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Christianity’s impact on Western civilisation

Published:Wednesday | August 5, 2015 | 12:00 AMClinton Chisholm, Contributor

A little reading, like a little learning, can be a dangerous thing, and Dr Patrick White's column in The Gleaner of August 3, 2015 ('Christianity set back civilisation') provides proof of this.

Despite its faults, the Church of Jesus Christ has been responsible for some of the best traditions of the Western world. I list just a few below.

As I provide these slices of history now, please be clear that I am not offering them as sufficient causes of what transpired in the societies, but as significant contributory factors in societal change. Causation, as you all should know, is notoriously difficult of proof.

1. Value on human life

- The brutality of Roman culture is well known - murder by/of emperors, gladiatorial games, infanticide, child abandonment, crucifixion.

- The philosopher Seneca (ca. 4 BC-AD 65), chief adviser to Nero, said, "We drown children who, at birth, are weakly and abnormal." (De Ira 1.15).

- Christians countered the brutal nature of Roman culture, and the gladiatorial games were eventually banned arising from their influence.

Christians did not only denounce the entrenched Greek and Roman cultural practice of child abandonment, but they also provided refuge for abandoned children.

As an antidote to the common Greco-Roman practice of child abandonment and even infanticide, Christians took abandoned children into their homes and raised them as their own. This Christian practice gave rise to orphanotrophia (orphan-rearing centres). Infant orphans or newborn foundlings were nurtured and cared for in brephotrophia (child-rearing centres). Both of these institutions mark the formal beginning of orphanages, later to become common, especially in the West.

2. Sexual morality

- Christianity teaches limits on sexual intimacy. Roman culture and modern societies prefer having no limits at all, so people choose to have sex whenever, wherever with whomever or whatever, and the grim consequences are before us.

3. Charity and compassion

- The rise of orphanages, homes for the aged, The Salvation Army, the various Catholic groups like Sisters of Charity and Missionaries of the Poor, United Way, YMCA, YWCA, Teen Challenge, hospitals, mental institutions, the Red Cross/Crescent/Lion and, numerous other agencies for the care of needy human beings can be traced back to the Church of Jesus Christ.

4. Education

- Churches provided education for slaves and both sexes.

- Martin Luther (1483-1546) was behind tax-supported public schools and compulsory education.

- Lutheran layman Johann Sturm (1507-1589) pioneered graded education.

- Three French Christians in the 18th Century championed the cause of education for the deaf.

- Louis Braille, in the 19th century, pioneered education for the blind.

- The oldest and most prestigious universities in the world had Christian roots. Check the history of the University of Bologna, the University of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Heidelberg and Columbia, etc.

5. Modern Science

- Experimental science is dependent on the Judaeo-Christian world view of a purposive, orderly, created world.

- Some of the seminal thinkers in the history of science were Christians.

The more modern, familiar names include Gregor Mendel in genetics; Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and Arthur Eddington in astronomy. (There is much hogwash regarding the historical realities concerning the Church, Galileo and Copernicus. Dr White should read Philip J. Sampson's 6 Modern Myths (2001) and John Lennox's God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (2009).

In physics: Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Andre Ampere, James Joule and William Thomson, aka Lord Kelvin. In chemistry, Robert Boyle and George Washington Carver, and in medicine, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

At the risk of being tedious, I mention three outstanding scientists who are still with us and all three are convinced Christians:

Francis Collins, the American physician-geneticist, noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the human genome project.

William Phillips, the American Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and Sir John Houghton, FRS, who was in succession professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford, director of the British Meteorological Office and head of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).

6. The arts

- A number of the international greats in music and art were Christians: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, J.S. Bach, Handel, Schubert, and Mozart.

White quotes from Finkelstein and Silberman's book, but he lacks the knowledge to critique the ideas in the book. But Professor Kenneth Kitchen is a world-renowned archaeologist (perhaps the leading Ramesside scholar in the world) and Semitic languages specialist. In his 2003 book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, he assails Finkelstein and Silberman's 2002 book, thus:

"Their treatment of the exodus is among the most factually ignorant and misleading that this writer has ever read. F & S clearly have no personal knowledge whatsoever of conditions in Ramesside (or any other) Egypt. Their approach to chronology (for both patriarchs and exodus) is totally naive ... ." (p. 466).

An otherwise easily overlooked correspondence between the biblical text and Egyptian realities is the suggestion of daily visits to the Pharaoh by Moses and Aaron (Ex.7-11). This would have been possible only in the Ramesside era when Pharaoh was resident in Pi-Ramessee.

Dr White could safeguard his academic reputation by reading the works of world-class biologists who routinely raise doubts about the central tenets of Neo-Darwinism.

One quotation is insufficient, but still suggestive. Antonio Lazcano, who served for two terms as president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, said, "Life could not have evolved without a genetic mechanism - one able to store, replicate, and transmit to its progeny information that can change with time ... . Precisely how the first genetic machinery evolved also persists as an unresolved issue ... . The exact pathway for life's origin may never be known." (in Natural History, February, 2006, cited in Antony Flew, There Is A God, 130).

All of us need to read widely and argue carefully.

- The Rev Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to and