Arguing with a Reader about Tom Holland’s Dominion

If you have not read it, I highly recommend you get a copy. He’s a very snappy writer of history, an atheist, and convinced that Christianity is the most revolutionary sociological force in the history of the world (barring such primal things as the discovery of agriculture or the evolution of speech or the power to abstract or make tools).

My reader writes:

Here is my book report on Dominion:

1) I’ll start with the part I disliked most: Chapter 16, “Enlightenment”, where Holland builds his case that abolitionism was a fundamentally Christian movement. He keeps feeding us passages like this one: “[Benjamin Lay said], ‘Can it be expected that He will suffer this great iniquity to go unpunished?’ Such a question would have bewildered earlier generations of Christians.”

Indeed it would have bewildered them, because nothing in the Bible or 18 centuries of Christian tradition suggests anything wrong with slavery (as long as the slaves themselves aren’t Christians). The book of Leviticus gives lengthy and detailed instructions about how slaves are to be acquired and how they should be treated, but strangely fails to mention that slavery is fundamentally heinous. Paul told an escaped slave to go back to his former masters, when he could have just told him to go live his life and told those masters to let him go because it’s the only decent thing to do. Paul didn’t do that, and it’s revealing. The European trade in African slaves began with Papal endorsement, yet the name of the Pope who did this – Nicolas V – does not even appear in the book. Holland’s unwillingness to grapple with such obvious strikes against his argument makes it hard to take him seriously.

2) Nonetheless, there were some things I liked about the book. In Chapter 14, “Cosmos”, his description of Galileo’s trial is interesting, and basically accords with what I was taught in the History of Science classes I took back in the day. The Catholic Church in the 17th century was OK with heliocentrism as long as it was presented as theory rather than fact. And Galileo was willing to comply. The trouble came because Galileo was, not to put too fine a point on things, an asshole. He was constitutionally incapable of cultivating a patron. His scientific brilliance was such that he attracted a patron anyway, none other than Pope Urban VIII, but he quickly pissed him off and thus ended up before the Inquisition. All accurate as far as it goes.

But even this chapter has a major flaw: Holland tells us that the scientific enterprise itself is a function of Christianity. Discussing the Jesuit astronomers working in 17th century China he writes “He [the Chinese scholar Yang Guangxian] had identified the degree to which their ability to make sense of the heavens was rooted in assumptions that were thoroughly Christian.”

Please. The understanding that science advances when people follow evidence wherever it leads is something Christians inherited from the ancient Greeks. Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth. The Pythagoreans made advances in geometry that were quickly adopted by architects and engineers. Later European scholars and scientists – all of whom happened to be Christians – saw that the Greek method worked, and adopted it. (The 17th century Chinese, for their part, were indeed scientifically inferior not only to Christians but also to Ottomans, because China at that time was culturally calcified and inward-looking.)

3) And one thing that I just found interesting: in Chapter 3, “Mission”, we read a full 20 pages about Paul’s teachings, compared to only a couple pages on Jesus’ teachings. I’ve heard historians of religion say that Christianity owes more to Paul than to Jesus. Clearly Holland agrees.

In summary, Dominion has some interesting parts, but also some glaring flaws. Holland could claim that Christianity is the water Westerners are swimming in, and I would totally grant him that point. But he goes farther, claiming that much of what is best about Western culture is *inherently* Christian, and fails to support that claim. Overall, I give the book a meh.

1. You seem to think Quakers are something other than Christian. The reality, of course, (as Holland makes clear) is that abolitionism was an epiphenomenon of the Christian tradition and of nothing else. That’s why it arose where and when it did. Your leftover Protestantism wants to cling to proof-texting (ironically another holdover of the Christian tradition still at work in you) but the fact remains that abolitionism arose in British and American Protestantism and nowhere else (with the honorable exception of some late medieval Catholics like de las Casas and some Dominicans noodling the matter). Holland is not doing theology and is perfectly aware (indeed states clearly) that for the first 17 centuries of Christianity, most Christians saw slavery as we see war: a necessary evil. Gregory of Nyssa stands almost alone in declaring that it cannot be squared with the gospel. But when the rejection of slavery comes, it comes as an epiphenomenon of the Christian tradition. You want (because it is vital to your mission of attacking Christianity) to bang away at the slowness with which Christians came to the conclusion that Gregory came to. Knock yourself out. Nobody say Christians are prizewinners in the insight department. But none of that refutes a word of Holland’s point: namely that when the seed of opposition to slavery in germinating in the heart of the gospel finally broke the soil, it did so precisely because of ideas implicit in the gospel from the start, however blind to them those transmitting that gospel may have been.

Because Holland’s entire point is that the series of explosions that dynamites first classical civilization, then ancient conceptions of the world into the categories of sacred and secular, then the relationship of Church and state, then the western Church, then much of theism, then the conception of the relationship of the person to the state all find their sources in the Christian tradition. Nietzsche ridicules the English flatheads for thinking the Christian moral tradition could outlive the Christian’s supernatural theology. Holland is suggesting that, so far, it has, precisely because of the soaking, drenching, all-pervading view of the universe that the Christian tradition still affords us even in 2022. (I am skeptical that this moral view, particularly of the exaltation of the underdog will continue in the long run, but that’s another story). I must say, you appear to be reading Holland the way W.C Fields read the Bible: “Looking for loopholes”.

2. Yeah, I’ve seen the desperation with which you fight the obvious fact that the sciences are legacy of Latin Europe. Still, they obviously are. Here, have three quodlibetals:

3. Holland is writing as a historian, not a theologian. Paul is our earliest source, not for information about Jesus (he is writing to people who already know and accept the apostolic traditions about Jesus and so only mentions them a couple of times in passing) but for what Christians thought the implications of th incarnation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus were for life, the universe, and everything. Since Holland’s task is to trace the sociological impact of the Christian tradition on the world, it makes perfect sense for him to focus on Paul, whom he describes as a “depth charge at the foundation of classical civilization”. Holland, as a historian, is interested in primary sources. Paul is the most primary source concerning the early Church (Holland’s focus) we have because he is writing in his own voice about himself and the Churches he knows, while the gospels are, by their nature “secondary sources” about what Jesus said and did. Holland is not interested in teaching faith in Jesus. He is interested in how that faith impacted the society in which the Church emerged.

As to your “meh”. It was fore-ordained, since it is obvious you approached the book with a zealous will to find fault (often faults that are not there), not hear his actual points. Ironically, much of your complaining only proves his point. Your complaints are rooted in deeply Christian assumptions.


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