Tuesday 12 January 2021

Did Christianity make the world a better place; does it make better Men?

It is often claimed that Christianity is good for societies, and good for men - in the sense that societies are better places to live-in and Men are better behaved. 

But I was never much convinced by this; I cannot really see a qualitative change-for-the-better in history - dating from the time of Christ; nor in Men who become Christian. 

There seems to be evidence on both sides - and furthermore, it doesn't seem like the kind of claim where evidence should be relevant. Should we be basing our faith on our knowledge of 'history' and how we interpret it? 

I don't think so - and I don't find any ground of assumptions from-which Christians and non-Christians would be likely to agree on the objectivity of evaluations about better societies and better Men.  

After all, there are massively opposed views about how good a Man someone was. Was Winston Churchill the greatest ever Englishmen (he was voted number one in a national poll), or was he an incompetent fool, motivated by evil (as many have always argued)? 

And the same applies to societies. For example, there are plenty of people - apparently - who think that England in 2021 is overall a 'better' place than it ever has been - and is getting better. How can someone like me even begin to argue objectively with someone who reaches such an evaluation?

Anyway, when I read the Fourth Gospel ('John' - our primary text on Jesus's life and teaching) - I don't see any claim that Christianity makes people better; and the Gospel is unconcerned by the valuation of nations, empires. 

Christianity is about following Jesus to resurrected life eternal - and any relationship to changes in human behaviour is very indirect; indeed Jesus goes to considerable lengths to argue that good behaviour is Not the point; and that sinners can be saved by faith. 

To be clear; I believe that being a Christian can and should be of immense benefit to living life as it should be lived; indeed I regard it as essential for a proper understanding of life

Yet, I do not see any strong links between this and desirable-behaviour. 

However, while I doubt any general claim that Christianity is an effective means of intrinsically-beneficial psychological and social control; it does seem very obvious indeed that the loss of Christianity - apostasy in individuals or nations - is very bad for these things.  

So bad, in fact; that the capacity for recognizing and knowing badness is itself lost; and individuals, and societies, are set-adrift in a sea of incoherence which they cannot notice, therefore cannot escape-from.

People, societies, have lost values and the capacity for values. Therefore their values are arbitrary and externally-imposed; by others who have, themselves, at best lost values.

(But at worst - that is to say in reality by my judgment - a world where arbitrary values are imposed by those whose values are the inversion of Good.)   

At the deepest level, this is not really to do with the removal of religious constraints (as is usually argued); but is more more fundamental and dangerous a phenomenon. It is to do with the removal of faith; meaning those metaphysical assumptions that enable both coherence of thinking, and hope for life. 

When people really believe - believe so deeply that they are unaware of this belief - that they are adrift in a meaningless, purposeless world; where they themselves are just a temporary irrelevance --- then we get the kind of objectively-dysfunctional people and societies we see all around us. 

And that is Not 'a matter of opinion'; but a truth - a truth for those who are capable of coherence. 


Matias F. said...

It is understandable that the loss of Christianity is equated with the removal of religious constraints, because the loss that you describe in your last paragraphs is felt by many people as the loss of nationalism. I would argue that at least for continental Europeans that fought in World War II, Christianity was conflated with nationalism in such a manner that they were difficult to separate. Metaphysical assumptions that enabled coherence in thinking and a hope for life could be taught in an ambiguously Hegelian way so that materialists and Christians could agree on how society should be ordered. That changed in the following generations as the role of Christianity diminished in the public arena and it became a personal issue, if anything.

Nationalists (or populists) notice this loss of coherence, but have no plan how to reinstate it. Because, as you state, coherence would require examining metaphysical assumptions.

Bruce Charlton said...

Matias - Good analysis. I find it impossible to see far ahead (so as to make a plan, or blueprint) - probably because we need already to have taken a step forward into new territory before we can see what the next step should be.

a_probst said...

"... that they are adrift in a meaningless, purposeless world; where they themselves are just a temporary irrelevance..."

As a cradle Catholic, I guess the best way to articulate what I grew up feeling was that I was situated among people who believed in the meaningless and purposelessness but whom I could not convince otherwise. I would simply say that I believe in God. I took the apparent meaninglessness as a some sort of feature of the material side of creation and part of the burden. C.S. Lewis had written of how differently people experience God. I thought I had to be prepared to carry on even if all I ever had was my fallible will-based faith; as George Orwell said in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "You will get no comradeship and no encouragement. When finally you are caught, you will get no help." (Ironically he put those words in the mouth of a liar.)

What's now called political correctness hit me and no doubt other Christians like a secular Calvinism. Possible sins against others were suddenly multiplied, it seemed. We were expected to be for the freedom and social acceptance of people who committed sins that were no longer civic crimes. Small wonder the disfunctionality crept into the lives of so many of us.

Doug said...

How is it possible for the loss of something to be catastrophic but its gain is of no account? Of course Christianity made the world a better place! ;-)


Anonymous said...

Personally I have noticed positive changes after people become Christians, myself included, with behavior reflecting fruits of the spirit -- love, peace, kindness, etc. that weren't there before. Not that Christians become perfect (in this life), but I believe the Holy Spirit gives us the desire to be good and not to sin. Though of course these days being a legitimately good person means being called "evil" by the mass media/Big Tech/academic/corporate Satanic system and everyone who is brainwashed by it.

Crosbie said...

Ever since I read 'The Closing of the American Mind' I have been uncomfortable with the term 'values' It seems that values are what we pretend to have when we no longer have purpose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - I often use the term values to mean the Transcendental Goods - Truth, Beauty and Virtue (in harmony or unity); particularly when these are inverted. Value-inversion is a handy term for which I can't think of any better alternative.

@Doug "How is it possible for the loss of something to be catastrophic but its gain is of no account?"

It is possible because the process was historical. When Christianity came into the world, the world already had religions, all of which contained considerable truth and value.

But when Christianity was abandoned, there was a rejection of all religion, all transcendence, all spirituality; all basis for truth, beauty and virtue.

I can't speak for other world religions - but 2020 strongly suggests that they are all (more or less) in as enfeebled a state as Christianity; since (apparently) all allowed/ embraced their own annihilation under the birdemic excuse.

That's how it was possible for the loss of Christianity (etc.) to be catastrophic, when its adoption was not!

Doug said...


the world already had religions, all of which contained considerable truth and value.

evidence, please?

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - "evidence, please?"

(That's the way trolls talk. If you want something from me, you should ask nicely.)

But for 'evidence' read CS Lewis (I think it was in Mere Christianity, maybe). He said that everything good in Christianity was already present in the best of paganism except for the new virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Of course these three make a transforming difference - nonetheless, after subtracting FH&C, that is still a heck of a lot of good.

Doug said...


I rarely use the word "please" when trolling... ;-)

I'm sure there could be an interesting discussion on to what degree paganism represented a "religion". Tom Holland(?)'s recent suggestion that even the modern category of "religion" bears marks of Christianity is an interesting one.

But the point was "truth and value" in pre-Christian thought. Perhaps Judaism? Perhaps Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Hinduism? Perhaps Buddhism?

The difficulty with these religions is that none of them even so much as suggested a remedy for the human tendency to elevate power over principle. Then Jesus came along and demonstrated the ultimate relinquishment of power -- and was glorified in doing so.

As a result, the impact of the Kingdom of God, advancing very slowly as it has (as Christ predicted), and reflected in a relinquishment of power that naturally flies under the radar of most historical surveys, can only be assessed statistically...! And, indeed, we find that corners of the world influenced by the gospel are the most stable, the most free, and the most healthy. We also find that the finest literature, architecture, sculpture, and music correlate with the influence of the gospel. The gospel has also resulted in advances in health-care, education, charitable work and fostered the development of scientific thought. Research indicates that the influence of the gospel also correlates significantly with personal subjective well-being. Finally, the recent work of Robert Woodbury reveals that the most significant leading indicator of societal health in the developing world is... the activity of independent "conversionary protestant" missionaries.

One could, of course, quibble with any one of these data-points. But, taken together, the picture they paint certainly seems to be "Christianity made the world a better place."

Karl said...

Dr Charlton, does this post in any way represent a change in your very high opinions of the Byzantium empire from years back?

Bruce Charlton said...

@K - I'm not sure what you think my opinion was, so I can't really answer.

But my understanding of human nature has changed since about 6 years ago, when I came to believe the idea (from reading Barfield) that human consciousness has changed since the Medieval era. So, I would nowadays regard it as both impossible and undesirable for modern Men to re-create a Byzantine-type polity.

Karl said...

Dr Charlton, I read your posts on Byzantium last year and they were highly positive - you viewed it as the most Christian civilisation ever.

Coincidentally, in regard to the blog topic, I came across this thought from Simone Weil just now: "The proof that the content of Christianity existed before Christ is that since his day there have been no very noticeable changes in men's behaviour".