How the West Was Civilized Despite Christianity

October 3, 2012

Americans should ask themselves -- Do you live in a Christian civilization? 

You don't live in a Christian nation, obviously. There’s nothing Christian about the US Constitution. Americans who still believe in that Trinitarian righteous God are no longer a majority. Americans attending church at least once a month haven’t been a majority for years. People who expect Christian values to stand against equal civil rights and liberties have thankfully become a minority, though just barely.  

The bigger question, supposedly settled long ago by (Christian) historians, is whether the West really is a Christian civilization. No other single religion has had as much control over the West, to be sure. But is the West essentially Christian? Are the core Western values and institutions Christian? Again, we aren’t asking whether the prominent thinkers and event-makers of the West have happened to be Christian. Most were. The real question this: Was what those people added to the advancement of the West itself Christian in nature?  

There's a silly argument that goes like this: "But famous thinker Z was a Christian." Yeah, so what?  Focus on the great idea of thinker Z -- did he/she get it from the Bible? From Jesus? From Christianity at all?  Probably not.  In fact, great thinkers usually had to conceal how they were freethinkers, disagreeing with Church Authority and Dogma. Leonardo da Vinci had to disguise his rationalist freethinking from the Church. John Locke was notorious for his heretical views about promoting religious toleration. Isaac Newton veered off from his science achievements into astrology and alchemy, not exactly Biblical topics. 

Those knowing what they are talking about, when they claim that the best of the West is Christian, are trying to specifically say this: "Christianity invented X, and X was essential for advancing Western civilization."

Well, how many essentially Western priorities and institutions are solely from Christianity? When you put the question that way, there are very few indeed. The idea of a school is far older than Jesus. The idea of a house of worship wasn’t invented by Christianity either. Universities were started by learned monks escaping from cloistered monasteries to directly teach what they wanted to teach to their own students in cities, becoming a headache for the Church. Hospitals flourished under Islam in the Middle East, and only later imitated in the West. The fire company was invented by freethinker Benjamin Franklin. The town hall and the courthouse come from ideas about secular law and civil justice, not church-controlled ecclesiastical law. Large militaries, vast beaurocracies, and governments ruling with consent from the governed had far more to do with accelerating Western power than anything Jesus said or did.

Granting all this, historians would still say that these primary Western institutions were put into the service of advancing Christian values. Really? Jesus said, Let us build schools and hospitals, universities and courthouses? Not quite. Well, let’s look closer at these allegedly Christian values. The formula is this: "Christianity invented X, and X was essential for advancing Western civilization." But the ideals so prized by the West today don’t look too Christian. Look at the evidence.

Many core Western priorities aren’t approved in the Bible. Examples: Nowhere is mass democracy encouraged in the Bible. Or capitalism and the economic machinery required for capitalism. Money-lenders, accountants, tax collectors, and lawyers aren’t the good guys in the Bible. Where is treating neighboring ethnic groups with equal respect in the Bible? Or extending moral decency to conquered peoples? One example, about helping that good Samaritan, didn’t slow down Christian empires very much.

Many core Western values are actually opposed by the Bible. Examples: The Bible approves slavery. And genocide. The submission of women. Prejudice against non-heterosexuals. Submission to Kings (old testament) or to a Caesar (the new testament).

More core Western ideas were opposed by early Christianity, and it only later reversed itself when those ideas proved so useful. Examples: Lending money at interest. Ordinary farming folks owning lands. Opening up corpses for medical study. Judges applying civil laws of the land instead of ecclesiastical law. Parliaments of representatives of the people.

And the number of crucial scientific advances completely blocked or banned by Christianity are legion. Geology was retarded by 400 years due to "young earth" dogma. More theological dogmas blocked astronomy, experimental physics, medicine, and so on. When early scientists needed intellectual support for the idea that the natural world followed predictable mathematical patterns, they looked past the fickle god of the Bible and instead appealed to Plato. When scientists needed a new worldview about what everything is really made of, they ignored Churchly theology and instead read Greek philosophers like Lucretius. When biology finally joined the other empirical sciences with a natural theory of evolution, Christianity promptly warned against yet another work of the Devil.

And the political theories most beloved by America weren't really so Christian, and not Biblical at all. Christianity was absolutely the biggest obstacle to personal liberty and equal civic participation for 1,500 years. Christianity had consistently sided with aristocracies and kings, right down to a Pope helping Napoleon and a Pope having secret treaties with Hitler (the heads of German Lutherans too). And no significant denominations except the Quakers and the Baptists supported the Constitutional separation of church and state.

Think about what we value most about the West. The notion of a self-governing republic came from 'pagan' Greeks. The idea of equal citizenship under one civil law was a Roman institution, defended by the beloved Cicero and Cato. The Renaissance was funded heavily by rich Christians, but the Renaissance was about the re-birth of older and more civilized ideas than anything Christian. The idea of a social contract among equal citizens came from the atheist Thomas Hobbes. And of course both Catholicism and early Protestantism fought bitterly against giving more and more people the vote. Most of the major social and political reformers in Europe and America during 1700-1900 were almost always anti-Calvinist and anti-Catholic empiricists or romantics (J. Locke, A. Smith, J-J. Rousseau), or pro-science Deists (T. Paine, T. Jefferson), or Quakers (R. Williams), or nonbelievers (T. Hobbes, D. Hume, Voltaire, J. Bentham, K. Marx, J.S. Mill, S.B. Anthony). 

By the nineteenth century, enough freethinking Christians had liberated themselves from Biblical literalism and ministerial authority to join nonbelievers in the fight for humanistic values, the end of slavery, and the promotion of civil rights. The 20th century was an especially proud time for prophetic Christians like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach the universal justice dreamed of for so long by civilizations since the dawn of time.

Only freethinkers built the best of Western civilization. What Christianity built of its own accord was ignorant feudalistic monarchy. And Christianity would have been quite content to imprison the West there forever. Dogmatic Christians had to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new century ever since then. And we’re still at it. The biggest fight for civilization, the one between Reason and Faith, is still going on within our own.

Comments:

#1 Olemanrunin (Guest) on Wednesday October 10, 2012 at 11:14am

CFI-Rhetoric? Wise Action? Contemplation?
  Arrogance with reason?  Immature understanding of faith?  Category mistakes? Over generalizations?
  Folksy: “I have a hammer and I prefer nails”

[we impose our own interpretations and beliefs]

Wisdom Research at The University of Chicago
“By Howard C. Nusbaum
If words and sentences do not mean exactly what they say literally, this poses a serious problem for people who rely on the meaning of language professionally. Historians who study ancient texts in Latin or Greek cannot really know what the texts mean. Even if all the contexts of word and sentence usage are studied, as a historian once claimed to me in defense of the method, it is very different to infer the meanings and intentions of a long-gone people and culture than to know them from the inside. But if you consider the problem of a specific sample of texts from the past, the degree to which we impose our own interpretations and beliefs cannot easily be estimated and compensated.  Consider the Constitution of the United States as an example. We can readily understand the sentences in the Constitution because they use an apparently familiar syntax and words.” ?

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