What Christianity did for us



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’.


2 thoughts on “What Christianity did for us

  1. david broad says:

    Of course, Niall Fergsuon is a brilliant professional historian (German economy in WW1 and his biographies of the Rothschilds and of Kissinger etc) but increasingly he is even more a sharp-clawed right-wing polemicist – the arch-opponent of Prankesh Mishra who reviles his praise of Western Empires. He’s always great fun to read especially as a debunker of liberal pieties. But it is not always clear in which voice he is speaking, including in this case: is he being serious or is this just a case of epater les liberaux !

    However, what does intrigue me is his case for linking China, progress and Christianity. We know that a huge missionary effort was made in China in the 19th and in first half of the 20th century (Chariots of Fire), especially by Americans, but I wonder how much of that has ‘stuck’. Quite a bit has in Japan and Taiwan but I’ll try and find out how far present Christian churches in China build on what happened before 1949 and how far Christian ideas and Confucianism meld in the big cities.

    Not to speak, Charles, of your memorable slides on churches in Western China dating from the very early days of the church – did that leave any roots to speak of ?

    We’re all going to have to learn a lot more about how China sees things, that’s for sure .

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, David. Of course, I’m not always a fan of Ferguson’s rather right-wing views – being a holder of many of the liberal pieties he likes to debunk! Here I think he is really rehashing what’s called the ‘Weber’ thesis (or ‘Weber-Tawney’ thesis) after the German sociologist Max Weber, who argued that protestant theology produced a particular work ethic that was conducive to capitalism, as a way of explaining the emergence of early capitalism primarily in Britain, the Netherlands, and northern Europe, rather than (say) Italy or Spain. (The argument was then elaborated by the economic historian and Anglican socialist RH Tawney.)

    As far as China is concerned Christianity certainly seems to have been spreading there very rapidly over last 20 years (people talk of 70 million active/practising Christians, and rising fast) to the extent that if growth continues this could have significant effect on international relations (Chinese and American evangelicals pulling together, with consequent impact on political leadership in both countries). I think that for China (and countries like South Korea) adopting Christianity can easily be seen as part of modernisation/urbanisation and therefore globalisation, and so I think that here Ferguson is on to something.

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