How Christianity Shaped the World

One of the myths of the modern Western world is that Christianity has been a mostly detrimental force in history. This perspective took hold during the Enlightenment in which Christianity was cast as subverting the glories of the Greco-Roman world and ushering in a thousand year “Dark Age” of superstition and ignorance.

This false narrative took hold in academia as well as the popular imagination. The nineteenth-century English historian Thomas Buckle, for example, wrote, “There followed [after Greco-Roman antiquity], as is well known, a long period of ignorance and crime, in which even the ablest minds were immersed in the grossest superstitions. During these, which are rightly called the Dark Ages, the clergy were supreme.”1

More recently, in an episode of the animated series Family Guy, two of the main characters discover a device that allows them to travel to parallel universes. In one universe they see a highly technologically advanced version of their hometown. “Even though it’s the same town in the same year, people can levitate, there’s speed-of-light rail travel, and every disease can be cured instantly. The explanation? ‘In this [parallel] universe, Christianity never existed, which means the dark ages of scientific repression never occurred, and thus humanity is a thousand years more advanced.’”2

This caricature was taken to a new level by the New Atheists who portrayed religion (though mostly Christianity) as thoroughly pernicious and destructive. Christopher Hitchens, for example, warned, “As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.”3 Though not a new atheist per se, the physicist Steven Weinberg asserted, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”4

Though rhetorically effective, and though they reinforce the dominant cultural narrative, assertions that Christianity has been a regressive force in the world are a gross distortion of the truth. In what follows I’ll discuss two broad categories (life and science) that show this isn’t the case. Many more categories could be added, and much more could be said about each one, but this discussion will provide evidence that Christianity has been a force for great good in history rather than evil.

The Value and Dignity of Human Life

Scripture begins by making a monumental claim about the nature of human beings: We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). This serves as the foundation for human value and dignity, and is the reason why murder (and numerous other harms) are forbidden in both the Old and New Testaments, and why the apostle James even opposed cursing (wishing evil on) human beings “who have been made in God’s likeness” (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9).

In addition, Jesus commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them (i.e., sacrificially) and to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated (John 13:34; Luke 6:31).

Yet, before Christianity, the idea that all people possessed inherent value was an alien concept (we’ll see some examples shortly). As the atheist philosopher Luc Ferry acknowledges, “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”5

Similarly, historian Tom Holland, who is not a professing Christian, writes that Christianity

is the principal reason why . . . we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.6

A historical example that illustrates this difference in the valuation of human beings is the treatment of children. Plato taught that if children weren’t “disposed to virtue and physically fit” that parents should “properly dispose of [them] in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.”7 Similarly, Aristotle believed that “defective” children should be exposed (abandoned outside and left to die): “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.”8

Christians responded to this culturally acceptable but immoral practice by visiting areas where infants were typically left behind and taking them in. Benignus of Dijon was a second-century Christian who took in abandoned infants and those who had survived failed abortions,9 as did his contemporary, the nun Macrina. Infanticide was explicitly condemned in the first-century Christian treatise known as the Didache. Afra of Augsburg (late third century) had been a prostitute, but after her conversion to Christianity “developed a ministry to abandoned children of prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands.”10 Under the influence of Basil of Caesarea, Bishop in Cappadocia, the Roman emperor Valentinian formally outlawed infanticide in 374.11

The main reason nearly everyone born in the West today finds infanticide unthinkable is that Christians, following the teachings of Scripture, rose up against it in words as well as actions.

The Emergence of Science

Like human value and dignity, the biblical foundations for the practice of science are established in Genesis. There, at the beginning of their creation, God commands humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Termed the “cultural mandate” by theologians, this was God’s directive to humanity “to take care of God’s creation and to draw out, work with, and benefit from its inherent potentialities as God’s representatives on earth.”12 Implied in the cultural mandate is the cultivation and transmission of knowledge of the natural world in order to understand the world and develop its resources. To do this effectively would require what came to be called science.

The Enlightenment-inspired trope of a titanic battle of reason against ignorance is nowhere better exemplified than in discussions about science and Christianity. As expressed in the Family Guy episode mentioned above, Western culture is permeated with the false belief that Christianity and science are locked in a never-ending battle that pits superstition against the noble pursuit of truth. As the late new-atheist physicist Victor Stenger summarized, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”13

Again, this is rhetorically punchy, but is undermined by the historical record. The notable historian and philosopher of science Peter Harrison writes, “Not only were many of the key figures in the rise of science individuals with sincere religious commitments, but the new approaches to nature that they pioneered were underpinned in various ways by religious assumptions.”14 One of these assumptions was the belief that nature operated according to laws that could be studied and understood. Scripture presents God as a rational and orderly being who created a rational, orderly world, and created human beings to manage and understand this world. This is likely the reason that modern science emerged from Christian Europe rather than a number of other places around the world in which nature was viewed as controlled by gods or spirits, and thus capricious rather than lawlike. Harrison adds:

Could modern science have arisen outside the theological matrix of Western Christendom? It is difficult to say. What can be said for certain is that it did arise in that environment, and that theological ideas underpinned some of its central assumptions. Those who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion will draw little comfort from history.15

In addition, most of the early pioneers of modern science were motivated to better understand the natural world because they saw it as a means of worshiping and glorifying God, as illustrated in the following quotations.

Copernicus: “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend . . . the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High.”

Galileo: “The glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all his works.”

Kepler: “Geometry is unique and eternal, a reflection of the mind of God. That men are able to participate in it is one of the reasons why man is an image of God.”

Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an Intelligent Powerful Being.”16

The one major historical incident thought to support a war between Christianity and science is the trial of Galileo in 1633. However, even in this case, it was not a matter of unthinking dogmatism attempting to stamp out free scientific inquiry. Yes, the Catholic church should not have persecuted Galileo for his insistence that the earth orbited the sun, but it should be noted that the scientific consensus of the time favored the church’s geocentric interpretation.17

In addition, Galileo’s scientific beliefs didn’t get him in trouble with the church so much as his insistence that he could discern exactly how God had created the solar system and that his interpretations of Scripture were more authoritative than the church’s. Beyond that, he publicly ridiculed Pope Urban VIII in his book Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) after obtaining Urban’s permission to publish it, breaking his promise to Urban that it would present the heliocentric view as just one possibility among others. Thus, Galileo’s clash with the church resulted primarily from theological, political, and personal conflicts, rather than matters of science.18

Finally, as David Bentley Hart observes, to overly emphasize Galileo’s case

obscure[s] the rather significant reality that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scientists educated in Christian universities and following a Christian tradition of scientific and mathematical speculation overturned a pagan cosmology and physics, and arrived at conclusions that would have been unimaginable within the confines of the [ancient Greek] scientific traditions.19 

In sum, we’ve seen that there is a pervasive mythology in the West that Christianity has been a purveyor of evil for the past two thousand years, and continually threatens to usher in a new Dark Ages. I’ve argued that this view has no basis in reality, and that the opposite is actually the case. We saw that Christianity established respect for life and an ethic of love in a world where this was an alien concept, and that Christianity provided the ideal soil from which modern science could emerge. Far from being an enemy of science, Christianity birthed science, and its early pioneers were motivated to do their work by their theological beliefs. If space allowed, much more could be said, but these two points alone show that Christianity has greatly benefited the world.

Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance.  He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, and other sites.