Historian and Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson is pretty up front about his atheism. A ‘hard-shelled materialist’ is how he describes himself, citing Darwin, Newton and Adam Smith as his intellectual heroes. But he’s also a man concerned about the decline of Christianity in the west.
In his sweeping and ambitious book Civilization, Ferguson attributes the global ascendency of the west over the last five hundred years to its adoption of what he calls six ‘killer apps’: six cultural factors which shaped the west and played a role in its success. Science, competition, property rights, medicine, and consumption were all important, Ferguson argues. But Christianity, particularly in its Protestant form, was also a factor. It was Protestantism, Ferguson contends, that provided the moral framework that underpinned the development of modern western liberalism.
It’s a claim which leads him to make all sorts of interesting observations. In post-colonial countries, for example, Ferguson argues that the level of Protestant missionary activity prior to independence proves to be a very good predictor of economic performance and political stability after independence. He links the economic rise of China in recent decades to the rapid and widespread adoption of Christianity in that country. For contemporary China, he observes, “only Christianity seems able to satisfy”.
So the decline of religion in the west – as further evidenced in the latest British Social Attitudes survey released last week – is something which worries him. We need, Ferguson argues, some ethical code or framework to counter the selfish and destructive tendencies of our evolutionary instincts, and nothing fulfills this role like religion. If you want a guide to living well, Ferguson claims, you can’t do much better than the King James Bible and the Ten Commandments, even if you’re an atheist. Without the framework that Christianity provides, a moral vacuum begins to open up in our society. We do away with God at our peril.
“I do not deny that sermons are sometimes dull and that British congregations often sing out of tune,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph back in 2005. “But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine will help to provide an ethical framework for your life. And I certainly do not know where else you are going to get one.”
Strong words of endorsement, for a ‘hard-shelled materialist’.