We encounter in the Middle Ages a new development—the idea of courtly love. For the first time in history, the woman who was a knight’s object of love was raised to a high status. In fact, her status was higher than that of the man pursuing her. Women were increasingly viewed as companions whose conversation was prized and whose company was avidly sought. Chaucer’s independent-minded Wife of Bath isinconceivable in any other culture of the fourteenth century. Courtesy, the habit of treating women with deference, was invented by Christianity. Social life involving men and women began in the late Middle Ages. Moreover, as family life came to be seen as the central locus of human happiness, the role of the mother in preserving the household and ensuring the education of children became more highly valued.

Against these advances, atheists counter with another issue: slavery. “Consult the Bible,” Sam Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation, “and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.” Steven Weinberg notes that “Christianity… lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries.” These atheist writers are certainly not the first to fault Christianity for its alleged approval of slavery. But slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China and India to Greece and Rome, and most cultures regarded it as an indispensable institution, like the family. For centuries, slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics. Even the Bible does not condemn slavery outright, with Paul in Ephesians 6:5 and other passages urging slaves to obey their masters and urging masters to be kind to their slaves.