There is an oft bandied about suggestion that religion has held back a natural morality that has always been present, just simply repressed. History does not support this view. The modern values of freedom and equality, so central in the discussions of Western democracies, are recent inventions. The Greeks, who invented democracy, did not extend it to women or foreigners, and their economy relied upon slavery. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has demonstrated that modern humanist notions, such as Human Rights, have emerged from the long process of the reform of Latin Christendom. The beliefs of Christians and secular humanists are radically different, but many of their values are held in common.
Hannah Arendt, who came from a secular Jewish background, observed two particularly potent political possibilities that had emerged through the Western religious traditions. She suggested that the power of promising may have originated with Abraham of Ur, while forgiveness was elevated as a value by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. While religion has certainly contributed problems, it has also helped ethics develop, and the stories each religion tells are a valuable repertory of moral ideals. We all derive our values from traditions such as these – both religious and secular – although the instinctive drives we have inherited from the evolution of life on our planet have certainly set the stage for these later developments.
Part 11 of 23 in the Pentenary series.