HISTORY by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Christianity and progress in human happiness
, March 11, 2017
In What Is Good? British historical and philosophical populariser and atheist A.C. Grayling, Reader in Philosophy at Birbeck College, University of London, complained about the influence exerted by religion before, during and after the Middle Ages, claiming that, following six or seven centuries from the height of classical Athens to the last flourishing of the Antonine dynasty in Imperial Rome, in the succeeding period, “more than twice as long, the Western world – for most of that time restricted to Europe – lay under the ideological hegemony of Christianity.”
The fact that Grayling missed – the elephant in the room, to use current jargon – is that those years (if one does in fact pick a 1,300-year period, say the years 500 AD to 1800 AD) were, “under the ideological hegemony of Christianity”, marked by progress, development, expansion of knowledge and improvement in the human condition such as to dwarf all the previous progressive achievements of civilisation since civilisation began, with the groundwork laid for even greater advances to come.
The Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain, was in use until the last century.
The period of intellectual hegemony of Christianity that Grayling deplores was the period of the greatest advance in human happiness, scientific and technological knowledge, progress and freedom that humanity has known. For the first time serious efforts were made to put the care of the sick, poor and old, as well as public education, and both the preservation and accumulation of knowledge, on a general institutionalised basis.
G.K. Chesterton remarked in 1904 that Christianity was the religion that had also built the best roads, and asked: “Are you surprised that the same civilisation which believed in the Trinity discovered steam?”
Then there was Chesterton’s further sarcastic observation in The Illustrated London News of February 13, 1926: “They assume that if the Huns had not been Christians … there would have been no theological squabbles to divert them from scientific culture and social reform … It is suggested that border chieftains would all have been arguing in debating clubs about evolution and ethics, but for the blighting influence of theology.”
Ancient civilisations resembled one another far more than they resembled modern scientific and technological civilisation, which is qualitatively different. The technological “ceiling” on human progress, dependent on slaves, animal power and sails since the dawn of civilisation, can perhaps be illustrated as follows: suppose an architect from the great pyramid-building time of Ancient Egypt – about 2,900 BC – was transported forward in time 3,000 years, to the Rome of the first century AD. He would of course notice many differences. With the knowledge of hydraulics that ancient Egypt had developed in utilising the Nile flood for irrigation, he would have been impressed by the aqueducts. There was, however, still no use of pressurised water.
The use of arches would be new to him, but he would be able to see the principles involved. As had probably been the case in ancient Egypt, blocks and tackles of various sorts, reinforced by whips, aided and multiplied the efforts of human muscle in moving and elevating masses of stone. Importantly, brick-making had improved, with fired bricks replacing the mud-bricks that humans had used for thousands of years. The great roads and bridges would probably attract his admiration, if he did not consider them a waste of resources that could have been spent more sensibly building a halfway-decent pyramid. There would be considerably more and stronger metal used.
There would be invisible differences in ways of thinking and perceiving the world, including the influences of Greece and even of Judea. Perhaps he would hear of the small, odd sect called Christians, whose symbol was a fish – not too outlandish an idea for an Egyptian whose gods were depicted with the heads of jackals, lions, ibises and baboons. Nor would he be surprised that they believed that the soul faced Judgement after death – he believed that himself.
But basically, after 3,000 years, there would probably be nothing about the technology – except possibly for concrete or cement – which he could not quickly understand or which would contain great mysteries for him. Dyed cloth was still an expensive luxury produced by short-lived slaves toiling in fumes and poison in dye-works, for whose chemicals human and animal excrement was a major source. Perhaps the great baths would mean fewer fleas and lice for those who used them, if not necessarily for the slaves who stoked the furnaces below to provide the hot water and steam. That steam probably lifted the lids of cooking pots and kettles as it had done in Egypt, and as in Egypt, no one conceived that it might lift anything else.
There were great tunnels under Rome, but there had also been great tunnels under and through the pyramids and under the Great Sphinx and the Giza plateau, hacked out by slaves in much the same way, the slaves themselves dying from inhaling much the same sort of stone-dust.
The most advanced transport was still animal-powered, one of the most glamorous methods of transport and war was still the chariot, ships were still powered by sail and oars, and the whole structure was still dependent upon the sweat of slaves and the lashes of overseers. The most universal and efficient accelerator for both humans and animals was still the whip or for draught animals something crueler.
Soldiers still fought with spears, swords and bows and arrows. Beggars still begged at city gates, and the infections of their sores and the mortification of their amputated stumps still spread at about the same rate. Pharaohs were called Emperors but were still regarded as having a special relationship with the gods. He might also hear news that in his own Egypt the ability to build pyramids had been lost.
People would probably live about the same number of years, suffer from the same epidemics, receive broadly similar medical treatment and die comparably painful deaths. Bones were set and other surgery carried out with rudimentary or non-existent anesthetics, as was childbirth and dentistry. That babies and infants would die in large numbers was taken for granted.
People’s eye-sight would deteriorate if they lived much beyond their 20s and there was nothing to be done about it. Apart from occasional queens and empresses and a few priestesses, women would have no formal power or role in government.
As in ancient Egypt, a tiny minority of priests and others could read and write upon scrolls or boards or chisel characters in stone. He might even have seen areas of regression. And this lack of radical technological progress was despite the fact that Rome, as well as having thousands more years of experience and opportunity, was in the centre of the Mediterranean world, able to pick and choose the best of all the surrounding cultures, and was even in some tenuous contact with India and China. Centuries previously it had inherited the great trading empire of the Phoenicians and had a large presence in northern Europe, Britain, Arabia and the East.
The sense of technological progress was universally missing. The low ceiling placed on human physical endeavour and achievement was everywhere undisturbed.
Jump our ancient Egyptian forward again, for about another 500 years, to about 600 AD, and there would be practically no technological visible progress, indeed many areas of regression might be obvious. The old city, the proud Forum of Rome and the Capitoline buildings, would be pillaged ruins.
Military men might talk about things called stirrups, which increased the speed, versatility and fighting power of horsemen, and which barbarians were using with all-too-much success. The narrow and sometimes steep Roman roads, built for marching troops, were of little use for the carts and wagons that were beginning to grow larger.
But then something unprecedented began. Take our Egyptian forward another 850 years, a small period compared to that which he has already traveled, to 1950 AD, and he would be in a world of miracles.
We do not know what he would find if he went on another 200 years, to 2150. He might find a civilisation that had reached the stars, where multi-century lifespans were taken for granted. Or he might find he had come right back to where he started from.
Despite Grayling’s and others’ increasingly shrill anti-Christianity, it is Christianity alone that has been responsible for general and ongoing improvement in the human condition. This applies not only in its heartland of Europe, but in those Asian countries that have adopted, wholly or in part, the Christian scientific and intellectual traditions and values. It is no coincidence that the attacks on Christianity have been associated with general regression and stagnation.
An extract from Hal G.P. Colebatch’s book, Fragile Flame (Acashic, Perth, 2013).