Did Christianity make the West?

Savvas Costi writes: It’s been almost a year and a half since historian Tom Holland released his book, Dominion; The Making of the Western Mind. Since then, there seems to have been something of an influx of interviews and articles relating to the enduring influence of Christianity, or at least the need for it in the modern world. For those still unfamiliar, some excellent reviews have already been written by Joel Virgo, Barney Zwartz and Tim Keller. What I write here is not intended to regurgitate what has already been said, although there may be some aspects which overlap. Given the broad scope of the book, I’ll be homing in on a selection of key insights that are worth exploring and would encourage readers to delve deeper into Holland’s excellent book for themselves.

The first key point relates to the historicity of Jesus himself. As a classroom teacher, I regularly encounter the question of whether we can be sure that Jesus really existed. When it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion, Holland cites a biblical historian in the preface to his book and makes his position very clear;

There is no reason to doubt the essentials of this narrative. Even the most sceptical historians have tended to accept them. “The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him” (p xvi).

Still there are sceptics who remain unconvinced. Holland gave a damning response on twitter to Steven Pinker’s endorsement of a book promoting the mythical view. We also have a piece written by Stephen Law challenging the view that we can take the New Testament documents themselves as sufficient evidence for Jesus ever existing (although Law himself is not a mythicist). Where does this leave us? John Dickson believes that what the experts are telling us amounts to what’s called an argument from authority, and should be taken seriously because

the fact that there is an obvious consensus of scholarship that places Jesus’ existence [and crucifixion] beyond doubt must count for something: not everything, but something.

If both Christian and secular historians are telling us that Jesus is a historical figure then perhaps Holland’s comparison is apt; to go against this would be the atheist equivalent of literal six-day creationism, or the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. Dickson’s little book also shows how ‘the writings about Jesus are … the best-attested records from all classical history.’ So much so that the claim that Jesus didn’t exist has virtually no support in contemporary scholarship specialising in Ancient History, Classics or New Testament. To prove otherwise would result in Dickson eating a page from his Bible.  What this all goes to show is that unless you want to deny the possibility of knowing any history at all, we are on sure footing when it comes to establishing Jesus’ crucifixion as a real event in the past.

Holland has not written about the history of Christianity per se but has traced ‘the currents of Christian influence that have spread most widely’ (p xxiv). The book reads like a novel and is rich in its research of key events that occurred in the past, as well as tracking the developments in Christian thinking. Holland is less interested in the question of whether the claims of Christianity are true. Instead, like any historian, he is keen to study Christianity ‘for what it can reveal, not about God, but about the affairs of humanity’ presuming their beliefs to be ‘of mortal origin’ (p xxvi). Holland does not profess to be a Christian. Speaking of his experience as a younger child he states that ‘slowly, like a dimmer switch being turned down, I found my belief in God fading’ (p 520). But in a recent interview he went as far as to say that he had surrendered to the truth of the stories of Christianity in a mythical sense. Whatever one is to make of this, the key premise of the book is stated as follows:

The [Christian] faith is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its utter transformation … To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions … The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past (pp xxii & xxv).

And the roots of this, Holland argues, can be traced all the way back to Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha.

Some readers might be shocked, or even appalled by such a statement. It’s one which Holland himself was reluctant to accept after initially agreeing with the interpretation of Edward Gibbon, that the rise of Christianity ushered in an ‘age of superstition and credulity’ (p xxvii). But the more Holland immersed himself in the study of classical antiquity, the more he came to see it as a world totally alien and unacceptable when compared to his own. It’s a sentiment shared by many today who wince at the thought of a society built from the systematic exploitation of others, as was the case in the ancient world. But it was the writings of Paul the Apostle that paved the way for its structural reform, with his letters containing ‘the most influential, the most transformative, the most revolutionary’ message (p 78), delegitimising the widespread belief in a natural hierarchy. The announcement that we were all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) was able to bring together people of every social class. The impact of this was so wide reaching that by the 4th century, Augustine could write, ‘all are astonished to see the entire human race converging on the Crucified One, from emperors down to beggars in their rags’ (p 137).

The egalitarian impulse in the West has its roots in Christianity, and it was this understanding which helped Holland to change his mind. But he is not the first to acknowledge this from beyond the Christian pale. French philosopher and unbeliever Luc Ferry recognised that it was the triumph of Christianity which gave us

the notion that … [all] men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.

But isn’t this just the product of evolutionary thinking, or enlightened reasoning? It’s striking to note that throughout the current pandemic, measures have been taken to protect the most vulnerable in our society, even if it meant crashing our economy. We did not disregard those who were most at risk but rightly recognised the dignity of all in our attempts to protect life, regardless of age, class, or background. A Darwinian approach might have allowed the virus to rip through our communities to enable survival of the fittest. How very Christian of us that we chose not to go down this route.

Neither is rationality by itself enough to sustain the view that we all have an inalienable right to life, because there might be opportune moments to circumvent this for reasonable purposes, as shown by David Hume’s conundrum of the “sensible knave,” or the “shrewd opportunist,” to use Christian Smith’s language. One might ‘strategically choose to break a moral norm at opportune moments … when it is in their enlightened self-interest to do so.’ Allan Bloom put it bluntly when he said that ‘reason cannot establish [moral] values, and its belief that it can is the stupidest and most pernicious illusion.’

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was notoriously outspoken about this. He critiqued Enlightenment philosophers for failing to draw the necessary conclusions for having shunned Christianity. It was directed towards ‘those who did not believe in God’ when the madman asks; “who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” Carl Trueman helpfully distils Nietzsche’s thought when he says that

to dispense with God … is to destroy the foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.

(Jordan Peterson teased out the same observation in a recent short clip). This reinforces the idea that many of the values taken for granted in the West have been nourished within the stream of the Christian tradition. Some, picking up on Nietzsche’s insight, have gone further and commented on how the West is in a state of decay that will worsen the further away we move from our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Taken to the extreme, Holland recently said that if you want to know what it looks like for a society to radically reject Christianity, look no further than Nazi Germany! (Watch from 40 minutes in).

That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths … The truest and ultimate seedbed … was the book of Genesis (p 384).

We don’t just see the positive aspects of the influence of Christianity in history, but there is also a darker side to religion which is well-documented in Holland’s book. We read about the horrid workings of the Inquisition and how it resulted in the deaths of so many, the mingling of Christianity with colonialism, its misuse to justify slavery, war, and restrict advances in science. It’s no surprise that some have branded Christianity to be a religion for the superstitious, bigoted and more recently, the hypocrite. But it’s important to note that this is a mixed picture and is not representative of all those who profess belief in Christ. John Lennox has helpfully shown how Christendom is not the same as Christianity, because the violence of Christendom was diametrically opposed to what Christ himself taught. This is partly why I will take the results of the upcoming UK census with a pinch of salt because it is difficult to distinguish between nominal and genuine Christians, a theme that is likely to carry over from Christianity’s chequered past.

Neither is it irrational to believe in God. Holland references Irenaeus who knew that ‘beliefs … did not petrol themselves. They had to be promoted, and upheld against their rivals, … he was engaged in an authentic battle of ideas’ (p 95). And Origen ‘who drew on the resources of philosophy to fashion for the Church an entire theologia: a science of God’ (p 105). This doesn’t happen without an engaged mind that has thought seriously and deeply about faith, one not born out of coercion, but persuasion (this is evident through the example of Alcuin on p 193). You can also read Graham McFarlane to see that ‘there is a worldview premised on Scripture that allows faith and reason to kiss.’ Being a Christian does not necessitate the absence of proper thinking. We’re well aware of the dangers of blind faith and its susceptibility to violent radicalisation. Perhaps this is what led to the charge that religion leads to violence.

But the statistics do not support this position either. Andy Bannister has helpfully dipped into the encyclopaedia of wars and discovered that less than 7% of wars spanning a ten thousand year history were actually classified as religious. Even among the 7%, some deemed this to be a misclassification because they were driven more by political/secular factors rather than religious. This hardly amounts to a strong case for the view that religion promotes war.

Another common misconception is that science and religion are two irreconcilable disciplines marked by hostility. The incident with Galileo often springs to mind, but the common view that he was persecuted by the church because science and religion are incompatible is overly simplistic, as John Lennox has shown. The main issues revolved around the Catholic Church wanting to consolidate its position after the rumblings generated from the Protestant Reformation. The impulse to preserve the authority of Rome was understandable even if it was misplaced. The main issue resulted from a clash between Galileo’s science and the reigning worldview of Aristotelian philosophy, not as is commonly supposed, with a reading of Genesis. There is no need for a clash here, especially when most Christians take a non-literal reading of the opening chapters to Genesis. As you read more of Lennox (and Holland), you begin to see that ‘far from hindering the rise of modern science, faith in God was one of the motors that drove it.’

Geology, bred as it was of the biblical understanding of time, seemed less to shake than to buttress Christian faith (p 421).

Space does not permit me to delve into the important role Christians played in the abolition of slavery, or the emancipation of women. You’ll have to read Holland’s book for more on this. Questions may well be asked regarding the extent to which we can establish a clear link between Christianity with some of the more recent, progressive ideologies, as Joel Virgo has asked. Other ideas from within the academy have also played their part in shaping modern views. That being said, Holland has done a brilliant job of highlighting the substantial role Christianity has played in our past, which is welcomed news for teachers like myself. He provides plenty of justification for ensuring that a critical study of Christianity remains within our school’s curriculum. It’s bound to generate some good discussions; whether you agree with Bret Weinstein that Christianity is a useful fiction, or with Tom Wright, as I do, that the evidence for Christ’s resurrection is ‘of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain.’ Tom Holland’s book is well worth a read.

Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He did his teacher training at King’s College London. He is married with one daughter.

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16 thoughts on “Did Christianity make the West?”

  1. What I find particularly interesting about much of this is how much this sense of human equality is actually not taught in the bible. For instance, Genesis does not teach that “all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Rather, it teaches that the human race as a corporate entity has been made in the image of God. This is very different to making a claim about the equality of individuals, which just isn’t there in the text.

    The closest you can get in the bible to a notion of equality are passages like Gal 3:28 or 1 Cor 12:21-26. These teach a kind of equality within the church, rooted in a shared baptismal identity in Christ (Gal 3:27, 1 Cor 12:13). But the notion of a creational equality (as opposed to a redemptive one) is simply not there in scripture itself. It seems to be more a product of an enlightenment deism than of anything that can be found in the bible. And it’s worth noting that many of the American founding fathers who wrote about the notion of an “equal”, “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were in fact deists and not Christians.

    • Human equality is the product of people thinking rationally about the implications of their shared humanity. Aristotle – when discussing slavery in the Politics – quotes an opinion of many at his time that slavery was always wrong and against nature. A view that he distinguishes from another that considered slavery part of nature but legally wrong as the law could not always identify correctly natural masters and slaves. This shows how the sophistication of the reflection on the subject in the classical world and how hardly it comes from the bible. It is unfortunate how both sometimes both liberals and conservative Christians present the bible, and its historical context in a way little correspondent with a more object analysis. Close to the topic I remember at theological college a famous conservative scholar of the Old Testament harping about the unique significance of the nakedness of Adam and Eve, an exception of the views held “everywhere in Mediterranean cultures and the Middle East”. I was shocked by how someone so famous and learned could say such a thing. The Greeks took pride in not being ashamed of nakedness and their celebration of the beauty of the body as expression of the virtue of mind, and understood it as a signifier of their superiority over the Persians who thought it shameful. And the Greeks were not alone, Egyptians did not seem to be ashamed of nakedness, and albeit further away Celts, German and Thracians were famous for it too.

      • The problem with saying that “people thinking rationally about the implications of their shared humanity” naturally leads to individual equality is that many rational thinkers throughout history did not see it that way – and many today still do not. It’s a moral perspective which has become particularly prevalent in the modern west but it’s certainly not a universal principle which can be discerned from human nature.

        • I do not see how my saying “people thinking rationally on their shared humanity in the context in which I did is a problem. I did so quoting Aristotle who notoriously disagreed with the idea. It would be a problem only if it were impossible for people to argue and reason on the same facts or reading the same words and to come to different conclusions.

    • Why would one be mistaken in thinking that equality is bound to our all being made in the image of God? Are there degrees of image?

      Where did the notion of “inequality” come from? Isn’t that the intruder?

      • Apologies, I missed this response. Really, my objection is one of adhering to what the text of Genesis 1 does and does not say. It says that the human race as a corporate entity is made in the image of God. Nothing is directly inferred about individual human beings from this (such as their equality or rights or whatever).

        We have to go on to other passages such as Genesis 9 to draw further inferences about what it might mean for individual human beings, but even then you don’t have the fully-fledged notion of “equality”.

  2. Good to see that some of the misleading myths about religion and about Christianity in particular, are gradually being addressed in both the academy and in everyday discourse. As a member of the clergy in a town centre church I well remember being stopped in my tracks a few years ago by a highly intelligent young mother who didn’t know what to say when her 12 year old came home after an RE lesson, having been told that you have to be an atheist because religion is the cause of all wars. I did my best in the short interval between the end of a communion service and officiating at morning prayer. Her other comments included the idea that there was no religious conflict at the time of Jesus because there was only one religion (!) and that she had heard Jesus was a Jew and was that true? I did my best in the ten minutes available but it’s difficult to cover the whole of Western history on the hop. I think this bright and generally well informed woman would have been in her mid-thirties and I wonder what she was being taught in her formative years. It prompted me to to take more seriously the need for Christian education as well as inspiration as part of growing disciples and lay leaders.

    • Tribalism/racism, jealousy, plunder, and the desire to exert and extend political control are behind most wars; religion is sometimes co-opted when the sides have different faiths. Assuming that the conversation took place in England, the woman might have looked at the most important wars that England has been involved in.

      In the 20th century England took part in the two biggest wars ever, neither of which was fought for a religious reason. Early in the 19th century we fought against Napoleon, who wanted to rule all of Europe as an emperor. We didn’t want him to. That’s not a religious war. In the 18th century we lost the American War of Independence. Obviously that wasn’t a religious war. In the 17th century the English Civil War was fought between parliament and the crown to decide where ultimate power lay. Parliament was seeking greater religious freedom, but this was above all a political power struggle. In the 15th century the Wars of the Roses were fought between the houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England – not a religious war. In the 14-15th century the 100 Years War was fought between England and France. They had the same religion (Roman Catholicism), so it wasn’t a religious war. In the 11th century William the Conqueror invaded and seized the English throne because he believed it was rightfully his and he had been denied it; this was not a religious war. In the 9-10th century the Anglo-Saxons fought the Danish invaders. The Danes invaded because their fathers, the Vikings, had found rich pickings and weak defences in their raids on the east coast a generation earlier. So, although the Danes were pagans at the time, the conflict was about land and wealth. There is also no evidence that the earlier invasion of England by the (then pagan) Angles and Saxons, after the Romans quit (and left a church behind) was for religious reasons. Three centuries farther back still, the Romans invaded Britain in the first century. Their priorities were collecting taxes and keeping order and, provided that was done, they let their subject peoples keep their own religions.

      So why do people claim that religion is the cause of most wars? Probably because of wars fought between Catholic and protestant in Europe in the 16th and 17th century, after which atheism started to become popular. So the claim is essentially 18/19th century atheist propaganda.

  3. From someone who is not a historian, who found the structure and name places a little disorienting, nevertheless, it was worth reading.
    I particularly found it helpful as it came to the modern era, identifying some wokeness with their unacknowledged Christian roots, stretched so far out of shape as to be almost unrecognisable, sometimes so as straw men.
    I particularly appreciated a somewhat feisty debate on Premier Radio, Justin Brierly’s, Unbelievable, some while ago now, between Tom Holland and atheist philosopher, AC Grayling who was strenuously opposed by Holland, in Graylings now widespread commonplace views on the horrors of Christianity in history.
    That is also well worth lending an ear to.

  4. The deepest book on this subject I know of is CN Cochrane’s 1944 work “Christianity and Classical Culture”, subtitled “a study of thought and action form Augustus to Augustine”. It sets the scene for all that Holland writes of.

  5. Agreeing with Chris Wooldridge, I don’t think Paul’s teaching can be taken as ‘delegitimising the widespread belief in a natural hierarchy’. Slaves still had to honour their masters; Christians still had to obey the emperor. Within the church, God had appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers (I Cor 12:28) – some gifts being ‘higher’ than others. Paul appointed/approved of overseers and deacons. As a matter of history, what emerged from the third century onwards was an increasingly hierarchical church, with the Bishop of Rome/Pope at the very top.

    Nor does the quote from Augustine sustain the point. Many people, Romans and barbarians, were converting to Christ, but emperors remained emperors and beggars beggars, and many did not convert.

    Then this: It’s striking to note that throughout the current pandemic, measures have been taken to protect the most vulnerable in our society, even if it meant crashing our economy. We did not disregard those who were most at risk but rightly recognised the dignity of all in our attempts to protect life, regardless of age, class, or background. A Darwinian approach might have allowed the virus to rip through our communities to enable survival of the fittest. How very Christian of us that we chose not to go down this route.

    It’s commonly acknowledged that the most vulnerable have suffered worst as a result of the lockdowns. Apart from this, ‘crashing our economy’ seems an odd quid pro quo. Measures could have been taken to protect the most vulnerable without crashing the economy. The phrase ‘allowing the virus to rip through communities’ is tabloid rhetoric. Sweden did not impose lockdowns; its policy-makers were not rabid Darwinists; and the upshot of their light touch cannot be characterised as communities being ‘ripped’ through. Ditto the states in the USA that decided not to go down the totalitarian route, such as Florida.

    As you read more of Lennox (and Holland), you begin to see that ‘far from hindering the rise of modern science, faith in God was one of the motors that drove it.’
    That is debatable. There were other streams of thought besides Christianity at the time of Copernicus, and he certainly did not credit his heliocentrism to reading the scriptures: he cited Hermes Trismegistus! ‘Faith in God’ is not something restricted to Christianity, and it is actually difficult to trace the specific scientific advances of the 16th-18th centuries to anything in the Bible, let alone that part of the Bible which is specifically Christian. Of course, it suits Lennox to argue that the whole atheistic package (a 14-billion-year-old universe, man evolving into existence at the very end, etc) is compatible with the Bible and Christianity and that science owed its emergence to Christianity because he wants to have his cake and eat it. To be a believer in the orthodox scientific account of the past as well as an orthodox Christian.

    To equate the denial of Jesus’s historical existence with ‘literal six-day creationism’ is, I regret to say, cheap. A Christian should seek to be respectful of views he disagrees with, especially when he is not professionally equipped to judge the merits or demerits of the ideas implicitly ridiculed. Believers in the literal truth of Genesis – myself included, a doctorate-level geologist (Lennox is a retired mathematician) – are not necessarily fools. Jesus also held to the literal truth of Genesis (Matt 19:4) and was also no fool. Nor was Luke, who traced his genealogy back to Adam (Luke 3:38). Nor was Paul (Romans 5:12). Nor were the early scientists who, as orthodox Christians (though Newton was not), believed in 6-day Creation. 19th-century Darwin by contrast was an atheist. His belief in the ability of Nature to create itself, which is what the theory of evolution by natural selection boils down to, was essentially a pagan view.

    The jibe at the ‘anti-vaccination crowd’ was likewise cheap. Having doubts about vaccination in general, and the rushed-through anti-covid vaccines in particular, is a respectable position.

    I was glad of the links to the other reviews. They are much better.

  6. Really enjoyed the article. However, allow me to make a small correction. The thing about less that 7% of wars being religious in their primary cause, based on the Encyclopedia of Wars, was published by others long before the good Andy B did it (no offence to him). I train detention centre officers in understanding the religious worldview and have been referring to this research for a long time.

  7. Very well written article and enjoyable, although I disagree on various points.

    One thing that stood out to me, was this part:

    We did not disregard those who were most at risk but rightly recognised the dignity of all in our attempts to protect life, regardless of age, class, or background. A Darwinian approach might have allowed the virus to rip through our communities to enable survival of the fittest. How very Christian of us that we chose not to go down this route.

    I’m assuming this is meant ironically, if not, I feel that Darwinism and the phrase “survival of the fittest” is misunderstood.

  8. A helpful post particularly in the way it pulls together other sources arguing the same thing.

    As I remember it Holland argues that the figure of the crucified Christ who is Lord turned the values of the Greek/Roman world on its head. It gave significance to the despised and disadvantaged.

    He may have argued, I can’t remember, that man made in the divine image gave a dignity to all men. Certainly many have argued this since. There is certainly an equality of being suggested here.

    In Israel (and the church) the whole idea of brotherhood suggests equality and mutual love and respect. The equality of all men before God and before the cross is a powerful leveller. Yes there are still hierarchies. Hierarchies are not wrong and in fact are necessary. There appear to be something resembling hierarchies in heaven (rule over 10 cities etc). In biblical hierarchies there were checks and balances.

    Christianity gave worth to the individual particularly the disadvantaged individual that was not to be found elsewhere. This as I remember it was Holland’s point.

    I can see how belief in an ordered universe encouraged scientific enquiry. Good to read of a doctorate level geologist holding to a six day creation. I wonder how common this is. I wonder how far it hinders a career?


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