Since the beginnings of recorded history, slavery has been all too common in human society. It has only been in modern times that the practice has mostly been stopped (at least overtly). The fact that people could do such things to their fellow human beings certainly does not reflect well on the nature of the species. In addition, people enslaving others while devoutly following their religions says something about their gods.
Slavery in Christianity and Islam
Nobody who honestly looks at history can deny that both Christians and Muslims practiced slavery on a massive scale. While both religions have long resisted those of their respective faiths being enslaved, they traditionally did not condemn enslaving others. From the millions of Africans brought to the Americas, to the Muslim control of the east African slave trade or raids on Europe to capture slaves, the numbers are staggering.
Of course, this is not to say there were not many religious people who opposed slavery and worked to stop it. However, the sad fact is that sincere, devout people of faith found it quite easy to justify slavery and keep slaves. In fact, from the American south to Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia did not outlaw slavery until 1962 and other conservative Muslim nations were some of the last to outlaw it), the most religious and conservative societies tended to be the most open to slavery. If they were closest to divine will, would it not be logical to expect them to be on the opposite end of the spectrum?
The answer lies in the fact that divine will is, at best, not clear with its position on slavery in Islam and Christianity. In fact, if anything, the religions seem to condone it. The Bible states one can beat their slave as long as the slave survives. In Islam, Muhammad himself had slaves and the Koran clearly condones the position of the slave in society.
In response to these facts, some religious people will actually defend the practice of slavery in the time saying it was more like the relationship between an employer and worker! While it is true that there were cases where this may have been so, there were certainly countless situations where it was not. During these times, in which life tended to be shorter harder and much more brutish than it is now, it was not at all uncommon to work slaves to death and abuse them in other ways.
Besides, it is hard to think of how anything as horrible as being owned by another person could be anything but degrading and brutal. Power went to the heads of people in past just as it does today. From physical, sexual and other types of abuse, we can be sure a very high percentage of slaves lived pretty anguished lives at the mercy of others. Those claiming to be following a higher morality surely should not be defending something as horrible as slavery.
There are other excuses for slavery in these holy books, but none of them can address this fact. If the Bible and the Koran had simply contained one sentence each clearly condemning the practice of slavery, untold millions of human beings could have been spared the most horrible fates. Unless this god approves of slavery, why not include a few words to stop it? Seeing and knowing all, god would surely have seen his creations being enslaved for thousands of years before creating these holy books. What merciful being would not be motivated to take action, especially when it could be done with such ease? As bad as seeing so much human anguish would be, it would be even worse seeing it carried out in the hands of devoted followers who believed in your word.
Fortunately, social attitudes toward slavery have changed over time, but one cannot give religion credit for this when devoutly religious people were easily able to reconcile slavery with their beliefs. Sometimes religious people lead this change against slavery, but other times they opposed it. It is hard to see how a clear prohibition on slavery would not have ended the practice almost immediately in places where Christianity and Islam held sway. At the very least, slavery would not have remained acceptable in these lands for well over a thousand years after these religions started.
The amount of human suffering caused by slavery since the founding of these religions (not to mention the suffering that came before) is incalculable. From families being ripped apart to beatings and early death, it is too sickening to even think about it. With just a couple of sentences in a couple of books, so much of it could have been prevented, and these religions could have set an example for humanity. For those who suffered from slavery (and some do until this day), it is time to face this fact.