Guy Crouchback: Christianity boosted technology

03 Jun 2009

By The Record

Chistianity has been the great civilising force of history, argues Guy Crouchback.


In What Is Good? the British historical and philosophical populariser AC Grayling, Reader in Philosophy at Birbeck College at the University of London, complained about the influence exerted by Christianity before, during and after the Middle Ages, claiming that, following six or seven centuries from the height of classical Athens to the last of the Antonine dynasty in Imperial Rome, in the succeeding period: “more than twice as long, the Western world – for most of that time restricted to Europe – lay under the ideological hegemony of Christianity …”
The rather obvious fact that Grayling missed – the elephant in the room, to use current jargon – is that those years (if one does in fact pick a 1300-year period, say the years 500 to 1800) were marked by progress and improvement in the human condition dwarfing all previous achievements of civilisation since civilisation began, with the groundwork laid for all the even greater advances that were about to come.
The period of “intellectual hegemony of Christianity” which Grayling deplores was the period of the greatest advance in human happiness, scientific and technological knowledge, progress and freedom that humanity has ever known.
Ancient civilisations in many ways resembled one another far more than they resembled modern scientific and technological civilisation, which is qualitatively different. The technological ceiling on human progress  unitl Christianity can perhaps be illustrated as follows: Suppose an architect from the great pyramid-building time of Ancient Egypt – about 2900 BC – was transported forward in time 3000 years, to Rome of the 1st Century AD. He would of course notice many differences.
The great roads and bridges would probably attract his admiration, if he did not consider them a waste of resources which could have been spent more sensibly building a halfway-decent pyramid.
There would be considerably more and stronger metal used.
There would be great invisible differences in ways of thinking and perceiving the world, including the influences of Greece and even of Judea.
But basically, after 3000 years, there would probably be nothing about the technology – except possibly for concrete or cement – which he could not quickly understand or which would contain any mysteries for him.
Perhaps the great baths would mean fewer fleas and lice for those who used them, if not necessarily for the slaves who stoked the furnaces below to provide the hot water and steam. That steam probably lifted the lids of kettles as it had done in Egypt, and as in Egypt, no-one conceived that it might lift anything else.
The most advanced transport was still animal-powered, ships still had sails and oars, and all still depended on the sweat of slaves. The most universal and efficient accelerator for both humans and animals was still the whip or for draught animals something crueler.
Bones were set and other surgery carried out with rudimentary or non-existent anesthetics, as was child-birth and dentistry. That babies and infants would die in large numbers was taken for granted.
People’s eye-sight deteriorated if they lived much beyond their twenties and nothing could be done about it. Women would have almost no formal power.
As in ancient Egypt, a tiny minority of priests and others could read and write on scrolls or boards or chisel characters in stone.
Jump our ancient Egyptian forward again, for about another 500 years, to about 600AD, and there would be little visible progress, indeed areas of regression.
But then something unprecedented began. Take our Egyptian forward another 850 years, a small period compared to that which he has already travelled, to 1950 ad., and he would be in a world of miracles. 
We do not know what he would find if he went on another 200 years, to 2150. He might find a civilisation which had reached the stars, where multi-century life-spans were taken for granted. Or he might find he had come right back where he started from.