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.

Sy Garte: From Atheism to Agnosticism to Christianity

The assumptions of materialism he carried with him into the study of science were challenged by the science, itself


Sy Garte grew up in an atheist household. His ancestors for generations were atheists. His lateral relatives were atheists, and the people close to him in his life were atheists. He assumed atheism was normal. He didn’t question atheism or materialism as the basic assumptions of his life.

Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and BS in Chemistry from the City University of New York. He has been a Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pittsburgh. He has written over 200 scientific publications in genetics, molecular epidemiology, cancer research and other areas, and he is the author of five book, and numerous articles published in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) and God and Nature.  He retired from a senior administrative position at the National Institute of Health. (See his biography at Biologos)

Wait a minute… articles on science and Christian faith?

He was an atheist and a scientist. So, what happened?

Well, Dr. Sy Garte has written a book about “what happened” – The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith. I haven’t read the book (yet, I just ordered it), but I listened to an interview that I have embedded below, and it’s a pretty interesting story. I also added an interview of Sy Garte hosted by a once professed Christian turned hardcore atheist (the kind who isn’t content to allow other people to remain Christians).

Continue reading “Sy Garte: From Atheism to Agnosticism to Christianity”

A Discussion about the Influence of Christianity on Western Civilization by Two Non-Believers

What is the the impact of Christianity on the values and assumptions of western civilization?

Dionysus Bacchus Wine statue portrait


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 holiday party in class. In 1978, just before I set off for college, Animal House, the movie, 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 that 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. “Religion” (Christianity) was viewed as a desperate attempt to hold on to that naiveté, even while 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 effort took him to a surprising place. 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.”

Through the process of researching and writing history, Holland has come to realize that the present values of humanism, secularism and liberalism that are prized in western society find their roots in Christianity. They 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.

21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians

Rome, Italy. Trajan Markets, built in 2nd century AD by Apollodorus of Damascus in the time of Emperor Trajan

The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:

“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”


“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”[1]

This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.

Continue reading “21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians”

Significance in the Way Christianity Spreads

Islam rivals Christianity in its “travel” around the world. But the spread of Islam looked different than the spread of Christianity.

Os Guinness talks about differences between Christianity and other religions in an interview with Justin Brierley a few years ago. He made a statement that Christianity is the only “traveling religion”.

He observed that Hinduism began in India and remains primarily in India. Buddhism began in India and remains primarily in India and Eastern Asia. Islam began in the Middle East and remains primarily in the Middle East. Christianity, however, began in the Middle East. Then it moved to Europe; and then it moved to North America; and now Christianity is growing fastest in Africa and Latin America and Asia.

While I think Guinness overstates the case little bit, he got me thinking about the how the major world religions have spread. For instance, Islam, which rivals Christianity in numbers, grew very rapidly during the life and immediately after the death of Muhammad. It spread throughout the centuries into Europe and down into Africa and more recently across Southern Asia.

To that extent, Islam rivals Christianity in its “travel” around the world. But the spread of Islam looked different than the spread of Christianity. This is the significant fact, in my opinion – not so much that Christianity has traveled through all the world (though it has) like no other religion.

Continue reading “Significance in the Way Christianity Spreads”