It’s not often we find Vox Day making a mistake. In his recent post entitled “Mailvox: The Necessity of Christianity,” I believe Vox makes not one but two when he says that the ancient Greeks did not develop science, and that “any efforts to make America and Europe great are doomed unless they are centered around Christianity.”
Despite attributing these ideas to a reader of his named Stickwick and presumably quoting him, it’s not clear at what point in the post Vox started commenting, or if he did so at all. In either case, Vox seems to agree with these notions, and so opens himself up to rebuttal.
The ancient Greeks are often credited with the development of objective thinking, and with good reason. Compared with the Old Testament, which regards God mostly with fear and awe, Homer makes his gods very human, and indeed treats them almost light-heartedly. Remember how in The Iliad Achilles asks his mother to convince Zeus to take Troy’s side in the war? She agrees, but has to wait twelve days, since all the gods are away partying with the Ethiopians (Iliad, Book 1, lines 423-424). When Zeus returns, he promises to help the Trojans, but then gets in trouble with his wife Hera, who supports the Greeks.
Do we not see how the Greek gods are subject to the same psychology that men are? It takes an extremely non-egocentric (that is, objective) mindset to envision such a thing. The gods may have superhuman powers, but these powers are still subject to something greater; the rules of the universe, if you will. When Hera asks Aphrodite for a favor, Aphrodite responds, “My heart is urgent to do it, if I can, if it is a thing that can be accomplished.” (Iliad, Book 14, lines 195-196). This is from the Richard Lattimore translation. E.V. Rieu’s reads: “I shall gladly do what you ask of me, if I can, and if it is not impossible.” Note the similarity here: even the gods cannot do the impossible.
Only perhaps in the enigmatic Book of Job does the Old Testament approach this kind of separation of self from the universe. In most other cases, however, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. All knowledge comes from God and can only be revealed through the word of the prophets. Further, subservience and fealty to God must be absolute. “Do not follow other gods, gods of the people around you, for Yahweh your god is a jealous god; the wrath of Yahweh your god would blaze out against you, and he would wipe you off the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 6:15) Sure, the laws God bestows upon man are good laws and evince timeless wisdom, but for the most part the source of their goodness is revelatory, not rational. The reason for their observance is punitory, not (again) rational. There is no trial and error, no great figuring out of what works and what doesn’t. No axioms or proofs. “Because God says so” is all the proof a good Israelite would ever need. There are some exceptions, of course, such as in Deuteronomy, when God assumes a certain amount of skepticism on the part of His believers, and instructs Moses in how to tell a false prophet from a true one. But in the Old Testament, this is certainly not the norm.
By avoiding this kind of monolatry and by subjecting gods to the ironclad rules of the universe, the Greeks opened the door for a kind of learning that the human race had never possessed before: science. From the rigorous, formal logic found in Euclid’s Elements to the culture of free debate which spawned the greatest philosophers of the ancient world, to the abstract, deductive reasoning required to arrive at the idea that a number such as √2 can be irrational and therefore unknowable, the ancient Greeks made invaluable contributions to what we now call science. Here are a few examples:
- Archimedes’ principal of buoyancy.
- Herophilus’ identification of the human nervous system.
- Aristarchus’ discovery that the planets revolved around the Sun.
- Erasthones’ accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference.
- Aristotle’s classification of whales as mammals and not fish.
While claiming that Christianity was necessary for the development of science is false, Vox’s reader is correct when stating that science was also developed by Christian Europe during the Renaissance and later. But this came second. The Greeks came first. And whether Christianity aided or impeded the fall of science after the Roman Empire or kindled its rebirth a thousand years later is an open and rather tricky question.
Christians did shut down Plato’s thousand-year-old Academy in Athens for being too pagan. Christian zealots did murder Hypatia, a brilliant female mathematician from Alexandria, in 415. Christian authorities also stood by Aristotle’s incorrect ideas for far too long, and consequently condemned Copernican doctrine in 1616. They also burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600. Whether they did so because Bruno professed that planets revolve around the Sun is unclear. In either case, murdering people for holding dissident views is hardly a way to foster the growth of science.
On the other hand, Christians were the ones who preserved Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science for over a millennium, especially in Constantinople. The Christian authorities were surprisingly even-handed with Galileo (insisting that he show both the Aristotelian and Copernican sides of the debate presented in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems). Furthermore, for the most part they didn’t interfere with the research of Bacon, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and others who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy. That Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, was an Augustinian monk should show that Christianity and science can peacefully coexist.
Christianity, as a benign, open-minded, monotheistic religion of hundreds of millions, deserves credit for allowing science to prosper under its watch for centuries. But whether it was a necessary condition for the development of science is another matter entirely.
Then there is this statement from Vox’s reader: “[A]ny efforts to make America and Europe great are doomed unless they are centered around Christianity.”
I would say that this could be true, but is not necessarily true. It would require a different, more militant kind of Christianity than what we have now. Today’s Christian authorities, who offer to remove crosses in churches so as not to offend visiting Muslims, are not going to cut it. Nor is Pope Francis’ muted and frankly lame response to the beheading of a French priest which took place in July 2016. By the same token, a return to certain pagan religions could possibly do the trick. The Greeks and Romans were pagans during their glory periods. Perhaps we’re just a few temples to Mars away from evicting most non-whites from our countries and making them great again. Then again, when the British Empire and the United States were at their greatest, they were Christian nations run by serious, believing Christians. So who knows for sure?
This is a tough topic, but one thing I do know is that your modern-day liberals and Leftists are effectively Christians without Christ. You can draw a direct line from some of the egalitarian teachings of Christ (“If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” Mark 9:35) to the Utilitarianism of Bentham (who looked to “the greatest good of the greatest number”) and the radical leveling of society promoted by Marx. It’s not the only line you can draw, of course, but it is a strong one, one that the Left relies upon quite a bit these days. And what makes this so frightening is that the modern Leftist, as directed by Bentham and Marx, completely denies the spiritual aspects of Christianity. For a Christian, we may not be equal on Earth, but we are all equal in the eyes of our Lord God. The Leftist, however, denies the existence of God but takes the Christian idea of spiritual equality and applies it to the real world, where people are indeed unequal, and then enforces it with worldly means. And without God or the Devil waiting for us when we die, many Leftists aren’t too concerned about ethics.
Since modern Leftism is really a perversion of Christianity, we can mostly let Christianity off the hook for the decline of the West. However, if Christianity is to be relied upon to help make America and Europe great again, it must follow the Left back into the fallen world and engage it with the same worldly means the Left uses every day to bully the Right. Only, Christians should never lose their sense of spirituality, and they should always exhibit open-mindedness and tolerance to new ideas, just like they did when science had its second great awakening under their auspices.
Note: My main source for the first half of this article is a book called Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science by Alan Cromer (Oxford University Press, 1993).