Rethinking the Idea of 'Christian Europe'

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Niccolo and Donkey
Rethinking the Idea of 'Christian Europe'


Kenan Malik

August 19, 2011

In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife.
At the heart of the argument lie two claims. First, that the political ideals and ethical values of ‘Western civilization’ are underpinned by Christianity (or the Judeo-Christian tradition). And, second, that this vital and unique tradition is under threat, from Islam on the one side and Marxists and the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ on the other. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and the end of modern, liberal democracy.

Many writers ( myself included ) have challenged the argument about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of Europe and about the growth of ‘Eurabia’. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident. Europe, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague argued recently, ‘ has denied its Christian roots from which it has risen and which could give it the strength to fend off the danger that it will be conquered by Muslims, which is actually happening gradually’:
It is not just believers who are worried that Europe is ‘denying its Christian roots’. It is an argument being increasingly heard from non-believers and non-Christians too. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of ‘Eurabia’, described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam . The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’, cautions against ‘any idealisation of Christendom’ and is critical of the ‘clash of civilizations thesis’. Yet he is alarmed by the decline of Christianity in Europe because it is leading to a world in which ‘there isn’t… any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. The erosion of Christianity makes more difficult ‘the transmission… of ethical values between generations’. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’

Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of Western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the ‘bedrock values of Western civilisation’, and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values, is a Janet and John reading of history and ethics. It greatly simplifies both the history of Christianity and the roots of modern democratic values – not to mention underplaying the tensions that often exist between ‘Christian’ and ‘liberal’ values. Here are some initial thoughts on some of the myths and misconceptions about the history of ‘Christian Europe’ and of the Christian tradition, thoughts which hopefully I will eventually work into a fully-fleshed thesis.



Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was effectively a marriage of Athens and Jerusalem, a fusion of the Ancient Greek tradition and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so.

Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The extensions of the Mosaic law upon which Jesus insisted were already part of the Jewish tradition. The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently already appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to look inwards, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition.

Similarly, the concept of universalism, often seen as a key Christian ideal, was also drawn from Stoicism. In his famous Elements of Ethics the Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines very individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the community of neighbouring towns, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. Or, as another Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it,
It is a cosmopolitan vision that would be startling today, let alone two thousand years ago. Hierocles and Epictetus lived at a time when Christianity was tearing itself apart in doctrinal conflict, when heretics were put to death and non-Christians often treated with contempt. In time Christianity helped develop some of the Stoic ideas about a universal humanity, as did the other monotheistic faiths. The origins of these ideas, however, lay in pagan philosophy. And their full development had to await the Enlightenment and more secular philosophies.



Perhaps the most original and profound contribution of Christianity to the ‘Western’ tradition is also its most pernicious: the doctrine of Original Sin, the belief that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It was a doctrine that led to a bleak view of human nature; in the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower.

The story of Adam and Eve, and of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole, nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God.

In the Christian tradition, God created humanity to be immortal. In eating the apple, Adam and Eve brought mortality upon themselves. Jews have always seen humans as mortal beings. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were as children. Having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. This is seen not as a ’fall’ but as a ‘gift’ – the gift of free will. As the Hertz Chumash , the classic Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs , observes, ‘Instead of the Fall of man (in the sense of humanity as a whole), Judaism preaches the Rise of man: and instead of Original Sin, it stresses Original Virtue, the beneficent hereditary influence of righteous ancestors upon their descendants’.

The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of the Adam and Eve’s transgression that Christianity has perhaps secured its greatest influence, a bleak description of human nature that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place. Not till the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.
Niccolo and Donkey


What we now think of as the Judeo-Christian tradition has been created as much despite the efforts of the Christian Church as because of them. Western Europe endured the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ between the extinguishing of the final sparks of Hellenism in the fifth century and the re-ignition of cultural life in the Renaissance almost a millennium later. This is often seen as a period ushered in by the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries that brought down the Roman Empire. In fact the intellectual darkness was ushered in also by the policies of the Church itself.

The collapse of the Roman imperial institutions under the weight of the myriad invasions left the Church as almost the only body capable of maintaining some semblance of social order in Western Europe. It also left the clergy as the sole literate class in the Western world and the Church as the lone patron of knowledge and the arts. But if the Church kept alive elements of a learned culture, Church leaders, particularly in Western Europe, were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge. ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?’, asked Tertullian, the first significant theologian to write in Latin. So preoccupied were devout Christians with the demands of the next world that to study nature or history or philosophy for its own sake seemed to them almost perverse. ‘Let Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason’, insisted Basil of Caesarea, an influential fourth century theologian and monastic. ‘For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church.’ Augustine, who with Thomas Aquinas is the greatest of all Christian philosophers, came to see uninhibited curiosity as an evil, in his Confessions condemning as a ‘disease’ the yearning to discover ‘the hidden powers of nature… which to know profits not’.

The most significant casualty of the Christianising of learning was Aristotle whose empirical, this-worldly approach to knowledge was most at odds with the dictates of faith. Aristotle, in historian Charles Freeman’s words, ‘vanishes from the western world; his work only reappears in the thirteenth century thanks to its preservation by Arab interpreters.’



Christian Western Europe rediscovered the Greek heritage, and in particular Aristotle, in the thirteenth century, a rediscovery that helped transform European intellectual culture. It inspired the work of Thomas Aquinas , perhaps the greatest of all Christian theologians, and allowed reason to take centre stage again in European philosophy.

But how did theologians and scholars in Western Europe find their way back to Greek thought? Primarily through the Muslim Empire. As Christian Europe endured its ‘Dark Ages’, an intellectual tradition flowered in the Islamic world as lustrous as that of Ancient Athens before or Renaissance Florence after. Centred first in Baghdad and then in Cordoba, in Muslim Iberia, Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just in preserving the gains of the Greeks but in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge, both in philosophy and in science.

Arab scholars revolutionsed astronomy, invented algebra, helped develop the modern decimal number system, established the basis of optics, and set the ground rules of cryptography. But perhaps more important than the science was the philosophy. The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate. Ibn Rushd especially, the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam, his commentaries shaping the thinking of a galaxy of thinkers from Maimonides to Aquinas himself.

Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. One of Raphael’s most famous paintings, The School of Athens , is a fresco on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicting the world’s great philosophers. Among the pantheon of celebrated Greek philosophers including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes stands Ibn Rushd.

Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. There is a tendency to think of Islam as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking. Much of the Islamic world came to be that way. But the fact remains that the scholarship of the golden age of Islamic thinking helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, it is possible that neither may have happened.



What are now often called ‘Western values’ – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech, etc – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. Such values are, of course, not ‘Western’ in any essential sense but are universal; they are ‘Western’ only through an accident of geography and history.

A complex debate has arisen about the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Christian tradition. As the notion of the Christian tradition and of ‘Western civilization’ have become fused, and as the Enlightenment has come to be seen as embodying Western values, so some have tried to co-opt the Enlightenment into the Christian tradition. The Enlightenment ideas of tolerance, equality and universalism, they argue, derive from the reworking of notions already established within the Christian tradition. Others, more ambiguous about the legacy of the Enlightenment, argue that true liberal, democratic values are Christian and that the radicalism and secularism of the Enlightenment has only helped undermine such values.

Both views are wrong. For a start, the historic origins of many of these ideas lie, as we have seen, outside the Christian tradition. It is as apt to describe a concept such as equality or universalism as Greek as it is to be describe it as Christian. In truth, though, contemporary ideas of equality or universality are neither Greek nor Christian. Whatever their historical origins, they have become peculiarly modern concepts, the product of the specific social, political and intellectual currents of the modern world.

Moreover, the great figures of the Christian tradition would have been appalled at what we now call ‘Western’ values. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe , Christopher Caldwell argues that Muslim migration to Europe has been akin to a form of colonization, threatening the very foundations of European civilization. Islam, Caldwell argues, ‘has broken… a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures’, not ‘enhancing or validating European culture’ but ‘supplanting it.’

Yet Caldwell also acknowledges that ‘What secular Europeans call “Islam” is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognize as theirs’. On the other hand, the modern, secular rights that now constitute ‘core European values’ would ‘leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.’ There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history and binds together ‘the Christian tradition’ in opposition to a single corpus of timeless set-in-stone Islamic values. Those who decry Enlightenment secularism as being in some sense anti-Christian are right – but only because they hold on to a very particular notion of what constitutes Christian ideals.

Not only are ‘Christian values’ and ‘Islamic values’ more complex, and with a more convoluted history than contemporary narratives suggest, so is the relationship between Enlightenment ideas and religious belief. There were, in fact, as historian Jonathan Israel pointed out in his wonderful three-part history of the period, Radical Enlightenment , Enlightenment Contested and Democratic Enlightenment , two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

This distinction was to shape the attitudes of the two sides to a whole host of social and political issues such as equality, democracy and colonialism. The attempt of the mainstream to marry traditional theology to the new philosophy, Israel suggests, constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. The Radicals, on the other hand, were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was no ‘meaningful alternative to grounding morality, political and social order on a systematic radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’

The moderate mainstream was overwhelmingly dominant in terms of support, official approval and prestige. But in a deeper sense, and in the long run, it proved less important than the radical strand. As Israel shows the ‘package of basic values’ that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derive principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment and has been profoundly shaped by radicals’ challenge to the Christian tradition.

To argue all this is not to deny the distinctive character of the Christian tradition (or traditions), nor the important role that Christianity has played in incubating what we now call ‘Western’ thought, nor yet the significant philosophical advances made within that tradition. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast. The history of Christianity, its relationship to other ethical traditions, and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular societies is far more complex than the trite ‘Western civilization is collapsing’ arguments allow. The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other ‘ists’ that such defenders so loathe.

The reason to challenge the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition. It also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values. The crass defence of Christendom against the barbarian hordes may well do.
Niccolo and Donkey