September 29, 2019


The Origin of the Secular Species: a review of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland  (Ben Sixsmith, 9/29/19, University Bookman)

"Just as the Bishop of Oxford refused to consider that he might be descended from an ape," Tom Holland writes cleverly in the introduction to his enormous new book Dominion, "So now are many in the West reluctant to contemplate that their values, and even their very lack of religious belief, might be traceable back to Christian origins." Holland's book is an attempt to argue that modern European civilization has its roots in Christianity, and that European culture is still "saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions."

Holland is a novelist and historian, whose elegant prose, good humor, and keen sense for an arresting image has been matched by a instinct for scholarly adventure. In his In the Shadow of the Sword, for example, Holland argued, in the face of some amount of Islamist intimidation, that the evidence for the historical truth of the origin stories of Islam is lacking. In Dominion he takes on the cheerful prejudices of secular liberalism. [...]

Christianity came not with a triumphant warrior wielding his sword, but with a traveling carpenter nailed to a cross; it came not with God as a distant and unimaginable force but with God as man, walking among his followers; it came not with promises of tribal dominance but with the hope of salvation across classes and races. [...]

Holland's stylistic talents add a great deal to the book. His portraits of Boniface, Luther, and Calvin are vivid, evocative, and free of romanticization or its opposite. Some of his accounts of episodes in religious history are a little superficial--he could have read Helen Andrews for a more complicated portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas, for example--but a sweeping historical narrative without superficial aspects would be like an orchard with no bruising on the fruit. It is only natural.

Some secularists write as if everything good about the modern world is the result of the Enlightenment and its promotion of the natural sciences, liberalism, and secularism. Holland has no time for this. Was the idea of the preeminent significance of the individual not rooted in the idea that each man is equal before God? Did the idea of the separation of church and state not go back to Augustine? Had Aquinas not said the Holy Scripture "naturally leads men to contemplate the celestial bodies"? One could mention previous Christian achievements on which liberalism depended, such as the promotion of monogamous unions and the prohibition of cousin marriage.

Holland is right about this, and does not neglect the dark corners of the Enlightenment: the graves of Frenchmen massacred by revolutionaries, the morbid fantasies and secular hubris that led to communism.

All of secularism is just an attempt to derive the Christian ethos without dependence on Christ.   Which is why it fails.  Not surprisingly, it is Anglospheric philosophers who have illustrated that failure most decisively. 

Posted by at September 29, 2019 8:26 AM