We often hear that Europe is now in a ‘post-Christian era’ and it is fashionable to attribute Western progress from the Enlightenment onwards to overcoming religious barriers to progress. However, much historical research paints a different picture. Most recently, American sociologist Rodney Stark published a number of books, arguing convincingly that Christianity was directly responsible for the main intellectual, political, scientific and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.
If Stark is correct, and I believe he is, then to discard Christianity would be to discard the rudder that has guided us to success and to replace it with another that may steer us on to the rocks.
Stark attributes Christianity’s fruitfulness in spinning off progressive practical developments to its commitment to logic and reason as the path to enlightenment, progress and freedom. Jesus left no written strategic plan so Christians, inferring from scripture as to how best to proceed, developed the concept of a rational creator of an orderly universe that humans can understand and use for various purposes.
The world’s other great belief systems emphasise mystery, introspection and obedience more than Christianity and, although successfully accumulating knowledge and technology, they were less efficient than Christian Europe in translating these advances into freedom and prosperity.
Of course I acknowledge that although Christian principles are very fruitful, the practice of Christianity, both at individual level and at Church level, is often poor. Nevertheless, Christian principles influenced Europe sufficiently over the past 2000 years to power unparalleled progress.
For example, modern science arose in Christian Europe in the 17th Century, not in China which had developed a sophisticated culture long before Europe, or in classical Greece. Many people credit Christianity with providing the missing ingredients that gave rise to modern science.
The way Christians think about creation has four significant consequences. First, Christians believe in a rational God who created an orderly world. Second, the world is worthy of study because it is God’s creation. Third, in order to understand God’s handiwork it is necessary to examine the world. Fourth, the universe is not itself divine so it is not irreverent to investigate it. Together these four features provided the intellectual setting necessary to spark off modern science.
Christians believe that the individual is made in the image of God and is therefore endowed with intrinsic value and bears individual responsibilities. This gave rise, for example, to opposition to slavery. The Church banned slavery between Christians and ended slavery in Europe by the end of the 11th Century.
The Christian image of the individual also sparked concern for individual property rights. Stark describes how capitalism was invented in Christian monasteries, motivated by the idea that we have a God-given obligation to make progress. Indeed, capitalism was in full flower in Europe centuries before Protestantism, the conventionally-accredited ‘founder’ of capitalism, arose.
By the end of the 13th Century modern type corporations operated in Italy with share ownership and profit distribution and merchant banks arose with branches around Europe.
There are very many good things in modern society. For example, children from all backgrounds can access education up to the highest levels. People live longer today than ever before, living standards are high compared to the past and little severe poverty remains. Women now have pretty much the same opportunities as men and a wide range of minority groups are now tolerated much better than in the past. And much more.
Nevertheless, as European Christianity loses its influence negative consequences are clearly emerging. We now live in an age where individualism is rampant and the person is increasingly seen as the sum of his/her wants and desires.
There is widespread pressure to facilitate these wants/desires and to attach a human right to as many as possible, but little pressure to accompany new rights with responsibilities. Absolute values are denied and the notion of transcendent realities widely scorned.
Sexuality is commonly reduced to sensuality and the notion of gender fluidity has been enthusiastically embraced before being rigorously investigated. Material values predominate, periodically precipitating crises, e.g. the economic crash following the recent Celtic Tiger era. And current soaring suicide rates are surely related to diminished spiritual resources available to handle personal crises as formal religious observance declines.
Christianity always disapproved of abortion and today Catholic Church rules forbid abortion from conception on the basis that full human essence is present from the start. But there is no longer a strong widespread conviction that human life is somehow special, particularly at its earliest and latest stages. Almost every country in Europe has abortion on demand, a service used with alarming frequency - about one in four pregnancies are aborted.
While the battle to protect life at its earliest stages has been lost in Europe, the struggle to protect life at later stages is now in full flow but is also likely to be lost. Demands to facilitate euthanasia, both for the elderly and others who are in physical or mental distress, are loudly proclaimed.
Only a widespread Christian conviction that every human life is sacred would be powerful enough to see off these liberal demands for abortion and euthanasia. A non-religious person of course could also hold this reverence for life but there will never be enough such people to hold the line against abortion and euthanasia.
Although Christianity is on the rise in China, India and Africa, it is in sharp decline in Europe and seems set to decline still further as opinion-formers in the media everywhere promote secularism and call for religion to leave the public square. A Christian revival will undoubtedly emerge eventually, but who knows when or how strong it will be.
If Christianity continues to decline in Europe then I fear that the various tendencies I have identified above will continue to intensify. However, if people pondered the practical consequences of losing Christianity they would be emboldened to fight to retain this invaluable asset.
William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.