The West's Success: 'Caesarean Section'?
Not so long ago, I blogged about Niall Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the Rest, which I've not read, of course, but I did read up on Ferguson's views and learned about his 'killer apps' -- as readers will recall.
More recently, my friend Malcolm Pollack blogged on Ferguson's report from China (which may appear in his book), posting a passage on what a scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences wrote about the West's success:
We were asked to look into what accounted for . . . the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion. Christianity.I had posted some words on this quote myself, so I was ready to discuss it some more if anyone should express interest. Others do appear interested, for Malcolm noted that Dennis Mangan is also curious about the passage. Malcolm even posted a comment to Mangan's blog entry on the topic:
I wondered if the Chinese scholar himself had said any more about why this should be so: about what, exactly it was about Christianity that they thought best explained. As it turns out, the next line of the quoted passage reads . . . "The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this" . . . . I'd still like to know more. In what way, specifically -- by what mechanism -- did these scholars think that Christian morality accounted for the West's flamboyant (and flamboyantly capitalistic!) success?I don't know why this academy drew this conclusion, but I have my own theory about how Christianity contributed to the West's secular success, and I think that this success turns upon the point noted by Malcolm, the crucial distinction between God and Caesar, so I commented:
There are two parts to this. First, the "emergence of capitalism". What about Christian morality uniquely fosters capitalism?
Then there's the "transition to democratic politics". Implicit in this is the remarkable assertion (for a Chinese scholar to make in public, at least) that democracy is a key factor in our global domination. And of course Christianity explicitly distinguishes between God and Caesar. But again: why do you suppose the Chinese Academy of the Social Science concluded that Christian morality is more conducive to democracy than to collective socialism?
I think that embedded in Christianity -- it's there in the foundational texts -- is a distinction between the sacred and the secular, and thus religion and state, in which the secular is allowed its legitimate place, a distinction that enabled the development of secular laws not subject to religious control, and therefore amendable according to what would work pragmatically, the long-term result being the rise of a powerful, free society that rested upon religiously based legitimacy and was therefore free from religious challenge . . . in principle.In other words, the West's success rests upon a religiously sanctioned absence of religion, an absence that depends upon a particular religion, specifically Christianity, for the divinely granted condition that provides the absence its legitimacy, the condition being that so long as God gets what is owed Him, Caesar gets what is owed him.
How do other religions compare?
Islam is surely the prime example of a religion that refuses legitimacy to the secular, and look at the results.
Even Confucianism -- let's take it as a religion -- imposes a morally based system of ritual upon all of society, including the state, from which no detail escapes.
I leave a full comparison to these and other religions as homework.
One might object that this analysis implies that not Christianity, but rather its absence, is responsible for the power of the West. That objection fails to grasp that this outcome was the consequence of a deeply Christian principle, the already noted distinction between God and Caesar.
Or so I think . . .
The operative question is that of what, in both cases, is owed, which is where things get complicated, but in principle . . .