August 19, 2019

Western Democracies Were Shaped by Christianity

Medieval sword

One of the most persistent memes floating around the Internet is the notion that those of us living in Western democracies should be grateful to Christianity (and probably even withhold whatever criticism we might have of it) because our civilization would not exist without it. I have run into this over and over again since I started writing Atheist Revolution in 2005. While it seems to be especially popular among conservatives, I have seen it promoted by liberals too. Is it accurate in any way or something we should devote time to debunking?

If the argument is that civilization itself would not exist without Christianity, I think we can easily dismiss it. And yes, I heard this version from some. Many civilizations existed before Christianity, and many will likely exist after it (if our species can find a way to survive the climate crisis). Additionally, there have been (and still are) civilizations in the East that have not been based on Christianity at all.

But what about the softer version that just claims that our present civilizations would look very different if not for Christianity. I think this is probably valid but has one big problem: different does not necessarily mean worse. I do not doubt that our culture would be very different today if Christianity had never emerged; however, I have no idea whether that means it would be better or worse. Perhaps it would be much better because science and reason would be the norm. Or perhaps it would be much worse because some other religion would have inflicted all the harm Christianity did and more.

There are some useful parallel cases we might consider as a way of exposing some of the related problems with the suggestion that we owe Christianity some sort of debt or appreciation with respect to our current way of life. Those of us living in the United States might consider our history of slavery. Our nation was based on slavery in the sense that it was once widespread and clearly shaped much of our early history. I think it would be fair to say that things might be very different today if slavery had never happened here. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean they'd be better or worse. It also doesn't mean we should be grateful that our ancestors had slaves.

Those living in Europe might consider their history of colonization. Many European countries would be very different today if they never colonized other nations. In some ways, things might be better. In other ways, they might be worse. Either way, I think it would be hard to argue that we should celebrate colonization simply because it was an important part of a nation's history.

There is little doubt that Christianity exerted a powerful influence on how most Western democracies developed. In some cases, this influence was positive. In other cases, it was not. It is impossible to know how things would be different today and in what ways if Christianity had never taken hold. In any case, I reject the suggestion that we should withhold criticism of contemporary Christianity because we think historic Christianity might have had at least a few positive effects on our culture.