Monday, September 14, 2009

Is Christianity the Key to Civilization?

[Update: Arnold Kling corrects me, pointing out that he "was explaining what I think conservatives believe, not what I believe." Mr. Kling's blog post now states, "Again, these are what I think of as conservative beliefs, not what I believe." My post has been changed to reflect Mr. Kling's correction.]

Arnold Kling summarizes what conservatives believe, saying, "Christianity is the key to civilization and, dare one say it, the most progressive force in history." For his full post, see here.

Commenter Tom Hickey dismantles the so-called conservative argument handily:

There are several inconsistencies with this picture.

1. It seems obvious that instead of going downhill, human progress is improving with technological advancement that has vastly improved life for 99% of the the people in developed societies. Christendom was feudal. These "lost virtues" are basically a variation of the romantic ideal of the "noble savage" and the lost "Golden Age."

2. Technology, not Christianity, has been the driving force of modern civilization. Christianity has been and continues to be the enemy of science. As technology enabled leisure for universal education, life became more rational and intelligent, allowing for the establishment of democratic societies. The Enlightenment thinking that lead to democracy was not based in Christian values as much a rational thought that revolted against imposition of ideology. The founding Fathers were not "Christians" in the sense that many use this term today, and many were Deists.

3. Free markets have often led to the "social degradation" that conservatives decry, and many conservatives think that restrictions in the form of censorship could have prevented this loosening of social norms. It can reasonably be argued that the pursuit of profit has led to the pushing of the envelope of social norms, not "social degradation" pushing business. This is the old, "the devil made me do it," excuse.

Finally, caricaturing liberalism/progressivism as believing that wisdom resides with progressive elites is setting up a straw man. That is just ideological bias that fails to grasp what liberalism is about, not a reasoned statement of genuine issues. Liberalism/Progressivism is broadly based on J. S. Mill's On Liberty and Utilitarianism.

I added the following comments:

If Christianity is the key to civilization, then what about the Persian Empire, which was non-Christian? Plenty of evidence shows that great civilizations may be non-Christian--see Incas, Angkor, etc.

Moreover, assuming that violent oppression and unnecessary/excessive killings of civilians and innocent persons is not progressive, your thesis fails. If, for example, Christianity was the most progressive force in history, then why did an overwhelming number of American Christians tolerate the peculiar institution of slavery? Why did an overwhelming number of American Christians deem non-whites inferior and less deserving of equal legal protection for numerous decades? Why did American Christians, with the backing of state governments, use police dogs and fire hoses on non-violent civil rights protesters? If we agree that Southerners are more Christian than non-Southerners, then the last 100 years seem to rebut the idea that Christianity and civilized society go hand in hand; after all, fewer places in American have been more Christian and less progressive than the South.

Furthermore, why were most participants in 20th century killings and pogroms from majority-Christian countries? In fact, Christian-led governments and their soldiers have caused the most violent losses of human life over the past hundred years. See, for example, Washington's America and the Native Americans; Lincoln's America and the Civil War; Hitler's Germany; Nixon's America and Vietnam/"Operation Menu"; Truman's America and Hiroshima; Bush I's America and Iraq; Bush II's America and Iraq/Afghanistan. This violent historical record doesn't mean Christianity is wrong or inherently evil--it just means that people in power tend to oppress others who are different, regardless of religion.

Some people may argue that the aforementioned Christian-led killings were made with good intentions, but try your progressive religious argument on the millions of innocent African (slaves), Native American, Jewish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iraqi, and Afghan civilians who have been murdered by Christian-led governments.

In the end, I suppose it depends on your particular viewpoint. If you're an American Christian in the year 2009, America is a progressive place. As a result, I can understand why some American Christians would associate progressiveness with Christianity. However, as the death tolls above indicate, no religion can call itself progressive or truly peaceful--whoever is in power at any particular time kills whomever they consider to be "the other." Religious differences are one way of inventing "otherness" and superiority, which allows our conscience to avoid responsibility for the deaths we cause.

Being from Silicon Valley, I may be biased, but I agree with Tom Hickey: "Technology, not Christianity, has been the driving force of modern civilization." Assuming all religions may incorporate and contribute to technological advances, then associating any particular religion with progress is a subjective, historically-myopic, and divisive exercise.

[More here on religious assimilation.]

Burke A. has an excellent response to my comment:

I don't think conservatives believe that civilizations didn't exist before Christianity. Just that the enlightenment and our current American civilization is a product of that values system. Christians were/are not a more moral people, in fact the Christian ideology is a refutation of that very idea. Christianity didn't somehow support slavery because some Christians were apologists for it. Slavery is a human institution far older than Christianity, and most of the fervent abolitionists were zealous Christians.

Nor is it Christianity reflexively anti-science. Unless you think that there should be no restrictions on what a scientist can do, regardless of the effects on other people. Sure the Religious Right opposes things like embryonic stem cell research, but they certainly aren't opposed to all kinds of science. They just disagree with the moral judgments that certain scientists are making. And frankly, scientists are no more qualified to make those judgments than religious zealots, because Science is equipped to ask how, not why, or whether something is moral. It's outside the domain of science's expertise.

Furthermore, why were most participants in 20th Century wars and pogroms from majority-Christian countries? In the past hundred years, evidence shows that majority-Christian civilizations were the most violent of all. In fact, the one entity that has caused the most loss in human life over the past century has been Christian governments and their soldiers...
What about Mao's China, and the bloody wars of tribal humans? I'd say that Christians were no more or less violent than other cultures--we are just more aware of the violence of nominally Christian populations, because that culture is dominant in the Western world and that is the history we study. I also think you are making an error of attribution if you assume that Christianity is the cause of the violence. Just as you attribute the blame of slavery to Christianity. Did Christians practice slavery? Sure, but they were the first people to offer opposition to the institution and eventually make it illegal. To paraphrase, Christianity is the worst belief system on earth, except for all others.

My response to Burke A. is below:

If we eliminate wartime deaths, then you are correct--Mao and Stalin, both non-Christians, caused the most deaths in the 20th century (we'll go ahead and equate being bombed to death with being starved to death, even though part of me doesn't feel right about that comparison).

As for slavery, however, didn't the Islamic Prophet Mohammad condemn slavery on the basis of color/ethnicity centuries before most Christians accepted that such slavery was morally wrong? See, for example, the story of Bilal ibn Rabah.

Also, compared to Judaism and Islam, wasn't Christianity late in condemning slavery on the basis of color or ethnicity? For most of its history, Christian America seemed to have few qualms about mistreating/raping slaves or treating persons more harshly because of the color of their skin. In contrast, it appears that Islamic societies tolerated slavery but required better treatment of slaves. Of course, without a written historical record from slaves themselves, it's anyone's guess how they were actually treated, but evidence exists that Islamic law and culture frowned upon harsh treatment of slaves.

According to Prof. Jonathan Brockopp, for example, "Other cultures limit a master's right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Qur'an. The unique contribution of the Qur'an, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society's responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time."

1 comment:

Arnold Klign said...

Note that I was explaining what I think conservatives believe, not what I believe. You seem to have misunderstood what I wrote.