Did Christianity fade with the coming of the Enlightenment in the West? Not at all, argues British historian Tom Holland in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. In fact, Holland argues, the West is suffused with Christianity to this very day.
On the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Holland spoke to Scroll.in about why he thinks the pagan morality of the Romans is “alien and very terrifying”, how the Me Too movement embodies Christian ideas about sex, what impact Christ’s emphasis on the little guy has on right wing populism sweeping through the West today, and more. Excerpts from the interview.
Many people believe the modern West was made in a post-Christian world, by overturning the ideals of Christianity. But you’re saying that is actually not true: the West is shot through with Christianity.
Yeah, when I was writing the book [the trick] was to think of the people in the west as goldfish, swimming in a goldfish bowl, and so we’re oblivious to the fact that we’re in this goldfish bowl. We just take the waters that we swim in for granted. But I think that the waters that we swim in remain deeply Christian. And it was when I’d finished the book that, actually, I came across an even better metaphor, when I watched a drama series about Chernobyl, the Soviet reactor that exploded in the Ukraine.
In the TV series, you had two characters that were right up close to where the radioactivity was leaking from the ruptured power station. And you could literally see it, because the air was being ironised. But, of course, that radioactivity then spreads over Ukrainian forests and over Swedish seas. And you don’t see the radioactivity, but you breathe it in, and you are affected and changed by it.
So by comparing Christianity to this, I don’t mean that it kills you or makes your hair fall out, or whatever. What I mean by that is that if you’re up close to the manifestations of Christianity, if you’re in Rome, or Paris, you, of course, can see evidence of Christianity all around you. But, I think that it spreads, and, people who use words like “secularism”, people who use words like “homosexuality” – and so this is true of India as much as it is of countries in western Europe, or the United States – they also in a sense are breathing in this Christian radioactivity, being changed by it, even if they may not realise it.
What I found interesting is that you had a bit of a personal journey, which preceded the book. You started off as a great fan of the Antiquity. And you thought Christianity ushered in an age of superstition and credulity. What made you change your mind? The way I read the book is that not only are you describing this process of the West being saturated with Christianity, but you also think it’s a good thing. You said you were aghast with pagan morality.
I do think it’s a good thing. But the reason I think it’s a good thing is precisely because I’ve grown up in a Western country, so my perspectives and my assumptions about what a good thing is, in fact, is deeply Christian. But it took me time to realise that. And part of the reason is just that although I was brought up a Christian as child, and I went to church and I kind of believed it, and I was interested in the Bible, I was interested in stories.
The truth was that I was much more interested in the glamour and the swagger and the cruelty and the drama of the great empires who feature in the Bible. So, I wasn’t particularly interested in the children of Israel. I was massively with the Egyptians, and the Syrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, and then the Greeks, and then of course, the Romans. And if you’d ask me, you know, when I was 10, whose side are you on? Pontius Pilate or Jesus? I’d tend to go for Pontius Pilate because you’ve got the eagles, and the purple, and the legionaries.
And so I had a sense of emotional identification with the swagger and the glamour of the Classical World. When I came to start my writing career, I wrote books on what I was most interested in, which was the Greek and the Roman world. But the experience of having to live in the minds of Greeks and Romans for years at a time, made me come to realise that actually, they were very alien and very terrifying.
Rome in particular was kind of the apex predator of the ancient world. It’s like the Great White Shark or a Tyrannosaur. Objects of immense fascination. You wouldn’t want to live with a fish tank with a Great White Shark, you wouldn’t want to have a Tyrannosaurus a pet. And so I began to ask myself more and more: how and why did this process of transformation happened?
I’m going to push back slightly on one thing. You say that Christianity upended this idea that the strong are always right. And the example you’ve given is the crucifixion. This terrible Roman punishment for slaves was taken by Christians and made into a symbol of love and forgiveness. Maybe the larger point you’re making is wanton cruelty was almost celebrated in the ancient world as a sign of power….
I think there’s a kind of quality of callousness that to us seems terrifying, but to them it was an entirely innocent quality.
But the thing is, even after Europe converted to Christianity wholly – let’s go right to the 1500s – would public torture and execution be so very unusual? I get what you’re saying about what Christianity said. But what did it do?
You’re absolutely right. Christianity is founded on the principle of the first will be last, the last will be first. Well, you know, there are kings and nobles and rulers and beggars. And the foundational symbol of Christianity is someone suffering death on an instrument of torture. There are tortures, there are people burned, there are people hanged. Of course, and Christianity is founded on someone who, rather than fight back, surrenders himself, puts up his sword and willingly goes to death. But there are people with crosses on their surcoats who are attacking Muslim Spain and attacking the pagans.
Or attacking other Christians...
Or attacking other Christians. And they’re taking the cross across the Atlantic and wiping out great empires there. So of course, there is a massive, massive tension there. But what is I think suggestive about this is that individual Christians, and indeed even those who may be executioners or kings or military leaders, at the back of their mind there is always the voice of conscience saying “are you sure that this is justified?” in a way that no Roman ever had that voice in the back of his head.
And, I think that is pretty radically different. It means that when a nobleman may be riding out on his horse, and he passes a beggar, he’d look down at that beggar and part of what he is, is the anxiety that that beggar may be Christ. And it’s part of the churn of ideas that makes European history so restless and so transformative. Because if you look at the most convulsive development in modern European history, the French Revolution, it ends up targeting Christianity, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame gets converted into a temple to Supreme Reason.
But everything about the French Revolution is drawing on deeply Christian ideas. And so, the king is brought low, the church is brought low, but the church is brought low for deeply Christian reasons. The idea is that the church has been upholding monarchy. The priests somehow lost touch with those who are poor.
Your book pushes the idea that the West is swimming in Christian waters. What I found very interesting is that you identify fascism as an anti-Christian idea. You say it’s the one thing that has escaped those waters. Isn’t it a bit of a cop out to say that the one really evil Western idea is not Christian?
But why do we say it’s evil? The Nazis didn’t think they were evil. The Nazis thought that what they were doing was for the good of the race. And the truth is that humans are naturally given to the worship of strength and power. And we’re naturally given to groupthink, we find it much easier to identify with people who are exactly like us, than with people from vastly different cultures.
I’d say that it’s there in Islam as well. I have a kind of potential brotherhood and sisterhood. I think people naturally, if you look at the course of history, people instinctively feel most comfortable with people who are like themselves. And the great foundational texts of Christianity are opposed to this. Paul says that there is no Jew or Greek, ie, there is no black or white. There is no Englishman or Indian. They’re all kind of essentially one. We’re all created equally in the image of god, there is a set core equality.
Now that is something that the Nazis are radically opposed to. They say, “No, you know, absolutely there is Jew and Greek.” Indeed, Hitler blames the Jews for the destruction of Greek and Roman culture. And the other thing that the Nazis, following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, are opposed to is the idea that there should be a strength and weakness. That those who are downtrodden should have a moral authority over those who are in power. And so that again is what licenses the death not just of the Jews, but of people with physical or mental disabilities.
But the Nazis do this convinced that Christianity has been a kind of grey breath that has destroyed everything that’s most heroic and noble in the German. Hitler thinks that both the Greeks and the Romans are of Germanic stock, and that they were destroyed by Paul coming along with his cosmopolitan insistence that all humans are equal.
And so this actually leads to what is perhaps the most grotesque paradox in the whole of Christian history, which is that one of the reasons that the Jews get targeted for genocide is because Hitler blames them for Christianity. And so when the Nazis deny the common brotherhood of man, and when they deny that those who are at the bottom of the pile have a kind of moral strength greater than that at the top of the pile, they are trampling on the fundamentals of Christianity in a way that the French revolutionaries didn’t.
And the way that even the Russian revolutionaries didn’t, even though the Nazis sign a concordat with the Catholic Church, and are kind of perfectly happy to sponsor Lutherans, whereas both the French and the Russian revolutionaries targeted the church for destruction. Nevertheless, the Russian revolutionaries are vastly more Christian than the Nazis and I think that explains why in the modern West Nazi is a term of horror in a way that say communism isn’t, even though Stalin and Mao probably killed vastly more people than Hitler did. There’s a feeling that these are our people who we can recognise as being part of the kind of organic growth of our assumptions, even if we’re not thinking of it explicitly in those terms.
The other thing that I want to also just connect to the present day: This very powerful Christian idea that the weak are the actual inheritors of the earth…
The first shall be last and the last shall be first…
It’s a fascinating idea that upends so much of what we think of as “natural”. One place where I really see this going on today is in right wing populism. There is a sense that the little guy, right or wrong, is the real owner of the nation and elites are evil. Do you see parallels with Christianity here? Are they co-opting the rhetoric of Christianity?
I think the idea that those from the bottom of the pile have a kind of moral stature that those at the top don’t is again part of the Christian air that we in the West breathe.
There’s a British thinker who looking at Brexit has coined the phrase that there are “somewheres” and there are “anywheres.” And Brexit is a revolt of the “somewheres.” Those who have a particular sense of location against “anywheres”, and obviously that’s something that’s kind of happening in India as well. That’s a very similar sense of tension.
As I say, I think the idea that there is a brotherhood of man is not something that comes naturally to people. And it may be that you see what’s happening in the West, in a way that’s distinctive, is that up until the Second World War, the great moral figure in the West, even if you were an atheist, was Jesus. You would say, what would Jesus do? Pretty much everyone, even if you didn’t believe in Christianity, accepted that Jesus was a kind of the moral fulcrum, the way that you would judge what is right.
With a Second World War that changes and the person who becomes the great moral exemplar becomes Adolf Hitler. And essentially in the wake of the Second World War people in the West have said, what is right? And the answer to that is not what Jesus did. But it’s the opposite of what Hitler did.
So, what we do in the West is to say, what would Hitler have done, and then we do the opposite. Now, this is still a kind of Christian way of thinking. Because, you know, Nietzsche’s famous parable is that god is dead, but his corpse is so huge that it will cast shadows for centuries to come. In a sense, this is a kind of shadow of the corpse of god.
We’re shocked by the Nazis because the Nazis trampled on Christian assumptions. But there’s a problem, I think that we are starting to face now in the West, which is that the things that Christianity demands are quite difficult. It’s quite difficult to love your enemies. It’s quite difficult to be as welcoming to people who are outside your family, your clan, your nation, as to within.
And what resources do people have in the West now to make this case, to say the first will be last, the last will be first? Well, people are saying if you believe this, then you’re a Nazi. People are starting to get fed up with that. What Christianity offers is the sense of mystery, the sense that this is rooted in an understanding of the cosmos, that it is greater than any human being can possibly comprehend. And it provides this immense wealth of writing and religious practice and devotion and art and philosophy that the lack of belief now in the West means that we are losing touch with.
And so I think that part of what drives the rise of populism is partly actually an expression of the way in which that incredible kind of wealth, spiritual wealth that exists in Christianity which animated people to become ascetics or to go to the ends of the world preaching the gospel, that’s gone.
So, you’re saying, loss of faith is leading to a loss of this larger Christian ideal.
I think that in the wake of the Second World War, the fact that the Nazis were such a terrifying exemplar meant that actually the loss of overt Christian faith didn’t really matter. And in fact, I think the two are interlinked. Devotional Christianity in the West falls off a cliff in the ’60s, which is when people are starting to wake up to the Holocaust and the full horror of what the Nazis have done.
But I think now that impact is starting to fade, and so I do slightly worry where our moral fulcrum will be if we can’t rely on the Nazis to be the boogeyman and we’ve lost touch with the overt Christian legacy. You know, will it start to fade and dissipate?
So, you sort of echo Voltaire, you really fear what would happen if god is completely gone from our world? You really think there is a need to invent a god.
I’m not quite as cynical as that. But what I do think is that an idea you said with this is my sense of what is good. My sense of what is good is Christian. And so, I don’t want to lose that because I think those, essentially, are my values. So I want those values to be watered and sustained. I want the soil in which from which they spring to continue to have nutrients. And I think at the moment we don’t have that.
I’m going to yank you back 2,000 years. You make a radical argument that Christianity was revolutionary. It completely upended Antiquity. So is there nothing of Europe’s old faiths or moralities left? Or was it all upended by this newcomer from the east?
In India, there is a kind of continuity. You can trace the transmission of philosophical texts. Whereas in the West, we do have a sense of fracturing. And I used to think that the fracturing was a socioeconomic one. That it was the collapse of the Roman Empire, that explained it. But I think now actually that it is Christianity that is the great rupture.
There is no equivalent to the coming of Christianity in India, not even the coming of Islam, because not everyone is converted to Islam. But in Europe, unlike in India for most of its history, from the end of the Roman Empire up really until the post war period, Europe has had a mono-culture. It’s been Christian. There have been the odd population of Jews, but no one else really.
We just don’t have the range of approaches and understandings of god that you have in India. We’re not a land of many gods. For centuries and centuries, we just have the one god. The consequence of that, I think, is that we are separated from what existed before the coming of Christianity by a great cloud of dust particles.
Of course, we have the inheritance of the classical texts, we have the classical poets, we have the classical philosophers. Aristotle is hugely influential on the way that Christianity is constructed in the Middle Ages. Plato, in the Renaissance. But I think it’s almost impossible for us to get back to what Aristotle or Plato meant before the coming of Christianity. They have been Christianised, our understanding of the classical past has been Christianised.
What religion did the Greeks have? Religion is a deeply Christian category for the reasons that I explained at the beginning. The idea of religion as something separate from the rest of what people are doing is a completely Christian idea. Terms like ancient Greek or ancient Indian religion, those are highly anachronistic. It’s like saying that Julius Caesar invaded France. You know what I meant, but it’s kind of very, very wrong. And that’s really why I wanted to write the book, from an increasing sense of frustration that even the words I was using as someone writing in English were stopping me from getting back to what the Romans and Greeks thought.
I know you raised the point that the words heterosexual and homosexual bear a Christian imprint, yet on the other hand, what is permitted sexually today would offend most if not all believing Catholics. Tinder would offend a believer. What’s the catch? Why is this Christian or not pagan? It looks pagan to me.
So you’re quite right. As I began the book, I was thinking, well, essentially the whole Christian sexual morality in the West has gone. But then while I was writing it, the Harvey Weinstein episode happened. And what was interesting about that, and the whole Me Too movement, which followed it, was that nobody said, well, what’s wrong with a very powerful man sexually abusing his social inferiors. And the Me Too movement depended for its effectiveness not just on women accepting its premises but men.
And the question, why do people take for granted that powerful men do not have the right to use their social inferiors in a sexual manner, is one that actually goes back to the very heart of the theme of Dominium. Because that was what the Romans took for granted. The dynamic in the Roman world was not between, as it is now, men and women. It was between those who have power, namely Roman free male citizens, and those who were subordinate to them. And essentially the Roman sexual universe was by our lights very brutal. It was a very Harvey Weinstein sexual arena.
A Roman man had the right to sexually use anyone who was subordinate to him: Slaves, social inferiors. He could just use their mouths, their various orifices, as receptacles for his excess sperm. And so, the Romans had this one word “mayo” for urine and ejaculate. This is how it’s seen. And so it casts those who have to receive the Roman males’ attentions in a rather unpleasant light.
Now, Christianity radically, radically changes that. It’s there in the very earliest Christian texts: Paul’s letters. And Paul is a Jew. So, he has an idea that the binary is male and female; god creates man and women separate. So, he brings that assumption to the table. But he also brings another novel assumption, which is that Christ came and suffered death out of love for humanity.
And so, what Paul does is to say that love, all you need is love. Love is the greatest animating force. And if we want to have a sexual relationship with another human being, then it must be true to the love that Christ has shown for humanity. So, what Paul does is to say that there can be only one way, one proper way, of having a sexual relationship, and that is you have to have a marriage that is monogamous.
The Jews would have numerous wives. The Romans were monogamous, but they could kind of dump their spouses at regular intervals. Paul says no, it has to be monogamous. So a lifelong monogamous relationship. Something very, very odd. There’s nothing like this before. But more than that: the reason why this matters is that Paul says that the man who marries a woman is like Christ, marrying the church. So that gives an incredible sacral potency to every man and every woman in a married relationship.
These [Romans] are householders who, until they get converted by Paul, are taking for granted that they have the right to sleep with who they like. But Paul is now saying no, you are the image of Christ. Christ doesn’t go around sexually forcing himself on the cullery maid or page boys. Only with your wife.
And likewise, it might seem sexist now, that the woman gets to be the church and doesn’t get to be Christ. But actually, what Paul is doing is giving an incredibly potent sacral quality to the physical body of a woman. That a woman is not there to be sexually abused. She’s not there to be jumped on by a powerful male. And if that’s true of an aristocratic woman, it’s also true of the lowest humblest woman in a Roman household.
The scale of this transformation cannot be over-emphasised. And it’s something that offers to women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered. And over the course of the first centuries of Christianity, this understanding of sex eats like a kind of acid through the understanding that the Romans previously had of how sex operates. And over the course of Christian history, the church imposes on believing Christians this sense that being a powerful male does not license you to have multiple wives and concubines. You have to focus on one.
And over the course of time, this further results in the idea that it’s the responsibility of a man and a woman to choose each other. And this gets enforced over the course of the Middle Ages by a succession of church cannons, which prescribed for instance that cousins can’t marry cousins, second cousins can’t marry – all the way up to six degrees of separation. And the effect of this is to smash the power of clan lords – patriarchs who feel that they have the right to marry one cousin off to another to keep things in the family.
So that by the time and Shakespeare comes to write Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare is writing this in London, which is by this point a Protestant city – nevertheless, he’s taking this Catholic idea and the bread of the medieval Christian church for granted. So the Montagues and the Capulets are clans and when Capulet wants to marry his daughter Juliet off to her cousin, he takes it for granted that he has the right to do this.
But who is it who facilitates Juliet’s right to choose her own husband Romeo? It’s the friar. And this is so deeply embedded that when English settlers go to America they take it with them. And Puritan is now a dirty word. But actually, what Puritans are about are – it’s there in the word – it’s about purity. And part of that purity is sexual purity. And it’s not just repressive.
Within a marriage, Puritan men and women have as much sexual fulfilment as you possibly want. But outside it, you have purity by respecting the bodily integrity of, you know, your servant girl. You shouldn’t go to prostitutes and things like that.
And so, for centuries, this was taken for granted in America and England. And it’s really only with the 1960s that that changes. But again, weirdly and paradoxically, it changes for Christian reasons because the ’60s’ revolution is inspired by the last great overtly Christian convulsion in American politics, which is a civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, who speaks of Jesus as being an extremist for love.
And Martin Luther King makes his appeal to White Americans in the name of love. And in the ’60s, this idea that those who have been oppressed, the downtrodden, have a right to share in the universal love, it’s something that gets taken up by feminists, it gets taken up by gay rights campaigners. But that serves to kind of sever the link with doctrinal Christianity even if not with cultural Christianity.
Something that does cut the link not just with doctrinal, but with cultural Christianity is the idea that starts to bed down in the ’60s, that love is not just spiritual, but physical. And then therefore, all you need is love means that you can basically have sex with anyone you like. And this becomes something that hippies over the course of the ’70s and the ’80s, in the West again, bed down.
But it turns out, as we see now in America, that this idea that free love is a great thing, have sex any way you want, actually turns out to be better for men than for women, because essentially, it’s licences for men to sexually harass their social inferiors. And that’s what the Harvey Weinstein Me Too thing is all about. And, and, in a way, the perfect illustration of this paradox, a kind of moral Mobius Strip, is that when women go on their marches to protest against sexual harassment, many of them will wear red robes and white bonnets.
This is the uniform that they’ve taken from The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel by Margaret Atwood, which then became a TV series: a dystopian satire set in a future America that’s become basically fundamentalist Christian. And it’s drawing on the model of Puritan New England. But what is it that these women are demanding? They’re demanding that men become Puritan.
They’re demanding that they that they exercise sexual self-restraint, sexual continence, and that they respect a woman’s right to choose her own partner. And that is nothing if not the demonstration of the fact that Christianity is always going to come back. We in the West, we cannot escape, we cannot escape it. It always returns even if it’s not wearing an overtly Christian form.
Okay, final question, Tom. I follow you on Twitter. So, I know you’re an ace cricketer.
[Laughs] If you’re relying on what I say about myself on Twitter...
How does cricket connect to Christianity?
It doesn’t at all. There is no link. The whole idea that cricket is somehow good for you and morally improving is a wholly bogus Victorian invention. Actually cricket emerges from gamblers and the spirit of competition. And I think that’s what it’s basically turned to. So, I don’t think that cricket has anything at all to do at all with Christianity.