, was directly influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy. Arguably, cross-fertilization of ideas between different civilizations (e.g. those of the Old World and New World) was what led to the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment.

    However, even though Native Americans arguably practiced charity within their own societies far more consistently than the seventeenth-century Europeans who attempted to evangelize them, I’m not at all sure that the idea of charity would have spread across the world in the same way as democracy. Living in Japan, I experience far greater levels of courtesy than I had ever encountered before moving here. As for personal safety, all I can say is that Japan is off the planet. But there’s one idea that hasn’t yet taken hold among the population: charity. Japanese charitable giving to NPOs amounts to just 0.12% of GDP; in neighboring South Korea, where 28% of the population is Christian, charitable giving amounts to 0.50% of GDP, while in the U.S., it’s 1.44% of GDP. (These figures are taken from the 2016 Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) report titled Gross Domestic Philanthropy.) Although I can’t prove it, I’m inclined to think that a world without the Abrahamic religions would be a much colder one. That’s not an argument for Christianity as such, but it makes me very thankful for the Jews and their concept of tikkun olam. Cheers.

  8. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for your kind words. My article is very long, because I wanted to deal with every objection that apologists might raise. However, I don’t mind you skimming it – indeed, I deliberately wrote it in a way that it could be skimmed by people who are in a hurry. That’s why I use bolding and headings. People are free to scroll past stuff that doesn’t interest them and focus on stuff that does. Thanks once again. Good to hear from you.

  9. vjtorley:
    In my article, I quoted a definition of slavery provided by Dr. Josh Bowen, in a panel discussion with Professor Kipp Davis, Professor Jennifer Bird, Professor Matthew Monger, Dr. Dan McClellan, and the host, David McDonald, in a podcast on the subject, “Does The Bible Condone Slavery?” (March 12, 2023). In the podcast, Dr. Bowen defines slavery at 11:00 as “a condition in which an individual – including rights to their physical capacities (both physical and often sexual) – is owned by another, either temporarily or permanently.” Nobody on the panel of experts dissented from this definition.

    In ordinary employment, our physical capacities at particular times of day (i.e. temporarily as required by the definition) and also fruits of labour (physical items, text, art, or computer code we produce at work) are owned by another. Read the law. Therefore ordinary employment qualifies as slavery by Bowen’s definition.

    vjtorley:
    Nothing like this condition exists in the Western world today. While many people are unhappy with their jobs, they can always quit them and look for alternative employment. And even if they are unable to quit, they still have a place to go home to at night. For 15 hours of the day, they are free.

    True for “many” as you say, but also false for many: No, you cannot “always” quit your job as you wish. You may get punished for looking for alternative employment while having a job. Why would one look for alternative employment while having a job? Because there is no guarantee that you get another job no matter how hard you look. Nobody is obligated to give you a job, which is why it makes no economic sense to quit a current job first and only then start looking for another. Moreover, as is commonly known, most of the people completely “free” of employment are destitute, so they are not really free in any humanly sensible way.

    It is definitely false to claim that wage slavery is “nothing like” the ancient slavery. Same as now, also back then there were more preferable and less preferable employments and masters with better or worse reputations. However, slaves of good masters also count as slaves, right?

    A notable difference that I see is that back then slaves were few, a fraction of the overall society, whereas wage-earners nowadays are the norm, the bulk of the population. That is, slavery has become so commonplace that it does not even occur to observers to recognise it as slavery.

    vjtorley:
    In any case, methinks you are doing Professor Sunshine an injustice, as you neglect to quote the next sentence he writes: “Men had public roles, but women engaged in domestic work were subservient to their father or husband.” The role of women was not at all like that a “modern chief operative of an agricultural/culinary business,” as women in Roman times had no autonomy, unless they were wealthy.

    “No autonomy, unless they were wealthy” is a class issue applicable to all times in all civilisations. It is not a sex/gender issue at all.

    Having a household means wealth. Therefore when I talk about a housewife, I am talking about a wealthy person. As you acknowledge, wealthy people have autonomy. Professor Sunshine whom you quote had better acknowledge the same. There was “household” in the quote, and if it was not used in its standard meaning, then I did not reproach Professor Sunshine harshly enough.

    vjtorley:
    May I remind you that the topic of this post is not, “How clever is Vincent?”, but rather, “Has Christianity made the world a better place?”

    I am all for the topic – done smartly. How competent you are on the topic is part of the topic.

  10. Erik: In ordinary employment, our physical capacities at particular times of day (i.e. temporarily as required by the definition) and also fruits of labour (physical items, text, art, or computer code we produce at work) are owned by another. Read the law. Therefore ordinary employment qualifies as slavery by Bowen’s definition.

    This position requires quite a stretch. I think the structure of any society, any economy, is guaranteed to permit far more flexibility to some individuals than to others. To define a “slave” as anyone who lacks total control of their lives or their labor is to define nearly everyone as a slave. Just out of curiosity, do you make a living? If so, you must sell part of yourself to do so – your time, products of your efforts, etc. I would say, if you can voluntarily change what you sell or who you sell it to, then you aren’t a slave. But I agree that most people MUST sell something to buy something. Even the independently wealthy are constrained by laws and regulations.

    My reading of history is that even pioneers, living in a “state of nature” and unconstrained by government, had to work extremely hard to get by, and most died young (and of things easily corrected today). If that is what it means to be “free”, I’ll take a comfortable living being adequately compensated for what I have learned to produce – which happens to be something I personally cannot consume.

  11. vjtorley: But there’s one idea that hasn’t yet taken hold among the population: charity. Japanese charitable giving to NPOs amounts to just 0.12% of GDP; in neighboring South Korea, where 28% of the population is Christian, charitable giving amounts to 0.50% of GDP, while in the U.S., it’s 1.44% of GDP. (These figures are taken from the 2016 Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) report titled Gross Domestic Philanthropy.) Although I can’t prove it, I’m inclined to think that a world without the Abrahamic religions would be a much colder one.

    This is worth examining in more depth. I’m not familiar with most charities (though I have read that a lot of them spend most of their donations paying themselves and advertising for more donations!) The ads I see for charitable giving emphasize that the donations will be used to better the lives of the economically less fortunate. Which gets me to wondering, are the Japanese a cold people, in your experience? Is there a lot of poverty because poverty is not being effectively addressed? Are the Japanese people uncharitable in non-monetary ways (like volunteer work, etc.); is it every-citizen-for-himself? What would you assess as the NEED for more charitable donations in Japan?

    I personally find the Abrahamic religions a bit scary. It’s not easy to factor out all religious influence on the actions of Israel or Hamas, but it seems the more a society worships at the Abrahamic altar, the more violent they tend to be, the more these faiths breed irrational fanatics, the more governments under the control of these faiths adopt laws and policies that punish their citizens who are not offending other people, but offending the notions their governments have of their god. Women in the US have lost an important constitutional right because exercising that right offends the religious sensibilities of the Court. This is charity? Increasingly, “protecting religious freedom” has been defined as guaranteeing the right to discriminate, to treat some people as second class for religious reasons. There is a high correlation between religious faith and gun ownership. Is this a problem in Japan?

    I think you are seeing what you choose to see, but you have put a lot more thought and research into this than I have.

  12. Flint:
    To define a “slave” as anyone who lacks total control of their lives or their labor is to define nearly everyone as a slave.

    You are saying that as soon as nearly everyone is a slave, let’s not call it slavery anymore and let’s be okay with it. I say that this is exactly why anti-slavery arguments fail. Anti-slavery people are not anti-slavery in any principled way.

    Flint:
    Just out of curiosity, do you make a living? If so, you must sell part of yourself to do so – your time, products of your efforts, etc. I would say, if you can voluntarily change what you sell or who you sell it to, then you aren’t a slave.

    When we make “voluntarily” do a whole lot of work here, then there never was slavery by your definition. You can say slaves always had the option to escape and to return to society under a different assumed identity or go live elsewhere. Voluntarily. So, same as all other arguments against slavery in the Bible, you have nothing.

    There are different slaveries. Slavery in USA was much harsher than as regulated in the Old Testament. To equate the two because both are called “slavery” is just bad history. And to fail to see the elements of slavery in modern common employment because it is not commonly called “slavery” is also false.

    Flint:
    This is worth examining in more depth.

    Giving to big charities is not charity. You don’t see what happens to the money you gave. I suppose the Japanese are simply not brainwashed into thinking that you can be charitable by giving to alleged causes half a globe away. Or to social media campaigns to save one person or another as if the state had no social security or medical care.

    Charity is personal hospitality and giving to the poor of your own community. I don’t know if the Japanese have it, but that’s the thing to be assessed. Of course, it is less easy to assess than “giving to NPOs”.

    Anyway, whichever way it is measured, I don’t see how this would count for or against Christianity in any way. That’s the topical question.

  13. This discussion seems parallel to the question of whether science and technology have improved people’s lives.

  14. Erik: You are saying that as soon as nearly everyone is a slave, let’s not call it slavery anymore and let’s be okay with it. I say that this is exactly why anti-slavery arguments fail. Anti-slavery people are not anti-slavery in any principled way.

    But the way you are defining slavery, everyone is a slave to some degree or another. The word no longer has any meaning. As far as I’m concerned, there is certainly a range of “voluntary” options open to everyone, but nonetheless there is a qualitative difference between a wage earner who can legally quit, and a slave who can be legally (and involuntarily) sold. My reading of American history is that this qualitative difference was a difference without a distinction. Most of the freed slaves became sharecroppers living under conditions not meaningfully different from their days as owned slaves. But eliminating slavery as it was practiced eventually became a real emancipation, not just pro forma.

    When we make “voluntarily” do a whole lot of work here, then there never was slavery by your definition. You can say slaves always had the option to escape and to return to society under a different assumed identity or go live elsewhere. Voluntarily. So, same as all other arguments against slavery in the Bible, you have nothing.

    Except the law, and the enforcement of the law. Most of the accepted treatments of slaves (being sold, being force-bred, being beaten, etc.) became illegal. So you are trying to erase the very real distinction between de facto and de jure. Wage earners who quit in the hopes of finding a better job, cannot be arrested and jailed for quitting. This means something.

    There are different slaveries. Slavery in USA was much harsher than as regulated in the Old Testament. To equate the two because both are called “slavery” is just bad history. And to fail to see the elements of slavery in modern common employment because it is not commonly called “slavery” is also false.

    Here you are playing word games. Whether one can legally quit is very different from the range of treatments slave owners exercised. Slavery is a legal condition. Modern common employment has no element of being legally owned by someone, who can arbitrarily legally sell you or beat you or force you to mate with a partner of their choice. Claiming that this condition is really not different from having to hold a job is silly.

    Giving to big charities is not charity. You don’t see what happens to the money you gave.

    This is not true. Charities are obligated by law to publish how their money is spent. Do a little googling, and you’ll find at least 50 US charities who actually distribute less than 10% to anyone but themselves and their solicitors. You can see where the money goes from all registered charities. Although this can take some digging, since some charities spend most of their income giving to other charities. But the info is there if you look.

    Anyway, whichever way it is measured, I don’t see how this would count for or against Christianity in any way. That’s the topical question.

    Torley is arguing that Christians, taken on the whole, are a little big more generous than those of other faiths. Like you, I’m not convinced that the statistics he cites mean what he wants them to mean.

  15. Hi Erik,

    I just wanted to let you know that I’ve invited Dr. Joshua Bowen and Megan Lewis to comment on this thread, regarding the definition of slavery.

    In ordinary employment, our physical capacities at particular times of day (i.e. temporarily as required by the definition) and also fruits of labour (physical items, text, art, or computer code we produce at work) are owned by another. Read the law. Therefore ordinary employment qualifies as slavery by Bowen’s definition.

    I think you are mistaken on this point. My understanding is that an employer doesn’t actually own your labor, but only the fruits of your labor. Thus in ordinary employment, your physical capacities as such are not owned by your employer; only what your capacities produce is owned by the employer. Thus people who work for a wage do not qualify as slaves under Dr. Bowen’s definition.

    I should also point out that before the American Civil War, Southern defenders of African American slavery invoked the concept of “wage slavery” to argue that their slaves enjoyed were better off than supposedly “free” workers in the North. Abolitionists in the United States criticized the misleading analogy between slavery and working for a wage, on the grounds that wage workers were “neither wronged nor oppressed,” as Wendell Phillips put it in 1847. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans took a somewhat different tack, arguing that wage workers differed from slaves in one important respect: they were often able to develop the opportunity to work for themselves, and eventually become self-employed. In a speech delivered at Kalamazoo, Michigan on August 27, 1856, Lincoln declared:

    They insist that their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen. What a mistaken view do these men have of Northern laborers! They think that men are always to remain laborers here—but there is no such class. The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him. These men don’t understand when they think in this manner of Northern free labor. When these reasons can be introduced, tell me not that we have no interest in keeping the Territories free for the settlement of free laborers.

    You also write:

    Slavery in USA was much harsher than as regulated in the Old Testament.

    As Dr. Joshua Bowen argues in his book, Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?, this is not true. People who make this claim typically compare the Biblical commandments on slavery in ancient Israel with the very cruel practice of slavery in the ante-bellum South. That’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, as it compares the theory of one society with the practice of another. If you look at the statute-books in the Old South, you’ll find that they also had laws relating to the mistreatment of slaves, which were often modeled on those of the Old Testament. However, these laws were rarely enforced, and a slaveowner’s word carried much more weight than a slave’s.

    Regarding the position of Roman women, you write:

    Having a household means wealth. Therefore when I talk about a housewife, I am talking about a wealthy person.

    That doesn’t follow, unless the housewife owns and controls the wealth. Look, if you want to have a go at Professor Sunshine, by all means feel free to do so. It’s no skin off my nose. If you manage to prove him wrong, then you’ve simply shown that one of the commonly cited apologetic arguments for the moral superiority of Christianity – namely, that it elevated the status of women in the Roman Empire – is wrong. But so far, it seems to me that you need to do some more research.

    Finally, you write:

    How competent you are on the topic is part of the topic.

    No, it’s not. The topic under consideration is whether Christianity has made the world a better place. Even if you were to establish that I possessed no competence whatsoever on this topic, that would not be at all germane to the topic itself. You would still need to conduct your own investigation, or cite the work of another author whose conclusions you consider trustworthy. You have done neither.

  16. Flint: But the way you are defining slavery, everyone is a slave to some degree or another. The word no longer has any meaning

    Everyone (every human at least) is a human being to some degree or another. Does the word no longer have any meaning?

    Why not analyse with an open mind what slavery really is and if all aspects of it are bad? You may find some inevitable aspects and some neutral aspects. But instead you are hooked to the bias, “Slavery is bad, must be!”

    Words lose their meaning when they are used as mere slurs like Commie-Nazi, as if labelling this way anything you don’t like served a purpose. Well, rhetorically it definitely scores a point, but there is no descriptive or analytical value to it. This is exactly what you want to do with slavery.

    Wage slavery is commonplace in the West right now as we speak. If you are anti-slavery, then be against wage slavery also. If you think wage slavery is perfectly fine, then be equally lenient to slavery in the Bible, because there it is depicted along the lines of employment too.

    Flint:
    Modern common employment has no element of being legally owned by someone, who can arbitrarily legally sell you or beat you or force you to mate with a partner of their choice.

    This is moving the goalposts. “Legally sell you or beat you” etc. was not part of the OP definition. As to legally owned, in law it says that you have to “be available” and “perform the assigned tasks” at the assigned times, which fulfil sufficient minimum requirements for slavery. And yeah, professional footballers and the like are sold every now and then and nobody blinks an eye.

    petrushka:
    This discussion seems parallel to the question of whether science and technology have improved people’s lives.

    Very good point.

  17. I’m inclined, along with Hans Rosling, to think human history has a “progress” arc that is pretty much independent of individual human thoughts and intentions, and independent of the circumstances and fates of individuals.

    This does not imply that empathy and compassion have not driven progress, just that if you focus on individual injustices, you can miss the general direction of change.

    If Christianity is thought of as churches, it seems no better and no worse than secular governments. If it is thought of as the general principle of empathy and compassion, then it shares this with many thought systems.

  18. Erik: Giving to big charities is not charity. You don’t see what happens to the money you gave.

    Flint: Giving to big charities is not charity. You don’t see what happens to the money you gave.
    This is not true. Charities are obligated by law to publish how their money is spent. Do a little googling, and you’ll find at least 50 US charities who actually distribute less than 10% to anyone but themselves and their solicitors. You can see where the money goes from all registered charities. Although this can take some digging, since some charities spend most of their income giving to other charities. But the info is there if you look.

    The financial info is there, yes. You can see where the money was spent in terms of an abstract category, but you do not see if someone or some thing turned better because of it. Distributing less than 10% speaks for itself, whereas when you give a local pauper a few dollars, the distribution rate is 100% and you will likely even see if you should give to the same pauper again, or if he would be better served with soup, or perhaps best avoided.

    So no, giving to big charities is not charity. Often enough ueberwealthy set up their own inheritance funds with the label “charity”, so that anybody can donate there, but the only or principal beneficiaries are the offspring of the ueberwealthy. Others may get 10% just for giggles.

    I know everything about charities. Don’t even try. It’s in fact my job to read financial documents, but the ability to read them does not enhance anyone’s virtue of charity in any way. Quite the contrary, I would say from personal experience.

  19. Hi Flint,

    You asked:

    Which gets me to wondering, are the Japanese a cold people, in your experience? Is there a lot of poverty because poverty is not being effectively addressed? Are the Japanese people uncharitable in non-monetary ways (like volunteer work, etc.); is it every-citizen-for-himself? What would you assess as the NEED for more charitable donations in Japan?

    The Japanese are not a cold people. Just last night, I was riding the train home when a fellow on board vomited, after falling onto the floor: he’d evidently had too much to drink. About a dozen people came to his assistance. So on a personal level, I’d say the Japanese are very kind.

    It’s also true to say that extremes of wealth and poverty are less pronounced in Japan than in the U.S. The Gini coefficient for Japan is 0.31; for America, it’s 0.41. Japanese business leaders are not greedy: a 2018 study found that after controlling for firm characteristics and executive attributes, the total compensation paid to the average Japanese CEO was less than a third of what was paid to their American counterparts. At the other end of the scale, the number of homeless people in Japan (including people spending the night at Internet cafés and 24-hour shops) is just 3,065, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare statistics for April 2023. – a dramatic drop from 2003, when the number was 25,296. Apparently, most of the organizations providing assistance and emergency meals to the homeless population are Christian. The comparative figure more the U.S. is 582,462, according to HUD statistics, although it’s fair to point out that America gets a lot more immigrants: an article in the New York Post (September 21, 2023), about 1,800,000 migrants have crossed into the U.S., both legally and illegally, in 2023, while the increase in the number of foreign residents in Japan in 2023 was just 148,645.

    The Japanese welfare system is not particularly generous, mainly because people here don’t like paying high taxes, as Europeans do for their welfare state. In Japan, if you land a job with a big company, you’re set: you’ll get company bonuses and a nice retirement package. If you do temp work, you might end up without a pension at all. You really have to be gainfully employed in order to get by, over here, and you need to save for your own retirement if you want to retire. Trying to cheat the Japanese welfare system just won’t work: it has no fat to trim, as it were.

    That said, you can get by comfortably in Japan on just a little. If you’re down and out, you can stay in an Internet cafe for 1500 to 2000 yen (10 to 13 dollars) per night. Alternatively, you can rent an apartment for as little as 50,000 yen ($333) a month. You can buy a ton of stuff at 100-yen stores, and there are plenty of discount food stores as well.

    Regarding volunteer work, about 18% of people in Japan volunteer, compared to 23% in the U.S., so the figures are in the same ballpark.

    Regarding charitable organizations, I’ve found that quite a few people here hardly even notice them, let alone think about them. Occasionally, you see kids collecting money outside their local train station, but that’s usually for their school. Some people give to UNICEF or World Vision, but it’s really not a big thing. I’m not sure why.

    Well, I hope that answers some of your questions. Cheers.

  20. Taxes are contributions to a charitable organization. The distribution scheme differs from place to place, but the whole justification for taxes is to ensure access to infrastructure and services, regardless of income.

    Roads, schools, libraries, medical care, food, police.

    Obviously not every nation provides the same services, but all provide some.

  21. Erik: Everyone (every human at least) is a human being to some degree or another. Does the word no longer have any meaning?

    Yes, because there is a distinct difference between humans and other species. The word “human” entails this distinction. The distinction between slaves and non-slaves is a matter of legal status. I already noted that for many freed slaves, their lives didn’t change much day to day, but their opportunities did.

    Why not analyse with an open mind what slavery really is and if all aspects of it are bad? You may find some inevitable aspects and some neutral aspects. But instead you are hooked to the bias, “Slavery is bad, must be!”

    I am referring to slavery as a legal institution, not as some hazy assessment of variations in personal opportunity. This seems to escape you. American slavery defined negroes as not people. Killing them was not a crime, since owners could dispose of their property as they saw fit. To me, this is distinct from working for insufficient wages.

    Words lose their meaning when they are used as mere slurs like Commie-Nazi, as if labelling this way anything you don’t like served a purpose. Well, rhetorically it definitely scores a point, but there is no descriptive or analytical value to it. This is exactly what you want to do with slavery.

    On the contrary, this is what YOU are trying to do with slavery. Being a slave wasn’t a “mere slur”, it was a legal status. There never was any sort of “slavery spectrum” where people were slaves to different degrees. The legal distinction wasn’t a gray area. You were legally a slave, or you were not. Period.

    Wage slavery is commonplace in the West right now as we speak. If you are anti-slavery, then be against wage slavery also.

    So-called “wage slavery” has nothing to do with slavery as an institution. It’s nothing more than a gotcha phrase popularized by people who see limited opportunities in their lives. “Wage slaves” do not belong to owners, and cannot legally be deprived of civil rights, much less killed with impunity.

    This is moving the goalposts. “Legally sell you or beat you” etc. was not part of the OP definition.

    Sorry, but that’s inherent in the nature of legal slavery.

    As to legally owned, in law it says that you have to “be available” and “perform the assigned tasks” at the assigned times, which fulfil sufficient minimum requirements for slavery.

    Sorry, that is pure bullshit. I’m astounded that you cannot for the life of you see any difference between being legally tortured, and being expected to show up for work on time! If you hate your job that much, you can quit. You can get continuing education (American slaves were forbidden even to learn the alphabet, much less read.) And they could, and sometimes did, run away, but many were captured and killed or tortured for doing so. Not like applying for a new job, right?

    And yeah, professional footballers and the like are sold every now and then and nobody blinks an eye.

    Many people have employment contracts, or other legally binding obligations. Not just athletes, but nearly every self-employed contractor. What you seem determined to miss is that what is sold is the employment contract, NOT the person. And it’s not uncommon for athletes to retire if their contract is sold to an organization they don’t want to work for.

  22. vjtorley:

    Well, I hope that answers some of your questions. Cheers.

    Yes, and thank you for your explanation. I think earlier you said (or implied) that the human condition in non-Christian Japan isn’t appreciably worse than in nations that are majority Christian. In much of Europe, especially Skandinavia, religion of any flavor isn’t widely practiced, and the quality of their lives is certainly not inferior to US standards. So whether Christianity writ large makes social conditions better or worse is in the eye of the beholder. It seems analogous to how economic conditions and trends are attributed to whoever is President, who generally had little to do with them. Similarly, you can point to wonderful things Christians have done, and evil things they have done, but it wasn’t religious faith that did either one. It was (in my opinion) mostly a matter of upbringing.

  23. I’ve been floored with ‘flu and compromised with Covid over the last couple of months, (plus my wife caught a decorating bug that I had to succumb to) so apologies if I’ve missed a point, and apologies for late response.

    Simply, all should be voluntary. We should all be free to make considered choices, especially free from the possibility of imprisonment, torture and death for expressing beliefs that are inconvenient in some particular context. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign

  24. Alan Fox: Simply, all should be voluntary. We should all be free to make considered choices, especially free from the possibility of imprisonment, torture and death for expressing beliefs that are inconvenient in some particular context. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

    Does the government have a legitimate case for actively suppressing misinformation?

    Active, as in secretly using threats and rewards to media for blocking content?

  25. petrushka: Does the government have a legitimate case for actively suppressing misinformation?

    Is this a hypothetical question? Do you want a discussion of whether any government should work within and abide by some reasonable standard of fairness? (Of course it should!)

    Or is there a particular government and its conduct you wish to highlight. We are not short of examples.

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