How Christianity Shaped the West

Article excerpt

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IN RECENT YEARS, there has arisen a new atheism that represents a direct attack on Western Christianity. Books such as Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris' The End of Faith all contend that Western society would be better off if we could eradicate from it the last vestiges of Christianity. However, Christianity largely is responsible for many of the principles and institutions that even secular people cherish--chief among them equality and liberty.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," he called the proposition "self-evident," but he did not mean that it immediately is evident. It requires a certain kind of learning and, indeed, most cultures throughout history, and even today, reject the proposition. At first glance, there is admittedly something absurd about the claim of human equality, when all around us we see dramatic evidence of inequality. People are unequal in height, weight, strength, stamina, intelligence, perseverance, truthfulness, and just about every other quality. Jefferson, of course, knew this. He was asserting human equality of a special kind. Human beings, he was saying, are moral equals, each of whom possesses certain equal rights. They differ in many respects, but each of their lives has a moral worth no greater and no less than that of any other. According to this doctrine, the rights of a Philadelphia street sweeper are the same as those of Jefferson himself.

This idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being largely is rooted in Christianity. Christians believe that God places infinite value on every human life. Christian salvation does not attach itself to a person's family or tribe or city. It is an individual matter and, not only are Christians judged at the end of their lives as individuals, they relate to God on that basis throughout their lives. This aspect of Christianity had momentous consequences.

Though the American Founders were inspired by the examples of Greece and Rome, they also saw limitations in those examples. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it would be "as ridiculous to seek for [political] models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders." In The Federalist Papers, we read at one point that the classical idea of liberty decreed "to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.... Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." While the ancients had direct democracy that was susceptible to the unjust passions of the mob and supported by large-scale slavery, we today have representative democracy, with full citizenship and the franchise extended in principle to all. Let us try to understand how this great change came about.

In ancient Greece and Rome, individual human life had no particular value in and of itself. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is even today in several parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings routinely were bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. Many of the great classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity, on the other hand, contributed to their demise by fostering moral outrage at the mistreatment of innocent human life.

Likewise, women had a very low status in ancient Greece and Rome, as they do today in many cultures, notably in the Muslim world. Such views are common in patriarchal cultures, and they were prevalent as well in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. Jesus, however, broke the traditional taboos of his time when he scandalously permitted women of low social status to travel with him and be part of his circle of friends and confidantes. …