Some evangelicals today seem to be saying that civilization must fail without Christianity. (Even though the world did get along without Christianity for several millennia, and while the Hebrews were busy splitting into a northern and southern kingdom they were also being run over by huge non-Hebraic civilizations like Egypt and Babylon. And think of the Greek, Alexandrian, and Roman civilizations that came later and took control of Palestine. And Rome also later fell during a time when Christianity was the official religion of the Empire.) In other words, some Christians today argue that civilization must fail without Christianity, and they type out their warnings on computers built by Northern California agnostics and Japanese Buddhists. But what about those “non-religious historical factors” I alluded to above? A number of factors pushed Western Civilization over the top, but how many of those factors specifically had to do with Christianity?
A new book, Aristotleʼs Children, explains the enormous effect that the rediscovery of Aristotleʼs works had on Medieval Europe. The book explains that Christian monasteries of Europe had preserved very little of Aristotle (some of his poetics I believe), but after the invasion of Moorish Spain, a host of Aristotleʼs works on reason and metaphysics/nature were discovered in Islamic libraries, and those were soon translated into Latin, and spread throughout Europe, igniting human curiosity, jump-starting it, and hence followed Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, etc. Prior to that, Europe had been dependant upon Augustineʼs neo-Platonism, and Neo-Platonism was of the opinion that if some bit of knowledge was not revealed, then you should basically leave the mystery alone. Aristotle taught otherwise, namely that mysteries could be searched out. Function matched form, etc. His logic and reason and syllogistic thinking also taught how to avoid obvious errors during such searches for knowledge.
The discovery of the New World proved a second momentus impetus to Western civilization and made people think in wider terms and challenged previous ideas and ignited once again a great surge of curiosity. Will Durrant in his multi-volume history mentions the many ways that the discovery of the New World revitalized and energized European thought. The West also owes a lot to the fact that the Mediterranean sea was crossable, and brought cultures together from all over Europe, Asia and Africa. That sea itself, with the civilizations along its shores, resembles the convoluted gyruses and sulcuses of the human brain, which increase the brainʼs surface area and make it possible to pack more neurons side by side in the same space. So the West had the advantage of the Med. sea, and then taking journeys of discovery round the southern shores of Africa, and finally, outward bound into the Atlantic Ocean. The West didnʼt have to simply stare at the inconceivably blank face of a Pacific Ocean (like China did). So the West could take baby steps, i.e., from the Med. Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, while the Chinese would have had to have taken one big giant step to reach the New World, which they didnʼt do. Instead, China just sat there, stagnantly dreaming of itself as “The Middle Kingdom” lying at the center of the earth. In fact the Westʼs journeys of discovery were so extensive that other cultures heard about the rest of the world from the West. *smile* So geography appear to have lots to do with the evolution of cultures on a planet (as do the effects of guns, germs and steel, but those three topics have been covered extensively in a book of the same title, Guns, Germs And Steel, which won a Pulitzer).
The invention of the printing press and the discovery of less expensive ways to manufacture paper. (Such inventions were analogous in their day to the founding a new information exchange highway! If you compare Western civilization to a human brain it was kind of like the brain evolved a new, more efficient neurotransmitting protein!) Renaissance literature and humanist authors led the way to the modern world (while Reformation authors and their theological squabbles are largely forgotten, the humanists with their wit, wisdom and tolerance, have led the charge to the modern world).
And another factor that helped forge the modern western world was the “cafe.” In a new Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment there is an entry on “coffeehouses and cafes.” Dubbed “penny universities” in England-reflecting their atmosphere and the price of a cup of joe - they served as meeting points for the public-minded, providing free newspapers and piping hot discussion, in which reason, not status or class, served as the ultimate criterion of merit. Such was their importance as a new locus of public opinion that the contemporary German philosopher Jergen Habermas has argued convincingly that the cafe was a key institution in the birth of democracy.
There were many other factors as well. The British TV series Connections mentions many of them, such as the invention of a new type of plow in Europe and new farming techniques that increased yields so much that even poorer Europeans had more free time leftover from farming in which to learn trades and form a new rising “middle class.”
My Question is this:
“Was the influence of Christianity and theology as prominent a deciding factor in the ascendancy of Western civilization as some Christians have stated, or, did a combination of all the other historical factors above, play as large a role (or slightly larger a role) than Christianity did in the history of the Ascendancy of the West?”
P.S., Keep in mind that the groundwork for civilization had already been effectively laid by the Babylonians and Egyptians even before the days of the Hebrews.
In The Dawn of Conscience James Henry Breasted showed how the earliest known recorded ethics and laws belonged to the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians, who preceded the Hebrews. In The Codes of Hammurabi & Moses W. W. Davies showed how the law code of Hammurabi profoundly influenced the later law code of the Hebrews in both style and content. For a recent general summary see William Sierichs, Jr.ʼs article, “The Pagan Origins of Biblical Morality (Or - Where Did Moses Really Get Those Commandments From?).” There is also the critically acclaimed work, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. And in Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions William W. Hallo listed the debt modern civilization owes to ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian ideas of urbanism, the formation of capital, the order of the alphabet, astronomy, mathematics, algebra, the division of the day into 24 hours, the hour into 60 minutes, the circle into 360 degrees, the coronation of kings, games, cookbooks, and much more.