Why Tom Holland was not wrong about Christianity (though his new book may prove otherwise)

It’s always instructive to learn why someone changed their mind about something. It takes courage and intellectual honesty to admit having been wrong. After reading the title of this essay, I was all eager to discover why exactly the historian Tom Holland thinks he was wrong about Christianity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really deliver on that promise. Just when it gets really interesting, his piece ends rather abruptly, leaving several issues dangling in the reader’s mind. It starts off with Holland vividly describing how, as a child, he was instinctively attracted to all things “glamorous, ferocious and extinct”, from dinosaurs to ancient empires, and how he thought of the Christian God as the “po-faced enemy of liberty and fun”. I can relate to those sentiments. Like Holland, I’ve always found Roman and Greek antiquity to be infinitely more fascinating than the Christian middle ages (snore!). From the emperor Constantine onward, ancient history seems to become far less exciting, philosophy far more sleep-inducing, and art less inspiring. I admit that reading about early Christianity has only heightened my contempt for that religion, with its intolerant zeal and obscurantism, its suspicion of natural curiosity and reason, its preposterous mythology, and especially its repugnant doctrine of the afterlife. By comparison, the pagan religions were not only far more inclusive and tolerant of different faiths, but also more hospitable to philosophy and science. I hope that my contempt for Christianity is based on evidence and reasonable arguments, but I’m prepared to consider the possibility that it is some sort of anti-Christian prejudice, perhaps stemming, as in Holland’s case, from my former Christian faith and upbringing.  

The way Holland sets up his argument, you expect him to reveal at some point whyhis attraction to the ‘coolness’ of pre-Christian antiquity biased his views about Christianity, why the Dark Ages were not so dark and superstitious after all, and why the famous 18th century historian Edward Gibbon had it all wrong in his monumental book (and anti-Christian polemic) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if you expect all of this, you will be disappointed. Holland tells us that, as he began to study antiquity in depth, the ways of the pagans increasingly struck him as “strange and unsettling”. In particular, he mentions Julius Caesar’s brutal killing of a million Gauls and the enslavement of a million more, as well as the “murderous form of eugenics” practised by the Spartan king Leonidas. Sure, all of this is repugnant to our modern moral sensibilities. But cannot the same be said of the gross immorality of the God of the Old Testament, with his frequent calls for outright genocide and enslavement, including the murdering of women and children? Even the God of the New Testament is hardly a paragon of enlightened morality. The notion of eternal torture for disbelievers, enacted by a ‘just’ God, must be one of the most repellent doctrines ever conceived. If you read early Christian thinkers, you see them constantly gloating about the everlasting torture awaiting the pagans and the unbelievers.

In truth, many customs and beliefs of antiquity are “strange and unsettling”, whether coming from pagans or Christians. For instance, Christianity did not abolish the institution of slavery, and there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that there is anything wrong with slavery (indeed, slaves are instructed to be obedient to their masters). As far as I know, the only authors in antiquity who opposed the institution of slavery on moral grounds were pagans, not Christians (e.g. the Greek rhetorician Alcidamas and the poet Philemon, both 4th century BC). And on the ‘good side’ of antiquity, I can find nothing in the Bible that is even remotely as beautiful and uplifting as, say, Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura.

At the end of the essay, Holland suggests that Christianity has one enduring morel legacy even today: the notion that “it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering”. I beg to differ. Many ancient societies and cultures valued heroicism, in the sense of the willingness to make sacrifices and to endure suffering for the sake of others (friends, family, the state). There is nothing particularly Christian about this. Also, the idea that it is wrong to needlessly inflict suffering on others is common in many pre-Christian societies. In the famous “negative confession” of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, one of the “sins” that the souls of the deceased solemnly swear not to have committed is “I have not inflicted pain”.

If anything is unique to Christianity, it’s not the notion “that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering”, but the notion “that it is nobler to suffer than not to suffer“. Early Christians glorified suffering as somehow edifying or purifying or spiritually enlightening, as a way to test our moral character in preparation for the hereafter. Indeed, the foundational story of Christianity portrays death and suffering as cosmically meaningful and redeeming. It was through the horrific suffering of Jesus that humanity was saved. Early Christians believed that following Jesus’ example would bring them closer to Go, which led to a masochistic cult of self-inflicted suffering, martyrdom and ‘mortifcation of the flesh’ that struck most pagan Romans as bizarre and irrational (me too).

Tom Holland will publish a new book on the rise of Christianity in September, and he has promised on Twitter that it will contain the answers that were lacking in the essay. I’m curious and look forward to it, as I read and enjoyed Holland’s earlier work In the Shadow of the Sword. He strikes me as a serious historian, not a religious apologist. If someone like Holland tells us that he was wrong about Christianity, I’m prepared to listen. But he will have to do better than in this essay.