Discover more from Erik Torenberg
We're More Christian Than We Know
How we've retained Christianity, but dropped Christ
Note: This is a high-level theoretical (& speculative) summary connecting scattered ideas I discovered reading Inventing the Individual, An Anxious Age, Dominion and talking further with Tom Holland. I welcome immediate reactions as the ideas are very WIP, and, since it’s such a big topic, the generalizations are often sweeping. That’s what I use this Substack for: to work through new ideas and test them off smart readers…
Epistemic status: abstract, speculative, experimental
We’re more Christian than we know.
As we’ll discuss in this piece, liberal humanism looks pretty similar to a godless protestantism.
In other words, you could say that subsequent belief systems post-Christianity — Scientism, Communism, Liberalism, Wokeism, among others — all have Christian roots. They’ve taken the same religious architecture, but dropped the ontological assumptions. The same ethics, but without the metaphysics: Christianity without Christ.
How could this be true?
As we’ll unpack in this piece, Christianity introduced some core ideas into our zeitgeist:
The concept of an “individual” separated from the family
Moral equality within humans
Power to the powerless, or a duty to the downtrodden
The category of “religion” itself, and thus categories outside of religion
Inventing the Individual
In olden times, the atomic unit of society used to be the family.
Marriage involved a literal non-personing of the bride as she changed her last name & became “owned” by the man. Everything was by family/caste/clan; there was no individual. Instead of the private/public dichotomy, there was a domestic/public dichotomy, since there was no private sphere separate from the family.
Paul overturned the assumption of natural inequality by creating an inner link between divine will and human agency. He conceived the idea that the two can, at least potentially, be fused within each person, thereby justifying moral equality of humans.
The idea he introduced was that, in order to be saved, the individual’s duty would be to serve God, and the best way to do that was to have an individual connection to God.
This meant the family sphere was no longer separate from religion. What was once the exception to the rule was now subject to the scrutiny of justice.
This shift was the wedge enabling the individual to become the atomic unit of society.
Later we overthrew the caveat that the purpose of individuality was to serve God, but we kept the underlying structure of the individual.
Duty to the Downtrodden
Prior to Christianity, value systems and myths were all oriented around strength, excellence, and achievement.
Christianity flipped morality upside down, claiming: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.“
In other words, Christianity reordered Western values from veneration of the strong to veneration of the weak, or from condemnation of the weak to commendation of the strong. It left us with the understanding of human rights we have today: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
But wouldn’t science have discovered human rights on its own? Wouldn’t it have been inevitable?
Steven Gould famously said if you turn back the clock, there’s nothing inevitable about humans. Same with historical contingency. Human rights are the result of legal developments in medieval Christendom; they don’t just emerge out of nowhere. According to Gould, there’s nothing inevitable about human rights or universal humanism that would have emerged separate from Christianity.
After all, it isn't self-evident that people are equal — in fact, we’re not! Christianity says people are *morally* equal, but not in any other sense.
The idea that human rights were waiting to be discovered is just as theological as Jesus Christ rising from the dead — both ideas require leaps of faith.
The difference between Christians and Humanists is that the former recognizes a belief in divinity requires leaps of faith, whereas the latter does not.
To put that in context: We didn't stop burning witches because of the scientific method; we instead got the scientific method because we stopped burning witches. For example: if, say, people’s crops were dying, and they burned a "witch", and then suddenly crops grew, they kept burning witches. When they stopped burning witches out of moral reasons, they were then free to evaluate other reasons (ahem, science!)
How are we so sure we have Christianity to thank? After all, apes had opposable thumbs, just like our greatest inventors. But we don’t credit apes for the Industrial Revolution!
Fair pushback. Tracing cause and effect is always difficult, but it’s safe to say the Enlightenment wasn't a break, but a continuation of particular Christian social and intellectual commitments, as outlined above.
In fact, the introduction of a category like science, outside of religion, is inspired by Christianity itself. The split between religious and non-religious ideas would have made no sense to pre-Christian societies. To them, only religious ideas existed.
Secularism is a Christian idea. We wouldn’t have it without Augustin & Gregory the 7th. It’s the rise of secularism that makes the idea of science possible.
But I’d go even further to say that science couldn’t escape religion even if it tried, in the sense that it cannot provide moral frameworks without it.
To quote Antonio Garcia Martinez:
“Science answers the what?, economics and engineering can answer the how?, but it’s religion (or religions in secular guise) that answer the why? … When you challenge your interlocutor (as I did in a recent Clubhouse room with Sam Harris) with the notion that bean-counting utilitarianism would condone such barbarisms as indentured servitude or forcible organ harvesting, they’ll start sounding a bit uncomfortable. I mean, why not dismember a prisoner into useful organs and body parts—kidneys and retinas and so on—and thereby save or improve the lives of a dozen people? The math works out.
‘But human life is sacred, and everyone has rights,’ comes the frequent objection.
Suddenly we’ve got numerical infinities on that ethics spreadsheet, inputs that win out against any finite moral optimization. Where to put the infinities on the spreadsheet is of course the entire point of this metaphysical endeavor. We need the axiomatic moral imperatives, whether they be human life or free speech or something else, to which everything else loses in the moral calculus. The rest is mere arithmetic.
And this is precisely where the rationalist worldview grows mute: there’s simply no way to derive the absolute moral principles that should rule our lives from lab experiments, and any such proposal will necessarily require a faith-based leap--the ‘dignity’ of human life, the sanctity of private property, etc.—not very different than the tzelem Elohim or Imago Dei of Genesis. Science is absolutely mute here. There’s no such thing as a ‘scientific ethics’ or a ‘scientific foreign policy’, and the people who claim as much are precisely the same naifs who treat science as a body of knowledge rather than an epistemology, i.e., those who’ve never actually practiced it…
If we persist in believing we can live lives free of belief, in the end, we'll only fill that empty sanctuary with some makeshift idol that will one day lead us into even darker pits of unreason, or simply eat us alive.”
We are not “post-Christian”; we’re more Christian than ever before.
Particularly for political progressives, there’s this belief that their group has become “post-Christian” when in reality their beliefs are rooted in assumptions that date back millennia.
Faced with the post-Darwin necessity to invent new values, Western elites not only failed to do so, but instead ended up with the exact same values in new clothes. They're playing out the same pattern in secular guise.
First they cycled the old values through Marxism (class struggle), and when that didn’t work, they seamlessly pivoted to the sort of “individualistic populism” they have now. In this “new” ideology, they kept Christian ethics under new names like “Egalitarianism“, "Equality”, "Marxism", "Communism", “Social justice”, and even “Atheism."
There’s a common idea throughout all of these movements: the idea that if you have been given the light, or if you’ve awakened, and others haven't, then you need to shape them and wake them up.
Nietzche saw dystopia as the natural end state, which is why he so vehemently attacked Christianity and was such a big proponent of Will to Power — the Uber Mensch. He was trying to construct a new set of ethics that valued strength, excellence, and achievement and wasn’t as crude as pre-Christianity life.
Wait, You’re Saying Communism is Christianity?
Yes! Or something like it. Communism was a secular religion oriented around building heaven on earth through fundamental social & economic reengineering to achieve equality on every dimension. Marx adopted the Christian flipping of the powerless and the powerful, threw out the God part, and promised egalitarianism across an economic axis.
Of course, it didn’t pan out that way…
The connections are clear to see. In the gospels, Jesus was incredibly hostile to the rich — “The last will be first and the first will be last” is absolutely explicit. And when he says “Woe to the rich,” he doesn't say, “Woe to the rich who don't pay their taxes,” or, “Woe to the rich who don't give money away to charity,” he just says, “Woe to the rich,” implying the rich should be condemned.
If you rely on the New Testament, it's clear — Communism is the only way. It’s the logical end point of a secularized Christianity.
One stand of Christian pushback to this claim would be something like: “It actually doesn't matter how virtuous you are; you're still fallen, so you need the grace of God,” the implication being that any attempt to build heaven on earth will inevitably fail because you can't build heaven on earth; Earth is fallen already.”
Is Progressivism is Chrisitanity too?
Well, not exactly. But it shares some ideological roots.
The Civil Rights Movement reiterated that people steeped in sin can be saved by grace, if they awaken themselves to the truth (led by a leader who fittingly has Martin Luther in his name).
MLK, of course, also draws on the exodus myth — the idea that God is closer to the slaves than he is to the persecuting masters. He's drawing on themes in the New Testament, but the message of liberation ends up divorced from that context.
Further, the idea that the oppressed will inherit the earth gets picked up by other groups who feel historically oppressed. This very notion that the oppressed, the vulnerable, or the historically weak have dignity by virtue of that subordinate identity, is deeply rooted in Christian assumptions.
Today, the progressive movement has dropped the universalism that the Civil Rights Movement pledged. It's rooted in Christian teaching, but it's not anchored to it. And that's the great difference.
That's why the 1960s will be seen as such a decisive rupture point, because these are Christian ideas no longer rooted in the teachings of the church.
Civil War within Christianity
The broader culture war we face today is ostensibly about people who hold Christian values (conservatives who believe truth comes from the past) and those who hold progressive values (those who believe themselves emancipated from religious superstition).
But another way to look at this isn’t to look at it as about Christians vs progressives, but rather one sect of Christianity vs another. In other words, there’s a Civil War happening within cultural Christianity. And it’s the same old war, between the valorization of the victim and the valorization of universalism — balancing the idea that we’re all equal with the idea that we have a duty to support the powerless. (Universalism vs Multiculturalism).
Indeed, maybe Richard Dawkins is a Christian figure — he’s just now including Christianity in what he's condemning, and he’s replaced it with something called science, which conveniently keeps the same Christian assumptions of moral equality and a duty to the downtrodden.
At its core, all humanists, Marxists, and progressives want to find a way to justify Christian morality without Christian metaphysical belief. This comes off odd for people who believe we overthrew Christianity because of its primitive nature, but perhaps we overthrew it because we saw it as not Christian enough—not applying moral equality wide enough (e.g LGTBQ rights, among others). It’s fascinating to consider that perhaps when we denounced Christianity, we denounced it from a place of wanting Christian principles to be applied to a broader set of people, as opposed to saying Christian principles were all terrible in the first place.
Politics invades Religion
In 1965, 50%+ of Americans were Protestant. Now that number is less than 10%. This collapse of mainline Protestant churches created a moral vacuum in American public life, and since this intense spiritual hunger had to be filled, religion invaded politics.
This is what Antonio calls the Steady State Theory of Religion: Religious fervor doesn't ebb and flow; it's just differently directed at any given time.
Today we live in a world today where we believe our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. We live with religious anxiety that our attitudes toward social questions explain our goodness and salvation.
For centuries jurisprudence has worried about the impact of religion on politics, and now it's finally happening: politics is starting to look increasingly like a religion, but in the name of “anti-religion.” It’s a religion that refuses to acknowledge its religiosity, which, ironically enough, makes it even more powerful, since it can adopt power without people calling for separation between church and state.
And the fact that people don't recognize that makes it worse. It allows both politics and religion to achieve some kinds of expressions without any sense of a limiting argument.
If Christianity is no longer personal, what further use do we have of Christ? Jesus was the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder.
Can we keep the ethics without the metaphysics?
When we emerged from WWII, we didn't notice the lack of metaphysics because we had a new understanding of what evil was. We didn’t need the devil anymore because we had Hitler, and we didn’t need hell because we had Auschwitz.
This begs the question of whether or not this idea of Christian ethics (e.g. moral equality) without Christ will remain defensible. Without theological roots for humanism, what justification do they have? If we lose the enormous heritage of Christian belief, practice, and rituals that have sustained those beliefs for 2,000 years, can they be sustained? Can ethics be sustainably divorced from metaphysics, and selected a la carte?
Nietzsche said, "God is dead, and we have killed him." So when God is dead, how do we defend the values he used to justify? That’s what Nietzsche asked, and that’s what we don’t yet know. Much of intellectual culture in the West over the past 150 years has tried and failed to answer this too.
The fear is what happens is when someone says "I don't share these humanist values and your insults don't harm me." What happens then? Perhaps this explains why some people are seeking institutionalization for these values.
After all, universal humanism is not convincingly derived from philosophy or any other discipline, so it requires a leap of faith. We don't have another theological basis for the equality of all human beings.
This perhaps explains why, as Christian ethics got on flimsier and flimsier ground, Progressivism doubled down on egalitarianism, emphasizing it even more than Christians did.
Today's egalitarianism erases distinctions between people, but Christianity didn't — there was more virtue & less virtue. We hyper emphasized egalitarianism at the same time as we cut off the roots of that egalitarianism, so we don’t have any compelling basis to justify it.
What we do know is that we're more Christian than before, so if you're a liberal humanist, the question isn't whether we should change anything, the question is how do we remain liberal humanists? Can we retain the bloom (universal humanism) without the original roots (Christianity)? Can we invent new roots that sustain once the spectre of Hitler is eliminated?
"Christianity exists to cancel itself"
Ultimately Christianity cannibalises itself, as its logical endpoint is to denounce Christianity itself as idolatrous and superstitious. This is where we are now.
And once you get rid of theology, you move from a world based on external truth to one predicated on internal truth — from the idea that God commanded us to do something to the idea that we should do things because “we feel it in our hearts”. The idea that if you want to know what the truth is, you don't necessarily go to a corpus of law written down—you look into your heart. We don't need some fusty Cardinal preacher or pastor to tell us about the world, we just feel it. Of course, what we feel is what we’ve been conditioned to feel for centuries — Christian assumptions & tensions, but without metaphysics and churches to help ground them and smooth out their paradoxes.
Today, we see the violence of Christianity, but we don't see the violence Christianity has prevented all throughout history. Indeed: Christianity didn't invent violence, but it did contribute to curbing it.
Where did we get our sensitivity to violence, after all? Certainly wasn't Oedipus Rex.
Where does it come from that humans are somehow special or that humanity has a universal dignity? Definitely not from the Greeks, nor the Romans. It effectively comes from Genesis, the idea that “everyone is created in the image of God.”
“Eye for an eye” today seems primitive, but at the time of its creation it was revolutionary. It advocated for reciprocal violence instead of escalation, which used to be the norm. Because we don’t want to renounce scapegoating, we keep attempting sacrificial violence, but it no longer binds us.
To ask whether Christianity is good or bad, as many do, is to not realize that our notions of good & bad stem from Christianity itself, so without Christianity we might not have standards by which to judge the question.
Human rights are a myth in that they don’t exist as natural laws and can't be convincingly derived from logic. Christianity legitimized them, and as such, cannot be “good” or “bad” as we understand those terms today.
If humans are goldfish, Christianity is the fishbowl they swim in.
Christianity today is a cathedral in which bits have collapsed, but the asbestos remains — you can’t help but stand there and breathe it in, and you don’t even know you’re breathing it in the first place. Perhaps this is part of its genius: as a response to being essentially outlawed, it has seeped through new ideologies in a new form
In the 1520s, people didn’t realize they were living through the Reformation. By the 1580s, people started to recognize the full scale of the movement and began calling it the Reformation.
Today, people don’t realize we’re having a second Great Awakening. It’s possible that in 100 years time, historians will look back at this period, starting from the 1960s, and say it was a period as convulsive in the history of Christianity as the 1520s were. While the Great Awakening started in 2014 or so, the 60s was when the Christian movement started to mutate and become something not just parasitic to Christianity, but actively overtly hostile to it.
Christianity is about awakening itself, and as it says, the work is never done. It's like Eugene Wei's invisible asymptote idea but for Catholicism — there is always another ceiling of egalitarianism to push through. And even if it cancels itself, it shows up in new ideologies, hiding its religiosity beneath the surface so it can spread undetected, adapting itself to a post-modern world.
Until next week,