On Pragmatic Christianity

On Pragmatic Christianity

It’s becoming common in politically-right circles to hear that the West won’t be revivified without Christianity. Vox Day has variously argued that the West itself is composed of three parts (the Greco-Roman legacy, the European Nations, and Christianity), and Quintilian recently penned one such “we won’t win without Christianity” genre-piece over at Counter-Currents. The argument is essentially that Christianity is really the only authentic form of spirituality that’s still popular, and non-spirituality really isn’t an option. Religion provides the narrative why, and you can’t replace an existing why with nothing. That’s a dead-end.

Therefore, the West needs Christianity.

If I myself were Christian, I might feel vaguely insulted by this argument, but instead feel a kind of confusion. Are they not aware of the history of Christianity and its spread? Christianity not only succeeded in many places despite its unpopularity, but possibly even because of its unpopularity. Persecution presented the opportunity to martyrs to demonstrate a kind of heroic courage in the face of death, and in tough times, there is almost nothing more desirable than courage and serenity. If successful and authentic cultural identity required a preexisting familiarity with the narrative in question, how could Christianity have arisen in the first place?

The Christian who claims that to follow another faith is “LARPing” finds himself in the awkward position of denying that he would have followed Jesus, had the opportunity presented itself 2,000 years ago.

Because that just wouldn’t have been practical.

The pragmatic (and Machiavellian) response may be “well, it’s already happened.” There’s a lot of inertia, and it’s easier to retain what is already here than to create something new. But again, Christianity itself shows that this is not necessarily true. Many European nations converted rather quickly and comparatively smoothly to Christianity, with little to no “wasted time” carrying on in the development of their civilization in the process. Religious transitions can cause conflict, but they do not necessarily do so in all cases.

But perhaps most importantly, Christian theology itself undermines this kind of pragmatic approach to religious conservationism. It requires us to abandon our fathers and the religion of our fathers in pursuit of truth (should it be required), and moreover, says that if our beliefs in Jesus and in the church are unfounded, then our faith is in vain. The more pious a nation becomes in accordance with the teachings of the Bible, the less loyalty to one’s nation, one’s state, and “family values”

Christianity did not invent the family. It did not invent the rule of law, or markets, truth, love, science, or freedom. Concepts of all of these existed prior to the advent of Christendom, and arguably, in a more balanced and sustainable form. While it is tempting to point to our Christian past, notice all of the good things which came after it, and conclude post hoc, ergo proper hoc, the reality is that the most devout manifestations of Christianity do not represent the pinnacles of Western civilization, but the points at which it was most strained. Rome, for all of the art it paid for, is, and perhaps always was, a seat of corruption and global empire-building. The monks and hermits most devoted to the faith reject not merely family and nation, but this world in its entirety — as the Bible requires us to do. Even in the relatively short history of America, our founding religious pilgrims in search of religious freedom were communalists, quasi-communists who had to be saved from their own piety by more practical (and presumably agnostic) soldiers.

The West has succeeded in spite of Christianity, not because of it. From Africa, we can see that Jesus is not sufficient to maintain civilization, and from China we can see that he is not necessary either. From Egypt, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Europe prior to the arrival of missionaries, we can see the foundations of modern civilization developing along just fine without Christianity. And from the Native American tribes, we can see a distinctive decline in quality of life in the aftermath of Christianity’s arrival, and possibly, an alternative view of “civilization” that is more desirable; after all, given a choice between the two societies, even white men tended to opt for remaining with the natives.

Perhaps this is something our European ancestors also had before the first missionaries came to spread the “good news.”

None of this is proof that Christianity is false, nor is it even an argument against Christianity. But the idea that Christianity is some kind of practical necessity to restore Western nations to trajectories of survival and civilization is theoretically, theologically, and historically wrong. We’ve been surviving and thriving since long before 34 AD, and we can do so again, just as Christianity managed to bootstrap itself from nothing into a major global religion in less than 300 years, and did so without the internet. Perhaps we can restore our nations even if the Christian church once again thrusts itself into the limelight and claims credit for all the good, while shirking responsibility for any possible negative results.

After all, it’s happened before.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Firstly, I’d like to admit my ignorance on China – I’m a (biological) westerner, born and raised. I’ll grant you that Jesus hasn’t played a huge role in China’s development. However, I think a few caveats are in order. I’m still trying to figure some of these things out, so take this with a grain of salt.

    Sure, we have had civilizations before, perhaps even great ones – all without the help of any hippie jew messiah. However, modernity is insanely unexplored territory. We have never dealt with atomic bombs, the internet, democracy (kinda) or antibiotics before now.

    I get that “science” created most of the obvious things that make our society distinct from the Egyptian & Roman societies of old. Still, I’m gonna have to go with Vox with this one, as it was only within societies based on the Christian worldview that these high IQ nerds were allowed/incentivized to pursue these advancements.

    China has high IQ nerds, and a much larger supply of them than us. Yet, if we could hypothetically separate the “West” & the “Rest” sometime around 1000 AD, ensuring absolutely 0 communication between the 2, I’d bet the “West” would be quite similar to what we have now, while China (of the “Rest”) would presumably still be feudal. As stated, I’m ignorant of China, but it seems they are willing to study the civilization building template, as (roughly) laid out by the Christian prototype. But lets not forget that Mao Zedong wasn’t that long ago.

    I think much of the bible thumping right wing understands this. We are probably running on the fumes of Christianity anyhow, as Nietzsche noted – If I understand it correctly. Can we have a future beyond Christianity? Maybe, although I’m not so optimistic. Even an atheist should be gravely concerned about what the secret ingredient in the Christian civilizational stew was – because I sure don’t know what it was, and I don’t think anyone else does either. As you noted, Christianity didn’t invent the family, rule of law, freedom etc. – And I agree, but it mixed them together perfectly, or at least close enough. Odds are, we will mess up the recipe in the transition to a new religion. Same is true for transition to no religion, which is probably more dubious.

    Sorry for the long comment. I’m really enjoying your work.

  2. I appreciate the long-form response.

    I get that China isn’t a perfect analogy. But there are a couple of points worth making here. First, if Christianity can be credited with eucivic institutions and values in a country that did not actually adopt Christianity, what would be the point of crediting Christianity, and not the institutions? If the claim is that you would not have gotten the institutions without Christianity, that seems to empirically untrue; China was one of the most civilized nation in the world PRIOR to Jesus, not after. Similarly, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others were talking about the importance of leisure for citizenry, especially philosophers and politicians, so that they could study, although the distinction between “mere” citizens and philosophers/politicians was more blurred in those times. The point is that incentivizing nerds to do nerd things predates Christianity by a while.

    I think even Christians argue that we can have a future without Christianity; they just think it’s a bad one. But a lot of that assumption rests upon faith in Jesus, and, perhaps more importantly, on the correct theological perspective that how things go in this life is essentially irrelevant, next to one’s prospects of residing in heaven or hell for eternity. Whether they mixed family/law/freedom/etc together perfectly, I think, is better measured by the effects of Christianity across cultures, and here, the balance differs dramatically. Latin American Christians seem to value family far higher than freedom or the law. White Americans more highly value freedom; Europeans, the law. African Christians (no small percentage of Christians as a whole) appear to value a kind of existential joy that is completely divorced from family, freedom, or the law, and which, when you think about it, might actually come closest to the spirituality advocated in the New Testament.

    Ultimately, crediting Christianity with the civilizational success in Europe I think mistakes a correlate with a cause… although I do think that you’re correct that transitioning to no religion would be, to put it mildly, more dubious of an undertaking than transitioning to no religion at all.

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