I’ve self identified as a post theist Christian for years, but back to back reading of a couple of contrasting books by authors who are also prompts this blog.
The books are ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bregman, and ‘Dominion’ by Tom Holland. Both authors are atheists, but both able to acknowledge the Christian origins of their ethics. They are also both historians, although Tom Holland was never an academic one. Of the two, Tom Holland’s ethics could be said to be more Christian, since he only gives history, by which he will mean largely his account of Christian history, as a source for humanist values – from p. 522
and by rejecting the idea that morality also has roots in a scientific understanding of human nature he puts himself at odds with Bregman. Bregman is much more interested in the science, of evolutionary psychology, and the prehistory of what happened to human society when the neolithic drove us to live in large social units. Tom Holland’s history begins later, in the Ancient world, and tells of how its brutality was transformed into our more modern civilisation by ideas such as St. Paul’s.
Although interested in evolutionary psychology and prehistory, Bregman still comes to it as a historian, devastatingly when he does some archival research to challenge the myth put forward by Jared Diamond about the collapse of Easter Island’s society. Humans may well cause severe damage to our environment, but that is not what caused societal breakdown on Easter Island. Rather it was the historical processes of colonial exploitation.
As a historian, Bregman touches on but doesn’t get directly involved in theoretical biological and philosophical arguments. This is the domain of the so called ‘New Atheists’ – Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. At one level there is not that big a gap between these and ‘Post theist Christians’. All are atheists, but while Harris, to take an example, (Chapter 2, ‘The Moral Landscape’) argues that our ability to judge is something we bring to religion, it therefore cannot come from it, Tom Holland’s account of Christianity is a pretty good demonstration that somewhere there is a flaw in this logic. In the same way Bregman, looking at historical facts, makes it clear there is a flaw somewhere in Jared Diamond’s extrapolation of his natural science approach to a specific historical case.
Instead Bregman highlights biologists whose research suggest that humans might be, by nature, something like what we, as moderns, see as good. Not completely, because he admits that while with people we know we may be co-operative and egalitarian, xenophobia may also be in our nature. Tom Holland’s ‘Dominion’ can be seen as a historical account of how that xenophobia developed and was controlled over the last two millennia, but that is not Bregman’s focus. Similarly, Tom Holland’s focus is not on natural sources of our morality, although he does enjoy highlighting the Christian origins of the idea of natural rights.
Will either Tom Holland or Rutger Bregman be engaging with each other one day? I do hope so – it would be well worth attending if they do.
For reference, reviews of both books here from the Guardian, so not paywalled
Humankind by Rutger Bregman review – why we are all deep-down decent