Download Free Bonus Content
Sign up for the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter and be the first to see new episodes a whole week before they release! Plus you’ll also gain access to our bonus content archive packed with exclusive content and show updates.
About this episode:
Belief in the dignity, value and equality of human beings has become a cornerstone of Western societies. But how did those values arise?
Tom Holland’s book Dominion tells the story of how Christianity, and most specifically its central story of the crucified Son of God, came to positively shape the values of human dignity and equality the Western World, in ways that modern secularists often fail to realise. He debates with AC Grayling, an atheist and advocate of Humanism who is critical of the place of religion in society, believing Western values owe more to the Greeks and The Enlightenment than the Christian revolution.
Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. He is the author of several popular books on classical history such as Rubicon and In the Shadow of the Sword. His new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind traces the way Christianity has shaped the values of the West over 2000 years.
AC Grayling is Master of the New College of Humanities in London, and is a well-known philosopher, author and broadcaster himself. His most recent book The History of Philosophy traces the various schools of philosophy that have shaped modern culture.
Share this episode:
More from this season:
- Episode 1 | Part 1: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 1 | Part 2: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 2: The Universe: Where did it come from and why are we part of it?
- Episode 3: The story of Jesus: Can we trust the historical reliability of the Gospels?
- Episode 4 | Part 1: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 4 | Part 2: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 6: Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?
Justin Brierley (JB) Tom Holland (TH) and A C Grayling (ACG)
JB: Today we’re debating history: did Christianity give us our human values? The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Tom Holland and A C Grayling. Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster; the author of several popular books on classical history, such as Rubicon and In The Shadow of the Sword. His latest book, Dominion, tells the story of how Christianity – and most specifically its central story of the crucified son of God – came to shape the values of human dignity and equality in the modern Western word, in ways that modern secularists often fail to realise.
A C Grayling is Master of the New College of Humanities in London, and is a well-known philosopher, author and broadcaster himself. His most recent book, The History of Philosophy, traces the various schools of thought that have shaped modern culture. As an atheist and advocate of humanism, he’s critical of the place of religion in society and fundamentally disagrees with Tom Holland’s view of the unequalled historical value of Christianity to the West.
So Tom and Anthony, welcome along to the programme; it’s great to have you both with me today. This is a big issue spanning literally millennia; so we’re going to be doing a lot in a very short amount of time on today’s programme. Really, really looking forward though to our conversation today. Let’s start with you Tom – tell us again about what you sketch out in the opening to Dominion, which is the way that you actually personally changed your mind on the value of Christianity, as you investigated the classical side of history in some of your works…?
TH: Well I think it’s less of the value, than the significance. The argument is not about whether God exists; it’s not even about whether Christianity has been a good or bad thing, although I think that the values by which we judge whether it’s good or bad are themselves broadly Christian. But this was a perspective that I was not entirely given to embracing, and that goes back essentially to my childhood, as I think for so many people’s relationship to this issue does. Because it’s very personal – I think that in itself is a measure of how significant the influence of Christianity is on us actually; the degree to which we are shaped by it from our childhoods.
But as a child I was brought up an Anglican; I went to church, I sang in the choir, I went to Sunday school. But to be honest, I found it kind of dull. The thing I really enjoyed – the thing that really got my blood moving – was the classical world. And I liked it for the same reason that I had earlier been obsessed by dinosaurs; namely that it was big, it was fierce, it was extinct. And to be honest, I was very much on the side of Pontius Pilate – the legals, the togas, the glamour of it – Jesus kind of slightly dull in comparison; I mean, a loser really. And so it wasn’t that there was a kind of dramatic moment where I lost my faith; it was just like a kind of dull going slightly down a dimmer switch, and it was essentially blotted out by the sun of my fascination with the classical world. And when I in due course came to write history, it was the Romans, it was the Greeks, that I wanted to write about.
But I found the experience of living in the minds of people like Caesar, people like Leonidas the king who dies at Thermopylae– people who I had deeply admired as a child, a kind of almost hero-worship – I found it increasingly unsettling. Caesar was renowned among the Romans for his quality of clementia – his clemency; his mercy – but this was a man who it is said slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved another, and was kind of cheered through the streets of Roman for it. And I began to think that actually these are so remote from me – so alien – that actually the kind of assumption I’d had that these were the seedbeds of my own values, my own assumptions – probably wrong.
And so essentially over the past decade and a half really I’ve been kind of manoeuvring myself towards writing a book which explores where I think ultimately the values of humanism – of secularism, of liberalism – that I hold, actually come from. And this was a quest that was sharpened for me by writing a book about the origins of Islam, where I was essentially making the argument that a lot that Muslims believe about the origins of Islam are actually mythic – are back-projections – and it was a repeated complaint of Muslim critics that I would never dream of doing the same to my own beliefs and values. And so in a sense, Dominion is an attempt to do that – to kind of trace the thread back of my liberal, humanist values, and to see where it leads through the labyrinth – and ultimately, it leads back to Christianity. And I’ve come to the conclusion that in almost all the essentials, myself, my friends, the society in which I live in, the whole of the West, is so saturated in Christian assumptions, that it’s almost impossible to remove ourselves from them.
JB: You say it almost in the book that it’s almost that it is so widespread that we almost don’t notice it; it’s the kind of water we’re swimming in, in that sense…
TH: Well yes, the metaphor that was kind of on my mind when I was writing the book was if the West is a goldfish bowl, then essentially the water that we swim in is Christianity. But then after I’d finished the book another metaphor struck me, when I watched the HBO series Chernobyl, about the explosion of the nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union. And what you saw there, when the reactor smashes open, you literally see the air ionising – so you can see the radioactivity leaking. But the point of the story of course is that that radioactivity is leaking – you know, it’s reaching Kiev, it’s reaching Scandinavia, it’s reaching the sheep farms of Cumbria – and people are breathing it in and being affected by it, and don’t even realise often that they’re being affected. I mean, I’m sure Anthony would perhaps approve of the comparison of Christianity to radioactivity! But I’m not saying that Christianity makes your hair drop out and kills you; but it changes you in ways that you may not appreciate.
JB: And just quickly sketch out why that central idea – you say this in the book, it’s so important, you say: “the belief that the son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross became so enduringly and widely held, that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was” – why is the image so important, at the centre of Christianity?
TH: Well the cross today is probably the most internationally recognisable cultural symbol that humanity has even devised, but the symbolism of it has been turned on its head. What the cross symbolised for Rome and for those who were subject to Rome, was the power of the greatest empire on the face of the earth to torture to death anyone who opposed its rule. And governors of Roman provinces had the right to burn rebels, to throw them to the lions, or to crucify them. And of these three fates, crucifixion was regarded as the worst – as, in a sense, being the archetypal punishment for a rebellious slave.
And the reason that it was so horrible was it was physically excruciating – there was no one way of doing a crucifixion: you could be hung upside down, you could be impaled, or you could have nails smashed through your bones. And to stay alive on a cross you would have to pull yourself up and down so you would feel the metal scraping against your bone the whole time. Birds would flock around your head, you’d be unable to beat them away, you’d be unable to stop them as they pecked out your eyes; you would be naked. And so hours, perhaps days, of excruciating agony would be endured. But worse than that, from the Roman point of view, it would be public – you would be a kind of billboard advertising your own humiliation and the power of the authorities that were putting you to death.
So the idea that this symbol of all symbols should in a sense have been upended from degradation, the notion of triumph; from humiliation, glory; from death, life. And that more than that, the idea that someone who suffers the death of a slave turns out to be in a sense the creator of all heaven and earth and of all humanity, what that means in the long run is that it gives a dignity to people who previously would not have been afforded dignity by anyone. It embeds at the heart of the West, the idea that the victim can triumph over the person who is victimising him, and that the lowest of the low might in a sense be the highest. And these… in the context certainly of Roman culture, it’s hard to emphasise just how radical a concept that is, and therefore, just how much of a kind of detonation it is under the assumptions of Roman power. And the measure of how vast that explosion was is that now, by and large, we tend to take for granted that the lowest of the low do have a dignity.
JB: Fascinating stuff, I’m sure Anthony you’re going to have a lot to say about some of those issues. I was interested to see that your own book, The History of Philosophy, also begins by talking about Christianity – but in far less glowing terms, in a sense, than Tom’s. One of the quotes from the introduction is: “Christian zealots have smashed statues and temples, defaced paintings and burned pagan books, in an orgy of effacement of previous culture that lasted for several centuries. It is hard to comprehend, still less to forgive, the immense loss of literature, philosophy, history and general culture this represented”. So in a way, your book starts with a very different view of the significance of Christianity when it comes to our cultural history – do you want to tell us a little bit about how that keys into your overall thesis in the book?
ACG: Sure. So let me make a general point first and then a particular one. So the general point is this: if you look at the larger picture into which the history of Christianity fits, then you notice that Christianity is – in all its various forms – based on a sort of reprise of what had been very common place tropes in the mythologies of the Middle East, right back to Samarian times – so right back to 4000/5000 BC and earlier. You know, the idea of the dying and resurrecting God, or the immortal who suffers for having done something for mankind – like Prometheus on his rock, and so on. And again and again, the themes come up, and Christianity is just a version of those. You know, God making a mortal maiden pregnant who gives birth to some extraordinary figure who does various things, including going to the underworld and coming out and joining Zeus on Olympus or God in heaven. These are very very familiar stories, and it’s a very thin covering over a scaffolding which is fundamentally classical.
So mainly ancient Greece, but also Rome, what those two great civilisation-inducing epochs did, was to transmit but refine much that had come to them in the way of art and architecture and government, but it added… I mean, if you think about the contribution made by Greece in philosophy and science and theatre and poetics and political theory and even sports and games, it’s extraordinary. The vocabulary, the conceptual framework of pretty well everything that we think, the mind of Europe, was forged and articulated in classical civilisation. That’s the general point.
The particular point is this: if you ask, if you address the particular point that Tom is raising about the sort of ethical outlook of European civilisation post-Theodosius the first – post-380 AD, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire – and you ponder the question of what exactly is it about Christian ethics – the Christian ethical outlook – which is new or novel? Now in the very very early church, in the sort of apostolic writings, if you address them with the question: how should I live; how should I behave? – the answer you get is a very extraordinary one: give away everything you own; take no thought for tomorrow; don’t marry; if your family disagree with you, turn your back on them.
Now this is the outlook of people who believed that the Parousia – the Second Coming – was just about the happen. And indeed, many hundreds – maybe thousands of people – went off into the deserts and got themselves on top of columns and what have you, in order to try to live that existence – the complete denial of the world. And when it turned out that Parousia was taking a bit longer than people thought – they were consulting their gnomons and finding that time was ticking by – they needed more content; they needed something that applied really to the question of relating to your neighbours and having a life which was in some sense intrinsically good. Where did they get it from? They got it from the classical ethical tradition, imported pretty well wholesale from… well Stoicism is one of the leading sources for it, because of course the Stoics had come up with the idea of the cosmopolitan outlook, that everybody is a citizen of the world on equal terms, and that merits respect…
JB: That’s very interesting. I mean, so essentially, you’re saying in the general point, Christianity was simply another version of the religions that had gone before. And on this particular point, you feel ultimately it only survived because it imported those Greek and classical philosophies ultimately because it’s initial ethic wasn’t liveable…
ACG: And not just the ethics, but also the metaphysics, which you must remember that Saint Paul said that the saints shall see no corruption – they won’t rot in their graves. And when the church building began in the 4th century and thereafter, and lots of saints and martyrs were dug up to be taken as relics into churches so that miracles could be performed by them, they found that they had corrupted in the grave – they had rotten. And so the original Jewish conception of what happens at death – namely that you lie in the grave and you wait until the trump sounds and the graves open and you come out, as Saint Paul says, with a new body (I keep telling people that I like that bit about Saint Paul, because I want a suntan and a six-pack and so on!) – when that wasn’t going to work out, they had to import via Platonism and Neoplatonism, the Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul. This was a very late entry into Christian metaphysical thinking – 4th/5th century.
And of course that was the period too when the cannon was agreed – the fundamental doctrines, the Nicaean Creed under Constantine – the activity against the heretics in order to try and get some sort of compromise going. This comes very late, and it comes on the back of having to import a lot of thinking. And from then on – and I end on this point – from then on, pretty well everything that you care to think of in the intellect of Europe – including the work done by Origen and Augustine and Aquinas and everybody else – is predicated on Greek philosophy, all the way through. So it’s no surprise to find in the 18th century somebody like Hume saying: “if only I’d had Cicero put into my hands as a child, instead of a catechism, how much better off I would have been”.
JB: There’s quite a lot to respond to there, Tom, but maybe we’ll begin with that general and particular issue, that Anthony sees Christianity looked a lot like actually previous religions – it wasn’t as radical a departure as you think it was – and was ultimately unliveable initially, and had to import the classical views…
TH: Well I mean I think there’s a slight tension here in Anthony’s argument. On the one hand he is saying quite correctly that Christianity, as it emerges, is hugely influenced by the cultures of the world into which it was born, among which Greek philosophy is absolutely a part. On the other hand, Christians roam around smashing, destroying this culture. I mean, which is it? It seems to me that it is evident that nothing comes from nothing; Christianity does not emerge in a vacuum. Greek philosophy is certainly an important aspect of it right from the beginning; Paul uses Stoic terms in his letters when he’s groping after trying to explain what it is that he means about the law of God that previously had been written on the tablets of stone and given to Moses, that’s now written on the heart – and he gropes after the Stoic concept of conscious to explain that.
But I think to imagine that Christianity is simply a kind of cladding over essentially a Greek temple, is to ignore the obvious fact that the great influence obviously on Christianity – and indeed, influence isn’t the word – in a sense, Christianity is a river diverting from a previously existing river, is that of the Jewish Scriptures; ‘Judae-Ismos’ ?(18:54) – the Jewish way of leading a life. And Jewish Scriptures in turn bear the stamp of other influences. They bear most saliently I think from the point of view of the way that Christianity will subsequently emerge, they bear the stamp of Persian-dualism – and that’s crucial, because what that does is to moralise the world. That’s the great innovation of Persian imperialism, is to cast the entire world as something that is divided between realms of darkness and light; between lie and truth; between evil and good. So that also is a part of the fabric of what emerges as Christianity.
And then of course there is the Roman Empire itself, which provides a kind of globalised state of an order that had not ever before existed in the Mediterranean. And the effect of Roman imperialism is on one hand it churns up populations through the process of enslavement; the transportation of Jews, Greeks and Persians and so on. So that’s one measurable effect. The other is that it establishes a vast infrastructure, along which people like Paul can travel – he can take the roads, he can take the ships.
And so it’s all these elements for the first time are kind of brought together, but Christianity does I think reconfigure it in an incredibly radical way. And as I say, it is I think this astonishing idea that a crucified criminal who suffered the death of a slave is in some way a part of the one God who has created heaven and earth. And Paul says that this is a stumbling block to the Jews – why is it a stumbling block to the Jews? Well partly because of course the idea that in some way a human being could be a part of the one God of the Jews, is a kind of blasphemy to the Jews. But it’s also this idea of there being a new covenant, and this is where Paul provides – for people in the empire – a notion of shared citizenship; an idea that there is no Jew or Greek, that draws on Stoic models, that is echoing the brute fact of Roman imperialism, but is enabling them to feel that the God who had loved the Jews now loves all of humanity. And it’s that kind of reciprocal relationship – that God loves you, that you can love God – that will prove incredibly potent in fostering what will emerge as this kind of remarkable, revolutionary movement.
But Paul also says that the crucifixion is folly to the gentiles – folly to those who are not Jews – because he recognises the shock of the blasphemy that he is affecting. And he’s quite right, that of course there are indeed examples of mortals being raised up to the heavens. And there’s a very obvious one that in who’s shadow Paul is wandering the empire, because the fastest growing cult in the 1st century AD is not Christianity, it’s the cult of Divi Filius – son of God – Augustus Caesar, who is the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, who has brought peace to the world and who has ascended into heaven after his death, and sits at the righthand of his father. So the scale of the blasphemy that Paul is offering the Galatians and the Corinthians and the Romans is immense; he is saying that actually the real son of God was a criminal crucified by the Romans. But more than that, everyone in a sense – because of Christ’s sacrifice – can be children of God. And he’s saying that to the slaves, to the tanners, to the people in the mines, to the prostitutes in the bars. And this is such a radical recalibration of assumptions of the Greeks and Romans, that it’s the elites who matter – that these kinds of people at the bottom have no significance whatsoever.
JB: What do you make of all that Anthony?
ACG: Well, I mean Tom’s being very emphatic there about a point which again is just another commonplace of the period. The reason why Augustus could be described as a son of God was because the concept of the son of God was so widespread – all the heroes before…
TH: It’s the heroes – it’s not the kind of crucified slave…
ACG: Let’s just paraphrase, let’s just see that people took the view of somebody who is in some way extraordinary; somebody who stands out or who has a great impact – who does some amazing thing or is extremely significant – must be the son of a god, because a mortal couldn’t do it. I mean, this goes way back pre-Hermaric?(23:46) view of the egregious individual, to use that term neutrally. Just to go back to the point about contradictions; there’s no contradiction between saying that the early Christians tried to efface pagan culture – they failed, they smashed a lot of temples and they burned a lot of books…
TH: What evidence do we have for that?
ACG: I’ll give you an example: we have seven of Aeschylus’ plays of the titles of seventy; we have something like a dozen or so of Euripides…
TH: But what makes you think that we don’t have them because Christians destroyed them?
ACG: Well because the transmission of these things through antiquity. We know right up until the time of Cicero, right up until the time of Diogenes Laertius later on, how many of these documents had survived, and then we start…
TH: But how do we know it was Christians who destroyed them?
ACG: Well we know that Christians destroyed a great deal of the material culture of antiquity.
TH: How do we know that?
ACG: I mean, all you have to do is just read about the first couple of decades after 380, under Theodosius the first.
TH: But do we have anything in the Theodosian…
ACG: You don’t mention the Theodosian attack on paganism…
TH: Ok, so let’s mention the Theodosian… is there anything…
ACG: Right up until 529 AD – hold on a second Tom, you had a long go there – right up until 529 AD when Justinian closed the School of Athens; after 900 years of Plato’s Academy it was closed, and the philosophers were driven out. There had been a systematic attempt to try to efface the record and the remains of classical civilisation in order to impose the Christian view on it. It didn’t work in the end, because in the end Christianity had to absorb and adopt it – look at Aquinas, the reason why Thomism is the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic religion is because Aquinas had to take over the Aristotelian corpus wholesale. So you know, that in itself is enough of an example.
But you know, you’re trying to stress this idea there was something really exceptional about the picture of Jesus as… you know: he was poor, he was a carpenter’s son, he was tortured to death by the Romans, died a slave’s death and so on – this somehow is very special. On the contrary, it’s just another example of debate which had been going on for quite a long time in the classical period about the position of the individual and the relationship that individuals have to others.
So for example, in classical Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries, the idea of how you treat a slave… I mean, if you were to read some of the accounts of this, of manumission and of the right and proper method of dealing with your household servants and so on, you would see that ideas of respect and of kindness and liberality – oh yes, there are plenty of examples. Have you read Xenophon, and Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, talking about how the wife in the household, in order to have a good relationship with their slaves, should treat them well, and then… Just the clincher on this one. Tom says that he cannot understand the mindset of a Caesar or a Leonidas, and finds them alien. So I find Hitler’s mentality after 1500 years of Christianity equally difficult to sympathise with, or indeed the Count of Tilly who was at the sack of Magdeburg in 1630 – I mean, any number of examples of exactly the same kind of atrocity that occurred during the Christian period.
TH: I just want to come back to this idea that bands of Christians roamed around destroying copies of Aeschylus – we have no evidence for this whatsoever. There is nothing in the Theodosian code that prescribes that classical works should be destroyed. Indeed, we know that classical works were regularly copied by the monks that Anthony is so dismissive of in the introduction to his book.
ACG: Much later on, much later on; several centuries…
TH: But you say: “remember that by this time the Roman Empire of the East had been transformed into fully Christian Byzantium, no more interested in the careful and full preservation of pre-Christian culture than any other part of Christendom” – and you say that in so far as the classical texts survived, it was down to the Muslims. The Iliad was first translated into Arabic in 1904 – who do you think was coping the Iliad? How do you think we have Homer? Who is doing it? It’s because Christians absolutely recognise that this is part of the fabric of their culture as well, that all good things – as Origen says – are part of our heritage.
ACG: You will know far better than I that the Nestorian region of the Middle East, of the north-western Middle East, which was one of the first areas to be overrun by the Muslims. If you look at the library lists in the 10th century of Baghdad, the record kept there of the texts that had been preserved and were available and which were translated – that was the great period of translation…
TH: And who do you think was translating them?
ACG: If they had, the Arab and Persian scholars would do…
TH: No, it’s Christian monks who were translating them. Syriac and Greek-speaking monks who were doing the translating, because it’s the Greek monks who have the texts.
ACG: With great respect, it was the… I forget the name of the caliph now who had a dream and said that these texts must be translated from the Greek into Arabic, and indeed that was the moment when the great contribution was made by them. That library list preserved technical, medical and astronomical and mathematical texts from the Greek – absolutely almost nothing at all of the literature of the essays and of the theatre and of the plays – and some of the philosophical texts. For something like five centuries, about the only thing that was known of Plato was the Timaeus, and this was because…
TH: In the Latin West…
ACG: In the Latin West.
TH: But we’re talking about… you know you’re saying that in the Eastern Roman Empire, they were no more interested in the careful and full preservation of pre-Christian culture than any other part of Christendom. And yet they were transcribing the Iliad; they were transcribing the texts of Athenian Tragedians that we have – they were doing it, they were transcribing Thucydides and Herodotus. I mean, this is simply not true!
ACG: But you’re being very selective there…
TH: These are the major Greek classics that you were saying that the Christians of Byzantium had no interest in. And the reason for that is…
ACG: I go on in that passage to say that the monks did begin to do those translations later – several centuries later.
TH: They were doing it the whole way through!
ACG: They were not…
TH: They were – it was the fundamental basis of the Roman classical education, and that passed through even when they’d been Christianised; that’s why they continued to copy them. And the reason why this matters, is that this is such a basic point – and Anthony’s a great scholar and a professor, and you would think that this would be a simple thing for him to go and check. This is a myth that essentially has propagated in the 18th century. The figure who underlies it is Gibbon, with his account that the Serapeum is destroyed by bigoted Christians who destroy the library. And this is… to put it mildly, not exactly what happened.
JB: A quick response from Anthony there…
ACG: Two matters of fact which are independently verifiable. The first is that in the continuation of the passage that Tom is quoting from, I say that the monks began to do copying and disseminating later; about three centuries after the Theodosian moment, it really got under way. That quite a lot of the preservation of the text that we have are owed to the Muslims – Arab and Persian scribes – who did a great deal of translating. And were retranslated later – 11th and 12th centuries is when for example the Aristotelian corpus came back into the West; that’s the first matter of fact.
The second matter of fact is you can have a look; you can have a look at the amount of publication, of copying, of transmission, in I would say the three centuries between – well maybe the four centuries, between the fourth and the eight centuries of the common era – how much publication there was, how much copying and how much transmission. How little was known in that period. You know, when people talk about the dark ages now – of course, fashionable to say it wasn’t the dark ages, huge amounts going on and so on. But how little was published, how little was discussed, how little was known in that period. And that is a matter of fact which is verifiable.
JB: Quick response and then we’ll go to our break and we’ll come back to this afterwards…
TH: I think this is really important. Monks were systematically copying; they were copying Virgil in the Latin West, they were copying Horace, they were copying Ovid – that’s why they survived. In Constantinople they were copying Homer, they were copying Herodotus, they were copying Thucydides– that’s why they survived. The idea that there was a systematic campaign by evil Christians to eliminate the legacy of classical civilisation could not be less true, and this is so clear and transparent a historical fact that it stupefies me that Anthony could even begin to think otherwise. And I think the reason that he thinks otherwise is that it’s a myth that he has a huge stake in. And we can trace the origins of this myth, because the ‘bad-ies’ in this are the monks – and this essentially is an 18th century updating of Protestant propaganda, which decreed that monks could never do anything and that the bigoted religious people of the Catholic dark ages had plunged Christendom into darkness, and Protestantism was all about bringing God’s people back into light. Essentially this enlightenment myth-making is a recalibration of that, but instead of casting the early church as the model of light that has to be restored, we’re now pushing the frontier back and saying that it’s Greek philosophy. But it is entirely a myth.
JB: We will come back to this, and we’ll allow you to respond Anthony.
JB: Well we had a lot of disagreement in that last section gentlemen. We’re going to move on slightly from the question of what exactly the first Christians did with antiquity and sort of move on to the question of just how far Christianity did ultimately shape the values that many people in the West hold dear today. Now you were mentioning Anthony that as far as you’re concerned, the slavery motif of Christianity, in the way it brought the common people and the lowest person into this idea of being a human with dignity and intrinsic worth and so on, wasn’t necessarily somehow unique or radical to Christianity? You believe that was starting to happen generally in the culture that it came out of?
ACG: Well I wouldn’t argue that the idea was that we are all equal and that we shouldn’t for example have slaves and so on… because after all, slavery existed right up to the 19th century; perhaps it still exists in many different disguises today. So I’m certainly not arguing that. Nor am I arguing that any period of history has been without its atrocities, cruelties and injustices; on the contrary, it always has. But if we think about the question of value – if we think about examination of ethical ideas and ideals – the really striking moment in human history is the Axial Age: so we’re talking about the 5th, the 6th centuries, the 4th century before the common era. It’s a striking fact about that period that in at least three great civilisations – of China, of India and the burgeoning civilisation of classical antiquity – there were thinkers that addressed the question of: how should one live? How should one relate to one’s fellows? And what kind of society should we construct? I mean, it’s a striking fact that three near contemporaries – Socrates, Gautam – who became the Buddha – and Confucius, who all lived within a generation of one another, none of whom were prophets or preachers or religious figures who claimed inspiration from divinity, but who addressed themselves to the question of the good life, the nature of the good itself, and the good society. And the well-springs of thinking therefore about the ethical, lie with them.
And in our own tradition – in the Western tradition – if you look at the Socratic challenge, which is: what sort of people should we be? What values should shape and colour our lives? That question he put to his contemporaries and which have generated that great debate. The first really significant ethical treatise is Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics; it was one application of the Socratic idea that the life considered and chosen and thought about – the thoughtful life – had a chance of being a good life. The Epicurean cynics, but particularly the Stoics, all of whom derived something from the Socratic moment – so the Stoics for example were very impressed by the kind of restraint and dedication to the thoughtful life that Socrates had advocated. And they are the originators of this idea of cosmopolitanism; the idea that we are all equal, we are all the same, we are all a part of the same world. And that this therefore places certain kinds of obligations on us.
Now one thing that people are now concluding on this point, one thing that people misunderstand in reading and studying the ethical thoughts – especially of the post-Aristotelian schools, but even of Aristotle and Socrates – is best illustrated in the following way. When the authors of the Federalist Papers in the late 18th century – we’re talking about a bill of rights and about amendments of the constitution in America, in the new United States – they had a debate about whether or not to include a provision that protected freedom of expression. And the argument that was put against that was: why have a positive permission to express yourself freely when we have it by nature? We don’t need it; you don’t need to make a positive provision for this, because it implies that we don’t have it already or that we need permission to do it. Now that idea is commonplace through the classical period. It wouldn’t have occurred to a male Greek citizen of Athens – of course, many other people were excluded: the xenoi, the women and the slaves and so on – but if you were a male Greek citizen of Athens in adulthood, you wouldn’t have dreamt that you didn’t have a right to your say in the agora – it was just an assumption.
One of the greatest values in the ethics of classical antiquity was the value of friendship; the idea of your bonds with others and your obligations to them and your duty to protect their honour and well-being and so on. That was a very, very key concept and indeed the great discussion, in both Plato and in Aristotle, of friendship. Aristotle devotes two entire books of the Nicomachean Ethics to this; generated a huge discussion, which actually caused Augustine and some others in the Christian tradition a great deal of trouble, because the Christians had taught to love everybody – so you can’t love one person more than anybody else, so can you have friends? Augustine agonises over this in the Confessions. So I mean it’s very interesting to go back behind some of the tropes that have been appropriated by people who think that their ethics are Christian, to the source of those ethical outlooks, which is classical…
JB: Which as you say, as far as you’re concerned, if Paul was doing anything he was simply building on what was already an established basis in terms of those ideas. What is your view on that, did Jesus and Paul change what Aristotle and Plato…
TH: I know that Anthony did not take the chance to argue that the way the Spartans or the Athenians treated their slaves should be regarded as in any way the well-spring of our own views on human rights or equality today. And he also doesn’t make what is of course the obvious point in this, that Aristotle believed that barbarians were naturally suited to be slaves of Greeks. And in arguing that he was absolutely part of the current of the age, because by and large, different people tended to view themselves as superior to their neighbours. I mean, true of the Jews, definitely true of the Greeks, absolutely true of the Romans. And the assumption is that foreigners, by and large, are suited to be slaves of Greeks or Romans or whoever happens to be the most…
ACG: Like white Americans with Africans…
TH: We’ll come to that…
ACG: But it’s the same thing…
TH: No it’s not at all, it’s not the same thing. So when Paul says: that there is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is now man or woman – the justification he offers for this is actually founded in the idea of slavery being set aside. That someone who suffered the death of a slave has triumphed over power; has triumphed over the kind of mastery that – in the classical sense – is the expression of the right to hold a slave. And I want to focus on one particular aspect, because I think that this is a kind of very measurably influential in the way that we conceptualise things today, and that’s the issue of sex.
There’s a common idea that Christian sexual morality is kind of repressive, puritanical, boring, square – something that we have to jettison. And absolutely the idea that Paul is some kind of hung up guy who just turns up and Greeks and Romans are all having great fun and orgies and stuff, and Paul turns up like the massive party pooper and ruins everyone’s entertainment. But actually, the doctrine on sexuality that Paul preaches is deeply founded in this idea that slavery is something to be overcome and that everybody has been liberated by the sacrifice of Christ. Because what he is saying is that every human being, by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice and death, now has a value. And he specifically says that they have a bodily integrity, and that every man, every woman, every child has… that their bodily sacrality is a reflection of… in the case of a woman, the church; and in the case of a man, of Christ himself. And so that’s to give a dignity say to a household slave, that he’d never been given more…
JB: Because they could be used as sexual objects?
TH: Absolutely, they were expected to be used as sexual objects. The Romans had the same word for urinate and ejaculate, and essentially the mouths, the vaginas, the anuses of slaves were regarded as akin to urinals; these are objects in which bodily fluid can be ejected by the master. And that is their role, absolutely taken for granted. So the radicalism of Pauline and ultimately Christian teaching, is to say: no, that isn’t true. Everybody’s body – no-one has the right to have that done to them. And more importantly, that then means that there is an obligation on the male citizen, the master, the lord, to control his sexual appetites, because he is not allowed to do that. And so Paul’s idea of lifelong matrimony as a kind of image of the marriage of Christ and the church, it sets in train a radical reconfiguring of the way that people in what will emerge as Christian civilisation come to think about sex and come to think about marriage.
And I think by and large, pretty much everyone now takes those assumptions for granted. And we can see that… I mean, in the 60s in particular, there was this kind of sense: Christian morality is boring, let’s get rid of it, sexual revolution, let’s go back to the hedonism of pagan days, let’s be dionysic. Of course, the Greek god Dionysus was a rapist; all the Greek gods were regular rapists – it enshrined the idea that males had the right to use their inferiors in any way that they wanted. And that was something that essentially over the course of the 70s, 80s and 90s, we know what the consequence of that was.
And we see that now with the #metoo movement, which essentially is an attempt to reimpose Christian sexual morality. And the paradox of this – and there are so many paradoxes that surround this – is that women who go on marches in support of #metoo, will dress up in the costumes of handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s novel and the TV adaptation of it, and that of course is written a parody of puritanism. Yet essentially, what they are demanding is that men control themselves and essentially behave as puritans. And the truth is that #metoo would only work – it would only have the resonance that it does – if most men accepted the validity of what women protestors were saying. And I think that by and large, they do. And I think that that is… I mean, if that is not evidence of the saturating effect of Christian teaching over 2000 years, I don’t know what is.
ACG: Ok, so I’m completely with Tom in support of the #metoo movement, and I think men should be restrained and they should be courteous and we should be equal and so on. But I have to say, I don’t really recognise very much of what Tom was saying there about the Pauline view on these matters. After all, it is Jesus himself in the Gospels who talks about monogamy and one flesh and so on. Saint Paul says: don’t marry, unless you’re about to burn; if you’re incontinent, then marry. And also women: they’ve got to shut up, cover their heads, sit at the back of the church and not speak – so his attitude towards women wasn’t very good. The ?(13:31) of Christian aristocrats all through the Middle Ages and afterwards; the presence of slavery…
TH: This is another 18th century myth. Come on!
ACG: This is not an 18th century myth; in the 19th century, white Americans were enslaving black Africans, black people from African origin, and treating them with the same kind of view that you say Aristotle treated the barbarians – just fit for slavery, that’s all they are, they’re second-class human beings or third-class human beings. Christianity, after 1500 years, if it hadn’t managed to pervade, infect or radiate our culture sufficiently to stop slavery until the 19th century, seems to me an extremely weak force. I mean everything that you attribute to use as a kind of charge against pre-Christian civilisation can be iterated endlessly – alas and tragically – in the period after Theodosius.
TH: Well, so it’s absolutely true that in the Caribbean and in the American colonies, slaves do start increasingly to be African. And so what gradually happens over the course of the 18th century is that slavery becomes racialised. And so the issue of whether there is a fundamental difference between the white slave owners and the black slaves becomes an issue that people across Anglo-America have to debate. Now ultimately, the stress of this, the evident fact that, you know, if there is no Greek or Jew, then there is no black or white, is one that comes to wrack the consciousness first of Quakers, then of Evangelicals, and then ultimately the whole span of first British and then American society. And it reflects a conviction that the heart will be illumined by the Spirit; that the law of God will be written on the heart, and if we want to read it properly we have to look into our heart and we have to do what that law is then telling us. And that is what animates the Quakers; that is what animates the Evangelicals. So in the span of a century, what had been a kind of mad, minority opinion, by the beginning of the 19th century is convulsing parliaments, is convulsing presidencies, and over the course of the 19th century, will see slavery something that every… As a Muslim Sheikh said to a royal naval officer when the naval officer demanded that he abolish slavery, he said: “but why would we? Every age has accepted slavery”.
But essentially, this kind of… that is bred of a radical Protestant idea of the flame of the Spirit illuming the heart and enabling people to see what should properly be done, that is something that, because, first of all Catholics and then Muslims, are not Protestant – it’s been kind of universalised. But essentially the impetus behind it is this kind of radical Protestant interpretation of how the Spirit can move people to act properly, that in turn of course draws on the mainstream of Christian inheritance.
ACG: Now there is one very big difference between how did you ?(17:04) slaves in the pre and the post Christian period. Aristotle’s father-in-law had been a slave; he rose to be the ruler of the city state to which Aristotle went after studying with Plato. That was a not uncommon thing – not to become a ruler of a city state, but to be freed and eventually to become citizens and to be able to play a full role. I cannot imagine a black slave in the 18th or early 19th century America ever being given that opportunity, and this is after 1500 years of Christianity. I mean, I’m afraid to say that to look at the Quakers and the Evangelicals of the 18th and 19th century, not a moment too soon did their consciences come to prompt them to do something about slavery. But it seems to me itself to be proof of the fact that the conscience – the outlook, the ethics – of the Christian period, in that respect as in many others, was both different from the earlier.
JB: Do you think that then the impetus against slavery was not primarily a Christian one, but was something more of a rationalist enlightenment sort of philosophy coming to bear, even if it was having a Christian expression?
ACG: Yes I think so, because towards the end of the first third of the 18th century that a Quaker – I forget his name now, but he was a Huguenot that had gone temporarily to England and then on to North America – and who was a teacher. And in the evenings, he taught the children of slaves, and found that what he’d been told about the lower intellectual capacities and so on of black children than white children, was just simply false. And it was he who began to agitate a bit among the Quakers at that period.
And this is… it’s not an accident that this is in a period of time when the grip of the major religious denominations, like for example the Catholic church or the Calvinists, over the minds of people and their insistence that they adhere to a particular way of looking at things, this was the period when that was loosening and so made it possible then for people to think differently, even about those doctrines.
JB: So essentially the argument is because we were becoming less Christian in a way – less dominated by Christianity – that slavery was ultimately overturned; what’s your view on that?
TH: I mean, it’s so clear that the anti-slavery movement is an Evangelical one, and absolutely there were any number of freed black slaves who toured around Britain, who became lions of the hour, who were celebrated and fated – absolutely they were. I mean, what happens though is that this great evangelical impetus which sees parliament petitioned, which sees Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary – rather like Theresa May having to negotiate Brexit when she doesn’t belief in it – he had to go and negotiate to the Congress of Vienna, to argue that slavery should be abolished even though he didn’t particularly believe in it.
Castlereagh’s genius is that he is able to persuade the Catholic powers that they too should have a stake in that, because he couches it in the language of rights, which derives from Catholic canon law going back to the 12th century; so he is able to do that. It is also the case that he is able to draw on elements within let’s call it the Enlightenment tradition, which absolutely also recognises that people are born free and equal. But in turn, I think it’s important to ask: where do these ideas come from? And I think that this really is the kind of the nub of the disagreement between us, that Anthony sees the Enlightenment as a radical break with what had gone before, that there is a kind of middle age of superstition and darkness that intervened when all these book burning monks appeared and started ransacking everything, and then in the 18th century – praise the Lord – the light comes on and everyone is enlightened.
My perspective is that the Enlightenment is simply another iteration of a series of convulsions that have wracked Christian civilisation and are bred of deeply Christian theological concepts. And it’s in that sense that the international law that emerges to deal with the abolition of slavery is able to fuse Protestant, Catholic and Enlightenment traditions, because ultimately all those traditions are bred of the same matrix.
JB: It’s interesting this point that… obviously Tom believes, you simply can’t stand outside of Christian history, even things that seem on the face of it to almost go against Christianity – the Enlightenment, even modern-day atheism and secularism – I think Tom would argue all find their roots in the Christian revolution, if you like.
ACG: That’s the thing I disagree with. What I don’t disagree with of course is that – especially from let us say about the time of Gregory the seventh up until the Reformation, so from the early 11th century up until the beginning of the 16th century – the church in the West was incredibly powerful and it wielded a great deal of temporal authority and influenced hugely the politics and society of the time. But we’re really talking here about the intellect of Europe; we’re talking about the mind of Europe. Tom’s subtitle is The Making of the Western Mind or something, and the idea that from the Renaissance… recovery of classical texts and outlooks and the huge influence on it…
I mean, you take little examples. Think of the Lord’s Prayer; the Lord’s Prayer comes out of the Gospels, right – it’s apostolic: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom done, thy will be done”. And we know that one of the cardinal sins is pride, that is that your own will – ‘you can stand on your own feet’, and Islam means submission. So you know, in these young religious – Christianity and Islam – this idea of submission to God and not relying on your own intellect or your own powers. But there in the Renaissance – I’m talking several hundred years before the Enlightenment – we’re talking about a very long development of liberation really from this hegemony over the mind that the church had tried to impose. We get something like Pico della Mirandola, Oration of the Dignity of Man, on the idea that human beings and the human mind and the endeavour to understand without reliance on ancient scriptures and so on. You look at the philosophical revolution and the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, so precisely predicated on the idea of the kind of enquiry, premised on observation and reason, setting aside the authority – whether of the church or of some great figure of the past like Aristotle, because you know, the revolution was against any form of authority.
In 1492, a year in which Columbus – much to the surprise of the people who lived in America – discovered America, and when was it… the driving away of the Muslims from Spain. A very, very significant thing happened in that year, which is unnoticed – it’s like a little mice-sized mammal in the age of the dinosaurs that Tom has always loved so much. And this was a publication of the book called On the errors of Pliny, by a man called Leoniceno, who had gone through the Natural History of Pliny and had discovered many, many, many errors there. And this was in itself revolutionary, because for so long people had looked at authorities – the fact that so few people were literate; that things that were written – scriptures – it is written, and therefore has great authority. And in the Renaissance, you had the repudiation of that and the insistence that we should look again and think again and make use of our own powers. That’s what led eventually to the liberation of the European mind from efforts to control it by dogma.
JB: So again lots there to respond to there Tom, but first of all this idea of the hegemony of the mind, that essentially the renaissance and then the Enlightenment were freeing people from…
TH: I think Anthony is being suckered by the marketing of intellectuals that has persistently gone on over the course of European history. The Renaissance is not the Renaissance – there were many renaissances. An earlier renaissance, the 12th century for instance, saw the university system established that Anthony presides over to this day. And that is again absolutely expressive of an idea that there exists a God who has created humanity and has given him sufficient logic to fathom the laws with which God has structured the Universe. Now again, this is not in any way a given – the idea that there is a single creator who has fashioned the entire cosmos and who has structured it by laws and that we know from the evidence of the original covenant and then the new covenant that he is happy to submit himself to laws, even though of course he reserves the right to exact miracles if he wants to.
Nevertheless, this is an understanding of how the Universe functions that facilitates which, by the 19th century for instance, will come to be called science.
ACG: No, no Tom, now come on. Firstly…
TH: Hold on, hold on. And then again, if we go back to the Carolingian Age, again we have a renaissance because this again is structured by the idea of Alcuin and the sponsorship of education; that learning is part of the fabric of that God has given humans. And again, it’s this kind of humanist idea that all of wisdom is there to be absorbed. So the idea that there is a single renaissance is as big a mistake as to assume that there is a single reformation. Again, there are many reformationai’s over the course of Christian history, because this idea that society has to be remade; that the people who’ve walked in darkness have to be brought to see a great light; that the world has been lost to superstition and idles must be overthrown – this is part of the core narrative, it’s part of the core myth-making of Christians, right from the beginning. It’s what fuels the conversion of Europe in the early Middle Ages; it’s what underpins the great process of reformatio – initiated by the Papal reformers in the 11th century.
This idea that all of Christendom can be refashioned – it’s certainly a fundamental part of the reformation, when it’s the Catholic church that gets cast as the object of superstition. And we see the same cycle happening with the Enlightenment, where it’s Christianity itself becomes to be cast… but it’s still a Christian narrative that is being exemplified, even if it’s for overtly anti-Christian reasons…
ACG: Let’s try and get this right ok, so the development of schools of higher learning in the Medieval period was a rediscovery. After all, as I said earlier, for nearly a thousand years from the institution of the schools of Athens in the 5th century, a university system in all but name existed; schools of higher education. They were closed by a Christian emperor in 529 in Athens, and it took some time before the idea… the necessity of a more advanced education or even indeed any education, to come back into the picture.
The Medieval universities were law, medicine and theology. This was because the growing centralisation of power required bureaucrats; it required educated people who could write, who could manage taxation, who could run a kingdom. So you know, this wasn’t just a matter of trying to understand God’s plan for the universe; this was itself a rebirth of an educational ideal that had been founded in classical antiquity.
On the question of renaissances, again you know Tom talks about using a particular kind of mythos here about what happened when, and it is now the sort of fashion among historians to find any number of renaissances and reformations and so on. And indeed, in a way there were. But let us remember that Petrach is the person who made a very explicit claim to the affect that his age was the one in which they had rediscovered and were bringing back into the light the great values that had been suppressed and lost during the darkness of the period that he described as ‘the age between’ – the Middle Age, the Medieval period. So this was a self-conscious recognition by people like Petrach, and all those who therefore went mad looking for manuscripts and digging in old library collections and so on, in order to get to manuscripts…
TH: Who has written the texts that were found in these libraries? Where did these libraries exist?
ACG: Yes indeed, I have not denied, and you didn’t read out the little bit in the thing where I said that later on we owe some thanks that the little that did remain of classical literature was preserved for us by monks later on.
JB: We won’t go back to that argument. We’ve just got a little time to conclude our discussion, and what I do want to finally land on is right up to date really, is what you really represent today Anthony, which is the modern incarnation of humanism, particularly a kind of secular atheistic sort of humanism. And when I’ve seen you speak on this and what you write about in the book, really makes it look as though it’s sort of a given that once we simply recognise who we are as humans, we will inevitably treat each other with dignity, with respect, with equality and so on. We don’t need Christianity as it were, to give us those values – they would have at some level come to us by simply using our reason and intellect and so on.
Whereas Tom in his book says: well, the Beatles, if you like, were the pop equivalent of the humanists of the 60s – all you need is love. John Lennon’s hymn to secularism: Imagine there’s no heaven, imagine there’s no religion, we’ll all be a wonderful brother to man. And again, his point is they simply miss the point, that all of that is utterly steeped in the Judeo-Christian ethic that their culture comes out if; it’s impossible to escape that humanists are essentially Christians, but they’ve simply rejected the kind of supernatural elements of what Christianity gave them.
What’s your response overall to that, and then we’ll have Tom come back…
ACG: I mean, it’s just an assertion which fails to recognise that the mind – the ethical mind of Europe, the whole framework of its concept, it’s very vocabulary – comes to us from classical antiquity. It comes to us from what I called earlier the Socratic challenge; it comes to us from the effort made by the Aristotelian school and by the Stoics principally, to think these things through. The idea that we owe something to one another because of our humanity has never prevented people being cruel and vicious and selfish and greedy, you know, today as ten thousand years ago. But the roots of our best thinking about these matters and how we’re to relate to one another lie in our commonalities as human beings. I mean, I often describe humanism as the view that our most sympathetic and generous view about what it is to be human – human nature and the human condition, both very difficult to understand – but the great diversity of human experience requires a kind of sympathetic pause in order to try to work out what it is about somebody else’s choice and desires one can accept or must not accept and so on. This is the idea of applying reason and consideration to that.
JB: And in that sense, secular humanism is a result of that Enlightenment thinking; the scientific approach, the rational approach, owes more to that than any particular Judeo-Christian roots…?
ACG: Very much so, and I would say its deepest roots lie in what I in fact would call the first enlightenment, which is the period of classical antiquity.
TH: I think it’s a tendency on the part of intellectuals and perhaps particularly philosophers to overemphasise the significance of philosophy. Clearly it’s important, and I think mediated through Christianity, Greek philosophy has obviously had a profound influence on the way that people in the West think. But I think that the key thing about Christianity, which was recognised by Origen in the 3rd century, is that as well as providing a framework for the transmission of philosophical ideas, there is a kind of mythic quality to Christianity. Origen says that he contemplates the fact that the creator of the world was born and cried for milk, and he find this so stupefying he doesn’t know what to do with it, he just feels struck dumb by it.
And I think that it’s the parables that Christ tells; it’s the notion of the nativity; it’s the drama of the passion – it’s these mythic resonances that have been transmitted down the generations. And in an absolutely saturating effect, children have been brought up in these stories; they have told their children, and so on. And for centuries and centuries and centuries, Christianity was essentially the only game in town. And even up until, what, the 1950s or 60s, essentially there were Jews and there were Christians, and there were those who had ceased to be Christian. The question then is: to what extent have humanists emancipated themselves from Christianity? Are they indeed part of a kind of a global movement?
Keyne’s famously said that the things that people tend to think is often due to kind of weird stuff that an economist years before had said. I think that’s true of all of us; I think that essentially, we think the way we do because of stuff that theologians centuries and centuries ago made an argument, all because of kind of mythic passages in ancient scripture. So I think the idea of humanism; the idea that humans have a kind of unique dignity, have a kind of special status, ultimately I think it goes back to Genesis; I think it goes back to that narrative that God creates man and woman in his own image. And that is something that then passes through into the bloodstream of European culture and we, to this day, continue to take for granted.
And so the emphasis on kind of the idea of the human, the idea of the human rights and the values and the dignity of humanity, I think that this is a deeply Western and therefore a deeply Christian idea. And I just want to read a list of where international humanist conferences have been held over the years: we have Miami, we have Oxford, we have London, we have Oslo, we have Washington, we have Paris, we have ?(38:03) in the Netherlands, then we have Mumbai, then we Mexico City, then we have Amsterdam, then we have Brussels, then we have Buffalo in the USA, we have Oslo, we have Hanover, we have London, we have Amsterdam, we have Boston, we have Paris, we have Oslo, we have London, we have Amsterdam.
Mumbai aside, all of those are in countries that are predominantly Christian. In turn, most of those are Protestant. I think that in its essentials, humanism is a kind of very soft protestantism; it’s a godless Protestantism, and it is in that sense, as culturally contingent as everything else in the vast range and span of human civilisation. And I don’t see what the problem is in acknowledging this? I mean, if you don’t believe in a god, it no more matters that you as an atheist might be informed by Christian opinions than that you as a human being are an ape. I mean, it doesn’t seem to me a problem.
JB: Are you saying that humanism is divorced from the Judeo-Christian ethic?
ACG: I am, because if I were able to identify focal humanistic traditions in non-Christian societies, then you might believe that humanism is something that could quite easily come out of reflection and consideration. So it happened in classical antiquity in Greece; it happened in the thinking of Aristotle and the post-Aristotelian schools; it happened in China, two centuries before Christ – Mozi the founder of the Mohist movement, taught ‘love your brother; love your neighbour as yourself’. This idea, it’s a very very very fundamentally humanist principle. The Jains and the Buddhists in India – centuries before Christ – teaching the same thing. Not only compassion, an all-embracing compassion, but not just for the human beings, for all life – for animal life. I mean, something more tender in its outlook even than the Christian view. These are recognisably and focally humanistic impulses that we’re recognising in these different traditions. They don’t owe anything to any one particular tradition; they come out of the sense that we have as human beings of being connected to one another.
There’s a marvellous remark in one of Hasler’s ?(40:31) essays, where he and Coleridge went for a walk on the north Somerset coast. And they came to a village where the day before there had been a terrible storm, and a boy had been swept out to sea, and the fishermen in the village had risked their lives to try to save him. And Coleridge asked them, “well why did you do that? Why did you risk your lives to do that?” And the fishermen said, “it’s because we have a nature towards one another”. And that encapsulates something human; it doesn’t require myth – it doesn’t require myth in the case of the Jains and the Buddhists and the Mohist. It just requires a sense of our common, shared humanity.
TH: But the idea that humans have rights – that they have a peculiar dignity – is a myth. And it seems to me so evident that this myth is Christian in its origins. The idea that by cherry-picking fragments from other cultural traditions you can demonstrate that the beliefs that you hold as someone living in London in 2019, you and all your fellow humanists, with the single exception of one city, have all been held in basically Christian countries. I mean, humanism is so derivative of Christianity, and yet because like Christianity it wants to claim a universal mission – just as Christians claimed as evidence for this that Greek philosophy was part of its inheritance – so likewise you are engaged in this mass exercise of cultural appropriation, picking stuff to demonstrate that the entirely contingent views that you personally have – and I have too – are somehow not bred of the culture in which we’ve emerged, but are in fact somehow universal.
ACG: Tom is engaged here in an act of attempted appropriation to one tradition in one part of the world, of things that are manifestly and obviously predated by many many many centuries across the globe – ethical impulses which humanism happens to capture. I would ask Tom this, and this is a surprising question maybe: to nominate for me one thing – just one thing – that Christianity has introduced that doesn’t have some source – some parallel, some analogy – in previous and in other civilisations. One novelty, one innovation, in thinking about anything ethical, metaphysical – anything that you like. And I must say, I’ve wracked my brains over this often enough, and I cannot think of one – I would love to hear if there is one.
JB: Do you accept that challenge, Tom?
TH: Absolutely. I think the ideal of lifelong matrimony, I think that is a very distinctive Christian concept. I think the category of what, by the 19th century, is coming to be categorised as homosexuality and heterosexuality – I think they have no precedence. I think the notion of secularism – the idea of there being religions – I think all these are entirely exclusive to Christian civilisation. I think the concept of science as it emerges in the 19th century, I think is entirely exclusive to Christian civilisation. I think the idea that human beings are created in the image of God, that is obviously something that Christians share with Jews, but that gives a degree of dignity to human beings that no other cultural tradition that I’m aware of even remotely approximates to. So I think that all of those are… and essentially what I’m talking about, is I am talking about what makes Western civilisation distinctive. And one of the things that absolutely makes Western civilisation distinctive – and it’s an inheritance of its Christian past – is its assumption that its values are universal. This has been fundamental to the way that Christians have understood their faith, that it is for all of humanity. And to this day, the heirs of that cultural tradition want to believe that their values are not contingent but somehow are the property of all humanity.
JB: We are down to our last few minutes gentleman. How would you like to conclude things, as we start to pull this together?
ACG: Well just by reminding Tom that the Stoics were universalists, that if it is true that no other culture had ever privileged monogamy, then this can scarcely be regarded as a particularly great achievement. I can’t really think of anything of major significance. The distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, I mean that was a distinction that was drawn as early as the Pentateuch – we have to stone to death a man who lies with a man as with a woman, and so on. So there, some kind of distinction…
TH: But that’s not… I mean, I don’t think we’ve got time to get into this argument, but the thing is that you see that is a classic example of the way in which even Anthony, this dogged atheist, who rejects the fact that he owes anything to Christianity, his assumptions about homosexuality and heterosexuality are so deeply rooted, that he assumes that a man sleeping with a man is equivalent to the category of homosexuality – it isn’t. I appreciate we don’t have time to argue why, but I would just say that for those of you who are listening who want to know why homosexuality is a distinctively Christian category, buy Dominon!
ACG: Well, it wasn’t a great contribution… if it is distinctively Christian…
TH: Well I’m not talking about whether it’s good or bad; I’m talking about… you know, this is the thing, I’m not offering value judgements here, I’m saying what the evidence…
ACG: You’ve given me so little; you’ve given me so little that you can claim is distinctively Christian contribution to world-thinking.
TH: Well, an entirely radical way of seeing sexuality, of relations between the sexes, of the category of the secular, the idea of… I think these are all fairly sizeable innovations.
ACG: It’s a bit like saying: we’ve created a problem and we can ameliorate the problem slightly by doing such and such. I mean, secularism is a great example. The church in Medieval times wanted to get the temporal powers off their backs, and so they introduced the idea of secularism there, very asymmetrically because they didn’t want…
TH: No, no, no, it goes back to Augustinian theology and then ultimately back to the Gospels. I mean, these are… I repeat, almost everything that you and I and Justin think, is bound to theologians, fragments of Scripture, from long, long ago.
ACG: I think you really want this to be the case don’t you, you really do.
TH: No, it’s a conclusion that I have come to from doing what I… I think that everything should do, which is to look at the evidence, and arrive at a decision.
ACG: I agree, let us find the evidence, always.
JB: Well look, it’s been really marvellous, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this very passionate discussion between the both of you. Anthony and Tom, thank you very much, I know you are going away disagreeing on this, but I’m very glad that we had the chance to air our conversation today, thank you very much for joining us.
ACG: There’s a wonderful story told about Marshall Hall, the great advocate of the Edwardian period – does that name ring any bells, Tom?
ACG: He once successfully prosecuted a man for murder, who, while waiting in the condemned cell, was interviewed by the tabloid press, as used to be the practice. And he was asked the question: “do you hold any grudges against Marshall Hall, for having got you sentenced to death?” And he said: “oh no, between men of understanding there are never hard feelings” – and that’s a pretty noble view to take in the circumstances!