Modern liberalism and secularism depend on Christianity to make sense, a leading historian has said.
Although modern Ireland may believe itself to have become a profoundly secular society it remains as shaped by the legacy of Christianity as when it was a very religious society, Tom Holland said, describing Christianity as “a huge depth charge that continues to reverberate through time and to change things as those reverberations proceed through time”.
Speaking in Dublin Castle at the Dublin Festival of History about his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, Mr Holland said that Christianity has been so influential that people especially in the West have tended to equate it with human nature.
“One of the things that marks the transformation of Christendom into the West is the ability that people in the West have to disguise what are essentially Christian concepts and market them as being culturally universal, that people of all religions can share in,” he said.
He added that even the concept of ‘religion’ is a peculiarly Christian idea, along with the idea of the religious and secular having different claims.
“The notions of religion and the secular are not things that every society has; they’re very distinctive and are part of the water in which we swim,” he said, referring to the Biblical episode where Jesus says “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God”.
Noting that modern concepts of human rights ºßπcan be shown to have descended from the writings of medieval canon lawyers, Mr Holland said “and yet people from the West principally have tended to assume that these are universal ideas and therefore that if they’re universal then everyone has to have them – and this is in fact what the United Nations founding charter says, but it’s clearly not true”.
The notions of religion and the secular are not things that every society has; they’re very distinctive”
Modern secularists naturally tend to reject this idea, Mr Holland said: “If you recognise that something like secularism or something like human rights is culturally contingent, something bred of Christianity, then the risk is that just as you stop believing in God, so you stop believing in human rights as well, and I think that that’s something people don’t want to give up.”
His own background is part of this story, the London-based historian explained, relating how he had been raised Anglican and received his basic Christian worldview largely from his mother and godmother, before losing his faith as he grew older.
Although not a Christian, Mr Holland related what he described as a spiritual experience in 2016 when he visited the Iraqi town of Sinjar, recently liberated from ISIS, and stood in a place where Yazidis had been enslaved and crucified not long before.
There he thought about how crucifixion had been a punishment the Romans used to “instill dread”, as “the worst fate the Romans could imagine”.
“Going to Sinjar brought this very powerfully to me and I felt the idea of the cross not having the signification that it has for Christians, the idea that this is a symbol of conquest and humiliation,” he said, contrasting it with its Christian understanding: “A symbol that life and hope and victory could come from what seems to be its opposite, I felt was a kind of blasphemy in a way that far transcended any sense of objectivity and rationality.
“And I think that counted as a religious experience, perhaps,” he said.
Mr Holland’s other books include Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar and In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.