Friday, October 14, 2016

Why He Was Wrong

Historian Tom Holland, who, it's relevant to note, is not himself a Christian, writes a "Boy, Was I Wrong" column in The New Statesman about how as a younger man he had misjudged the influence of ancient Christianity on our culture and how he came to realize his mistake.

After describing his childhood experiences with certain hard-to-accept religious beliefs he writes:
By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values.

My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.

[Yet] the longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and ­oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
This paradox is evident almost everywhere one looks. Many moderns flatter themselves that they're morally enlightened and that they have no need of God to live a moral life. I'm currently reading Stephen Greenblatt's bestseller The Swerve which is a paean to the first century B.C. Roman writer Lucretius and the naturalism he praises in his great poem, De Rerum Naturam(On the Nature of Things). In a list of Lucretius' principles, which Greenblatt himself evidently embraces, he makes it clear that there is no personal God and goes on to add that there's also no ethical purpose higher than pursuing pleasure (happiness) for oneself and one's fellow creatures. But if there is no God what could possibly obligate us to care about the happiness of others? Why should we, especially if it means self-sacrifice? It sounds good to say, but if Lucretius is right about God it's simply empty rhetoric to talk about having some sort of responsibility to promote the happiness of others. Where does such a responsibility come from? Why would it be wrong to just live for oneself? Greenblatt doesn't even attempt to answer the question.

Holland concludes:
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
Nowhere in the ancient world, much less in our evolutionary history, do we find any concept of human equality. Nowhere do we find any concept of compassion for the poor or the orphan. Nowhere among the ancient pagans (non-Christians) do we find qualms about slavery, the chattel view of women, infanticide. Nowhere ... until the rise of Christianity.

Christians are often vilified for the crimes of the Roman papacy and other ecclesiastical miscreants, but it's important to remember that despite the failings of some, even many, of those who have called themselves Christians, it was nevertheless the Christian worldview which provided the fertile soil out of which grew people motivated to build hospitals and universities, to end slavery, to create institutions to care for the poor, to minimize cruelty in war and criminal punishment. Other cultures produced music and art, but it was the Christian West that produced Bach and Michaelangelo, Handel and Raphael. Other cultures made technological advances, but science only thrived in the West where it was rooted in the assumption that the world was created by a rational mind, that the world wasn't "enchanted" and could be studied without giving offense to the deities of paganism.

Naturalism doesn't offer its adherents the metaphysical resources to sustain any of these blessings. Naturalism is grounded in a Darwinian view of humanity which knows nothing of equality, compassion for the weak and the stranger, the dignity of each person, moral duty, human justice, or human rights. It only knows that those who are stronger win the contest for survival by imposing their will on the weak, or eliminating them altogether. No matter how loudly naturalists may object to this representation, they can't escape it.

The notion of human equality, compassion for the weak and the stranger, the dignity of each person, moral duty, human justice, and the concept of human rights are the gifts to culture of a Christian worldview and are inexplicable under any other. As the atheist philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas admits: "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."