In my college English classes, I recall the attitude that Tom Holland conveys in a recent interview of he and AC Grayling by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable? podcast: Did Christianity give us our human values? Neither Holland nor Grayling are believing Christians, so I was intrigued to listen to what they had to say.
Holland explained that he was raised in the Anglican church, but he found Christianity to be “dull” at an early age. He was much more drawn to the ancient, classical world in the same way he was drawn to dinosaurs when he was younger. “It was big; it was fierce; and it was extinct. To be honest, I was very much on the side of Pontius Pilate: the eagles, the togas, the glamour of it. Jesus becomes slightly dull in comparison. He was a loser, really.”
Tom Holland says there wasn’t a dramatic moment in which he lost his faith. It was more like his faith was a dimmer switch dialing down. He says, “My faith was essentially blotted out by the sun of my fascination with the classical world.”
This was more or less the attitude I remember in the education of my youth. In my high school Latin class, we celebrated Roman society, even dressing in togas one day for some kind of classroom party. In 1978, just before I set off for college, the movie, Animal House, practically turned the toga party into a curricular activity.
I remember distinctly a professor explaining through an entire class on Milton’s Paradise Lost why Satan is the most appealing character in that classical work. The theme of naïve innocence and initiation into the world of knowledge that brings with it the thrill of discovery and loss of innocence runs through all of English literature.
The loss of innocence is a rite of passage. The world of knowledge, being equated with that loss of innocence, is more fun, interesting and downright exciting than the pious world that is inevitably left behind. “Religion” (Christianity) was viewed as a desperate attempt to hold on to that naiveté, even as the proverbial horses of lust, titillation and wonder about the forbidden world are escaping the barn.
Tom Holland, like my worldly professors in college, gladly left the “dull” world of Christianity behind. When he set out to write history, he was drawn to write about the Greeks and Romans of his youthful fascination. This journey, though, eventually led him to a surprising conclusion. He says,
“I found the experience of living in the minds of people like Caesar, … people I had deeply admired as a child, almost hero worshiped … increasingly unsettling.”
The disconnect increased the more he dug into it. If the values of the ancient Greco-Roman world are foreign to modern, western values, what was the source of his modern, western values? What were the real roots of his western values if they are not Greco Roman?
Through the process of researching and writing history, Holland came to realize that the present values of humanism, secularism and liberalism that are prized in western society find their roots in Christianity. The realization of the impact of Christianity on the values and assumptions of Western civilization was “sharpened” for him in the process of writing a book on the history of Islam.
Holland recalls that he found himself coming to the conclusion that “[much of what] Muslims believe about the origins of Islam are actually mythic, are back projections”. Muslim critics repeatedly complained of the book he wrote on the Islam, challenging him that he wouldn’t dream of subjecting his own beliefs and values to the same critical review. Thus, Holland says, the book he wrote most recently, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, began as an attempt to subject the origins of his own cultural values to the same standard of critical review.
He says that the book was his effort to take the criticism to heart and to trace the thread of his own humanist, liberal values back to see “where it leads through the labyrinth”. Speaking of that effort, the culmination of which is now in print, he says,
“Ultimately, it leads back to Christianity, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in almost all of the essentials, myself, my friends, the society in which I live, the whole of the west is so saturated in Christian assumptions that it is almost impossible to remove ourselves from them.”
This is not the post-modern, post-Christian narrative that I have heard elsewhere. Indeed, AC Grayling, the other guest on the podcast that inspires this blog today, takes a different view. That is the subject of the interview. The interview is worth a listen, whether you might side with Grayling or with Holland. The fact that Holland comes out of the atheist camp to announce what he has determined from his research is noteworthy. Therefore, I publish this short blog post and invite you to listen along to this interesting discussion.