If you don’t have time to read my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, here it is in three words: Read this book. A few more words: Buy this book, give this book to friends, and encourage them to read it. “Dominion” is not only rich, seductive, eye-opening, conversation-sparking, and occasionally surprisingly witty, it is urgently necessary. Read this book – before it’s too late.
Why do I endorse “Dominion” so zealously? Let me tell you a few stories.
I was a schoolgirl in New Jersey. I sat next to “Aisha.” She moved like a butterfly and, quiet and shy, she talked to no one in class except me. She was a constant doodler, and the margins of her notebook blossomed under her pen with imaginary arabesques every bit as lovely as she.
One spring day, as we strolled side by side, this gentle young lady said to me, “When the time for jihad comes, if you don’t convert to Islam, I will have to kill you.”
In years to come, Muslim students, again, out of the blue, would say things like “Jews cause all the problems in the world;” “Jews are not human like the rest of us;” “We need to kill all the Jews;” “If a woman cheats on her husband, it is his duty to kill her;” “Men must get a new, younger wife once they grow bored with their aging first wife;” and, “I’m an atheist and no longer believe in Allah. If my parents found out, they’d kill me. They have no choice. It’s their duty.”
A friend was madly in love with her Christian boyfriend. Her family discovered their relationship, threatened to kill her, and demanded that she marry a stranger imported from the Middle East. She hated them, she hated leaving her boyfriend, and she hated the man she married. But she obeyed, and remained married to the man, though he beat her, till the day he died from what she hoped everyone would believe was a natural death.
When I mention these matters to others, I always emphasize how nice these people were. My interlocutors explode. “How can you call them ‘nice’? Are you crazy?”
My interlocutors just don’t get it. Yes, every last one of the above-mentioned friends, students, and colleagues, were nice people. The kind of charitable, reliable, hard-working people who contribute to society in difficult, demanding jobs. Three have become teachers, one is a prize-winning and published writer, and one is a soldier in the US army. One is a doctor. Why, then, do nice people say these things? They have been socialized by their culture and beliefs to say them.
“But, but, but,” my interlocutors insist. “Their consciences should have told them that they were believing bad things! Why didn’t they question?”
These folks think that they are operating from objective truth. “Everybody knows” that your conscience is primary, that anti-Semitism and placing men above women and Muslim lives above kuffar lives are “bad things,” and that questioning assertions is a necessary step in making decisions.
In fact, none of these are objective truths. They are cultural inheritances from the Judeo-Christian tradition. My Muslim friends grew up in a different tradition, where unquestioning submission to authority is valued. This tradition told them that, for example, male needs are to be placed before females at every turn. Displayed prominently in the lovely, suburban living room of one friend was a life-size headshot, in an elaborate golden frame, of the family’s youngest child, a boy. Around him, like satellites, were tiny photos in more modest frames. These were his older sisters. That wall display was just one of a thousand reinforcements of male supremacy – a male supremacy and female inferiority that are backed up by the Koran and the hadith.
When I urged Aisha critically to examine what she’d been told, to, as a thought experiment, let herself think for just a few moments that maybe Allah was not really god, and that jihad was not a moral pursuit, she immediately told me that she had been taught that even a moment’s doubt would condemn her, as a kuffar, to eternal damnation. She cited Koran 49:15. So, no, Aisha, as a nice person, could not even privately, silently, momentarily doubt what she had been taught. Her job, as a good Muslima, was to submit unquestioningly to what she was told.
Living and working overseas, I confronted equally nice people repeatedly. Nepalis I came to love dearly supported the caste system and did not intervene when a low-caste, orphan boy slowly starved to death in their village, in full view. A woman was bleeding to death after childbirth. The touch of her female blood was spiritually polluting. Spiritual pollution causes a Hindu to be reborn into an inferior lifeform, as a loathsome animal, or, even worse, an Untouchable. A Westerner tried to elicit help in transporting the dying woman to a roadhead and a life-saving Jeep ride to a Western-run hospital. No one would help the American carry her “filthy” body. Because the American had touched her, he was now spiritually polluted and his service in that village was over forever. In Africa, loving parents handed their daughters over to old women, their fingernails black with grime, armed with filthy shards of glass or even just sharpened stones. The old women would gouge out the daughters’ clitorises.
Later, in grad school, I took a course on Ancient Greek novels. These novels were utterly superficial. Pretty women, valiant men, all upper class, won victories. Slaves were there to be raped, humiliated, mocked, dehumanized, and killed without compunction. The authors of these novels lived their intellectual and imaginative lives inside a box as restrictive as Gitmo. It never occurred to any of them that an ugly person could be wise or good, that a pretty person could be shallow and boring, that a victory was no real measure of human worth, and that slaves were every bit as human as their masters.
After these novels, our class read “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Though contemporaneous with the Ancient Greek novels, this two-thousand-year-old-document, like a mustang broken free from the corral, galloped into an entirely different mental and spiritual horizon. Thecla, a young girl, overturns her entire surround: her parents, her arranged fiancé, the entire Greco-Roman Pagan world. She hears the Christian Gospel, and explodes: I am a human being, because God made me so, and no mortal bosses me around! My life has meaning that transcends physical reality. You can kill me for my beliefs; I will go to Heaven. Thecla concludes this at a time when the paterfamilias had every right to declare that a female infant could be exposed at birth.
I bubbled over, trying to share with my professor and fellow students my excitement. Didn’t everyone see the contrast from the Pagan novels, with their shallow concerns and contempt for the mass of humanity, for anyone who wasn’t a high-born Greco-Roman, and Thecla, who had discovered the value of her own, individual life, and was determined to celebrate that life, even if she were immediately, as her society decreed, publicly eaten by a lion for her defiance?
My professor and fellow students, rather than celebrating with me, looked at me as if I’d brought bubonic plague into class. Christianity was the bane of mankind, they insisted. Pagan women were happy and free, they insisted – contrary to the evidence of the texts we had all just read. Christianity imprisoned women, they insisted. When Greco-Roman Paganism died, it set humanity back a thousand years, they insisted. Why didn’t I realize that? I was punished with a final grade of “B,” the lowest grade I ever got in grad school.
One last example of nice people doing abominable things. When working on my book “Bieganski,” I read the thinkers who inspired Nazism, including Madison Grant, Alfred Rosenberg, and Heinrich Himmler. Looking through their eyes, applying their facts gleaned from Social Darwinism, Neo-Paganism, and Romantic Nationalism, one could see Himmler’s “logic” when he argued, “Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished.” That the life of a woman who is not a member of your tribe has any value at all is simply not a Nazi concept.
We hold these truths to be so self-evident that we don’t even bother to contemplate where we got them: that all men are created equal. And note the word “created,” there. A single, loving, creator God made all of us in God’s own divine image, thus, our lives matter. Individual conscience is primary. Assertions should be examined critically before being accepted. Parents do not have the right to kill their children. What we touch cannot damage our spiritual state.
Poorly educated Westerners think that “everybody” believes these “self-evident truths.” This foolish assumption is demonstrated by a popular social media meme that states, “Buddha was not a Buddhist. Jesus was not a Christian. Mohammed was not a Muslim. They all taught love. Love was their religion.” In some iterations, the meme features images associated with Taoism, Hinduism, and Judaism. In other words, all religions are one. They’re all about love.
Not everyone is so blind. China is notorious for both historic and contemporary female infanticide. Even so, the 2011 death of Wang Yue shocked the nation and the world. “Little Yue Yue” was two years old. She wandered into the street, was immediately hit by two vehicles, and lay bleeding as at least eighteen adults stepped around her body. Video of her fatal accident went viral.
China asked, “How could this happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again?” Chinese people themselves offered an interesting reply, a reply that called on traditions from both the West and the East. “We don’t have a Good Samaritan tradition, and we need one to prevent events like this in the future,” some Chinese people said. “What we do have is shao guan xian shi, that is, don’t get involved if it’s not your business, and guanxi, that is, the network of people who are important to you.” These Chinese concepts inevitably call to mind Confucianism, a tradition that emphasizes family and a social order built on rigid hierarchies and each person assuming his or her superior or inferior place, as assigned at birth.
In contrast, Jesus tells the Good Samaritan story in the New Testament. It’s not just one parable among many. Jesus tells it in answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Good Samaritan ethic is central to Christianity. Jesus was, of course, a Jew. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said that “The one command reiterated more than any other … thirty-six times said the rabbis, is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In most cultures, there is a morality for those close to oneself, and another morality for outsiders. Jesus was preaching an exceptional morality that transcended tribal boundaries.
In recent years, woke culture has denigrated Western Civilization as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, imperialist, Orientalist, etc. One university professor told me that the very words “Western Civilization” are racist and should be uttered only in condemnation.
At the same time, prominent New Atheists including Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer have aggressively peddled the fiction that anything they like that has arisen from the Judeo-Christian tradition is merely the result of the unseen hand of “progress.” Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” encapsulates this myth. There is some force out there, some unseen hand, maybe it’s “the universe,” that makes everything, including people, improve as time passes. Other New Atheists, including James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, with a religious fervor, depict anything they like about life today as a generous gift from a handful of French and English Enlightenment-era atheists.
That these New Atheists are wrong is readily apparent. Ancient Egypt lasted about three thousand years. The Palette of Narmer is an artwork frequently cited as evidence of Egyptian stability, if not stasis. It was created c. 3200 BC and its aesthetics would work in Egypt three thousand years later. Australian Aboriginal culture lasted for tens of thousands of years, and might have continued unchanged for tens of thousands of more years had Europeans not arrived. The posited unseen hand of progress, that somehow magically arrives with the passage of time, would never have brought modern medicine, electricity, universities, Andy Warhol, Suffragettes, Abolitionists, Shakespeare or the “Me, Too” movement to Egypt or Aboriginal Australia.
Something happened that made the West different. What was that something? Christianity, or, perhaps more accurately, the Judeo-Christian tradition, is Tom Holland’s unambiguous and richly supported reply. In offering this reply, Holland marks himself with the scarlet letter of heretic. Cultural relativism? No, he insists, not all cultures are the same. If you share Western values, you will inevitably identify some cultures as better than others. Are you a hip, wokester globalist, and do you believe yourself to be beyond Christian ethics? Get over yourself, Holland insists. If you are a cutting-edge, atheist multiculturalist, you have still been formed by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But wait – Holland is not offering any consolation or reason to hope to those still clinging to the “old time religion.” Institutional Christianity is “cratering,” he acknowledges, Pew Research shows that the “religiously unaffiliated” are perhaps the world’s fastest growing religious identity group. Holland is not sanguine about this; in fact, his prognostication is as grim as that offered by Dostoyevsky, “Without God, everything is permitted.” Holland’s prediction is as terrifying as that in William Butler Yeats’ 1919 poem, “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold … what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” The rough beast in question is a Pagan one, reborn after the marginalization of the savior born in Bethlehem. Maybe Nietzsche was correct, Holland has said in recent interviews. The Nazis showed us what a Western power that completely overturned its Christian inheritance could be like. Maybe things will go very bad very quickly once the religiously unaffiliated dominate culture. Or maybe not. It may take centuries to see.
No, Holland is not a grand inquisitor brandishing a cross and wearing a scarlet Monty Python costume. In fact, Holland, an atheist, is neither a Christian nor a believer. He grew up infatuated with the Ancient world and dinosaurs, not angels or saints. His study of the Ancient World brought home to him how alien the pre-Christian and post-Christian populations were to each other. Romans thought and did things that would be unthinkable to us, he realized. He had the same epiphany that I had when I read “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
Nor does Holland attribute Christianity to any supernatural power. Holland presents a Christianity that is stitched together of pre-existing parts, including Roman emperor worship, Greek philosophy, Zoroastrian concepts of good and evil and European Paganism. In Holland’s view, it is Christianity’s innovative use of those pre-existing parts that changed the world. Throughout his book, Holland eschews any supernatural influence. Groundbreaking, history-changing saints, conquerors and popes respond to material conditions in pragmatic ways, given what they have to work with. What they have to work with is a remarkable tradition that elevates a crucified savior. This is the process that changes the world: influential people, for thousands of years, at all levels of society, struggling to conform, or at least appearing to conform, their behavior to Christian teaching.
Christians will like some of the movements and attitudes Holland associates with Christianity. These include the scientific revolution, the concept of the individual, freedom of choice, a “rare dignity” and security accorded to women, the weakening of the patriarchy and tribalism, the elevation of romantic love, the suppression of incest, the strengthening of the nuclear family and the weakening of extended families, separation of church and state, hospitals, universities, the ideal of equal justice under the law, the question mark, education of the masses, innovation, linear time, freedom of conscience, the abolition of slavery, the elevation of reason, and human rights. Christians may like some others less: secularism, gay rights, Richard Dawkins, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Holland commands a massive library of material, and when he argues for Christianity’s influence on Dawkins’ evangelical atheism and Lennon’s egomaniacal messiah complex, one must treat his arguments with respect, a respect he earns.
This reader was genuinely touched by Holland’s compassionate approach. Holland works to see the world through the eyes of the people about whom he is writing, including people, like the Marquis de Sade and Konrad von Marburg, whom the reader will easily loathe. Yes, it makes sense for Ancient Persians, Greeks, and Romans, who do not share the “man is made in the image of God” concept, to torture and crucify their enemies. Yes, it made sense for Catholic Cardinal Thomas Cajetan to struggle, but gently, to rein in Martin Luther. And, yes, it made sense for Luther, given his personality, agenda, and beliefs to resist the Catholic Church. This is the first time I’ve read about the Reformation in a book that sees, not bad guys versus good guys, just human beings acting on their limited perceptions.
No, Holland does not present a whitewashed version of Christianity. I found utterly fascinating how he identifies the tremendous challenges Christianity presents believers, and how those challenges were handled by believers over the course of two thousand years. Love your neighbor as yourself. The Samaritan, that is, the despised, is your neighbor. In Christ there is no male nor female, no Jew nor Greek. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. There is only one God; when horrors occur, that one good, loving God was in charge. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. How did believers handle these explosive teachings? How did they affect the status of women, homosexuals, and Jews?
Holland uses larger-than-life figures to show how Christians have lived their interpretation of these teachings. He revivifies Boniface, a seventh-century missionary who brought Christianity to Pagan Germanic tribes. Boniface was attacked by armed men during his final mission. He told his Christian companions to lay down their arms and accept death without resistance, as per Christ’s words to overcome evil with good. Holland also presents Christian warriors like Charles Martel, the Hammer, who defeated invading Muslims at Tours in 732. We read of Princess Elizabeth of Hungary, who gave away her wealth to the poor, who built a hospital and worked in it daily, who put a leper in her own bed, and who refused to eat anything “that might have derived from exploitation of the poor.” We also read of a succession of popes who heeded the temptations of worldly power, including private steam rooms. We read of Pope Innocent III, who green lit the Albigensian Crusade, a shameful episode and low point of Catholicism, but who also made it a point to extend charity to prostitutes. Innocent endowed a hospital and specified that it “offer refuge to sex workers.” Innocent also offered remission of sins to any man so charitable as to marry a prostitute so that she could escape sex work. We read of a Catholic Church, that, for centuries, dismissed as ignorant fantasies any talk of Satan-worshipping witches, and we read of that same church succumbing to hysteria and the burnings of alleged heretics. And even then, in the allegedly “dark” twelfth century, Peter the Venerable traveled to Muslim lands to work on a translation of the Koran. Peter would, he said, address Muslims “not with arms, but with words; not with violence; but reason; not with hate, but with love.” In the eleventh century, Saint Anselm referred to Jesus, Saint Paul, and himself as a “mother,” and he invited Queen Matilda to take on the role of Christ. Matilda was “a woman as indomitable as she was pious.” In spite of institutional misogyny, priests “knew that their Lord, risen from the dead, had first revealed himself, not to his disciples, but to a woman.” “This weak woman,” Pope Urban said of Catherine of Siena, “puts us all to shame.” He invited Catherine to lecture his cardinals. The contradictions, complexities, richness, are all dizzying. The reader is grateful to Holland for his guidance through this garden, bursting with flowers, thorns, bugs, exotic and yet familiar life.
And that’s just the Middle Ages. With the Reformation come men like Jan Zizka, a one-eyed, Czech Hussite general who commanded that a drum to frighten his Catholic enemies be made of his corpse’s skin. “Christian teachings, far from blunting hatreds, seemed a whetstone” in the subsequent two hundred years of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. “Men who come after us will never believe what miseries we have suffered,” wrote one survivor of countless atrocities committed in the name of Christ. Jesuit astronomers bringing advanced science to Chinese royal courts; conquistadors in the New World confronting horrific human sacrifice and committing atrocities of their own; Puritans forbidding the celebration of Christmas and befriending, and then making war on Indians; the life cycle of parasitic wasps; the anarchist Diggers; the Bone Wars of competing paleontologists; “Lord of the Rings,” and Jewish atheist Spinoza’s respect for Christ, a Quaker woman, crossing borders alone and on foot, and walking into the Turkish Sultan’s presence and sharing with him the Good News: Holland juggles it all with the grace of a ballet dancer. He finds the common threads that unite these events and render them, as distant as they are from each other, into integral chapters of the same long book that began with our dating system: anno domini, the year of Christ’s birth.
“Dominion” is 611 pages long, notes and index inclusive, and it covers 2,500 years of history. Holland commands the legerdemain necessary to conjure a page-turner out of material that might be lugubrious in other hands. Holland’s style is always “in media res;” that is, he begins each passage right in the middle of some key historical event, without, initially, providing the reader with exhaustive orientation. The reader has just gotten comfortable reading about American Quaker, vegetarian, and abolitionist Benjamin Lay, a four-foot-tall hunchback. Turn the page, and suddenly you are reading about Jean Calas, an eighteenth-century French cloth merchant, who has been accused of murdering his own son. Then, like Paul Harvey, Holland sketches in “the rest of the story.” In fact Calas’ grisly execution for a murder he probably didn’t commit became a cause célèbre for Voltaire. Holland thus creates an impressionistic view of his material. Like Monet, Holland doesn’t draw every vein on every leaf in the garden; rather, he sketches major scenes in ways that suggest the larger landscape. Holland doesn’t outline every skirmish between every Enlightenment figure and Catholicism; rather, he focuses on gripping stories, like Calas’, and big name celebrities, like Voltaire. I found Wikipedia to be my constant companion in reading Holland’s book, because I craved more of the “who, what, when, where, why, how” background than Holland provides. I absolve Holland of any failing. Had he provided those details for every person or event he mentions, his book would grow to encyclopedia length. I am entirely confident that Holland could write the encyclopedia; he is a one-man library. Just the tower of bookcases rising behind him in a recent YouTube video is intimidating.
“It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right, and will be proved right.” The speaker predicting Christianity’s demise could have been Pontius Pilate, Robespierre, or Himmler. In fact it was John Lennon, who was, in his own estimation, “more popular than Jesus.” In recent interviews, Holland has been asked what will happen to Western Civilization once the religiously unaffiliated outnumber believers. Holland, along with Douglas Murray, has toyed with the concept of atheist Christian, that is, someone who doesn’t believe, but clings to the best of the tradition. I, for one, don’t think this will work. I am a person of faith, and Christ’s sacrifice informs my behavior. I’m very aware of my own inner Marquis de Sade, my own inner Himmler, and, no, I wouldn’t be the same person without the example of the creator of the universe undergoing horrific torture for my account, and saying, from his cross, “Father, forgive them.” Holland can’t predict the future and neither can I, but his book is a priceless introduction to a past too precious for us to let go.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery