Why Learning About Slavery Made Me an Atheist

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‘Memory for the Slaves’ (1998) by Clara Sörnäs

laves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ. — Ephesians 6:5

My relationship with religion has always been complicated. Being raised Christian, I believed in the many stories of the Bible, the power of God, and the might of Jesus like everyone else. Well, I did up until I was about 13. I enjoyed Sunday School and the entertaining theatrics of the church immensely growing up. I enjoyed being Christian. Having God as an answer to everything my little brain couldn’t explain was comforting. It wasn’t a Christopher Hitchens logic-fueled monologue or Richard Dawkins ‘owning’ theists in debates on YouTube that brought me to atheism- learning about the trans-Atlantic slave trade did.

Here’s a quick re-cap on God via Christianity for everyone that needs a refresher. God is described in the Bible as being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Omniscient meaning He knows everything that has happened, knows everything that is happening, and knows everything that will happen. Omnipotent meaning He can do absolutely anything. Omnipresent meaning He is everywhere, witnessing everything at all times.

The strength of my faith was at its highest when I began to learn about the details of slavery and all of its horrors. Because of this, the conversations I had with myself went as follows:

“So God knows everything that’s going to happen, yeah?”

Yes.

“Soooo that means he knew slavery was going to happen?”

Yes.

“And since he is always everywhere, seeing everything that means he was with every slave from birth to death?”

Yes.

“But he can do anything…does that mean he could have stopped it and didn’t?!”

Yes.

What hurt me the most was not the fact that God seemingly ignored all the suffering of my ancestors 200 years ago, but that so many of the descendants of those enslaved people worship the God that allowed it.

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Photo Source: Library of Congress

Before I get into this further, clarification is needed. Yes, I am aware that Christianity came to North Africa at the beginning of 200 A.C.E. Yes, I am aware that Christians existed on the continent of Africa long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade begun. I am referring to the enslaved black people who were forced to convert to Christianity from their various religions because of slavery.

For months I labored over the thought of God being present for… all of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and not intervening.

God was present for every slave auction.

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‘Slaves Waiting For Sale’ (1853) by Eyre Crowe

God watched the whipping of every single slave.

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Photo Source: Artstor

God watched the rape of every enslaved black woman.

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‘Rape of a Negress’ (1632) by Christiaen Van Couwenbergh

My disbelief soon turned to anger.

I turned back to the Bible to see what it said in condemnation of slavery but what I found absolutely disgusted me.

1 Peter 2:18

Slaves, in reverent fear of God, submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh.

1 Timothy 6:1

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.

Colossians 3:22

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Ephesians 6:9

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Of course, there are “anti-slavery” passages of the bible such as:

Exodus 21:16

Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.

Proverbs 22:16

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty.

Deuteronomy 23:15–16

15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.

But do you think slavemasters were going to allow their slaves to know about those passages?

This line of thinking then extended to other tragic events in history. The Holocaust, the Arab Slave Trade, the enslavement of others by the Romans/Greeks, etc. Where was God for all of that?

Moving into adulthood, my overarching thought concerning Christianity (then all religions entirely) became this:

If there is a god(s), why would they allow for so many people to suffer without explanation?

This experience was extraordinarily humbling. To know that everything I am right now was due to my ancestors being enslaved hundreds of years ago is unlike anything I can explain. To know that what I believed spiritually was a product of my ancestors’ forced conversion? That hurt me deeply.

Proverbs 19:21 says: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” I joke now and say I’m an atheist because I like to keep my Sundays open, but in actuality, I don’t see the value in going to worship a God who orchestrated and condoned so much suffering for no good reason.

Written by

Writer. Womanist. Worrier. Alliteration Enthusiast. #AllBlackLivesMatter #TransLivesMatter

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