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West's history not complete without reference to Christianity

By Chris Berg - posted Tuesday, 29 March 2011


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.

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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.

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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.

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This article was first published on The Drum on March 22, 2011.

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About the Author

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

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