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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Defense of "Christian" Civilization

Recently, I responded to Andy Rhodes, a former Christian with a lot of tough questions about Christian thought and the Christian record.  In that post, I offered some ideas about the Problem of Pain.  Andy responded with a couple dozen or so posts, which I don't have time right now to fully answer (or even read, because that will start me answering).  Hopefully over the next few weeks I'll take the time to sift through and respond to those posts more completely, because we do welcome serious challenges. 

But I would like to answer some of Andy's points on the relationship between Christianity and the western record.   This begins by delving into politics, on which of course Christians have different opinions: as a conservative, I'll freely share my own.  Then we get more specifically into the Christian record in reform.   

On that same site for politics, I have an article called "Extreme Political Or Religious Views Create Dysfunctional Societies". Since the early 2000s, I've researched the social effects of various philosophies and religions and found that the data generally revealed more and more problems as the perspectives pushed further away from moderation. . . .In dozens of studies that I looked at over the years from academia and government sources, I discovered repeatedly that among Western nations and individual states within the U.S., those which are the most conservative and religious are the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems in categories like overall crime, infant mortality, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, economic mobility, life expectancy, poor educational systems, murder, paid vacation and holiday pay, healthcare efficiency, average worker to CEO pay ratio, guaranteed paid maternity leave, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker's benefits. For example, on the Quality of Life Index for 2010, the United States - the most religious and conservative country in the developed world - ranked 33rd overall, 39th in health, 24th in education, 17th in wealth, 15th in democracy, 77th in peace, 38th in environment.

I would have to look at these stats for myself to know what to make of them.  For instance, having lived in several Asian countries, including wealthy Japan and Taiwan, I would say that America is an environmental paradise compared to most of Asia.  (Or even Europe.)  So I would have to see by exactly what metric the US ranks so low.  

Nor am I sure what the word "conservative" means here.  The US now has among the western world's most "liberal" abortion laws.  The state gobbles up an enormous percent of the GNP, taxes are high, debt is extremely high, government is extremely proactive and bossy.  

What about "far greater social problems" in the US compared to, say, Sweden?  I answer that question here.  I show that such comparisons are generally based on very simplistic models, and fail to take into account dozens of important factors.   

One of those factors is the relationship of cause and effect.  Jesus himself predicted that when life becomes easy, "the rich" (who find it so hard to enter the Kingdom of God) will slack off spiritually, lose their faith, defect from God.  That hypothesis explains the data quite well, I think.  When societies prosper, often because of Christian influence (as I have argued in many places), when there is little danger and good social well-being, then faith begins to slacken. 

The negative impact of that slackening of faith may not occur instantaneously, as you seem to anticipate -- but more on that later. 

Also, what does "77th in peace" mean?  As the most powerful country in the world, the US has been responsible for keeping the peace for the past century, more than any other nation.  Which means America had to help defeat Germany in World War I, the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, the Communists in Korea (unfortunately we failed in Southeast Asia, but kept Thailand free), and resist Soviet aggression, then the aggression of Iran, Iraq, the Taliban, and other expansionist Islamic powers. 

I'd say America's many contributions in those areas, not to mention the Marshall Plan, aiding the recovery and pacification of Japan, the freedom of South Korea and Taiwan, and so on, make the US far and away Number One in "Peace" over the past century.  And I would say that Christian sentiment has been important in all those beneficial campaigns.  As well as, yes, "conservative" sentiment.  Give us a serious Christian president, for instance, and I don't think you'll see the US government knuckling under to the theocrats and homicidal despots of Iran so readily.

I believe that extreme liberal viewpoints would develop equally disturbing problems in other forms. But America is far from liberal when compared to the history of economics, political science and the international community today. In fact, though far-left groups were very influential in the 20th century, their attraction has largely shrunk.


I disagree there.  Government has continued to grow in power.  That power, I believe, and the Founding Fathers thought so too, represents a profound danger to American freedom.  The more power unelected officials have, the less power ordinary citizens retain.  And government power is inherently identified with the Left and with "socialism," however the term is defined.   Conservatives have opposed this trend, though not very successfully yet.  I see that as a noble enterprise, even if government tyranny continues to grow despite it.  (And I use the word "tyranny" here advisedly, having witnessed how it affects people in their daily lives.)   

As I note on my post:

"Several generations of mainstream Americans have considered socialism inherently destined to fail in any context, yet today every nation in the world maintains in widely varying degrees an economic system of integrated socialism and capitalism.


This is true.  But conservatives do not generally believe that all government power is wrong, just excessive government power. 

This includes the five remaining communist countries originally and deeply influenced by Russia, a society that has made many adjustments in recent decades so capitalism might continue to grow: Vietnam, China, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. The fact that America and Britain (often the most conservative and religious European country) rank so poorly regarding social ills ought to inspire self-reflection in the face of the empty American proverbs proclaiming that socialism and secularism are automatic and regular destroyers of human quality of life."

Britain is not really that religious.  I remember hearing from a girl at a Bible study in Oxford who said she didn't know a single fellow Christian in an office of 60 or 70  in London.  That reflects the reality.  Whatever is ailing Britain, it isn't the remains of Christianity there. 

But I don't say secularism is an "automatic and regular destroyer of human quality of life," anyway.  See my debate with Phil Zuckerman on this site.  I see the relationship as more nuanced.  And even Zuckerman appeared to sort of admit that (a) Christianity built up in Scandinavia what "secularism" is often credited for.  (As his secular informants in Denmark and Sweden often spontaneously pointed out.)  (b) Secular failure to have children does endanger Scandinavia's future.  In addition, I have heard that Scandinavia has backed away from some of its more statist policies in recent years.  One might add that leftist failure to appreciate the uniqueness of western culture, inspired by Christianity, is one of the dangers for Western Europe today -- a million mostly Muslim outsiders immigrated to Western Europe just this past year.  Surely most people recognize the danger of that by now? 

But read my article on "Does God Up the Murder Rate?" linked a dozen paragraphs or so up.  It will put much of this into context for you, I think. 

My point here is that extreme conservatism is more of a threat in Western, if not global, society today. I think that a dynamic combination of capitalism and socialism is the best way to go.


I don't know what you mean by "extreme conservatism," so I can't comment on that usefully.

I said in one of my earlier posts that I don't challenge the many reforms of Christian history that David Bentley Hart describes in his book. I'm arguing that those reforms were small in comparison to the monumental changes that began to occur in the 1700s.

I don't know which book you're thinking of: I've written a few of my own on related topics, including How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, and would prefer to defend my own positions, which do not derive from Hart.  I'm an historian: Hart is, I believe, a philosopher. 

Stark argues that almost all of the great founders of science before and shortly after the 1700s were pious Christians.  They brought about "monumental changes," for sure. 

Conservative Christians, to a large degree, opposed these reforms. You can point to exceptions like Wilberforce, a voice of a minority viewpoint (that gradually became more mainstream), but he was extremely resisted.

He was resisted by people with a stake in the slave trade.  He was supported by evangelical Christians in huge numbers.   That, I think, is generally accepted by historians.  Stark tells this story in For the Glory of God, but I've also heard it at a seminar with dozens of historians in Merton College in Oxford, for example.   No one denied what for them seemed to be an evident and generally-accepted fact: that evangelical Christianity was the core of the anti-slave movement, and that huge numbers of Christians were involved.   

You remarked that it "was the Enlightenment that borrowed from Christianity" and I don't disagree, except that I would add the Greco-Roman traditions as influences. Any new movement has to draw on its own culture for material, whether outside sources are included or not, because one cannot invent a system out of nothing.

Fair enough. 

The issue is whether humanism took society further in a better direction than Christianity was able to. Did the Enlightenment ideas push forward an improved quality of life for more people? I think that the factually based answer is yes. If you look at the charts from Pinker's book and elsewhere that are on my blog post about declining violence, it's clear to see that the change in humanitarian behavior and values is radical, beginning about 300 years ago.

No, it began much sooner.  According to this graph, for instance, from the late 15th Century to the early 16th Century, murder in Stockholm more than halved.  And the Enlightenment hadn't really begun 300 years ago, in any case, not the one with Voltaire & Rouseau & Hume & Co.  You can't credit the influence of Hobbes for all that, surely.   

Christianity didn't pull off anything close to that. Christianity borrowed from it's ancestors and neighbors and progressed. Humanism and secularism have done the same but much faster and more comprehensively.

But you can't credit that to "humanism," if you mean secular humanism.  First, you have to go back to the Vikings, who pillaged, raped, burned, and murdered at whim.  Then they "Christianized" in a political sense, which stopped some of that.  But still most people were illiterate, and as Stark shows in "Secularization, RIP," few Europeans even went to church. in the Middle Ages.  Then the Reformation reformed them some more.  (Look at the graph!)  Now people were beginning to read the Bible.  Then pietism took over, and reformers like Hans Hague in Norway.  By the mid-19th Century we find murder rates lower than they are even today -- this is while biblical influence was probably near its height in Scandinavia.  You can't credit "humanism" for that. 

Neither would I be so simple as to credit Christianity entirely.  No doubt the causes were complex.   But biblical teachings were certainly part of the mix -- as even Zuckerman quotes even Scandinavian atheists as insisting.  (And the historians who wrote the Cambridge History of Scandinavia also point out.) 

In our country, many, if not most, conservative Christians have been on the wrong side of history many times. Here are some of them, as provided by Amanda Marcotte, writing for Salon: women's sufferage, evolution, pain relief for childbirth, segregation, animosity toward Roman Catholics, prohibition, slavery, mandating school prayer and contraception. To that I'll add - sex education.


And I thought Roman Catholics were Christians.  Nowadays the people most hostile towards them seem to be atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I don't deny, however, that Christians have squabbled far, far too much throughout history - as has just about every other group.  I think one of the root causes of that squabbling was a concept of political monopoly that derived from the Roman Empire, as adopted too uncritically into the Christian template in the 4th and 5th Centuries.  Maybe we agree about that. 

Some of these issues I know nothing about.  Who exactly opposed pain relief for childbirth?  I've certainly never met anyone who held that view.  I have met numerous Christian doctors who worked fervently to reduce unnecessary suffering. 

I have suggested on this site that Christianity was the driving force behind the amelioration and ultimately abolition of slavery.   From which it would not follow that all Christians agreed.  Slavery was profitable, and profit is a thing that attracts ideological justifications like a lamp attracts moths. 

This is a whole bag of assertions, in other words, that would require definitions, sociological data, survey data, study of effects, on each one, to risk any sort of generalization and credit or blame to the Christian church.

But no one denies that with billions of followers over two millennia, there have been many fools, cads, and scoundrels within the Church, often within leadership positions.  And even the saints all, each and every one, had blind spots.  Again, I think the New Testament teaches us to expect that: Peter denied the Lord, the disciples wanted to napalm a Palestinian village, Judas was a traitor.  And those are the twelve disciples Jesus personally picked out.  So how would a similar phenomena in later Christian history show that the biblical view is unrealistic?   

I don't know how you can have such a positive view of orthodox Christianity regarding slavery. To say that Christians opposed slavery when it's overwhelmingly clear that a lot, if not most, of American (Northern and Southern) and British Christians did support slavery in the 1600s to late 1700s or early 1800s and when both positions can be easily argued from the Bible - this doesn't clarify things.


In the ancient world, slavery wasn't even an issue.  Polybius blames the Gauls or Thracians for attacking Byzantine in an unkind manner: the city, he notes, was a leading market for slaves from the Black Sea, such a nice little community it was.  It doesn't even strike his mind, for all the moralizing that he engages in, that there was something unnice about that particular trade. 

So again, I don't contend that all Christians opposed slavery.  I contend that Christian theology does seem to have stopped it, and more than once.

More on this below.   

Theologian Thomas Aquinas tried to defend certain forms of slavery while the Catholic Church as a whole has a long history of supporting this tradition and even owning slaves.

Like I discussed before, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield owned slaves, the latter being very instrumental in relegalizing slavery in Georgia during the early 1700s.


I see that you are correct about Whitefield: he preached treating slaves kindly, which of course did not always happen, and advocated slavery to encourage development of Georgia and to fund an orphanage.  Horrid ideas. 

John Wesley and Charles Finney, two equally-powerful preachers, were instrumental in ending it. 

But the question should be, why was this an issue?

Why, for instance, did slavery even need to be "relegalized" in Georgia, if Christian tradition was as accepting of it as you imply? 

It is hard for  me to understand how anyone can read the New Testament, with all it says about loving neighbors, forgiving enemies, and turning the other cheek, and justify the forcible confinement of innocent men, women, and children by the threat of violence, to do your work for you.  I think ultimately Christianity did ameliorate and then end slavery.  That the process was often so tortuous, shows us how self-indulgent and self-deluded people can be, when it comes to preserving self-interest.  That's a good but difficult lesson to learn. 

But I am not sure "slavery" per se need, in every situation, be an absolute evil.

Consider, for example, prisoners.  They are kept locked up, sometimes in solitary confinement.  If they were made to work for a period of years, maybe even earning a trade, even for zero pay, wouldn't that in many cases be more humane and useful to them, than to stew away in prison?

In the ancient world, when you fought a war and took thousands of captives, your options were limited.  You couldn't lock them all up and feed them.  You might kill them, which often happened.  You might release them, then they might return to the battlefield in a few weeks and pillage your society.  You might maim them.  Or you could put them to work -- which was probably the most common solution, except when peace treaties were signed stipulating repatriation. 

The abolition of slavery only became a moral imperative, one might argue, when society gained enough wealth, and peace, so that captives could be safely repatriated, or kept confined and fed without starving the local population to do so.  What Christianity did in the early centuries, therefore, was to forbid enslaving and trading in slaves -- as Mohammed himself would do -- and to ameliorate the conditions of slaves.  But slavery was, as I show, almost completely ended in large parts of Europe already in the early Middle Ages -- until the lust for gold overpowered moral restraints after the Voyages of Discovery. 

1 comment:

Stephen Parrish said...

There has long been the accusation that Christians originally opposed giving anesthesia to women in childbirth because it supposedly contradicts Genesis 3:16. For a rebuttal, see Philip J. Sampson's "6 Modern Myths," p. 116.