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 taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

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 modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and 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, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of 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 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 the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings 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 sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our 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 historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

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

To What Source Do We Owe the Debt for Western Values?

Holland traces the assumptions of the modern western world forward through the evolution of religious expression.

Tom Holland, in his book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, published in 2019, traces western civilization from Darius, the Persian king, through the present time. Holland links the development of modern thinking to its various sources as expressed through the thread of religious views form age to age.

The mode of his analysis is, perhaps, a unique one for an atheist. It also exposes the wellspring of one predominant source for most of the fundamental assumptions of the modern western world. Holland was surprised, himself, to find how prominently one source showed through.

To his chagrin, Holland found that source flowing from the influence of an itinerant, first century carpenter of humble background. Holland’s work reveals that the source of modern western thought is decisively Judeo-Christian, and particularly Christian.

The river in which the Christian spring wells up is, first, Mesopotamian (the Persian version), then Greek, then Roman, but the source of the thinking that invigorates all our basic, western assumptions is not reducible to Persian, Greek or Roman principals – or any combination of all three. Holland’s work demonstrates how the spring of Christianity overwhelmed the river leading to modern western thought and irrevocably changed and defined its course.

Holland traces the assumptions of the modern western world forward through the evolution of religious expression. From Persian Zoroastrianism that was, perhaps[1], the beginning of monotheistic thought, through Judaism converging into the Roman world that combined Greek gods and philosophy, Holland finds from the currents of religious expression the sources of those assumptions that inform the modern western mind and sensibilities.

Holland’s history reveals that the values we take for granted, like the water that comes from a tap, find their source predominantly in Christian origins. Like a spring that swelled the river and came to define it over time, despite its headwaters and tributaries, Christianity overtook the river and ineffably changed and defined its course.

For Holland, the discovery that the values that inform his modern, humanist worldview are Christian came as paradigm shift from the Enlightenment, modern and post-modern position. His book shows how a modernist can no more escape the spring of Christian influence than drain the water from the river.

The ways in which the theme reveals itself are myriad. Following is one example revealed through the life of Flavius Claudius Julianus. Julian, who would be known as Julian the Apostate, was the nephew of Emperor Constantine. Constantine, of course, set the course of history in his conversion to Christianity and decree to lift the prohibition against its practice. Up to that point, Christianity flourished only despite the efforts to curtail it.

Julian was also raised Christian, but he renounced Christianity to embrace the paganism of his ancestors. Tom Holland how describes Julian sought to reclaim the empire from people who had “’abandoned the ever-living gods for the corpse of the Jew’”. 

Julian believed the god, Cybele, had rescued him from the darkness of Christianity. In his effort to win back the worship of Cybele, Julian wrote a letter to the priests in Galatia, blaming them for what he called a lack of faith in Cybele, the god whose temple they kept. His accusation against them? That they were getting drunk in taverns instead of devoting themselves to the poor, and he committed the funds himself to a program of providing food and drink to the poor, travelers and beggars.

Holland was a noted historian of the Greco-Roman world before writing Dominion, knowing well the values of that world. He addresses the incongruity of Julian’s appeal as follows:

“The heroes of the Iliad, favourites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So, too for all the honour that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character, who through no fault of their own had fallen on evil days, might conceivably merit assistance. Certainly, there was little in the character of the gods whom Julia so adored, nor in the teachings of the philosophers whom he so admired, to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty, had a right to aid. The young emperor, sincere though he was in his hatred of ‘Galilean’ teachings, and in regretting their impact upon all that he held so dear, was blind to the irony of his plan for combatting them: that it was itself irredeemably Christian.

“’How apparent to everyone it is, and how shameful, that our own people lack support from us, when no Jew has ever to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.’ Julian could not but be painfully aware of this. The roots of Christianity ran deep. The apostles, obedient to Jewish tradition as well as to the teachings of their master, had laid it as a solemn charge upon new churches always ‘to remember the poor’. Generation after generation, Christians had held true to this injunction. Every week, in churches across the Roman world, collections for orphans and widows and the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked, and the sick had been raised. Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well. Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge.”

Holland was keenly aware of the pagan world to which Julian wanted to return. It was his focus as an historian. In an interview and discussion with Justin Brierley and AC Grayling, Holland describes how he was fascinated by the extravagant decadence and pomp of the classic Greco-Roman world, but he found nowhere in it any hint of the ethic that is ingrained in modern humanism to care for the poor, save for one source alone: Christianos, the derogatory term given to the followers of Jesus by the Romans.

Throughout the book, Holland identifies the various roots of modern ethics and principals that are no longer seen as distinctly Christian, because they are simply taken for granted – like Julian’s assumption that caring for the poor was a moral obligation, though no such obligation can be traced to the gods and philosophers he embraced in rejecting Christianity.

The idea that correct thinking (belief) is more important than ritual practices, inalienable (human) rights and equality, the importance of education (not just for the elites), the separation of church and state, and many other things find their origins in spring of uniquely Christian thought. The book is well-written and provides much food for thought.


[1] The accepted historical premise is that Zoroastrianism predated Judaism, but I have my doubts, which I attempt to convey in The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East.

Comments on Freedom and the Clash of Ideas

If any speech or expression is deemed unworthy of protection on the basis of its content, no speech or expression is safe.


“The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.”  (Lady Bird Johnson)

I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, bring born at the very end of 1959. My young, impressionable mind recalls the assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember watching the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Kent State protest and shooting, the footage of the Vietnam War and the Nixon impeachment on the nightly news.

The world seemed a chaotic place, no less than it does today, on this 4th day of July, 2020.

In the 1960’s, the dissident voice championed First Amendment rights that included the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. I remember that freedom cry as a child superimposed over news footage of a burning US flag. The patriot in my young heart was equally repulsed by the flag burning and impressed of the necessity of the freedom that allowed that flag to burn.

In law school, I learned the nuances of the jurisprudence that grows out of our US Constitution in which the First Amendment is enshrined. The clash of ideas is so sacred in our constitutional framework that it allows even the idea of abolishing that very framework to be heard.

In the 21st Century, many things have changed, while somethings have remained the same. Many of the dissident ideas from the 1960’s have become mainstream, and more “conservative” voices have become dissident. I am no longer repulsed by the burning of the flag (and, perhaps, the point of burning a flag is no longer poignant for the same reason).

The angst of the 1960’s of my youth has been replaced by the angst of the 21st Century of my middle age. The reasons for may angst are much different, yet very much the same at their core. I have grown and changed in my views, but the emotional strain of the human condition remains.

I fear, at times, that the framework that protected the freedom to burn US flags in the 1960’s might, itself, be destroyed in my lifetime, or the lifetime of my children, by the fire of ideas that are antithetical to that freedom.

The ideas in colleges and universities around the country that seem to predominate promotes the silencing of dissident voices. Speaker engagements are canceled as the loudest voices want not even a whisper to be heard in opposition. Dissident speakers that are allowed on campus are shouted down.

These social, philosophical and political theories are built on the foundation of the idea that certain voices should be silenced, while other voices should be magnified – a kind of totalitarianism of ideas. This worldview would destroy the marketplace of ideas along with the idea of capitalism from which the idea of a marketplace of ideas is derived.

I am repulsed by this worldview as I was once repulsed by the burning of a US flag. The repulsion stems not from the evils in society this worldview aims to address, as I find some common ground in those concerns. I am concerned that the proposed remedy involves weakening the most fundamental freedom that protects freedom itself – the freedom of ideas and the right to express them.

The idea of “hate speech”, as wholesome and reasonable as it sounds, is inimical to a framework of freedom that protects the clash of ideas. Nowhere is freedom more necessary to be protected, than at the intersection of ideas and the right to express them. One person’s hate speech is another person’s ideas.

If we allow the idea of hate speech into the fabric of First Amendment jurisprudence, we threaten its very foundation. What we characterize as “hate” today is subject to change with changing societal norms tomorrow. No speech is safe from the label of “hate”.

While such a worldview has some appeal, seeking to right real wrongs and has laudable goals, it does so with the threat of  abolition of freedom of speech. Yet, freedom, real freedom, protects these even those ideas that are antithetical to freedom and demands that they be heard.

As repulsed as I was in my naive youth to watch the US flag burn in the streets of America, I understood the importance of allowing that expression to be heard. That I am no longer repulsed by that expression is of no consequence. In fact, freedom of speech is nowhere more vital than the protection of speech that is offensive. Favored speech doesn’t need protection. 

If any speech or expression is deemed unworthy of protection on the basis of its content, no speech or expression is safe.

Continue reading “Comments on Freedom and the Clash of Ideas”

My Answers to Questions about Christianity

Good questions are maybe more important than answers


A recent blogger posted the following challenge: Questions about Christianity, do you have answers? I am not sure I have all the right answers, but I feel compelled to respond, nevertheless. Good questions are maybe more important than answers. This blogger asks some good ones, so I will attempt some answers.

Question 1: The Christian religion portends God knows past, present, and future, and only a select group of people will go to heaven. The rest, whom he gave their own ability to think for themselves are condemned to hell for eternity. If God allows people to be born he ultimately already knows [sic] will reject Christianity and are destined for hell [sic] would this not preclude God’s love and benevolence?

I don’t like the word, religion. Growing up Catholic, I never felt good about religion. I didn’t feel comfortable in church, and I recoiled from dogmatism. I became a believer in college after reckless alcohol and drug use, becoming a seeker and exploring philosophy, literature, poetry and world religions. I still don’t feel comfortable with religion.

Religion is what people do and how people appear on the outside. Reality is on the inside. God sees the reality of people’s hearts; we don’t.

Religion, I believe, is too much of a man made construct. Not that there is no truth in religion; it’s just that religion is an effort at boxing in metaphysical reality that more or less defies the effort. The box (religion) often isn’t as flexible and resilient as it needs to be.

I think that God knowing past, present and future (from our perspective) flows out of who/what God must be. This gets into cosmological and other “arguments”. Simply, if the universe had a beginning, it had a cause. They cause of the universe could not possibly be the universe. The cause had to be something other than the universe.

The universe that came into being at the point of singularity (the so-called Big Bang) includes all of space/time and matter as we know it. Thus, the cause must be something other than space/time and matter. This basically means a cause that exists “outside” of space/time matter.

At this point, we don’t have the right words or perspective to flesh it out much further. Our perspective is subject to space/time and matter, so we naturally struggle describing something beyond it. The best conception we have is that God knows the past, present and future.

From our perspective, God did set the universe in motion “knowing” how it would play out. It sounds like you grew up in the Reformed tradition. I don’t understand that either. I don’t think God resigns some people to heaven and some people to hell, but what do I know?

I do think that will to choose is a necessity of love. If a man says he loves a woman but rapes her when she rebuffs his advances, no one would think that he loved her. Just the opposite. Love requires two freely willing entities. (Or it isn’t love.)

Did God know that some people would (or might) reject Him and go their own way? Yeah, I think we have to say He did. If He created a universe in which real love is possible, though, it has to be a universe in which there is real choice.

As for hell, I think it is a construct. It’s an attempt to define a particular reality that isn’t good. (Not all Christians believe in eternal flames.) It is the reality of not choosing or choosing not to love and embrace God. If God is love, rejecting or failing to choose God leaves a person without love (at a minimum).

I have come to conceive it kind of like gravity and other laws of physics. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what hell really is. Some people say that people who reject or fail to choose God just cease to exist, and they have strong arguments from Scripture for that view. I really don’t know, and I am not willing to claim that I do.

CS Lewis, in the book, The Great Divorce, explores the idea of hell being an extension of our existence on earth (as is heaven) in which people are forever moving away from each other and fading into a shadowy existence. We choose the direction we go; and though we are free to choose otherwise, at some point, the inertia of our movement carries us along in the direction we have chosen. It’s not so much a single choice, but an untold number of small ones that can become reflexive over time.

CS Lewis also paints a picture in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia that gets at the idea that we don’t know what is in the heart of a person, but God does. For want of time and space, the whole world is lined up in front of the Lion (the Christ figure) and most walk past Him. As each person approaches, they are either drawn or repelled.

At that point, they have no more choice left. People have made their choices (the sum of all the choices they made during life). The surprising thing is that some of the people who are drawn and some of the people who are repelled are not what you would expect.

One last thought: the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross suggests that a person can make the choice at the very last minute. Despite all the choices or failing to choose during life, if a person turns to God, even at the last minute, God will accept them. This makes sense if God is, indeed, love as Scripture says.

There is so much more to explore here, but time and energy suggest that I more on. Continue reading “My Answers to Questions about Christianity”

Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?

The truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all

illiI have a friend who likes to assert that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not unique to Christianity or to religion. He believes that the Golden Rule is a result of the evolutionary process and can be seen in nature. His conclusion is that the Golden doesn’t come from God or religion, but from the evolutionary process.

I don’t subscribe to that (obviously), but I haven’t really set out to test the hypothesis. I have done much thinking on the Golden Rule as the “second greatest commandment”, as Jesus called it. I have compared the Golden Rule that was invoked, encouraged and demonstrated by Jesus in his own life to the expressions of a golden-like rule in other religious traditions.

I am not shocked or surprised to find expressions of an ethic like the Golden Rule in all (or nearly all) world religions. Truth is truth, right? Shouldn’t we expect to find it or expressions of it wherever we look? We wouldn’t we expect to find some expression of the Golden Rule in nature too? If the world was created by God, shouldn’t the world exhibit the character of God that is expressed in the Golden Rule?

Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule? I have heard many atheists say they don’t believe in God precisely because the world doesn’t exhibit God’s love. Christians, of course, find reasons for this reality expressed in the Scripture. I don’t intend to address them here, but I think the point is a good one: that the demonstration of the Golden Rule is difficult to find in nature.

In the end, we can see something of the Golden Rule in nature, but the demonstration of it leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t explain why the Golden Rule exists. It doesn’t prove the evolutionary paradigm, and it doesn’t negate the existence of a creator God in whose nature and character the Golden Rule finds its source.

Continue reading “Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?”