Bigger than the West
Christianity is not reducible to liberal values
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Is religion good for society? Increasingly, people are answering “yes” even if they might once have answered “no.” Regardless of whether they’re religious themselves, they have to admit that religion has given them a lot of nice things—specifically, Judeo-Christian religion. Do you like science? Do you like women’s rights? Do you like human rights, in general? Go thank a Christian!
In a nutshell, this is the thesis of British historian Tom Holland’s long 2019 book Dominion, subtitled How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. It was recently and notably cited by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her head-turning announcement that she now considers herself a Christian. After seeing the evil of fundamentalist Islam up close as a child, then pivoting to New Atheism as a young adult, Ali now believes that “Christianity has it all.” Everything she holds dear as a citizen of the West traces back to a Judeo-Christian ethic, whether she always admitted it or not.
Or does it?
To discuss some of these questions, the British talk show Unbelievable? brought together Ben Shapiro and YouTuber Alex O’Connor for a spirited new episode in a running series of “Big Conversations” between theists and atheists. The host barely got a word in edgewise as Shapiro and O’Connor rapidly traded points and counterpoints. Shapiro makes his own case for the societal benefits of religion from a distinctly Jewish perspective, sometimes overlapping with a Christian perspective, sometimes not. O’Connor seems to be a cheerful atheist determinist, arguing there isn’t even any such thing as free will, but conceding that it’s a helpful fiction.
Meanwhile, O’Connor is dubious about Tom Holland’s thesis. Partway through the debate, he launches into a long complaint that Christians can’t really honestly “claim” things like the scientific revolution, abolitionism, or women’s rights in the context of a liberal West, because they have been historically “wrong” on these and other issues. It’s all very well to say that all social justice movements are “Christian” in origin, but don’t some of these movements simply clash in substance with Christian precepts, especially when it comes to sexuality or gender roles?
Like many atheists, O’Connor engages in some bad history of ideas and makes multiple conflations in his argument. But he’s still putting a finger on something true here. Fundamentally, a writer like Tom Holland is a secular liberal, pitching his book to other secular liberals. As such, he and his audience have a hierarchy of “Western values” that will inevitably fail to map onto a conservative Christian value hierarchy.
To be sure, Holland rightly exposes the fact that any purely atheist framework for “human rights” is sitting in mid air. As he provocatively likes to put it, if an atheist wants to believe in human rights, he might as well believe in angels, or the resurrection of Jesus. (The point being that all of these beliefs are irrational articles of faith, which is itself disputable.) He’s also correct that any “rights” movement on behalf of the vulnerable or the weak is downstream of a seismic cultural paradigm shift. The Romans abandoned their girl babies, but the Christians rescued them. In the end, the Christians conquered the world.
But Holland’s thesis can’t be extended indefinitely. Christians believe women should be honored and protected, but that doesn’t mean feminism is the best way to honor and protect women, especially when it encourages them to kill their own children. Christians believe that gays and lesbians should have human rights, but that doesn’t mean same-sex marriage (or artificial family formation) is a human right. Any attempt to frame such debates as “Christian civil wars” will fall flat. Perhaps it’s a revelatory concept for secular liberals, but for the conservative Christian reader, it’s nothing more than reinventing the old liberal mainline wheel.
Ultimately, no analysis of how Christianity has “remade the world” will be complete as long as Christianity is reduced to an origin story for “liberal values.” It is far bigger than that, far less safe than that. Scripture will not tell anyone what he already wants to hear. It will provoke, unsettle, and challenge. If we recognize the Biblical foundations for human value while ignoring what the Bible says about human teleology, we have understood only half the story. And if we tell sinful people that they have dignity and worth without pointing them away from their sin, we are telling them only half the truth.
Tom Holland has started a great conversation about Christianity. But in the end, it will be up to Christians to finish it well.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.