The Biblical Worldview and Western Civilisation

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.”

Image of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Stark, Rodney (Author) Amazon logo

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

“This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily in?uenced 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 in-direct means. In all ?ve 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 signi?cantly 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.

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12 Replies to “The Biblical Worldview and Western Civilisation”

  1. A fascinating subject indeed. I think you did a little write-up on Vishal Mangalwadi’s ‘The Book That Made Your World’ recently; that’s a great exploration into this. (I’m about halfway through it, and thoroughly enjoying it.) Thanks for your work, Bill.

  2. British scholar and Christian, John Lennox frequently makes the point that the fact that we can do science has much to do with the Biblical understanding of God as the divine Lawgiver and Creator: The rise of modern science owes much to the notion of God being an intelligent being, whose works in creation point to His rational intelligence and can therefore be understood and analysed successfully by the application of logic and rational thought to empirical observations.

    In terms of understanding the impact of Christianity on the rise of Western democracy and society, it is worth noting that neither the ancient Roman Republic nor the democratic city-state of ancient Athens accorded universal suffrage to all residents within their borders. Neither of these two ancient political systems were able to do away with slavery. Neither ancient Athens nor the Roman Republic proved immune to the inroads of dictatorship – the latter polity being superseded by that dictatorship known as the Roman Empire.

  3. So true. Ancient Greek “democracy” was really an aristocracy not that much different to what was practiced by warlords almost universally such as in the ancient UK. The elite kept on each other’s good side and the majority of the privileged had sway but the concept of equality outside the elite was nowhere to be found. The Holy Bible, on the other hand with its concept of “neither bond nor free, neither male nor female …” (Gal 3:28) and the concept of the leaders and the most capable serving the remainder, completely turned that around.
    It was not until we in the West had courts and statutes inspired by the old testament laws, including property rights, that ordinary people were able to, at last, gain enough assets to start to run profitable businesses instead of simply living hand to mouth in complete subjugation to the “nobility” and it was that ability to be able to use one’s own initiative, skill, work and financial assets to gain a return plus the accumulated knowledge from the Christian based colleges and universities that lead eventually, to the industrial revolution and modern business practice. This, of course, puts the lie to the concept of “trickle down” economics, which history teaches us would lead us back to a type of feudal system and stifle progress as it did in the past.
    The scientific method was essentially stated by Paul in his salutation at the end of First Thessalonians (5:21) and I am quite certain Newton’s concept of “equal and opposite reaction” was inspired by his Biblical knowledge and concept of justice, yet we have scientists today who still can’t grasp that Jesus had to die to balance the equation. Scientists know that rotation causes centripetal “force” but they still don’t know what the frame of reference is or where the centre of our universe is. Einstein was able to grasp the concept that light is constant but time and space bend because his Jewish background taught him that God is light and He does not change and light was before matter but today we have “scientists” who have to invent countless universes or dimensions to desperately try to come up with enough probability to try to explain how, what is impossible by all our current understanding, has happened (See Isa 28:10-13 “… line upon line…”) but they still cannot explain, despite the laws of probability and entropy etc., how order has arisen out of chaos and intelligence and information out of no intelligence and apparently no information.
    Yet despite all this, we now have the situation in some western democracies that used to be lights to the rest of the world where parts of the book we swear on to give testimony in court (I.e. the Holy Bible), cannot be read in public because it would be against the law. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

    Let love triumph, good overcome evil, knowledge overcome darkness and blessings to you all.

  4. Another great piece Bill, thank you. I concur and would highly recommend all of Rodney Starks latest books. Though an agnostic he writes in surprising support of Christianity. I’ve read a half dozen of his books now and they make for very interesting reading and he argues his case in each book with terrific insight and less than subtle distain for the Enlightrnment anti-God polemicists. His brilliant research turns typical trendy ideas about the Crusades, Western history, the so called Dark Ages etc all on their heads. All easy reads (and I’m dyslexic) which will be read over and over for both research and enjoyment reasons.

  5. You wrote; “This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily in?uenced 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.

    Hello world of my friend Bill M….Please consider this: The democrats of America would handle war in the world like this “Well guys deplomacy will conquer as we get through all the mis-trust, mis-understandings, and find a place of common ground”….I say OH YES: THIS IS EXACTLY CHRISTIAN, AND RIGHT….The republicans would handle war like this ” Well guys, we got 9,442 subs, 2368 destroyers, we got 19 carriers and 2.7 million ground troops, and airplains enough to fill montana skys…..let’s tell em’…SHAPE UP, or SHIP OUT !!!!!”….I say OH YES, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT WE SHOULD BE LIKE….. now this is what happened.

    All the dems would succeed as long as they stood for righteousness, but as you know “GOOD AND PROFESSIONAL” sinners are in need of good coverup for those sins. So they would handle it using “Useful idiots” and make their politics stink cause folks knew they were hiding stuff, cohersing [spelling?] people, and getting by….using money and power

    In a word “Diplomacy turned into “Court cases handled with the two lawyers, in the bar —across the street of the court, over a beer. “MONEY DELIVERED to cover our butt”

    and the beat goes on…….la de da da da

    We keep praying, and
    “truth will, in the end conquer all” John Wycliff

    The dems would use the precious blood bought liberties used to “the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms,” and cover the sinister infiltrators who wanted to erode the dear and Strong nation…….David Rock-a-fella [lol] said himself about the news was important to hush up before we [he said] could sneak in our agenda……..yeah right… of ANTI-GOD BABEL one world govenment

  6. Thanks, I’ll read the Woodberry article with great interest.

    That Christianity was responsible for science is the conclusion of quite a few authorities.

    Ged, you refer to Stark as an agnostic. The introduction to a 2004 interview described him as agnostic, but the introduction to a 2010 interview said:

    Stark used to describe himself as neither atheistic nor religious; later he identified himself as an “independent Christian.”

  7. I’m sorry Phillip but the idea that Christianity is responsible for science would be laughable in most circles. The difference in Christian societies is that we were taught how to use science for all our benefit. The point of the “line upon line” scripture is not that reason and reasoning is bad. The problems arise when you trust in that instead of in God. God has always allowed people to go their own way just as you would if you created a society of little robots or whatever. You would want to see what they would do. You would just get a little cranky when they didn’t do what they were supposed to (Gen 6:5-8). The only real difference between the Jewish temple and those of other societies was that, instead of an image of a deity at its centre, which of course is offensive to God, it had a box with ten moral precepts and a piece of wood that came back to life. That and of course, it was blessed with an occasional shining of God’s glory and occasionally zapped people who tried to mess with it. So God was trying to fit in with what we humans were doing and what we understood while guiding us in the right direction. Then, when we were ready, God gave us a huge hand up with the appearance of Jesus.
    The problem with modern views of science is that some people push the idea that naturalistic must mean atheistic. This, like all wrong assumptions, inevitably leads to mistakes such as promoting Socialism or Nazism or writing off huge swathes of DNA as “junk” or not noticing that if Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops etc. stayed ostensibly the same for the whole Cretaceous period, estimated at around seventy three million years, then that is contrary to Darwin’s idea of gradual change in small but still highly improbable, steps. Of course mosquitoes, sharks and crocodiles appeared to have remained the same for much longer than that and if you bother to look, there are mechanisms everywhere designed specifically to prevent the inevitably destructive effect of change in the DNA. The very last line of DNA defence (which includes sexual reproduction itself) is God’s sexual morality instructions given to us. They, of course, also have many other benefits.
    I love real science because when the Bible says we are created through God’s words we can now start to see God’s words written in the four letters of DNA. When the Bible says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psa 139:14) we can now start to see the huge and fascinating world of micro-machines that make up every cell in our body. When Jesus said the very hairs on our head are numbered (Luk 12:7), we are now starting to be able to see, through DNA, one part of how that is done as the micro machines that build us count off this many of this cell type with these functions then that many of another, as they follow the instructions in the DNA and knit us together. When Jesus talked about a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Mat 19:24) we can now start to see how a camel, converted to information, can pass through the eye of a needle and this, of course, shows us a glimpse of how resurrection is possible and how, like every good human inventor, Jesus proved and demonstrated the system, to a very skeptical audience, on Himself.
    So be rational but always trust God and understand that those who trust solely in their own thinking, are going to cause problems and try to remember you are worth many sparrows. (Mat 10:26-31)

  8. I’m sorry Michael, but I struggle to follow your points. I’m also sorry that the idea that Christianity is responsible for science is laughable in many circles, but people laughing at it doesn’t make it untrue.

    I also fail to see your point in comparing programmed robots with humans who have free will.

    Naturalistic is not atheistic in the sense that the two words are synonyms, but if your views are naturalistic, you have ruled out the supernatural, hence ruled out God, hence are atheistic. This is not a wrong assumption, and it is naturalism, not a mistaken belief about it, that is responsible for belief in so-called ‘junk’ DNA, etc.

    I agree with you about the wonders of DNA and the molecular machinery of living things, although the mechanisms that protect against degradation of DNA are not perfect (as nothing is in this fallen world), and despite those mechanisms, mutations are slowly but relentlessly destroying the DNA (see Genetic entropy and simple organisms).

    I agree that reason alone is not enough. Reasoning is what we do when we deduce new conclusions from existing information. That existing information must include knowledge of God and His ways if we want those conclusions to be good ones.

  9. There are none so blind as those who cannot see.
    God has a plan, which is available to all.

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