In my recent Jamaica Observer column (‘How Religion Poisons’, Observer, 17/9) I provided historical tidbits to show the major flaw in Christopher Hitchens’ claim that Christianity poisons everything. These tidbits which the Church pioneered in western societies were voluntary charity and compassion, education and the regard a few prominent lawyers have for the probative value of the Bible.
Here is bit more ‘poison’; Christianity’s role in Science and its value on human life.
Despite misconceptions that plague the public in general as well as some in the scientific community, modern science had its experimental tap roots in the Judaeo-Christian worldview of a purposive, orderly, created world.
Physicist Paul Davies, who is not a theist, in his 1995 Templeton Prize address speaks of the right scientific attitude as essentially theological: “Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview…even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least comprehensible to us.”
It is worthy of note too that as one Sociologist says “…virtually all scientists from the Middle Ages (AD 476-1453) to the mid-eighteenth century—many of whom were seminal thinkers—not only were sincere Christians but were often inspired by biblical postulates and premises in their theories that sought to explain and predict natural phenomena.” (Alvin J. Schmidt, Under The Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, 2001, p. 30)
The more modern, familiar names include Leonardo da Vinci in Human Physiology, Gregor Mendel in genetics; Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Arthur Eddington in astronomy.
In physics: Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, André Ampere, James Joule and William Thomson a.k.a. Lord Kelvin.
In chemistry, Robert Boyle and George Washington Carver and in medicine, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.
Value on Human Life
That Roman culture placed very little value on human life should be well known. Romans were not only accustomed to emperors and other societal leaders who were murderous of rivals, of Christians and even of family members but the horrible gladiatorial games were as popular then as football (soccer) is in many nations today.
Alvin Schmidt says of the gladiatorial games,
“Each contest required men to fight men, commonly with the aim of killing the opponents with a sword (gladius). It was the crowd that largely decided the fate of a weakened, gasping gladiator. A turned thumb signal, usually given by women spectators, instructed the victor to go for the final blow. Often it was the women who praised gladiators…The barbaric cruelty, the agonizing screams of the victims, and the flow of human blood stirred no conscience in the crowds of the gladiatorial events…To see a gladiator stab and slice his opponent to death was top-ranked amusement.” (Schmidt, p.62)
Christians boycotted and denounced the games and attracted criticism. The gladiatorial games were eventually banned owing to the influence of the Church. As Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky concludes, “There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.” (cited in Schmidt, p.63)
Roman culture too (like several others in the ancient world) was completely at ease with infanticide and child abandonment, which the Church opposed on biblical principles.
Plutarch, Greek historian and biographer as well as a Roman citizen (ca. AD 46-120) says of the Carthaginians that they “offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan.” (Moralia 2.171D)
Even the philosopher Seneca (ca. 4 BC – AD 65), chief advisor to Nero, said, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” (De Ira 1.15)
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. The tradition of ‘god-parents’ at the dedication (christening) of infants arose here!
Infanticide and child abandonment were made capital offences in AD 374 under the Christian emperor Valentinian who was influenced by Bishop Basil of Caesarea. Though infanticide was not completely wiped out—recurring in later centuries—the consistent opposition of the Church is what has influenced anti-infanticide laws up to the present.
We could look at Christianity’s influence on the Arts and on Law.
If all this that Christianity has done for the western world is poison, then I say, “kill mi wid it stiff tone dead” (“Kill me with it make me as dead as a door nail’).