A few days ago I saw a tweet which had gone blog-viral. It quoted a letter from a slave to his former master. I read the letter – it was fantastic but then I started to have my doubts if it was a real letter. (see Huffington post for an example of a post)
With a little searching, I found this copy of the 1865 New York Daily Tribune that published the letter. I almost said, “OK, well, I guess it is true. Here is the actual letter.” But my skeptical mind said, “Wait, what if some Northerner made up the letter back in 1884 just to make his political points?”
You may think I am a racist for even having such suspicions about a letter that confirms your rightful hatred of slavery, but I am willing to risk that judgement to make my point on this post. The letter seems too perfect, too ironic and too superbly composed. “But wait!” you may say, “Are you such a racist that you doubt a black man could be this brilliant work?” No, but I am suspicious and I am very happy to be proven wrong. But I am not afraid to doubt.
It is hard to verify the historicity of reports that were made even a 150 years ago yet alone 2-3,000 years ago when many of today’s religious texts were composed. It is clear to me that the authors of these documents had an agenda and could have forged or altered the “histories” they wrote. Modern textual analysis techniques were made to aid in this issue, but we still must face much uncertainty.
Did Jesus exist? Did Jesus say what is reported he said? Did people reporting these things have reasons to alter the truth or to just plain make things up?
Some people doubt about the Buddha in similar ways. Unlike Christians, who depend on the historicity of their founder’s death and resurrection, many Buddhists don’t really care if their founder was highly mythologized. But many other Buddhists, finding out that the Buddha was a myth, would be devastating.
Slavery wasn’t a myth, of course, but this letter could be fictional. Yet we can’t go back and find out if it happened or if this letter was contrived to make a point. But even if it were contrived, couldn’t something have happened very similar to what is written in this letter? Sure! But is this report real? Hmmmm, what do you think? Are you a natural doubter, or a natural believer?