Civilization requires faith

The Stanford marshmallow experiment refers to a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel, etc.) provided immediately or two small rewards if he or she waited until the experimenter returned (after an absence of approximately 15 minutes). In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.  However, recent work calls into question whether self-control, as opposed to strategic reasoning, determines children’s behavior.

Prior to the Marshmallow Studies at Stanford, Walter Mischel had shown that the child’s belief that the promised delayed rewards would actually be delivered is an important determinant of the choice to delay…

From the Wikipedia article.

I hope you read that block quote at least.  If you didn’t, please go back and do so.  I know people skip over block quotes frequently, but please don’t skip over this.

Here’s a simple story.  A long time ago, the West (Europe, the US) was largely Christian.  During the time that the West was largely Christian, there was slavery, women weren’t allowed to vote, children were frequently beaten and made to work in coal mines, people didn’t know hardly anything about the universe, and most people lived in ignorance and poverty and died young.  Now, the West is much less Christian than it was, and women have equality, children are protected by law, slavery is ended, most people are much better educated than they were, children have a great deal of legal protection and standards of living are much higher than they used to be.  Therefore, Christianity is bad and we should keep moving away from Christian tenets, and therefore allow gays to marry and pregnancies to be terminated.

Simple stories are appealing.  Many people will believe simple stories precisely because they are simple, because they easily support preexisting prejudices and fit easily into worldviews.  Thinking is hard; understanding complex stories is hard.  Simple stories win the fight for mindspace all the time, not because they are true, but because they are simple.  But the fact is, history isn’t simple, and neither is reality.

Here’s a more complex story.  A long time ago, the world was pagan, meaning that almost everyone believed that the world was eternal, was occupied by hosts of gods, demons, spirits and other sorts of things that were, in one way or another, generated by the eternal world.  As a result, everyone believed that the world was basically hostile to people.  People were an accident in the world.  They weren’t really the plan.  Further, the time would come when the universe would reset to its ancient state of chaos, and therefore there really wasn’t much point in working hard or trying to improve life.  Most people spent their lives in fear of demons or gods, and relied on the protection of priests, emperors or caesars who were closer to the gods than they were.  Most of their economic produce went to support the priests, emperors and pharaohs who ruled over them, because their incredibly lavish projects and lifestyles and armies were necessary to keep them safe from the hostile world.  They did as little as possible that might affect the world for fear of angering the demons.  Most people therefore were basically slaves, and did the minimum they could to get by, to relieve the pain of existence as best they could until they died.

Then one day a new religion burst on to the scene.  This religion taught them that God had rescued them from all the demons and evil spirits in the world.  The universe in fact was not eternal at all; it had been created by God as a home for man, who was to rule over the world in peace and harmony, but man had rebelled against God’s rule and this was the reason that man was now in the miserable state that he was in.  But God had come down to earth, had taken the form of a man, had done battle with the curse of sin and death which He had imposed on creation and overcame it.  All those therefore who put their trust in the true God that had made heaven and earth, who trusted the Anointed One who had come to earth to save mankind, would be reunited to their creator, forgiven of all their past evil deeds, would be empowered with new life to finally become what human beings were actually supposed to be.

This religion spread like wildfire.  Especially the lowest, poorest members of society rapidly embraced it.  The idea that they weren’t just accidents, that they were the beloved children of God, that redemption from their miserable state was possible, that they were destined to rule over all of creation- all these were powerful ideas.  As a result, gradually over long periods of time, the old ways were changed.  Slavery was rejected.  Women were treated with greater equality.  Racism started to diminish.  Also, as people started to accept the idea that the world was intended by God to be understood and developed by man, people started to develop science, industry, and commerce.  New forms of political structures began to arise that though imperfect in many ways, began to recognize the fundamental fact that all people were created in the image of God and were therefore equally deserving of fair treatment under the law.

The result of these various results were that people began to produce a lot more wealth.  Because people were able to keep most of the product of their own labor rather than have it stolen from them by their rulers; because people began to count on the law as a guarantee of fair treatment rather than a tool of oppression; because those previously marginalized by evil cultures began to have their full value recognized; because of all of this, there was an explosion of scientific development, economic productivity, and political freedom.  Most people’s lives improved dramatically.

All of this happened because society became Christian.  They followed this new religion which taught them hope in the future, love for our fellow mankind, faith in God.  Above all, that last- they had faith in God’s word.  They believed that hard work and honest dealings would be rewarded.  Maybe not always in this life, but in eternity.  They believed that the world could be understood, so they set about working hard to understand it, even though the results of their word was often not seen in their lifetimes, or even in their grandchildren’s lifetimes.  They sacrificed for fairer political systems, for more just and equitable treatment of women, of children, of prisoners, of the poor, of foreigners.  They did all these things not because there were immediate rewards for doing so, or even rewards that they ever saw in their lifetimes.  They did these things because they had faith in the Word of God, and worked to thank God for the many good things that God had done for them.  They worked at all of these things for the joy of being human, for the joy of being made in the image of God.

But over the course of the centuries, people forgot.  They forgot what it was like in the old days before Christianity.  They believed the lies of God’s enemies that things were better before Christianity came along.  They thought that it was just human wisdom and human ingenuity which had accomplished all the marvels of the modern age, that it was actually the rejection of Christianity which had made the West free and prosperous.  So they thought they could do without Christianity.  They thought they could maintain the blessings of freedom, of prosperity, of science, of peace, without submitting to the rule of God over the universe.  And as they did so, they forgot what man actually was.  They thought he was just an animal, though a very complex one.  They thought he was just an accident.  They thought that nothing would happen after they die, that life would just end.  That is to say, they returned to the ancient pagan beliefs, that the universe was eternal, that chaos was the norm, that there was no plan or purpose in anything, and that therefore sooner or later the darkness would return.  Therefore they stopped working for the future, and focused only on the present, and on the satisfaction of their animal desires.  And as they did so, they began to lose all the hard-earned benefits that Christianity had brought to the world.  They started falling back into barbarism.  Governments became more oppressive and deceitful.  Families broke down. Children were routinely abused and mistreated.  Women, deceived into thinking that they would be empowered by doing so, were exploited as objects for men’s pleasure.  Hatred between races increased.  Prosperity declined.  War returned with a vengeance.

But in other places in the world, Christianity continued to grow, and many more people who had spend long centuries in barbarism and ignorance began to emerge from it.  The social orders who depended on people’s ignorance for their oppression fought it, but such systems were always powerless against the truth of the Ruler of the Universe.  And even as some societies slid back into barbarism because they rejected the God who made them, other societies escaped that same darkness by embracing Him.


Which story is true?  Let me remind you of the marshmallows.  When a child believes that he will receive two marshmallows if he will wait a little bit, then he is much more likely to wait.  If a man believes that the universe is understandable and that he was made to understand it, then he will sacrifice his wealth, his health and his time to learn about it.  If he believes that God intends for people to treat each other fairly, to love each other, to make peace with each other, to help the fatherless and widow, and if he believes that God is just, sees what He does and rewards them that seek to please Him with their lives, then that man will work hard at those seemingly thankless tasks.

But if a man believes that the universe is all there is, that it has always existed, that he is simply an accidental product of that universe; if he believes that nothing at all happens when he dies except that he ceases to exist; if he thinks that there is no reason at all why the poor will be lifted up and the arrogant oppressor cast down; if he thinks there is no consequence for anything he does other than what happens to him right now; if he thinks that nobody sees his acts of sacrificial kindness; then what will that man do?  He’ll grab the marshmallow.  If he happens to be born in a position of power and privilege, then he’ll use that position to maintain his power and privilege whatever the cost.  And if not, he’ll turn on the X-Box, grab a beer, watch the game, eat another burger.  Anything to distract him from the essential pointlessness of his life.

The ancient world was a very stable place.  The status quo was remarkably long-lived.  Tyranny, poverty and barbarism was the order of the day.  There really wasn’t any evolutionary progress; that’s a myth of the modern age.  If anything, there was decline.  Most ancient civilizations have myths of some kind of golden age, a time when men were capable of feats of strength and engineering which are now lost.  The Greeks of Homer’s day looked at the walls of the ruined Mycenaean cities, and with no idea how such huge stone blocks could be moved, invented the tale of giants.

Everywhere where Christianity went, everything changed.  Society moved forward.  Progress happened.  While life in China or India or central Africa in the second century BC was not that different from life there in the 15th century AD, everywhere where Christianity went, there were huge and drastic upheavals.  Science moved forward.  Political freedoms expanded.  The rule of law began to be recognized and valued.  Women were treated as fully human.  Children were protected by law.  It was the decline of Christianity in Spain and Portugal that saw slavery return to the western world as their traders began the slave trade (already common in non-Christian Africa) centuries after Christians had ended it in Europe, and it was Christians that once again put a stop to it throughout Europe.  It was Christians that fought for equal legal treatment for women; Christians that put an end to child labor; Christians that fought for environmental stewardship; Christians that fought for humane treatment of prisoners.  It was Christians who developed the scientific method, believing that the world was made by God to be understood by humanity, and Christians who led the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution, that brought untold benefits to the western world.

Without the influence of Christianity or of the Christian view of the world, people remained in barbarism.  Africa; China; Japan; India- all of these civilizations remained barbaric, tyrannous places.  People in India were still burning widows on the pyres of of their husbands just two centuries ago.  The Japanese taught that their emperor was a god to be worshiped, that the non-Japanese were not fully human and could cruelly abused any way the Japanese liked, less than a century ago.  The Chinese lived under the rule of warrior kings as recently as 1900.  None of them had anything even approaching Western science, Western freedom, or Western prosperity, until fairly recently.  Even today, Africa, India and China mostly lag far behind our standards of living.

Is this because Westerners are superior inherently somehow over these people?  A look at the enrollment lists of most upper-tier west coast colleges should dispel that notion.  No, it is Christianity that made us great.  Christianity will make them great too.

This is because civilization requires faith.  It requires deferring gratification, which only happens when one believes that good things will come as a result of sacrifice.  They did the marshmallow experiment a second time just recently- this time first having one group of children who were deceived into thinking something good would happen before running the experiment.  They discovered that for the child to wait for the second marshmallow, he had to have faith.  If his faith in the honesty of the experimenter was undermined, he was much less likely to wait.  It was faith in the future expectation of reward that led him to defer his gratification, just as it was faith in the promise of Jesus Christ that led to all of the sacrifices that people made that led to modern civilization.

Many who do not believe in God still clung to a downgrade version of that faith- even as they denied Christ, even as later they denied the afterlife, they still clung to some idea that hard work and responsibility would pay off.  So society still benefited, even from this residue of true faith.  But a residue only lasts so long.  One generation stops believing in Christ.  The next generation stops believing in heaven.  The next stops believing in God at all.  And the next doesn’t believe in anything but the marshmallow right in front of them, and that is the end of modern civilization.  Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  This is the worldview that the Bible ascribes to the Gentiles.  This is the worldview of post-Christian America as well.

It’s not by magic that all good things ultimately come only to those who trust in God.  This is true because this is the way God made the world.  Submit to His rule, and you’ll understand the world you live in, and ultimately you’ll prosper.  Rebel against it, and you’ll come to ruin.  And God’s timing is not our timing- it may not happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen, one way or another.

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