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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Was Christianity good for Europe?

Many Christian apologists, perhaps most prominently Dinesh D'Souza, argue that even secular people should be grateful to Christianity for the heritage of its dominant position in Europe during, and for long after, the Middle Ages. Indeed, I have often heard, or seen, secular thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas accepting this general point, even though I find it, myself, to be (to say the least) implausible.

Of course, there's a trivial sense in which we can all feel glad for everything that happened before we were, as individuals, conceived, since Who Gets Conceived And Born (or which sperm cells fertilise which oocytes and produce which zygotes) is ultra-sensitive to all prior events. Moreover, the existence of all the good things that we have in the world today has been highly sensitive to the actual course of history that led to them (but the same applies to many bad things in the world). Is there some sense, more substantial than these, in which the world - particularly Europe - is better off as a result of the centuries-long hegemony of Christianity?

That really depends on what the realistic alternatives were. We could imagine a worst-case scenario in which barbarian warriors dominated the Dark Ages with no influence from Christianity or from classical learning. All traditions of philosophy and science might have been lost, and perhaps we (or our equivalents) might have ended up as worshippers of Wotan or Thor.

Conversely, we might imagine scenarios in which classical learning survived and thrived in Europe through what we know as the Dark Ages.

It would be foolish to imagine that the actual course of history was the very worst it could plausibly been, so, insofar as Christianity may have prevented some even worse outcomes, perhaps we should be glad and grateful. But does that mean that the Dark Ages, as actually experienced, were an improvement on pre-Christian classical paganism? Were they a ferment of learning and innovation, misnamed by Enlightenment ingrates who failed to appreciate what was achieved under the aegis of the Church during the centuries after the fall of Rome?

Andrew Bernstein is one commentator who thinks not. See this ferocious critique of Christianity's contribution to European civilisation. I must say that Bernstein's occasional genuflections to Ayn Rand, a third-rate thinker at best, and the provenance of the article in a Randian journal, don't add to the author's credibility. But it's easy to ignore the references to Rand, on which nothing in the argument depends, and to replace the brief discussions of Randian epistemology with something more plausible (some kind of post-Popper philosophy of science, perhaps). Once that's done, the article is interesting and (perhaps) persuasive. Have a look and let me know what you think.


Blake Stacey said...

By contrast, the 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the full flowering of the Industrial and Technological Revolutions. These were centuries not of Saint Boniface converting the heathens, and of minor improvements to windmills and water mills that still left men starving — but of James Watt and the steam engine, Thomas Edison and the electric lighting system, Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, the Wright brothers and aviation, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and industrial mass production of consumer goods — and, consequently, these were centuries of skyrocketing living standards and life expectancies. This was an era of tremendous intellectual and material advance. The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of "extraordinary invention and innovation." The 8th and 9th centuries were not.

I almost expected that litany of inventors to conclude with John Galt and his static-electricity motor. . . . More seriously, though the list is correct by the letter, I suspect it to be flawed in spirit — contaminated by a "Great Man" ideology which neglects the true complexities of technological advance in favour of textbook cardboard. Take two doses of James Burke's Connections and call me in the morning.

Bernstein's treatment of science in Islamic cultures is lamentably deficient. For all his adoration of Aristotle, can't he spare a breath for Averroes?

In my experience, people who rhapsodize over all the great things Christianity has done for science tend to be shockingly ignorant of Greek science (pre-Christian), not to mention Chinese, Persian and Arabic science (contemporaneous with the squalor of medieval Christian Europe). They also tend to ignore other, non-religious differences among civilizations. Buddhist and Taoist scholars in China made significant technological advances; why didn't China rise to the scientific heights which Europe achieved? Well, after the voyages of Zheng He, China's great civilization became intensely isolationist, yet exploration and colonization stimulate science in several obvious ways. (People like William Gilbert investigated magnetism because there was fantastic money to be had in the compass and what it made possible.) Also, Europe was politically divided while China was unified and centralized. In addition, European languages lent themselves more readily to print than those of the Orient, so even though the Chinese and the Koreans got to movable type first, Europe got the benefits of preserving and distributing knowledge.

And speaking of printing: the historians tell us that printed books were a great thing for science, but nobody insists that we stick with the technology of Choe Yun-ui, Caxton, Gutenberg and Manutius. The best option available in the 1400s is not necessarily the most beneficial choice in the 2000s. Apologists don't always recognize this.

Coathangrrr said...

Bernstein's treatment of science in Islamic cultures is lamentably deficient. For all his adoration of Aristotle, can't he spare a breath for Averroes?

I suspect he is working under the assumption that Islamic cultures during the European dark ages did nothing but preserve knowledge and not extend it. That seems to be a common view despite the facts to the contrary.

I for one am tired of all these books about how some specific group or religion pushed Europe out of the dark ages into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. There were a huge number of different groups that contributed and simply picking out one and saying they were the most important is a gross simplification.

Lorenzo said...

Speaking as someone who teaches medieval history, Bernstein is a bit overwrought.

What do we mean by Christianity? A set of doctrines, a set of institutions, a religious culture? There is a real sense in which we are all "Christians" if we accept a notion of a universal morality. This is not a concept, for example, that resonated in Classical civilisation. While Muslim moral universalism is a very layered one, to say the least. From our side of the shift, it is easy to miss what a genuine moral revolution Christianity was within Classical civilisation (and why Western Civilisation is a genuinely different civilisation than its Classical precursor).

Then there is the effect of the Catholic/Orthodox adoption of natural law thinking which encouraged looking at the world as something with inherent principles of action. One of the ironies of history is that Latin Christendom rediscovered Aristotle via Muslim thinkers (particularly Averroes) but Averroes Aristotelianism resonated far more in Latin Christendom (where he was very influential) than in Islam (where he was not), for reasons I allude to here

There is also the complexity of the interaction between science and technology. As Jean Gimpel points out in The Medieval Machine Latin Christendom was easily the most technologically adaptive civilisation in human history up to that time. An adaptiveness that the Church--via the monasteries--were deeply involved in. (The ideas were usually invented somewhere else, but Latin Christendom generally adopted them much more extensively)

Within Latin Christendom, Christianity provided a set of linking institutions and language that allowed many practical ideas to circulate more easily. It fostered checks on centralised power that were important in making Latin Christendom such an adaptive civilisation through its competitive jurisdictions.

The religious impulse was very important in keeping Islam at bay. That may have been a mixed blessing at the time, but there is lots of evidence that, over the long run, Islam was (and remains) much worse for science. (As well as other things, such as the status of women.)

The religious impulse was also important in encouraging the age of exploration which did a great deal to provoke the post-medieval explosion of science proper. An explosion which was stronger in Protestant Europe, where the priests were not as powerful in controlling printing and the circulation of ideas. But that such priestly power is generally a bad thing is not the same as saying a religion is doctrinally hostile to science.

Christianity provoked conflict but also ameliorated it. Latin Christendom-cum-Western civilisation took up the idea of restraining "laws of war" and "international law" much more than other civilisations.

There were lots of Christian scientists who viewed themselves as exploring God's Creation. The material poverty Bernstein complains of was general across civilisations. Yes, the Romans did notably better for a while, but that collapse was not caused by Christianity and many of the effects were ameliorated by Christian efforts.

It is easy to pick on the obscurantism of priests, but we are dealing with such a massive counterfactual and such a broad and multifarious phenomena that point to restrictions on intellectual freedom (real) and misdirected effort and imply that things would have been better without the whole package is not nearly as clear as Bernstein seems to think. (Nor as Stark thinks, for that matter.)

mace said...

During the 13th century a monk,probably in Jerusalem, scraped off the text of a manuscript, originally by Archimedes and re-used the vellum in a prayer book. This was typical of the Church's attitude to pagan learning. Fortunately, we're no longer subject to the suffocating effect of "Judaeo Christian" civilisation.Although Christianity wasn't good for Europe, Islam would have been worse.

Coathangrrr said...

There is a real sense in which we are all "Christians" if we accept a notion of a universal morality.

There are plenty of non-Christian examples of universal morality. Even plenty of non Abrahamic example. Confucianism for one. And saying that medieval Christianity was technologically adaptive really ignores China as well. And we aren't just talking about China at the time, I mean China a thousand years before and until the dark ages of Europe.

Mace:Although Christianity wasn't good for Europe, Islam would have been worse.

Have you ever heard of Andalusia? I'd much, much prefer to live there in the tenth century than anywhere in Christian Europe.

mace said...


Yes of course I have, hasn't everyone, however it's not the 10th century now( except in most parts of the Islamic world). That period was relatively brief in historical terms and we are considering a historical process not particular centuries. Your reference to China as technologically superior through the Medieval period is also supported by historians but not relevant to the discussion. I agree with your observations about Christians and their tedious claims to have more or less invented Western morality. The notion that religion is required for morality was refuted by Classical philosophers long ago.

Coathangrrr said...

Yes of course I have, hasn't everyone, however it's not the 10th century now( except in most parts of the Islamic world).

Are you a part of the same conversation here? We're talking about Europe during the middle ages and how Christianity did or did not contribute to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Given that the Islamic world right now is totally irrelevant.

mace said...


I wonder if the question "Was Christianity good for Europe" can be answered in historical terms.
My comments in regard to Islam are pertinent, we are discussing an historical development and we can only compare one history with another. Although Christianity was bad for Europe the West escaped from the Church theocrats, the populations of Islamic countries didn't, you see, the outcome is important. Perhaps the tension between the Church and the secular institutions was essential to the development of liberal societies. You introduced the reference to Islamic civilisation, not me.

Coathangrrr said...

Although Christianity was bad for Europe the West escaped from the Church theocrats, the populations of Islamic countries didn't, you see, the outcome is important.

A lot of the Islamic world has gotten out from under the thumb of theocrats. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, has no mention of Islam in its constitution. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is a secular society, as is Turkey, which is nearly as populous as Egypt.

Perhaps the tension between the Church and the secular institutions was essential to the development of liberal societies.

I think that's a good point. I'd add that tension between different sects of Christianity likely had some effect as well and I wonder if a lot of the conflict we see now between sects of Islam might not lead to a similar change. At some point the moderates are going to get sick of all the violence and perhaps then we will see an increasing voice for that group.

You introduced the reference to Islamic civilisation, not me.

Actually, Blake did, I just expanded on it a little.

mace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mace said...


A final comment, I suggest you visit one of the numerous sites that monitor developments in the Islamic world, with reference to Turkey and Indonesia,you might not be so sanguine after you read what is happening there.

Anonymous said...

"Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, has no mention of Islam in its constitution."

It doesn't mention Islam specifically but does state 'the State is based upon the belief in the One, Supreme God.' There is freedom of religion constitutionally, but only for Islam and five other nominated religions.

Indonesian Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared in 2008 that the government sees no need to nullify some 600 shariah-based bylaws passed by individual governments across the thousands of islands that make up the archipelago.
Mardiyanto’s decision was the culmination of a request to his predecessor to look into the issue of shariah law following a petition by Indonesian lawmakers urging the government to void such religious laws in local jurisdictions because they discriminate against non-Muslims. The decision by Mardiyanto to let them stand is being looked upon with alarm by moderates in Indonesia because of the possibility that other local jurisdictions will be encouraged to switch to shariah laws.
When such bylaws are imposed in Indonesia, non-Muslims are considered second class citizens, in which fair treatment is hard to conceive. They would need to live under pledges of security or safe-conduct from Muslims. And with absolutism in the air, those who hold power absolute tend to absolute corruption.
There are already examples. In the Padang municipality in West Sumatra, female Muslims and non-Muslim women as well are obliged to wear the hijab, or headscarf. In Tangerang, located just a few kilometers from the capital city Jakarta, bylaws restrict women from walking alone in the streets after 10pm, or they face charges of prostitution. There have been incidents of wrongful arrests of female factory laborers who worked night shifts.
Although Aceh is so far the only province completely governed by shariah law, more than 50 regencies already are enforcing it. And with the Indonesian government’s failure to distinguish religion from state affairs, democracy is on a dwindling down path into the darkness.
Statistically speaking, although Indonesia is nominally 90 percent Muslim, fewer than 10 percent of them are fundamentalists. However, the silence of the moderates may imply agreement and with the government seemingly unwilling to maintain the country’s heterogeneous equilibrium, it would be naïve the world to sit back and believe that things in general are heading for the better. Democracy might have been too early, too soon, and too naïve.