Ross Douthat: The world that Christmas made

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The procession leaves at the end of the early morning Christmas Eve mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Sunday, December 24, 2017.

In early November, a study published in the journal Science claimed to trace the whole social course of modernity — the decline of clan and tribe, the turn to nuclear families, the rise of individualism — back to Roman Catholicism’s opposition to incest.

The medieval church’s sweeping ban on cousin-marriage, the researchers argued, broke up traditional kinship networks and gave rise to new family patterns and eventually a new psychology — a less conformist, more individualist, very clearly modern mindset that according to their research is much more common in regions that had sustained exposure to Catholicism before 1500.

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence,” runs a famous line from John Maynard Keynes, “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” This goes for practical modern people and deceased theologians as well: You may think you don’t want to marry your cousin for sound reasons of genetic hygiene, but in fact you’re just following injunctions laid down by French ecclesiastics in the sixth century after Christ.

The Science study naturally provoked a certain discomfort among people disinclined to credit Western Christendom for anything save stained glass and inquisitions. The more interesting question, though, is what actual believing Christians should make of it, and of the larger genre to which it belongs: Historical accounts that emphasize our religion’s essential role in the making of the modern world, even as that same modernity has obviously been a time of dissolution for many people’s faith.

This is a good Christmas season question, for the time of year when the threads still binding us to the old-time religion shine red and green and silver, and it’s sharpened by an example of the genre that would make a good last-minute Christmas gift: The British historian Tom Holland’s new book “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World,” a galloping tour of Christianity’s influence across the last 2,000 years, with vivid vignettes scattered across the centuries, and a concluding argument that the Christian faith, “the most influential framework for making sense of human existence that has ever existed,” still shapes the way that even the most secular modern people think about the world.

Assume for the sake of argument that Holland’s account is largely true. Does that get actual Christian belief anywhere in contemporary debates? Is anyone persuaded to take up a faith, or consider it anew, because ideas they value are historically and intellectually dependent on its premises?

I think there are historical moments when this can happen: The little renaissance in Christian thought in the aftermath of World War II, for instance, clearly owed something to a desire to get back to the West’s religious roots, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima made a certain kind of secular optimism seem foolish.

But it took a uniquely horrifying moment to produce that impulse — like a person turning to a priest in the aftermath of a literal demonic visitation. In our own era Christians still fear the possibility of a post-Christian totalitarianism, but nonbelievers fear elements of conservative Christianity rather more, and often share the hope expressed in my New Haven, Connecticut, neighbor Samuel Moyn’s review of Holland — that a secular, social-justice left can preserve the best of the Christian ethical inheritance while leaving the metaphysics and a considerable part of the morality behind.

In the long run I am not sure this hope is warranted: Human movements have a drive toward coherence in their world-pictures, and one reason secular utopianism unmoored from Christianity has become radical and murderous so often is that a coherent atheist materialism will tend to exclude as mere sentiment the ideas about inherent human dignity and the “thou shalt nots” that the Christian revolution introduced.

But societies can also live with ideological inconsistency for quite some time before that drive manifests itself — and in the between-time, I don’t expect many secular readers to leap into religious faith because a newspaper columnist complains about their system’s incoherence.

Which is no doubt why the scriptures that inspire this holiday season contain more simple miracles than they do clever arguments about consistent world-pictures. Indeed if I am honest, the key difference between a regretful doubter like Holland, convinced of Christianity’s moral power but unable in his book’s conclusion to quite make the leap of faith, and a fumbling believer like myself, may be as simple as this: I grew up around mystical and supernatural-seeming happenings, which primed me to permanently doubt the reasonableness of materialism in all its forms, both confident and sorrowful.

So as much I enjoy arguing about modernity’s debt to Christianity, what most often sustains faith in a secular age are the surprising answers given to different people every day, with God only knows what patterns and purposes, to W.H. Auden’s Advent prayer:

Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.

There’s no harm in asking for yourself, this week. Merry Christmas.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.