The Evolution of the West

How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values

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Nick Spencer
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , February
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Most of us know a version of this story. Although previously wielding nearly unlimited power in the wake of Rome’s collapse, during the Renaissance institutionalized Christianity found itself increasingly unable to thwart scientific thinking, artistic expression, and demand for worldly satisfaction. Thanks to free-thinking champions like Galileo, da Vinci, Bacon, and Machiavelli, the project to liberate humanity from the Dark Age evils of ignorance, violence, and material need finally won major victories in the Enlightenment. As a result, the 18th century witnessed democratic revolutions, the separation of church and state, advances in establishing an increasingly inclusive set of human rights, and a budding scientific culture bearing the fruits of industrialization, technological growth, modern medicine, and (perhaps most importantly) ever-refined naturalistic theories of evolution, geological change, and cosmogenesis. It remains, finally, to root out the remaining enemies of human progress. The long war for universal liberté, égalité, and fraternité nears its inevitable victory.

This is known as the liberation model or “subtraction theory” of modernity’s origins, and like all mythologies, the tale is both influential and historically false. Nick Spencer’s essays, collected in The Evolution of the West, join an ever-growing body of scholarship that disputes this model/myth. Spencer casts Western history not so much as a battle between heroic rationalists and dogmatic despots, but as the gradual outworking of tensions implicit within a multi-layered society built upon the tectonic forces of intra-ecclesial disputes, overarching papal authority, class antagonism, and rival secular powers. (Or, if we prefer Spencer’s evolutionary metaphor, the traits of modernity are simply the genetic inheritance from Christian ancestors.)

Rather than attempting an encyclopedic genealogy of ideas, as we might find in works like Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism (Ignatius Press, 1995) or Michael Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Spencer’s strategy over the course of thirteen essays is to look at key regions where debates within Christendom paved the way for secularization. Thus in chapter 2, “Religiously Secular: The Making of America,” we find a colonial society divided between understanding Christian obligation primarily as societal and individual holiness (think Anglican Virginia and the First Great Awakening), or as using one’s freedom to develop a personal relationship with God (think the antinomian controversy and Pennsylvania’s toleration). Following historian James Hutson, Spencer argues that the dominance in America of Bible-as-freedom led to a separation of church and state by those wishing to preserve the integrity of the church against state incursions, not the other way around. A similar line is traced in chapter 3, “Trouble with the Law: Magna Carta and the Limits of the Law,” where we find that the transnational authority of the Catholic Church forced 13th-century rulers “to recognize a space that was not under their immediate jurisdiction,” demanding jurisprudence to acknowledge extra-legal personhood and limitations to political authority, thus laying the foundation for today’s state-guaranteed human rights (48). Spencer’s closing concern here—that law alone without some additional “social glue” is insufficient for a healthy society—is urgent for an increasingly pluralistic West held together by little more than shared tastes for consumerism and mass media.

Chapter 6, “Christianity and Atheism: A Family Affair,” analyzes the conditions from which the various European atheisms arose during the 17th through 20th centuries. Here, too, we find intra-Christian tensions driving secularization. Previously intelligible only as a kind of privative Christianity, atheism was legitimized as a positive, pacifistic alternative to the bloody conflicts between confessional blocs. Yet more than this, atheistic resentment was fueled by politically motivated intolerance of religious dissent and class antagonisms between wealthy establishment churches and working-class populists. The seeds sprouted differently in different national soils, but the principle is the same: the greater the intolerance and inequality, the greater the passion with which atheism attacked the established order. Spencer’s obligatory treatment of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007) in chapter 10, “The Secular Self,” in addition to being a useful précis of an eight-hundred-page book, suggests the atheist dissenters have failed to provide spiritually satisfying alternatives to their Christian forebears. Commenting on data from a 2012 study on non-religious people’s experience of cathedrals, Spencer writes, “there remains a palpable sense that the secular self isn’t enough, that it doesn’t satisfy” (151). A specter is haunting Europe, indeed.

The lessons to be learned from The Evolution of the West are in the book’s implicit critiques of an unhealthy modern order and its robust challenges to the vocabulary and narrative of secular mythology, but it rarely offers positive programs for recovery. Chapter 8, “No Doubts as to How One Ought to Act: Darwin’s Doubts and His Faith,” uses Charles Darwin’s 1877 letter to Charles Bradlaugh, in which Darwin argues that widespread contraceptive use will destroy chastity and ultimately the family, as an occasion to imply that this prophecy has been fulfilled. Chapter 12, “The Rise of Christian Populism,” offers a compelling argument that the connection between populism and Christian belief is contingent, with populist movements opportunistically hijacking Christian discourse for political ends. Spencer may succeed in disrupting the triumphalist mythology of dilettante secular historians, but little in these essays is likely to deter the now better-informed atheist from her project. The lamentation that Christianity is “sufferable” for secularists so long as “its allegedly innately violent tendencies can be defused, and providing it [is] kept in the leisure category of our lives and prevented from bothering adults as they [get] on with the business of running the world,” is equally applicable whether we read it at the beginning or the end of the book (2-3).

In fairness, the best introductory books err on the side of inconclusiveness, and The Evolution of the West is self-consciously introductory. With few exceptions, Spencer even leaves out footnotes, though the careful reader can assemble a hefty annotated bibliography. Rich in detail yet easily readable, the essays in The Evolution of the West are timely examples of scholarship’s responsibility to engage with public life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wesley Bergen is a graduate student in Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, a Christian think tank, and author of a number of books, including Atheists: The Origin of the Species and Darwin and God.


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