By David Quinn, Iona Institute
There is a certain reading of history that runs something like the following. The Roman Empire might have been cruel, but it was also rational and effective. When it collapsed, Europe fell into decay for long centuries, and Christianity was partly to blame based as it was on irrationality, superstition and bigotry. Science and learning were held back. The worst period was the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was at its peak.
Then in the 16th century, the Renaissance occurred, and a chink of light appeared in the darkness. The rise of Protestantism in that same century helped, but it was really thanks to the Enlightenment in the 18th century that rationality, tolerance and science began to flourish once more.
After a hard struggle against the forces of reaction and tradition, not least Christianity, we began to progress, democracy and human rights took root, and even though more fighting for justice remains to be done, we have advanced a long way.
The chief reason for our progress is that Christianity has been relegated to a minor role in our societies.
Once you have imbibed this view of history, then it is very tempting to believe we would have been better off if Christianity had never existed, and even though Jesus remains a much-admired figure, perhaps that first Christmas, when he was born, set in motion a very destructive chain of events because of the religion founded in his name.
So, let’s try and imagine what the world would look like had Christianity never been. The Roman Empire in the West would still have been overwhelmed by successive waves of barbarian invasions. They would have conquered an empire without a trace of Christianity, one in which pagan religion still dominated, and the barbarians would have arrived with their own pagan religions.
There would have been no church in the West to preserve the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. We think Christianity deepened the Dark Ages but without Christianity it would have been much harder to escape from them.
Almost the entire history of Christianity on this island has been disparaged but overall, we still appreciate the contribution of the early monks both to Ireland and Europe.
They created great art, and while libraries all over the continent were being destroyed as the Roman Empire collapsed, the Irish monks copied the manuscripts of Rome and Greece. When the time was right, they established monasteries in many parts of Europe and helped to bring the Dark Ages to an end. That does not fit the picture of a church opposed to reason and learning.
Over time, Christianity converted the barbarian invaders and helped to create a common European consciousness. If Europe had remained divided among disparate tribes and numerous pagan religions, how would this have happened?
This is why, in its early days, the EU was well aware of its Christian roots. The Christian idea, and the idea of Europe, were deeply intertwined.
And if no unifying religion had ever emerged in Europe, what would have happened then? It is possible we would all be Muslim, because that is a unifying religion and several times Muslim invaders almost overwhelmed Europe. They would have found it much easier to conquer a continent that lacked a unifying idea.
It is therefore very far off the mark to think we might have arrived at something like the Enlightenment long before the 18th century if Christianity had not been in the way.
In fact, the Enlightenment might not have occurred at all. There has never been an equivalent in the Muslim world.
Many civilisations in history have developed without a trace of Christian influence until very recently. China has one of the most ancient civilisations in the world, but its history has been at least as violent as ours and it never had anything equivalent to the church because nothing was allowed to rival the Emperor.
Was it a beacon of tolerance as a result? When it finally did adopt a western idea, it was communism.
Is there evidence that women’s rights were more advanced in (say) medieval Japan than in the West? What about the Inca or Aztec empires? Both societies were still practicing human sacrifice when the Spanish arrived. That is only 500 years ago.
Secular liberalism fancies that it is a decisive break from Christianity. In fact, it is a natural outgrowth from it.
Liberalism is a universal creed which believes its doctrine of human rights apply to everyone. But Christianity was the first truly universal creed. It preached that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves and that everyone is our neighbour because we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we are all morally equal.
The Romans did not believe in the moral equality of all human beings. The ancient Greeks didn’t either. The Vandals and the Goths and the Vikings believed nothing of the sort. In our part of the world at least, it came from Christianity, which had borrowed it from Judaism and then spread it to the Gentiles, which is to say, to us.
A few years ago an editorial in The Guardian, which is no friend of the church, was considering the fact that only a minority of Britons now considered themselves to be Christian even in the most nominal sense.
It wondered what would happen if Christianity completely faded as a force in society.
The editorial said: “A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it.”
We take it for granted that everyone is morally equal, but we seem to assume that this belief would have emerged no matter what, with or without Christianity. Yet, when you survey history, there are many times and places where such a belief never emerged, not even in very recent times. So, who is to say it would have emerged in Europe without Christianity? There is every possibility the idea would never have taken root.
The constant and ignorant attacks on the Christian religion highlight its worst deeds and take for granted almost all of its achievements and best ideas. If that first Christmas had never happened then there is an excellent chance that our societies today would be in a much worse, much darker place and liberalism would not even be a gleam in our eye.