Western & Christian Civilization

Western Civilization is identified by the three major elements unique in world history:  (1) the rise of the freemarket of ideas and the empirical sciences, (2) the development of due process, equality before the law, and ordered freedom in civil government, a Godly republic (which generally, but very mistakenly, goes under the name of “liberal democracy”), and (3) the rise of economic freedom, i.e., freemarket capitalism, in which the rich can no longer commandeer the coercive force of civil government to plunder the poor — bottom-up capitalism[1].

But since at least the late 1700’s, all three have been spiced with an increasingly secular flavor so that the Biblical worldview has been all but chased from the public arena in the West, and secular interests have laid claim to these three crown jewels of Western Civ., science, politics, and economics.  Christians participate in all three, but only rarely as Christians. And when they do, they are thought to be very much out of place — and by some, dangerous.

Nevertheless, that which ordered our freedom and gave rise to Western civil law was precisely the moral law of God, as stated in the American Declaration of Independence, and symbolized, for example, by the Decalogue posted in the American Supreme Court, and by celebration of the Biblical themes in American history all through the capitol building in Washington, D. C.

And, more to the point for our present purposes, that which ordered the cosmos, making the rise of empirical science almost inevitable, was the natural law of God — which alone gave rational order to the world.  No cosmology other than the Biblical offers such a foundation, so that what we call science today could have arisen only in a culture such as that of the Biblical Middle Ages, that supposedly benighted era from which “enlightened” secularism claims to have saved us.  No cosmology other than the Biblical asserts that the cosmos is orderly, morally good, and designed to be human-friendly — three essentials for the rise of science.

The secular worldview wants to claim the crown jewels of Western Civilization as its own production, but that worldview could not have produced those jewels.  It got them from the Biblical view, now in such bad repair and repute (when one can find it at all).

The Middle Ages was hardly perfect, and was only beginning to explore some of the wider possibilities of Biblical culture.  It failed to provide the intellectual, moral, and spiritual leadership which could have averted the schisms of the Reformation, the resulting religious wars, and the devastating secular response to the mess that Christians (not Christ) had made.  But those failures do not change at all the fact that without the Biblical base, empirical science as we know it could never have arisen. Rodney Stark writes in his conclusion to The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Let to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success:

Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls.  Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were, say, in 1800:  A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.  A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos.  A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth — a world truly living in “dark ages”.

The modern world arose only in Christian societies.  Not in Islam.  Not in Asia.  Not in a “secular” society — there having been none.  And all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries[2].

If that seems absurd and pluralistically challenged, consider the following:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.  We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.  That is why the West is so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

And who would write such outrageous prose?  Stark introduces that paragraph as a recent statement by one of Communist China’s leading scholars”.  Perhaps the same Chinese communist leader who said that if he had his choice of a national religion, it would be Christianity — because it was the Christians, he said, who were taking care of the social problems, reaching out to the poor and needy[3].

Making Christianity a “national religion” (if that means enforced) would, of course, effectively destroy its power of redemption.  Judeo-Christianity is built on freedom, not coercion.

The secular and the pagan worlds are deficient in both ontological and moral substance[4].  That is a bold counter-cultural claim, for which this present volume and those to follow are part of my attempt to help establish the point.  As Stark peers into the sociological and cultural reasons for the (to most contemporary Westerners) astonishing Biblical foundations of science, economics, and a freedom-promoting government, likewise we are here peering into the metaphysical reasons for it being so.

As Stark and others document, to almost all of the early scientists it was not astonishing, it was just ordinary fact, the way things were.  They were discovering God’s laws after Him.  And, despite the blunders and crimes of an all too-often power-oriented Church, it was also standard teaching among both catholic and protestant Christians up through the colonial period.  The sovereignty of God over all things was part of English common law, as recorded by William Blackstone, the preeminent English jurist at the time of the American Revolution, and as understood by our founding fathers[5].   God was understood to be sovereign precisely because He was creator.  The ontological and moral foundations are logically wedded[6].

Among others aiming to get Christians back into the fray are some in the Intelligent Design movement, about which these volumes will have much to say[7].  The 21st century promises to be quite different from the previous two, as Christians, with painful slowness, regain their intellectual, moral, and spiritual credibility.



[1] Democracy was universally despised by the American founding fathers, who saw it (rightly) as mob rule, the tyranny of the majority.  In practice, it turns into a tyranny of the elite who learn how to manipulate the levers of government over that now hapless and atomized majority, to their own advantage. What the Constitution gave us, as Ben Franklin noted, was a republic.  America is a democratic republic under God.  There is, of course, a democratic element (the people chose their own rulers, and are thus the primary officers of the state).  America is a republic in that the laws are made not by the people directly, but by their elected representatives.  And, it is all under the law of God, as stated by the Declaration of Independence. Only under the law of God can either rights or obligations be objective, let alone inalienable. See Bibliography for Defining ‘Oughtness’ and “Love” on the case for the law of God being the only foundation for objective ethics. Freemarket capitalism set the common man free from the plundering of the rich and powerful (and hence fostered the rise of a middle class), but it could happen only under the growing political freedom provided by the emerging Biblical political structure which rested on the notion that all men are created in the image of God. The powerful became less and less able to plunder the poor.  Rodney Stark makes this case in The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Capitalism, the boogie man of socialism and communism, becomes dangerous only when it colludes with government, whether communist or fascist.  It tries to enlist the coercive power of government to secure its profits against competition.  Government then becomes a player in the commercial game and can no longer be an honest referee.

[2] The Victory of Reason, p. 233.

[3] Ibid., p. 235.

[4] These claims against secularism and paganism will be given some substance here in Personality, Empiricism, & God, but will receive further explanation in Yahweh or the Great Mother?

[5] See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, Section the Second, “Of the Nature of Laws in General” ISBN 0-226-05538-8.

[6] See Bibliography for my article, Defining ‘Oughtness’ & ‘Love’.


Dr. Earle FoxDr. Earle Fox is IAI’s Senior Fellow in Philosophy of Science and the Worldview of Ethical Monotheism.

This article is an extract from the Preface (section A-3-b) of Dr. Fox’s book A Personalist Cosmology in Imago Dei: Personality, Empiricism & God, Vol. I. See also Dr. Fox’s new Book Abortion, the Bible and America.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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