Saturday, February 28, 2009

What's So Great About Christianity (Part 2)

Part 2 of “What’s So Great About Christianity” is an argument that the political and moral virtues cherished in modern Western society are the direct inheritance of the West’s Christian roots. The implication we are supposed to draw from this is that if these virtues find their roots in Christian ideas, then they are unsupportable or unsupported outside the Christian conceptual framework. It is, I think, uncontroversial that Christianity was influential in the development of western values, so the validity of D’Souza’s argument will turn on whether these values are defensible without accepting the full Christian message.

In chapter five D’Souza argues that the modern concept of limited government is a product of Christ’s injunction to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” in Matthew 22. It is important to note that even if the concept of limited government can be traced to Christ’s teachings, the first appearance of governments that were limited in the sense we mean when we say “limited government” came about as a product of the Enlightenment in Europe and America. It may be that the monarchies of the Middle Ages and early modern period were limited in their power by natural restrictions in resources or technology, so that people had a modicum of freedom of action unencumbered by governmental interference, but it likely wasn’t from lack of trying on the government’s part. These governments weren’t limited out of philosophical considerations about universal individual rights and liberties. Also, the notion of the separation of church and state may have conceptual roots in St. Augustine’s “City of God” as D’Souza claims, but it would be difficult to convince historians that anything like the modern separation existed in the Middle Ages. So, even if the idea is traced to Christian thought, it was not practiced by Christian society until well after the founding of Christianity.

It is unclear to me why D’Souza thinks Christianity specifically should be credited with the growth of religious tolerance (pp. 53-4); while it’s true that Christians (like the philosopher John Locke) were at the forefront of arguing for religious tolerance, it is equally true that their opponents, the people who wanted to limit religious freedom, were Christians as well.

D’Souza concludes chapter 5 by saying “Today courts wrongly interpret separation of church and state to mean that religion has no place in the public arena or that morality derived from religion should not be permitted to shape our laws” (56). But if there is not a non-religious justification for a law, then it seems to me at least arguable that the law is a violation of the prohibition of the establishment of religion. If the law is on the books only because of the religious rules of one particular sect, then it amounts to the government advocating that religion. Take as an example laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays in certain areas. These laws clearly have no other purpose than to impose a particular religious moral prohibition on the community at large.

Chapter 6 compares the morality of Christianity to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in order to argue that Christian morality is more in concert with what we all believe today. He starts by arguing that Paul “repudiates an entire tradition of classical philosophy” (57) when he claims that people don’t do evil strictly out of ignorance of the good. The view that the philosophical problem of “weakness of will” is solved by claiming that ignorance is the cause of bad actions is Plato’s, but it certainly is not Aristotle’s view. Aristotle devotes a substantial portion of his “Nicomachean Ethics” to discussion about the problem of weakness of will, none of which is acknowledged by D'Souza. D’Souza also mischaracterizes the real content of Aristotle’s moral philosophy by claiming that he “cherished” the “great-souled” man. Aristotle does mention (as one type of virtuous man) the man who is better than others (more noble, wealthy, etc) and knows it, and certainly this is not something that we would consider to be a virtue today. But this idea of the great-souled man plays very little role in Aristotle’s ethics. The bulk of his discussion is centered on the concept of human well-being and virtues like courage, temperance, friendship, justice, and other traits that we still value today. These concepts get their first philosophical justification and discussion in the Greeks, not in Christian thought. Christianity certainly contributed to the development of moral philosophy, but the idea that it displaced Greek moral concepts in doing so is simply historically inaccurate.

His claims that Christianity invented the family are also historically debatable. He insinuates that in Greece homosexuality was the norm for sexual life, and little value was placed on marriage. Nothing I’ve read about ancient Greece confirms this. People married, lived together, had children, etc. in Greece (much as they did in most of the ancient world). Certainly the modern family structure has been influenced by Christianity, but D’Souza seems to imply that if it weren’t for Christianity, that nothing approximating the modern family would exist, and I can see very little evidence that this is true.

Chapter 7 attempts to argue that from the very beginning Christianity transformed notions of human dignity and laid the groundwork for our modern notions of human equality and freedom, a proposition that I think is false. D’Souza really does not take seriously the fact that there are not injunctions against slavery in the bible. There may be instructions to treat slaves well, but there is certainly nothing in the bible that directly admonishes people for owning slaves. This has to be accounted for if you are going to argue that the notions of human dignity and equality are the unique product of Christian thought. His response that Christians were discouraged from holding other Christians as slaves is no response at all if he is attempting to show that Christianity contains within it fully formed ideas of equal rights for all.

D’Souza criticizes the ancient Greeks for being a slaveholding society, but lauds the Christian founders of the U.S. as championing freedom 1800 years after the foundation of Christianity supposedly paved the way for equal rights for all. Never mind the fact that western nations had been ruled by Christian leaders since the end of the Roman Empire, and would have had the power to abolish slavery long ago. Never mind the fact that even in the U.S. it ultimately took a Civil War to finally deal with the problem of slavery in half the country.

I’m fully aware that slavery was a complicated political problem and a deeply entrenched institution that was not exclusively practiced within Christianity; slavery is a problem of human history, not only of Christian history. But then neither is the abolition of slavery an exclusively Christian achievement; D’Souza can’t credit only Christianity for the eventual abolition of slavery when Christian society took very few steps toward that abolition in the 12 or 13 centuries prior to the Enlightenment.

Ultimately, though, the second part of D’Souza’s book is built on one long non-sequitor. His argument is intended to imply that because the values we share as a western culture have their origins in Christian thought that if we give up Christianity we will be required to surrender of all of those values. But this simply does not follow. It mistakes the context of the discovery of an idea for the context of its justification. What ultimately or properly grounds a moral idea does not have to be identical to what was used to justify it in the first place. As children we may learn to be kind to others in order to avoid punishment from our parents, but once we reach adulthood, and we no longer are threatened by punishment, we may realize that there are perfectly good reasons to be kind to others that are entirely divorced from our parents’ prescriptions. Likewise, if Christianity has hit upon good moral ideas, then those will be rationally defensible outside the context of Christianity. The political and moral ideals valued in western society are now, whatever their roots, valued for their own sake, not because of their place in a religious metaphysic.

In addition to the fact that the values we have are now entrenched to the point that no loss of religious belief would necessitate a “re-valuation” of values, those values are not simply the common currency of conventional moral and political thought and without further philosophical justification. There is a lot of work that has been done in philosophy in the foundations of ethics and politics, with fully developed theories that provide objective foundations for democratic values and moral principles. D’Souza’s argument presumes that any attempt to ground morality without religion is bound to fail, but we have no reason to believe that it is impossible to provide the rational foundations of moral and political ideals without (explicitly or implicitly) invoking religious propositions to do so.

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