Is the “West” really founded upon Judeo-Christian values? (Part 1)

(Disclaimer: here we will consider the “West” or “Western civilization” to be more distinctively represented by Occidental Europe, USA and Canada and to a lesser extent by Latin America and Eastern Europe. This is not a matter of ethnocentrism, it is simply to align ourselves with the semantics of public discourse) 

There is a certain wistfulness to the spirit of our times. Thought leaders, authors and  influential commentators seek to re-discover the philosophical roots of “Western civilization” and claimed to have found them in the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. The problem is that it is not very clear that this conclusion has been reached through a rigorous commitment to “following the evidence wherever it leads”. Instead, a case could be made that the facts have been forcefully aligned or reinterpreted through a cumbersome historical revisionism to fit a predetermined conclusion, that is: modern western civilization, its morals and institutions are the productions of Judeo-Christian values being developed – but not overturned – over at least 2000 years. 

This claim, in one way or another, is routinely bolstered by intelligent and knowledgeable people.

Addressing a crowd of around 11,000 people, political commentator Ben Shapiro says:

“The values that resonate most with human beings are eternal, not changeable and not relativistic. They are universal, they are not group-specific. And most of all, they apply to individual human beings, not group labels… And those values were first embedded clearly and concisely in the ten commandments. If we return to those values we will be a virtuous citizenry deserving of our liberty. And if we turn away from those values, well, we return to the horror of collectivism and tyranny”.

But Shapiro is an observant Jew. The suspicion that he could be a deliberately partial actor that is simply trying to validate the philosophical relevance of his faith could be aroused even if he were actually being meticulous. Impatient critics could be quick to raise similar charges of proselytism against other religious people like Denis Prager or Jordan Peterson who push a similar narrative, thus sparing themselves from wrestling with their arguments.

But accusations of partisanship, attribution of ulterior motives or hidden evangelistic agendas cannot be so easily hauled at non-believers when they join the chorus. In “The strange death of Europe” Douglas Murray writes:

To put it another way, the unusual European settlement, drawn up from ancient Greece and Rome, catalysed by the Christian religion and refined through the fire of the Enlightenments, turned out to be a highly particular inheritance. (our emphasis)

Is that streamlined historical summary an accurate narrative of the coming of age of European culture? Was Greek philosophy catalysed by the Christian faith? Maybe.. at times… but, did the Enlightenment polished Christian principles instead of setting a course of departure from them? This is a much more debatable question. In any case, Murray cannot easily be dismissed as “just” a religious partisan voice in this debate. Perhaps, there’s an argument to be made for the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of modern western societies after all. This is what we will try to unravel in this post which constitute the first part of a series dedicated to answer the question: “Are the ethics and institutions of the modern Western world still lying on a bedrock of Judeo-Christian values?”

We can think of a three-pronged inquiry to approach the issue:

1. Can modern “Western values” be obtained from Judeo-Christian ones?

2. Do supposedly Judeo-Christian values truly have Judeo-Christian origins?

3. Which values can indeed be honestly derived from Judeo-Christian teachings?

In this entry we are going to focus on the first of these three lines of inquiry. For this, we will examine an admittedly limited catalog of philosophical principles that are either widely subscribed by western societies or that have found their way into their governing structures. The goal is: to determine whether these principles can be reasonably derived from Judeo-Christian precepts or not. We recognize that it would be almost miraculous if the principles that uphold modern Western culture were articulated in its contemporary form in any of the holy books or their earliest interpretations. Thus, we should rather ask if it is possible to find an unbroken philosophical chain showing how seminal Judeo-Christian notions could have evolved into modern Western precepts. If indeed that is the case, one there should be a feeling of “deductive inevitability” while drawing philosophical connections from Judeo-Christian positions to modern “Western” ones (Essentially the same strategy was employed by Stephen Woodford to debunk the proposition: Western civilization is based on Judeo-Christian values.)

Now, buckle up because this is going to get Biblical.

Is “Judeo-Christian tradition” even a thing? Let’s say it is…

First, we need to deal with not a minor obstacle. Turns out that neither the Bible nor the Torah (sometimes referred to as “the Jewish Bible” and which is roughly equivalent to the Old Testament) are the most internally consistent documents ever written. It is kind of disappointing that even divinely inspired documents are plagued by ambiguity. And “plagued” is hardly an exaggeration. The second most central book of Judaism, the Talmud, is an excruciatingly long document (around 6,200 pages long) of rabbinical back and forth over what God did and did not mean in the Torah.

The Bible does not do much better at being a paragon of clarity (well, it cannot be clearer than the Torah because it essentially contains it). Incalculable watts of brain power have been spent by generations trying to iron out Biblical inconsistencies. The task proved so daunting that even the most revered Christian thinkers abandoned the project of rescuing biblical coherence only by webbing a safety net of biblical passages linked in a manner that made logical sense. The medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas revived and boosted a salvaging strategy proposed more than 1000 years earlier by St. Augustine. He strayed away from literalism and opted for using metaphor as the most adequate tool to interpret scripture. This hermeneutic method is still the most widely subscribed today. And that, overall, is a good thing. Reading the Bible “metaphorically” opens room for the idiosyncrasy of the reader, their updated personal ethics and whatever scientific knowledge to stealthily creep into the text. If that were not the case, then surely the share of Christians who build museums teaching that the Earth is 6000 years old or who think that homosexuality is “unnatural” would be much larger. So, for all the pitfalls of metaphorical interpretation (which are plenty) it is surely still a preferable approach at extracting lessons from the Bible than literalism.

The broader point is, if squaring Holy books with themselves is hard, now imagine the level of difficulty in trying to seamlessly reconcile the sacred texts of two different religions into a unified framework! Actually, the likely impossibility of doing so could very well constitute a strong argument against the existence of Judeo-Christian philosophy as a coherent entity. But, if this entry is to have a central topic at all, then we need to gloss over most of the objections (some of which could be quite persuasive) claiming that the split between the Jewish and Christian traditions is so deep that it is impossible to sew them back together. After all, most believers live as if they are reconcilable. Nevertheless, in what follows it will be necessary to point out various points of divergence in more than one occasion.

One observation is so consequential that it needs to be addressed right away. The “Ten Commandments” occupy a central position as the shared backbone of Judeo-Christian ethics… right? It would be uncontroversial to say that vast numbers of moderate Christians believe this to be the case, however, the consensus around this proposition in more devout circles is less than one would think. There are some who argue that the sacrifice of Jesus was a form of universal indulgence that displaced the Christians from being “under the law” of God to being “under his grace”. Roughly, what this means is that the Ten Commandments, at least in their original version (or versions), do not apply to Christians anymore. There are others who say that in fact the apostle Paul in one way or another admonished Christians to respect all of the Ten laws (even others hold that only six of the ten remain compulsory). The apostle Peter dropped some truly valuable warning for those who consider diving into this legalistic mess when he wrote that Paul was fond of writing in a way that is “hard to understand“. Euphemistic diss or lukewarm defense, does not matter, he’s got a point.

With this relevant caveat in mind, let us then curate a small collection of prominent precepts that Western societies live by and see if they can be reasonably seen as direct or indirect products of Judeo-Christian theology.

Running down the list.

Freedom of speech.

It is hard to think about a principle more treasured in modern democratic societies than the freedom to speak your mind wherever and whenever. Is there any evidence that the foundational sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity compels us to protect individual “freedom of speech”? Do they at least contain the philosophical blueprint from which the guarantee of free expression can be constructed? The answer is more troubling than a plain “no”. “No” could indicate indifference or negligence, instead, the Holy books show urgency in punishing a certain form of virulent speech: blasphemy.

This is the Lord speaking to Moses in the book of Leviticus 24:16 (which is a book common to both, the Torah and the Bible) telling him how to deal with those wicked blasphemers:

Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

The wording varies from one version to another but the main mandate remains: cursing the Lord merits being subjected to a fatal stone-storm. The Christian Bible contains more passages reminding the reader how blasphemy is an unforgivable sin. Here is Mark 3:28 – 29:

 Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

And there are more, not to mention the Third commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.

The curtailing effect of blasphemy laws on free speech is perhaps particularly tragic for Judaism because there is a plausible sense in which these regulations could have thwarted the development of genuine free speech stemming from the Jewish tradition. As highlighted before, the Talmud is a massive product of  thorough rabbinical debate. Judaism is not allergic to controversy, in fact, Talmudic debate made dissent tolerable, it gave a voice to intellectual minorities and contrarian schools of thought. In short, it allowed for subversive speech… alas, up to a limit. The line that demarcates the limit to “open” Talmudic controversy is anything but blurry. If one crosses into blasphemy territory then the ensuing debate would be quickly centered around what the appropriate punishment should be for the specific transgression. So, more than a testament to unbridled, truly open-ended debate, the Talmud is closer to being a monumental exercise in logic and hermeneutics constrained within strict limits of theological character.

It is a well-known fact that during the Middle ages, blasphemy laws were enforced in the Christendom up to a history-deranging scale. Historians estimate that a number between 30,000 and 300,000 lives were taken by  heresy trials of the Spanish inquisition.

It is true that not every sentence imparted for contradicting Catholic orthodoxy ended with the death of the transgressor. Nevertheless, the Church made sure that its doctrine of intolerance was powerful enough so as to measurably damp the scientific progress of a whole continent. Surely the most iconic example of how zero-heresy tolerance resulted in scientific stultification are the trials of Galileo Galilei. The crime? To spouse the Copernican theory of the solar system which puts the Sun at the center with the Earth and other planets orbiting around it (this is an oversimplification, for a readable and more detailed account we recommend Steven Weinberg’s book “To explain the world. The discovery of modern science“). This notion opposed not only Catholic orthodoxy but also Aristotelian metaphysics, which by then were in a sort of mature and tense philosophical marriage (without Aristotle’s notice or consent) that endowed Christianity with invaluable intellectual tools to shore up its theology. Both systems of thought considered a static Earth with the Sun and the planets circling around it.

After the first trial in 1616 the Holy congregation declared that the Copernican theory was an “opinion in perniciem Catholicae veritatis” (to the destruction of Catholic truth). In the aftermath Galileo got “scolded” and made to promise that he would quit promoting dangerous (and correct) Copernican ideology. However, in 1632 he challenged his luck by publishing “Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems” where he crafted a debate between two fictional but real-life-inspired characters: Simplicio and Salviati that respectively argued in favor of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the Solar system. This “infraction” earned Galileo a second trial in 1633 where he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to house arrest until his death in 1642. But the Dialogue was “arrested” for much longer than that. The work was put in the “Index of forbidden books” (alongside plenty of other volumes) and out of print until 1835. Its sentence outlasted that of its author for almost 200 years.

To make the case that freedom of speech could be understood as an outgrowth of the Judeo-Christian philosophy is not only disingenuous, it is in direct opposition with the theory and practical enforcement of Judeo-Christian precepts over centuries.

Freedom of religion.

Well, the Jewish take on this issue is pretty easy to dispel. Consider the very first two of the Ten commandments:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandment.

One thing is crystal clear, in a land governed by honest-to-God Jewish law there should be no room for Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, or any other faith except Judaism. In fact, the ideal form of government and the one intended by the God of the Torah for his “chosen people” is a Theocracy, a point that will be spelled out in more detail in the next sub-section.

With Christianity the issue is a little more complicated, but not by much. Jesus’ position about the realization that not everybody was willing to leave it all behind and follow his teachings was, shall we say, more laid back. In Matthew 19:16 – 22 Jesus is approached by a distressed “rich young man” and asks:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

So, there are some glaring conspicuous absentees in that list of commandments, among them those where God urges us to forfeit every other deity and worship him exclusively. Does Christianity condones freedom of religion by omission? Not so fast, there is an important plot twist. We are overlooking the fact that the door to Heaven is “narrow” and most of mankind is doomed to not cross it. Instead, eternal hellish damnation awaits unless (here is the catch) you are a Christian who at the very least believes in the divinity of Jesus and his Father. After knowing this, the “laid back” attitude of Jesus letting the man walk away “unconverted” has a much darker shade to it. He knew what was in store for him.

In conclusion, it is straight out false to say that Judaism is compatible with freedom of religion. Judaism indeed acknowledges the existence of non-Jewish peoples (gentiles) but it strongly affirms that an ideal Jewish Nation should be a theocratic Nation. Christianity takes an angle that might be more disturbing when analyzed carefully. The Bible recognizes that coercion is not a valid strategy to “Christianize” the gentiles. However, it makes it immoral not to evangelize since the only way to spare the eternal horrors of Hell to your fellow humans (who you should love as you love yourself) is to persuade them that, well, they should be Christians too.  

Democracy.

Here again we face a case where there is a marked rift separating what’s Christian from what’s Jewish. 

The previous section outlines the Jewish position with respect to politics and it is evident that it is far from siding with a democratic system of government. In this aspect, the nature of Judaism and of Islam are remarkably alike. Both religions are all-encompassing, pervasive and sharply intrusive into every aspect of human life. Judaism, like Islam, regulates diet, clothing, economics, and of course, politics. In a state ruled by  Jewish principles every dispute should be resolved with a theological answer filtered from the text through rabbinical interpretation. God Himself sits in the throne and cannot be elected out of power.

Does this mean that a state cannot be both, Jewish and democratic? A quick browsing through an updated world map would seem to settle this question at once. Israel is at least popularly conceived as a Jewish state and its form of government is indeed democratic. To carefully disentangle this conundrum would need more space than we can afford and surely more detailed knowledge than we possess. However, a blunt but not entirely inaccurate answer to this dilemma would be to recognize that Israel is first and foremost ethnically Jewish rather than politically Jewish. Its population consists chiefly of Jewish people of various ethnic strands. Around 75 % of the Israeli Jewish population consider that Judaism is compatible with democracy (at least they thought so back in 2003), nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Israeli political system is not particularly well-aligned with an Orthodox understanding of Judaism. Israel is most definitely not a theocracy but it is not so despite its Jewish roots not because of them and that is a big fat distinction.

Let us be clear about an important point: orthodoxy deserves a bad reputation and we would never advocate its implementation, especially not when we are talking about religious orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is by definition inflexible and stubborn, it represents static and unchallenged tradition. But if one must recognize a value in Orthodoxy, that would be to accept that the Orthodox approach has the “virtue” of  inoculating itself against the effects of interpretative adulteration and runaway contextualization. As a consequence, orthodoxy best preserves the honest colors and straightforward meanings of the ideological core of any philosophy, Judaism and Christianity included.

In contrast to the Torah/Old Testament the New Testament of Bible – upon which Christianity most heavily relies – does not nearly invest as much ink pontificating about more or less adequate political systems. Instead, in one of its arguably most lucid passages, Christianity “washes its hands” of God’s political aspirations in the Old Testament. In Matthew 22:21 Jesus drops a memorable two-liner when he is asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman government or not:

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s

This passage has been largely – and we think reasonably – interpreted as the basis for the separation of Church and State, which, undoubtedly is a good thing. Based on this interpretation one should not hesitate to acknowledge that Christianity does not get in the way of people finding out which form of government suits them best. But, it must also be recognized that this is not equivalent to concluding that Democracy stems from Christian ideas or even that Christianity is compatible with Democracy.

We want to dwell a little on the idea of compatibility. What does claiming “Christianity is compatible with Democracy” mean? We argue that the way this claim is generally understood is rather trivial and inconsequential, it is nearly an “empty claim”. Christianity and Democracy are assumed to be compatible is simply by alluding to the non existent overlap between them. If one extends this usage of the concept of compatibility to other examples it should become obvious how void the concept becomes. Cuisine is compatible with music because both activities are non-exclusionary. One can “musicalize” a recipe because there is nothing in the philosophy of music or recipes that forbids us to do so. One can cook with the radio on or even with a live band performing backstage. Music and cuisine simply have nothing normative to say about how the other should be carried out. This is surely not the best analogy but it captures the point: the type of compatibility that results from non-overlap is trivially unsubstantial.

Compare this usage of compatibility with the way the concept is employed in science. One can say that statistical mechanics is compatible with thermodynamics not because the former does not impede the practice of the latter but because it explains the latter along with much else. In the macroscopic limit, the laws of thermodynamics can be derived by using the tools of statistical mechanics applied to ever larger collections of interacting particles or “ensembles”. In physics, compatibility implies that a more fundamental idea has explanatory power over a less fundamental one. The more fundamental theory encompasses the less fundamental one and even extends beyond it.

This kind of derivative power is completely absent in the assertion: Christianity is compatible with Democracy.  A much more accurate and somewhat more substantial claim would be: Christianity is compatible with political self-determination. But from there several “smaller” claims become equally viable: Christianity is compatible with Democracy, Christianity is compatible with a constitutional monarchy, Christianity is compatible with anarchy. These propositions are valid precisely because Christianity does not explain Democracy. They are not compatible in the more instructive and interesting sense of the word, that which is used in science and possibly philosophy.

More “Western” principles to check, same outcome.

This list is by no means extensive, although it does contain some of the most fundamental pillars upon which modern western societies are built. Some other important concepts and systems can still be explored though. For instance, what about Capitalism – which is the economic framework of “the West” – or Naturalism – to which we owe the modern conception of science? There is no more space in this entry to examine whether Judeo-Christian values lie at the core of these precepts, however, we will go out on a limb and predict that a meticulous examination would find out that this is not the case.

The historical argument to be made about the decisive role of Judeo-Christian tradition in the development of modern Western institutions and precepts is almost a boring tautology. Judeo-Christian philosophy is historically important because Judeo-Christian philosophy influenced (to put it mildly) the historical unfolding of the West (and the rest of the world, for that matter). Those who claim that our modern ethics have a philosophical debt to pay to Judeo-Christian values need to demonstrate that the former can be derived from the latter. Not just that the Jude-Christian tradition had a role to play in the development of modern democracies and their institutions, we know that it did, it represented a formidable obstacle to their conception much more than an assisting hand.

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