Thoughts on “The Right Side of History” by Ben Shapiro
Disclaimer: I’m quite critical of the role of religion in our moral values here, but this should not be understood as an argument against any given religious beliefs, or theological claims. In the context of this essay, it is irrelevant whether there is or isn’t a God, as nothing here is concerned with the nature of the divine. There are two separate questions regarding religious beliefs: Are they True, and are they good for society. This essay is about the latter.
In his book, “The Right Side of History” Ben Shapiro elaborates on the now common conservative argument that western civilization is based on Judeo-Christian values. He extends it by adding a tension between Jerusalem and Athens, meaning that western civilization is in fact the product of a Judaeo-Christian-Greek philosophy. This is a notable improvement over the former position, but after reading the book, I still do not fully accept the role supposedly played by the mono-theistic side of things, regarding values. One could have a separate discussion on moral purpose, but that is unlikely to lead anywhere, since the ‘moral purpose’ of a society is about as vague a concept as can be imagined.
To begin with, what are western values, if not the following:
4) Freedom of Speech
6) Capitalism or Free Enterprise
None of these require Judaism or Christianity, as they are all contained within Greek, and enlightenment philosophy. In fact, most of these values are directly opposed by Christianity, both scripturally and in historical practice. To wit: Jews were unable to own land in much of Europe for much of the last 2000 years, women are supposed to serve their husbands, the divine right of kings was the bedrock of all centralized worldly power, heretics were burned at the stake and entire (lesser known) crusades were declared to eradicate certain heretical movements like the Arians. The translation of the bible into the vernacular was punishable by death for a long time as well which does not bode well for free speech advocacy. Regarding capitalism, it is easy to construct an argument against it, based on biblical and early Christian traditions with their collective ownership, denunciation of wealth, and God’s apparent misgivings about the money changers in the Temple. Slavery too is endorsed and regulated in surprising detail, but more on that can be read elsewhere (like in 1 Peter 2:18, Exodus 21:7, 21:32, Leviticus 25:44–46, etc.).
These examples pretty much end the simpler versions of this argument, which has been used by Jordan Peterson and many others. According to them, we are all living out a Judeo-Christian lifestyle, whether we know it or not. Even atheists are really Christians; a perplexing revelation by Peterson about famous atheist Sam Harris.
However, it seems Shapiro is well-aware of these complications, so instead he uses a different phrasing. Western civilization did not directly inherit it’s values from Judeo-Christian traditions, but rather has developed them from a tension between Athens and Jerusalem. That is, the argument between the two has given rise to our modern-day ethics. This is highly misleading and dishonest as a simple thought experiment shows: If there is an argument between two parties, one advancing freedom and democracy, the other endorsing slavery and theocracy, and the former side eventually wins the argument, how can we say that our beliefs about the conclusions drawn here stem equally from both sides? How can the latter party, who endorsed slavery just a moment ago now claim credit for a free society, just because it took part in the debate?
Again and again, Greco-Roman and Enlightenment thinking challenged the prevalent orthodoxy, won, and subsequently changed the official position of the church. Instead of the bible informing our ethical world, it seems rather that we are informed by science, philosophy and changing culture, which then drives people to re-interpret scripture to fit what they already believe. This move is so prevalent, and likely to cause severe embarrassment to any self-proclaimed authority on the divine, that apologists had to come up with an explanation for it. This is why they now refer to scripture as “the living word of God”: it can mean whatever we (the authority) want it to mean within the context of what is socially and historically acceptable today. As long as you don’t stray too far from what is in the window of acceptable, or plausible beliefs, Bob’s your uncle.
For the lesser institutions, smaller churches, and innumerable Christian denominations and sects, this ethical flip-flopping is quite apparent even within the last half-century. But even the Roman Catholic church, the steadfast authority on the millennia-long scholastic tradition, has adjusted it’s teachings and doctrines. Whether the move is big or small, fast or slow is irrelevant. The only thing that matters here is that it is never the religious institution that boldly steps forward and declares moral change, or takes an ethical position in advance of society. It invariably trails behind social change, and usually opposes it until it can no longer do so while maintaining support.
This is not to say that opposing social change is necessarily a bad thing, and in fact it may often not be determined in advance which changes are to the benefit or detriment of society. This is a well and natural conservative instinct, but it does not square with divine inspiration. One cannot claim heavenly moral authority while simultaneously crouching behind the argument for conservatism in the face of social change. That would be a bit of a cop-out.
We do not know, currently, which way our ethical views will change with regard to animal welfare. It is a genuinely open question, as there is more and more scientific evidence about the conscious suffering of animals. If morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, as many now advocate, there may come a point at which it is no longer conscionable to treat animals the way we do. Or society could decide that some animals are not moral agents in the same was a humans, and thus not the proper objects of our empathy. A conservative stance on this question isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to confuse that with divinely inspired moral teachings is simply dishonest.
Back to Shapiro: advocates of his view may claim that most scholarly and moral advances in history came from a Christian context. Most of the enlightenment thinkers, as well as founding fathers were either Christian or at least Deists, and therefore we ought to credit Christianity. This too, is dishonest. Just as we do not credit religion for medical or mechanical advances, or scientific inventions, we should be sceptical about crediting it for moral change. The fact that everyone and everything in a given culture holds belief X, has very little baring on whether that culture can produce belief Y or invention Z. Especially if these new beliefs are sternly opposed by the teachings of the old. Greek philosophy is almost entirely separate from Judeo-Christian tradition. It developed independently, in a different geographic and historic place, yet it gives us almost every major “western value”. As Alfred North Whitehead put it: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” What does it matter that enlightenment thinkers and authors were Christian? Their stances on liberty, equality, slavery, etc. were clearly not inspired by scripture or the church.
Even the nuclear family, something invariably linked to wester society and its successes does not originate in the Abrahamic tradition, even though Christianity in particular likes to take credit for it. It can be observed in both archeological evidence and textual reference, dating as far back as the late stone age in Germany, and north-western Europe, particularly Normandy, Scandinavia and England, while the middle east mainly organized around extended family units. More on the history of the nuclear family can be found in Mary S Hartman’s work “The Household and the Making of History”.
What is the value of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, if Jerusalem hardly contributed anything at all? Instead of being a constructive part of the debate, in terms of moral progress over the centuries, it has merely been an obstacle. What are the moral advances of the Judeo-Christian tradition that are now part of our western civilization, exactly?