I recently finished reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by influential Oxford historian Niall Ferguson. It details the six ‘killer apps’ that have allowed the West to flourish while other civilizations stagnated or retreated. He cites Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption, and Work as being integral to the West’s success. In his chapter on Work (as in other chapters) Ferguson chronicles how important Christianity is to the work ethic of the West – and he reports the fact that some in China have come to appreciate this fact:
After much hesitation, at least some of China’s communist leaders now appear to recognize Christianity as one of the West’s greatest sources of strength. According to one scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences:
“We were asked to look into what accounted for the…pre-eminence of the West all over the world…At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of the social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Another academic, Zhuo Xinping, has identified the ‘Christian understanding of transcendence’ as having played ‘a very decisive role in people’s acceptance of pluralism in society and politics in the contemporary West’:
“Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.”
Though I don’t find this assessment of the West’s success the least bit surprising (I have frequently made such claims myself) I found it quite surprising to see that China, which has been officially atheistic for over sixty years, would make the same assessment. Maybe it takes experiencing the emptiness of atheism to appreciate the way Christianity propels human flourishing.