A Critic's Meta Review: 4/5
The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (2019) explains how Western nations used philosophical and religious values to create governments that protect individual liberty while encouraging collective action. Author Ben Shapiro argues that countries like the United States became prosperous because they adhered to two primary sources of moral and intellectual thought: Judeo-Christian values and ancient Greek reason. Over time, social scientists and academics have rejected Judeo-Christian beliefs and Hellenic thought. Those two sources of moral guidance, however, provided the basis for all advances in Western scientific thought and philosophy. Both subjective and emotional reasoning have become growing sources of division and dissension among the populace, weakening overall faith in the governmental system that the founders of the United States carefully constructed. If Western governments want to preserve the progress obtained through the combination of Hellenic reason and Judeo-Christian faith, then their citizens must remember why those two pillars of thought proved reliable in the first place. By studying the development of Western philosophy and biblical principles, readers can better understand why the United States became a bastion for freedom, and how it can preserve that legacy for generations to come.
To understand why Western society was so influenced by Greek thought and Judeo-Christian tradition, the merits of the two systems first must be considered individually. Judeo-Christian values provided existential purpose by promoting the idea that the Abrahamic God imbued each person with a reason for being. Judaism and Christianity both argued that the world was created not by a pantheon of warring gods, but by a singular deity who had an overarching plan for the universe. Under both faiths, all people were given the choice to participate in God’s plan; their existence was fundamentally meaningful and necessary. By promoting a faith that considered its adherents equal before God, Judaism and Christianity paved the way for the recognition of individual rights and liberties.
Hellenic principles provided a method for discerning fundamental truths about the world. Greek philosophers argued that every animal, plant, and person was created to serve a specific function; this concept, known as telos, undergirded all scientific exploration undertaken by Athenian scholars. Studying nature provided philosophers with the ability to hypothesize about how each living being contributed to the greater whole. For the Greeks, humanity’s purpose lay in its ability to pursue knowledge by promoting the use of reason, in order to learn the inner workings of nature and to discover the best methods for spreading scientific thought. These philosophers demonstrated that by pursuing objective truth, Western nations could create sound, secular governments that encouraged citizens to work together toward the greater good.
These two systems, when combined, provide Western citizens with a method for attaining greater happiness and meaning. To attain that happiness, citizens must create governments that promote the discovery of individual and collective moral purpose. Governments must also ensure that individuals and communities alike have the ability to pursue their moral purposes once they have identified them. By carefully balancing individual liberty with the collective good, Western nations can continue their legacies of sharing freedom and prosperity with all societies. Grecian reason and Judeo-Christian values may be under fire, but their strength still girds modern societies. If they are defended, they can continue to do so for generations to come.
Christianity provided a religious system that reconciled faith in God with obedience to a secular government.
Grecian reasoning and Judeo-Christian values weren’t always allied. Judaism required its adherents to place their faith above all else, whereas Greek philosophers believed that a person’s primary loyalty was due to the secular state. Once it rose to popularity, Christianity provided a middle ground between these two ideologies. While Christianity argued that adherents should have faith in God, it also argued that followers should be obedient to government authorities. Christianity’s combination of faith and civic duty led to the rise of key American political concepts such as democracy and freedom of religion.
Western nations outside the United States have credited Christianity’s combination of faith and reason with the spread of democracy and individual rights. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, has attributed Britain’s enduring morals to Christianity’s influence. He has argued that Judeo-Christian values, like respect for the law and tolerance for differing viewpoints, must be reinforced in British schools if the country hopes to instill those values in all children living in the nation. In Australia, Christianity is credited with the continued existence of Western principles. Catholic educational institutions reinstill those values by teaching one fifth of the country’s children, and more than three fifths of the country’s citizens consider themselves members of the Christian faith. Legal precepts common to all three countries, like a right to a trial by jury or to the presumption of innocence, can all be traced back to Christianity’s emphasis on upholding both the law of the land and the moral law of God.
Scientific advancement was not unilaterally hindered by Christianity during the Middle Ages, as some monasteries promoted scientific reasoning.
Some historians argue that Christianity repressed European scientific advancement during the so-called Dark Ages, a process that would only be reversed during the Enlightenment. Scientific inquiry, however, didn’t stall during the Middle Ages in Europe. In fact, Christianity furthered the cause of science during this historical period. Monasteries across Europe became bastions of learning and research. Additionally, the Catholic Church served as the population’s primary way to access education and literacy. Medieval scientists were driven by their faith in God, and believed that learning more about the natural world could bring them closer to both spiritual and physical truths.
Scholars who wish to undermine the role that faith can play in scientific inquiry may be tempted to argue that societies outside of Europe, like the Middle East, thrived academically during the Dark Ages because they placed a smaller emphasis on religion. However, in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish countries, Islam was still the primary faith for the majority of medieval citizens. Islamic physicians openly combined their religious faith with their understanding of how to treat human maladies, arguing that Allah had hidden in nature antidotes to all known ailments except for death. Dozens of books on human anatomy and sexuality were also written. Islam places significant emphasis on the role of marriage and child-rearing in society, which encouraged scientists to explore how sexual arousal works in humans and how sexual dysfunction could be treated. Islamic scholars also studied how babies develop during pregnancy and explored methods for delivering infants that would preserve the health of the mother. In free societies, scientific progress isn’t held back by religion. Faith can suppress academic advancement, but only when wielded by authoritarian governments.
A nation’s citizens must broadly agree on the kind of society they wish to build, even if different methods are used to reach that collective goal.
The founders of the United States demonstrated that government could protect the citizenry from authoritarian rule, while simultaneously permitting the free exercise of religion. Leaders like Thomas Jefferson recognized that as long as Americans shared the same ultimate vision for the country, their individual beliefs would not pose a threat to the country’s stability.
If citizens with differing beliefs are to live harmoniously within the same country, they must be able to calmly and rationally discuss minor differences in their worldviews. Unfortunately, people generally dismiss alternative viewpoints, even if an opinion differs only slightly from their own. A conservative and a progressive, for example, might fundamentally agree that the government should protect the ability of citizens to form family units, but disagree over what those families should look like. If the two become aware of the discrepancy in their viewpoints, they’re more likely to discount everything that the other has to say on political or societal policy. Most people are aware that there will always be someone who disagrees with their beliefs; still, actively engaging with someone with an alternate viewpoint can be an uncomfortable, or even alarming experience. It’s easier for many to pretend that their viewpoints are widespread among the majority than it is to actively chat with someone with a different perspective. Refusing to engage in debate with others might feel good in the moment, but doing so weakens public discourse and undermines the democratic principle of tolerance. People who find it difficult to talk about political differences, even minor ones, should practice engaging with viewpoints they disagree with. If direct conversation about differing ideologies is too difficult, they can start by reading news articles and commentaries written by those who hold opposing political views.
Religious fundamentalism ultimately led to an increase in atheism and agnosticism among scientists.
Once non-Catholic Christians began challenging the authority of the church, religious fundamentalists were given the opportunity to rise to power. Religious reformationists like Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that the church had become too secular; science and academic advancement were attacked as unnecessary pursuits that could distract from salvation. In response to those criticisms, the Catholic Church persecuted scientists whose theories supposedly contradicted holy doctrine. The rapid rise in anti-science sentiment understandably caused some philosophers and academics to claim religion was an ultimate evil, and to disavow belief in God altogether.
Over time, God’s exile from science has led to extreme assertions, such as the idea that free will doesn’t exist. In Behave (2017), neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky promotes this theory, arguing that human action is fundamentally driven by a variety of factors outside a person’s control. Genetics, prenatal development, hormones, past experiences, and even the presence of a particular smell can all play a role in influencing how someone responds to a given stimulus, good or bad. Sapolsky ultimately argues that since people cannot actively control their actions, the justice system should abandon attempts to punish criminals for their misdeeds. Dangerous individuals should still be removed from society, and criminal offenders should still be offered rehabilitation services, but the concept of criminal punishment only makes sense if the offender was in control of his or her decisions. Sapolsky argues that humanity must reform its approach to punishment. That reformation should start with the acknowledgment that people derive pleasure from disciplining those who have broken social norms. Sapolsky acknowledges, however, that the vast majority of people, including social scientists and legal authorities, believe that free will exists in some capacity. The most common view of free will is that humans can control their actions, but that biology influences their decisions. The concept of mitigated free will allows government authorities to feel justified in holding people accountable for their actions while still making exceptions for extenuating factors, like psychosis.
The French Revolution laid the groundwork for nationalism and, ultimately, communism.
The American and European Enlightenment periods are usually conflated, but the two do not share much in common ideologically. In the United States, the Enlightenment created advancements in political thought by promoting both Hellenic thought and Judeo-Christian principles. The European Enlightenment, in contrast, disposed of Greek reasoning and Judeo-Christian faith in favor of following the will of the populace. The French Revolution, in particular, taught its adherents that oppression could be overcome through the collective, militarized resistance of the people and the destruction of the upper class. As one of the first populist movements, the French Revolution outlined a path for future nationalist and collectivist movements, many of which would permit crimes against humanity for the sake of supposed progress.
During the 2010s, France has continued to demonstrate a commitment to nationalism informed by secularism. Modern fears surrounding terror attacks, coupled with France’s high population of Muslim immigrants, have led to widespread discrimination against anyone who visibly follows the Islamic faith. Political figures like Marine Le Pen, who heads the far-right group National Front, have argued for a ban of Muslim garb in public. Le Pen has especially decried Muslim women who choose to wear concealing bathing suits on France’s public beaches or hijabs on college campuses. By wearing religious garments in public, critics argue that French Muslims and Muslim immigrants are eroding democratic freedom and imposing restrictions on women’s rights. Since French nationalists promote secularism above any form of government influenced by faith, they are unable to distinguish between those who practice Islam and those who adhere to a radical version of it. The country’s nationalist tendencies arguably pose a greater threat than those who adhere to orthodox versions of non-Western religions. French Muslims and Muslim immigrants who feel persecuted for their faith might be tempted to find relief in the same radical ideologies that nationalists fear. The increased hostility toward Muslims could additionally embolden bigoted parties to take matters into their own hands, and commit atrocities against Islamic communities living in France. If the French want to decrease the risk of terror attacks in their country, they should look for ways to work with members of the Islamic faith. Collaborating with Muslim communities would demonstrate that France’s true enemy is extremism, not the peaceful practice of religion.
The promotion of collectivist ideals led the United States to adopt a more bureaucratic system of government.
The original authors of the US Constitution did not want the government to control all facets of a citizen's life. As communism and other collectivist ideologies began emerging in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the US government began expanding its reach. Presidents like Woodrow Wilson believed that scientists and other experts could provide better guidance for the nation than its everyday citizens. Wilson’s belief led to increased bureaucracy in the United States, making it more difficult for citizens to live their lives without government interference.
Increased bureaucracy is usually an attempt to rectify past mistakes by regulating future behavior. If a government employee commits some blunder that impedes a department’s operations, leaders in that division will come up with a new set of rules in hopes of preventing that mistake from happening again. Bureaucracy often extends its reach after corrupt leaders have left office; leaders tend to set an example for their staff, and can create a culture of bad behavior that politicians then try to remedy through the enforcement of more restrictions. In some cases, the measures that are put in place to prevent bad actors become obstacles to improving the overall system. The Paperwork Reduction Act, for example, was created to prevent federal agencies from spamming citizens when conducting surveys. The law requires that any government projects that collect information from 10 or more people be approved by a federal agency first. That requirement, while well-intentioned, slows down the process of creating new programs that could benefit small businesses, veterans, and other groups with pressing needs. It also hinders the government from evaluating which programs are working, which could be improved upon, and which need to be abandoned. If government wants to prevent agencies from unnecessarily bothering citizens, it could do so without enforcing such a strict rule. Agencies could be required to get federal approval if they need to collect information from 1,000 people, instead of 10. Bureaucracy is only useful when it speeds a process; if it hampers overall progress, it may need to be reformed.
Subjective reasoning and relativist thinking flourished once society rejected both Judeo-Christian values and ancient Greek reason.
When communism failed to bring about utopia in countries like Russia, many scientists and politicians abandoned their faith in collectivist forms of government. By then, faith in religion had long since weakened among academics, scientists, and most politicians. Greek reasoning was also seen as an outdated model for finding moral meaning. This dismissal led directly to the creation of the cult of self-esteem in the late twentieth century. This emphasis on relativistic thinking created a culture in which subjective experience carries more weight than objective truth.
Modern technological advances have additionally made it easier to prioritize subjective feeling over verified fact. Social media, for example, can quickly spread a rumor or conspiracy theory by exploiting anger and fear. In 2017, nine people had to be treated for injuries after a fistfight caused a panic at an underground rail station in London. The crowd quickly spread rumors that guns had been fired at the station, or that a terror attack was underway. Those rumors created an atmosphere of fear that caused some in the crowd to trample others in hopes of escaping a danger that never existed. Members of the media spread news of a possible attack before police were able to confirm that the rumors were unfounded. Those same inaccurate reports spread quickly on platforms like Twitter, and were bolstered by supposed eyewitness statements from those who were present when the panic began. Feelings play an important role in human interaction, allowing people to express affection, build bonds, and process their individual experiences. Emotions, however, usually only reflect people’s perception of their subjective experience; they don’t reveal whether someone’s recollection of an event is accurate, or even rational. Since media outlets and other companies greatly benefit from manipulating their audience’s emotions, users should consider carefully whether their outrage is being used to generate revenue. Instead of giving in to the impulse to share or react immediately to a developing situation, social media users must remember that objective facts often lag behind rumors and initial emotional reactions.
Most modern philosophers base their morality on Judeo-Christian values, even if they claim to reject those foundations.
Modern philosophers and social scientists, like psychologist Steven Pinker, often claim that humanity was destined to become a reasonable and fundamentally good species. They argue that the acknowledgement of individual rights and the creation of democratic forms of government were foregone conclusions that humanity would eventually reach through sheer reasoning alone. However, natural and social science can’t prove that people would have developed a sense of morals and reason without belief in a higher power.
Even in his arguments against the existence of God, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking reflected ancient Greek views on divinity. In his posthumously published book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (2018), Hawking argues that if a divine being does exist, that entity is synonymous with the laws of physics. He concedes that a god might have created the laws of the universe and set them in motion, but contends that such a deity would have no further role after those laws were put in place. Since the laws of physics cannot be violated, any deity who created those laws would be unable to alter, change, or supercede them. Hawking’s conception of God shares much in common with Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, in which a singular divine being is responsible for setting all future events into motion. However, Hawking argues that even that kind of deity is superfluous to science; since the universe might have formed spontaneously, it’s not necessary to look to a god to explain creation.