Evolution denial as the legacy of slavery

During the symposium on Teaching Evolution, on which I reported recently, someone asked why evolution denial was limited largely to the United States. If you count the Muslim world, then the question is off target; nevertheless, the US is unique among the European nations and their cultural descendants in the strength of its biblical literalist movement. I submitted that the fact may well be traced to the legacy of slavery. That response did not go over well, and someone noted that Europe had its slaves too.

I looked up slavery in the 2003 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Yes, Europe had its slaves, but slavery in western Europe died out during the late Middle Ages. In Germany and Russia, it was replaced by serfdom, which some will consider only a modest improvement. Britain made the slave trade illegal in 1807, and as a direct result much of South America abandoned slavery somewhat afterward. The British abolished slavery in India in 1843 and later moved inland into the continent of Africa specifically to interdict the slave trade. As far as I could learn, no one besides the US fought a civil war over slavery.

In the US, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 increased the demand for slaves. Slaves elsewhere and in other times were regularly freed after a fixed period, sometimes 6 years, in accordance with a stricture in the so-called Old Testament. In the US, in part because of racial differences, slaves were generally not freed but often were enslaved for generations.

People often point, correctly, to the Abolitionist movement of the 1800’s as a triumph of religious people over slavery. The Abolitionists, however, were primarily northerners. Southern ministers so strongly opposed the Abolitionists’ views on slavery that two of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Church, split into northern and southern branches in 1845. Indeed, specifically to oppose the Abolitionists, the southern clergy advanced the argument that Black people were destined to be servants because of the Biblical passages (Genesis 9:21-27) in which Noah gets drunk and falls asleep, naked, in his tent. Noah’s son Ham (the presumed ancestor of the Hamites, or Blacks) sees Noah naked, whereas his other sons, Shem and Japheth, cover him. Noah wakes up, realizes what has happened, and pronounces a curse on Canaan, the son of Ham (Genesis 9:24-27):

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

To my mind, Noah is at fault for getting drunk—not Ham, and certainly not Canaan. Indeed, it is not at all clear why Noah curses Canaan, who did not see Noah naked, rather than Ham, who did. Nevertheless, religious apologists for slavery and segregation have pointed to this passage as justification for their stands on these issues. Other passages in the Bible support enslaving people other than your own. Steve Allen (in the book Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality) claims that not a single religion in the world condemned slavery until recently; this shift in attitude is very possibly the result of secular, Enlightenment thinking, not religious thinking. If religions have changed their positions on slavery, they have done so in part because of the influence of secular philosophy.

In 1845, the northern and southern churches formally split, as the southern churches became more and more literal in their interpretation of the Bible. It would be an exaggeration to say that the growing literalism was caused by the need to justify slavery alone, but the fact remains that what we call the Bible belt corresponds very closely with the slave-holding states of the antebellum South. Arguably, then, the US differs from Europe, Canada, and Australia because biblical literalism and hence evolution denial are the continuing legacy of slavery and racism.

I would be most interested in hearing substantive comments concerning this thesis.

Acknowledgement. I am indebted to Charles Silberman, in whose Crisis in Black and White I first read the argument about Genesis 9.