Faith, atheism, history, and a prayer for healing

Justin Brierley, whose podcast (and book) charts The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, met with Tom Holland, the celebrated historian, podcaster and self-described ‘Protestant agnostic’, for a public conversation last month. They spoke in Westminster Chapel before a live audience, and discussed the state of faith today, as well as Holland’s own intellectual and spiritual story.

On the state of faith, Holland noted that the churches which are most vibrant are the immigrant and Pentecostal churches which have a powerful sense of the supernatural, or the mainstream churches with a deep sense of the sublime.

Holland, whose book Dominion argued that the values of the modern Western world derive from the Christian faith and the teaching of Jesus, said: ‘The problem for Christianity is that it’s been too successful. Basically, everyone has accepted its essential principles, that everyone should be kind to the poor. Everyone buys into that. The things that the church traditionally did – education, hospital, poor relief – this has all been nationalised. What there is left for the churches to do is to talk about the things no one else is talking about, which is all the supernatural stuff.

Holland had his own brush with the divine when he was diagnosed with cancer during the Covid pandemic. Still waiting for news about whether the cancer had spread, he went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at an historic London church where a vision of the Virgin Mary had been reported in the 12th century. At the end of the service, he said, ‘I looked over to where the Virgin had appeared, and I thought, well, I might as well give it a go! There’s no atheist in a foxhole. What have I got to lose?’

He prayed a heartfelt prayer, and ‘all kinds of things went right from that point on.’

Holland is tempted to see the episode as miraculous. He said: ‘As a Protestant agnostic, the idea that I had had a Marian intervention seemed to me so sublimely funny, I thought, well if it’s true, God has the most wonderful sense of humour. I hug to myself the thought that I have been touched by something that utterly transcends every prejudice that I would have against the possibility of it happening. Not just that it is supernatural, but that is is essentially medieval, Catholic, everything I would view myself as not being.’

Listen to this section of the conversation (and the whole piece) on the video above.

The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God podcast is supported by the Christian Evidence Society. Justin Brierley also publishes a regular newsletter, Think Faith.