The Biblical Worldview and Western Civilization

Barb Wire

Without the Judeo-Christian worldview, the West as we know it would not exist. So many of the social goods of the West which we enjoy — and too often take for granted — such as democracy, freedoms of various kinds, the rule of law, and so on, are very much the result of the Biblical worldview.

Even the fruits of scientific and technological progress which have made life so much easier in recent centuries can be traced directly back to the Christian worldview. Yet misotheists and Christophobes continue to denigrate biblical religion, foolishly claiming that no religion or anti-religion is instead the explanation for the rise of the West.

I have written often about how Biblical revelation underpins and forms a solid foundation of the development of the West with all its benefits. Indeed, entire volumes have been written on this, and undoubtedly many more will be. Let me refer to just one.

American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark penned a very important volume back in 2005 entitled The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success. In it he wrote, “A series of developments allowed reason to shape Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reasoning and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”

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And again: “During the past century, many intellectuals have assumed that the West surged ahead in areas like capitalism and science precisely as it overcame religious barriers. But in truth, the success of the West in these pursuits rests heavily on religious foundations, and the people who drove the progress were mostly devout Christians. This is true even of the rise of science — which was effectively nurtured by Christianity.”

In addition, we have a number of important articles found in reputable social science journals also making this case. As but one example, there was a scholarly article penned over a year ago (but only just brought to my attention), which solidly and convincingly makes this same point.

In the May 2, 2012 edition of the American Political Science Review, Robert D. Woodberry of the National University of Singapore wrote an incisive piece entitled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” There he makes a forceful case for how Christian missions largely laid the groundwork for so much of the democratic West.

Too long to properly summarize here (it extends to over 30 pages), it may be best to just allow the author to summarize his findings. In his introduction he says this:

This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.

Statistically, the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania and removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research about democracy. The association between Protestant missions and democracy is consistent in different continents and subsamples, and it is robust to more than 50 controls and to instrumental variable analyses.

With a wealth of data, information, and statistical analysis, he convincingly makes his case. Consider his section on “The Origin of Democratic Theory and Institutions.” It begins as follows:

Those who doubt the religious roots of democracy typically overemphasize its Athenian, Enlightenment, and Deist roots. However, religious factors are also important. Modern democracy differs greatly from Athenian democracy, and Enlightenment theorists incorporated many legal and institutional innovations from earlier religious movements.

In fact, arguments for political pluralism, electoral reform, and limitations of state power were originally framed in religious terms. For example, Calvinists tried to reconstruct states along ‘godly’ lines and limit sinful human institutions.

Perhaps as a result, most Enlightenment democratic theorists came from Calvinist families or had a Calvinist education, even if they were either not theologically orthodox or personally religious (e.g., John Locke, Rousseau, Hugo Grotius, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton), and they secularized ideas previously articulated by Calvinist theologians and jurists.

For example, Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contracts are secular versions of Puritan and Nonconformist covenants, and Locke’s ideas about the equality of all people are explicitly religious.

Or consider his comments on education:

Another mechanism through which CPs dispersed power was through spreading mass education. Much statistical research suggests that formal education increases both the level of democracy and the stability of democratic transitions. CPs catalyzed the rise of mass education all around the world.

Let me finish with just a small part of his “Discussion and Conclusion”:

Both historical and statistical evidence suggest that CPs promoted democracy, although often through indirect means. In all five contexts analyzed — Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, European settler colonies, and mission territories — Protestantism is associated with democracy.

Comparative historical analyses show that CPs consistently initiated and spread factors that past research suggests promote democracy: mass printing, mass education, civil society, and colonial rule of law. In cross-national statistical analysis Protestant missions are significantly and robustly associated with higher levels of printing, education, economic development, organizational civil society, protection of private property, and rule of law and with lower levels of corruption. Moreover, wherever they have been tested, these patterns repeat at the subnational level …

“A century ago Max Weber argued that Protestantism helped spur the rise of capitalism. Some of his causal mechanisms may be wrong, but his main intuition seems right: Religious beliefs and institutions matter. What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.

I encourage you to read the entire article. But this is just one more offering from mainstream scholarship showing the overwhelmingly vital and necessary place of Christianity in the transformation of the world and the development of the West.

No one here is arguing that Christianity is solely responsible for the rise of the West, but it is a major, if not the major, factor in it. That is no small achievement, and something which all the detractors of Christianity should start owning up to and acknowledging.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.
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