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Progress and Polytheism: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity?

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Imagine a Europe that resembles India. In Germany, France and England, in place of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals stand temples devoted to a kaleidoscopic pantheon of local and state-sanctioned gods. In Italy, in place of the Renaissance duomo in the town piazza, one finds something resembling a still-complete temple to the Capitoline Triad that tourists might today visit in the ruins of Pompeii. Imagine Rome’s Pantheon devoted not to Christ, but, as the name implies, to all the gods. Imagine, in short, a Europe without Christianity.

India is a provocative analogue for this alternate history because its temples remain open and enthusiastically attended; its ancient religions, though much evolved, are still practiced; there is a continuity, however vivisected, between the present and the deep past. By comparison, Europe’s Christian character represents a historical schism, between new and old, of unfathomable proportion: The ancient pre-Christian world of the west, though spectacular in its achievements, is a cultural enigma to us.

In our collective understanding of western history, Christianity stands out as a kind of sui generis cultural event, arising like an avenger to challenge the depredations of the backwards Roman world out of which it sprang. But Christianity’s moral vision was not as revolutionary as a casual student of history might suppose. Nor did it equip Western society with a unique set of virtues that were unknown to the ancient world.

When applying hindsight, it is always easy to assume that the path of history was the inevitable path. And yet, history is contingent upon millions of unanticipated consequences. This is why Niall Ferguson has long advocated for the place of counterfactual history, in part as a means to appreciate the importance of what actually did happen. Certainly, it is a useful lens through which to consider Christianity—even if its cultural triumph during the medieval period was so totalizing as to make it almost (but not quite) impossible to envisage a West shorn of its influence.

The issue is worth discussing in light of Jordan Peterson’s prominently expressed argument that the advent of Christian teachings was both a morally necessary and inevitable step in the development of western thought. Peterson’s arguments resemble those espoused by popular historian Tom Holland, the author of bestselling books chronicling the Roman Republic and the travails of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In a recent podcast, Holland disavowed his formerly expressed conviction that modern Western values could be derived from Greco-Roman culture. Christianity is presented, in his telling, as a social miracle. For Holland, we are not the moral heirs of Caesar, a rapacious warlord, but of Christ and Paul.

There are obvious rebuttals that might be made to this argument, at least as Holland puts it in the clip linked above. Medieval and early-modern Christian societies were rapacious and genocidal in their war efforts; Christian societies have harboured atrocious attitudes towards minority populations (especially Jews), and often have failed to meet the injunctions of the universalist ethics claimed to have been espoused by Christ and built upon by Paul; the argument that Christianity motivated a retreat from slavery grossly misunderstands and oversimplifies complex historical processes; and so forth. Indeed, every one of these points of rebuttal might be developed at essay or book length. But it is more important to address the heart of Holland’s critique, which is that, even putting aside the many lapses in the implementation of Christian doctrine, pre-Christian Greco-Roman civilization lacked something essential in its very moral outlook.

Holland asks: Why, for all their achievement, did the ancients never disavow slavery? Why did they never disown the ravages of military conquest in the name of glory? For Holland, the Roman Empire is a failed human experiment, a kind of abortive and failed West, fascinating in its ruin but hideous and repugnant in its splendour. But ought we likewise to impugn the entire Enlightenment in light of, say, the moral evil of colonial conquest? Or write off the entire twentieth century on the basis of totalitarianism and industrial slaughter?


Holland might respond that Caesar’s wars were not aberrations, but were treated as par for the course by his subjects: They went unchallenged by the populace and assimilated into the Romans’ conception of themselves as mighty conquerors. In truth, however, Roman literature also is full of self-criticism. Writers such as Tacitus often were so scornful of Roman imperialism that they would invent long and discursive anti-imperial speeches for their barbarian characters to recite, as though they were impugning the ravages of the Roman war effort on the floor of the Curia itself.

Holland’s view, like Peterson’s, diminishes the diversity of thought present in Greece and Rome. More insidiously, it robs moderns of a proper sense of our ethical and philosophic inheritance. It is only with hindsight that Christianity might appear as a crucial historical fact in the causal chain leading to the ethical insights of the Enlightenment (or, more specifically, the abolition of slavery). The ethical intuitions ascribed to Christianity already were present in other widely followed ancient beliefs, sometimes in far more rigorously developed form.

For example, the second century Stoic Hierocles posited an early form of “cosmopolitanism,” whereby the ego, the ‘I’ at the centre of our ethical life, was enfolded by concentric circles of moral concern. The closer the circle to the centre, to the I, the more demanding on our affections its subjects tend to be. The family was closest, and eventually one would reach all humankind in the outermost circle. For Hierocles, the goal of ethics encompassed the gradual extension of our sympathies to ever more distant circles of concern.

It is true that these insights did not lead the Stoics to condemn slavery—even if, in a general sense, the ethical universalism explicit in Stoic philosophy theoretically encompassed all human beings regardless of status or creed. And in this failing, the Stoics were morally deficient. But then again, the early Christians didn’t condemn slavery either.

In its pure ethical form, Stoicism actually expresses a less contingent attitude toward the object of ethical concern than does Christianity. As the scholar Runar Thorsteinsson has argued, the ethical character of early Christianity as expressed through the writings of Paul and in 1 Peter are best conceived as urging obedience and toleration toward non-Christian society, but advise a more generous ethical dispensation only toward fellow believers. The point here is not that early Christianity was particularly morally deficient—merely that it was not extraordinary in the context of the ethical beliefs and arguments known to educated people in the first, second and third centuries CE.

The ethical character of Stoicism was generally informed by a high regard for virtue—in particular, justice, temperance, courage and practical wisdom. Stoic happiness consists in applying these virtues in everyday life and attempting to live them to the best of one’s abilities. As philosopher Massimo Pigliucci argues in his recent popular exegesis on Stoicism, what was important for Stoic thinkers was not the attitude one had toward the gods, per se, but the attitude one exhibited in everyday life, in light of the inevitable suffering that would occur throughout.

Equestrian statue of Marco Aurelio in Rome

Therefore, to read the Stoic Marcus Aurelius is not to find consolation in a cosmic sense, but to find practical wisdom joined with a gentle acceptance of impermanence. “Look behind you at the huge gulf of time,” Aurelius says. “In this perspective, what is the difference between an infant of three days and a Nestor of three generations?” It is this vision, both pessimistic (though it must be said that Aurelius was more pessimistic than most) yet morally upright, with human beings conceived as the centre of the moral universe, alone, and possessed of logos (an attitude that compelled Flaubert to remark that “the melancholy of the antique world seems to me more profound that that of the moderns…no crying out, no convulsions—nothing but the fixity of a pensive gaze”).

For Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Memoirs of Hadrian poignantly captures this mood, the period of the second century CE, when Roman Stoicism was at its height, represented a moment of poise, in which philosophy was at its most naked, unconstrained by dogma and open to the sad character of a world where, for many Romans, human reason and not the superstitio of religion acted as arbiter between their civilization and the wider cosmos.

Can it be said that Christianity improved upon this world? Did its spiritual consolations somehow spur society toward a more ethical future, or did they kill the impulse toward truth telling at the heart of Greco-Roman Stoicism, and thereby further derange a society that, by the fourth century, would become worn out by war, pestilence and almost complete political collapse?

Steven Pinker

In championing the latter view, psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that true ethical progress has been a recent historical phenomenon, ultimately resulting from the triumph of rational ethical doctrine over the Catholic and then Calvinist superstitions of Christian dogma that held sway during the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s view of history, the Christian period was one of moral and political stagnation, thanks in part to its reliance on superstitious “revelation.”

Some commentators, including New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a committed Catholic, have argued a middle ground, emphasising the “dialectic” of Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment, in the hope of rescuing Christianity and saving something of its ethical impact and moral relevancy. Either extreme no doubt harms any search for an honest interpretation of history, and Douthat is correct that the actual history of Enlightenment thought should not summarily discount or deny the importance of Christian perspectives.

On the other hand, it is also true that while Christianity did codify much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought, it also cast a damnatio memoriae— condemnation of memory—over the rigorously open “pensive gaze” of Marcus Aurelius. In doing so, it closed the gates of history on one of the most creative and morally experimental periods in philosophy. The Roman emperor Justinian took this process to its end point in 529 CE, when he shuttered the Academy in Athens, making the cultural conquest of Christianity complete.

To return to my counterfactual premise, imagine again a Europe of temples and sandals. But this is not the world of the second century. It is an imaginary twenty-first century world in which races live (more or less) in harmony, in which slavery has been abolished and indeed never took on its hideously racialized form. Imagine a world in which Epicureanism and Stoicism continue to flourish, modern physics is practiced at the Museum of Alexandria, the Mediterranean basin is united under a single government, smartphones are kept in toga pockets, and philosophy continues to be practiced as a commonplace of education.

Is it so hard to imagine that this world could have come into being without the cultural dominance of Christianity? I submit that it is not. The ancient world contained within it the possibility for moral change. But the ancient experiment was aborted because it was eventually deemed unacceptable to practice any doctrine except that espoused by Peter and Paul.

To posit that the ancient world, deprived of Christianity, contained within it no moral prospect is to deny history. It also serves to cast aside the great achievements of the Greeks and the Romans, who, for all their flaws, saw clearly that reality could not be understood without the same steady and pensive gaze that Christians focused on their own souls. For we are all ultimately obliged, as Flaubert says, to stare into the night sky, the “immutable ebony” of the unknown world around us and wonder if there really is a god, or if we are compelled to face everything alone, with only each other and our reason as a guide.


Ben Bassett is a PhD researcher at Monash University in archaeology and ancient history”. Follow him on Twitter @bonaelitterae2.

Filed under: Spotlight, Top Stories


Ben is a PhD candidate at an Australian university studying the Roman period in Egypt from an archaeological perspective. Ben has participated in archaeological fieldwork in Egypt and other countries.


  1. The biggest thing that I disagree with here is your usage of terminology that indicates that those who did not hew to current widely held moral opinions were thus morally deficient; that’s a sign of moral absolutism, when morals are anything but absolute, and are instead an aspect of shared cultural ties within a community, and thus why early Christians did not hew too greatly away from Roman morals, because the community still was of a common shared culture, but with a new addition.

    • Ciaran Carroll says

      Cannbalism is wrong no matter what the “common shared culture” says.

        • Alex Russell says

          The cultures that think cannibalism of unwilling participants is a moral good are wrong.

          All the important moral rules can be judged absolutely as regards humanity, and are not relative to any one culture. Murder is wrong – if your culture thinks it is okay then your culture needs improvement.

  2. dirk says

    In every society and religion, worldwide and over history, the human aim is to be talented,healthy, rich and powerful. But just take notice of the Sermon on the Mount, where the blessed ones are actually the ones missing all this (and somewhere else it goes:are you rich? give everything to the poor, and you will be saved) . If this is repeated again and again from the catheders and in the churches, in what kind of culture and society will this end up? For sure, in a society dominated by equality.

    I can’t imagine Marx without Christianity.

    • ‘To understand Marx, one should use the following dictionary:
      Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
      The Messiah = Marx
      The Elect = The Proletariat
      The Church = The Communist Party
      The Second Coming = The Revolution
      Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists
      The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth’

      – Bertrand Russell

      marx replaced the supernatural falsehoods with pseudoscientific, and was accompanied on his pseudoscientific journey by Boas, Freud, Cantor, Mises, and the Frankfurt school.

      • Nava says

        How did Austrian Free Market Economist and Libertarian get in the List, clearly its a opposite end of Marxist Communist ideology. ???

        • dirk says

          Mises, accompanied by Hayek and Richter, appear in another thread of Q., the one on the Venezuelan crisis, where they appear in a much more homogeneous total than here above.

  3. Christianity is found in the foundations of the English judicial system, the arts, and the disputatious sceptical analytical tradition of scholasticism which shaped intellectual exploration and the modern university. To ask whether it is possible to imagine a western world without Christianity is merely to imagine another world and different types of people therein. This is per se contra reason. An exploration of stoicism proper is usually sufficient to convince the most sober of minds why it didn’t last.

    • The english judicial system inherits the anglo saxon, inherits germanic, inherits the proto germanic, inherits the corded ware, inherits the Yamna. Its the most continuous of all surviving legal systems for 5000 years.

      • Jason says

        “The english judicial system inherits the anglo saxon”
        No, not really. Norman law after the conquest has had a far greater influence.

        “inherits the corded ware, inherits the Yamna”
        …inherits the Eastern Hunter Gather, inherits the Ancient North Eurasian, inherits the Ust-Ishim, inherits the proto-Eurasian, inherits the Early Anatomically Modern Human legal system.
        How daft.

      • diotimatwo says

        There’s no evidence whatsoever of a continuity in judicial systems from Anglo-Saxons back to the proto-Indo-Europeans. We have no idea what the judicial systems of the proto-Germanic, Corded Ware and Yanna peoples were.

  4. William Ames says

    I would point out that Christianity did not eliminate slavery any more than Stoicism or Buddhism (which the author ignores). All three would seem incompatible with slavery, but slavery continued until technological progress reduced it’s value.

    • dirk says

      But, William, you have to make a distinction here in slavery at home (in the Western Christian world) and in the colonies and Caribian Islands. The Greec, Romans and German tribes practiced slavery, but thanks to Christianity (read the letters of Paul) this was abandoned gradually (though certain mild forms like in feudal relations lived on for quite some time in rural areas, especially in the more eastern countries).

      • Andrew_W says

        “The Greec, Romans and German tribes practiced slavery, but thanks to Christianity (read the letters of Paul) this was abandoned gradually ”

        The Bible can be used to prove almost anything you want,: Believe in socialism? You’ll find support for it in the Bible, believe genocide is justifiable? You’ll find support for your belief in the Bible.

        • Traditional Christianity — i.e., Catholicism and Orthodoxy — don’t read the Bible the way Protestants do. At all. So the Bible can’t be used to prove almost anything one wants when read the way the Church Fathers did — in light of Tradition and the Magisterium.

          • Andrew_W says

            “. . . don’t read the Bible the way Protestants do.” You mean if the passage wasn’t to your liking you didn’t read it.

        • Andrew_W: Seems like argument from ignorance, which is a logical fallacy, Those opposing slavery were deeply grounded in the bible, so parsimony demands we accept their stated motivation at face value. If you want an OT argument against slavery, I just read Jeremiah 34, so I recommend it to you.

        • Daniel says

          We all are susceptible to confirmation bias, and Christians are not exempt. Point granted.

          But one of the biggest criticisms of Christianity is that it is no fun. Christians are a bunch of boring folk having no fun, and who wants to live like that?

          The reason is that Christians hold themselves and each other accountable to having humility before the text of the Bible. They then attempt to live it.

          Given how un-fun it appears, who would want to live like that? If Christians are so gung-ho on finding support for whatever lifestyle they like, wouldn’t they find passages that justify a lifestyle that’s a bit more riotous?

          My point is, those objectionable things you listed are only supportable with a cursory reading of the Bible.

          • Lincoln Dunstan says

            If you’re NOT one, then you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA!!

  5. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jewish texts spoke only of how to treat slaves. Of course, Jews were themselves enslaved.
    Jesus did not mention slavery, which was rampant at the time, suggesting little actual concern.
    Christianity ran for at least 17 centuries without doing much to end slavery, and certainly there were exactly zero new Christian revelations that took place over 1700 years to suggest the religion ever changed. Americans used Christianity to justify their ongoing chattel slavery.

    • Maureen says

      And then they used it to end slavery. The abolitionists were fanatically religious people. Slavery has been practiced widely by almost all human cultures since history began, but has only been stopped independently by Christians. Christians were pretty much the only ones to say, “Hey, this seems wrong. We should stop it, financial gain be damned.” England began the awakening and the U.S. continued it. Google the West Africa Squadron. Many Western Christians gave their lives trying to stop slavery, both in their own countries and in others. This cannot be said of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and certainly not Islam, which legally codified slavery well into the 20th century and still practices slavery in many places unofficially. Yes, Jesus didn’t discuss slavery. But Christian societies are what halted the practice of it. Christian societies also made possible women’s rights, democracy, a concept of universal human rights, gay rights, civil rights, the scientific revolution, and pretty much every other value you hold dear. Whether Jesus explicitly spoke of these things or whether anything in the Bible is actually true is immaterial to the fact that Christianity laid the foundation for the greatest societies ever created by human beings. Not perfect, no. Just better than all the rest.

      • Maureen, everything you’ve said is ridiculous. You seem only to judge an ideology by the practitioners of that ideology. Every Muslim I’ve met has been good people and I count many Muslims as a friend but that does not change the absolute horror that is the ideology of Islam. Christianity is defined by the ideas it promotes as an ideology. It is not defined by Christians.

        First let’s talk about slavery. You mentioned that the abolitionists were fanatically religious people. Well, so were the proponents of slavery. This was a time where nearly everyone in the world was religious, especially the common man. So, what does Christianity itself has to say about slavery? Well the examples are too numerous to count but Christianity endorses slavery. Using the bible to excuse slavery was a common practice of slavery-advocates such as John C. Calhoun because the bible excuses slavery aplenty. Certain Christians might have had a problem with slavery, but Christianity most definitely did and does not.

        The idea that Christianity was somehow the creator of rights many of us enjoy in modern society is completely ludicrous. Christianity being the creator of women’s rights? The bible clearly says that women are to be the property of a man, whether that be a father or a husband. Christianity being the creator of democracy? For centuries, most absolute dictators and monarchs used the God and Christianity to excuse their rule, with even the reformer Martin Luther himself believing that monarchs were put on this earth to rule by God himself. I do wonder if you’re not joking when saying that gay rights comes from Christianity. I mean, have you seen the bible says of homosexuals and how they are to be treated. I don’t want to spoil anything but here’s a hint, it involves a lot of projectile mineralogy. If you want to a taste of how a true Christian society might treat homosexuals, look at Uganda and while also realizing that how Christianity wants to treat homosexuals is way worse than what they do.

        Lastly, everything that you’ve mentioned to argue for Christianity’s moral virtue were caused by the enlightenment, including the scientific revolution which you somehow attribute to Christianity. Have you read any history book? People who advanced science during that era was condemned, ostracized and sometimes even killed in the name of Christ. To say that Christianity somehow advanced science is ludicrous. The Scopes trial occurred less than a century ago for gods sake. One of the hallmarks of enlightenment rejection of religion and traditional faith. The enlightenment didn’t happen because of Christianity or even despite Christianity. It happened in opposition to Christianity. It was a time when traditional Christian order and doctrine was questioned, which gave rise to questioning the divine right of kings and led to the rise of secularism, a fundamental part of classical liberalism is, the true creator of democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights etc. I don’t argue that Christianity of completely void of moral lessons beneficial to a society but everything we value of western society has occurred because of secularism and the moral values passed on by the enlightenment, both of which has historically stood in clear opposition to Christianity

        • dirk says

          But, Nietzche’s M., Christianity is not congruent with the bible. In the Old Testament (God’s own word), slavery was not condemned, Jesus preachings are not followed strictly in the dogma’s of the churches lateron. The Declaration of Independence (all men created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights on…. worldly goods and earthly life) is clearly Christian, but not Biblical (neither 100% based on New or Old testament)

        • Sceptical says

          In fact, the proponents of slavery were not especially religious. The American south was in the 18th and 19th centuries the least religious part of the nation; it was the northeast, especially New York state, that was the most devout. Ever hear of the First and Second ‘Great Awakenings’? This hit western NY state so hard that it became known as the ‘burnt over’ area – and, incidentally, one of the regions from which many titanic abolitionists emerged. John Brown, most famous of them all, didn’t come from New York – he came from Connecticut.

          What you say abut the Enlightenment is nonsense. For heaven’s sake, your notorious Founding Fathers (I assume you’re an American?), were Enlightenment thinkers and while they had an uneasy sense that slavery was wrong, they did not try to put an end to it. Indeed, it was another Enlightenment thinker, John Locke, who was partly responsible for the idea of introducing slavery to the new colonies in what became the United States. He thought – deluded man – that it would provide the them with labour and lessen the social tensions that always arise in a society of free men when one group is very much poorer than the other, creating social instability.

          Christianity was in fact an important element in the creation of women’s rights. English and American women first began to agitate for the vote seriously (as opposed to a few literary women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley) when they united to try to stop slavery – under the conviction that slavery was un-Christian. Oh, and they also thought they were morally superior to men because they were less likely to drink, fight and sleep around.

          • Slavery advocates were religious, the fact that slavery opponents were also Christian does not negate that. Slavery and Christianity is so connected that even Christianity Today, a pro-christian website, doesn’t deny it
            The fact that northerners were more anti-slavery than southerners had little to do with religion and far, far more to do with living in a society less economically and socially dependent on slavery

            As for what you’ve said about the enlightenment, it’s all true and it can all be easily refuted. In fact, Quillette has a article doing so

            When we talk about the value of Christianity as an ideology we cannot value it depending on what individuals do. If you value Christianity by what some Christians do, then you have to take the bad with the good. As a Christian (which I assume you are) I don’t believe that you want all the wrongdoings done in the name of Christ to be levied against Christianity. Now the bible which has defined Christianity for centuries has some clear instructions for the woman’s role in society. The fact that Christian women fought for women’s right does not mean that their cause was align with the teachings of the bible. In fact, it was quite the opposite

          • Sceptical says

            Directed to NM, below, August 25 2018, who seems to have blocked off further discussion. Or perhaps Quillette only allows a few responses in a thread?

            Anyway, no. You are not a careful reader, NM. I didn’t say that the southern states were less anti-slavery than the northern states. I said that they were less RELIGIOUS. Period. You were trying to argue that many pro-slavery people were fanatically religious; I pointed out that in the areas of the US where slavery was legal most people were not that religious. Of course, some were, but in general the people of the southern and western states were not religious. Therefore you cannot use them to further your argument that Christians were as likely to be pro-slavery as to be abolitionists.

            I notice that you didn’t try to tackle the fact that many Enlightenment thinkers not only didn’t do much to end slavery, they could be rather positive about it, including that quintessential Enlightenment man, Thomas Jefferson. Others did not approve of slavery but thought that black people belonged to an inferior race, a very general opinion at one time, common to both Christians and Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and David Hume.

            The real problem with Enlightenment thinkers and other non-Christian humanitarians was that they tended to place too much emphasis on the intelligence of particular human beings as the element that entitled them to rights. Whereas Christians are supposed to think that all human beings have rights by virtue of being God’s children, non-Christian philosophers tend to think that rights should increase by virtue of intelligence.

        • augustine says

          “It happened in opposition to Christianity.”

          Therefore it is dependent on Christianity. Every force needs opposition to have traction.

          It seems you have missed the spirit of the law and instead honed in on literal readings of a few key passages in the Bible.

          Firstly, Christianity is defined by both the ideas it promotes and the people practicing those ideas, just as a country is defined by its ideas *and* its people. Would anyone care about Christianity or Islam if there were no Muslims or Christians?

          Can you please cite a passage in the Bible (old or new testaments) where slavery is “endorsed” or “excused”. People parrot this claim constantly, without providing any citations. Do the writers of the Bible record the fact of slaves and slavery? Absolutely. Why do you take that to constitute endorsement?

          “The idea that Christianity was somehow the creator of rights many of us enjoy in modern society is completely ludicrous.”

          There is no greater or more successful proponent of the concept of individual rights, where each person, every person, is equal before God, than Jesus Christ. His teachings and directives are the basis of the West’s adoption of concepts that tend to escape the attention of those who prefer rationalism: mercy, temperance, compassion, etc., ideas that can be (and are) dismissed by plausible but cold reasoning. There is mystery in this; there is no mystery in man’s cruelty to man.

          Your take on the Christian relationship between women and men is laughable. Have you opened a Bible to look at what it says about marriage? There are several key passages that state clearly that wife and husband are to respect and cherish one another equally. This is unequivocal. Christianity has had to overcome various cultural traditions that enshrined the abuse and degradation of women. Human nature being what it is, this has not been a complete success to date.

          • That the enlightenment being created in opposition towards Christianity somehow makes the enlightenment good is strange. It’s like saying that violence is good because it created pacifism.

            • Abraham, the “father of faith,” and all the patriarchs held slaves without God’s disapproval (Gen. 21:9–10).
            • Canaan, Ham’s son, was made a slave to his brothers (Gen. 9:24–27).
            • The Ten Commandments mention slavery twice, showing God’s implicit acceptance of it (Ex. 20:10, 17).
            • Slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, and yet Jesus never spoke against it.
            • The apostle Paul specifically commanded slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5–8). Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master (Philem. 12).

            The fact that you believe rationalism opposes compassion, mercy and such shows your lack of understanding. But’s lets explain the virtue of such in a cold, dispassionate way.
            We are social animals, pack animals that need to live together to both thrive and survive. The best way to ensure our survival is to care for each other and to look out for each other. A pack cannot thrive and form a civilization if we show indifference and callousness towards one another. Kindness is an evolutionary advantage

            Ephesians 5:22-24:
            “22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, bas to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit fin everything to their husbands”.
            One of many delightful passages in the bible regarding the equality between men and women

          • augustine says

            NM, I think you are confusing opposite with oppose. If anything, Christianity and the Enlightenment are complimentary, even synergistic, both in the origins of the latter and together to this day.

            You seem not to understand the fundamental idea that Christ was not attempting to instruct us in worldly matters (perhaps the only reality for you) but instead direct us toward the transcendent. If you take this to heart it means that all of our material, social and personal concerns should only command a certain necessary amount of our attention. Render unto Casesar… the original invocation of church and state separation BTW.

            Your Bible citations show only acknowledgement of slavery. Yet the Bible is packed with “should” and “shall” commandments– so where is the active endorsement of slavery, either for us or for subjects in the Old Testament? When Paul says “obey your masters” he is referencing his concern for the slaves, that they should follow Christ’s teaching regardless of their station. This would apply today to prison laborers in China or to anyone who feels “imprisoned” by whatever circumstance they find themselves in.

            The Commandments you cite refer to the disposition of servants, the custom of that time and place. It is not a condoning of slavery in any way. Both Ex. 20:10 and 20:17 reinforce the idea, radical and dangerous at the time, of spiritual equality between Christian women and men regardless of social standing.

            “The best way to ensure our survival is to care for each other and to look out for each other.”

            What mechanism or principles can ensure that this entreaty endures? Shall we apply it to everyone, everywhere, including our enemies? Assuming you mean this in a broad sense, what rational idea or principle of reasoning brings us to such a conclusion, and what to do with individuals or states motivated by brute force? When human nature tells us to destroy those who have viciously attacked us, whence the belief that mercy instead will best enable enduring peace?

            What do you think “submit” means here? It does not mean that a woman should submit to abuse or mistreatment from her husband (or anyone else). It means she is to submit to his authority in leading the family. This is a much deeper and more complex idea than most realize and deserves a lot of thought.

            I believe Christianity has succeeded, in part, because it profoundly explicates human nature in all its vain darkness. Its teachings do not glory in these things but instead offer a way to submit them, to submit ourselves, to the highest authority.

          • tim jopling says

            Leviticus 25:46 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
            46 You may also bequeath them to your children to own; from these groups you may take your slaves forever. But as far as your brothers the people of Isra’el are concerned, you are not to treat each other harshly.

        • I am fond of studying logic, and in your comment I see a good deal of labeling and name calling, which indicate to me a weak argument. John Gottman has shown how contempt corrupts all dialog, and harms the carrier of contempt far more than it harms the recipient. That is, Maureen is not as harmed by your contempt as you are. I suggest you may be capable of far better dialog if you will practice some self-control and compassion for others, particularly compassion for those with whom you disagree. True believer logic is generally not convincing to a thoughtful audience.

        • Daniel says

          Nietzsche’s Moustache,
          Like any human enterprise, Christians have learned and developed. The theologies embraced today are built on, though discernable from, the theologies of yesteryear. We don’t know why Jesus didn’t rail against slavery. One possible reason is that he chose to address deeper problems — and based on generations of study of those deeper problems, we determine (with no doubt whatsoever) that slavery, among other things, is wrong. It’s a strawman argument to skim the Bible (or worse yet, do a word search) and then explain the way Christianity is.

          The enlightenment was a swell time, but like any thing where humans are involved, it had unintended (but wholly predictable) consequences; the French Revolution and the growth of Marxism, for instance.

          You may point out that the enlightenment was a reaction against entrenched Christianity, and that’s a fair point. But there’s an important way in which the enlightenment was built on Christian culture. At the very least we can agree that enlightenment intellectuals took the elements of Christianity they found most agreeable.

        • Lincoln Dunstan says

          Your first mistake is in your first paragraph.!! Christianity is defined by those who practise it IF you understand it from Christ.

      • dirk says

        And intersectionality and cultural appropriation (of dominated (whether real or imagined) minorities).

      • ‘This cannot be said of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and certainly not Islam’

        I have to disagree with this statement. Slavery in the western sense did not exist in India, the closest word to slave in Sanskrit is ‘dasa’ which basically means a servant. Institutionalised slavery was unknown in India. Indians were so xenophobic that foreigners were untouchables. Hinduism never had the need for slavery.
        Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism had no interest in the social institutions, their philosophy was of rejection.

        Islam on the other hand is realistic and has done its homework well, how do you deal with defeated warriors who are unwilling to convert or contribute meaningfully to the society?

        Society always produces remainders from its equation of civilisation. The remainders either need to be killed off or gainfully enslaved. Islam is winning and will dominate the world if Christianity doesn’t wake from its faggotry and realise human nature will always default to its biology in the absence of an external enforcement.

    • Sceptical says

      And black American slaves used stories in the Bible to justify their freedom, and didn’t pay much attention to their owners’ attempts to preach the legitimacy of slavery. Ever hear of a little song called “Let My People Go”?

      In any case, right from the start, there were many Americans who understood that slavery was wrong, which was why they called it “the peculiar institution” and assumed it would soon end. However, early Americans’ understanding of the wrongfulness of slavery should not be confused with an understanding of the wrongfulness of racism. It seems likely that most people thought that black people of African origin were an inferior race. The debate was about whether this justified enslaving them.

    • Jesus believed in the principle that you can’t legislate morality without social license. Instead of a bunch of rules and “thou shalt nots”, he taught things like “take care of the poor and destitute” and “treat others as you’d have them treat you.” If you treat others with dignity and respect irrespective of wealth and class, you eventually realize that enslaving others against their will is wrong as opposed to just telling them “it’s wrong because I said so.”

    • Farris says

      @david of Kirkland
      “Jesus did not mention slavery, which was rampant at the time, suggesting little actual concern.”
      Respectfully disagree
      “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” Luke 9:48 NIV
      The mistake most make when discussing Christianity is confusing how it is practiced with how it is preached.

      • dirk says

        This difference between praching and practice, Farris, can easily be explained by the ascetism of the founders of Christianity (and Islam). They dwelled and preached in deserts and on mountains, without any luxury or desire for luxury, their followers listened to them, came out from the villagers and townships where other rules reigned, but felt that not everything went OK. If we Westerners would even practice 10% of the preachings of Jesus, society and economy would go broke.

      • Stephen Phillips says

        Agreed. It is the current zeitgeist that if a person does not explicitly say they are against something then they are for it. This is a leap to say the least and dangerous.
        The New Testament was written to 1st century people NOT 21st century post-modernist deconstructionalists.
        Jesus laid down the principals of a society that gave dignity to all in it.
        Those that ignored it did so to perpetuate their hold on power and privilege.

    • Andrew_W says

      I agree with david of Kirkland, the greater wealth that resulted from technological progress is what killed the practice of slavery in the West, in America it was the owners of the cotton fields that relied upon cheap human labour – labour that could not be replaced by the machines of the time – that clung to the continuation of slavery, often waving the Bible alongside the whip, in other parts of America and the Western world where there was less economic advantages of forced labour slavery was easy to abandon. Try employing people that don’t want to work for you, even if you could whip them, in todays world the effort of controlling them and the poor quality of their work would make the whole exercise more trouble than it’s worth – unless the task is simple and simple to oversee – as in simple harvesting jobs isolated from places the slave could escape to.

      The moral codes of today fit the society of today, a society that is technologically advanced and wealthy, pare back that wealth and technology to the levels that existed a thousand years ago and the moral codes would change to be close to those that existed a thousand years ago.

      The great moral and ethical transformations that have happened over the last thousand years came hand in hand with technological and industrial changes that made those moral changes economically affordable to society.

    • Northern Observer says

      Yeah you are missing the transformation from the ancient to the medieval world which did end chattel slavery within Europe and greatly improved the legal social position of the lower classes.
      Jesus talks a lot about slavery and says that you can not do anything about it except behave like a Christian and in the fullness of time the kingdom will come. And lo and behold Christianity spread to such an extent in the world that it had the power to end it as a legal practice. Imagine that.

      BTW. American Protestantism both the liberal rainbow version and the conservative westboro version are Christian Heresies. We do not discuss this because Christianity is generally seen as passé and unimportant but if a segment of our social political elite class were to take it seriously the discussion would return.

    • First, there’s a difference between American-style chattel slavery and “slavery” as was practiced earlier. Second:

      Pope Eugene IV, 1431-1447 – Sicut Dudum:

      Pope Paul III, 1534-1549 – Sublimus Dei:

      Pope Gregory XVI, 1831-1846 In Supremo Apostolatus:

      Pope Leo XIII, 1878-1903 In Plurimus:

      Pope St. Pius X, 1903-1914 Lacrimabili Statu:

  6. Travis says

    Here’s three ethical ideas brought to prominence in the Ancient world through Christianity:

    – Charity as a good, in and of itself, irrespective of whether the giver receives anything at all in return. For evidence on this point, consider Emperor Julian’s letter to a Roman priest, written in around 362AD:

    The emperor is essentially saying “Hey! Those Christians are so charitable- They’re winning converts because of it! Here, have some money so we can start our own food bank. Hopefully we’ll stop looking so bad in comparison!”.

    I suggest to the author that this ethical impulse from the Christians arose straight out of their commitment to New Testament teaching. Consider Romans 12 as an example.

    – Humility, or the lowering of oneself to give power to others. Today this is considered a virtue but it wasn’t a positive idea, much less a prominent one, in ancient Roman or Greek thought. Rather, it came straight from Jesus. Partly because the new God had seen fit to allow himself to be humiliated at the hands of authorities. And people were worshipping him anyway!

    – The idea that people are all made equal in dignity in the image of God, regardless of status, rationality or usefulness- Christianity challenged the pre existing utilitarianism. This is a meta idea that permeates all of Christian moral teaching including the two mentioned above, and informs modern views in ways that I doubt we can truly comprehend. Another practical example of its impact in ancient history is infanticide- a widespread practice in ancient Rome. Christians were known for rescuing babies from the side of the roads.

    Unfortunately, Christianity got mixed up with power. The human heart can be pulled in many directions and much of the purity of Christian ideas were indeed lost once the church gained ascendance.

    In reality the world we live in is a complex mix of inheritance from Athens AND Jerusalem. However, I do find that this article minimizes the immense impact of Christianity. I suggest that the world we live in today would be unrecognisable without the Christian influence. And probably without the Greek and Roman influences too.

    • Asdf says

      Indeed, much of the basic values that secular humanists take for granted can’t possibly flow from materialist assumptions. There are no human rights to be found in materialism. There is always some shortcut assumption they make to posit their existence that could only be attributable to a loving God. Even the more materialist founding fathers had to shove some deist God in there to keep their ideals sensible.

      Christian societies, like any other, have had to deal with the gap between their ideals and material reality with its pragmatic trade offs.

      I consider Christianity, or something fundamentally like it, to be basically the only reasonable critique of the various materialist attempts at morality. If Christianity isn’t true then western humanism as we know it certainly isn’t the answer. It has no basis whatsoever.

  7. Andrew Stuart says

    I used to believe in the 1000 year gap theory of progress started by Christianity’s dogmatic closure of classic philosophy and only ending when the shackles of superstition were cast off in the enlightenment. However it presumes a continuity from very alien culture and assumes the modern world was inevitable. I was persuaded of the positive legacy of Christianity’s contribution by Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism”. It is under appreciated how difficult it is to shift from a proper patriarchy (not the weaksauce feminist version of today) to a classical liberal tradition of the individual responsible for his or her salvation. We also got a kick-ass legal system predicated on individual rights directly from medieval canon law, one of the three pillars of a successful society (the others being strong government institutions and accountability – see Fukuyama)

  8. It’s important to keep in mind with Holland, that he thinks that Islam protected ancient civilizations, so take what he says with a grain of salt

    • That’s nuts. Islam is a fanatical purifier of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, from Byzantine Syria to norther Nigeria today. This reinforces the anti Said critique of orientalism. The problem is not that European intellectuals were imperialist, the problem was that they were too romantic, and edited out the ugly bits in their studies Arab Muslim culture and society. This is why European elite culture is irrationally islamophillic today.

  9. Stephen Harrod Buhner says

    Great article, thanks for writing it.

    Despite common beliefs to the contrary, Christianity was, in many respects, not that different than its antecedents. Many of the older pagan rituals and beliefs were incorporated into its practice. However, it did differ in one main way . . . its insistence on it being the only legitimate religion.

    Letters and first person accounts from the transition period from pagan to Christian Rome show that the same intolerant fundamentalism common to Christianity today was in play from the beginning. And, of course, the “winners” write the history.

    Even as a child in school I thought is absurd that the Greeks and Romans could be so celebrated for their philosophy and other accomplishments but then immediately denigrated as being fools for believing in multiple gods. Further reading into the actual nature of those beliefs reveals that the so-called statues of the gods were not in fact considered to be literal representations but rather an attempt to capture the essence of the particular sacred power being represented in physical form.

    The ancient pagan religions were, and are, a great deal more complex than the Christians have presented them to be. The ancient pagans believed that there were powers far older than humankind, a multitude of them, that were far more powerful than human beings. It was believed that they should be revered, celebrated, so that the earth would continue to be bountiful, human culture remain healthy, and that those powers would not then become vengeful toward the human. In essence, animism and its natural polytheistic expression, is a much more tolerant and ecologically intelligent approach than Christianity simply because its essential nature is rooted in the earth and natural systems. This naturally encourages its proponents to be more sensitive to the health of the natural world.

    This did not, of course, stop the ancient pagans from making incredibly foolish choices, as foolish as latter day Christians have done. Any deep reading reveals that the ancient cultures were not a lovely and peaceful golden age — the were in fact not all that different than our own. People are people irrespective of the time in which they live. And politics is always inevitably and tiresomely repetitive.

    One of the interesting things I have noticed over the past half century is that naturally animist spiritual approaches tend to recur in the human population, as they continued to do in the ancient world after Christianity took control of the cities and levers of power. It took a large bureaucracy and consistent use of deadly force to stop pagan practices in both the Christian and Islamic worlds. It still does today. Witness the consistent argument of Christian fundamentalists against environmentalism and Gaia theory in that they represent the reemergence of a pagan sensibility (which they do, no matter the denial of most scientists).

    The word pagan by the way, comes from old Latin meaning peasant or villager, that is the old pagan religions were still alive in the smaller villages. It was only in the cities that the Christian religion was dominant and it was crucial for the civil authorities to root out the superstitions among the uneducated. (A tiresomely historical behavior still present among both Christians and scientists today.)

    The article is correct in that absent the violent rise of Christianity a much more tolerant and pluralistic modern culture would have risen. The Romans were extremely syncretic and not only tolerant of other religions but actively interested in them. Each one revealed the presence of another great power of the earth. If humans were to live in peace with the powers of the world they needed to know as much about every one of them as possible.

    This is something that our current western cultures would do well to emulate. For as has long been known, hubris toward those powers inevitably causes human civilization to fall. The greater the hubris, the greater the fall.

    I think that a look at the current state of the earth makes the point extremely well.

    • Toni Pereira says

      “A tiresomely historical behavior still present among both Christians and scientists today”,you say?definitely Nobel prize material.Sorry,but the article is about the Classical world not the ethical vision of new age crankers…

  10. tl;dr: “ethics predate Christianity”

    I’m teasing – it’s a good piece. It’s ridiculous to assert that only Christianity is the source of ethical conduct, on multiple levels.

    • John AD says

      Well said. I’d add that all ethics influenced by the ignorant superstitions of pre scientific understanding of the world were inevitably knuckle gnawingly backward by enlightened standards. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all superstition based ethics are bad in their own way, but sound ethics are all alike (having been derived from reason and the understanding of reality)

  11. Ben,

    Well done. I work on this problem and have for many years, and you’ve touched on the major points except for TWO:

    1 – that each civilization is formed by it’s customary law, and its religions evolve to justify that law. And despite her attempts the church was never strong enough to other than influence customary law in europe. European customary law is thousands of years old, and originated the primacy of sovereignty, and the responsibility of speaking the truth regardless of it’s impact on the dominance (competence) hierarchy.

    2 – That what we call ‘ethical advancement’ is merely ‘affordability due to the agrarian, industrial, and monetary revolutions. Civilizations have the ‘tolerances’ that they can afford. We can afford tolerances because they are no longer harmful, not because we are virtuous.

    3 – That our dear friend Dr Pinker’s observation that violence has declined does not account for the shift from violence to theft to fraud to proceduralization and financialization. In other words, we are subject to equally great harm as in the past, it is just conducted indirectly. The reason this is invisible is that economics has replaced morality in law, and economics cherry picks consumption rather than the suite of changes in all forms of human capital. In other words, economists run on an income statement, while societies used to run on balance sheets. They were right and we are wrong.

    • Alex Russell says

      I would much rather be defrauded than murdered, or assaulted.

      Comparing the minor harm of a financial loss that slightly reduces your standard of living to a life altering or ending physical assault is comparing apples and a whirling ball of razor blades.

  12. Webmaster: please install the plugin that gives us x minutes to edit our comments at :

  13. Asema says

    Can someone enlighten me as to how the front page works? This was number 2 on the front page an hour and a half ago, but now I cannot find it at all on the front page, or in any of the categories in the dropdown menu. Why?

  14. X. Citoyen says

    There’s not much value in judging Christianity deficient by appeal to Christian principles.

  15. michael says

    This seems just another argument (better than most) by someone who’s inherently biased against Christianity, believing (emphasis on “believing”) it’s nothing but superstition. The one thing ignored by this attempt to elevate Stoicism is the comparative views of the nature of humanity between it and Christianity. Stoicism’s failure, and Christianity’s success, is that Christianity views humanity as “fallen” and not perfectible by or in itself, and offers a way forward based on continuous striving to meet an external standard & reward. Stoicism simply and fatalistically “accepts and endures” the inherent weakness of mankind, with no vision or expectation that there’s anything more or any ultimate reward for virtue, other than being virtuous. It’s a Post-Modern Existentialism & Weak Theology, without all the angst & gloom. If the world were to devolve to Stoicism, it would be an ugly hopeless place dominated by the heartless. Overthrowing Christianity for this will not make the world a better place, and the argument here doesn’t prove that it could or would.

    • Aylwin says

      What are the origins of the verbal tics “in and of itself” and, as used in your comment, “by or in itself”. Is it just verbiage to try to add gravitas to an argument? If we leave out, in turn, each of the options we get “Christianity views humanity as … not perfectible by itself” (ok) and “Christianity views humanity as … not perfectible in itself”, which, erm, doesn’t mean anything as far as I can see.

      In respect of that claim of a uniquely Christian insight, the author actually states in this article “The ethical character of Stoicism was generally informed by a high regard for virtue—in particular, justice, temperance, courage and practical wisdom. Stoic happiness consists in applying these virtues in everyday life and attempting to live them to the best of one’s abilities”. “Best of one’s abilities” is certainly accepting imperfection. But, really? The idea that humanity is not perfectible is uniquely Christian? And, even if it was, we need the rest of the bag of indigestible gristle to keep the principle? Come on.

      Your conclusion, that “Overthrowing Christianity for [stoicism] will not make the world a better place, and the argument here doesn’t prove that it could or would” is a nice straw man. Is that what you think this article was arguing? Even the title makes clear that it’s about whether Christianity is a necessary ingredient to an ethical West, not that Stoicism is now a better guide to an ethical philosophy. But more specifically, “The ethical intuitions ascribed to Christianity already were present in other widely followed ancient beliefs, sometimes in far more rigorously developed form.” But your comment implies that it is Christianity that now underpins an ethical West. But Christianity has already been overthrown in the most enlightened and happier lands. This hanging onto the coat tails of Enlightenment and universal, humanist values born of reason and science is strained and tenuous, and I commend the author for the nice article pushing back against this vogue.

  16. Without Christianity gaining the upper hand in 4th Century Roman Empire, how would Europe look today? The author offers us the scenario of something resembling India today and that of a civilisation informed by stoicism and a “pagan”-led moral evolution. I can think of some more counterfactual scenarios:

    1) The Roman empire persists into the 7th century and then goes the way of Persia, Europe becomes islamised with perhaps a few minority religions and beliefs.

    2) The Roman empire breaks apart after 400 and gets replaced by mostly Germanic and Hunnic kingdoms who persist into the 7th century, then go the way of Spain. Europe becomes islamised with perhaps a few minority religions and beliefs.

    3) Without a unifying religion and based on their philosophy and statecraft alone, the Roman empire survives the onslaught of the great migrations, the early islamic expansion, the Viking raids and Genghis Khan but ultimately goes the way of the Byzantines when faced with Ottoman conquest. Europe becomes islamised with perhaps a few minority religions and beliefs.

    any other scenarios?

    • dirk says

      For other scenarios,FLH, read chapter The Law of Religion of Yuval Harari.
      -For a moment, it appeared that Manichaism would beat Christianity to achieve dominance in the Roman Empire. Yet, the Manichaeans lost the soul of Rome to the Christians (and in the Middle East) the faith was overrun by the Muslims, and, thereby, the dualist was subsided. Today, only a handful of dualist survive in India and the Middle east.
      Something similar is reported about Christianity in Europe. Had emperor Constantin not had a dream on Jesus before a certain battle (that he won with his assistance), Christianity would not have had much chance to take over the whole empire and European continent.

    • Just Me says

      Would Islam have arisen without the prior existence of Christianity? No.

      • dirk says

        It’s not a simple matter as that Just Me, because in the early days there were many types of christian, manichaean and zoroaster types of creed, and mixtures of it. For example, the Arians did not believe in the Godness of Jesus, he was just only a human profet. So, the roots of Islam and (later, western) Christian types of creed could well have been such early eastern types of Arianism (later, in Nicea and Chalcedoon, condemned by a majority of bishops as heresy). And, of course, more than half of the prophets and holy persons of the Old and New Testament, also appear in the Quran!

        • Just Me says

          Christianity arose as it did out of Jewish expectations of a Messiah who would usher in a new era, liberate Jews from Roman domination, etc. It is built on Judaism.

          Islam is built on Christianity and Judaism.

          Maybe some other monotheistic religion would have come out of the Middle East to conquer the region, without Christianity, but it is very unlikely, and certainly would not have been Islam as we know it.

          Anyway, these speculations are silly. It took several necessary, but not sufficient, accidents of geography and history to produce any modern situation, to speculate what would have happen if one or two hadn’t happened is useless.

          Like it would be silly to ask whether Christianity could have happened without Judaism. Of course not. So Judaism was a necessary factor for the appearance of Christianity, and Christianity was a necessary factor for our modern conceptions of an ethical society, very different from the pre-Christian one.

          One can also speculate how long it will take before the assumptions from Christianity that undergird our current ethical assumptions, are called into question now that Christianity is dead. We are already seeing that.

          How long before the assumptions of the sanctity of all human life goes out the window, and it becomes just fine to save your cat rather than a stranger from a burning building, because you cat is family and a stranger is just a stranger, and humans are more evil than animals anyway….etc. Already common thinking judging from online comments…

          • dirk says

            Even in the Quran, Justme, Jesus (=Isa) was called a prophet and even Messiah, he was nailed on the cross, but did not die as in the New Testament, he lived on with his mother Miriam and seems to be buried somewhere in Srinigar. Also, he never was God, did not die for our sins, but was the last but one great prophet, before Mohammed (who went straight to heaven after his death, and not just only after 40 days as in Christianism). But, a lot of congruence, nevertheless.

          • dirk says

            Correction on the ascendance of Mohammed: that was, however, not what majority of Muslims believe, for them Mohammed is burried in Medina. It’s only the last years that I realise (by reading about it) how diverse the early Christianity and Islam was, and that it’s nonsense to speak about influence of this or that on the situation now. Early Christianism and early Islam existed in many forms, for example, Mohammed was wed by a so called Ebionite, early Christian sect that, like the Arians and Nestorians, did not believe in the God character of Jesus. Jesus was no more than a prophet.

      • @ Just Me

        Islam is vehemently anti-polytheism. And it is very Judaism-like religion. In many elements it returned back to the old Jewish law. So yes, it would have.

    • josh says

      You wouldn’t have Islam as we know it without Christianity. So none of your scenarios makes any sense.

  17. Thank you for the reference to Manichaism dirk! One could also speculate whether the Mithras people could have set up something like organised religion or perhaps that Judaism or the Essenes/Mandeans would have caught on more broadly. Or that emperor Julian could have succeeded in turning hellenic gnosticism into something sustainable…

    I wonder if any of these scenarios would have averted or changed the European conquest of the Americas and the history of slavery…

  18. dirk says

    Of course FLH, Mythras, I forgot, and then there are these Eleusinian Mysteries. But, both are absorbed and integrated in the Christian faith, rituals and liturgy. I know this, because served as choir boy in all types of strange mysteries in the catholic church. But who realises all this , after so many centuries. I think very few, and it won’t help you very much to know all this, except maybe in history classes.

  19. jay ryan says

    This is a well-trodden subject, at least in Christian literature. It’s been explained by the likes of Francis Schaeffer that Christianity brought many moral and ethical innovations to the Greco-Roman world. Christianity maintained that each person was made in the image of God and therefore each individual had value. This led, inter alia, to the abolition of slavery in imperial times, the rise of public hospitals, and technological innovations such as the water wheel. For example, in Rome, the patricians had private physicians and the common folk did without. Monks and nuns started the first hospitals to care for the poor and sick, and religious orders were responsible for public medicine until quite recently. In Rome, slaves did the menial labor, but monasteries developed water power to relieve the burden of undignified toil. Many other examples abound. The curious reader without an anti-Christian bias should check out “How Christianity Changed the World” by Alvin Schmidt.

  20. Andy says

    This was a hard article to read. The paragraph:

    For Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Memoirs of Hadrian poignantly captures this mood, the period of the second century CE, when Roman Stoicism was at its height, represented a moment of poise, in which philosophy was at its most naked, unconstrained by dogma and open to the sad character of a world where, for many Romans, human reason and not the superstitio of religion acted as arbiter between their civilization and the wider cosmos.

    was all one sentence, extremely wandering, and tough to follow. I did like that I learned about 8 new words in this piece. It reminds me of the sniping between Faulkner and Hemingway.

    Faulkner: “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

    Hemingway: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”


  21. Just Me says

    History is a tapestry made out of many threads, puling one out unravels many others.

    You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to wonder where this leaves women. Women in Antiquity didn’t fare so well. They were confined to the home except for participating in religious cults, en patrons, but they only had status as a wife and mother, Vestal Virgin or a handful of oracles.

    They were valued members of early Christian communities, along with slaves. Eventually they were able to be founders and heads of religious communities, standing up to Popes and kings, organised hospitals and educational and charitable institutions, and had social dignity even if unmarried, which paved the way for demanding freedom and equality in other spheres of life.

    It wasn’t the only factor of course, but how likely would this have been without Christianity? It didn’t happen in other major civilisations.

  22. John of Salisbury says

    I might try an article length reply at some point (on holiday now), but to run over the main heads:

    1. Obvious point, but counterfactuals are extremely hard. If we think there is something distinctively good about the west (many don’t of course, but they tend to think the existence of Quillette as one of it’s flaws!), however, this tends to stack the deck in Christianity’s favour. The narrower the path to an ethical society is, then the more likely deviations from the actual course of history would have been to steer us away from that destination entirely. Certainly one might query how rosy an alternative the casteism and widow-burning of pre-modern India is.

    2. Re Holland. Your argument seems to be that yes, there was much wickedness in antiquity, but a) there was much wickedness in medieval Christendom and b) pagans critiqued the wickedness around them. Fair enough, but I don’t think you’ve said enough to show that Christianity didn’t push moral progress significantly forward. To be fair, I don’t think Holland has said enough so far to show that it did, but, as you note, book length discussions are required, and we will have to wait for his book.
    Nevertheless, I will offer a hubristically brief discussion of one point: war. Clearly thoughtful pagans like Tacitus disapproved of the excesses of ancient warfare. Clearly also there were plentiful excesses in medieval warfare. But, much as we have moved recently moved from thoughtful disapproval of sleazy bosses to hard norms against sexual harassment, the Christian world crystallised hard (though admittedly internal) norms of war. The peace of God was to be extended to non-combatants. Prisoners were to be taken and ransomed rather than killed or enslaved. William of Normandy was a rapacious conqueror who invaded Britain, as Claudius Caesar had before him. But whereas Claudius held a triumph afterwards, William did penance. Tgat, I submit, us significant moral progress.

    3. Yes, Stoics were universalists before Christmas were.But it doesn’t follow that Christianity address nothing new and valuable to the mix. The most obvious example is charity broadly along the lines we value it today. It was not a Christian innovation in global terms – South Asia got there first – but it was so within the context of Classical antiquity. There was never any discernible prospect of paganism producing a Europe full of hospitals.
    But there are more important structural differences between Stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism was the preserve of intellectual elites, and it was fundamentally unconcerned with changing the world. Not so Christianity. We might lament the intellectual conformity of Christendom and deplore the violence with which it was enforced, but Christianity did bind princes, paupers, and intellectuals in a common moral project: inaugurating the reign of God on earth, which meant actually going out and casting down the mighty from their seats and filling the hungry with good things. It makes no sense to imagine Stoic philosophers demanding and receiving penance from barbarian warlords the way that Christian bishops did. Christianity had the will and the means to reshape society in ways Stoicism did not.

    6. Did it work? I have been mulling over an article taking Pinker to task on this very point. Bluntly stated, the view that the Christian period was one of moral and political stagnation is balderdash. Much of what Pinker values in the Enlightenment had deep roots in the medieval era. War I’ve discussed already: consider government. We received our copy of Magna Carta here in Sarum back in 1215. The Model Parliament was summoned before the century was out. Similar basic legal documents and representative assemblies were cropping up across Christendom. This all happened on Christianity’s watch, at least, and it doesn’t take much digging to find Churchmen in the thick of it.

    7. As to your vision of a never-Christian world, I’m afraid this just switched out one counter-factual (Europe never Christianises) for another (the Roman empire continues from strength to strength), throwing in some non-sequiturs about race for good measure. Maybe Christianity did cause racism and the fall of Rome, but you haven’t exactly shown your working.

    In sum, classical antiquity clearly contained some prospect of moral progress. But it is far less clear that it contained the potential for the immense progress we have actually seen. Christianity really did inspire the many to change the world, as the Stoic few, for all their pensive gazing, never could have.

    • X. Citoyen says

      I encourage you to write it. The best response to Pinker’s mythologizing is Carl Becker’s “Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers.” Nothing deflated the Enlightenment’s claims to originality than the juxtaposition of passages from Thomas Aquinas and Voltaire–swap capital-R Reason for God and medieval theology because secular history.

  23. Christianity may have been a factor in developing ethics. I am not religious and believe an ethical society (don’t laugh) has developed over time for various reasons. We have empathy for others close to us (we have a reasoning brain) and our mutual wellbeing is dependent on having a set of guidelines to live by. Values do seem to be conditioned by our background which is why some break the law if they believe they can get away with it, and others don’t.

  24. I think I’ve never seen such an unreliable, historically flawed piece on Quillette as of yet. This is an extraordinary disappointment. Tacitus, for all his anti-imperialistic creeds (who represented a total aberration from general opinion) was quite happy with Nero’s persecution and slaughter of the Christians, as he recorded in his Annals 15.44. Marcus Aurelius, the wonderful Stoic, was the proponent of the largest massacre against Christians by any one emperor up until his times. Something perhaps far more representative of real Greco-Roman moral thought is the Melian Dialogue recorded by the ancient historian Thucydides, where he records the interaction between Athens and the island of Delos during the 5th century BC Peloponnesian War that is still studied in military history to this day. Athens, the powerful city-state and Greek power gives Delos two options; either submit to us or be destroyed. Delos tries to convince Athens to let them remain neutral in the war, and if they don’t, that the gods will back them up. Athens tells Delos that the gods conquer what they can, and so they do as well. The story ends with Athens invading Delos, conquering the island, murdering all the men and enslaving the women in children. This is Greco-Roman morality.

    Christianity did, in fact, represent a moral schism that was not going to be bridged. Once the people turned to Christianity, the Christians immediately abolished the gladiatorial battles, banned crucifixion and ended the practice of exposing infants (where if you had a child and it was undesirable (usually became it was a girl in those days), it was rather common for the Romans to simply throw away the child and let it die). This happened exactly when Rome became Christian, and for the millennium prior all these things were unquestioned and even celebrated. Slavery almost completely ended in the European continent during the Middle Ages (the slavery we’re familiar with now is a product of the Atlantic Slave Trade which originated during the 16th century) because Christians believed it was immoral to enslave fellow Christians and, as the pagan numbers dried out as all turned to Christianity, slavery almost vanished in medieval Christian Europe. The author cites Steven Pinker and his attempt to connect all this to the Enlightenment. (cheap shot incoming) I don’t know how he got his PhD, and I don’t want to. The journal Historical Reflections just published a full issue devoted to responding to Pinker’s thesis containing 12 essays, each written by some of the most distinguished historians of our day, who individually analyze and show the devastating errors, reliance on dubious data, and overall historical failings of Pinker’s thesis — and the conclusion of these historians is that Pinker’s thesis is fatally flawed.

    There are so many mistakes here that it’s really hard to find anything in this article that isn’t fatally flawed. Christianity didn’t “codify much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought” — there isn’t a hint of substantiation for this claim, all morality inside Christianity is either Jewish or novel. This is simply the conclusion of the consensus of the historians of early Christianity, of which the author certainly isn’t one. Justinian didn’t close Plato’s Academy to complete some sort of “cultural conquest” — the 6th century academy doesn’t even go back to Plato at all, that one was closed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC during their invasion of Athens. It’s rather odd the other doesn’t mention this, nor does he mention the Hellenistic monarch Ptolemy VII Psychon expelling all scholars from Alexandria in the first half of the 2nd century BC as well, nor does he mention the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate forbidding Christians to publicly teach anywhere in the empire in the 4th century AD. Indeed, this newly founded Neo-Platonic Academy was actually quite anti-Christian in its teaching, so Justinian closing it and stopping its scholars from teaching at the expense of the public purse (the scholars continued teaching in private) is not all that surprising.

    • Red-eye Magpie says

      Your first sentence better describes your own comment than the article itself.

      You oversimplify the persecutions of Christians, which serves to either illustrate your misunderstanding of the events or signal your willful disregard for proper consideration of the social, cultural, and political circumstances that lead to the state-sanctioned killings. The nature of Christian belief and how it motivated its adherents to act within the Roman world conflicted directly with a society in which religion was inseparable from civic life. Take your anachronistic lenses off and have another look at the sources.

      On the other hand, the atrocities of Christians you gloss over as necessary steps to a more moral end. You state yourself that Christians deplored the enslavement of Christians and so put a “stop” to the trade when the pagans “dried out”, but deliberately evade elaborating on what the drying out entailed and who do it. How can you sit astride your moral high horse and deal out facetious euphemisms like that?

      Lastly, to declare that all morality inside Christianity is either Jewish or novel is absurd. How can you sincerely believe that? Perhaps Christendom’s gilded ceilings have misled you to believe that, for all their gold, they must have discovered the Golden Rule…

      • “You oversimplify the persecutions of Christians”


        “The nature of Christian belief and how it motivated its adherents to act within the Roman world conflicted directly with a society in which religion was inseparable from civic life. Take your anachronistic lenses off and have another look at the sources.”

        It’s hard to see what this is a response to. Perhaps you’re just blabbering since you can’t address anything I say?

        “On the other hand, the atrocities of Christians you gloss over”

        When did I gloss over Christian atrocities? Was my comment about that topic? And isn’t “Christian atrocit[y]” an oxymoron? Wouldn’t a real term be “atrocity committed by a self-proclaimed Christian”?

        “You state yourself that Christians deplored the enslavement of Christians and so put a “stop” to the trade when the pagans “dried out”, but deliberately evade elaborating on what the drying out entailed and who do it. How can you sit astride your moral high horse and deal out facetious euphemisms like that?”

        What kind of utter garbage is this? I never wrote Christians put a “stop” to the trade, obviously, it happened over a long stretch of time as the pagans turned to Christianity, the vast majority of which did so freely. If you’re implying the drying out entailed significant persecution, you’re clearly ignorant of ancient history.

        “Lastly, to declare that all morality inside Christianity is either Jewish or novel is absurd. How can you sincerely believe that?”

        Prove me wrong, kiddo.

        Nothing in your comment has any merit, whatsoever. Just you being outraged by things I wrote. Please acquire a detailed grasp of the issues before trying to challenge me again, or make your critiques more specific, reference actual historical events with dates attached to them (like I did in my comment) and with references to the scholarly literature where possible. Are you capable of this, or just another angry unbeliever who gets all their information from atheist blogs?

        • Red-eye Magpie says

          You seem to believe that killings are representative of Greco-Roman moral thought (which is wrong) and do not address at all what might have led to the killings. This is a simplistic view of the events and their motives. How can you deliberate upon their morality if you don’t care to think about intent or purpose? My comment about the nature of Christian belief conflicting with Roman civic life in a complex, multi-faceted way was an attempt to show that your statement “This is Greco-Roman morality” lacked depth and is not the definitive statement you seem to think it is. Christian refusal to engage in what was considered the civic duty of a loyal populace was a key factor in their persecution. Roman beliefs were integrated within every sphere of Roman life, including politics. To refuse to take part in a sacrifice as Christians did, for instance, could not be seen as an innocent bowing out of a ceremony that was not their own; it was deemed a subversive act.

          Does this not change how you assess the killings with regard to morality?

          Persecuting Christians simply because they are Christians is one thing, but persecuting a group because they represent a political and cultural threat to the status quo is another. Though it can be hard to wrap your head around, their society did not function as ours did. Nowadays, to convert from one religion to another does not necessarily impact our involvement in the civic sphere; it did to them. The conduct of the Christian faith was misconduct against the state.

          Eusebius, a Christian, stated that the initial edicts of the Diocletian persecutions targeted Christian infrastructure and the civic rights of its leaders and followers (different stipulations based on station) in an effort to destabilise a growing political force. Those who held high civic positions lost them – they weren’t murdered straight up (Historia Ecclesiastica VIII; Baynes in Cambridge Ancient History, XII, pp. 665-6)). Lactantius, another Christian contemporary, writes that, yes, Christians were arrested and killed early on–but for the crime of tearing up edict notifications – a punishment for sedition, not simple religious difference. He also states that Diocletian wished for a bloodless result in dispensing the first edict, contrary to Galerius’ preference for extermination (De Mort. Persecutorum). It can be argued that at the time of the first edicts, only orders of arrest, not corporal punishment, were given (Gesta apud Zenophilum) and that violence escalated to a full-on pogrom by century’s end due to a number of reasons, incl. personal grudges and zealotry, resistance and revolt, paranoia, superstition, political maneuvering amongst the elite, etc.

          The fact that, by the fourth edict of the period, the entire population was mandated to sacrifice and were subject to arrest, torture, and execution for refusal–even the emperor’s wife and daughter–(Lact. De Mort. Pers. 15) supports the notion that fears of imperial integrity and security were the cause for crack downs and violent depredations – as we see in any Christian or non-Christian regime, past or present, bent on retaining power (Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great, pp.248-250). Burckardt also address the purging of Christians from the army – why would Rome reduce her military might at such a time unless she felt it would be used against her? In the far West of the empire (far from the burgeoning heart of Christendom), the carrying out of the edicts was rather lacklustre, suggesting that in these regions the perception of Christianity was not one of a threat (Lact. De Mort. Pers.).

          Again, how is this Greco-Roman violence – the culmination of Christian persecution immediately prior to Constantine’s rise to supremacy – a smudge on Greco-Roman morality? As far as I can tell, the atrocities committed against the Christians were largely political and in no way differ from any similar atrocities committed by those operating under Christian morals in the following centuries. Where is the moral divide? How is the Athenian ultimatum to Delos any different to the attitudes of Christian tyrants? Why is the slavery committed by Athenians different from Christian slavers? Furthermore, to say “[an end to these violent things] happened exactly when Rome became Christian…” is horribly feeble and inaccurate. When, exactly, did Rome become Christian?

          Regarding your glossing over of atrocities committed by self-proclaimed Christians (and, no, Christian atrocity is not an oxymoron): You point out only the massacres committed by non-Christian Greco-Roman powers as being representative of their morality. You point out only the cessation of violent practices as being representative of Christian morality. This is arguing in bad faith. You reference atrocities, reforms, and attitudes to make your case, but do so selectively. Your comment should have included reference to the types of violence committed by Christians, too, for your case about non-Christian violence to carry any weight in debating morality, but it didn’t. Surely, in referencing state-sanctioned activities of different “moral schools”, a comparison of their motives for violence would shed more light on the value of their respective moralities, more so than comparing the foul deeds of one with the good of another as you did?

          And, as I said, do you believe the Golden Rule to be a Judeo-Christian invention?

          I do apologise for misreading your comments regarding Christianity and the decline of the slave trade. I misread you. However, the long stretch of time that you concede it took for slavery to be shed from Christendom can be applied to a counter-factual Greco-Roman continuation of history.

          I don’t deny that Greco-Roman morality was often inhumane, nor do I deny the impact of Christian morality (though I do not completely agree with Tom Holland), but your assessment of Greco-Roman morality is warped and your argument for the rise and superiority of Christian morality horribly biased. Lastly, your questioning of my identity as some “angry unbeliever”, as you put it, is needless and low.

          • Red-eye Magpie says

            Actually, in rereading my initial comment I can see how I was needlessly provocative, and so I apologise. I undermined my own arguments with what you perceived as outrage. I stand by my points, but wish I’d framed them in a more appropriate manner that would facilitate better discussion.

          • Killings are representative of Greco-Roman moral thought, insofar as the governments operated. Sparta was the first fascist state. The Romans regularly sieged, enslaved and slaughter. After the Third Macedonian War, Rome took 150,000 slaves from Epirus.

            “How can you deliberate upon their morality if you don’t care to think about intent or purpose?”

            Quite sorry, fella. Can you please show me how the political motives of the Romans paint an entirely new light on when they annihilated the Celtic druids in Britain? Surely it’s not as bad as I imagine it to be.

            “Christian refusal to engage in what was considered the civic duty of a loyal populace was a key factor in their persecution.”

            Roman propaganda has your balls clutched. Do you realize how disgusting this comment is? There is no excuse for the tens of thousands of Christians murdered by the Romans. You also fail to realize how often the “good ol’ Roman virtues of our ancestors” was used to for ideological reasons or to commit atrocities. Imagine if Trump started beheading atheists because they lacked “the good ol’ virtues of our founding fathers”. You have to take the motives into account !!

            “The conduct of the Christian faith was misconduct against the state.”

            Take this sentence, replaced “Christian” with “Islamic”, and “[Roman] state” with “American state” and we’ll see how long the propaganda has your eyes covered.

            “How is the Athenian ultimatum to Delos any different to the attitudes of Christian tyrants?”

            Feel free to show me Roman Christians totally annihilating a pagan city. Especially the regularity at which Athens was doing this stuff. Athens, as you may be aware, was happy to annihilate cities more then a single time.

            Anyways, my comment never glosses over Christian-proclaimed atrocities because it had nothing to do with this topic. Yes, supposed Christians did really bad things, though it was ideological day and night at this point. After Theodosius I (emperor AD 379-395) committed the Massacre of Thessalonica, the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, literally didn’t let him go to his church and sent him home crying. Goodness sake, can you show ANYTHING LIKE THIS happening to an emperor after he committed some form of atrocity?

            “Lastly, your questioning of my identity as some “angry unbeliever”, as you put it, is needless and low.”

            Fair enough.

          • Red-eye Magpie says

            Scientific Christian/Kiddo/Fella,

            You’re right. There is no excuse for the killing of tens of thousands of people, but I am not trying to excuse anything as you seem to believe, nor am I under the sway of this mythical Roman propaganda you keep referring to. I am arguing that the killings you deem to be representative of a lesser, pre-Christian morality are no different to the killings committed by those adhering to a supposed superior, Christian morality. The violence you cite as a differentiating factor is in fact a continuum of violence spurred by a slew of motives that cannot be so easily divided and ascribed.
            Do not claim that Christian Rome exercised a kind of moral restraint that their pagan predecessors did not following Theodosius. A rapidly declining empire riven by civil conflict is hardly a fair comparison to an ascendant one. How about Charlemagne as a point of comparison? A conqueror, Holy Roman Emperor, intent on Christianising his population. He decapitated thousands of Saxons who would not convert and destroyed their sacred objects. Was he rebuked by the Church? No. In fact, some historians believe his motives were biblical. His issuing of edicts mandating conversion or death resulted in slaughter and the eventual mass conversion of the subdued who gave up their beliefs, acceded to the religious customs of the elite, and became integrated with the Franks. This mirrors the edicts issued by Diocletian who sought to mandate the following of state religious custom on pain of death in an attempt to unify people and integrate them into the empire. Historians have tried to exonerate Charlemagne, describing his motives for the killings as being punishments for treason – again, doesn’t this ring a bell?

            And let us agree that Sparta was the first fascist state, but what does this mean? I don’t see what your point is if successive fascist states of our era grew to power in a world of Christian morals.

            I don’t deny that the letters of Paul and the concept of the divinity of the individual served as a catalyst to better our concept of morality and thus the human condition, though this developed over a long, long period of time. I do not necessarily believe that a continuation of Greco-Roman moral thought sans Christianity’s input would have led us to where we are now given the same amount of time to develop its moral teachings. I contest that the examples of violence (and supposed Christian cessation of violence) you cite are not a major differentiating factor, especially in Christianity’s first millennium.

  25. I found this piece unconvincing, particularly in its attempt to respond to Tom Holland, who seems to have had an epiphany very similar to my own in recent years.

    Pointing out that Christian societies were rapacious/genocidal or otherwise acted badly misses the point – something similar is true of all societies, and Tom Holland is certainly aware of this. There’s no claim that Christianity is like a kind of matrix which, when applied to any group of people, will suddenly cause them all to act in a certain way. No idea works like that in history. A better analogy would be the foundation of a building, which can be undermined to such a degree that the building is no longer structurally sound: though it may remain standing for quite some time, still a little stress may now suffice to bring it down. I think this is the sort of thing at work in Peterson’s claim that Christianity contained the idea that killed slavery: the idea that every person is divine struck at the foundation, undermining the structure. The fact that the first few centuries of Christians went along with slavery doesn’t change that.

    And obviously it is true that in many respects Christianity built upon ideas that were already out there among philosophers and other educated people, and that these elites exhibited a great diversity of thought. That doesn’t affect what Holland’s saying. Intellectuals can talk about any number of ideas in their little corner; the question is what ideas are at work within society at large, and here I find Holland compelling: there is an open, unashamed brutality at work in antiquity that is alien to us, and Christianity explains the difference (he’s already provided a number of examples).

  26. Pingback: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity? – Quillette’s counter-factual history

  27. I read your blog post and thank you for the link. Well done indeed. Wouldn’t Quillette actually post your whole article? It deserves more eyeballs.

  28. John says

    In my mind, western culture is no consommé, rather it is a stew of cultural elements it has come in contact with. Western societies excel at cultural appropriation. They actively replicate and incorporate into their own being any useful foreign cultural element they find useful. Thus, the characteristic of cultural appropriation of which many progressives complain is true, but it is also one of the west’s main strengths, which is perhaps why progressives seek to stop it.

    Despite this habit of appropriating other cultures’ beneficial attributes, western cultures and societies remain intrinsically local. Even today, the efforts of centralising power find it difficult to force Briton, Gaul, German, Hungarian and Slav to accept one central code of behaviour or law. The same is true in the Western Hemisphere where de Tocqueville’s town halls and villages dominate the power structures of the USA. This is not to diminish the contribution of Graeco-Roman culture on the west, rather it allows us to see the west as being a cultural stew with Graeco-Roman culture being the stock.

    As any good stew draws most of its flavour from the stock, there can be little doubt that western cultural has a big Graeco-Romanism flavour. Yet, it is the intermixture of all of the ingridients that makes the overall flavour and western culture includes the flavourings of Judaism and Christianity and those of the Germanic and Norse invaders. Cultural appropriation is a strength of the west and even within western culture the most culturally appropriative societies, such as the English, are the most successful. A good example of what I mean is the English language, which is like a linguistic black hole pulling in any useful word or phrase from any culture that comes near its event horizon. Can anyone really imagine an academy in London attempting to limit foreign words being incorporated into English?

    Thus, when we begin to consider the influence of a particular culture on the west today, we need to remember that whilst Graeco-Roman stock strongly influences the flavour of the west, the additional flavours, Christian, Jewish, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and so forth also add to western culture. The question is not how important each one is, but why are western cultures so acquisitive of other cultures’ creations and does this acquisitiveness explain the dynamic and successful nature of western culture?

  29. There is so much serious historical literature on this that it’s hard to get a handhold on the reasoning and evidence here. Rachel Fulton Brown might be a good starting point for many who are more seriously interested in this question. She’s a bit wild and uncontrolled when commenting on contemporary matters, but her historical works on Christianity are mind-blowingly careful and thoughtful.

  30. Daniel says

    “the argument that Christianity motivated a retreat from slavery grossly misunderstands and oversimplifies complex historical processes”

    Only if you are an enlightened progressive who understands that all true Keepers of the Flame of Knowledge and Virtue have always, throughout history, thought exactly like you.

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  32. Peter says

    Well, the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his letters:
    “We know that in our time many inventions have been first published, for instance the windows made of fine transparent tiles, also hanging baths and pipes of stoves so concealed in the walls as to spread an equal heat through every part of the room, not to mention several works in marble by which our temples and even our houses are so finely decorated, or the huge piles of stone pillars which being made round and smooth form our portico’s and support such spacious buildings as will contain a multitude of people, nor need I mention the cyphers and characters whereby a man can take down a whole oration, be it ever so swiftly pronounced, and with his hand keep pace with the speaker’s tongue. These are or may be the invention of the meanest slaves.”

    The contempt of (serious and nontrivial) technical progress and the contempt of slaves in this writing is pretty obvious.

    The book “The Forgotten Revolution” by Lucio Russo tells us that the Romans and Roman philosophers, especially the Sceptics, hammered most nails in the coffin of the brilliant and enormously productive Scientific Revolution of Hellenism. At their best, Romans “outsourced” complicated technical work to Greek slaves.

    The Christian world was rather successful at adopting good ideas from the past, and yes, it borrowed some from the Stoic philosophers as well. But claiming that it would be better to adopt Stoicism than Christianity is ridiculous. This article is a disappointment: just another bashing of Christianity.

    One grows tired of people cherry–picking Old Testament, as in the comments on this article. As if Christianity was not based on the New Testament.

    The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people, documenting the barbaric beginnings and mores at maybe 2000 BC or even earlier, to the much more civilized and Christian-like teachings in time of Hellenism. The Protestants chose to distribute it in their fight with the Roman Catholic Church, opening a Pandora’s box for those who cannot or will not be distinguish between what is useful wisdom even today and what is an appalling record of archaic times.

    Ever heard of Hildegard of Bingen (1089-1179)? Wikipedia tells us she is the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Church dignitaries sought her advice and she corresponded with kings and emperors. Did anything similar happen in Roman times? Many other medieval abbesses played a similar role, and schooled girls. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, on the contrary, saw no role for women in Science.

    • dirk says

      With other words, Peter, no feminism without Christianity. I even understood something similar from a moslima in a TV program in the NL: Mohammed in favour of womens rights and equality. So, whatever you look for in the holy texts, you find it.

      • augustine says

        So, dirk, by extension of your claim, the corruption is in the seeking rather than the finding or found thing. Yet finding “whatever you look for” in holy texts has real limitations and extraneous and false readings fail regularly. If it were only a matter of individual interpretation there would be no intelligibility or successful transmission.

  33. dirk says

    Yes, maybe I’ m too negative, Augustine, recognising and finding the good and positive is often more worth than irony and sarcasm, but Peter reminded me of that all too positive moslima, in my eyes then, not in everybody’s.

  34. Pingback: A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress | faithful philosophy and the past

  35. Bob Luxenberg says

    Silly, wishful thinking. Crediting Christianity with abolition: sorry revisionists, but our country, among the most Christian in the world, was the key enabler of slavery until the civil war. Pinker is EXACTLY correct: the modern, low-violence world is entirely due to the juggernaut of the enlightenment & commerce. It takes some kind of imagination to think that the world of Christianity – characterized by endless wars of religion and conquest and the Inquisition – is the basis of the liberal world order. Give me a break.

  36. Arrian says

    I’d posit that this article most effectively argues for only one thing: that the details of the moral philosophies and theologies predominating in a society are largely irrelevant.

    The question “Why, for all their achievement, did the ancients never disavow slavery? Why did they never disown the ravages of military conquest in the name of glory?” is preposterous. The United States, a de novo democracy founded explicitly on Enlightenment ideals, nonetheless practiced slavery on a staggering scale with the practice only brought to an end via a brutal civil war- the practice so prevalent it caused the total socioeconomic and cultural bifurcation of the country! The devoutly Christian (as their allocation of New World gold and silver to religious projects so lavishly exclaimed) Portuguese and Spanish empires were responsible for an institution of slavery on an unprecedented scale, dwarfing the North American practice and comprising the primary terminus of the Atlantic slave trade. Incessant and catastrophic wars of conquest between European states and upon non-European powers raged for centuries during and after the Enlightenment- and let’s not get into the Boer wars, the German genocides in Namibia, the Belgian Congo, the Holocaust, etc. etc.

    The Enlightenment and Christianity can hardly be said to have mattered a damn thing on most of the timescales above. Where conquest was viable, it was undertaken. Slavery was most readily and enthusiastically abolished by states that had little economic dependency on it; even the mouldering and mutilated Spanish Empire disposed of the practice only as late as the 1870s. Wars of conquest were undertaken whenever they seemed strategically expedient; pretenses were readily available for morally justifying whatever. With time, the spread of the fruits of industrial prosperity and the incubation of associated cultural factors, and after an extraordinarily bloody 20th century, the West has largely softened up to comparatively pacific and egalitarian notions- but even then, most of the colonial withdrawals of the 20th century were rendered inevitable (or at least plainly the path of least resistance practically) to the economic and military exhaustion following two world wars and increasingly unmanageable native insurrection. Pragmatic concerns and practical realities (including the spread and accretion of the comforts of full industrialization, modern medicine, modern education, etc.- and one can point to striking callousness in Chinese legal and social conduct, the cruelties of Imperial Japan in WW2, etc. etc. – but all of these societies were/are also later to the first world industrialization party and in the former case also have been subjected to continuous police state autocracy and with a penchant for large scale atrocity only a few generations ago at that) are available as clear driving forces, and where they are not operative the presence of humanitarian beliefs seems to avail comparatively little in the grand scheme of things.

    The same can be said of these historical counterfactuals. The late Classical period saw Christianity competing with a number of monotheistic or semi-monotheistic sects and movements, many derived from reformulation of classical polytheisms (i.e. the Cult of Isis, Mithraism); by some accounts Constantine was still giving praises to Sol Invictus on the Milvian Bridge. Christianity was hardly unique in its moments and other faiths including those with nominal contiguity with classical practices could have overridden older cultic practices and whether as a monoculture or patchwork (bearing in mind the range between ambitious mystery cult and explicit universalism embodied here) eroded or mutated preceding philosophical and religious practices into unrecognizability. Moreover, the collapse of Roman intellectual culture across most of the Empire was an inevitability given the socioeconomic disintegration followed up by conquest by a plethora of different barbarian invaders, whose more primitive and brutal social mores seized the day and reset the clock culturally (in some parts of Christian early Medieval Europe literacy within the aristocracy was seen as a fundamentally effeminate trait, to be mocked openly in court for instance); I hardly think that Stoicism would have bloomed across Francia if not for Christianity…

    If anything, the comparisons of the ethical philosophies of antiquity to Christianity and their convergences in attitudes, but not in practice for the overwhelming majority of history sociopolitical effects, on atrocity raises a quite different hypothesis: sophisticated civilizations are liable to have some people and groups espousing some set of benevolent or egalitarian beliefs; when the society becomes sufficiently prosperous, civilized, and soft these can be used as pretenses to cement and advance gentler norms. Generally speaking, these conditions are only fulfilled for a substantive definition thereof in industrialized societies that have had enough time to steep in that state; for most of history, principled objections with very reliable regularity fall on deaf ears when economic and military pragmatism (really one and the same) and profit beckon.

  37. Some images used in this article are enormous! Statue of Marco Aurelio is 4247×2831 and whopping 3 Megabytes, Steven Pinker is 2915×2118.

  38. Pingback: Open Thread, 08/27/2018 – Gene Expression

  39. Say it ain’t so, but Christianity emerged in a synthesis of the Classical Pagan world and the Jewish tradition. With respect to the second, restrictions on abortion, birth control, fornication, adultery, e.g. the kinds of ethical practices consistent with a high tfr. In contrast, abortion, homosexuality, birth control, extra-marital sex, etc. are the kinds of ethical practices consistent with a low tfr.

    When a low tfr group coexists with a high tfr group, over time, the low tfr declines and is ultimately dissolved when the high tfr group attains cultural and political supremacy–like in Rome.

    This is why every major religious tradition that expanded and has a large global following, whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, has all that nasty patriarchy and homophobia. All that nasty patriarchy and homophobia means your group survives across the aeons.

    In my experience, most people don’t reject Christianity because they are really worried whether virgins can get pregnant, they reject it because of the nasty patriarchy and homophobia, and an unwillingness to live under the sexual restrictions of the Christian moral code. Given the choice between Pornhub and the Eucharist, the masses choose Pornhub.

    But what works on an individual scale ultimately means cultural annihilation. . . and I don’t see a way out, but you can’t have Pornhub and secular tfr’s and expect your cultural values to survive beyond a century. Especially when you simultaneously want to import high tfr fundamentalists from the backwoods of the developing world.

  40. Slavery has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with economic exploitation.

    The game is to exploit the economic surplus, and you do this in a low population density by tying labor to the land so they can’t leave, and then siphoning off the surplus (whether we call it feudalism or a slave economy).

    In contrast, with wage labor, you just keep bringing in cheap labor to suppress wages, and then the owners get the surplus, and if you can combine it with mass debt, you can further siphon off the surplus in interest payments.

    Wage/Debt slavery is not compatible with good old fashion slavery, and is more profitable, so slavery is now only found in the more economically backward regions of the world.

    It is capitalism overtaking feudalism, not “moral innovation” overtaking “ancient badthinkers”.

    • Wage slavery is not compatible with slavery because wage slavery requires a constant in-flow of workers to keep wages down, whereas slavery works for exploitation when labor is scarce, because the point is by tying the peasant to the land, you don’t have to pay market wages for labor, and the peasant can’t easily leave for better wages or working conditions. If masters have to support slaves with higher effective wages/benefits than what they would pay their expendable wage slaves, it would defeat the purpose of traditional slavery, which is exploitation of the productive forces in society.

      • The “religious” dimension of slavery is simply because religion and sacralization are used to “bless” the status quo, which involves the exploitation of the forces of economic production by elites. When the mode of exploitation was traditional slavery, the status quo was justified and sacralized in religious terms. When the mode of exploitation switch to exploitation through wage labor, the new status quo was sacralized in religious terms, and further, this mode of exploitation was deemed to superior on moral grounds (but only because it was superior for parasitic elites on economic grounds).

        In contrast, the ethical praxis in the secular world seems to be the embrace of attitudes and values which are suicidal for an enduring group. Unlike a mode of exploitation of workers by elites, which is a feature, not a bug of civilization, this value system is anti-survival. Systems of elite exploitation are vulnerable and create social instability and even war and revolution when taken too far, but also encourage a division of labor, increased production, and other positive externalities, so are partially symbiotic as well as parasitic.

        Paganism in Europe died out because it was weak relative to Christianity. Weak in its philosophical/theological sophistication, and weak in its ethics. The pagans got out-breed and out-argued by Christians, and ultimately, Christians obtained political control and politicallly suppressed the pagans. It is the very weakness of paganism that I fear that makes it attractive to the contemporary person.

  41. Caleb Z says

    I think the bigger issue here is not whether or not people could have thought up certain seemingly distinctively Christian notions without Christianity, but whether without Christianity such notions (such as the equal dignity of every person under God) would have been persuasively grounded in a broader, compelling narrative about the way that things actually are. It is one thing for a solitary Stoic to assert solidarity with all of humanity as an amicable ethical principle, and quite another for Christ to suggest that the nature of things, independent of particular persons’ subjective states of mind, is such that all persons stand in the same position before God.

  42. dirk says

    I think you are right there Caleb, this same position before God (e.g., in case of marrying somebody, before God, of your own choice, and not the one of the family’s choice) is something that in no other religion or culture or societal system exists, or existed. That really makes a difference, and not a small one!!

  43. Christ and Muhammad built out the monotheism of Judaism, replacing tribal gods. This was very valuable to the cognitive evolution of a young species of killer apes (the ability to share a cultural idea distinguishes homo sapiens). It set the stage for science, and our singular focus on Nature as our proper study. Religion is envelope of human aspiration.

  44. Christopher W Coffman says

    An interesting but tendentious piece about an issue that has been debated for hundreds of years, perhaps most notably with Edward Gibbon and his enormous best-seller “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, an event he blamed on Christianity, making a similar case to that of the author–and yet. The matter is not settled, and both Gibbon and the author are probably wrong. The sources for the other, probably correct, position are too numerous to cite but here’s an excellent recent book by a gifted Classicist:

  45. “Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity?” the question presumes the unsupported – and is revealed to be doing so when we consider another: “Could an Ethical West Exist With Christianity?” – Gandhi’s apocryphal quip about Western Civilization comes to mind . . .

  46. Pingback: "The perennial fibre of truth" - Thomas Carlyle. What is it? % | S K Ditta %

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