I’ve been reading a very interesting book of late. It’s called ‘A Brief History of Thought’, by renowned French Philosopher, Luc Ferry. It was a national bestseller in France for over 8 months. Now Ferry is an Atheist, and a very interesting one at that. He doesn’t hold to the fairly typical Atheist view of Christianity. You know the one? You hear it quite often on social media, and in the mainstream media:
Christianity is bad for the world. It was bad for scientific progress, human rights, women’s rights, and any other type of progress that our civilisation has made. Thus the sooner we ditch Christianity, the better.
And so it came as a bit of a surprise to me, nay, a shock, to read Ferry’s book.
The Graeco-Roman view of Humanity.
In his chapter entitled ‘The Victory of Christianity‘, Ferry discusses the ancient non-Christian Graeco-Roman understanding of humanity, and in particular, its view of human worth:
‘The Greek world was fundamentally an aristocratic world, a universe organised as a hierarchy in which those most endowed by nature should in principle be ‘at the top’, which the less endowed saw themselves occupying inferior ranks. And we should not forget that the Greek city-state was founded on slavery’ (p72).
In other words, in the ancient Greek view of reality, your worth as a human being depended on how capable you were: the brighter you were, the more worth you possessed as a human being: whereas the less able (e.g. women, children, disabled etc) had less worth.
‘To explain further: the Greek world is an aristocratic world, one which rests entirely upon the conviction that there exists a natural hierarchy…of plants, of animals, but also of men: some men are born to command, others to obey, which is why Greek political life accommodates itself easily to the notion of slavery’. (p73)
Ah life: it’s so unfair. Some people get all the breaks. But in the ancient world, this was expected, and there was nothing you could do about it: that was just the way the world worked, according to the Graeco worldview.
Here’s What I Learned From Ferry: Christianity Revolutionised The Ancient World.
According to Ferry, Christianity burst into the ancient world, and turned the ancient world’s view of humanity on its head:
‘In direct contradiction, Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.’ (p72)
To say the least, that’s a very different view to the standard Atheist narrative I mentioned earlier.
In case we missed the impact of this, Ferry summarises:
‘This [idea of human equality] may seem self-evident, but it was literally unheard-of at the time, and it turned an entire world-order upside down’. (p73)
In other words, the idea of all human beings being equal may seem self-evident to us, who live in a society heavily impacted by Christianity: but in a pre-Christian world, this seemed like utter nonsense. And why wouldn’t it? How can you say that an intellectual aristocratic Roman philosopher is worth no more than a lowly female slave? That makes no sense whatsoever of the empirical data. Unless of course, you have a Christian understanding of reality (or live in a society where that view became dominant).
How Christianity Revolutionised Our World.
As he hinted at above, this idea of all human beings having equal dignity has had a massive impact on our world, not least on our system of government:
‘[T]he idea of the equal dignity of all human beings makes its first appearance: and Christianity was to become the precursor of modern democracy.’ (p74)
So much for Christianity being against every good idea that’s come our way.
‘Although at times hostile to the Church, the French revolution – and to some extent, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man – owes to Christianity an essential part of the egalitarian message. (p74).
In other words, one of the most Atheistic revolutions in history, the French revolution, owes it’s egalitarian message to Christianity. (Not something you’d expect a French Atheist to say, but there you go).
And if Christianity Has Not Been Present In a Culture?
And so what happens if Christianity has not been a big part of a culture? Can democracy flourish in such a culture? Ferry’s answer:
‘We see today how civilisations that have not experienced Christianity have great difficulties in fostering democratic regimes, because the notion of equality is not so deep rooted’. (P75).
One thinks of the Islamic world, where democracy as we understand it is having great difficulty taking root.
Furthermore, this idea of ‘no Christianity/no democracy’ is quite a daunting thought, considering that Christianity is slowly being flushed out of western culture (but more on this below).
Not the First Atheist to Make This Claim.
Of course, if you go past the rhetoric of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, you’ll see that other Athiests have also noticed Christianity’s impact on our world. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald a few years ago in an article entitled ‘Secular World has a Christian foundation‘, political commentator and Atheist Chris Berg had this to say about the impact of Christianity on the western world:
Yet virtually all the secular ideas that non-believers value have Christian origins… It was theologians and religiously minded philosophers who developed the concepts of individual and human rights. Same with progress, reason, and equality before the law: it is fantasy to suggest these values emerged out of thin air once people started questioning God.
Yet many modern human rights activists seem to believe that human rights sprang forth, full-bodied and with a virgin birth, in United Nations treaties in the mid-20th century.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea of human rights was founded centuries ago on Christian assumptions, advanced by Biblical argument, and advocated by theologians. Modern supporters of human rights have merely picked up a set of well-refined ethical and moral arguments.
It would seem that Christianity is not the boogie man of progress that some Atheists would have us believe. Rather, Christianity has laid the foundations for some of the most important ideas that we take for granted…at least according to Atheists like Monsieur Luc Ferry, and Chris Berg: scholars that have (actually) studied the fields of philosophy and political history respectively.
3 Brief Reflections On Ferry’s and Berg’s View of Christianity.
As I think about what these Atheists have written, 3 reflections come to mind:
1) Ideas Have Consequences.
University of Chicago Professor Richard Weaver made the point that ideas have consequences (in his book by the same name). Ideas shape history. Ideas shape people’s view of reality, and thus their behaviour. And since Christianity became a dominant part of the western landscape, it’s no surprise that many Christian ideas (such as the equal worth and dignity of all human beings) shaped the western view of reality as well.
2) Christians Haven’t Always Lived Up To The Teachings Of Christ.
Of course, intellectual and moral honesty demands that we Christians face up to the fact that we haven’t always lived up to the ideals and teachings of Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ: there have been times where we have dipped far below what was commanded of us, both as churches, and as individuals. We haven’t always treated all people with the dignity and worth that is demanded of us.
However, does this mean that Christianity itself is to blame for instances where Christians have failed?
The question we need to ask is this: are the moral failures of Christians the logical outworking of the teachings of Christ, or do Christian moral failures go against the clear teaching of Christ?
Well, if Ferry is correct, then when Christians haven’t treated others with the dignity they deserve, it’s because they’ve gone against this central teaching of Christianity.
Which means that the teachings of Christ can hardly be blamed for Christian shortfalls: rather, as the teachings of Christianity make clear, we human beings are the ones to blame, due to our own innate immorality. Or to put it another way: when you see Christians failing morally, we don’t need less Christianity: we need more Christians taking Christianity more seriously.
When Christians have taken Christianity seriously, they’ve turned the world (starting with the ancient world) upside down. For the better. (At least according to Atheists like Luc Ferry and Chris Berg).
3) The Cut-Flower Civilisation: When Christianity Leaves Western Culture, What Then?
If, as both Ferry and Berg assert, Christianity was centrally responsible for the rise of human rights and human equality, what will happen to these vitally important ideas now that Christianity is leaving the western building?
Chris Berg gives his answer:
But while our age may be secular, it is, at the same time, still a deeply Christian one. If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of that secularism.
That doesn’t sound very promising.
Or as Christian Author and Social Commentator Os Guinness puts it in his book The Global Public Square:
Originally pioneered in the West and grounded in Jewish and Christian beliefs, human dignity, liberty and equality are now often left hanging without agreement over their definition and their foundation…If the original Jewish and Christian foundations of human dignity, equality and liberty are to be rejected, the ideas themselves need to be transposed to a new key or eventually they will wither. The Western world now stands as a cut-flower civilisation, and such once-vital convictions have a seriously shortened life. (p65)
We already see evidence of western civilisation losing it’s Judeo Christian ethical moorings. When serious secular bioethicists promote the idea of ‘after-birth‘ abortion (i.e. infanticide), not to mention third trimester abortions, you know that human dignity is indeed being eroded.
It’s an ominous development, and time will tell what sort of society we’ll end up with as Christianity leaves the western building. But if Atheists like Ferry and Berg are right, then it’s not going to be a society that values human rights and human dignity like it has in the past.
Who would want to live in such a society?
Photo: Luc Ferry, French philosopher and former Minister for Education in France (courtesy Wikicommons).