In which we consider an agnostic’s strong argument for Christianity’s role in human moral progress.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books) by British historian Tom Holland is a rich, colorful and — but for one glaring flaw — absorbing epic history of Christianity and its ideas, uniquely told from a liberal-left perspective.
Though he never says it outright, Holland is an agnostic, which might lead you to expect a book that tears the Faith — nowadays seen by many as the dominion of reactionary cranks — yet another one, to be tucked in the shelf alongside Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
But that would be wrong. Instead, Holland, clearly a leftist-progressive, makes a strong, often powerful, case for Christianity as a force — in the fact, the Ur force — for moral progress in human society. And one that should not be dismissed, ignored, or abandoned. At the beginning, it was subversive and disruptive to the established powers. Two thousand years later, as the very idea of faith in something greater than ourselves seems to be fading, Christian ideals remains deeply woven into both our inner and outer fabric.
Slavery, once a fully embraced, civilized practice, might well still be dominant but for Christians (starting with the Quakers). It’s also fair to wonder how effective would the Baptist Martin Luther King Jr. have been if he’d been an atheist (not to mention the entire civil rights movement)? Would a diffident secularist have been able to arouse and unite his followers and draw them into his crusade for justice? Would anyone even have listened? By Holland’s telling, probably not.
Full disclosure: I’m a late-life Episcopalian Christian born in a strictly secular household. But for a brief and disastrous rebellion in my teenage years, I remained atheistic for much of my life. The -ic suffix is because my encounter with religious fanaticism made me equally wary of fanaticism everywhere, even in my disbelief (sometimes to where I’d be dangerously indecisive, strung up like the Hanged Man in the Tarot cards).
The atheists I grew up with were not liberal, not even close, but rock-ribbed authoritarians. Churchgoers were sneered at as weak womanly dullards, hypocrites, and suckers. Racist, anti-Semitic barking echoed through the house. I later learned of a close relative who happily made room in his closet for both Hitler and Stalin (not so strange when you read a little into it — the two did have a brief little bromance going. Each murdering tyrant has his unique excuse, though they remain tyrants rooted together in their quest for power for power’s sake, in their rage to see us all burn.)
In short, I’ve known plenty of atheists who were liberals but I also knew plenty who weren’t. Even as I wore my best hardboiled sneer, “Atheism = liberalism” was an equation that never quite added up in either my experience or my reading of human history. The aforementioned mass murderers, along with luminaries such as Mao Zedong, Pol Pot were atheists (or saw themselves as the only gods worth bowing to). Both the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche, as Dominion discusses at length, were atheist and fascist to the tip of their quills. Among modern reactionaries, there’s newly deceased G. Gordon Liddy and the previous president, atheists both, and I suspect many other right-wingers, especially those who stridently claim otherwise. Tyrants know they have to play to the rubes, the desperate and the ignorant.
Having brought this up once before, I was absurdly accused of equating all atheists with Hitler, which, of course, is twaddle. And yet that raises a very interesting question: If both Bertrand Russell and Adolf Hitler, two very different people, share the same disbelief, what exactly does it mean to be an atheist, at least morally? If anything, it leaves some feeling trapped in a web of inexorable time and brute physics in a cold dead universe with hope a feeble flame and despair shadowing everything. Even Nietzsche sensed the death of God would be nothing to celebrate.
In Holland’s history, the equation doesn’t quite add up either. He begins his argument from history with neither the Old Testament nor with the itinerant Semitic Jew who inflamed 1st century CE Palestine but from BC 4th Century Greece and its war with the Persian Empire led by Darius. It’s here that Holland finds the earliest accounts of an early form of the appalling punishment of crucifixion, a horrible death that had been, from the start, a political gesture, aimed at rebels against whatever tyrants happened to be in charge.
But it was the Roman Empire that made crucifixion so ubiquitous, the centerpiece of law enforcement, a symbol of its imperial power. They crucified most of those who rebelled against them but, uniquely, Christians were the one group who transmuted an executioner’s tool into a symbol of defiance, rebellion and transcendence, existential, political, and spiritual.
It was a shocking, dangerous move, this mockery of Roman rule. This was a time when war and slavery were mostly seen as an honorable institution, integral to human civilization. Elites were seen as natural and good. There were the rulers, there were the ruled, and that was it. God bless the Greeks but you’ll find few notions of modern liberal justice in either their myths or their philosophy. Even ancient paeans to sexual freedom were sung for a wealthy elite.
Holland also proposes that it was the Persians, led by Darius, who first tried to establish the concept of universal rule, of one societal structure to shelter and guide us all. More than just the worship of a single God, the Persians tried to build a universal church around the concept. They failed, but the Christians, centuries later, would achieve a far greater level of success.
After dealing with the Greeks and Persians, Holland briefly sails over the Romans for the next four centuries. Oddly, he skips right over that itinerant, sharp-tongued (and crucified) Jewish preacher, to his Greek contemporary and self-appointed successor, Paul (Saul) the Apostle. It’s a miss that nagged me throughout and, to some extent, hobbles Holland’s argument. How one talks about Christianity without directly dealing with the ministry of Jesus Christ, the rebel of the Gospels, is a question the author never addresses.
Even so, Dominion is still a worthwhile read as Holland takes us through Paul’s discipleship and on to the slow bumpy rise of the Faith (and the evolution of what we now call “religion” — defined here as Faith institutionalized) until it achieved its first apotheosis with the Emperor Constantine’s embrace of the faith starting around 312 AD.
As the church expanded into a formal structure like none that had ever been seen, the new and radical ideas at its core — love, justice, compassion for the poor and oppressed — became central to its mission (followed by tortuous, often silly and ultimately unresolvable debates about the exact nature of Christ’s divinity.)
This was all new: While people had always been yearning for and seeking the divine, the approach had been mostly unsystematic, ad hoc, and pragmatic. Even among the fascistic Romans, religious structures and practice varied widely, locality by locality. The Romans tolerated differing religious practices not because they were woke nice guys but because enforcement was simply too much trouble, even for the mighty emperor. Go too far though, as Jesus Christ did, the price was fatal and brutal.
The Catholic Church, working from the logic that God’s grace was for everyone, went beyond the strictures of Jewish Torah to be the first to fully strive for an elaborate governing structure intended to bring the whole world under one umbrella, not only under one God, but also under a single system of moral principles, as defined by what would be later called the Judeo-Christian tradition. This establishment of “religion” was also, as Holland calls it, “an “innovative programme of international law.” That sounds swell, but underlying this program lay an ideal, a steady state of perfection that had more in common with Greek philosophy than Judaism. In other words, an ideology, one set of rules for everyone, everywhere, for all time, under all circumstances.
Seen as an ideal, such a project is not only totalitarian, but also impossible. (Holland seems to sympathize with the totalitarian aspects more than I would.) Inevitably, the quest for perfection — to be like God — leads to failure and hypocrisy, intolerance and tyranny. The institution failed to account for its own very human nature, leading to crimes against humanity that would draw a knowing snicker from a Roman emperor. Good intentions did not lead to the goodness and virtue they expected. The human problem remained. The Church started wielding the cross like a sword and many — especially Jews — paid. The cross became for many a symbol of oppression as it had been under the Romans.
Eventually, as Holland points out, all successful revolutionary movements become the conservative — and often reactionary — establishment. The Catholic Church managed to keep its creaky ship afloat for nearly a thousand years, remarkable even by Roman standards. Beyond its human atrocities, it clearly meant something important and worthwhile to people. In many places, there was no one else to turn to. But the cracks in the hull were always there and by the 1540s, two developments arose that caused it to flood and list.
In 1540, a seriously pious monk named Martin Luther had had enough of church corruption and hypocrisy and let his rage be known with his ninety-five theses. Luther didn’t intend to be revolutionary but revolutionary he became, whether he liked it or not. With the other great development in place — the invention of the printing press — the impact of his ideas (including his anti-Semitism) spread beyond his control. Other theologians took them up and made them their own. The Catholic Universe, inevitably, irreparably, started to splinter and hasn’t stopped.
But even as Christianity fragmented into near-endless variations, its underlying ideas about love, charity, peace and forgiveness remained, spreading far and wide, even undergirding the Enlightenment and the rise of Marxism. While Karl Marx totally rejected his Jewish upbring and the existence of God as many understand it, communist ideals remain rooted not in any “science” but in a faith similar to that found in the Gospels. And so it is with all our contemporary ideas of justice, in movements both secular and not. (It’s fair to ask, I think, if Marx and the communists were mistaken in rejecting the role of the Divine. Stripping away Faith seems to have done little to improve our behavior toward each other.)
Holland’s history is lit up with a few surprises along the way: for one, Galileo’s trial and imprisonment wasn’t over his astronomical observations per se — the Church had reached the same conclusions — but over who had the power to present these ideas to the public. Even more surprising, “Hinduism” was a concoction of the British Empire and the East India Company, an umbrella phrase to make comprehensible the multitude of differing faiths practiced on the Indian subcontinent in the 1800s, of which “Hindoo” was but one.
For many, Christianity is not so much a religion and ideology (meaning religion as an oppressive, cumbersome institution and ideology as a set of principals so totalitarian, rigid, and absolute, no sane person even wants to bother with it.) Instead it is experienced as an overarching philosophy, a stance toward life that sees existence — not just ours but of All That Is — as something holy that embraces such attributes as love, grace, courage and faith.
Still, Holland’s failure to cast a closer eye on Christ’s ministry depicted in the Four Gospels leaves a nagging hole (like telling the history of communism without Marx). Without it, Dominion falls short even as it strongly stands by Christianity’s case for decency, kindness, and justice remain. Its defiance of human darkness remains undimmed, always there to be kindled anew. We can only pray for that enlightenment to remain with us.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.