The Influence of Christianity on Western Culture, Part One: Liberty, Equality, and Human Rights

Does religion have a deep influence on the minds of those living in a largely secular culture, shaping the subconscious beliefs and assumptions of even staunch atheists? Such is the argument of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argues that the contemporary secular liberalism of America and Europe is rooted in the principles of Christianity, and that our civilization suffers when it borrows selectively from Christianity while rejecting the religion as a whole.

Douthat’s provocative claim was challenged by liberal commentators Will Saletan and Julian Sanchez, and if you have time, you can review the three-sided debate here, here, here, here, and here. In brief, Douthat argues the following:

When I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that. In Bad Religion, I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole. And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals.

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ ‘render unto Caesar’ and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel. . . .

And the more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual ‘skyhooks,’ suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. 

Julian Sanchez, a scholar with the Cato Institute, responds to Douthat by noting that societies don’t need to agree on God and religion to support human rights, only to agree that human rights are good. According to Sanchez, invoking God as the source of goodness doesn’t really solve any problems; at best, it provides one prudential reasons to behave well (i.e., to obtain rewards and avoid punishment in the afterlife). If we believe human rights are good and need to be preserved, the idea of God adds nothing to the belief: “The notion seems to be that someone not (yet) convinced of Christian doctrine would have strong reasons—strong humanistic reasons—to hope for a world in which human dignity and individual rights are respected. But then why aren’t these reasons enough to do the job on their own?” Furthermore, Sanchez argues that morals can be regarded as “normative properties” that are already part of reality, and that secular moralists can appeal to this reality just as easily as believers appeal to God, only normative properties don’t require beliefs about implausible deities and “Middle Eastern folklore.”

Both Douthat and Sanchez make some good arguments, but there are some weaknesses in both sides’ claims that I wish to explore in this extended essay. My view, in brief, is this: Christianity, or any other religion, does not have to be a package deal. Religious claims about various miracles that seem to violate the patterns of nature established by science or the empirical findings of history and archeology should be subject to scrutiny and skepticism like any other claim. Traditional morals that have long-standing religious justifications, from child marriage to slavery, should be subject to the same scrutiny, and rejected when necessary.

And yet, it is difficult to deny the influence of religion on our perceptions — and conceptions — of what is good. I find existing attempts to base human morality and rights solely on reason and science to be unpersuasive; morals are not like the patterns of nature, nor can they be proved by the deductive methods of reason without accepting premises that cannot be proved. While rooted in reality, morals seem to point to something higher than our current reality. And human freedom to choose defies our attempts to prove the existence of morals in the same way that we can prove the deterministic patterns of gravity, chemical reactions, and nuclear fission.


Let us consider one such attempt to establish human rights through science and reason by Michael Shermer, director of the The Skeptics Society and founder of Skeptic magazine. In an article for Theology and Science, Shermer attempts to found human rights on reason and science, relying exclusively on “nature and nature’s laws.”

Mr. Shermer begins his essay by noting the many people in Europe that were put to death for the crime of “witchcraft” in the 15th through 17th centuries, and how this witch-hunting hysteria was endorsed by the Catholic Church. Fortunately, notes Mr. Shermer, “scientific naturalism,” the “principle that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood” and “Enlightenment humanism” arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, destroying the old superstitions of religion. Shermer cites Steven Pinker to explain how the application of scientific naturalism to human affairs provided the principles on which human societies made moral progress:

When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback form the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases . . . we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics.

Shermer argues that morals follow logically from reason and observation, and proposes a Principle of Moral Good: “Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).”

Unfortunately, this principle, allegedly founded on reason and science, appears to be simply another version of the “Golden Rule,” which has been in existence for over two thousand years, and is found in nearly all the major religions. (The West knows the Golden Rule mainly through Christianity.) None of the religions discovered this rule through science or formal logical deduction. Human rights are not subject to empirical proof like the laws of physics and they don’t follow logically from deductive arguments, unless one begins with premises that support — or even presuppose — the conclusion.

Human rights are a cultural creation. They don’t exist in nature, at least not in a way that we can observe them. To the extent human rights exist, they exist in social practices and laws — sometimes only among a handful of people, sometimes only for certain categories of persons, sometimes widely in society. People can choose to honor and respect human rights, or violate such rights, and do so with impunity.

For this reason, I regard human rights as a transcendent value, something that does not exist in nature, but that many of us regard as worth aspiring to. In a previous essay on transcendence, I noted:

The odd thing about transcendence is that because it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach. . . . We worship the transcendent not because we can prove it exists, but because the transcendent is always drawing us to a higher life, one that excels or supersedes who we already are.

The evils that have human beings have afflicted on other human beings throughout history cannot all be attributed to superstitions and mistaken beliefs, whether about witchcraft or the alleged inferiority of certain races. Far more people have been killed in wars for territory, natural resources, control of trade routes, and for the power to rule than have been killed by accusations of witchcraft. And why not? Is it not compatible with reason to desire wealth and power? The entire basis of economics is that people are going to seek to maximize their wealth. And the basis of modern liberal-democracy is the idea that checks and balances are needed to block excessive power-seeking, that reason itself is insufficient. Historians don’t ask why princes seek to be kings, and why nations seek to expand their territory — it is taken for granted that these desires are inherent to human beings and compatible with reason. As for slavery, it may have been justified by the reference to certain races as inferior, but the pursuit of wealth was the main motivation of slave owners, with the justifications tacked on for appearance’s sake. After all, the fact that states in the American south felt compelled to pass laws forbidding the teaching of blacks indicates that southerners did in fact see blacks as human beings capable of reasoning.

The problem with relying on reason as a basis for human rights is that reason in itself is unable to bridge the gap between desiring one’s own good and desiring the same good for others. It is a highly useful premise in economics and political science that human beings are going to act to maximize their own good. From this premise, many important and useful theories have been developed. Acting for the good of others, on the other hand, particularly when it involves a high degree of self-sacrifice, is extremely variable. It takes place within families, to a limited extent it results in charitable contributions to strangers, and in some cases, soldiers and emergency rescue workers give their lives to save others. But it’s not reason that’s the motivating factor here — it’s love and sympathy and a sense of duty. Reason, on the other hand, is the tool that tells you how much you can give to others without going broke.

Still, it’s one thing to criticize reason as the basis of human rights; it is quite another to provide credit to Christianity for human rights. The historical record of Christianity with regard to human rights is not one that inspires. Nearly all of the Christian churches have been guilty of instigating, endorsing, or tolerating slavery, feudalism, despotism, wars, and torture, for hundreds of years. The record is long and damning.

Still, is it possible that Christianity provided the cultural assumptions, categories, and framework for the eventual flourishing of human rights? After all, neither the American Revolution nor the French Revolution were successful at first in fully implementing human rights. America fought a civil war before slavery was ended, did not allow women to vote until 1920, and did not grant most blacks a consistently recognized right to vote until the 1960s. The French Revolution of 1789 degenerated into terror, dictatorship, and wars of conquest; it took many decades for France to attain a reasonably stable republic. The pursuit of human rights even under secular liberalism was a long, hard struggle, in which ideals only very gradually became fully realized.

This long struggle to implement liberal ideals raises the question: Is it possible that Christianity had a long-term impact on the development of the West that we don’t recognize because we had already absorbed Christian assumptions and premises in our reason and did not question them? This is the question that will be addressed in subsequent posts.