Religion and Societal Advancement, Part 1

The following is a post sent to me by contributor J.L. Hinman. For whatever reason, he is having difficulties signing onto Blogger, so I am putting this up for him with just a small amount of editing.



Atheists have of late been harping on the slavery in the Bible issue. I just got through dealing with the post of an unusually ignorant one who claimed that Christianity contributed nothing to the progress of Western Civilization! I can't believe people are so ignorant they are still spewing such tripe. This person tried to make an argument, with no backing, that the direction of social progress is away from religion!

Religion is riding high at this juncture in human history. Not only has it produced a paradigm shift in medicine but it has also produced a paradigm shift in philosophy. One might have thought that philosophy would be the last area in which religion could score big, in reality, however, its really leading the way thanks to Plantiga and the back to God movement of he 90s. While it may be true that religion is not the only major force contributing to civilization and the direction of progress, it continues to be a major force. I will just sketch out two areas in this essay:

(1) The past, the contribution of religion (specifically Christianity) to Western civilization.

(2) The present and future where religion (Christianity) holds its own as one major contributing force.

A good starting place for the modern western civilization is the medieval synthesis. With the fall of the Roman Empire, civilizing influences retreated and left the population of Western Europe in the cold and dark. They huddled into castles for protection and sold themselves into serfdom to powerful landlords who evoked the Germanic inheritance laws to construct the feudal system. Eventually manufacturing began to produce cities and with cities came freedom from the feudal lord. Throughout these "dark ages" learning receded and was basically confined to a monastic setting. Monks kept alive the learning of the Greaco-Roman world. It was in this setting that modern science began. Discoveries plundered from Spain began to show up and scientific learning began among monks from Chartre in France to St. Victor in England to Helfta in Germany. These centers of learning produced vast bodies of literature, scientific observation, and a total synthesis bringing together the observations of science and religion into a coherent culture (see my essay on Christianity and science in the Middle Ages).

As the work from the monasteries spread, Western civilization embarked upon a renaissance. New learning became the order of the day. Now the old view which was spread by atheist propaganda in the enlightenment told a mythical tale of humanity emerging form the dark abyss in which religion held it captive with chains of ignorance into the glorious light of materialistic scientism. Jacob Burckhardt But historians do not take this view seriously anymore. The Renaissance is no longer seen as the great awaking of learning. It is now understood that the Renaissance was more of a movement than a time period and it is limited to the social elites in a few major cities such as Florence (although one might expand it more by the time of the Northern Renaissance). At the same time historians are more aware of learning in the so called "Dark ages." (See Peter Burke's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy). The period from fall of Rome (about 490) to about 900 can be considered 'dark' in that it was dominated by illiteracy, Vikings and disease. But from 900 on a steady stream of learning, travel, new ideas begins and spread throughout Europe. The wars with the Moors and the Crusades were major forces contributing to this trend. The Renaissance, formerly understood as anti-religious saw 80% commissions on art as religious works. The Renaissance was not a rebellion against religion -- it was the dawn of modern religious humanism.

Christian thought contributed in a major way to the thinking of the enlightenment. Most skeptics on the Internet tend to short hand the conflict between religion and science in the enlightenment and tend to assume that all the philosophers were atheists. But in reality, the philosophers were religious. Voltaire did not mean to say religion is just made up. He was not a Christian but he was profoundly religious. He really meant to say that religion is so important we would have to invent it if it didn't exist as a natural outgrown of the light of reason (see Peter Gay's books on the Enlightenment). One of the major influences was Father Francis Fenelin. He militated for individual rights and freedom and was a major influence upon the philosophers in their understanding of modern personhood and individuality (see Britannica, "Finelin"). Christian thinkers put an end to the Witch trials in Europe and helped pave the way for an understanding of basic human rights.

The high point of this modern Christian contribution to western Civilization is the rise of modern science in England during the Seventeenth Century. The majority of historians in fields such as English history and History of science and history of ideas have come together to produce a groundswell of works demonstrating the importance of the Latitudinarians in popularizing and spreading the works of Newton. These English churchmen who were very active in politics took their marching orders form Robert Boyle. Of course Boyle, a major scientist of the era who discovered air pressure, was a close friend of Newton. Boyle's social vision was to use science to establish the truth of Christianity and then use Christianity to establish social and political harmony. Boyle latched on to Newtonian physics as the new model of science and the Latitudinarians promoted it as a new Gospel. The major historian in all of this is Margaret Jacob
and her major work on the subject is The Newtonians. Jacob argues that without this band of preachers hawking Newton's wares he might have remained unknown for fifty years or perhaps longer than it took for him to be discovered. Further, it might not have ever had the currency it did have. Who knows this would have thrown off.

The next great high point was the abolition movement. I don't think we can underrate the extent to which abolition of slavery built the modern world. There is basically no way we could have modernity and live in a slave society. That would be anti-thetical to every modern principle from individual autonomy to democracy. At every step of the way Christians led the movement. The Quakers organized and led the attack on the slave trade. The Journal of John Woolman is a must read in this regard. The underground railroad was mostly connected to churches and the first organized anti-abolition group in America was a group of Methodist women. From this point the Evangelicals fanned out across the social spectrum bringing in the social gospel and militating on both sides of the political aisle: Women's suffrage, temperance, abolition of poverty, public education, and many others.(see McLaughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago, 1978).

In part 2 I will analyze the modern contributions of Christianity to Western Civilization. Part 2 will be coming early next week. I promise.


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