Can European civilisation survive the death of Christianity?

Unthinkable: Like it or not, our society depends on a Christian moral inheritance

History is to be made compulsory in the first to third years of secondary schools thanks to a decision by Minister for Education Joe McHugh. But why it and not other subjects?

Geography and science teachers are now agitating for similar recognition. And a particularly strong case can be made for religious education (RE).

Yes, you heard right. The campaign starts here!

Important as it is to learn where our country comes from, it’s also crucial to understand where our beliefs and values come from, and these can’t be understood without knowing at least something about religion.


How many people can explain the difference between the golden rule of ethics and the silver rule (see panel below)? How many can explain the basic tenets of Islam or Hinduism even though 40 per cent of the world’s population worship under these two religions? How many can explain the origins of human rights theory?

There is not only a widespread lack of knowledge about where our values come from but, more significantly, an ignorance of philosophical tools that can be used to test which moral beliefs are more credible than others. Such incompetence is dangerous at a time when powerful individuals and organisations tell us that everyone can have their own moral facts.

What’s needed to better equip future citizens is not RE per se but education about religious and philosophical thought – and in a manner aimed at practical reasoning rather than regurgitating facts. This is something that would require a considerable overhaul of the current syllabus, necessitating that schools and teachers make visible hidden ethical assumptions without drifting into moral relativism.

Hitler studied history. Everybody studies history, and everybody draws opposite conclusions.

If a courageous minister was willing to run with the proposal, facing down inevitable brickbats due to the overtly moralistic and religious content of such a course (not to mention its subversive denial of teaching-to-the-test), she or he could use Tom Holland's latest book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind as a point of reference.

The award-winning author and broadcaster wrote the book after Muslims accused him of double standards when commenting on Islam. While he had explored with fierce independence how Islamic belief was historically contingent, critics said “why aren’t you doing the same to your own beliefs?”

He realised they had a point “because I was unthinkingly standing in a kind of liberal, agnostic, humanist perspective that thought my moral inheritance and everything derived from Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment. I came to realise this was my own myth,” he recalls.

Erudite yet highly entertaining, Dominion interweaves historical anecdote with philosophical analysis, making a persuasive case that you can’t understand the state of the world today without appreciating our Christian heritage.

“Tracing the thread through the labyrinth basically brought me back to Christianity,” Holland says. He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Can we understand our history without understanding Christianity?

Tom Holland: “Quite a long time ago I came to the conclusion that the tripartite way into which history is divided between antiquity, Middle Ages and modernity is [inaccurate]... The real division is the transformation of the classical world into the Christian world [in] not just morality and ethics but almost everything today we take for granted.

Most people forget secularism is a distinctive Christian idea and it's not remotely neutral.

“How we conceptualise sexual relations, the nature of the family, our ability to comprehend deep time, even the nature of belief and unbelief: all of these are mediated entirely through a kind of Christian filter. And insofar as we look at classical philosophy we look at it through Christian eyes.”

You say Christianity has reached a point where it has “no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish”. How long can that last?

“That’s the question Nietzsche poses. And his potency as a critic of Christianity derives from the fact that he is not like a [Richard] Dawkins, who basically remains in his morals and ethics as Christian – who continues to think all human beings are essentially equal and that the strong have a duty of care to the weak.

“Nietzsche hates Christianity for those very arguments, and in a distorted, vulgarised, bastardised way that feeds into Nazism.

“Such has been the shock that experience inflicted on Europe that all we had to do for 70 years, if we want to know what’s right, is look at the Nazis and do the opposite. So in a sense Nazism has become a kind of shadow that means we don’t need Christianity.

“But I think that’s fading now and the degree to which it’s becoming a topic of mockery – you call someone a Nazi when you disagree with them – is part of that. And that begs the question, what seedbed do you have to fertilise these ideas?”

What about history as a seedbed? Can’t we just learn the lessons of history?

“But what lessons? Hitler studied history. Everybody studies history, and everybody draws opposite conclusions.

“The argument that you just study history begs a lot of questions. Who is to say what the right side of history is? The thing about Christianity is that it does actually provide you with an enormous body of moral determinants and a kind of mythic core. But, of course, not all Christians agree with one another.”

The new European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has been criticised for alluding to Europe’s Christian roots. But isn’t she justified in acknowledging them?

“In the book I write about the refugee crisis through the prism of Merkel and Orbán who represent decisive strains of Christianity. Merkel is obviously expressive of the Good Samaritan, the idea that you should care for everybody, but Orbán - leading a country that for many centuries was occupied by the Ottomans - is making the argument that if you do that then Christianity will go. That has always been a tension at the heart of Christianity from the very beginning.

“But there is also a further tension in that the founding idea of European tolerance rests on the idea of there being something called the secular. And the notion of the secular is something very distinctive to Christianity and has emerged over the course of many centuries of evolution and is theologically rooted. But the secular has been secularised.

“By and large most people forget it’s a distinctive Christian idea and it’s not remotely neutral because it obliges Muslims and Jews and Hindus and whoever to alter their understanding of themselves to fit into this template. They are much readier to do that if they feel secularism is, as its propagandists say, neutral - that it’s a kind of ringmaster. But if people say you’ve got to become secular, and be Christianised by this process, they are much less likely to do it.

“It’s a problem because on the one hand it’s clearly true that being secular is deeply Christian, and to that extent if people of non-Christian backgrounds want to become citizens of European countries they have to become more Christianised, as Jews have been since the time of French revolution. The same weathering effect is being experienced by Muslims today.

“But if you’re being honest with that then they are much less likely to buy into it. So I think Europe is in a massive bind on this.”

Can you not find a defence of secularism in other religions?

“Well, the very idea of a religion is a Christian one. Religion in any European language is not a value-free word. And in English it has a kind of Protestant simplification so it even has a weathering effect on Catholics.

“Catholics have by and large become more Protestant the more they accept something called a secular state, and I think that’s in part what has happened in Ireland. I think Ireland has become culturally a lot more Protestant over the last 20 years.”

Pope Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI was stridently opposed to secularism. Was there a logic to his stance then?

“Yes, Benedict was obviously a brilliant scholar who saw very, very clearly the implications of that. And I think he sees secularism correctly a kind of Protestant heresy. I think secularism is the logical end point of Protestantism.”

You say a common threat through western civilisation is “reformatio” – the Christian ideal that society can be born again or purified. Do you see a strain of this in Brexit?

“Something like Brexit is explained basically by geo-political anxieties and it’s a kind of push-me-pull-you relationship with the continent but it is absolutely mediated through religion.

“The founding idea of England – that the English are somehow a chosen people that Bede [the 8th century monk] articulates, and which people in the Reformation then reanimate and as confessional Protestantism – has faded but I think it kind of leaves an afterglow in people’s imaginings. And I think the same goes for people in Scotland... [where] the Protestantism is expressed in the covenant, the idea that the Scots are somehow a kind of chosen people relative to the fleshpots of the Babylon south.

“I think in Ireland it’s slightly different because the decline in confessional religion has been much more precipitous . . . but you could say the Irish didn’t become Protestant because the English did.”

Ask a sage:

Question: What one rule should you live by?

Jesus replies (in Matthew 7:12): “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (the so-called golden rule of ethics).

Confucius replies (in the Analects): "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself" (the so-called silver rule of ethics).