This a response to a question posed to me by an atheist regarding the influence of religious thinking derived from the Christian Bible, and more particularly the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, on Western culture. It started off with me questioning the case of atheists against the existence of a Creator via my twitter account (the full conversation could be found at the end of this article) and ended with a particular atheist asking me to explain why I say the moral views he holds are because of Jesus’ influence on his culture. He first insisted that his views are not formed by his culture but are his own. Later he became open to the idea that he, like all others, probably do adopt cultural thinking and values but ascribed it to an ‘evolving culture’ rather than Jesus. I take it what he meant by this is that people, over time, concluded certain values are more noble or more beneficial than others and that Jesus or Biblical teachings played no role in this. I of course beg (insist) to differ. Not on culture evolving but that Jesus was the pivot from which our Western cultural values and virtues evolved.
Atheist (as I will refer to you from hereon in this post), you mentioned the following as beliefs you hold through which you would likely influence society: “I believe in gender equality, morality, freedom of information, non-discrimination, freedom of speech, human rights, etc.”
I will touch on some of these and trust they will paint a good enough picture of Jesus’ influence on your thinking and values. I trust you will be able to logically connect the others to one another and to Jesus and Christian thinking as you do your own research, or consider to what extent traditionally Christian nations value those things compared to nations whose societal thinking has been built on alternative philosophies through the years.
Let’s start with human rights. Or let’s start with there being no god, no creator. We are then all products of chance consisting of randomly organised matter which happens to function as it currently does. We should have no more rights than plants, planets, animals or anything else for that matter. We do not have any specific value – we can’t just automatically claim we are valuable. If atheism (the belief that there is no god) is true we have no reference for our human worth, we can’t rationally deem ourselves valuable and we shouldn’t attribute rights to ourselves in the first place. How many religious philosophies actually teach that humans are valuable and special relative to other beings and objects? From our own human perspective though we would attribute to ourselves superior rights seeing that we’re biased towards our own kind. Similarly, white South Africans were biased toward their own kind and implemented Apartheid laws ensuring superior rights within their own country. Educated or wealthy people many times have a bias towards their own kind and have throughout history claimed rights that others did not enjoy. But what lead many parts of society to believe that all people are created equal? Why do we see class systems still active in many countries today while it has been abolished in others?
Gender equality. I suspect you do not suggest here that both genders are the same or able to generally function and perform the same but that both should enjoy equal opportunity to reach their potential. That when ‘a woman happens to be the best man for the job’ that job ought to be done by that woman? Essentially, that women should not be seen as lesser human beings but recognised as equally important in the functioning of society and that they should be honoured accordingly? Once again, in which nations do women enjoy most equality? And whenever they don’t, is it because of a movement towards or away from Biblical teaching and example? I turn now to a conversation between historian Prof. Edwin Judge and Simon Smart of the Centre for Public Christianity as they discuss the influence of Christianity on women’s rights. Judge talks of Plato who argued for total equality to the point where women should enter the front lines of war or compete in wrestling with men and also do so naked. These ideas were thrown out however seeing that society of that time thought of the idea of men and women as equals as something bizarre. He was of course disregarding the fact that although men and women might be equal, they are different in nature and physical stature. After him came his scholar Aristotle ‘who rejected Plato’s views on the grounds that by nature the reason of women is inferior to that of men’ just as the reason of slaves were considered as inferior to that of women. That was the rational argument laid down by Aristotle which deeply influenced antiquity and influences the world to this day, according to Judge. Christianity was then birthed amidst such thinking which brought with it the revolutionary idea that there was not an in principle division between men and women although it defended structural roles within families for the sake of a healthy society. Christian thought affirmed women as intellectual equals which resulted in women being greatly attracted to this new movement as we see when we compare the amounts of women who formed part of Jesus’ following, and also Paul’s and other apostles, to that of other philosophical movements of the time. Why were they so attracted to it? We find the answer in one of the great critiques against the church in that time which was that churches was infested with women which proves their inferiority. Churches were denounced by some philosophers because women had a voice and a vote within the church, and for letting women dominate in church. A well-known bit of scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he states that all people are equal before God in Christ, whether they were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-men, male or female – this was radically opposed to the thinking of that time.
Next, we cannot but consider those well-known stories about the radical way in which Jesus treated women in the above mentioned culture and what is more, we cannot deny the exalted position these testimonials hold in our Western thinking. A woman gets caught in adultery in a time where they would dispose of her without even flinching while the man caught in it with her would go free. Jesus opposed it all against popular opinion and exposed men and women as equally sinful before God and also equally valuable and entitled to His mercy. A prostitute once came to Jesus to anoint his feet with oil and were shunned by the men surrounding them for doing so as they advised Jesus that it would be better not to associate himself with her. Jesus responded by saying that wherever his gospel will be preached throughout the ages, this woman’s story will be told also – Jesus saw it fit to be associated with her and even more so to honour her in doing so*(see comments section). Other accounts are also given where Jesus interacted with women (a practise considered taboo in itself in those days) in a very respectful manner. We cannot deny that was it not for Jesus, very few women would have a voice and would truly be valued in this world and in our Western culture today.
(Lynn Cohick shares more on the topic of Women in the Roman World and tells that certain women in the Greco-Roman culture did in fact enjoy public and more superior positions at times)
When it comes to freedom of speech, countries which has been traditionally Christian allow their people the most freedom of expression and opinion while the non-Christian ones don’t. We do see a lot of this freedom being taken away and mostly so from Christians as more militant atheist and secular humanist groups act against traditional values in these countries. Likewise many ‘non-Christian’ countries are allowing more freedom as they are influenced by the West and Christian thinking.
Morality, how can this possibly be defined and put into practise without acknowledging a universal moral law? And which one shaped the culture you find yourself in? No country would be able to draw up laws without pointing it back to a reason for doing so. The reason why many of our ‘human rights’ systems are so flawed today is because it is ideas built on nothing. It is ascribed to gut feel rather than to God. Gilbert Meilaender tells of how UNESCO convened a panel of philosophers to examine the theoretical basis from which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s, after World War II has ended, was prepared. The philosophers were able to agree on many commitments we as humans ought to have towards one another as it makes practical sense but for the life of them, they do not know why. Champions of violently opposing ideologies were able to agree on certain human rights and put it forward under the condition that no one asks them ‘why?’. My question is always how can an agreement such as that one truly be sustainable or for how long can people keep on denying the massive elephant in the room: we have certainly come across a universal, recognisable moral law here but we can by no means open ourselves up, publicly, to the possibility that a Law-Giver laid it down.
Humility is something you didn’t mention but very interestingly the reason we honour humble people and see it as a virtue to be humble, in stead of proud or arrogant, could also be traced back directly to Jesus. It would be foolish to deny the direct impact Jesus had on Western culture and on many others even as we see and experience them today. Alain de Botton is an atheist of whom I’ve been reading quite a bit in the news lately as he is on tour promoting his latest book, Religion for Atheists. He is not shy to acknowledge that religion and Christianity in particular brought us to where we are today. He might not be too popular among atheists as he is very merciful towards and complimenting of Christianity and religion. In his reasoning and storytelling one again sees that ‘atheist dilemma’ of the elephant in the room surfacing: the clues point to God and religious reasoning works practically BUT…
It would be difficult for me to understand how you cannot agree with what I shared above but, as my blog description suggests: refute my facts with yours. If you have differing historical data please share them below in the comments section or if you believe different philosophies lead to these virtues of equality and freedom in the West, please share them.
I should also add that I am further convinced that Islam, Buddhist, Communist, etc. nations have many citizens who also believe in these rights you mentioned but I do not believe they derived it from an atheistic world view or even their own religious ones necessarily. Islamic teachings themselves were influenced by the Bible while many other nations have been influenced by Judaism and Christianity in the past. There is for instance a strong historical claim that Judeo-Christian thinking were foundational to the Chinese peoples before the existing culture was established.
I also invite you again as I did in the twitter conversation, to explain through a similar written piece, how you come to value these things from an atheistic (no god exists) world view.
[I enjoy sharing quotes related to the topic of discussion at the end of my artciles:]
“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found that it has no meaning…” -CS Lewis
“A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.” -Ravi Zacharias
The original twitter conversation as it evolved:
Other than their issues with theists and #religious institutions, does #atheists have an *actual* case against the existence of a Creator?
Actually, that’s the point – believers haven’t made a convincing argument for the existence in the first place.
Thanks for your responses (himself and another atheist responded). I’m collecting them to see how atheists reason and come to the ‘no god’ conclusion.#atheism
It doesn’t take any reason to dismiss a ridiculous idea. (But it helps!)
You’d be surprised, whole university courses are created to produce reasoned arguments that common logic concludes a Creator.
But all the same, atheists dismiss the god idea, you don’t have to have a reason to do that.
Not until you do so publicly and want to influence society through your beliefs,then you have to reasonably defend your position
Do you even know what beliefs I have that I would be influencing society with (as if such a small minority ever could.)
No but I would like to hear what you believe and why,if you are willing to share? Whatever they are,they’ll have to be defended.
I believe in gender equality, morality, freedom of information, non-discrimination, freedom of speech, human rights, etc.
Great! I believe you do so because your culture was largely shaped Jesus’ teachings and life. I don’t connect dots via atheism?
These beliefs are not from my culture, they are how I believe on my own. Please show how they can stem from Jesus.
No man=island.Your culture holds those things as virtues cause of Jesus.W/out God those things can’t be defined as good/noble.
Again, link them to Jesus. I might be more willing to say they come from culture as culture has evolved.
Will do in blog post, 140 too little. Would like you to then tell me how you derive what you mentioned from atheistic world view