This is the script for a video on my YouTube Channel where I critique a video on the Capturing Christianity Channel in which Tom Holland discusses his book: Dominion.
Today we look at a video on the Capturing Christianity channel in which Tom Holland appears as a guest. Holland recently published a book titled: Dominion, which attempts to argue that Western culture owes its entirety to Christianity and that we have no connection to ancient Greece and Rome, let alone pre-Christian European paganism. As Cameron Bertuzzi introduces it:
The book was enthusiastically received in the apologetic community, but generally ignored by the everyone else so I never considered making the effort of commenting on the book. But this video encapsulates the major thrust of the book in a way that makes its refutation more manageable.
As some of you know, I’ve written in favor of the opposite case: that Christianity interrupted European culture as a strange Near Eastern religion grafted onto the body of Western civilization, became malignant, and was eventually rejected by the West’s lymphatic system as an unhealthy growth. This rejection began in the late Renaissance as a reconnection to classical antiquity as well as pre-Christian paganism, as exemplified by Shakespeare, and the turn of our gaze from a metaphysical heaven to man himself as the measure of the world. This trend accelerated with the reason and empiricism of the Enlightenment, and finally threw off the diseased graft of Christianity in the late 19th Century with Nietzsche’s Madman announcing god’s death. I’ve linked below to a couple of articles I wrote on this subject for John Mark Reynolds’ Eidos.
We start with Holland’s preface of his arguments with a catalogue of ideas and morals which he thinks demonstrate a complete break with pre-Christian antiquity:
There are two interesting things here. First is his focus on sexuality. It is not entirely clear what the biblical sensibility is on sexuality, but it is clear that the West has loosened the modern Christian church’s grip on our understanding of it as it evolves to a more enlightened, that is less superstitious and ignorant understanding of sex. More important is his second claim that Christianity is not static, but ever evolving. I will make much of that point later, but here I’ll suggest that perhaps this evolution he perceives is actually a rejection of Christianity and a move in a very different direction.
He begins his first argument that our notions of good and bad are inherently Christian by making the curious argument that New Atheists are themselves acting within the framework created by Christianity.
This is a clear case of projection. It’s as if he cannot imagine the pursuit of truth and elimination of ignorance outside of the framework of Christianity. But all philosophers of Greek antiquity pursued truth and advocated for their positions. In the 5th Century BCE, Democritus, along with his teacher Leucippus, set out to detach the pursuit of truth from religion and established what was probably the first true appearance of science. Democritus had traveled to supposed sites of religious miracles and events and found it impossible for the stories to have happened in those locations. Democritus then adopted the view that all truth is found purely in the physical world and developed the first theory of atoms as the basic structure of the universe. This was done with no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, which anyway had none of the progressive science and refutation of religious myths found in this Greek philosopher. The New Atheists are clearly in the Greek philosophical tradition and well accord with Democritus, and not within some Christian framework. It is simply absurd to appropriate search for truth, refutation of gods, and advocating one’s positions as the sole realm of Christian proselytizing.
He then goes on to appropriate all of Western science as Christian in its origin and essence:
He bases his claim that Western Science is essentially Christian on a silly word game. Science had existed in the West since Democritus, although it had gone under several names. In the English-speaking world, science had been seen as a branch of philosophy under the heading of natural philosophy until the 19th Century, when William Whewell began to refer to natural philosophers as scientists. However, since the time of Francis Bacon in the late Renaissance, the scientific method had been formalized and Whewell’s changing of the name had no effect on the practice itself. Whewell himself was a historian of science, which would have been impossible if science didn’t exist before he named it. But of course, it did and Whewell considered the hallmark of science to be “conciliation”, which existed since the days of the early Greeks and consisted in unifying disparate elements of the world into single theories.
In fact, there is nothing Christian about the word science at all. It comes from the pre-Christian Latin and had been in use in England since the 14 the century as the general pursuit of knowledge. There simply is no basis to Holland’s claim that science is bathed in Christianity. This can be further seen in his statement that science relied on an evolution of Christian thought, another thoroughly baseless claim.
It is true that science evolved by continuously building on previous thought, but thought of a decidedly non-Christian variety. As I alluded to in the introduction, the Renaissance ushered in the beginning of the rejection of the graft of Christianity. Humanity’s gaze switched from the metaphysical to the physical, and Bacon brought about the seminal change in how we approach discovery. Before the Renaissance, Rationalism held sway, that is Scholastic metaphysics which considered only Ideas stemming from god as truth, and argued deductively from these a priori Ideas. Bacon inverted that view to Empiricism, which negated metaphysics and argued inductively from observation of the world. This seminal step in the evolution of scientific thought detached knowledge from god and all metaphysics. In the 18th Century Enlightenment this empiricism based on observation and reason matured into a major inflection point on the evolutionary route of science and in a direction fundamentally distanced from Christianity. Nietzsche’s Madman has in mind this Enlightenment as the murderer of God, and Western Thought at that point was well advanced in its rejection of the Christian graft. This evolution of scientific thought, counter to Holland’s claim, eliminated the explanatory need for god just as much as Darwin did.
Holland gets himself in further trouble as he attempts to trace science to this Medieval Scholastic Metaphysics against which modernity rebelled.
He describes here the rationalism that Bacon and the Empiricists later overthrew. The notion that god had created an ordered universe and given man rational ideas to be able to fathom the laws of this ordered universe no longer was a necessary guiding principle in Western science after Bacon. The notion of a God ordered universe and divine reason breathed its last gasp with Kant and his equating Reason as Will, and Will as God. Kant came at the very end of the Enlightenment, when the forces of Romanticism had already been loosed, and this notion was swept away with the tide. Apparently, Holland is unaware of the revolution of Bacon’s scientific method in replacing Rationalist deduction with Empirical induction, and with it the jettisoning of metaphysical presumptions of god’s order. And as this scientific evolution progressed, the 20th century brought about the final destruction of any notion of an ordered universe. Much to Einstein’s chagrin, we learned that god in fact does play dice with the cosmos, and as Steven Hawking quipped, he sometimes throws them where they cannot even be seen.
So, yes, Holland was right that science was evolutionary, but in a way that removed Christianity from its method. It wasn’t until the secularism that began in the Renaissance that science made any real headway as it reconnected with European classical roots.
But this brings up another interesting aspect of Medieval Scholasticism. It is really not correct that Christianity eliminated these classical roots. It is more correct to say that Augustine and Aquinas converted Christianity to Western metaphysics. Augustine made Christianity intelligible to Europe by reinterpreting it through a neo-Platonic retelling. The Semitic religions were really not metaphysical in nature, but rather the gods were physical presences among the people, interacting with the world and even procreating with women. Yahweh accompanied the Jewish tribe after the exodus; sometimes residing in the tabernacle and sometimes leading them in the form of a cloud. Neo-Platonists such as Augustine, however, transformed this into a metaphysical speculation of god and his unearthly realm. And from Plato, he received the notion of a sinful and fallen physical world versus a perfect Ideal realm. And with that we have the unlikely marriage of two very different worlds: ancient European metaphysics with this strange and primitive Near Eastern religion. What we receive from that as Christianity is not at all the god of the Bible but a Medieval invention. Later, Aquinas would invoke Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics in an attempt to justify and prove the existence of this new and strange god. So again, Holland is right when he says Christianity is a fluid and evolving religion, but one that is uprooted from its Near Eastern origin, transformed through Greek thought, and continued as the invention of European man.
And what post-Renaissance Europe went on to reject was not just Christianity, but metaphysics itself. Christianity was one of things caught up in this metaphysics. However, this rejection of Platonic metaphysics was not a rejection of Greek antiquity, but a reconnection to the presocratic physicalism of Democritus.
Holland then attempts to explain the apparent modern conflict between secularism and Christianity as an act of protestant anti-Catholicism.
I have no idea who Tim O’Neal is or what myths he thinks he debunks, but here Holland merely repeats his assertion that science did not exist in ancient Greece but only came about through a Christian evolution of thought starting in the Medieval period. An assertion that is simply silly, and which I hope I have adequately refuted here. The truly silly myth here is Holland’s claim that any tension today between science and religion is simply protestant hostility to Medieval Scholastic Catholicism. As I pointed out, the real conflict was between Medieval rationalism with its metaphysical apparatus and Empiricism. Protestantism is every bit in conflict today with science as is Catholicism, and probably even more so.
Next he makes the ridiculous claim that only Christianity, through the goldilocks quality of the Christian god of reason and order, enables science to take place, stunningly ignorant of Muslim superiority in science during his vaunted Medieval scholasticism.
As I pointed out earlier, this notion of a perfectly ordered universe created by a rational and law giving god was proven false long ago and no longer animates much of science.
He next pivots to a denial of any Greek influence on our moral values today, which he sees purely of Christian origin. As with his argument for science, he claims that there was no concept of secularism until Christianity, with its origins in Sacked Rome, when non-Christians blamed the Fall on the abandonment of the pagan gods.
The trick here is to constrain the concept of religion to the religios of pre-Christian Rome, ignoring that religio didn’t exist in the Bible, which clearly portrays our concept of religion, nor was it a feature of the earlier Greek and Roman religions. Democritus was already busy separating religious construction of a worldview from secular science. Augustine did nothing different from all earlier theologians, which is to proclaim his god as the only true one: he was only one more in an ancient progression of such claims for a multitude of gods. It simply is absurd to limit the split of religion and the secular to the origin of European Christianity, and from this nonsense he goes on to spin a fantastic narrative free from reality.
In the interview he never really does explain how Western morality is purely and solely derived from Christianity – perhaps because the actual history of the West would embarrass such a claim. As he admitted before, Christianity has been a fluid and changing religion, but what he obscures is that the bulk of this change has been movement away from the Bible, and this is especially so as it concerns morality. The barbaric eye for an eye justice of the Old Testament, borrowed by the Jews from Hammurabi, appears abhorrent to modern moral sensibility. So does the toleration of slavery, commandment of death for heretics and nonbelievers, and god-commanded genocide. Instead, Western morality shows a progressive arc toward tolerance, individual autonomy, and freedom of conscience.
Contra Holland, while Western Christianity is a fluid and evolving religion, it is hardly the religion of the Jews two millenia in the past, but an invention of Medieval Scholastics which once strangled the lifeblood of European Civilization and is now in what seems to be its final decline. It is in fact our European heritage that defines todays science and morality, some filtered through Medieval invention, but ever more through direct reconnection to the original source.