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Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The "Dark Ages" and Other Propaganda

Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I have been having an interesting dialogue with Peter Creswell about the history of theology.

To sum up PC follows the 20th century novelist Ayn Rand. Rand's followers view Aristotle as the "father of the enlightenment," they appear to hold a view of history that is extremely common in popular history. The story goes like this: prior to the rise of Christianity was the "classical period" where science and reason flourished among the ancient greek thinkers (of which Aristotle is the par excellence). This learning was extinguished by the rise of Christianity, which hated reason and science in favour of a supersitious faith. This brought about a period called the 'dark ages' where all progress and science were suppressed. The discovery of Aristotle's works in the late middle ages changed this, people began following reason again and as a result liberated themselves from the shackles of dark age superstitions most notably Christianity. It was this liberation from religious supersition that brought about the rise of science, a rise contested unsucessfully by the Church, which resulted in the enlightenment where secularism prevailed. Such things as liberty and freedom come from the enlightenment, not from Christianity, which opposed it.

I have maintained for some time now that this story is mistaken and based on simplistic and often caricatured readings of the history of theology. PC on the other hand demurs, he thinks this is clearly true and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply spouting religious propaganda. The exchange is below. PC's comments are in italics my responses follow each one.

1. You see, at the root of the Enlightenment was the knowledge that reason is capable of explaining existence -- that is, that reason is our means of acquiring knowledge, and it is knowledge of this world, not of the next one. Knowledge of nature, not of “super-nature,” is that promotes life on earth.

Actually, no. Many of the major enlightenment figures did not limit reason to nature. Descartes’ defended the ontological argument, Locke, defended Christianity and theism and in fact his epistemology was motivated by the desire to be able to come to correct conclusions about God (this is according to what his friend wrote on one of the earliest manuscripts of Locke’s essay). Berkley was a theist who wanted to refute materialism, Hume’s religious affinities are a matter of debate but many view him as a theist or deist. Reid was a Presbyterian minister who wanted to use reason to fight skepticism about religion. Berkley defended the ontological and cosmological arguments and used reason to develop a theodicy. Kant wanted to make room for faith and immortality and defended the moral argument. Newton’s preface states that his basis for adopting the scientific method was theological (and anti-Aristotelian btw) and he developed his physics, in part, to defend the existence of God. I could go on.

Moreover, one of the major problems with the epistemology of the enlightenment (known as classical foundationalism) is that it had trouble providing a basis for knowledge of an external world. This is a central issue in Descartes through to Locke, Berkley, Hume, Reid, etc. Locke believed that much of what we perceive are secondary qualities, created by our mind. Hume took the skepticism to its conclusion. Berkley, Reid and Descartes appealed to theology to solve these skeptical problems. Kant used this skepticism to defend theology.

2. The fact is that since the rediscovery of Aristotle's writings, the Church has sought to reconcile reason and mysticism, and to appropriate the pagan Aristotle as some sort of patron saint.

Actually the project of using reason to defend, develop and refine faith predates Aristotle and goes all the way back to Philo of Alexandria. Then there are the early Church fathers like Justin (a Greek philosopher), Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Athenagoras, Clement, Gregory of Nazianius, Basil, to name a few. Moreover, classical Greek philosophy and learning was promoted prior to Aquinas by people like Boethius, Isidore, Anselm, Bede, Peter Damian, Abelard and so on. Some early Christian thinkers were hostile to Greek Philosophy or hostile to it in certain contexts but many were not and the suggestion that the anti-philosophy camp was main-stream is simply false.

3 Aristotle's method of observation-based rationality was so utterly at odds with the religionist thinking that had dominated the Dark Ages, and was responsible for those Ages being Dark, that they struck even religious thinkers like a bombshell when they were rediscovered after a millennia of darkness.

Wrong again, Numbers and Lindberg note that recent historical research suggests that this portrayal of the early middle ages as “the dark ages” is a caricature. (David C Lindberg “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon and the Handmaiden Metaphor” in When Science & Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003) 7-8). A conclusion shared by the studies of Henri Pirenne (A History of Europe from the End of the Roman World in the West to the Beginning of Western States, (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958)) and Marc Bloch (Feudal Society, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1961)) and Richard Hodge (“The Not So Dark Ages,” Archaeology 51 (September/October 1998).

Contemporary encycolpaedias bear this out; the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopaedia states that the term “dark ages” is no longer used by historians because this period is “no longer thought to have been so dim.’ Similarly the Encyclopaedia Britannica states the term “dark ages” is “now rarely used by historians because of the unacceptable value judgment it implies,” the term “dark ages” incorrectly implies this was “a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.”

3 [W]hen the works of Aristotle—the master of natural science and secular philosophy—were rediscovered in 12th-century Islamic Spain, it is no mystery that Western European thinkers—after centuries of suppression and penury.

Actually the suppression of heretical views rarely occured in the, so called, dark ages. The early church supported freedom of religion until the fifth century when Augustine reluctantly supported suppression of the dontatists. Some Roman emperors put in place laws against heresy which were enforced sporadically in the late roman period (often with protests from the church) but these laws fell out of use and were not enforced in the period mistakenly called the dark ages.

It was not until after the 'dark ages' that heresy was suppressed by Inquisitional courts. In fact it was the heavily Aristotelian Dominican order which carried this suppression out and who justified it. This is all well documented in Joseph Lecler Toleration and the Reformation, trans. by TL Weslow (New York: Association Press, 1960); Edward Peter’s, Inquisition, (London: Collier Macmillan, 1981) and also by Stark (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

4. In fact the the scientific revolution came about because of a rejection of the Church's intellectual domination.

The thesis that the Church for centuries consistently suppressed science and prevented its flourishing (known as the conflict thesis) originates in two works, John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White in his book A History of The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. The conflict thesis is now widely rejected by historians of science. Several people such as Stanley Jaki, (The Road to Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)); Alfred Whitehead, (Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925); Peire Duhem, (L'Aube du savoir: épitomé du système du monde (histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic), ed. Anastasios Brenner, Paris, Hermann, selections from Duhem 1913-59). Michael Foster ("The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the rise of Modern Natural Science," Mind 43 (1934), 446–468 "Christian Theology and Modern Science of Nature (I)" Mind 44 (1935) 439–466; "Christian Theology and Modern Science of Nature (II)" Mind 45 (October, 1936), 1–27. Also, Reijer Hookykaas (Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 1972) and Stark have all called this thesis into question and argued that Christian ways of understanding lead to the rise of Science.

Other’s, most notably Numbers and Lindberg, while not wanting to defend the claim that Christianity fostered the rise of Science, also question the conflict thesis. In an anthology they edited, entitled God and Nature, Numbers and Lindberg suggest a more nuanced thesis; that the relationship between theology and science has been too complex over the ages for either generalisation to be correct.

However both schools, as far as I can tell, reject Whites work as a piece of propaganda. As Collin Russel notes “Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact, that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship.” ("The Conflict of Science and Religion" in The Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, New York 2000). John Hedley Brooke, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, writes in Science and Religion - Some Historical Perspectives (1991), “In its traditional forms, the [conflict] thesis has been largely discredited”. Similarly, Edward Grant Professor Emeritus of the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University writes, “If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities” In the same vein Steven Shapin Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego writes, "In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the 'warfare between science and religion' and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science."

5. Need I mention Galileo? That Galileo saw Aristotle as an adversary was wholly due to the Church's appropriation of The Philsopher, but in evey important respect Galileo's method of observation-based rationality was Aristotle's, whether Galileo knew it or not.

Actually the Galileo example does not fit PC's picture. As William Shea notes Galileo was part of a Platonic revival in Florence. (“Galileo and the Church” in Ronald Numbers and David Lindberg (eds). God and Nature Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science ( Berkley: University of California Press, 1986) 124). He rejected an Aristoleian view of science in favour of a more Platonic view. As a result, Stillman Drake (Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press)) notes that Galileo’s strongest opponents were supporters of Aristotle and it was more his calling into question Aristotle that got him into trouble than his disagreements with the Church.

Interestingly, the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun originates with fourteenth century theologians Burdian and Nicolas d'Oresme; their theories were based in part on Theological condemnations of Aristotelian Philosophy that had occurred in the previous century.

Finally Galileo in developing his views followed the teachings on religion and science propounded by “dark age” writer Augustine of Hippo.

Its amusing to see PC cite a Platonist anti-Aristotelian thinker persecuted by the Aristotelian scientists for following the views of science and religion expounded by a “dark age” philosopher as evidence that Aristotelian ways of thinking liberated science from the shackles of platonist and "dark age" theologians.

6. Newton is not revered for his mystic rambklings or his alchemy; he is revered because his physics integrated and explained such a wealth of actual observations of reality.

Newton’s physics in fact were based on the theological voluntarism of the late middle ages which rejected Aristotelian theories on the ground that God, being sovereign, freely choose the create the world. This is evident from the preface of Newton’s Principia.

7. Locke is revered not for wanting to exclude Catholics from the throne and supporting the suppression of atheists, but for explaining that the protection of individual rights is the only legitimate job of governments, and explaining and integrating the method by which individual rights are best protected.

Actually Locke’s argument in the The Two Treatises of Government is very different from this. Unlike so many Libertarians I encounter I have actually read the book several times. Locke, in fact, grounds rights not in the sovereignty of the individual but in the sovereignty of God. Moreover, his moral theory is based on the voluntarist accounts of natural law which were developed in opposition to Aristotelian natural law theory and which were based on theological concerns about Aristotle limiting God’s freedom and omnipotence.

8. Ockham and Scotus and Albertus Magnus are properly revered not because they were Christians, but for their enormous contributions to the popularisation of logic and reason in an age of Christian darkness.

Actually none of these thinkers lived in the so called "dark ages;" the first two you mention lived in the the later Middle Ages. Moreover, Scotus and Ockham in fact were voluntarists. Voluntarism was a movement based in part on the theological condemnations the Church had made of Aristotle. As Edward Grant notes, in many cases what we see is not Aristotle bringing light to a superstitious church but a Church offering theologically based objections to Aristotle and the scientific progress being the result of attempts to find theologically acceptable alternatives to Aristotle.

9. Aquinas is revered not because he was part of the newly founded the Dominican Order set up to combat heresy in Europe, but because he opened the door to intellectual freedom in the west, however inadvertently.

Unfortunately, again the facts do not support this. During the "dark ages" the official policy towards Jews pagans and heretics was de facto tolerance. As I noted most of the early church supported freedom of religion. It was the later middle ages which saw the establishment of Inquisitions to prosecute heresy. Interestingly, Aquinas supported these Inquistions and used his Aristotelian reason to defend them. However, Aquinas did support tolerating Jews and non-believers citing the authority of “dark age” theologians for support of his position.

Ironically when I broached some of these issues, one of PC's supporters has stated that people like me are analogous to "communists" and not worth reasoning with. I leave my readers to ponder who here represents the sterotyped categories of "the dark ages" versus the "enlightenment."


  1. Why enter into conversation with a zealot who has evidently only ever read one author and two books presumably while an architechture undergrad.

  2. Hi Matt,
    I have been observing PC's 'rant' against Christianity for some time and have been pondering the best approaches to refute Objectivist Athiest arguments.
    Firstly, I note that you do not spend a lot of time showing that Objectivism cannot stand on its own presuppositions (similar to Bahnsen's internal critique of its own world view).
    Secondly, it seems to me that the evolutionary foundation for Objectivism is extremely problematic for its own philosophical system. Eg, Objectivism claims to build its approach on "facts" and "reality" following Aristotle. However, if evolution is based on random chance with no basis for thinking that is logically organised and coherent then how can objectivism cope with reality and fact if that could be part of 'random chance'? Also, evolution is a bad basis for ethics. Given the recent tragic events of Elim students dwowned, would not evolution see this as a benefit to mankind - the survival of the fittest did survive. This is a terrible ethic, but surely, objectivism if it is consistent with its evolutionary thinking, has to go along with. Hence it cannot call a tragedy evil.
    Thirdly, objectivists are quick to charge God with evil. However if God has the attributes Christian's claim (esp the non-communitable attributes) they essentially have to have the knowledge and wisdom that God has before they can judge whether God did good or evil. Just like a child does not have the wisdom to see all that a wise father has, neither can an objectivist know all God's plans - humans cannot go out of the bounds of time and eternity.
    Finally, PC and clan do not respond rationally to responses by Christians. They have an axe to grind. As Van Til reminds the athiest " The point is this. Not believing in God, we have seen , you do not think yourself to be God's creature. And not believing in God you do not think the universe has been created by God. That is to say, you think of yourself and the world as just being there. Now if you actually are God's creature, then your present attitude is very unfair to Him. In that case it is even an insult to Him. And having insulted God, His displeasure rests upon you. God and you are not on "speaking terms." And you have very good reasons for trying to prove that He does not exist. If He does exist, He will punish you for your disregard of Him. You are therefore wearing colored glasses. And this determines everything you say about the facts and reasons for not believing in Him. You have had your picnics and hunting parties there without asking His permission. You have taken the grapes of God's vineyard without paying Him any rent and you have insulted His representatives who asked you for it".

  3. Greg

    Good question.

    The reason I do is twofold.

    First, is because these claims are not limited to PC they are fairly commonly made and believed. I have heard these claims so often I intended to write something general on this whole issue and had already been working on a post to do so. PC simply provided me with an opportunity to address it

    Secondly, because unfortunately many people read PC and take what he said as true. The number of times I have heard PC cited on talkback radio recently suggests his readership is wide.

    I have learnt that on the net (like in student newspapers) when you have a conversation often your audience is the silent third parties who read the exchange.

  4. Hi There
    I am just in the course of discussing the Carrier accusation of an early church inimical to reasoned debate.

    I'd ask where people get this junk, but I think it comes with an appetite that seeks it out.

    If I were better educated and as mature, I could have written what you have done so very well.

    Thanks and if you don't mind, I'll post a quote and reference on the the Dawkins God Delusion Amazon discussion forum in which I participate.

    Ciao and thanks

    Paul Boire
    Toronto area

  5. Some thought on the 'dark ages'.

    The 'dark ages' term refers not to the pre-enlightenment medi-eval period (1000-1400), but to the preceeding post-byazntium (read rome west) and pre medieval period (circa 600-1000 C.E.).

    A precursory read of wikipedia would be anough to get a sense of this.

    The term 'dark' is not an attribution to a lack of reason from which the 'enlightenment' so conveniently (albeit scemantically) was some kind of social climbing out of. In fact 'dark' refers to the apparent lack of historical (written) texts from the period that were made available to medi-eval historians who pondered the fall of Rome.

    We now increasingly know that this period (600-1000) was in fact marked by the Golen age of Islam (who were theists, and reading the Greek classics), the rise of Charlemagne and later the Papal peace declarations (peace of God, truce of God, that would later help to unify Europe and force many of the voilent knights and princes out on the Crusades) among other things. In fact there is much more continuity in this history than common misconceptions owuld have us think.

    Perhaps the biggest stumbilng block to European (christian) development during the 'dark ages' was not it's lack of knowledge, but its lack of unity. Europe was split into many small warring factions after Rome, in spite of the fact that most of these factions were very romanised in their cultures. It wasn't until the crusades that Europe began to unite, and instead of horading development, trade and knowlege they began to share again - fuelling the economic growth required for strong cities, trade and the luxury good that is higher learning.

    As noted in this post, arguably the theological contention that God would require a universe of order is one of the underpinnings of the later enlightenment.

  6. correction: "rome west", in muy last comment should have been "rome east"

    Me = navigationally challenged.


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