The great intellectual revolt against Christian tyranny 25

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