Wednesday 25 May 2022

Did Christianity make the world better?

It is a common, but mostly rather vague, assumption of Christians that Christianity made the world better. I have seldom been happy about this assumption. 

Matters are seldom made specific, nor tested rigorously; but broadly speaking many (most?) Christians seem to assume and assert that the world has - in some fashion, been made a better place, since Christianity. 

For example; Christians may believe and say that the world was better after Christ than before, that Christian societies are better than the alternatives; and that the more genuinely Christian a society - the better it will be. 

Before I was a Christian; it seemed to me that this was - indeed must be - a circular argument. Modern Christians would therefore think that past Christian societies were the best, because the moderns use using Christian criteria to make this evaluation. But if someone was not a Christian, and held distinctive - maybe opposed - values; then what counted as Good for a Christian may count as bad for the modern. 

The usual way around this constraint, is to try and develop agreed common measures of Goodness; values that are shared beyond Christianity - so that Christianity could be compared with other value-systems. Values perhaps related to social cohesion, prevalence and conduct of war, presence or not of human sacrifice, the harshness of judicial punishments, perhaps?... 

But this doesn't work (even if such prior agreement could be obtained, and was stuck-to during the evaluation procedure); unless the particular shared values are also regarded as the most important values. 

If other values - especially spiritual values, and other-worldly hopes and beliefs - of the kind that will not usually be shared between religions of ideologies (because they are what make religions different) - are regarded as more important than the shared values - then the exercise of comparison of outcomes does not help.  

And my objections to this 'social and comparative' method of evaluating Christianity also go deeper; to depend on agreed 'history', 'scholarship' and reasoning procedures - strikes me as a very insecure basis on which to base my most fundamental and life-shaping beliefs. 

Is it really possible to base a profound Christian belief on what we read in books, what we are told by 'experts'? 

Not for me. I am perhaps hyper-aware of the disagreements between 'authorities', and the way that consensus changes through time - and often for bad reasons; to be able to suppose that Christianity can be justified by such procedures. 

In other words; I do not think it is possible to make a solid and convincing argument - an argument that would convince skeptics or non-Christians - that Christianity has 'made life better' than other religions, or better than no religion. 

We cannot escape our assumptions; and, anyway, this kind of 'proof by history' is intrinsically too weak for the job. 

If Christianity genuinely depends on arguments that are rooted in any form of large-scale consensus; then I think it will prove too weak to survive these times that are upon us now. These times seem to be characterized by accelerating corruption, manipulation, manufacture, and changeability of consensus.

Also by what strikes me intuitively as increasing evilness of actual consensus. 

So, if we demand consensus Christianity as our ultimate - I don't see we can avoid being manipulated by whoever has the most power to manufacture and control the process of consensus. 

But even in saying this, I am already assuming that - ultimately - my intuition is more valid and secure than social consensus. Best to admit this, make it explicit and conscious... 

This is why I 'demand' that my Christian faith ultimately be based on 'factors' that I can evaluate for myself, and from my-self. 

This seems to me the deepest and most secure possible rooting; and the only root likely to withstand and resist the consensus-storms of these dark days for Christianity. 


BSRK Aditya said...

Values are contingent.

For instance, if you have no control over something, you will also not value that thing.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Back in the heyday of Nu-Atheism, Christopher Hitchens had a public debate with William Lane Craig or someone like that. During an argument over whether or not religion was necessary for morality, Hitch said something like, "Can you name one virtuous act that an atheist is not capable of performing?" Craig said that of course he could, that it was trivially easy, and rattled off several examples, such as praying, paying tithing, and loving the Lord thy God with all they heart, might, mind, and strength.

"Yes," said Hitch, "But, you see, I wouldn't consider those to be virtuous acts."

I thought it was a neat illustration of the futility of arguing, from some impossible "view from nowhere," over which system of moral values is more moral. It's like asking whether English is more grammatical than French.

However, I do think it's fair to ask whether Christianity (or any belief system) made the world better by its own internal standards. Has Buddhism reduced the amount of suffering in the word? Has feminism made women more satisfied with their lives? It's harder to ask this sort of question of Christianity itself, though, since its intended effects are in the afterlife and thus not observable.

Evan Pangburn said...

I have a hard time considering the question because from my perspective, a world without Christianity is not "the world".

Even from a purely secular perspective, Christianity changed everything.

It seems a bit like imagining myself, "except" as a Korean woman. I can hardly fathom it because that would change everything, it would be an entirely different person living a different life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "However, I do think it's fair to ask whether Christianity (or any belief system) made the world better by its own internal standards."

Yes, that would be a coherent question; and is, indeed, what I implicitly am doing in the other post yesterday; when I suggest that social-political, 'immersive', Byzantine and Medieval Christianity was successful in its goal of saving as many souls as possible. Another plausible candidates would be Calvin's Geneva, Knox's Scotland, Mormonism under Brigham Young.

But as Charles Williams says of the 'Christian Church' (whatever that might be! he means roughly the big Episcopal churches: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, maybe Lutheran) in The Descent of the Dove; The Church has at best been something like 51% beneficial overall through history! i.e. the benefit somewhat outweighs the harm - by internal criteria - but not be very much.

Nowadays, 'on average' the harm of churches is preponderant; yet for some *individuals*, their church seems certainly to do more good than harm.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Evan - "a world without Christianity is not "the world"."

Well that is true, but the same could be said of many things - such as communism and the effect of the Russian Revolution.

We might want to argue that Christianity was A good Thing, and communism was a Bad Thing - but this is not really possible coherently to do, without (at least implicitly) adopting a basic perspective concerning the nature of good and evil; and this 'begs the question'. `

Evan Pangburn said...

To be clear I'm not trying to make a counter-point to anything you said in the article. I suppose I'm thinking aloud, I don't know any other Christians to "bounce my ideas off" so to speak, I hope it's not a nuisance.

Perhaps a better example then the silly one I gave is that I know that Christ and his work is a metaphysical reality, so removing Christ from the world would be as if to remove a law of physics from the material realm.

But of course there was a time before Christ came to Earth, and my first thought is that if Christ never came to Earth, never redeemed humanity, then there would be nothing like "leftism" because without salvation there would be nothing for demonic powers to keep men away from.

Men would remain as they were prior to Christ, evil remains primarily luciferic in nature, and mans consciousness remains "childlike" in that regard.

Although in the west, perhaps men would have still become monotheistic, something like neoplatonism? That is an interesting thought.