The Secular Case for Christianity, A Book Review of "Dominion" by Tom Holland
Tom Holland's Dominion is not a book written by a Christian apologist. In the early chapters, he repeatedly makes assumptions that any unbelieving academic would make about the bible. Starting with the Old Testament, he repeats typical source criticism theories and throughout the book assumes some of Paul's letters were not original to him.
Note: I would encourage anyone that wants to hear the academic case for the historicity of scripture (and the New Testament in particular) to read NT Wright's Christian Origins series - especially the New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God. Tom Holland, if you are reading this, I would recommend you read those as well.
Further, at times, I find his criticism of the actions and behaviors of various Christians (and the church as a whole) to be overly focused on the negative.
But.... in some ways, it is his lack of Christian piety and apologetic leanings that makes this book so convincing. It is an outsider noticing something that I have been trying to convince insiders of: Christianity has done wonderful things for the world.
The way he tells the story is to take the world of the first century and to show how slowly but surely over the centuries, Christian reflections, debates, and reformations shaped the thoughts of a whole society. Many of the things that we just call 'progress' Holland makes clear were not progress but Christian convictions made into culture, norms and laws.
Among the many things that Christianity changed according to Holland were:
- The concept that being weak and lowly did not make you less of a person (in fact maybe made you more of a person) than being rich and powerful
- The formation of universal human rights
- The ending of slavery
- The concept of caring for the poor as a primary responsibility of those in power
- Ending widespread infanticide
- Ending human sacrifice
- Building the first universities
- Seeing the world as one that progresses (rather than being in unending cycles)
And many many other aspects of humanity that seem 'self evident' to us were not actually self evident at all but simply Christian assumptions that almost everyone now holds.
One of the very interesting observations from Holland is that even many of the people that view themselves as 'secular' or even 'anti-Christian' hold deeply Christian assumptions about the ways that society should be structured and the things that society should care about. Consider this quote from Holland as he discusses modern liberal views on race and sexuality writes,
"That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely self-evident a truth. A Roman would have laughed at it. To campaign against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality, however, was to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possessed an inherent worth. The origins of this principle-as Nietzsche had so contemptuously pointed out-lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible."
The fact that such ideas are 'self evident' testify to how thoroughly Christianity has changed the way that Western Society thinks.
Before I close, I should repeat my warning at the beginning. If you are a Christian do not read this book to get an apologetic work defending your faith. Holland's work is at times biting in its criticism of Christian origins and Christian behaviors through the centuries. But the discerning reader can learn something very good and very important from this work.
The thing I kept thinking as I read this book was how dangerous it is that people want to undermine and remove the Spiritual foundation that our society was built on. As we look back over the past 150 years and we see the terrors inflicted by anti-Christian philosophies such as National Socialism and Communism this should be seen as a window into what could happen if Christianity were to fade from the world's scene. It shows how the law of Christ - one that Holland, quoting Paul in Galatians 5:14, states is to love your neighbor - has acted over and over to protect the poor, the weak, and the minority. And it shows how if that law were to be revoked what unspeakable losses would come to humanity.
As I have written in the past, I do not think that Christianity is fading from the world's scene. Not globally. Not in the USA. And based on the thrust of this book, even non-Christians should be thankful for that and pray that it never does.