Historian Tom Holland is known primarily as a storyteller of the ancient world. Thus his newest book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, came as a surprise for several reasons. First, Tom Holland is not a Christian. Second, Holland’s book is one of the most ambitious historical defences of Christianity for a long time.
While studying the ancient world, Holland writes, he realised something: the ancients were cruel, and their values utterly foreign to him. The Spartans routinely murdered ‘imperfect’ children. Slaves’ bodies were treated like outlets for the physical pleasure of their masters. Infanticide was common. The poor and the weak had no rights.
From there to here
How did we get from there to here? It was Christianity, Holland writes. Christianity revolutionised sex and marriage, demanding that men control themselves and prohibiting all forms of rape. Christianity confined sexuality to monogamy. (It is ironic, Holland notes, that these are now the very standards for which Christianity is derided.) Christianity elevated women. In short, Christianity utterly transformed the world.
Holland points out that without Christianity, the Western world would not exist. Even the claims of the social justice warriors who despise the faith of their ancestors rest on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values. Those who make arguments based on love, tolerance, and compassion are borrowing fundamentally Christian arguments. If the West had not become Christian, Holland writes, ‘no one would have gotten woke’.
Holland’s book-length defence of the belief system the elites love to despise has drawn criticism. He recently debated the atheist philosopher A. C. Grayling on the question ‘Did Christianity give us our human values?’. Grayling struggled to rebut Holland, sounding more petty than philosophical. Holland, on the other hand, became positively passionate in his defence of Christianity. If Western civilisation is the fishbowl, he stated, then the water is Christianity.
A trend identified: defence of Christianity
Holland’s defence of Christianity is fascinating because it is part of a trend. As the West becomes definitively post-Christian, many secularists are realising that Christianity is more valuable than they thought. While many — including Holland — cannot quite bring themselves to believe Christianity is true, they are starting to believe that Christianity is necessary.
Douglas Murray, the conservative author and columnist, is also an atheist. In recent years, however, he has started to warn that the decline of Christianity is a dangerous thing. Society now faces three options.
First, Murray says, is to reject the idea that all human life is precious. ‘Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.’ And if that doesn’t work? ‘Then there is only one other place to go: back to faith, whether we like it or not.’
Murray now occasionally refers to himself as a ‘Christian atheist’. Speaking with Esther O’Reilly on the Unbelievable podcast, Murray lauded the ‘revolutionary moral insights’ of Christianity. He told her that while visiting the Sea of Galilee, he couldn’t shake the feeling that ‘something happened here’.
He admitted that as atheists consider morality, ‘the more we may have to accept that… the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation’. Speaking on the Darren Grimes Show recently, he was even blunter: ‘There seems to be little point in a life spent talking about Labour Party politics rather than God.’
King Agrippa Christians
The phenomenon of atheists praising Christianity is growing. Gone are the days when Christopher Hitchens (a good friend of Murray’s) and his ilk raged against the ‘poison’ of religion. Even Richard Dawkins conceded that Christianity might be preferable to the alternatives. He once called for Christianity to be destroyed. Now he begrudgingly says it has good effects on society.
Jordan Peterson is another figure. The famous psychologist refuses to say whether he believes in God. At least, he refuses to say what he means by God, Christ, or faith. Peterson attempts to synthesise Scripture with Jung and Darwin and the result is predictably tortured.
Yet Peterson knows that without Christianity, unspeakable cruelty is inevitable. He speaks like a secular Calvinist: he acknowledges human depravity, but has not yet worked out redemption.
Charles Murray, the social scientist and sociologist, is agnostic. Yet he has said that the American republic will not survive without a resurgence of Christianity: ‘You cannot have a free society with a constitution unless you are trying to govern a religious people.’
The late Sir Roger Scruton also headed back to church. He struggled with many of Christianity’s truth claims. But he still came to believe that Christianity was necessary. While nursing doubts, he played the organ in his local Anglican church during Sunday services.
These men are King Agrippa Christians. As King Agrippa told the Apostle Paul: ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’ They almost believe it. They believe Christianity is good, perhaps even necessary. As Murray put it, he ‘believes in belief’. But they cannot (yet) bring themselves to believe that it is literally true — that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead.
Heed the warnings of atheists
These strange struggles deliver a warning to the West. Without Christianity, we are heading into a thick, impenetrable darkness. Christianity gave us human rights. It gave us protection for the weak. It gave us compassion rooted in commands to love and to forgive even our enemies. It revolutionised the world. We are now in the process of undoing that revolution. In fact, we are replacing it with the Sexual Revolution.
We should look at what we are destroying before we carry on. We should ask why fences were built before tearing them down. We should listen to the atheists nervously telling us that Christianity is necessary. We should fight to ensure that our post-Christian culture is again a pre-Christian one.
Jonathon Van Maren is a Canadian public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.