The Charmed Life of the Unbelievers
It's a charmed life for non-believers, because when you basically believe in nothing, you can watch history pass you by, and chalk up monumental shifts and changes in sociopolitical life to whatever cause you want. All you have to do is find a way to make history, and the ever-shifting tectonic plates of society, spell out the need for the end of religion.
This was basically what renowned atheist Richard Dawkins was doing on CNN recently. When asked whether or not a society without religion would leave us with no moral compass, Dawkins said, "So we live in the early 21st century, and our moral compass in the early 21st century is quite different from 100 years ago, or 200 years ago," Dawkins said. "We are now much less racist than they were, much less sexist than they were. We are much kinder to non-human animals than they were -- all sorts of respects in which we are labeled with a moral compass. So something has changed, and it certainly has nothing to do with religion."
Of course, I'm sure Protestant Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be quite shocked to find out that religion had nothing to do with the changing of race relations in this country, were he alive. Especially surprised might be the survivors of King's Birmingham civil rights campaign. All of whom, were required by King to sign a pledge to do 10 things.
The first one of which was, "MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus." Other requirements included, "WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love." And let's not forget, "PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free."
Yes, curious language indeed for a movement that supposedly had "nothing to do with religion."
But again, why should we hold Dawkins responsible for being aware of the fact that the leader of the 20th century's most significant civil rights movement was a devout Christian named after the leader of the Protestant Reformation, who acquired a Ph.D in Systemic theology before following in his father's footsteps and becoming a reverend?
I mean, in Dawkins world, we just woke up one day and decided racism had gone out of style. Much the same way, we decided the piano key necktie and parachute pants had gotten old. I, for one, am hoping society gets over skinny jeans sooner rather than later.
Equally shocked to hear that religion had nothing to do with the improvement of race relations over the last couple hundred years would be the people who ended slavery in the largest empire in the world!
Thomas Clarkson was just a 25-year-old divinity student at Cambridge when he first seriously studied the horrors of slavery. Not long after, this white Christian minister from England decided to devote his life to freeing a group of people he had never met and had no understanding of.
And who did he decide to align with, to begin his crusade to abolish this most cruel and inhumane practice of human enslavement? The London Atheist Society? The British Foundation of Secular Reason & Logic?
Oh, no. Thomas Clarkson reached out to the Quakers! Quite possibly the most severely observant group in all of Christendom. As David Brog relates in his incredible work, In Defense of Faith, Clarkson and this group of fellow Christians would form the nucleus of what was to be the British abolition movement.
"Thus it came to pass that on May 22, 1787, twelve men met in the London shop of a Quaker printer and established the Society for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. These twelve founders were all men of deep Christian faith: nine were Quakers, and three others, including Clarkson, were Anglicans."
The group then recruited a passionately Christian member of Parliament named William Wilberforce, who championed the cause in the halls of power. In 1789 Wilberforce introduced the first bill to abolish the slave trade in Parliament. It wouldn't be his last, because it and many other such bills were defeated. It took 18 years before Parliament passed a bill to abolish the slave trade.
And what did Clarkson and Wilberforce do after that? Party it up? Get in line for the 19th century version of the Nobel Peace prize? No. Almost immediately, they reconvened the original members of the slave trade abolition group and started working on banning slavery altogether. It would take another 26 years, but they would do it.
And so it came to be, that a group of Christian men fought tirelessly for over 45 years, for the rights of people they didn't know from Adam. And they managed to win their freedom at a time when the British Empire was profiting immensely from slave labor, and desperately trying to outproduce the rival French empire.
But why? How could Clarkson, Wilberforce, and their Quaker friends be motivated to such ends? Precisely because of their Christian belief in the worth and dignity of every human being, regardless of his skin color or where he came from.
Atheists like Richard Dawkins probably believe this sense of human worth is universal human trait, something that has always existed, and he could add that to the list of other things he's wrong about. The belief in the moral worth of even the lowliest human beings is a distinctly Judeo-Christian ethic. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks believed in, nor could they understand, this central belief that is as old as the Golden Rule itself.
Richard Dawkins looks at the passing history and changes in attitudes, and through willingness or ignorance, gives credit to "time", or the lack of religion, the things that are distinctly Christian achievements. We can have any debate we want about whether or not there is in fact a God. I welcome it. But, there's no debating the record of God's followers when it comes to conquering evil and civilizing society.
Slavery died in the British Empire far earlier than it otherwise would have because of men fueled by powerful religious conviction. The Aztec massacres at the hands of Spanish Conquistadors would have been even worse had it not been for the determined resistance of Dominican Friars who stood up for them at great personal peril.
And yes, it was Dr. King's faith that largely formed his vision of a peaceful movement to achieve a colorblind society. The kinder, more enlightened society we have today isn't a product of evolutionary biology the way Richard Dawkins would like to believe it is. It's a product of people following a God who commanded that they "love one another, the way I loved you."
Fisher Adams can be reached through Twitter at @FisherAdams76