The Influence of Christianity on the Modern World

In school I learned a ton of great information, probably most importantly I read, wrote about, and discussed the classics in an advanced English class under an incredible teacher, which gave me the tools to learn the rest of what I needed to know on my own. But the thing that has surprised me the most since I started teaching my own kids was how much I had to unlearn from my school days. For example, I received the distinct impression that Christianity and the Catholic church in particular were stumbling blocks on the road of European progress. The Muslims, the Chinese, the Indians, even the civilizations in the Americas were more noble, more cultured, more technologically advanced than the barbaric European Christians.  The truth is that the influence of Christianity on our modern life is immense and mostly good.

This is a scene from the Inquisition by Goya.  The Inquisition represents the worst of human cruelty and the worst of the Renaissance church.  This was pretty much the whole of the truth in my mind as educated in my youth.  I didn’t know there were any redeeming qualities to the Christian church.

Since beginning to homeschool my kids I have read again and again from various authors how the great European scientists, philosophers, explorers, artists, and musicians were Christian. That wasn’t taught in public school and I was getting a little warmer, but still we were missing the mark. These great minds didn’t just happen to be Christians. In fact they were great because they were Christians. Now we’ve nailed it. Western progress, economics, philosophy, technology, society and the very freedom we enjoy are a direct result of Christianity.

This is Desiderus Erasmus, one of the most influential of European philosophers and one who believed firmly in the rights of the individual and freedom of conscience.  His beliefs came because of his Christian faith, not in spite of it.  He also saw that the Catholic church needed reforms, but was able to tell the difference between the church and Christianity itself.

In the early middle ages Europe had been torn apart when the pagan Barbarians destroyed the western Roman Empire. But knowledge, written works, and the Christian church itself were preserved in Ireland, the Byzantine Empire, and North Africa. Slowly as Europe settled down, the keepers of the knowledge brought back the truth, reconverting Western Europe to Christianity by the eighth century and setting up monasteries, the only centers of learning in the West.

This is a page from the Book of Kells. It was a copy of the four gospels, copied and illuminated by Irish monks. It was in the monasteries that literacy and literature remained during the dark ages of Europe in the wake of the fall of the western Empire.

By this time Europe had been so ravaged, its population now on the edge of survival that the people were dirty, poor, unlettered, lacking in basic necessities, and in very poor health. During this time India, the Muslim world, China, and the advanced civilizations in the Americas were indeed far in advance of the pitiful Europeans. But as Europe recovered, the Church preserved and expanded knowledge and kept literacy and language, art and music from completely disappearing. If there were advances in medicine, mathematics, art, or other areas it happened in the monasteries.

This is Roger Bacon who was born in 1214. He is considered to be the first modern scientist. He was also, not coincidentally, a Franciscan friar. He was well educated and a professor at Oxford University lecturing on Aristotle. He studied nature because he believed that all of God’s creations were worthy knowledge. His view on this was the norm in his time, not the exception.

By 1492 Europe was in a new crisis. The Catholic church had become incredibly corrupt. Once they no longer guided the morals of the nations, the nations and the people had devolved into brutality. This is the era of the Inquisition, the renewed persecution of the Jews and other groups, the sale of indulgences and other un-doctrinal practices, and witch hunts across Europe. War was constant, no one could expect safety on the roads, almost no one was faithful to their families, theft, robbery, and murder were common place. All of Europe was in a state of lawlessness. But two things happened to save Europe and Christianity. First Columbus found the New World and second Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a door in Wittenburg.

This is the young monk, Martin Luther, defending his beliefs and actions before a church court in Germany.  Eventually Luther would be excommunicated, start his own church, and in the long run change the face of European politics in which the church had become entwined.

Columbus’ discovery, along with the other early explorers, brought new desire for achievement, and new wealth flooding into Europe. Luther’s actions created a renewed moral authority, a return to Christian values and practices and over time it cleaned up the Catholic church as well. With stability, law, and prosperity restored to Europe the Renaissance could happen.

This is a painting of Christopher Columbus upon finding land in the west.  A lot of people blame Columbus for all of the bad things that happened to the natives of America after his discovery, but they forget that their prosperity, freedom, lifestyle, and “stuff” depend on the wealth and freedom the new land brought to the world.  Without Columbus there is no Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution or Technological Revolution.

It is from this point, approximately 1492, that Europe leaves the rest of the world behind and begins to make leaps and bounds in knowledge and increase of freedom. There were certain aspects of the doctrine of Christianity, not found in any other religion, that caused the massive leaps forward.

  1. Christians believe in the sanctity of life and the value of the individual.
  2. Jesus taught that all are equal before God, be they bond or free, male or female, or of whatever race.
  3. Christians coupled reason with the study of the word of God, believing that God’s word could only be understood with logic and pondering and deep thought.
  4. Christianity condemned slavery and any other form of the curtailing of individual freedom; believing instead in the concept of agency and personal responsibility.
The Christians did not begin slavery, but for some reason they and the west are the only ones ever blamed for it. Slavery has been and still is a plague on the world. Christians were the only ones to make an effort to end it.  Their feelings against slavery stemmed from their religious beliefs about the value of the individual and the equality of all men before God.

These beliefs led to an environment where the rule of law made all, even kings, subject to the laws, since all are equal before God, all should be equal before the law. It was Christian church men who supported and defended the rule of law, such as Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was behind King John of England signing the Magna Carta, a charter of rights of the English people. The exercise of reason led to the scientific method begun by Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar of the early 13th century, and the political thought of men such as John Locke and Adam Smith, both of whose philosophies centering around the individual and freedom are based on Christian thought.

King John signing the Magna Carta. The man standing in the center behind the table is Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had seen the people of England trampled by the powerful kings and was doing what he believed was morally correct in restoring some of their rights.

With capitalism and the concept that an individual has the right to keep the fruits of his labor came an impetus for discoveries and technological improvements of all kinds. The inflow of money from the Americas and trade with the far east meant that scholars, artists, and musicians could be supported by rich and powerful men, leaving the great minds free to discover new truths. It is only Christianity, among all faiths, that puts a high value on reason and the discovery of God’s creation. Besides all this, it was the Catholic church that first set up the infrastructure for learning and scholarship in the university system. Nearly all scholars of the middle ages and beyond were Christian priests and monks and nuns who worked in monasteries, universities, and convents.

Universities were invented by the Catholic church very early in the middle ages. Their purpose was to teach God’s law and learn about God’s creation.

Let’s quickly compare Christian philosophy to Muslim philosophy and we will see why the Muslim world stagnated and the Christian world innovated. According to Muslim theology all law is God’s Law. Sharia Law is the only way and the secular and the religious are one; there is no distinction between the two. Since God’s law has been handed down it is not to question, merely to obey. One does not interpret the Koran, one merely obeys its precepts. Innovation and deviance from this perfect and complete law is frowned upon. Moreover the individual is not significant, capital punishment and other horrible punishments, even torture are acceptable and worthy if they are protecting society from those who deviate from God’s law. The main duty of the Muslim nation is to preserve God’s Law and spread it until all the earth is subject to it, providing an unimpeded environment where conversion may take place. Free will of the individual isn’t really considered. There is no such concept as agency and there is certainly no thought that God’s world should be investigated or discovered. In fact innovations happening in Europe during this period were suppressed in the Muslim world by their leaders as dangerous heretical practices. The Muslim world still views the technology and advancement and economic conditions of the west as decadent and evil.

The Muslim world did have golden ages and Muslims did have universities and support learning and investigation, but this was in spite of their fundamental religious beliefs , not because of them, as in the Christian world.  The times when the Muslims were most successful in learning, art, and wealth were also the times when they were most liberal and secular.

Christian Europe and Christian scientists were the only ones in the world who could have brought about the scientific achievements and achievement in every other area, notably personal and economic freedom. It was only the Christians who had a philosophy that valued life, the individual, knowledge and reason for the sake of it, and the equality of the individual. It was and is Christians who championed the slave, women, children, the poor, and the cause of freedom across the world. To the degree we enjoy the blessing of modern life–from the cars we drive, to the medicine we take advantage of, to the plentiful food, and the huge degree of freedom we enjoy–we owe it to Christianity and the philosophies it espoused from the beginning.

Isaac Newton, one of the most influential and important scientists of all time was a devout Christian. He saw his discoveries and confirming the presence of God and confirming his faith, not the other way around.

Further, this knowledge isn’t just for Christians, it is for everyone, because no matter your beliefs today, your country and your lifestyle are based on these Christian philosophies.  You probably believe in the sanctify of life and that the individual is important no matter their circumstances.  You probably believe that the same laws should apply to everyone, no matter how rich or powerful or poor and obscure.  You probably believe that people have the right to keep what they earn.  You probably believe in basic morality like faithfulness in marriage, honesty, and not harming another in their body and mind.  You probably believe that slavery is evil.  You probably believe that women and children are people with full rights who deserve respect and the protection of the law.  You probably believe in freedom of conscience including the right to speak out against the government and the right to worship (or not) as you see fit.  You probably believe that the human mind is capable of reason and discovery and creative thought.

All these beliefs, all these things that are second nature to one raised in a Western culture, stem directly from Christian thought and Christian values even if you have forgotten from whence they came.

Additional Layers

  • Columbus himself constantly spoke of God, of his own mission of his belief that he was doing the work of God, and even that he believed his mission had been foretold by Isaiah.  Read Columbus’ account of his voyages for yourself.
  • Academic Tenure, the system whereby university professors cannot be fired except for dire causes, was begun to protect the pursuit of truth.  The universities were supposed to be the places of innovation and new thought.  If professors had to worry about offending the trustees or the president or the public then they would not be free to pursue the truth.  The pursuit of truth was why universities were established in the first place.
  • It is very true that only Christianity held the philosophical understanding that could create freedom and advancement, but that doesn’t mean every other religion is bad or devoid of truth.  It just means that they look at the world and the relationship of man with God from a different angle.
  • Many people today contend that the founders, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution have nothing to do with God or Christian values.  Have you read these documents?  What do you think?
  • The degree of freedom in America and spread by American influence throughout the world is miraculous by any measure.  Hardly anyone in the history of the world has ever had any personal freedom or concept of the rule of law and yet it is so widespread today.

2 Comments

    1. Layers of Learning

      I think it’s that we don’t articulate it well enough. I’ve seen lots of non-Christians frustrated by people who say America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, but then can’t say which values specifically. The numbered beliefs above are the only sources of freedom the world has ever known and they are very much uniquely Christian beliefs.

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