Christianity – the root of Western culture

The website of ‘philosopher, ethicist, skeptic and opinion maker’ Etienne Vermeersch has featured the article ‘What do you mean, Christian values?’ since 2003, in which he disputes the idea that the roots of Western civilization lie in the Christian tradition and in which he questions the important role of ‘Christian values’ on the course of history. Because what is so ‘Christian’ about these values? In the opening of his article he states that in opinion contributions on Christian values and the European Constitution the question is asked whether God is now taboo, but that he notices a much more serious taboo: that of historical truth. The irony is that the historical truth in his article is the first to die. Christianity has been instrumental in establishing countless hospitals, schools, universities, orphanages, relief and charity organizations over the centuries. No other religion in history can compare to this.

Christianity – the root of Western culture

  • Christianity and the development of science
  • The science
  • Medieval universities
  • Science has theological roots
  • Greek thinking
  • Influence of Christian values
  • Egypt as in Babylonia
  • Humanity and charity
  • Seneca
  • First Christians
  • The inhumane features of Christianity
  • Position of women and slavery
  • Campaign against slavery (Abolitionism)
  • Shoah (Holocaust)
  • Oppression of women
  • Trail of blood


Christianity and the development of science

The science

Etienne Vermeersch states that no one disputes that Greco-Roman culture and Christianity formed the basis of our culture, but if you look at what the decisive factor is that has brought our civilization to the unique international position it achieved in the twentieth century, has achieved, then the answer, according to him, is simply: science. And according to him, we essentially owe the development of science to Greek mathematics and physics, supplemented with Arabic arithmetic and algebra. ,Christianity has nothing to do with that,, Vermeersch claims. However, he does not do justice to the historical truth.

Medieval universities

The philosopher loses sight of the fact that the flourishing of Western science is fundamentally indebted to the institutional
infrastructure provided by the medieval universities. The Christian universities of the Middle Ages played an essential role in the increase of Western knowledge.[2] Lynn White, Jr., who was a professor of medieval history, emphasizes that modern science grew from developments that originated in the Middle Ages and did not only reach its full development by reconnecting with classical antiquity: Modern

science is not simply a continuation of the interrupted scientific movement of antiquity: it is something novel, created by the later Middle Ages, having interests, presuppositions, and methods alien to the Greeks.[3]

Science has theological roots

Willem Ouweneel [4], following John Hedley Brooke [5], has analyzed how religious views – especially Christian thinking – have led to the development of natural science. In short, Ouweneel says that Christianity has provided four essential things to natural science:

  • the necessary presuppositions;
  • a certain sanction (ground for justification);
  • the right motives; and
  • a particular methodology.

Science has theological roots. Christianity attaches great importance to reason and that is an important distinguishing feature of Christianity. Christianity has been based on reason from the start. There is a match between cognitive abilities and those of reality. Such a match is not self-evident, but becomes completely understandable when one starts from the idea that one and the same God made both man and the reality surrounding us. The rationality of nature is built on the rationality of man, so that human rationality is built on the rationality of nature. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God has placed contingent regularities in creation, so that the rationality of all things can only be known through observation and experiment, i.e. a posteriori and not a priori .

Greek thinking

The Greek thinkers showed no interest in empirical research, since according to them the physical world was only an inaccurate reflection of true reality, the world of ideas, and we could reason a priori how the world must necessarily be composed. There was no need to do experiments. For this reason, among other things, Greek thought formed a barrier to the development of natural science.

The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exist because it was created by God. To love and honour God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Moreover, because God is perfect his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, we ought to be able to discover these principles.
These were the crucial ideas, and that’s why the rise of science occured in Western Europe, not somewhere else.[6]


Invloed van christelijke waarden

Egypte als in Babylonië

The second question that Vermeersch raises is the influence of ‘Christian values’ on the course of history:

That all people are equal before God (Amon), it was said in Egypt as early as 2000 BC: ,I made the great flood so that the poor man would have his share of it as the rich man; I made every man like his fellow man., Charity and works of mercy (feeding the hungry, drinking the thirsty, clothing the naked…) were also common there around 1000 BC. ,Love your enemies, we find from the seventh century BC in both Egypt and Babylonia, and around 500 BC people in China knew the Golden Rule ,do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you., A few centuries before Christ, the Stoics already proclaimed that we are all equal in human dignity and that we should strive for a general human love (philanthropia).[7]

But all these examples (regardless of whether they are correct) have had no influence whatsoever. on the transformation that the West has undergone under Christianity. It was not the god Amun who brought about change in thinking in the West. Nor was it the Stoics with – according to Vermeersch – their ideas about ‘general human love’ who brought about changes And the general human love of the Stoa does not match the Biblical command of active charity. After all, being affected by compassion detracts from the ethical ideal of imperturbability and peace of mind (autarkeia and ataraksia), which is an ideal of intellectual control . According to Dinesh D’Souza, in ancient Greece Aristotle came closest to the Christian idea of having an eye for your neighbor. This Greek philosopher wrote that the man of high spiritual nobility does not fail to help others who are in need. But he does so out of generosity, to demonstrate his generosity and even superiority over those inferior to him.[8] Christian service and esteeming others more highly than yourself cannot be found in Greek thought.

Humanity and charity

They were Christians who demonstrated mutual humanity and charity with their spiritual love and who amazed the pagans and Romans with the charity within their community. Emperor Julian showed admiration for the way in which Christians cared for their poor, their widows and orphans, and their sick and dying. Although Vermeersch also admits that during the first three centuries Christianity distinguished itself in a striking way by charitable activities and especially by radical pacifism, he forgets to mention that this was about Christian humility and not about classical magnanimity, that they were Christians who built the first hospitals – at first intended only for Christians, but later for everyone. Christians provided help to anyone who needed it and did not limit their help to fellow believers. This was also expressed by the Church Fathers:

According to Augustine, the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters are not only the members of the Church. Augustine gives another, broader interpretation of these words. The least are also all whose fate Christ cares about. They are the poor and the strangers; they are people who are outside the church and they may even be the enemies of Christ.[9]


Now it was known to Christians that in theory pagans could recommend a positive attitude to their enemies. Consider, for example, the words of Seneca: ,I am agreeable to friends, gentle and yielding to enemies., [10] But in practice there was little evidence of this positive attitude towards enemies. Pagans considered Christians their enemies and treated them unjustly. However, the attitude of Christians was different; they offered help without distinction of persons. Those who did not were not considered Christians.[11]

First Christians

In his Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902), Von Harnack lists in which the first Christians stood out in a positive way in their daily lives. Those were:

  • giving alms, including what was necessary for the proper functioning of the church;
  • the financial support of pastors and missionaries;
  • caring for widows and orphans;
  • the care of the sick, weak and disabled;
  • the care of prisoners and punished employees;
  • care in case of deaths;
  • the care of slaves;
  • care in the event of major disasters;
  • ensuring the right to work;
  • the care for itinerant brothers (hospitality) and poor and threatened communities.

What Vermeers also does not mention is that all these elements or values have drastically changed society and continue to have an effect to this day in both our thinking and our actions and in the structures of our society. Christianity has been influential in our view of the sick, the poor, the disadvantaged and the needy and in our struggle to improve their situation and reduce human suffering.

It is not that pagans at that time did not know charity. However, they lack religious motivation. Pagan humanity is not based on a demand from the gods and therefore it always retains a non-binding and individual character.[12]


The inhumane features of Christianity

Position of women and slavery

The philosopher and opinion maker claims that Christianity also showed inhumane traits from a very early age: the hatred of Jews and heretics, the subordinate position of women and, above all, the approval of slavery. About the (abolition of) slavery he writes:

If it took eighteen centuries for all those believers, both lay and hierarchical, to realize that slavery was an intolerable violation of human dignity, then with that Christian heritage something went wrong.[13]

The scribe does not seem to care about historical facts here. The Arabist Hans Jansen (1942-2015) writes in God Has Said :

The disappearance of slavery in Western Europe has not been documented as passionately as the Crusades. Yet, in the days of Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century, slavery was over except in unchristianized corners of Europe. Although it soon became a more or less theoretical issue, the church came to regard slaveholding as a sin.[14]

Campaign against slavery (Abolitionism)

Later, it was Christians who were the first group, completely religiously motivated and with the help of the thinking and preaching of Christian theologians, to campaign against slavery.[15] The one culture that has abolished slavery is the Christian culture and not on the basis of direct divine revelation, but on the basis of the theological thinking of Christian Bible researchers. There were also Christians who believed that slavery was not a sin, but they lost out . We do not owe the abolition of slavery to the Enlightenment or secular intellectuals.

,In the Bible-fast United States, slavery only disappeared after a bloody civil war (1865),, says Vermeersch. But he forgets to mention that – especially on the part of the North – it was above all a moral and religious conflict, because there was an increasing realization that slavery was a moral evil. Ultimately, slavery was the main cause of the war. The United States was indeed ‘Bible-fast’: between 1820 and 1830 a so-called Great Awakening took place, a revival of religious insight throughout the United States. This gave rise to Abolitionism, the movement that advocated the abolition of slavery.

Shoah (Holocaust)

Vermeersch notes about the Shoah:

And where was the love and tolerance when the Jews were humiliated, persecuted and murdered by those Christians century after century? Do we need to repeat that the Shoah took place in a country that was overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant, without the highest church leaders doing anything to counter it?[16]

Jew-hatred is the greatest shame in the history of the Christian church, that I don’t take anything away from it. But Vermeersch’s comment requires qualification. The Jewish New Testament scholar David Flusser argues that although the twentieth-century Holocaust can be seen as an escalation of a process that began in the fourth century, the Final Solution was only possible in an unchristian Europe, with Christian anti-Semitism functioning as a praeparatio antievangelica [17] In an earlier article I wrote:

It [Christian anti-Semitism] was the prelude and prelude to a toxic and genocidal program in Nazi Germany where a new paganism had developed, diametrically opposed to the gospel. ‘Degenerate Christianity’ has paved the way to the pagan and dehumanizing Nazi ideology and the factories of death. Despite all the sad situations and anti-Jewish sentiments and behavior, one thing was not possible in Christian Europe: the extermination of the Jews dictated from above. According to Flusser, Judaism was despite everything tolerated as the only non-Christian religion and his religious freedom was recognized. How can that be explained? In all the horrible situations, one was somehow aware that ,a deliberate extermination of the Jews as Christians, ordered from above, would cut off the branch on which one sat., Flusser continues: ,Despite all expressions of Christian anti-Judaism, one could not ignore the realization that the Jews were the people of the Old Testament and that the Christian faith had emerged from Judaism., (p.162) [18]

Flusser offers us the following words of warning:

If one does not recognize that the ‘Final Solution’ was a consequence of the secularization of Europe, one becomes blind to the dangers of the dechristianization of European civilization. Said from a purely Jewish point of view: What is the religious bond between the God-believing Jew and an atheist European? As one ‘Final Solution’ has already shown, a godless Europe poses far greater dangers even to the physical existence of the Jews than the dark aspects of Christian anti-Judaism.[19]

Oppression of women

And then the oppression of women, which, according to Vermeersch, Christianity is guilty of.[20] It is a myth that Christianity oppresses women, history shows the opposite. Many modern unbelievers will not readily believe it, but it was Christianity that introduced the equal ­dignity ­of women . The valuable position of women in the time of the Early Church is striking. Women were oppressed and considered inferior in almost every culture prior to the advent of Christianity. In ancient Greece and Rome, women had a lower status. The woman was seen as the man’s property. However, Jesus broke through the mores of patriarchal cultures, including Jewish society at the time of Jesus. The way Jesus interacted with women was in stark contrast to the culture surrounding him. By regarding women – even with a lower social status – as serious and full-fledged conversation partners, accepting them as traveling companions and allowing them into his immediate circle of friends and confidantes, he broke taboos.

Christianity increased the position of women, partly by equalizing men and women in sexual morality. It is just as bad when men commit adultery as women, men cannot have their way; there is no double standard. For example, the Roman man was allowed to divorce his wife if she had committed adultery, while conversely the woman had to allow the man to have intercourse with other women. In Christianity, the regulations regarding divorce are the same for both sexes; no distinction is made between men and women. The position and prestige of women rose to a higher level. Proportionally, therefore, many women joined Christianity. Many Romans were scornful about this and considered it ‘a religion for women’.

Christian ethics is based on the equality of men and women. Husbands were expected to love their wives (and not spank them if they misbehaved in the husband’s eyes, which Roman men were legally free to do) and not embitter their children. These principles were at odds with the Roman institution of patria potestas , which gave the man absolute paternal power that included the ius vitae necisque (right over life and death) of all members of the familia. In the Roman Empire, many women underwent abortions on a large scale under male coercion. At the time this was a life-threatening procedure. Because Christians reject abortion, women were thus protected from these dangerous practices. Women had no legal rights over their own children. That also changed with the arrival of Christianity.

The Biblical view of men and women as equal partners also revolutionized marriage. Christian women began to marry later in life, and they married men of their own choosing. This caused the old practice to decline where men married younger girls who had no say in the matter and were often no older than about twelve years old.

Another effect of the salt and light of Christianity was its impact on the common practice of polygamy, which demeans women. Many men, including many Biblical heroes, had multiple wives, but Jesus made it clear that this was never God’s intention. When he spoke of marriage, it was always in the context of a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. He said, “And the two [not three or four] shall become one.” As Christianity spread, monogamous marriage became the norm.

Naturally, there are deviations in church history with regard to the role and position of women. But this should not distract from the revolutionary change in the status of women that was (and is) initiated in large parts of the world thanks to the arrival and spread of Christianity.

Trail of blood

Vermeersch says he cannot conclude otherwise than ,that no religion, ideology or movement has left behind as wide a trail of blood and tears, of oppression and exploitation, of death and destruction throughout history as Christianity. , Well, the three best-known atheist regimes, the Soviet Union, Maoist China and Hitler’s Germany, together have committed approximately 100 million murders (not including fallen soldiers). And that does not include smaller atheist regimes (Cambodia under Pol Pot, Albania under Hoxcha, Romania under Ceausescu, Cuba under Castro, North Korea under Kim Jong-IL).

The philosopher John Gray (not himself a believer) pointed out the history of secular intolerance, to which people like Vermeersch are blind:

The role of humanist thought in shaping the past century’s worst regimes is easily demonstrable, but it is passed over, or denied , by those who harp on about the crimes of religion. Yet the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress. Stalin and Mao were not believers in original sin. Even Hitler, who despised Enlightenment values of equality and freedom, shared the Enlightenment faith that a new world could be created by human will. Each of these tyrants imagined that the human condition could be transformed through the use of science.[21]

To conclude with historian John Coffey:

Godlessness is not always a humanizing force. One could justifiably amend the dictum of Polly Toynbee: ‘The horrible history of atheism shows that whenever secularism grabs temporal power it turns lethal.'[22]


  1. Vermeersch, E., What do you mean, Christian values?, De Standaard, July 3, 2003. (last consulted on July 9, 2012)
  2. Diederik Vandendriessche: Beyond the ‘Great Right’ in the debate Christianity versus Enlightenment: a historical-philosophical essay. Academia Press, Ghent University Academic Bibliography (Belgium).
  3. White, Jr., L., Medieval Religion and Technology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  4. Willem J. Ouweneel: The sixth tilt – Christ and 5000 years of thought history, Barnabas, Heerenveen, 2000, p324ff.
  5. JH Brooke: Science and religion: Some historical perspectives, Cambridge, 1991.
  6. Rodney Stark: For the glory of God – How monotheism led to reformations, science, which-hunts, and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2004, p.157-158.
  7. Vermeersch, E., What do you mean, Christian values?, De Standaard, July 3, 2003.
  8. Dinesh D’Souza: Christianity isn’t that bad after all. Nieuw Amsterdam Uitgevers, 2009, p.92.
  9. Wim van den Dool: Serving the sick with complete devotion – Dealing with the sick in Augustine and Benedict. Weapon field. Volume 61, Number 5, December 2011. Pages 16–24.
  10. Seneca, De vita beata, 20, 5.
  11. Eginhard Meijering. History of early Christianity – From the Jew Jesus of Nazareth to the Roman Emperor Constantine, Uitgeverij Balans, 2004, 3rd edition, June 2006, p.288.
  12. Prof. Dr. A. Baars, Drs. JW van Berkum, Rev. LJ Geluk, Dr. A. Goudriaan, G. Holdijk and Dr. K. van der Zwaag. Vulnerable minority, visible community – The Early Church as an inspiring example for Christians in a secular society. Guido de Brès Foundation, Gouda, 2009.
  13. Vermeersch, E., What do you mean, Christian values?, De Standaard, July 3, 2003.
  14. Hans Jansen: God has said: terror, tolerance and the unfinished modernization of Islam, 2003, p100.
  15. Rodney Stark: For the glory of God – How monotheism led to reformations, science, which-hunts, and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2004.
  16. Vermeersch, E., What do you mean, Christian values?, De Standaard, July 3, 2003.
  17. David Flusser: Christianity – a Jewish religion; Ten Have, Baarn, 1991.
  18. Tartuffel (pseudonym): Christianity: a Jewish religion (David Flusser),
  19. David Flusser: Christianity – a Jewish religion; Ten Have, Baarn, 1991, p163.
  20. These sections are mainly based on: Alvin J. Schmidt: How Christianity Changed the World. Zondervan Publishing Company, 2004.
  21. J. Gray, ‘The myth of secularism’, New Statesman , 16–30 December 2002, p.70.
  22. John Coffey. The myth of secular tolerance. Cambridge Papers. Vol 12 No 3. September 2003. De columnist Polly Toynbee schreef in 2001: ‘The only good religion is a moribund religion: only when the faithful are weak are they tolerant and peaceful. The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power it turns lethal. Those who believe theirs is the only way, truth and light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance.’ P. Toynbee, ‘Last chance to speak out’, The Guardian , 5 October 2001 , p.21.


Lees verder

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  • Christian Symbols: Ichthus or Fish Sign (Pisces Bible)

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