Has Christianity been good for us? It depends on your history book

Unthinkable: Author Charles Freeman believes we shouldn’t forget the sectarian legacy of Christian churches

What has Christianity ever done for us? The questionhas launched a thousand family arguments. You say “charitable works”, I say “Crusades”. You say “promoting human dignity”, I say “clerical abuse”.

In his popular book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, historian Tom Holland gives weight to the more sympathetic view, arguing that Christian thinking paved the way for such modern attractions as human rights, secularism and even atheism.

But "which Christianity are we talking about"? That's the challenge Charles Freeman throws down to Holland and like-minded souls in his book The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700. Freeman says Holland "falls into the trap of believing that Christianity was in some way a coherent entity".

Highlighting the way Christian churches embedded sectarian thinking at least until the 18th century, Freeman writes: “It is often said that Christianity encouraged equality, yet it is hard to find any ‘Christian’ political system outside a few radical sects where this was recognised.”

Freeman is best known for his 2003 book The Closing of the Western Mind, which detailed how rational thought was widely suppressed by Christian churches through the Middle Ages, and in his latest work he has lost none of his intolerance for Christian nostalgia.

He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

You challenge the notion that Christianity encouraged equality in the period to 1700. Would you go further and say Christianity promoted inequality for much of western history, and in particular created a religious justification for slavery?

“One of the themes of my earlier books The Closing of the Western Mind and AD 381 is how the Roman state took over Christianity and established it as an authoritarian institution. Augustine consolidated this with his insistence that we are all diminished by original sin.

“The influence of the philosophy of Plato, who taught that an ‘enlightened’ minority had the right to impose their rule on the majority, was also important. The combination was to embed Christian authority over a sinful majority.

“A key point I emphasise is that ‘there is no salvation outside the church’, and this led to a rejection of pagans, Jews and Muslims and an acceptance that slavery could be enforced with scriptural justification, ‘the curse of Ham’ from Genesis. I argue that the rejection of those who had not made a commitment to Christ is essential to understanding the ethical history of Christendom.”

How do you respond to the claim by Christian apologists that the historical sins of the churches were due to a misreading of scripture rather than due to Christianity itself?

“Part of the problem is the sheer extent and variety of the biblical texts. I once did a study of political pamphlets from the English Civil War [1642-49] and every form of government from divine monarchy to communism found texts to support it. I was recently talking to an evangelical Christian who said that ‘modern’ Christians neglected the texts that told how wrathful God was. Of course, this had its advantages in that any culture could find texts either to support its liberation or its imposition of authority.

“I think that recent books such as Tom Holland’s Dominion, which argues that ‘Christianity may be the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world and its emergence the single most transformative development in western history’, fail to recognise the complexity of the religion, especially with the rise of nationalist Protestantism – the Calvinist Netherlands, the Lutheran Prussia, the Anglican England – which make the story even more complicated.

“By the outbreak of the first World War, every nation had its version of the Christian God and enlisted his support for its attacks on their opponents.”

You note Protestantism is often associated with the revival of reason but that this 'was not the intention of the reformers'. To what extent can either Catholicism or Protestantism lay claim to paving the way for the Enlightenment?

“In the final chapters of the Awakening, I stress that it was the religious wars after the Reformation and the refusal of each church to tolerate its rivals that led to the formulation of religious toleration. This was developed by the Enlightenment thinkers. It is hard to see how ether Catholics or Protestants were responsible for the Enlightenment. Christian reformers often looked backwards to the supposed purity of the early church, not forwards to accepting intellectual diversity.”

A theme that runs throughout the book is how to gauge historical progress. Is the history of the West too often narrated as though it was on an inevitable upward trajectory?

“Yes, it has been very prevalent, especially in the United States, and has many strands from imperialism to the success – for some more than others – of the industrial revolution and ‘victory’ in the cold war. I largely avoid the question, stating in my first chapter that ‘any attempt to define ‘western civilisation’ philosophically soon becomes frustrated’. Where does the Holocaust fit into ‘progress’?

“I also note Montaigne’s comments that any American Indian coming to Europe and seeing the religious wars and other atrocities would think that we, not they, are the barbarians. In my chapter on the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which was supposed to set Britain on the path to liberal democracy, I state that it was not ‘Glorious’ for the Irish.

“I end, slightly more positively, after discussing the birth of religious toleration and other cultural achievements by saying that by 1700 there was ‘a process, often fitful and haphazard of an awakening of the western mind’.”

Ask a sage:

Question: Is it wrong to make generalisations about a religion?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel replies: “An idea is always a generalisation, and generalisation is a property of thinking. To generalise means to think.”