There are atheists and then there are atheists. There are atheists who view religion in general (and Christianity in particular) as having nothing of value to offer the world. Then there are atheists that recognize the incredible gifts that Christianity has bestowed on the world.
Luc Ferry is the latter. In his A Brief History of Thought: a philosophical guide to living, he recognizes 3 important innovations in the world, each that would have been impossible without the advent of Christianity. They are so much a part of Western civilization we probably assume they are self-evident but they are not. They are gifts and did not exist before the arrival of the Christian worldview. They are:
1) “Freedom of choice, ‘free will’, becomes the foundation of morals.” This isn’t about free will vs determinism but about how virtue became an aspect of what someone did instead of what they were. For the Greeks, Ferry says, virtue was akin to a talent or natural endowment, like having brown eyes or a stronger physique. For Christians, that kind of natural hierarchy had no place. People were all fundamentally the same and what counted as moral would be a matter of a person’s choice rather than their endowment.
2) “In the moral sphere, the spirit is more important than the letter.” Outward acts become not the only thing that matters and are certainly not the most important thing. Conscience matters. Motivations of the heart matter. Think of many interactions Jesus had with the Pharisees to see how this is so. For the Greeks, only what was done mattered and so behaviour was highly regulated within that society. Ferry points out how much Judaism and Islam differ from Christianity in this regard too. Christianity depends more on the individual’s conscience and moral motivations.
3) And finally, “the modern notion of humanity makes its entrance.” The first two predicate the third. In essence, Ferry is acknowledging that we could not have our modern view of individual human worth and dignity without the legacy of Christianity. “As soon as free will becomes the foundation of moral action and virtue is located not in the natural, ‘unequal’ gifts, but in the use to which they are put, then it goes without saying that all men are of equal merit.” (77) And so Christianity becomes the foundation for human rights and real democracy.
It is commendable that an atheist philosopher can acknowledge how much we owe the Christian worldview. But it leaves us with a lingering question. Doubtless, anyone living in the West enjoys a culture that has received these gifts. But… Will we be able to stay in possession of these gifts (the equal dignity and worth of all human beings, for example) when we have refused the Giver?