Danged Notions AboutArchive

Our Christian Heritage

One upsetting argument defenders of religion (the truly religious, or especially those who merely “believe in belief”) sometimes make is that our society is built upon Judeo-Christian foundations. This is superficially easy to refute:

Thomas Paine was an atheist, and China is a great un-Christian civilization.

But let us steelman. Note that I but speculate.

There is evidence that people raised in Western civilization really do think differently, across many dimensions, than is typical among humans. There is even a term for this: WEIRD psychology. It is quite likely that WEIRDness was a significant or even primary cause of everything good that has happened in the past few centuries. It had this effect through Modernity: modern ethics (liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy, etc), and modern epistemology (science and technology). I simplify, of course.

Many serious people have argued that Modern values first arising in Christendom was not a coincidence. Weber proposes the “Calvinist work ethic.” I don’t claim to understand Nietzsche much, but from what little I gather, the Genealogy of Morals hypothesizes that scientific atheists, liberal humanitarians, and other typical Moderns use a moral vocabulary that is still essentially Jewish and Christian, as opposed to Greek and Roman. One result I presume Nietzsche would predict is that Cicero would find himself more at home in Beijing or Mumbai than in Washington or Brussels.

If so, the moral argument is not as lazy as “without religion, why not just go murder someone then?” It does not rely on norms that you would expect to find in basically any advanced society. Instead, it goes like this:

There are parts of the West that don’t just happen naturally, that you moderns really really care about (i.e. the value of Truth and the individual over fundamentally collective values), for which Judaism and Christianity were mandatory prerequisites. You might not notice, as it’s just the water you’re swimming in, but everything you hold dear is quite historically contingent.

Nothing close to Modernity touched Pagan or Confucian civilization at their heights. It took the mythology of a random oppressed bronze age tribe, the peasant-comforting ramblings of an apocalyptic rabbi, convenient dark age strictures against endogamy, and rigorous academic debates about something as arcane yet personally important as “soteriology.” People born in typical old human societies just don’t make the fundamental leap towards valuing the real Truth over the truth of the Tribe, or real creatures’ welfare over the welfare of the Tribe. That cognitive revolution had to be bootstrapped, in a roundabout way, through some unlikely mechanism. For Weber, that mechanism was people coming to care far more about their immortal souls than their mortal nation. For Nietzsche, it was the self-pitying values of a downtrodden people imposed upon a powerful civilization.

Regardless of the exact details, it seems that Modernity is more rooted in Abrahamic religion than we thought. So we Moderns should give it more credit (and critique it more carefully) than we would give if Modernity arose in Christendom due to mere coincidence.

Conditional on the “Weber-Nietzsche thesis” being correct (I guess a 20% chance), I buy this argument. Sort of.

Moderns tell an archetypal story that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the world was filled with miserable peasants, prone to famine, disease, and oppression. Because they had no hope of bettering their lives in This World, they gave into superstition about an Otherworld, to barely soothe their pain. Their rulers, who had barely tolerable lives themselves, manipulated that faith to their own gain. So even in their escapist fantasies, the peasants could not escape their lowly servitude.

But hope was not utterly lost. From the primordial abyss flew no more than three little sparks of Doubt, and a faint Flame of Reason arose in the hearts of a few righteous men. They tended to it carefully, and soon they divined the True Arts: Liberty, Justice, and Science. And from their printing presses it soon engulfed the West; and to this day it consumes the world.

If this theory is correct, then that story is wrong.

The Flame is older than they say. Modernity itself may have arisen only twenty generations ago, but the first Moderns were not born of the coldest land on Earth. There was already a primordial heat, faint but definitely present, in the air of the West. Some say it came from that preacher, during the Golden Age, who first whispered that there was a pearl of greater price than all that age’s gold. Perhaps it is even older. They say he was of a royal line, descended from a more ancient king, and that ancient king had been anointed by the divine to rule over the greatest nation the world has known, the only great nation of old whose strength was born of Truth, not War. Fool! How can you say the peasants had not a single spark, when they already had the little warm pearl?

(To be continued.)