Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Some New Books Say Christianity is a Good Thing. But Are They Any Good?

Thomas E. Woods, a right-wing popular historian, recently brought out a book called How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Woods' own plug for his book is hosted by a libertarian web site here. Woods has a PhD and something useful to say, but I fear that he has produced an extremely one-sided account of European history. That view was echoed in the Times Literary Supplement last week when they reviewed the book. You could argue, with some justification, that Woods has a right to be polemical. After all, anti-Catholic history has dominated the English speaking world since the Reformation. Worse, a good deal of Protestant propaganda has now been taken over by radical atheists as another weapon with which to beat Christianity.

Yes, the traditional history of the Catholic Church is almost completely wrong. There is a huge amount of work to be done overturning this orthodoxy and bringing the truth to light. I fear Woods isn't keen on doing the work. He has given a sustained case in favour of one side of the argument based entirely on secondary sources. He has done little to leaven that with some opposing views. The fact is you cannot get away with a history of the Church which ignores the Inquisition, makes out that Jewish and Greek thought had no input into European ideas and gives the Catholic Church credit for nearly everything. Protestantism can make its own claims towards furthering capitalism, human rights and natural science. So too can secularism. What we have to avoid are the old histories that refused to give any ground to opposing traditions. Secularism cannot claim science as its own, nor can it disown the tragedies that resulted from secular utopianism. But it can also lay claim to important ethical work such as Mills and Paine as well as a big chunk of post-Darwinian science (good and bad).

To replace a consensus requires a great deal more than preaching to your own denomination's choir. You have to start convincing people who are not already sympathetic to your point of view. Thus, you must not simply argue as a member of a particular minority. Nor can you allow your work to be ghettoised as 'Catholic' or 'Right wing'.

In fact, I think progress is being made. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it was still possible to write a book like William Manchester's A World Lit only By Fire or Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers. Both were complete tosh. Nowadays, you have to nod at least towards a less anti-Christian view of history. Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind may be utterly wrong in its central argument, but at least it doesn't totally patronise Christian late antiquity. Anthony Gottleib's Dream of Reason is forced to spend a great deal more time on Christian philosophy than the author had bargained for (giving the book a weirdly overlong final chapter). Roger Osbourne's new book Civilisation is still old fashioned but, as Brian Appleyard noted in the Sunday Times, it can no longer just write off the 'Dark Ages'.

The challenge now is to move beyond the current situation. All the authors above set out to write an anti-Christian positivist history of ideas. On doing their research, they found the truth rather more complicated than they imagined. However, instead of ditching their thesis, they simply tacked on some up-to-date scholarship and tried to interpret it in the light of the traditional models. Now, we need to see the traditional models ditched completely. That will require a great deal more than the partisan works of Dr Woods.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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