Julia Gillard’s declaration over the weekend that she would like the Bible taught in schools seems odd, given she’s Australia’s most prominent atheist.
Mind you, it’s more odd when you consider that in the incoming national curriculum for history Christianity barely gets a guernsey at all. Gillard was the minister who oversaw the curriculum’s development.
As Tony Taylor, one of the architects of the curriculum, helpfully pointed out in Crikey in January, when the curriculum does mention Christianity, it only sticks to the bad things – like the Crusades, and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Still, she’s right. Julia Gillard may be an atheist (so am I, for what it’s worth) but understanding the Christian roots of modern liberal democracy is important, even in a secular world.
In her Sky interview Gillard focused on the Bible’s cultural legacy, saying “it’s impossible to understand Western literature without having that key of understanding the Bible stories and how Western literature builds on them and reflects them and deconstructs them and brings them back together”.
Familiarity with Christianity and the Bible is about more than understanding Shakespearean metaphors.
It is a historical truism that the development of liberal democracy, modern political philosophies, notions of human rights and equality, and our social institutions all owe much to Christian thought.
Almost all thinkers in the formative centuries of Western liberal democracy were convinced (or simply assumed) there was a God, and He was a Christian God. The non-theist exceptions were… exceptional.
Their religious faith couldn’t help but shape their worldview.
Explicitly secular arguments for our modern world only appear with the Enlightenment, and by that stage the philosophical frame in which we understand liberalism and democracy had already been set.
Take, for example, the religious assumptions which underpinned the development of liberal philosophy.
The very modern-seeming idea of human rights comes from the concept of “natural rights” – rights drawn from God.
No-one defined modern liberalism more than the 17th century philosopher John Locke. Locke’s vision of the three basic natural rights – life, liberty and property – set the political agenda for three centuries. As did his arguments that all people are fundamentally equal, kings are just men, and power derives from the consent of the majority.
Locke came to these conclusions from an explicitly Christian mindset.
For Locke, humans are equal – men, women, workers, shopkeepers, peasants, kings, smart people, stupid people, the physically strong and the physically weak – because they are all capable of knowing God.
You don’t need to agree with Locke’s arguments. Neither do you need to believe human rights or equality are inherently religious concepts.
But as the philosopher Jeremy Waldron writes in his 2002 book God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought, “Secular theorists often assume that they know what a religious argument is like: they present it as a crude prescription from God, backed up with threat of hellfire, derived from general or particular revelation… With this image in mind, they think it obvious that religious argument should be excluded from public life”.
Thus we get ‘Captain Catholic’, and the idea that teaching children some basic aspects of Christian thought is antithetical to secular democracy.
If the next generation are going to be taught history they should be taught good history. That means fully identifying the religious origins of modern society.
It means discussing how one short passage in the Bible (“give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”) put medieval Europe’s church and state in opposition, and undermined the centralised authority characteristic of other civilisations.
It means recognising not just religious support for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, but the religious beliefs of those who also opposed it, like Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Antonio de Montesinos – three 16th century theologians who bitterly opposed the enslavement and abuse of Native Americans on Christian grounds.
And yes, it means teaching how devout people did great harm as well.
This secular defence of Christianity should not be taken too far.
While liberal democracy was conceived in a Christian framework, one obviously need not be Christian to be part of liberal democracy.
That’s the whole point. Liberalism as practised in the 21st century is wholly secular and wholly pluralistic – we don’t need to rely on theology to justify universal suffrage or individual freedom.
And, of course, understanding the importance of Christianity in the development of Western thought does not mean we are required to design policy according to conservative Christian values.
Religious arguments for policy should be taken with the same grain of salt as other policy arguments.
The Prime Minister clearly doesn’t want Australian kids to read the Bible out of some evangelical fervour. Teaching children about Christianity is not the same as teaching them to be Christians.
Just as the history of the Middle East can’t be understood without Islam, the history of Western Civilisation can’t be taught without reference to the West’s dominant religion.