Saturday, May 29, 2004

Enemies of Moral Progress

Evidence that intellectual brilliance is no safeguard against appalling silliness:

"I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Christian.

No doubt this was an effective applause line when the famous philosopher and mathematician gave the speech upon which his book is based in 1927, and variants of it are often heard still today. Nevertheless, it suffers the misfortune of being gratingly out of tune with the facts. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, not to mention other civilizations since, infanticide, child abandonment, abortion, suicide, slavery, human sacrifice, and death sports were all widely practiced and approved. Christian influence, derived from the conviction that human life was sacred, was instrumental in curtailing or ending each of these barbarisms.

Many ancient societies, and some contemporary ones, regarded women as property. Daughters were bought and sold, wives legally beaten, even put to death. Sexual double standards were accepted so that female infidelity could be severely punished, but male philandering was winked at. Female infanticide was common, as were suttee (burning a wife on her husbands funeral pyre) among Hindus, foot binding of girls in the orient, and genital mutilation in Muslim societies in Africa and the Middle East. Wherever Christianity exerted influence these practices were legally proscribed.

As a consequence of the Christianization of Europe mental asylums were created in the 4th century, as were homes for the sick. Poorhouses were started around the same time and homes for the aged and the blind were instituted a century later. Most hospitals of all types were, until modern times, begun by Christians as an expression of their belief that it was their moral duty to care for the sick and the poor. The same has been true of organizations of mercy like the Red Cross and Mother Teresa's ministry in India as well as charitable institutions like The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. If this is how enemies of moral progress behave, the world could do with a lot more such enemies.

I wonder if Russell would think this record of moral accomplishment inferior to that of the state atheisms of the twentieth century (i.e. Communism and National Socialism) which presided over the murders of hundreds of millions of people in the bloodiest one hundred year period in human history. I wonder if he would think the moral legacy of the Christian Church inferior to that of the vast Arab world for whom murder, war, and honor killings are what baseball and bowling are for Americans, mere sport and amusement. Indeed, I wonder if Russell was even thinking at all when he made the claim quoted above. How, for instance, can an atheist, especially a positivist like Russell, even speak in moral terms? But that's a question for another post.

For a much more detailed treatment of the impact of Christianity, both moral and otherwise, throughout the last two millennia see Alvin J. Schmidt's Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization. The book can be ordered through our friends at Hearts and Minds Bookstore.