Over the history, the Western civilization has been under the influence of various religions, with the greatest impact of Christianity on the course of its development. It is hard to evaluate all positive effects that Christianity had on the Western civilization, and yet, the most evident influence was made on the culture, education, science, society, and philosophy. It is essential to evaluate both negative and positive impacts Christianity had on the development and progressive evolution of the Western civilization.
Though most of the scientists suggest merely positive effects of religion in general and of Christianity in particular on the scientific development, some of the historians oppose this idea, claiming that Christian priests and dogmas were hostile to the idea of scientific development. There was no unified comprehension of the nature of the solar system; besides, science and Christianity had a different understanding of evolution.
Scientists who failed to agree with the Christian vision of particular issues were executed for heresy, for example, Giordano Bruno, or were persecuted by the Inquisition, like Galileo Galilei and Copernicus, etc. Furthermore, the Church fiercely criticized the idea of evolution, while part of the Christians such as the Protestants did not oppose Darwin’s theory. The church tried to silence the Scientific Revolution, while the Europeans were gradually transferring from the “period of scientific ignorance” (Spielvogel 341) to the rise of education and study of “God’s handiwork” (Spielvogel 341). Regardless of the religious opposition to scientific development, the role of Christianity was mostly positive.
Christian beliefs were the primary source of social changes, culture, art, and education. Christianity started the course of transformations from the legacy of the previous cultural and religious beliefs by introducing the new values to the people. The major focus of Christianity in the Western civilization was made on the value of human life and art, sexual morality and marriage, compassion and charity, science and education. Christianity did not try to limit the attempts of humanity to promote changes to the world, and religion allowed people to get “social freedom and autonomy” (Dawson 16) without the fear of persecution. By the time of the Renaissance, Christianity and science were so interdependent that men of science were finding inspiration in religion. Science in Western Europe became more experimental, and new names in it emerged such as Isaac Newton, Joseph Lister, Andre Ampere, and Robert Boyle, etc. Apart from science, much attention was paid to the art.
According to A. J. Schmidt, Christianity influenced all types of art, and the artworks dating back to the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance etc., impressive in their “beauty and aesthetic quality” (Schmidt ch. 12). The architecture was flourishing, and great popularity was gained by the church buildings, cathedrals, and basilicas, as they were grandeur and people comprehended them as a gateway to heaven. Churches were not regarded merely as a place for addressing to God, but besides that, they offered educational opportunities to the people as they hosted public schools. Universities also had religious roots, and among the modern educational facilities of that sort Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge, Columbia, and the University of Bologna, etc. are the most known. Christian educators offered the world educational techniques that are still used and have no alternative, for example, Louis Braille – the pioneer of educational opportunities for the blind, Lutheran layman Johann Sturm – the pioneer of graded education, and Martin Luther who introduced compulsory education and promoted tax support for the public schools, etc.
Most of the changes introduced to the Western civilization by Christianity were compassion- and charity-based. The Church advocated the establishment of the Salvation Army, YWCA, mental institutions, facilities for elderly people, the Red Cross society, and other agencies and groups for the provision of assistance to those who needed it. Besides, Christian priests educated Europeans about responsibility in terms of sexual morality. People learned about intimacy limitations, such as perversions, rejection of homosexuality and adultery, and necessity of marital faithfulness. Christians considered sex as an act of respect and demonstration of love between a husband and wife, and all other sexual forms (homosexual, pre-marital, adulterous, etc.) were not referred to as God-pleasing. The rise of sexual morality in the Western population resulted in the enhancement of other human values and respect for the dignity and freedom of women.
Within the flow of history women were treated disrespectfully and unlike equals, but with the spread of the Christianity the attitude toward women had drastically changed. They were appraised in the Western culture, and people stopped treating them as “socially, intellectually, and spiritually inferior” (Schmidt ch. 4). Along with the recognition of women, Christians felt enthusiastic about abandoned children. They were taken into families and raised by strangers as their own. Besides, Christians promoted the creation of orphanages (orphanotrophia and brephotrophia). An emphasis was made on the value and importance of human life, and thus, Christian culture strongly advised against murders, child abandonment, infanticide, and all forms of physical and social violence. Overall, the positive changes introduced by Christianity prevailed over the occasional negative impact on science.
To conclude, the role of Christianity and its influence on the Western civilizations could be regarded both negatively and positively. Regardless of negative connotations such as the initial prevention of scientific development and opposition to scientific ideas that contradicted Christian worldview, the impact could be generally characterized as positive. The prevalence of beneficial impacts of Christianity on art, culture, society, marriages, human values, sexual morality, and modern science is indisputable. Some changes that occurred in the Western civilization due to the spread of Christianity still do not have an alternative for them.
- Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of the Western Culture: The Classic Study of Medieval Civilization. Image Books/Doubleday, 1991.
- Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World. Zondervan, 2001.
- Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: A Brief History. 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011.