Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more enamored with Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ. The ancient, classical world and the likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation. He became a historian.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and secular humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas we might call basic human, the right to equality, fair treatment and freedoms that might call unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, Holland did the painstaking work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, Holland sought to uncover the lineage of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the progression that evolved into ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting as side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the beginnings and ancestry of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that diverted and defined the flow of thinking in western civilization – a metaphysical “Cambrian Explosion”. His find caught him off guard: western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of the historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced in that heritage that it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

As with science, which was the engine for the Enlightenment effort to remake history, there is but one metaphysical root to the evolutionary tree of modern western thinking. It is what it is. With that backdrop consider Holland’s description of the contribution of the ideas advanced by Thomas Huxley:

“In matters of the intellect he warned, do not pretend the conclusions were certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. Such was the principle of agnosticism, a word that Huxley had come up with himself and which he cast as the essential requirement for anyone who wished to practice science. It was, he flatly declared, the only method by which truth could be ascertained.

“Everyone reading him knew his target. Truth that could be neither demonstrated nor proven, truth that was dependent for its claims on a purportedly supernatural revelation, was not truth at all. Science, as the fashionable practitioner of the new art of photography might have put it, was defined by its negative. Religion. Here there lay a striking paradox. Although the concept of science, as it emerged over the course of the 19th century, was defined by men who assumed it to be the very opposite of novel, something timeless and universal, this was a conceit of a very familiar kind. Science, precisely because it was cast as religion’s doppelganger, inevitably bore the ghostly stamp of Europe’s Christian past.

“Huxley, however, refused to recognize this. The same man whose genius as an anatomist enabled him to identify what only now has become almost universally accepted, that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs that once millions of years ago were scampering through Jurassic forests, had no problem in believing that science had always existed.” 

Thus, Holland’s work exposes a myth that persists today – that religion held back science, that the Dark Ages finally gave way to enlightened men emerging from the dank bowels of primitive caves into the glorious light of modern science and reason. That this is pure myth is of no moment for those who believe it. Like a skeptic’s view of religion, the dogma is truth.

Holland doesn’t come by these conclusions easily. He didn’t set out to prove them. He wasn’t disposed to find them.

Like the Christian paleontologist digging up Neanderthal bones that run counter to the view that Adam and Eve were the first humanoids, Holland has dug up the fossil precursors to our modern values, and they are clearly Christian. That he recognizes them for what they are is a testament to his honesty and integrity as a historian. That he described this discovery as “unsettling” is to his credit.

Christians advanced scientific endeavor because they believed the world was ordered by a Creator so that it could be known. They believed in laws of nature because they believed in a Law Giver. Without that confidence in what was then unseen and not well known, science would not have progressed to the Enlightenment as it did.

That modern science is dominated by a belief that denies that it stands on the shoulders of men of faith is of no credit to those who cling myth over reality. So it was with other assumptions of Huxley and enlightened thinkers of his time and ours.

Though Holland remains agnostic, he expresses concern that attempts to hold on to the fruit after digging out and cutting off the root may be have far reaching consequences.

Holland finds western civilization tenuously connected to the root still – at least for now. That is the thesis of his work. In interviews, though, he questions how long the fruit can survive, if moderns succeed in severing the root completely. So far the fruit remains, but how long can it survive when that root is dug up and discarded?

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