TIA: The Good Old Dark Ages

Still in Chapter 2 of Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist, we come now to his section on the history of religion and science, in which Vox tries to debunk the idea that reason and religion have ever experienced any significant conflict. He begins by setting up a straw man.

As Dawkins himself admits, the overwhelming majority of scientists throughout centuries in which the scientific process was developed were religious, or at least claimed to be:

Newton did indeed claim to be religious. So did almost everybody until—significantly I think—the nineteenth century, when there was less social and judicial pressure than in earlier centuries to profess religion, and more scientific support for abandoning it.

What’s significant about this statement is the way it contradicts the notion that the Catholic Church had been dogmatically opposing Science, as evidenced by its notorious trial of Galileo Galilee, all throughout the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and well into the eighteenth century.

Notice, the contrary position is set up as being the view that the Church was opposing science, and not just trying to assert ultimate authority over science (including veto power over any conclusions deemed heretical). The conflict between religion and reason has always been over the issue of authority, and has not been (until recently) an attempt by religion to openly oppose scientific facts. Even in the Dark Ages, they weren’t that dumb.

But it suits Vox’s purposes to pretend that “the other guys” are trying to claim a more overt hostility than was actually the case. Just give an example of a scientist with Christian beliefs and voilà, he’s proven that “the other guys” are wrong. But just in case that’s not enough “proof” for you, he has some more ad hominem arguments that ought to convince you.

Edward Gibbon, the author of the classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire famously describes them as “priest-ridden, superstitious, dark times.” Of course, it can be reasonably suggested that anyone who is fascinated enough with the Roman Empire to write a million-and-a-half words in six volumes about it, and is blindly prejudiced enough to blame its ultimate collapse on a religion that did not become commonplace until centuries after Juvenal was satirizing the mad decadence of imperial Roman society, is perhaps unlikely to be the most accurate guide in these matters.

Call this the “Judge Jones Response.” Anytime someone comes to a conclusion that is unfavorable to Christianity, it’s safe to say that they must be unreasonably biased against religion, and therefore you can consider yourself justified in rejecting their conclusions without even needing to look at the evidence (no matter how well-documented that evidence may be). It’s all about personalities, about Us versus Them. Gibbon was clearly one of Them (even though his book does not claim that Christianity is solely responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire), and therefore if he says that religion played a role in the downfall of Rome, that just goes to show that Christianity was innocent, and might even have been a positive influence. And never mind the actual history of the Middle Ages.

What is fascinating is that this modern misconception of medieval times is at least partly based upon the romantic perspective of a fourteenth-century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, a Christian humanist better known in English as Petrarch, who is considered to have created the very concept of the Dark Ages…

Theodore Mommsen, whose essay on Petrarch was recently selected as one of the thirteen most important critical essays on the Italian Renaissance, makes a convincing case of how it was Petrarch’s fixation on Rome’s past glories and his awe of its grandiose ruins led him to conclude, mostly on the basis of his nationalistic contempt for Germanic domination of what had once been an Italian empire, that he lived in an age of tenebrae, or darkness.

The Dark Ages, you see, were invented by a disappointed Italian nationalist who was upset that the Holy Roman Empire was actually German and not really Roman at all. Never mind that, for example, religious superstitions stifled the study of human anatomy for 1500 years after Galen (except in Arabic countries), or that the history of medieval astronomy is a history of what the Arabs were doing. The Arabs were also making significant advances in chemistry centuries before medieval Christians began to turn from superstitious alchemy into more scientific approaches. The early Greeks dabbled in many sciences, including geology, but Christian Europe in the Middle Ages is remarkably slow to pick up where the Greeks left off, looking into geology only in the 17th century (again, preceded centuries earlier by Arabs).

Not that I blame Vox for taking the ad hominem approach to defending the idea of Church and science. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to try and undertake the task of producing evidence that the medieval Church supported and encouraged free scientific inquiry and a rational approach to understanding the world around us. There’s just not that much material to work with. Certainly, some interesting technical advances were made, such as the heavy plow and the artesian well, but Christian Europe lagged noticeably behind the Arabs and even the previous Greek civilizations in terms of real scientific progress.

What makes medieval history a particularly touchy subject is not just that it was a period of Dark Ages, but that it ought to have been a Golden Age. The influence of the Christian Church over the State under Constantine was something modern conservative Christians have wet dreams about. America never has been and never will be as emphatically Christian as the Roman Empire under Constantine. Yes, the people weren’t all Christians (and if Rome couldn’t make them all Christians, Washington surely never will). But that doesn’t matter. The theme we hear time and time again is that God will bless the nation that turns to Him, and that’s exactly what Constantine did do. The Middle Ages ought to be an example to us of the great prosperity, cultural advances, and general well-being that ought to exist when God is allowed to lead the State. Instead, it’s an example of stifled scientific inquiry and the collapse of an advanced imperial civilization into a fractured feudal society. And don’t get me started on Byzantine history! The nation-state-empire that embodies the ideal of church-state fusion has become the by-word for political intrigue, corruption, and all-around sneakiness.

Small wonder, then, that Vox prefers to imply that those who point out such things are icky people. You know, intellectuals and Marxists and stuff.

It is not within the scope of this book to consider why many Enlightenment intellectuals were opposed to Christianity in general and the Church in particular, it is enough to simply note that this was the case…

This was particularly true of the French Encyclopédistes, and the influence of their landmark Encyclopédie paved the way for modern rationalism and the French Revolution, as well as firmly fixing the notion of the irrationality, superstition, and tyranny of the previous millennium in the public consciousness. By waging a fierce intellectual war against Religion in the name of Reason and by defining the two concepts in inherent opposition to each other, it was the philosophes who were responsible for weakening that pre-nineteenth century social and judicial pressure to which Richard Dawkins referred…

Thomas Riggins, in the Marxist journal Political Affairs, notes that many Enlightenment intellectuals were not opposed to religion in itself, but rather to religion being used by “dictatorial religious elements using religion for their own selfish purposes.” In a variant on this theme, I suggest that the New Atheists are not actually particularly interested in defending science in itself, but are deeply afraid of science reaching a friendly rapprochement with religion.

Since we have already established that the opposition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris to religion does not stem from any rational fears for science as a body of knowledge, a profession, or a process, and that there was no significant historical enmity between science and religion, it is apparent that the New Atheists’ stated desire to destroy religion must stem from another source.

What Vox is establishing, far better than he intends, is that Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris have very good reason to sound a warning. The Dark Ages happened once before, and by arguing that they really weren’t all that bad, Vox is demonstrating that he wouldn’t be too unhappy to see them happen again. Nor is he alone in this attitude. Be concerned, America. Be very concerned.

4 Responses to “TIA: The Good Old Dark Ages”

  1. Deacon Duncan Says:

    There’s a comment on Vox’s blog, (number 32, from “derp”) that the author says he would have left here except for his dislike of WordPress. I trust he won’t mind if I reproduce it here.

    The first thing that occurred to me while reading this was, “While I’m no expert in Arab history, if the good Deacon wishes to point out how bad religion is when it’s wedded to the state, why did he note that the Arabs were so much more advanced than the Christians during the Middle Ages? I’m 92% sure that the Caliphate wasn’t exactly secular. Seems to me like our tenured friend made a strong argument for Islam, not atheism.”

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Now that’s a very interesting point. Modern Islam does seem to have evolved to the point that Christianity was at in the Middle Ages, but in its early centuries it does not seem to have been as dogmatic about scientific endeavors. Bear in mind, of course, that Islam didn’t get started until the early seventh century, so Christianity had an extra six centuries to work on “taking every thought captive“. But even taking cultural and historical influences into account, there still seems room for the conclusion that science and religion can co-exist peacefully. As I said before,

    Vox wants to show that it is an error to claim that religious faith is inherently bad. This is a thesis that I might actually agree with, to some extent. It is not religion, per se, that is dangerous and unhealthy. Rather, certain elements within religion are dangerous and unhealthy, namely superstition, self-righteous intolerance, and the willful inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. These factors are clearly and demonstrably detrimental, and do indeed deserve our condemnation and rejection.

  3. jodyw1 Says:

    While I’m not an expert by any means on the subject, I believe Karen Armstrong offered a hypothesis on why Islam did so well with science relative to Christianity. In The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam she suggested that most of the insights of Islam were based during a fairly open “liberal” period in the collective faith.

    She believes that their scientific advancement was stifled after the Caliphate and the religious bodies that controlled it, came to be dominated by very literalist / fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, sometime… and this is off the top of my head… between the 12th to the 14th Century.

    You might know more on the subject.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Well, I hope to learn more about it anyway. The thought did occur to me that the early liberalism of Islam might have been a by-product of the initial conversion-by-conquest approach that Muslims took. If you force large numbers of people, across a wide range of cultural backgrounds, to confess Mohammed or die, you’ve got a much greater likelihood that significant numbers of “believers” will continue to hold the same values and philosophies as before, with only a superficial layer of Islamic “loyalty” on top. By absorbing too much too fast, Islam increased the amount of time required to truly and completely dominate the cultures it controlled.

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