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Nick Spencer explains that the deepest values of contemporary, liberal secular society have their roots in Christianity. (2016)
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What are our values? What had made the West the West? Indeed, what has made Britain Britain? And why?
The shockwaves caused by the Brexit referendum have led to some soul–searching – for religious and non–religious people alike. Clarifying what we stand for, as a society, involves thinking about some core values– Nationhood, Democracy, Dignity, Rule of Law, Welfare, Capitalism, Science, Human Rights, Ethics – and we need to start by understanding where they come from. As Nick Spencer shows in his book, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values, the deepest values of contemporary, liberal secular society have their roots in Christianity.
Why might this seem a radical idea? Because for last decade the New Atheists have argued that the values that many of us hold dear developed despite religion. These arose once we threw off Christianity’s malign influence, they claim: the story of Western Thought is one of slow but steady secular emancipation.
But that’s not the whole story. Our cherished values were not simply born in the Enlightenment, Spencer argues. Drawing upon a wealth of historical, literary and philosophical sources he demonstrates that Christianity has had a key role in the development in all of them. What’s more, it’s created Humanism, Secularism and, (irony of ironies?) even Atheism.
For instance, our understanding that everyone should enjoy equal status under the law, and have freedom of conscience has its roots not in the writings of Voltaire, nor in Roman law, but in the radical early Christian idea of an individual ennobled in the sight of God. While the Church’s actions over the last twenty centuries certainly haven’t always honoured that view, its basis is certainly Christian.
Equally, the book shows how Christian ideas impacted the development of the welfare state, offer insights into equality that Piketty’s analysis overlooks, provide an important underpinning to our commitment to human rights, and underlie our ideas of nationhood. And what of science? Spencer argues that while it’s fashionable to write Christianity out of the equation altogether, the relationship is the relationship is far more symbiotic than we might assume.
These questions aren’t just of academic interest: if we lose sight of the basis for our deepest values it’ll become harder to defend them.
When it comes to the development of the values we cherish, it’s a fascinating and complex story: Spencer is clear that the Church has not always been on the side of the angels. But as we reexamine our values at this crucial time, we need to shake off our collective amnesia and understand the pivotal role Christianity has had in the evolution of the west.
“All readers, whatever their religious, non–religious, or political persuasions, should read this.” Sughra Ahmed, Chair, Islamic Society of Britain
“This is a much needed book. Spencer shows persuasively that we cannot understand our political, economic or social culture without taking into account the key role Christianity has played in shaping Western values. Balanced and never claiming too much, it offers an essential corrective to contemporary narratives that try to write Christianity out of the script.” Bishop Richard Harries, House of Lords
“Surrounded by complex issues, it is hard to understand what’s going on, what the important thinkers are saying, and what a thinking Christian might make of it all. Nick Spencer carves out a clear path through this jungle, helping us to see how we got here in the first place and how we might move forward in faith and wisdom.” N. T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.