Western Society is not Based on Judeo-Christian Precepts
It's been a popular view in America that without the groundwork of Christian theology, the hallmark freedoms and moral principles of Western society have no basis. In other words, if we were to abandon theistic belief and become a truly non-religious nation, we would devolve into thuggery without any regards for human rights, life and decency.
Conservative personalities Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Prager are among those who argue that the presence of Christianity is what makes The West™ so great. What you might not actually see is any evidence to back this up; for all of Fox News’ declarations about how ‘our society is founded on Judeo-Christian values’, there’s relatively little screen time dedicated to explaining what these values are. Enter hugely popular conservative Ben Shapiro, who has attempted to give examples of these values, both in his book ‘The Right Side of History’ and in snippets of his speeches and talk show. But before we examine them, it’s crucial to recognise that for these examples be valid, they need to firstly be found in Judeo-Christian theology, and secondly, be exclusive to Western culture—otherwise, they’re simply global values that humans derive naturally, without need for any religion.
When making the case that Western society is based on Judeo-Christian values, most speakers will default to bringing up the Ten Commandments. One of the credits to Shapiro is that he can bring up more than just this example to support his case—but that doesn’t negate the argument being fundamentally flawed. During a speech at Yale, he states that with the exception of the the four that are specific to Jewish and Christian people, the Ten Commandments form the basis for our moral code. He said, “I think [The Ten Commandments] would be a pretty good way to start with basic decency—I think that basic values that we in Western civilisation tend to share are things like you don’t get to kill people, you don’t get to kidnap people…Those are values that are fundamental values of decency, the ones embodied in the constitution, seem to me to be good values: like I don’t get to harm you, I don’t get to use the government as a club against you because I disagree with what you say.”
The first notable problem with this case is that the principles laid out in the Ten Commandments are not exclusive to Jewish and Christian societies. Unbeknownst to some of his fan base, if you travel around the world, you’ll find that different cultures have noticed that murdering and stealing is wrong. Laws against those acts would have come about what he counts as Western nations regardless of whether or not it were predominantly Christian.
But secondly, Ben Shapiro uses a very clever rhetorical trick here. When justifying his claim that the Ten Commandments are enshrined in our moral system, he starts off by talking about how we consider killing to be wrong, given that “thou shalt not kill” is one of the commandments. He then follows that with, “you don’t get to kidnap people,” which is irrelevant given that none of the Ten Commandments actually talk about kidnapping. And lastly, we’re wondering which edition of the Bible features one of the Ten Commandments concerning individual's right to use government to impinge on free speech. Shapiro has gone on to list features of Western society that have increasingly nothing to do with the Ten Commandments, hoping that audience members won’t notice—a testament to how weak his point is, given that last time we checked, the only ‘commandments’ that are happen to be a part of Western moral code are those about killing, stealing, committing adultery, and bearing false witness. Those are the ones, incidentally, that are generally agreed upon by every other culture; it’s almost like the Bible had nothing to do with their adoption into mainstream moral code.
The second point that Shapiro brings up is the Judeo-Christian precept that humans were made in ‘imago dei’—in the image of God. In a PragerU video, he argues, “Only by recognising the divine in others did we ever move beyond [this] amoral thinking toward the concern for human rights, democracy and free enterprise that characterise the West.”
Firstly, notice how he’s done it again—Shapiro, when talking about what springs from the words ‘imago dei’, started off with referencing human rights, and somehow ended up talking about free enterprise. Free enterprise and legal business have obviously nothing to do with humans being made in the image of God. Shapiro probably knows that when he lists items to prove his point, the first will be under the most scrutiny from the audience, but it’s the presence of a second and third that will convince them that he has an arsenal of examples that make his idea valid. Regrettably, the fact that these are bad examples usually flies under the radar of the audience members, who have already accepted the validity of his first example.
As for human rights, Shapiro’s view forgets that they exist in two popular conceptions, one in which they are derived from God, and one in which they aren’t. The first idea of human rights is that they are ‘God-given’; but to believe in human rights, freedom and decency, you don’t need to subscribe to this particular view. You can also see the value in human rights as a set of rules that aim to guarantee that as few people as possible are put in harm’s way. Human rights don’t have to exist as mythical forces to be valuable ideas: we establish a right to life to prevent individuals from killing one another, we codify the right to free speech because we recognise the benefits of free and fair debate, and we cherish the right to bodily autonomy because we see the tangible harms to revoking that right can have.
The Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up by the UN, a secular institution made up of nations with many different religious backgrounds. And the document that enshrines rights into law in the United States is the Constitution, and it too makes no reference to any creator. Best case scenario for Shapiro, he can point to the phrase ‘endowed by God’ in the Declaration of Independence, a document which has no legal power in the United States—and where ‘endowed by God’ wasn’t actually included by the author Thomas Jefferson, but actually added in later.
And thirdly, the most common argument that Shapiro makes when talking about how belief in God has shaped our culture is that without God, there can be no free will. I actually happen to agree with him here, but where we differ is how we make use of this information.
In his famous “Atheism is morally bankrupt” article, Shapiro writes that our entire legal and moral system is based on this presupposition of free will, the idea that we are responsible for our actions, continuing: “We don’t jail squirrels for garden theft or dogs for assaulting cats—they aren’t responsible for their actions. But we routinely lock up kleptomaniacs and violent felons.”
But this in an inaccurate view of our justice system. Shapiro has assumed that retribution is the only basis for putting people in prison—in truth, we don’t need the idea of personal responsibility to have a valid reason to punish those who break the law. We also punish criminals as a deterrent, to de-incentivise people from committing crimes; we lock up murderers and dangerous felons for the safety of society, so they can no longer commit acts of harm to others; and lastly, we acknowledge that prison should serve a rehabilitative function, to better the offenders and establish a stronger moral compass within them. With or without free will, our legal system has substantial grounding. In fact, the extent to which it does rely on retributive tenants has been increasingly criticised as harmful, with the consensus becoming that it should shift towards rehabilitation instead.
In short, there’s more basis than free will to not let bloodthirsty criminals run through the street uninhibited. In the same way, you don’t need a to believe in free will to recognise the absurdity jailing squirrels; the principles of deterrence and rehabilitation are hardly likely to be effective on a small critter.
In conclusion, it seems that on the rare occasions where conservative speakers can point to a Judaeo-Christian teaching that overlaps with Western values, the value's popularity and support from the public was not derivative of Christianity.
Ben Shapiro is the kind of guy who you can imagine scoring top marks in his philosophy exams in school simply because he hits all the simple iterations of arguments that would satisfy a school professor. His charisma and prowess as speaker has allowed him to sell these ideas to over 2.5 million fans, despite the holes in his arguments. But outside of his fan club, this idea is losing traction amongst a more progressive public. It looks like people are finally realising that when scrutinised, these long-parroted ideas about America’s Christian exceptionalism ultimately fall apart.
And thank God for that.