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December 14th 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Destroying the Foundations of the West

The Judeo-Christian worldview was essential for the rise of the West. Without it the world would be a radically different place today.

The Judeo-Christian worldview was essential for the rise of the West. Without it the world would be a radically different place today. Most of the features that we now enjoy about the West – such as freedom, democracy, limited government, education and the universities, the rule of law, the rise of progress and science, human rights and separation of church and state – would largely be absent or greatly diminished if it were not for the rise of Christianity.

Yet the West appears to be hell-bent on denying, eradicating or undermining these very foundations. Examples are legion. Let me just mention the most recent. In Victoria the school system has agreed to allow atheists to teach religious education classes, telling primary school kids that there is no evidence that God exists.

Never mind the glaring contradiction here: atheists have long denied that atheism is in fact a religion, or even a worldview, yet here we have atheism being taught in religious education classes. So which one is it? But the real issue is, by attacking Christianity in particular and theism in general, they are undermining the very ground on which they stand.

That is, the main reason why they have the freedoms to engage in atheistic proselytising is because of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West. Freedom to believe in various religions – or no religion – is one benefit of Christianity. So too is the freedom to attend different types of schools, to hold to contrary views, and to enjoy freedom of conscience. All these benefits flow in large measure from the very Christianity which these atheists so deeply deplore.

The Judeo-Christian foundation of the West

So great is the contribution of the Judeo-Christian worldview to the establishment and development of the West that whole volumes have been penned documenting the evidence. I cannot here provide this detailed mass of evidence. But I can provide some summary statements from experts who have examined the question.

While numerous older authorities could here be cited, let me just offer a few modern ones. A few representative quotes will have to suffice. Sociologist Rodney Stark has written extensively on these themes. For example, in his 2005 volume, The Victory of Reason, he says: “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” He goes on to say this:

“To sum up: the rise of the West was based on four primary victories of reason. The first was the development of faith in progress within Christian theology.  The second victory was the way that faith in progress translated into technical and organizational innovations, many of them fostered by monastic estates. The third was that, thanks to Christian theology, reason informed both political philosophy and practice to the extent that responsive states, sustaining a substantial degree of personal freedom, appeared in medieval Europe.  The final victory involved the application of reason to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism within the safe havens provided by responsive states. These were the victories by which the West was won.”

Dinesh D’Souza, offers a similar appraisal in his 2007 book, What’s So Great About Christianity. He says quite forthrightly, “Western civilization was built by Christianity.” If the West gives up Christianity, he says, “it will also endanger the egalitarian values that Christianity brought into the world. The end of Christianity also means the systematic erosion of values like equal dignity and equal rights that both religious and secular people cherish.”

Indeed, the contributions of Christianity are so many and so great, that to strip the West of its religious heart and soul would leave it empty: “Christianity is responsible for the way our society is organized and for the way we currently live. So extensive is the Christian contribution to our laws, our economics, our politics, our arts, our calendar, our holidays, and our moral and cultural priorities that historian J. M. Roberts writes in The Triumph of the West, ‘We could none of us today be what we are if a handful of Jews nearly two thousand years ago had not believed that they had known a great teacher, seen him crucified, dead, and buried, and then rise again’.”

Alvin Schmidt also documents the overwhelming effect of Christianity on the West in his 2001 volume, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization. In it he offers substantial documentation and voluminous evidence of the unique and lasting contributions which the Christian worldview has made to the world. He writes, “On the basis of the historical evidence, I am fully persuaded that had Jesus Christ never walked the dusty paths of ancient Palestine, suffered, died, and risen from the dead, and never assembled around him a small group of disciples who spread out into the pagan world, the West would not have attained its high level of civilization, giving it the many human benefits it enjoys today. One only needs to look to sectors of the world where Christianity has had little or no presence to see the remarkable differences.”

And in over 400 pages he shows just what those differences are. Likewise, James Kennedy has written much the same. In 1994 he authored a volume entitled What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? In it he argued that despite its humble origins, “the church has made more changes on earth for the good than any other movement or force in history.”

He examines numerous areas where Christianity has been a force for good, including education, government, the economy, the workplace, health care, art, architecture and culture. The contributions have been both extensive and invaluable.

English historian and philosopher Jonathan Hill asked in 2005, What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us? He concludes his study with these words: “Christianity has influenced the modern world in a huge number of ways. Sometimes it has done so as the dominant ideology. Literacy and education in the West, for example, owe a great debt to the Christian rule of people such as Justinian and Charlemagne. But sometimes it has done so from a position of relative weakness….”

Many other scholars and experts could be cited here. Suffice it to say that the West as we know it would not exist if it were not for the powerful and beneficial influences of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Robert Royal offers as a general summation these words: “Any attempt to understand the human past and future that neglects religion is doomed to failure, particularly in a civilization like the West that came into existence as the result of several religious currents” (The God That Did Not Fail, 2006).

Yes but…

Critics will immediately complain that this is a narrow view of history, and that other components helped to form the West. Quite right. I do not for a moment deny that other streams flowed into the mighty river of Western civilisation. The tributaries of ancient Greece and Rome would be among them.

But even these contributing factors need to be kept in perspective. As D’Souza notes, “Christianity formed a kind of foundation pillar of Western Civilization. Actually, the West was built on two pillars: Athens and Jerusalem. By Athens I mean classical civilization, the civilization of Greece and pre-Christian Rome. By Jerusalem I mean Judaism and Christianity. Of these two, Jerusalem is more important. The Athens we know and love is not Athens as it really was, but rather Athens as seen through the eyes of Jerusalem.”

What does he mean by that? Much of what we ascribe to the ancients is not quite as rosy as we make it out to be. For example, we speak of democracy and human rights arising in ancient Greece and Rome. Well, yes and no. Despite the ideal, human rights were the domain of a few. Women and children had very few rights. Slaves had few rights as well, and slaves may have comprised the majority of inhabitants of ancient Roman society.

Indeed, as Rodney Stark documents in his 2003 work, For the Glory of God, Greece and Rome were slave societies, and slavery was widely accepted in all ancient societies. It was not until Christianity came along that abolition movements arose and slavery was seen as incompatible with human dignity and freedom. And those concepts arose from the Judeo-Christian beliefs that we are all image bearers of God, and that Christ died to save all people, not just a few.

But what about the Enlightenment? Yes, that too was a contributing factor, but that also must be seen in context. As Robert Royal remarks, “The Enlightenment itself in many ways can be understood only as an extension and development of certain religious values present in the West, and could never have occurred without them.” 

Certainly, for example, there were two major streams that influenced the founding fathers of America: Christianity and the Enlightenment. But it seems Christianity was the major stream. Indeed, most of the founding fathers were committed Christians, with only a minority being deists.

But all such qualification and distinctions can only be hinted at here. Full documentation must be pursued elsewhere. The point is that a number of factors gave rise to Western civilisation. But Christianity was the primary and paramount factor.

Summary

To speak about the tremendous achievements and accomplishments of Christianity is of course not to deny that damage has been done in the name of this faith. There have been some negative aspects indeed. But on the whole, the Christian faith has been a tremendous source of good in the world, and the West would be unrecognisable today without it.

Which is why the vehemence and antagonism of the atheists against religion in general and Christianity in particular is so bizarre. Their hatred of religion and Christianity is both irrational and unfounded. But doubtless the advance of atheistic missionary work will go unchecked. And as they seek to more and more eradicate or isolate the influence of Christianity, they will of course be cutting off the very branch upon which they are sitting.

So let them seek to eradicate the faith from the public arena. It will only result in them – and everyone else – suffering accordingly. As T. S. Eliot warned in 1948: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”