Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

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.

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.

An “Other” View of Christianity

it is more intellectually honest to acknowledge the different worldviews and social practices, including the resulting necessity that there is a choice to be made to determine which is more truthful than the others

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Bialasiewicz
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Bialasiewicz

I began my college career with a World Religions class that exposed me to the major world religions. My professor boasted a Christian upbringing and background, but he was more of a universalist than a Christian in his theology and philosophy. The class focused more on the religions other than Christianity than Christianity, partly, I suppose, because most people sitting in a World Religion class in a small liberal arts college in Iowa already were acclimated to Christianity.

Western Civilization was another class I took. Western civilization, not surprisingly, dominates and colors most of the history of American thought since the United States is predominantly an extension of Greek, Roman and western European philosophy and ideology. My Jewish religion professor put that in context for me one day in a class on the Old Testament when he asserted that Judaism has roots in Eastern religion and civilization. (I was a thesis away from being a religion major.)

I will not repeat the context or expand on the details of that proposition. I have forgotten most of the details anyway. The take away I want to chew on with this piece is that we make assumptions about religion and the world based on how we have been acculturated and “indoctrinated” by our culture. Listening to the perspectives of “others” provides us valuable, different perpectives, even on the things with which we are familiar (like Christianity).

Continue reading “An “Other” View of Christianity”