Created Equal

DINESH DíSOUZA

The new atheism is going mainstream. Now atheist groups are taking out signs on public buses that say "Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness sake."

They are also purchasing public banner ads, "Imagine...no religion." The premise of these ads, as of the books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that seem have inspired them, is that our society would be better off if we could eradicate the last vestiges of Christianity from it.

In my book What's So Great About Christianity , just out in paperback from Tyndale, I argue that this whole line of attack is based on historical amnesia. I attempt to show that Christianity is responsible for many of the values and institutions that even secular people cherish. Here I emphasize how Christianity has produced our culture's emphasis on equality and human dignity.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" he claimed that this was a "self-evident" truth. But it is not evident at all. Indeed most cultures throughout history, and even today, reject the proposition. On the face of it, there is something absurd in claiming human equality when all around us we see dramatic evidence of inequality. People are unequal in height, in weight, in strength, in stamina, in intelligence, in perseverance, in truthfulness, and in about every other quality. Inequality seems to be the self-evident reality of human nature.

Jefferson knew this. He was asserting human equality of a special kind. Human beings, he was claiming, are moral equals. They don't all behave equally well, but each of their lives has a moral worth no greater and or no less than that of any other. According to this strange doctrine, the worth of a street sweeper on the streets of Philadelphia was as great as that of Jefferson himself. Each life is valuable, and no one's life is more valuable than that of another.

The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea. Christians have always believed that God places infinite value on each human life He creates, and that He loves each person equally. In Christianity you are not saved through your family or tribe or city. Salvation is an individual matter. Moreover, God has a "vocation" or calling for every one of us, a divine plan for each of our lives. During the Reformation, Martin Luther stressed the individualism of the Christian journey. Not only are we each judged at the end of our lives as individuals, but throughout our lives we also relate to God as individuals. Even religious truth is something that is not just handed down but is something that is worked out through individual study and prayer. These ideas have had momentous consequences.

Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. The greatest of the classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity banned them and introduced the moral horror that we now feel when we hear about them.

In the culture of ancient Greece and Rome -- the culture that preceded Christianity -- human life had very little value. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is common even today in many parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. The greatest of the classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity banned them and introduced the moral horror that we now feel when we hear about them.

"Consult the Bible," Sam Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation, "and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves." Steven Weinberg notes that "Christianity…lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries." These atheist writers are certainly not the first to fault Christianity for its alleged approval of slavery. But slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China to India to Greece and Rome. Most cultures regarded slavery as an indispensable institution, like the family. Sociologist Orlando Patterson notes that for centuries, slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics.

Even so, Christianity from its very beginning discouraged the enslavement of fellow-Christians. We read in one of Paul's letters that Paul himself interceded with a master named Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave. "Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while," Paul says, "so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but as a brother." How can a slave also be a brother? Christians began to see the situation as untenable. Slavery, the foundation of Greek and Roman civilization, withered throughout medieval Christendom and was replaced by serfdom, which was not the same thing. While slaves were "human tools," serfs were human beings who had rights of marriage, contract, and property ownership that were legally enforceable. And of course serfdom would eventually collapse under the weight of the argument for human dignity.


Moreover, Christians were the first group in history to start an anti-slavery movement.

In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign that started out with almost no support and was driven entirely by his Christian convictions -- a story powerfully told in the film Amazing Grace. Eventually Wilberforce triumphed, and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain. Pressed by religious groups at home, England then took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad.

The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietzsche says, is an illusion. Our Western values are what Nietzsche terms "shadows of gods." Remove the Christian foundation and the values must go too.

The debate over slavery in America was essentially a religious debate. Free blacks who agitated for the emancipation of their fellow blacks invoked the narrative of liberation in the Book of Exodus, in which Moses led the captive Israelites to freedom: "Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh, let my people go." But of course throughout history people have opposed slavery for themselves while being perfectly happy to enslave others. What is remarkable in this historical period is for a group to oppose slavery in principle.

The Quakers were the first people in America to oppose slavery, and the evangelical Christians soon followed. These groups gave a political interpretation to the biblical notion that all are equal in the eyes of God. From this spiritual truth they derived a political proposition: because human beings are equal in God's sight, no man has the right to rule another man without his consent. This doctrine is the moral root of both abolitionism and of democracy.

The significance of all this was recognized a little more than a century ago by, of all people, the atheist philosopher Nietzsche. The life of the West, Nietzsche said, is based on Christianity. The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietzsche says, is an illusion. Our Western values are what Nietzsche terms "shadows of gods." Remove the Christian foundation and the values must go too.

True, values like equal dignity and equal rights will persist for a period out of sheer unthinking habit. But their influence will erode. Consider the example of Western Europe. Secularization has been occurring in Europe for well over a century. For a while it seemed as if the decline of Christianity would have no effect on Western morality or social institutions. Yet increasingly today there is evidence of the decline of the nuclear family. Overall birth rates have plummeted, while rates of divorce and births out of wedlock are up. Nietzsche also warned that, with the decline of Christianity, new and far different ideas would arise. We see these today in demands for the radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories, and even arguments for infanticide and euthanasia.

In sum, the death of Christianity would also mean the gradual extinction of principles of human dignity and equality. Where do these principles come from? Jefferson recognized that they come from "our Creator." There is no other source for inalienable rights. Thus if we cherish the distinctive ideals of Western civilization, then whatever our religious convictions, we will not rashly try to hack at the religious roots from which they spring. On the contrary, we will not hesitate to acknowledge, not only privately but also publicly, the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter most to us.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dinesh D'Souza. "Created Equal." tothesource (November 19, 2008).

This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.

Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.

THE AUTHOR

Dinesh D'Souza is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. D'Souza has been called one of the "top young public-policy makers in the country" by Investor’s Business Daily. His areas of research include the economy and society, civil rights and affirmative action, cultural issues and politics, and higher education. Dinesh D'Souza's latest book is What's So Great About Christianity. He is also the author of: The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Letters to a Young Conservative, What's So Great about America, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus; The End of Racism; Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader; and The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. Dinesh D'Souza is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.

Copyright © 2008 tothesource




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