Friday, February 21, 2003


The English-speaking world in general and conservatives in particular have always been characterized by a strong respect for the individual and for individual liberties. Christians often attribute this to the influence of Christian teachings despite the fact that Christianity is far from peculiar to Anglo-Saxon countries. When this is pointed out, they often admit that what they really mean is the influence of Protestant Christianity in particular. The idea that Catholics are not really Christian is very common among Protestants.

But both Protestantism and Catholicism have in the past been fiercely intolerant and, as such, resolute enemies of individual liberty. Whether it be John Calvin (who, with Luther, was one of the founding fathers of Protestantism) burning the scientist Servetus at the stake, the forbidding Puritans of Cromwell's Protectorate or the antisemitic writings of Luther himself, no-one can say that Protestants are totally different from the very holy Catholics of the Spanish Inquisition or such products of a good Catholic education as Adolf Hitler. All forms of Christianity appear to have within in them much of the intolerance that characterized the "jealous God" of the Jews (Exodus 20:5).

And not much has changed in recent times. Would anyone like to read this story from Rwanda and still tell me that Christianity, by itself, leads to respect for the individual? Or do we need some other instincts of Northern European origin as well? The Rwanda story is about some pretty fervent Christians. Excerpt:

Elizaphan Ntakirutimana and his son Gerard were accused of herding large groups of Tutsi men, women and children into a church and hospital compound in the Kibuye region of western Rwanda in 1994 and then calling Hutus to come and kill them. The 78-year-old Seventh Day Adventist pastor was found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide.

The example is merely illustrative of course. The underlying point is that Africans everywhere are commonly enthusiastic Christians whilst also being characterized as a group by extremely high rates of violent crime, including murder. So looking to Christianity or even Protestant Christianity (Seventh Day Adventism is a very Protestant sect in many ways) for a sole explanation of the greater respect for individual rights among peoples of Anglo-Saxon origin runs up against both historical and sociological evidence to the contrary.

It is then the fact that Protestantism became the characteristic religion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples -- with their ancient pre-existing non-religious respect for the individual -- that made it a force for tolerance rather than the fact that it was Christian. In MOST of its forms Protestantism was more liberating than Catholicism. Anglo-Saxon (individualistic) values did what Judaic (group-conscious) values could not.

I should perhaps spell out that "Judaic" is not synonymous with "Jewish". The Judaic religions are of course Judaism and those religions descended from it -- Christianity and Islam. The common features of Judaic religions are too well known for me to spell out (monotheism etc) but the feature of them that seems to me most pernicious is the belief that belonging to the particular religious group concerned makes you superior (chosen or special or saved) in some way. It seems to me that the example of Islam shows vididly just how pernicious and intolerant that belief can be and that the example of the British empire shows that such beliefs do not need to go to anyone�s head if one also has non-religious pre-Christian traditions of individual liberty. And many non-Judaic religions -- such as those of the far East -- are of course almost completely tolerant of one-another. Yet orientals are much more conformist than individualistic.


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