Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the more interesting reads I’ve undertaken this year. I decided to read it because of the enduring cultural legacy of the book more than anything. It’s a work that is widely credited with helping the abolitionist cause, and cultural echoes of it continue to this day.
What I found most interesting, however, was not that it was a study and criticism of slavery and pervading attitudes amongst slave owners of the time, but as a work that presents a very utilitarian and uplifting view of Christianity as a slave religion.
When I was in college, I found Frederick Nietzche’s argument that Christianity was a slave religion incredibly persuasive. It’s a value system that encourages men to turn their will to power in on themselves. It celebrates the meek, the patient, and the martyr. In the figure of Christ on the cross, it tells humanity that suffering is the natural condition of life, and discourages man from seeking to better his situation through force by dangling the carrot of immortal bliss in the afterlife.
Nietzsche makes an excellent case that this has the effect of making virtues of weakness and cowardice. He says that Christian morality sets up artificial boundaries intended to tie down the strong-willed by undermining their natural proclivities. Man as a species cannot achieve its true potential while saddled by needless ideas like guilt and humility.
For a long time, I too was willing to cast aside Christian morality as well, principally because it’s far from clear that the religion passed from the apostles all the way to the modern church has anything to do with the actually teachings of Christ, but also because I recognized and accepted Nietzsche’s contempt for a system that seeks to constrain my natural urges and desires.
Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, opened my eyes to the sheer power of Christianity. I had taken to think of the term “slave morality” in a disparaging light — as though adhering to it reduces one’s circumstances to that of a slave. That turns on its head though when the person espousing the belief actually IS a slave.
In the figure of Uncle Tom, you see a man who would have been utterly destroyed if he did not have this faith promising him an eternal reward for his good deeds. Stuck in circumstances for which he would never be able to break free, Christianity was as a salve that kept him alive. It’s hard enough to live day to day as an atheist, but to be a slave to another man’s will without even the promise of an afterlife to redeem one’s suffering? That is just unimaginably dark.
A society governed by this morality remains deficient in the ways outlined by Nietzsche, but it’s now clear to me that the religion of the downtrodden serves more of a purpose than mere sedation.