Positive Effects of Religion Abound
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, NOV. 26, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The avalanche of books on the merits and demerits of God and religion continues. One of the latest works outlines many of the valuable contributions made by Christianity to society.
Dinesh D’Souza, a research scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, authored “What’s So Great About Christianity” (Regnery Publishing). One of the biggest problems, he argued, is that many are ignorant about the role played for centuries by Christianity.
A common belief is that, after the high point of civilization during Greek and Roman times, the world was plunged into darkness during the Middle Ages, rescued only by the return to classical sources during the Renaissance. The next major advance was supposedly the Enlightenment, which opened up the doors to the modern age.
The destruction of the Roman Empire was not the work of Christianity, D’Souza pointed out. It was a combination of Roman decadence and the invasion of barbarians. It was Christianity, largely through the contribution of Catholic monks, who preserved learning and science, and also converted the barbarians.
Western art, literature and music also owe an enormous debt to Christianity. For many centuries, even artists who rejected Christianity produced work that was shaped by Christian themes, D’Souza added.
We also have a lot to thank Christianity for when it comes to the development of politics in Western civilization, the book continued. The teaching of Christ, in Matthew 22:21, to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, is the origin of the separation of Church and state.
Limiting state power
Not only does this separation help prevent the excesses of a theocratic state, but it also gives origin to the concept of limited government, by advancing the concept that state power has a limit and must respect the conscience of each person.
Secularists, D’Souza warned, wish to empty the public square of religion and religious-based morality so they can monopolize society with their own views. This process brings with it the consequence of making religious believers into second-class citizens. The separation of Church and state should not be used as a weapon against Christianity, but in such a way that it is the source of social peace and religious freedom.
Human dignity is another prized contribution of Christianity examined by D’Souza. Not only does Christian teaching maintain the dignity of the sinner and those who fail, but it also calls for respect for those who are poor and lowly. “Christ produced the transformation of values in which the last became first, and values once scorned came to represent the loftiest human ideals,” explained D’Souza.
Through its defense of human dignity Christianity also provided the inspiration for campaigns to end slavery, achieve democracy and promote self-government, as well as the first attempts to formulate a doctrine of human rights. Many modern formulations of human rights owe a lot to Christianity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, D’Souza pointed out, is based on the premise that all human lives have worth and that all lives count equally -- not a teaching to be found in all cultures and religions, but one derived from Christianity. If the West abandons Christianity, it may well put in danger the egalitarian values that Christian teaching brought into the world, he warned.
Turning back to the political realm, D’Souza added that the Christian notion of leaders who must consider themselves as servants of others provided the basis for political and social accountability. As a consequence, the political leader, the merchant, and the priest are called upon to serve people by attending to their needs.
Another vital contribution of Christianity is the high importance given to marriage and the family. The premises on which family life are based were introduced by Christianity into society, the book continued. No longer was family life subordinated to that of the state, but it was elevated through the sacrament of marriage. Christianity also introduced the concept of consent by both spouses as being a prerequisite of marriage, a vital instrument in preventing people being pressured into marriage against their will.
The Christian precepts of mutual love and charity were also behind the development of institutions such as hospitals and orphanages, taken for granted today by many who forget their origins.
Christianity also played a major role in the development of capitalism, according to D’Souza. Theologians in the Middle Ages were the first to develop the basic rules of economics, and the monasteries spread throughout Europe were flourishing centers of business activity.
Science too owes a lot to Christianity, in spite of the frequent portrayals of an opposition between them. D’Souza cited Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address of Sept. 12, 2006, in which the Pope attributed the development of modern science to Christianity’s emphasis on the importance of reason.
In fact, added D’Souza, modern science is based on the Christian contributions during medieval times, and the greatest breakthroughs in science were largely the work of Christians. In both the universities founded by the Church during the Middle Ages and in monasteries, scientific knowledge was preserved and developed.
Force for good
Religion’s contribution to society is not limited to the past. Iam Buruma, writing on Sept. 29 in the opinion columns of the Los Angeles Times, observed that recent best-sellers would have us believe that religious faith is a sign of backwardness and the mark of primitives. “Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty and many other ills,” noted Buruma.
Religion is not perfect, he admitted, but in many cases it is a force for good. He cited the recent example of Burmese monks, who defied the security forces of an oppressive regime.
Similarly, he added, Christians have stood up for democracy in countries such as the Philippines, South Korea and China.
“In a world of political oppression and moral corruption, religious values offer an alternative moral universe,” argued Buruma.
When religion is greatly weakened, as in the Canadian province of Quebec, many social problems result, declared the archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. “The real problem in Quebec is the spiritual void created by the religious and cultural rupture,” he said during a presentation made to a government commission last Oct. 30.
According to a report of his comments, published by the Catholic Register on Nov. 2, the tensions between religions and cultures in Quebec are largely due to a loss of the traditional culture, combined with a crisis in the family and in education. Citizens, the cardinal continued, have been left “disoriented, unmotivated, subject to instability and leaning on transient, superficial values.”
The Catholic leader also criticized anti-Catholic rhetoric in the news media that portrays the province’s religious heritage as a source of shame and contempt. Such an attitude, he said, “destroys the soul of Quebec.”
A similar alarm was sounded by Ireland’s bishop of Limerick, Donal Murray, in a Nov. 6 speech on the relationship between the religious and secular spheres. “We have passed from a society where faith and public manifestations of faith were the norm, to a society which is, at best, embarrassed by any public visibility of faith,” he commented.
We live in a time of conflict between faith and the ideology of secularism, Bishop Murray observed. Secularism would have us believe that “there is no answer to the fundamental questions about the meaning and destiny of human life.” Faith, however, recognizes that we do not live on bread alone and places us “on solid ground, free to pursue what we are really seeking as individuals and as a society.” Arguments that provide a healthy antidote to the often-superficial rants against religion being popularized today.