Are the intellectual stars of New Atheism out of arguments? Esther O’Reilly reviews historian Tom Holland’s clash with atheist philosopher AC Grayling on The Big Conversation
“And God, please bring the dinosaurs back. Amen.”
So little Tom Holland used to pray every night before bed, by his own account. For some little boys, it’s cars. For others, it’s sports or video games. For Tom, it was dinosaurs. They captured his imagination with their strength, their fearsomeness, their great teeth that could tear a man in two.
That same imagination would later be sparked by tales of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Like the dinosaurs, they were “big, fierce and extinct.” Kings and dictators and god-emperors swaggered through the pages of history, beholden to no man, doing as they willed. They came, they saw, they conquered. So it was written, so it was done.
Meanwhile, as these figures grew larger and more vivid in Tom’s imagination, the figure of Jesus grew smaller and paler. Who was Jesus, really? A bit of a pasty loser, really, if young Tom were honest. After all, what did Jesus, well, do? He walked about saying some very nice things about getting on and loving each other, then he got himself killed.
Some say the rest is history. For Tom, the rest was wishful thinking. At least, it was at first.
The long road back
Holland would, of course, go on to become a historian of the periods and figures he loved so well as a child. But the bloom faded from the rose the longer he spent in the mind of Caesar (any of them). Their casual cruelty and indifference to the weak deeply disturbed him. By profound contrast, the early Church shone out like a beacon with its care for the surrounding culture’s castaways, the history of which he spells out at length in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. And as the Church came into clearer focus, so did the hanging God at its “molten heart”: the very picture of weakness lifted up, suffering ennobled, fragile humanity sanctified.
All these things were values which Holland realized he instinctively held dear as a humanist. It became increasingly clear that he could not hang onto them while glibly casting the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage overboard.
Tom is strongly echoed in this by British journalist Douglas Murray, with whom I recently enjoyed my own Unbelievable? dialogue (our first, but we both hope not our last). In a follow-up piece, I argue that Douglas and I connected so well in large part because we both call ourselves humanists while recognizing humanism’s fundamentally Christian essence.
Like Tom, Douglas has repeatedly asked the uncomfortable question “Would human life be sacred in an atheist world?” to the sound of crickets from atheist quarters. As I once said while being rude about Peter Singer (and develop further in a forthcoming essay for the anthology Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson), the atheist who refuses to sign all the Humanist Manifestos may be a madman, but in one sense he’s a logical one. It is peering over “the cliff’s edge” into this abyss that has led Murray to coin the title “Christian atheist” for himself, as a shorthand way of saying “In one sense I’m an atheist. In another sense I’m not.”
Holland is still “maneuvering” his way towards a publicly firm resolution of his own “Christian atheism.” But one thing is crystal clear in his mind: discard the Judeo-Christian ethic, and you will discard humanism with it. That alone should at least be a big clue that there’s something to this whole Christianity thing.
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Enter the interrupting atheist
Holland’s Big Conversation opponent, Dr. A. C. Grayling, is not so impressed by the legacy of Christianity. In his world, which bears little resemblance to this one, Christianity was a mere cobbled-together copy-cat affair pasted over the “scaffolding” of other ancient myths anyway. Like, y’know, Persephone, or Zeus, or something. We regret to inform Dr. Grayling that neither Persephone, nor Horus the Egyptian sun-god, nor Mithras the Roman cultic god of the something-something have taken the happy out of our Happy Christmas. As usual, a little Lutheran Satire could have prevented this.
Holland didn’t nail Grayling on this particular point, but in fairness, Grayling said so many false things in so little time that it was nigh on impossible to nail him on all of them. The debate became especially sparky when Grayling suggested that Christians tried to wipe out the West’s classical heritage—in particular, that they went about in roving bands destroying copies of Aeschylus. Holland refused to let this unsourced hand-waving slide by. Christian monks, he pointed out, have in fact been the book-leggers of the West from time immemorial, preserving not only biblical texts but many classical works.
Grayling was further outmatched in the history department when he tried to cast Christianity as the repressive villain in the West’s scientific renaissance. In fact, Holland easily countered, Christians were on the cutting edge of the Scientific Revolution precisely because they believed that creation was divinely ordered and that they could in turn divine something of the Creator’s mind by examining its laws. The writing of Kepler alone should be enough to put this tired old saw to bed once and for all. For good measure, Holland also made a pit stop in the Carolingian Age to remind us of how Alcuin sponsored education for the glory of God. The West has had multiple renaissances, not just one, and whichever Renaissance Mountain the distinguished Dr. Grayling wishes to climb huffing and puffing, he will find a merry band of monks and prelates waiting for him at the top.
Unfortunately, Grayling seems to favor the Mr. Banks approach: “Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts.” He appeared much more interested in tub-thumping for Enlightenment Now. (As with Steven Pinker, I’m moved to direct Grayling to the nearest 18th-century LARP-ing party. Both have got the hair for it, though I give Pinker’s ringlets the edge until Grayling finds a curling iron.) But this approach left Holland quite cold. He freely acknowledged that yes, by all means, the Enlightenment idea of human equality is very lovely indeed. But where, pray tell, did that come from? Cue the Jeopardy theme song as we all stand about and wait for somebody to say “What is Genesis 2?”
But Grayling is not one to go down without a fight. He still insistently fails to see what is so interestingly distinctive about the Judeo-Christian contribution to the stream of Western humanism. After all, he argues, people across many other cultures and times have recognized our common humanity. They have recognized the Tao, the Way, and attempted to live their lives accordingly, with the instinctive sense that their fellow human beings are valuable. Why then, asks Grayling, do we need a Holy Book or Books to tell us any of this?
In one sense, Grayling may have a point. Human beings have been given the book of nature as well as the book of revelation. Christians should have no problem acknowledging where the natural light can illuminate something for someone who lacks revelation. The innate worth of the human person can and should be one of those places. True, if one were to make a coldly logical accounting of things, one could list numerous inequalities of attributes among different classes of persons. But the human essence is unchanged, and one doesn’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to admit as much. (Though, as Douglas Murray has incisively noted, the overwhelming imbalance of Christian to atheist voices on right-to-life issues does in practice seem to bespeak a steeper uphill climb for the latter.)
However, one must distinguish in such matters between epistemology and ontology. It may well be true that all sorts of people have epistemic access to some bedrock truth. But they may not all be equally able to ground it. In my dialogue with Murray, I quote the philosopher-statesman A. J. Balfour on the need for harmony between the value one assigns to something and the account one gives of its causes, or origins. Applying “Balfour’s Law” to mankind, one could be instinctively led to value man very highly indeed without being able to explain why. This, of course, is not to say that all “Christian atheists” should default to Peter Singer until they can achieve the perfect consistency in their creed that Balfour demands. It is merely to note that ultimately, the happiest humanist is a fully integrated humanist.
A digression on sex
In another section of the dialogue, Holland notes that Christianity is regularly derided as a religion of repressive prudes who want to make sex as unexciting as possible. One man, one woman, for life. Where’s the fun in that? To that, Holland would reply with another question: “Are you really sure you want to see the alternative?” As he graphically describes, the ancient Greeks and Romans were blissfully unbound by Judeo-Christian sexual mores, which led them to treat those they outranked as if their bodies were nothing but raw material for sexual gratification. By rejecting Christianity while insisting that powerful men respect the weak, modern #MeToo liberals saw off the branch they’re sitting on.
Grayling counters that it seems dubious to build a sexual ethic on the Apostle Paul’s rather misogynistic grumblings. It might have been more interesting had he pointed to Paul’s treatment of homosexuality in Romans 1, on which Holland has developed some thoughts of his own in Dominion. Holland argues that Christianity is the source of our modern categories of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” when evaluating sexual acts. Before Paul, the rule of thumb for the ancients was to relieve themselves sexually with essentially anything that moved, of whichever gender, over which they had power. Paul’s distinctly gendered perspective on sexuality, which lent dignity to the human body, was revolutionary.
There was an opportunity missed here to have Holland unpack this further. Grayling might have pressed the point that Holland emphasizes the elements of abuse and subjugation, but Paul quite unambiguously condemns all same-sex relations as out of bounds, including fully consensual romance between social equals. Some have attempted to torture the text into narrower confines, but the casuistry of such attempts is transparent to any honest exegete. This is a challenge for the liberal humanist who wants to make a full return to his Christian roots. The idea that the debate over homosexuality is a “Christian civil war” can only be pushed so far before it cracks under the strain.
As Ben Sixsmith notes in his very warm but astutely critical review of Tom’s book, the fact remains that while Christianity undergirds some liberal humanist values, it undercuts others. Furthermore, it does so not arbitrarily, but in consonance with the natural law. And when it comes to the problem of sex in particular, in the end, something always has to give.
Auntie Deb has the last word
This year, I made my first acquaintance with Auden’s magisterial Christmas oratorio “For the Time Being,” which assigns speaking parts to different characters in the Nativity pageant. The passage in King Herod’s voice seems particularly apt to Holland’s main thesis. As the king storms about ranting like a petty bureaucrat, he justifies his slaughter of the innocents with the fear that otherwise the meek might, horror of horrors, inherit the earth. Corner boys, prostitutes, and weak, downcast members of society might get misguided notions of how important they are in the grand scheme of things. They might get the idea that God might care to become “weak and interesting” for the sake of special snowflakes like them. They might get the idea that they, too, could be “Heroes and Heroines.” This terrible eventuality must be nipped in the bud at, literally, all costs. And please don’t look at him like that, Herod whines at the audience. He “doesn’t want to be horrid.” He’s “a liberal.” He “wants everyone to be happy.”
Fortunately, Herod does not have the last word. The last word belongs to people like Tom Holland’s Auntie Deb, who never became famous but to whom he pays tribute in the afterword of Dominion. Even when severely weakened and almost laid speechless by a stroke, she conveyed to him her fervent belief “that all would be well, and all would be well, and all manner of thing would be well.”
As Christians, let this be our song of endless praise: that God has not cheated the world, nor Auntie Deb, of their triumph.
ESTHER O’REILLY is a maths PhD student and freelance writer. She blogs at patheos.com/blogs/youngfogey