During August 2014, Oxford Professor of mathematics John Lennox delivered a series of lectures in Australia on “Science and Faith in God.” Considered a leading figure of the evangelical intelligentsia, Lennox made claims that James Fodor, President of the Secular Society of the University of Melbourne, disputes in a series of five articles.
In Part 1, Fodor critiques Lennox’s claim that modern science owes its development to Christianity.
Part 2 refutes Lennox’s claim that language and semantic meaning cannot be explained naturalistically.
Part 3 deals with Lennox’s claim that naturalistic science is unable to provide an explanation for the intelligibility of the universe.
In this Part 4, Fodor critiques the role Christians played in many important reformist social movements.
Part 5 deals with Lennox’s references to the so-called “evils of atheism”.
Here I continue my critique of the major arguments raised by John Lennox at the recent “Cosmic Chemistry?” public lecture and the “Faith has its Reasons” conference. In this fourth part of the series, I will discuss the claim made by Lennox that Christians played an integral role in many important reformist social movements, in particular the abolition of slavery and the concept of human rights. While not intending to downplay the important contributions that certain Christians did make to these endeavours, I argue that Lennox oversimplifies by implying that Christians were the sole or major contributors to such movements, whereas in fact many more secular thinkers were also important. Lennox also fails to acknowledge the diversity of opinion within Christianity at the time of these movements.
What Lennox Said
“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
Christianity and Abolitionism
Certain apologists, apparently Lennox among them, like to claim that Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Is this true? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and the Quaker-dominated Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some description, so it’s not completely clear that the fact that the abolitionists also happened to be Christians tells us much of anything. Indeed, the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. Overall, the history of abolitionism in the UK yields at best mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.
If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the official religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. Such thinkers were often not entirely clear about their religious views, however they were frequently quite skepticial of traditional Christian doctrines and miracle claims. Montesquieu himself was certainly not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Also note that after the revolution, slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin.
In the United States, the abolitionist movement was in large part spearheaded by Quakers, just as it was in the UK. That said, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery by appealing to various biblical arguments. So the history of abolitionism in the US provides at best mixed evidence for Lennox’s thesis.
Overall, my reading of the history is that it would be more accurate to say that Quakers, allied with various other non-conformist groups, were important in the abolitionist movement. I think it is rather disingenuous for Lennox to coopt this rather small, fringe group and equate its actions with those of ‘Christianity’ as a whole. Nor do I think is it fair of him to ignore the Christians who opposed abolitionism, or the secularists who also pushed for abolition.
Christianity and Human Rights
Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is rather vague, as there have been many different declarations of human rights and many thinkers who’ve discussed the idea. Perhaps he is referring to the well-known statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was ‘behind’ this phrasing, as many of the Founding Fathers were either Deists, or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. Certainly there are theistic themes present in the declaration, but I think Lennox is stretching the definition of “Christian” a good deal by applying that label to the views of many of the Founding Fathers as expressed in this document.
Another of the prominent early human rights manifestos, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution. It was a thoroughly secular document, drawing much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, particularly the ideas of Lafayette and Jefferson. It is by no means a Christian document.
Considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in some of the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ was ‘behind them’ is, I think, a gross misstatement of history.
If Lennox’s objective was merely to show that Christians have made important social and moral contributions to society, then I think he succeeded. This, however, is rather a shallow victory, since I know of no one who would dispute such a modest claim. However if, as I strongly suspect, Lennox was implying a much stronger conclusion, namely that Christians were overwhelmingly responsible these achievements, then I do not think his argument holds. It ignores the many contributions of secular persons, and also hides the diversity of opinion among Christians of the period.