Yes, that’s a contentious headline for today’s post, but what I have to say may surprise anyone looking for an indictment of religion, this or any other. Read on. Agree or disagree? Let me know.
This is Black History Month. If I ever read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, it was a long time ago, so that’s the book I chose to begin in this first week of February. It is not pleasant reading: Douglass tells stories of life under slavery that rival the horrors of 20th-century concentration camps. It’s hard to say what the “worst” of these horrors might have been, but the author singles out religious slave-owners as the cruelest:
In August, 1832, my master attended as Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county [Maryland], and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. – Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
When young Frederick’s ownership passes out of the family following several owners’ deaths, and when after that he is released from bondage to a cruel “breaker” of slaves, he eventually comes to “the best master I ever had, till I became my own master,” a certain Mr. Freeland.
Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most appalling barbarity – a sanctifier for the most hateful frauds – and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholding find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.
This apparent indictment of religion comes from the first-hand experience of one born into slavery, who knew various masters, and who did not escape to freedom until his 21st year.
Is religion then to be cited as a cause of cruelty, a logical rationale for slavery, just as many indict it as a cause of war? I have written about religion and war on another occasion, so anyone who knows me or has read this blog will not be surprised by my position, which is that while certain teachings may, under the guise of religion, help rationalize slavery or war, religion itself, Christianity or any other, does not provide the initial idea or impulse. If it did, how to explain the Abolitionist movement in the North, predominantly inspired by religion, “professing that slaveholding was incompatible with Christian piety”?
How to explain the deep faith felt by Frederick Douglass himself?
In order to make my case, I must briefly leave the slave narrative and even the issue of slavery in American history and turn to a field of current research that will at first seem far removed from my main subject. The research field is that of reasoning and statistics and how our intuitions lead us into hasty conclusions we are persuaded to abandon only rarely and reluctantly. The book laying out this story (less dramatic from one point of view but relevant to every single living human being) is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).
Let’s start with Kahneman’s statement that our minds prefer causal explanations to statistically more accurate explanations. In a golf tournament, for example, a player who does well on Day 1 will generally not do as well on Day 2, whereas a player who performed badly on Day 1 will generally improve on Day 2. Statistically, this is explained by a law called “regression to the mean,” a law of demonstrated predictive value that runs so counter to our intuitions that we invariably prefer to “explain” the deterioration or improvement with causal stories. During one Winter Olympics, Kahneman writes,
I was startled to hear the sportscaster’s comments while athletes were preparing for their second jump: “Norway had a great first jump; he will be tense, hoping to protect his lead and will probably do worse” or “Sweden had a bad first jump and he knows he has nothing to lose and will be relaxed, which should help him to do better.” The commentator had obviously detected regression to the mean and had invented a causal story for which there was no evidence.
The less evidence we have for a prediction, Kahneman instructs us, the more we need to realize the bias of our expectation that the future will replicate the past, and the more we need to moderate predictions by allowing for regression to the mean.
The business of predicting sports outcomes seems very far, I realize, from any story about religion and cruelty, so I need another piece from the statistician’s bag of tricks, namely that the more extreme a case, the greater likelihood of regression to the mean. Kahneman makes up a news story, “Depressed children treated with an energy drink improve significantly over a three-month period” and says the claim it makes is perfectly true. Because depressed children constitute an extreme group, there is every likelihood that they will show improvement three months later, and this would be the case no matter what they did during those three months. It is only our human preference for causal stories that makes us want to attribute improvement to the energy drink. This is the reason that a control group is necessary to establish a causal link.
Returning to the original question about cruel slave-owners professing Christianity, I am certainly not going to try to explain them out of history, but I want to contrast them, one extreme group, with another extreme group, the Quaker Abolitionists in the North. If we look at a group comprising all professing American Christians during the 1830s, both the Quaker Abolitionists and the cruel slave-owners can be seen as extremes on opposite ends of a Christian continuum of reaction. Obviously, then, Christian principles and beliefs alone cannot be said to cause both a defense of the cruelest practices of slavery and a spirited and dedicated attack on the same institution (and neither would the cool-headed, rational statistician be surprised to find the most behavior change at the two extremes).
But this is unsatisfying, isn’t it? Statistics, while demonstrable, give us no explanation at all and leave us with nothing whatsoever to conclude about the relation of religious belief to behavior. This is where I want to put forward my own theory--untestable but not incongruent with either the experience of Douglass or the research of Kahneman—that it was the cognitive dissonance created by the conjunction of Christianity and slavery that drove one group of slave-owners to outrageous cruelty while simultaneously driving religious Quakers to take up the Abolitionist cause.
The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ does not appear in Kahneman’s book, but he does discuss cognitive ‘ease’ and ‘strain.’
Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.
The reflective mind, in an attempt to resolve a contradiction or eliminate dissonance, will always reach first for a familiar bias. Slaveholders and Quakers began with different biases and thus naturally reached different conclusions, just as those who initially believe religion’s effects are beneficial will reach different conclusions from those who initially believe religion’s effects are harmful. Is religion, then, neutral? What do you think?
The institution of slavery was decidedly not neutral. Douglass describes his yearning for knowledge and freedom, his feeling of being “broken in body, soul, and spirit,” and then finding within himself the strength again to resist.
The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection....
Both the slave and the slave-owner lived slavery’s contradiction in the mind, but the slave lived it also in his body. Little wonder that daily experiencing of such a contradiction would drive many masters to cruelty, alcoholism, or both; less wonder that the hunger for freedom could never be eradicated in the slave.
Douglass remarks that while some think there could be no fellow feeling among slaves, he found his fellow slaves “noble souls.”
We were linked and interlinked with each other. I loved them with a love stronger than any thing I have experienced since. ... I believe we would have died for each other.Common experience, recognition of one another as human beings, and their shared desire for freedom for knowledge and freedom bound them to each other.
-- Here I must leave off for today. I am less than halfway through Douglass’s and Kahneman’s books, and my whole tying together of the two is probably premature, but I cannot help trying to bring together these two very different books I am presently reading, going from one to the other with a fascinated mind....