This Saturday the atheists are planning a big rally on the National Mall. With that in mind, allow me to put in my two cents.
While purging some old files I came across a short write-up of mine from December 19–. Wait. Scratch that. It was from so long ago that I’m not giving away the year for fear of revealing how many decades I’ve been around. Let’s just say it was from the 1990s.
It was addressed to Max Wilkinson, Competitions Editor, Weekend FT – a.k.a. Financial Times. The competition was to explain in a few paragraphs who one thinks is the greatest person who ever lived and why.
I know I didn’t win because I never heard back. Today I did an Internet search to see if I could find out who did win, but there’s no trace of the competition – apart from someone who said their claim to fame was that they won an essay contest on the greatest person who ever lived (and didn’t reveal their pick). A search for the whereabouts of Max Wilkinson came up dry as well, so I can’t ask him directly.
Looking back, I thought my entry was pretty damn good. My pick? Jesus Christ. As I mentioned to Mr. Wilkinson, my conclusion has nothing to do with anything divine. Even if one is an atheist and believes Jesus Christ wasn’t endowed with any divine attributes, one still should concede that J.C. was the greatest person who ever lived, for reasons explained below.
So here goes:
The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived
Jesus Christ was the greatest person who ever lived because he more than any other person was responsible for helping to suppress humans’ innate tendency for aggression.
For the vast majority of human existence, our species were hunter-gatherers in which people lived in self-sufficient small bands primarily consisting of the extended family. They depended on no other bands for their sustenance. Indeed, outsiders were usually regarded as competition for resources.
Human beings evolved under this system. Millions of years of natural selection shaped them to be loyal to and supportive of members of their own group, while none of these built-in tendencies developed vis-à-vis persons outside of the group. Lack of concern and suspicion toward outsiders often engendered outright hostility and violence.
Beginning about 8000 B.C. this simple, stable way of life largely disappeared in the western world. The agricultural revolution and subsequent urbanization radically altered “in-group” and “out-group” relations. Economic interdependency caused the number of face-to-face contacts to increase enormously—not only among family members and workmates, but also among casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Survival now depended on cooperation, not competition, with out-groups.
Humans’ innate propensity to be unfriendly toward out-groups ran directly counter to this need for cooperation. Happily, Jesus Christ helped solve the problem. He created an all-powerful social institution that instructed humans to show love, benevolence, and forgiveness toward fellow humans. His Golden Rule probably has done more to promote smooth relations among humans than any other mechanism.
Unlike virtually all other animals, humans have the ability to employ cultural adaptation in order to get around our biological shortcomings. Christianity has been our most important cultural adaptation.