Why did liberal democracy arise in the West and nowhere else? Because of the influence of Christianity on Western politics. Consider the most famous expression of classical liberalism the world has ever known, the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .”
Compare that passage to Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s message in Galatians was not political. He was making a theological statement about the equality of Christians in the body of Christ. Nevertheless, the implications of his argument for a predominantly Christian polity are nothing short of radical. It took a long time for these implications to sink in, but eventually it dawned on Christian thinkers that certain political institutions that had been taken for granted for all of human history were fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Institutions such as slavery. If my slave is my brother in Christ, how can I continue to hold him in slavery? There isn’t a good answer to that question, and that is why abolitionism as a political movement arose in Christian Europe, and it is also why for the most part the abolitionists – from Wilberforce in England to Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe in the United States – were Christians making Christian arguments to Christian political communities receptive to such arguments.
As the Declaration expressly states, the Christian idea of equality of all men before God is the foundation of the political idea of the equality of all men under the law. Don’t take my word for it. Atheist professor Yuval Noah Harari agrees. In his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari wrote: “The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God.”
This passage comes from a longer passage in which Harari argues that the ideas expressed in the Declaration are so much imaginary drivel. He writes:
Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? . . . According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. ‘Endowed by their creator’ should be translated simply into ‘born’.
Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds do not fly because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings. And it’s not true that these organs, abilities and characteristics are ‘unalienable’. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’.
And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree.
Harari’s analysis is remarkably clear-eyed for a materialist atheist. He admits that under materialism, human dignity does not exist; universal principles of justice and equality do not exist; human rights do not exist; liberty does not exist. All of these things are social constructs resulting from entirely contingent physical processes.
For a couple of centuries, we in the West have enjoyed a polity based on an attempt to infuse Christian doctrines into our political practice. While the result has been far from perfect, compared to the great mass of men over the long stretch of history, that effort has produced a civilization that has been, by far, the freest, most prosperous, and most democratic the world has ever known. Is that civilization sustainable when its Christian foundations are crumbling under a relentless onslaught of metaphysical materialism?
That question brings me to the title of this post. In recent months, the news has been full of stories about the “Snowflake” phenomenon on college campuses. We have read story after story about illiberal college students cracking down on anyone attempting to express any view contrary to progressive dogma. It is not hard to connect the dots here. The Snowflake movement is an offshoot of political correctness, which is in turn the handmaiden of progressivism, which is fascistic at its root.
Properly understood, the Christian worldview, infused as it is with notions of the fallibility of man, supports an epistemological humility upon which true tolerance and pluralism can rest. Metaphysical materialism, not so much. Materialism denies any transcendent morality and the objective existence of justice. Might makes right. Is it any wonder that fully 70% of college students support restrictions on the right to free expression?
Lincoln wrote that the principles of the Declaration are “the definitions and axioms of free society” and that the abstract truths in that document would “in all coming days . . . be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
Maybe. The Declaration is built on a Christian foundation. But what will happen if that foundation is destroyed when its essential truth claims are denied? We are about to find out. Darwin’s great triumph was not so much scientific as it was metaphysical. The publication of Origin of Species marked the beginning of materialism’s long march though our institutions, especially our universities. And we have an inkling of what it will look like when that march is finished and materialism reigns triumphant. It looks like this:
“I need some muscle over here.”
Below I answer some responses that I anticipate.
- Liberalism is entirely consistent with materialist metaphysics. We know this because many liberals are materialists.
The term “liberalism” can be confusing. When I use the term in the post, I mean “classical liberalism,” the political ideology that emphasizes private property, economic liberty, the rule of law, and constitutional guaranties of fundamental rights, such as freedom of religion. Ironically, in the United States at least, classical liberalism is known as “conservatism.” Classical liberalism is not to be confused with modern liberalism, which is also known as progressivism, which is a variant of fascism. Classical liberalism is in fact the exact opposite of modern liberalism.
- Everyone knows the Founders were all Deists, not Christians.
No, they were not. In fact, very few of them were. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, and Benjamin Franklin was a deist, but those religious positions were by no means representative of the founders. The signers of the Declaration itself were, for example, overwhelmingly orthodox Christians (52 of 56). Jefferson knew he was writing a document that, if it were to accomplish anything, required the assent of an overwhelmingly orthodox Christian audience (both the men who would sign it and the population that would be called to rally around it). He responded by writing a document that was consciously intended to appeal to that audience.
- Slave owners used Biblical arguments.
Yes, they did. And they were wrong.
- Metaphysical materialism did not begin with Darwin.
Of course it didn’t. Democritus (ca. 400 BC) was probably the first systematic materialists, and the Epicureans based a large part of their philosophy on his ideas. I did not say that materialism began with Darwin. I said that the triumph of materialism in formerly Christian western institutions began with Darwin. On this point, Richard Dawkins is correct. Atheism predated Darwin, but Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. As an aside, Dawkins’ s statement was true for Darwin’s fellow Victorians and perhaps for a couple of generations afterward. In an age where atheist true believers are increasingly required to grit their teeth in the face of the overwhelming evidence of design (particularly at the cellular and molecular level), this is no longer true. But the damage has been done. History will show that Darwinism was a bridge between evidence based epistemology and post-modern epistemology. In other words, by the time it was revealed that the evidence no longer supported Darwin, evidence no longer mattered.
- Christians are bad, as the Wars of Religion proved
This argument is based on a flawed conception of Christian doctrine. Christianity does not teach that Christians are good and non-Christians are bad. Christianity teachers that everyone is bad and that is why everyone stands in need of Christ’s grace for salvation. Christianity also teaches that the Holy Spirit works in Christ’s followers to sanctify them and lead them to good works. From a Christian perspective, it is entirely unsurprising that evil men will start unjust wars using religion as a pretext. It is also entirely unsurprising that atheists such as Stalin and Mao will kill tens of millions in a quixotic quest for earthly atheist political utopia. For the Christian, history is one long blood-soaked lesson in the truth of doctrine of the depravity of man, whether that depravity is cloaked in perverted religion or materialist madness.
- “Materialism” is not a thing (or no one has believed in Materialism since the 1800s).
Here I use the term as a shorthand for a metaphysical monism that denies the existence of God. If you prefer physicalism, naturalism, priority monism, etc., OK.