The great intellectual revolt against Christian tyranny 21

In a discussion of a book titled Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West by William Kilpatrick, this passage occurs:

Some atheists have called for a humanitarian response to Islamic violence.  For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke against harsh Muslim practices that defy “universal rights” and called for “promotion of freedom, equal opportunity, and secular values for all.”  However, Kilpatrick points out that secular values simply cannot stand up to a totalitarian Islam because the fruits of the Enlightenment (free speech, free press, democracy, reason) depend on the Christian roots.  Atheists often claim religion causes the world’s problems and removing such “superstition” will increase respect of humans.

Kilpatrick’s own conclusion is that “ultimately only Christianity can stop Muslim growth”.

To prescribe one religion as a cure for another is like infecting a person with measles to cure his mumps.

But that is not the issue we are engaging now.

The notion that “the fruits of the Enlightenment (free speech, free press, democracy, reason) depend on the Christian roots” is what concerns us here. It has become a standard assertion of Christian apologists, needled by the secularist contention that the Enlightenment was the bright morning come at last after the centuries-long night Christianity had brought down on Europe.

To support the claim, its advocates insist that Christianity stands for and has always stood for individual freedom, hence for free speech and freedom of the press.

Its assertion that all persons are equal “before God” implies – the Christian argument goes – an endorsement of democracy.

As for reason, they claim that although their creed is to be accepted on faith and not subjected to rational analysis, to believe in Christian doctrine and to act according to Christian teaching is reasonable.

It is not hard to dispel these rosy fancies in the court of an impartial judge.

Individual freedom? The medieval Catholic Church was as totalitarian in its tyranny as it could possibly be in its long age of power; and the Calvinists, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Puritans … the Protestant churches in general, crushed and punished the expression of free thought wherever their power was established, as zealously and cruelly as the Catholic Inquisitors. Calvin, for instance, declared: “When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions, are not Christ’s magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?”*

Equality in Christendom? Not on the earth of Europe. It wasn’t even thought of.

In terms of power:

[T]he lawlessness and disorders of the Dark Ages led churchmen first to collaborate with secular rulers, and then to seek their subjugation. … [The] Vicars of Christ became indistinguishable from the nobility.**

In terms of wealth:

The everyday dinner of a man of rank ran from fifteen to twenty dishes. … [For the peasants] the years of hunger were terrible. [They] might be forced to sell all that they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all  seasons. In the hardest times they devoured bark, roots, grass; even white clay. Cannibalism was not unknown. Strangers and travelers were waylaid and killed to be eaten, and there are tales of gallows being torn down … by men frantic to eat the warm flesh raw.***

Reason? As it is not rational to believe in a superhuman Lord of the Universe, it is not reasonable to trust the teaching of his priests.

Furthermore, for centuries –

The Church encouraged superstitions, recommended trust in faith healers, and spread tales of satyrs, incubi, sirens, cyclops, tritons, and giants, exlaining that they all were manifestations of Satan. The Prince of Darkness, it taught, was as real as the Holy Trinity.**** [With that last sentence we concur.]

The Enlightenment, far from being a product of Christianity, was its antidote. It was a revolt against the intellectual arrogance of the Christian ages.  

It was a revolution: the quietest, the most important, and the most successful revolution that ever happened. It was a movement of intellectuals who dared to challenge orthodoxy by questioning the dogmatic “truths” of the Christian Churches. Its defiant values encouraged dissent – to the acute chagrin of the Christian powers. It revived classical doubt – the very essence of reason – in European man, and so began the revival of scientific enquiry and experiment. And it inspired the founding of a new nation in America where all citizens would be equal and free under laws they made themselves.

Only where there is doubt is there tolerance. And where there is doubt there is questioning of authority – of popes and cardinals and kings.

Christians argue that American law enshrines laws which occur in the “Christian bible” (by which they mean the Jewish bible, where the proscriptions against murder, theft, and perjury were listed, and which the Church adopted after some initial reluctance). Therefore, they say, this is a debt that the secular law owes to Christianity. But in  fact such laws are much older even than the legendary Moses and his engraved tablets (circa 1250 BCE). They are assumed, for instance, by the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1770 BCE).

If the apologists want to sweep all that aside and base their claim on a pure Christianity that pre-dated the corrupt pontiffs, their case is still hard to defend. To quote from our own post, Tread on me: the making of Christian morality (all sources provided in the notes to the essay):

Briefly, but including all salient points, here is Paul’s moral teaching [and thus the first recorded moral teaching of his invention, Jesus Christ, later interpreted and elaborated by the gospel writers]:

We are the filth of the world, the scum, the muck that is scoured from things. The lowest of the low.

Let us abase ourselves; be fools; be humble, and associate with the lowly.

Do only the most menial work for a living.

Bear affliction with patience, even with joy.

You must consider all others to be greater than yourselves.

Love one another, love all.  Then you will be harmless and blameless. That is what I ask you to do to make me proud of you.

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Bless those who persecute you. Let them do the most evil things to you, and return only good to them. We glory in our suffering. However hard your life is, rejoice and give thanks. Never seek revenge.

Obey the government. Pay your taxes.

Women, be silent in church.

Marry if you must, but I would rather you remained unmarried and chaste as I am.

Pray constantly. Never feast or carouse, and stay sober. Do not commit sexual immorality. Attend quietly to what you must do, and mind your own business. Be patient always, even when you need to admonish those among you who do not work hard enough.

Share all you have so that you’ll all be equal in worldly possessions.

Do all this for the sake of Christ. Because he died for you, because he suffered on the cross for you, you must bear all things for his sake. You belong to him because he bought you for a price.

This comment follows:

It is a morality that demands and glorifies self-abasement and self-abnegation, as a perpetual repayment of a debt imposed on all humanity by Jesus’s “self-sacrifice”.

It scorns talent, disregards personal ambition, forbids individual self-fulfillment.

So when conservative Christians claim – as they often do – that Christianity initiated and promotes individualism, they are plainly wrong. To the contrary: from its inception Christianity has been the enemy of individualism.

It planted the perverse value of subservience in Western culture; a value that was to re-emerge as an ideal in other collectivist ideologies. Paul’s idea that it was greatly good for the individual to subjugate himself to the community contributed even more profoundly to the ideology of Communism than did his doctrine of sharing and equality [in possessions, subjugation and abasement].

A morality that makes cruel and unnatural demands on human nature will nurture hypocrisy and breed despair: hypocrisy because sustained self-denial is impossible, so lip-service is substituted for obedience; and despair because to strive for the impossible is to ensure failure.

Of course there was a backlash against the Enlightenment. The ever present tendency in human nature to let emotion overrule reason asserted itself early in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, father  of Romanticism, grandfather of Socialism, and great-grandfather of Environmentalism. It is through those channels that Christian values flowed into the age of reason, and survive, along with a decrepit Christianity itself, to trouble us now.


* Quoted in translation by William Manchester in his book A World Lit Only By Fire, Back Bay Books, Little Brown, 1993, p 190.

** Manchester pp 40-41

*** Manchester pp 52, 54

**** Manchester p 62


Jillian Becker   January 22, 2013

  • Adam


    Your implication that the Code of Hammurabi predates Judeo-Christian
    scriptural teachings holds no water. It can just as easily be argued that God’s
    laws and self-evident truths have been written on the hearts of all since
    the origin of humankind. such truths can be intuitively grasped by all
    mankind since the creation of the world. Your argument can actually be used to support scripture:

    “But since the beginning of the world those things have been easy to understand by what God has made. So people have no excuse…”

    On the issue of your interpretation of Paul’s teachings, where to begin?

    First, when Paul is speaking of Christians being “filth,” he is repeating what
    non-believers are saying about them. This is a truth that your cynicism
    and contempt for people of faith bears out. Your attitude actually gives support to the truth of what Paul says.

    “Let us abase ourselves; be fools…” Again, Paul was turning insults from
    non-Christians into an argument saying basically: fine, if that’s how they
    characterize our behavior of Love for God, let them go on calling us and saying that about us. Let us “abase” ourselves in their words, by associating with and serving the poor in the slums as Mother Teresa would do.

    Scripture never says: “Do the most menial work” as a command. Rather it suggests that if that is what God calls you to for a certain time, then do it with joy and thankfulness. Watch the last 5 minutes of Brian Williams on
    almost any night and whose heart does not assent to the goodness upon
    hearing about a 50 year old who worked his way through college as a
    janitor while maintaining an attitude of thankfulness and joy the whole
    time. The fact that these stories resonate with the human spirit is proof that the spirit of what Paul says is good, right, and in the same vein as such stories inspire.

    “Let them do the most evil things to you, and return only good to them…..”
    Even the most cursory reading of MLK’s effectiveness using peaceful
    non-resistance and protests can tell you that it was effective precisely
    because African-Americans didn’t strike back. What Paul taught gets
    results in the world, period. During the 60s, when Americans saw whites in the
    south on TV beating blacks—and the blacks not striking back—hearts
    universally began to support the cause of blacks and civil rights
    improvements for them.

    I explain it to my students this way, if you come upon a fight between two people and then they both stop and start to argue who was right and who started what, would you care? “No,” they say. “We just want them to stop fighting and do not think that any side is right.” “So do you think if one side was in the right with their argument, that anything would change if you saw them both fighting each other?” I say. “No” reply my students. Shall we go on
    discussing the effectiveness of Gandhi and the same strategy in getting the Brits to leave? Let me know how many more examples in world history you need and I will get them for you.

    I could go on and on with how you have maligned the spirit of what Paul’s teachings were, but the evidence of his sanity becomes clear to any honest seeker of the truth.


    • liz

      I’m sure Jillian has a great response for this, but just can’t help commenting on the hilarious irony here. You assert that the historical FACT that the code of Hammurabi predates Judeo-Christian scripture “holds no water”, and then attempt to counter the arguement with the scripture itself, which is supported by no facts whatsoever, and then proceed further into the wrong end of the paper sack by claiming that the scripture is supported by a fact that clearly contradicts it! But it’s easy to get this irrational when you have no need of facts.

      • Adam

        In a nutshell, Jillian, you are confident in a theory (atheism) that cannot be proved. Put another way, God cannot be disproved which I think vexes you. Again, agnosticism is the only choice for a strict empiricist–just as the existence of a larger universe (or other universes) is impossible to verify empirically beyond our ability to observe the material world beyond 13.7 billion light years.

        And Liz, paper sacks aside, your statement is as the following to me:

        Liz: “what form of rational logic are you using in defense of the existence of God!?”

        Adam: “Euclid.”
        Liz: “How so!.”
        Adam: “if A=B, and B=C, then A=C.” Or:
        The biological world is ordered, ordered things have intelligent creators/masters, therefore the biological world has a creator/master.”

        Liz: “From where do you presume such a logic?”
        Adam: “Euclid who wrote: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.’

        Liz: “Adam, you are using Euclid to support Euclid!!! geeesh! How plebeian!!!”

        Adam: Liz, Euclid did not invent his axioms (self-evident first principles), he discovered their existence. In the same way, just because Paul restates a self-evident truth in the Bible does not invalidate it.

        P.S. Liz, I take great umbrage at the implication that I  am anti-tree and use paper sacks. I most decidedly use plastic and then recycle.

        • Jillian Becker

          Okay, Adam, we’re paying attention. Now prove the existence of “God”.

        • liz

          Adam- I never said that anyone “invents” self-evident principles. Of course they are discovered – through reason and logic – not revelation. Just because they exist before you discover them doesn’t mean God invented them.
          The fact that the code of Hammurabi existed before the laws supposedly “revealed” by God to Moses in the Bible proves that they were known – through reason – before the Bible claims they were revealed, or “invented” by God.
          Of course, you think they were implanted by God in our brains at creation, as Paul apparently did, but if that is so, why was the “revelation” to Moses necessary?

          • liz

            Another point here – the reasoning that “the biological world is ordered, ordered things have intelligent creators/masters; therefore the biological world has an intelligent creator/master” actually “holds no water”, either.
            The biological world is ordered due to the adaptations made through natural selection during the process of evolution. To say that they were ordered from the beginning to fit the design we see now is to look at it from the wrong end of the process.
            It’s along the same lines as the fallacy that Voltaire pointed out concerning teleology-
            “as all things have been (supposedly) created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, tne nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles…”

    • Jillian Becker

      Thanks, Adam, for your interpretations.

      Every word ever written was thought of and written by a human being. You might like to believe that a divinity put thoughts in the head of a man or woman, but the point is the person thought the thought, the person wrote it down. Some ideas are common to a great many people because they make common sense. Again, you may like – obviously do like, though I cannot imagine why – to believe that a divinity “wrote” the ideas on human “hearts”. I know that no argument of mine will persuade you to examine your beliefs critically. Either you will come to it yourself, or you won’t.

      Liz has also given you an answer to what seems to us your muddled assertion about law in history.

      Your case for the effectiveness of pacifism I’ll not answer here. I’ll only say that I totally disagree with you.

      If you can bear to do so – and I warn you, you will find them not just challenging but probably offensive to your beliefs – please read (put the titles in our Search slot) my essays on the origins of Christianity: “A man named Jesus or something like that,”; “The invention of Christianity”; “Tread on me: the making of Christian morality”; “St.Paul: portrait of a sick genius”; “Pauline Christianity: a mystical salad”; and “Christian theology: ‘The Word made flesh'”. And if you feel so moved, give us your interpretations of the sources I cite, and your counter-opinions. But I will understand of course if for any reason you’d rather not.

      • IndependentSpirit1972

        Ahhh, Jillian but I have already responded there. Specifically, an extended reply to your Jesus or something
        Iike that post. I mentioned how Isaiah predicted your future worldview as confirmed through the Dead Sea Scrolls; or was this your later “interpolation?” never did here your response. Must have been hard for you to “bear” and challenged you for awhile though as you didn’t post along those lines for awhile. Of course I understand why you did not immediately–or ever–reply to it.

        P.S. I am impressed by the footnotes. Been there, done that. Though they are useful at times, after many years of graduate school I became quite nauseous of some of the airs of the authors who used them. Just a heads up that I am not your conception of the average Christian Yokel. I will respond in due season.

        • Jillian Becker

          “I mentioned how Isaiah predicted your future worldview as confirmed through the Dead Sea Scrolls; or was this your later “interpolation?” never did here your response. Must have been hard for you to “bear” and challenged you for awhile though as you didn’t post along those lines for awhile. Of course I understand why you did not immediately–or ever–reply to it.”

          I really don’t understand what you’re saying here. Could you please clarify? Spell it out? If there was something you expected a reply to from me, and I didn’t reply, could you repeat that something – very clearly, please?

  • Kelly

    Coming into this a bit late, but… While I agree with the overall thrust of the post, as an amateur medievalist, I must protest the use of A World Lit Only by Fire as a reference. I haven’t read the book; I never bothered because of its notorious reputation among medieval scholars. For what it’s worth, though, it’s not exactly a reliable reference on medieval life. To back up this assertion, I dug up a scholarly review that can be read here:,William.htm. To be sure, there might have been isolated incidents here and there of naked peasants, cannibalism, etc., particularly in times of war, plague, and famine. But please know this was nowhere near the norm — any more than it is now. A great many ugly misconceptions have been accepted as fact about the Middle Ages, and non-specialist writers like Manchester gleefully repeat and exaggerate them.

    • liz

      You may be right about that particular book, but I would say that the general view of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” is accurate, not an exaggeration, because it was unquestionably an age of profound illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition, in which even knowledge of the Bible was prohibited to the peasantry, and science was opposed unless it was “sacred science”, which agreed with Scripture, which in reality was not science at all. And all of that was brought on specifically by the ascendence to power of the Church, which viewed all contradictory knowledge, and reason itself, as a threat to their authority over the masses.

    • Jillian Becker

      Thank you, Kelly, for your correcting comment and the link you give us. We benefit from your criticism as an historian.

      I confess to favoring exaggeration- or what I’d rather call selective detail for purposes of stress – when it comes to describing the ages dominated by the Catholic Church, because it was a terrible tyranny. So were the Protestant tyrannies terrible in their smaller spheres.

      We are fighting an intellectual war, and in wars it is best to concede nothing to the enemy. Our two enemies are leftism and religion. I see that in this you are on our side – and for that also I thank you.

      But you may rightly argue that if we support our cause with inaccurate information we lose. That’s why correction is welcome.

      I’ve now read the Gabriel Fain review of “A World Lit Only By Fire” which your link takes us to. He seems largely to accept Manchester’s description of the Middle Ages, though he thinks it is “bleak and somewhat generalized”. He disagrees with the importance Manchester attributes to Magellan. And there I agree with him.

  • Adam

    So the Enlightenment and its fruits have everything to do with rationalism alone huh? Hmmm….

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights….”

    So let’s take one more look at intuition, Jillian, shall we?

    Thomas Jefferson was not even a believer in the Divinity of Jesus so we can take God out of the equation for now. Let’s just focus on the fact that, despite yourself, your worldview and belief in the Constitution are founded upon self-evident truths that have no rational proof through reason alone. They are first principles. (Apart from them, the mind will eventually become unhinged and sanity lost. Just read about Nietzsche’s life to its conclusion).

    In a like manner, using the same appeal to self-evident truths as as Jefferson, Paul wrote: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    • liz

      What makes you assume that “self-evident truths” must come from God?
      Being “self-evident” means that something is evident to a person without the need of recieving a “revelation” from God to know it. Which would indicate that self-evident truths ARE ascertained through reason.

      • independentspirit1972

        How can a self-evident truth be argued using reason? It is a first principle. It is therefore a foundation from which you can build a reasoned argument, but a first principle is not established through reason. (by the way I believe that reason is good, just not when it becomes a god)

        • liz

          “How can a self-evident truth be argued using reason?”

          Take the basic, self-evident truth that one must breathe in order to stay alive. One arrives at this understanding through a simple process of reasoning based on experience. It can be expounded on scientifically through the further use of reason based on scientific investigation.
          The understanding that the basic needs of man for a happy life are a right to life, liberty, and property, etc., are arrived at the same way – through reason based on experience.
          It doesn’t take a supernatural revelation to come to these conclusions.
          However, you conclude that they must be given by God to begin with because you believe that everything is given by God to begin with. Attributing everything to your God absolves you of any need to think for yourself, or to search for any kind of actual facts and evidence for anything. It makes “reasoning” easy!
          So when people actually base their reasoning on facts and evidence found in the real world, using real scientific methods and historical data, you conclude that they have made reason their “god”, because, like Galileo, they dare to contradict the “Truth” of Scripture with the truth of fact.

  • IndependentSpirit1972

    Hmmm…. Now where did the Enlightenment come from again. Was it “spontaneous Generation” from nothing unto itself? Or, was it Christianity’s rediscovery of the true Gospel message through Martin Luther that showed it was indeed okay to challenge authority–past established “truth”–first in areas of religion, and then in areas of Science? If not for Christianity, there would never have been an Enlightenment.

    • Jillian Becker

      That’s like saying “If there’s no night, there cannot be a morning”, IndependentSpirit1972. It’s true – but night and day are opposites.

      The Enlightenment does not include Martin Luther. It includes David Hume whose arguments support atheism; Spinoza for whom “God” was the natural world, or as we would say, the laws of physics … and so on. Look them up.

      Martin Luther substituted one irrational ideology for another, and set himself up as a new authority. Let’s quote him to see how enlightened he was:

      “I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy towards these wretched people. They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Force them to work, and deal harshly with them.” And “When Judas iscariot hanged himself, his guts burst and emptied. Perhaps the Jews sent their servants with plates of silver and pots of gold to gather up Judas’s piss and then they ate and drank his excreta.”

      Not what we think of as a voice of the Enlightenment. More a blueprint for Hitler. Which it was.

      The Protestant Reformation, as my essay indicates, was not a rediscovery of anything worth rediscovering, and reformed nothing worth reforming.

      The Renaissance was a pre-dawn before the full light of the Enlightenment broke wherever it shifted the focus of European man from the deocentric to the anthropocentric – from concern with the divine to concern with the human, from the other-worldly to this world. It revived the pre-Christian culture of Greece and Rome.

    • liz

      Here’s another quote from Martin Luther – “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it struggles against the divine word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

      The only reason Protestants broke away from Catholicism was because they disagreed with Catholic doctrine. As soon as they established their own power, they persecuted anyone who disgreed with THEIR doctrines with as much authoritarian brutality as the Catholics had. It was NOT to establish a principle that it was “okay to challenge authority”.

      Resistance to every scientific discovery, and persecution of those who made them, continued under both Catholics and Protestants throughout history, and only abated when to power of the Church was diminished.

      As stated by Andrew Dickson in “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom”, “…the accepted Christian system demands a concealment of truth, with the persecution of honest investigators.”

      Also, “This ending of a scientific evolution (begun by the Greeks) based upon observation and reason, and this beginning of a “sacred” science based upon the letter of Scripture and on theology, are seen in the utterances of various fathers in the early church…most clearly proclaimed to the world by St. Augustine in his famous utterance, “nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind.” following this precept of St. Augustine, there developed, in every field, theological views of science which have never led to a single truth – which, without exception, have forced mankind away from the truth, and have caused Christendom to stumble for centuries into abysses of error and sorrow.”

      • Jillian Becker

        Thank you for that splendid reply, liz!

  • liz

    Great post! Well put, that far from being the result of Christianity, the Enlightenment was it’s antidote.

    Hair-tearingly frustrating that Christians now universally think the opposite is the truth in that regard. It seems like an impossible task to sort out the mess created by both Christians AND Leftists who mistakenly link Christianity with Conservatism, and Atheism with Leftism, when the opposite is much nearer the truth, historically.

    Both the Christians and the Left have re-written history. Between these two streams of propaganda there is very little room left for actual facts to be heard, but you are doing a great job of presenting them, anyway!