There is an important article in this week’s New Statesman. It addresses the big (embarrassingly big) issue of what our most fundamental values are in the West.
The historian Tom Holland explains that his study of the classical world has made him realise that a huge gulf exists between the values of that era and modern Western assumptions – especially the assumption that all human lives matter. Classical culture has huge allure for modern intellectuals, but in reality its values were never far from fascist. And it was Christianity that put new values on the table – a fact that Enlightenment thinkers massively downplayed, due to their sneering dismissal of ‘superstition’. ‘In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.’
Agnostics are generally reluctant to admit the debt that Western morality owes to Christianity. Why? Because it makes them dependent on something that they are not comfortable with, that they enjoy disdaining. Since childhood they have confidently assumed that religion is nonsense – it is awkward to admit that one form of this ‘nonsense’ underlies their most basic moral responses. Easier to pretend that universal humanism just comes naturally – evolves maybe? Holland is contributing to an important ‘back to basics’ mood: an urge to reflect on the roots of Western values – even if they’re embarrassingly religious.