Triumph of Christianity by Tommaso Laureti, fresco 1582
I have posted several myths concerning Christianity and history here at IsChristianityTrue? such as the myth of the dark ages (which is one of my more popular posts), the flat earth myth, the myth of Galileo going to jail, myths and facts about the Crusades, and the myth that the church hindered the development of science. While these posts counter popular misconceptions, what positive contributions has Christanity made to society and history? Well, several articles and books from professional and scholarly sources have recently been published. Here is just a peak at the many positive contributions that Christianity has made:
Christianity’s Contribution to Morality
Tom Holland, a writer of several popular works on classical and medieval history such as Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the roman republic (2004), Persian fire: the first world empire and the battle for the west (2006), Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of christendom (2009), and most recently Dynasty: the rise and fall of the house of caesar (2016), and penned an article for The NewStatesman. Titled “Why I was Wrong about Christianity” Holland seemingly feel for the myth that Christianity was harmful:
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.
Delving into ancient history helped Holland understand that he had been misled by the various writers of the Enlightenment.
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.
The moral contribution that Christianity has made is still felt 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.” Holland concludes his ‘aha’ moment:
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.
Amy K. Hall reviews Holland’s discovery at Stand to Reason in a blog post titled “Jesus Built Western Civilization.” Hall concludes that “we’re a product of our culture, and our culture is a product of Christianity, and Christianity is the worship of Jesus.” It remains to be seen if this trend will continue.
Larry W. Hurtado, the former professor of the New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Edinburgh, has recently published Destroyer of the gods. In it, Hurtado explains the unique features of Christianity in contrast with the Roman world. “In the eyes of many of that time, early Christianity was odd, bizarre, and in some ways even dangerous. For one thing, it did not fit with what ‘religion’ was for people then. Indicative of this, Roman-era critics designated it as a perverse ‘superstition.’”
Sean McDowell, professor of Biola University, provides a quick review of Hurtado’s book at his blog “How Did Christianity Prevail in Ancient Rome and What Can We Learn From It?” Hurtado’s book not only explains the uncommon and rare features of Christianity but the reasons why Christianity was able to grow: radical monotheism, a loving and personal God, based on a book leading to book technology, linked religious beliefs with ethical living, and uniquely diverse including women, slaves, and poor.
McDowell concludes in his review of Hurtado’s book, along with Holland, that “In an age when Christianity is often condemned as harmful and poisonous, Destroyer of the gods is a reminder that Christianity was on the positive edge of cultural change in ancient times.”
Holland and Hurtado:
Tom Holland has appeared on the radio show “Unbelievable” with Larry Hurtado discussing how “his research made him realize how unique Christianity was in its infancy. He claims that, despite secular arguments that Christianity hinders moral progress, the West actually owes its values of equality and human dignity to the religion.” You can listen to the podcast of the radio show at “Why I Changed My Mind About Christian History.”
Christianity’s Contribution to Freedom
Not only has Christianity contributed to the moral and ethical underpinnings of society, it has contributed to individual freedom.
Cambridge University Press published a new collection of essays on how Christianity has contributed to the freedoms that we all cherish today: Christianity and freedom: historical perspectives. The Cambridge publishers website describes the book:
leading historians uncover the unappreciated role of Christianity in the development of basic human rights and freedoms from antiquity through today. These include radical notions of dignity and equality, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, limited government, consent of the governed, economic liberty, autonomous civil society, and church-state separation, as well as more recent advances in democracy, human rights, and human development. Acknowledging that the record is mixed, scholars document how the seeds of freedom in Christianity antedate and ultimately undermine later Christian justifications and practices of persecution.
Samuel Gregg, who reviews the book at The Public Discourse “How Christianity Created the Free Society”, reiterates that while the idea of the birth of freedom was an enlightenment invention in many books on the history of Western Civilization, Christianity and freedom demonstrates “the many ways in which Christian beliefs and institutions made critical contributions to the freedoms cherished by Christians and non-Christians today.” Gregg closes his review:
Regardless of one’s religious and philosophical convictions, the powerful Christian impact on the emergence of societies that take liberty seriously should be recognized by anyone interested in truth rather than pressing particular ideological claims. The unanswered question, which falls beyond the scope of these essays, is how many liberals are willing to reconsider some of their urban legends about the relationship between Christianity and liberty.
On that subject, alas, I am not optimistic.
Christianity and freedom: historical perspectives is the first volume of the a two volume series. Volume 2: Christianity and freedom: contemporary perspectives extends the research into current social, economic, health care, educational, and democratic venues.
These discoveries coincides with the research of Dr. Robert Woodberry that I reported on at Missionary Myths and the Roots of Democracy. The quick summary of that report indicates that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”
Unfortunately, the Christianity and freedom series is pricey: $96.00 and $145.00 respectively. A more economic summary of similiar research is Rodney Stark’s The victory of reason: how christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and western success.
Counter to the idea that Christianity is dangerous and poisonous more substantial reflection indicates that Christianity is freeing and beneficial.
“Why I Was Wrong About Christianity” by Tom Holland | The NewStatesman, Sept 14, 2016
“How Did Christianity Prevail in Ancient Rome and What Can We Learn From It?” by Sean McDowell | SeanMcDowell.org, Oct 10, 2016
“Jesus Built Western Civilization” by Amy Hall | Stand to Reason (str.org), Oct 5, 2016
“How Christianity Created the Free Society” by Samuel Gregg | The Public Discourse, Sept 29, 2016
“Why I Changed My Mind About Christian History” podcast | Unbelievable, Oct 8, 2016