Friday, November 03, 2006

Science and Medieval Christianity

On another blog last month I was asked by some friends to comment on a thread about Christianity's role in the progress of science. Other things were being discussed there, such as whether Martin Luther was a despicable ass or an admirable genius, which I didn't comment on because I know too little about the matter to add anything worthwhile. But the history of science is my Ph.D. field, so I could comment on that with some authority. And I did. What follows is expanded and adapted from what I said, and completely supercedes my comments there as far as I'm concerned. Don't worry, though. My blog isn't always going to be about the history of science.

It is becoming popular now to claim Christianity "responsible" for the scientific revolution (Stark, Jaki, etc.). My dissertation will refute much of that thesis, in about two chapters altogether. But we need to keep distinct the claim that Christianity did not actively oppose science (which is sometimes true, depending on how you define "oppose") and the claim that Christianity was necessary for the scientific revolution (which is certainly not true), as well as various claims in the middle--like "Christianity wasn't necessary, but helped," which again depends on how you define "helped"; or "all theologies can find a compatible incentive towards science, and Christianity is a theology like any other," which is true, depending on how you define "Christianity" and "theology"; and so on. Likewise "our concept of science is an outgrowth of Christian theology" is no more true than "our concept of science is an outgrowth of pagan theology." Modern science grew up in a Christian context, but only by re-embracing ancient scientific values against the grain of the original Christian mindset. In turn, those ancient scientific values grew up in a pagan context. As with Christianity, that's not causality, it's just circumstance.

However, in all this the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity "encouraged" science. Had that been the case, then there would not have been almost a thousand years (from roughly 300 to 1250 AD) of absolutely zero significant advances in science (excepting a very few and relatively minor contributions by Hindus and Muslims), in contrast with the previous thousand years (from roughly 400 BC to 300 AD), which witnessed incredible advances in the sciences in continuous succession every century, culminating in theorists whose ideas and findings came tantalizingly close to the scientific revolution in the 2nd century AD (namely, but not only, Galen and Ptolemy). You can't propose a cause that failed to have an effect despite being constantly in place for a thousand years, especially when in its absence science had made far more progress. Science picked up again in the 1200's precisely where the ancients had left off, by rediscovering their findings, methods, and epistemic values and continuing the process they had begun.

Sure, this was done by Christians, but only against the dominant grain, and at first only very slowly, and only by redefining what it meant to be a Christian in a way that would have been nearly unrecognizable to the Christians of the first four centuries, and was diametrically the opposite of what Christians of the early middle ages would have tolerated. A fair example is the treatment of John Philopon in the 6th century, possibly the only innovative "scientist" (if he can be called that) in the whole of Christian history before the 13th century: he was branded a heretic and everything he did in the sciences was effectively ignored. Though he wasn't condemned for being a scientist, he was condemned for thinking for himself in matters of theology, precisely in his effort to make science and religion compatible. But by opposing exactly that process, the Church killed any prospect for science under its watch for nearly ten whole centuries. You can call it collateral damage, but it's damage all the same. An accidentally dead Iraqi is still a victim of war, and so was medieval science a victim of Christianity.

Aquinas and Roger Bacon are often wheeled out here, but they are also examples of what I'm talking about: both post 1200 AD (hence again a thousand years too late), and both responding to the revival of ancient (pagan) scientific and philosophical literature and ways of thinking. At that point, that meant mostly just some Aristotle--whose work had already become largely obsolete even in antiquity. The real discoveries of what the ancients had achieved after him would take another century or more, and even then all they had achieved was never fully realized until the 20th century. Hence the new ideas under Aquinas and Bacon were not inspired by Christianity but in spite of it. They were inspired, instead, by the recovered ideas of ancient pagans, and the challenges they posed to Christian ways of thinking.

Moreover, neither Aquinas nor Bacon did anything significant in science. Neither conducted any significant experiments or advanced any scientific field in any notable way. Bacon's protoscientific work has been much exaggerated and misrepresented in the literature, and Aquinas didn't do anything scientific at all, proto or otherwise--in fact, he fathered the "scholastic" approach to natural philosophy, which was the antithesis of science and the butt of every joke among scientists of the Renaissance. Thus, neither of them represent examples of an "encouragement to science." At best they represent examples of attempting to find a compatibility between two otherwise alien ways of thinking, with mixed and insufficient results. And even then they were not representative of their times--they were both acting against the grain (the Church had only recently banned the study of Aristotle and then reluctantly changed its mind), in efforts to reconcile Christianity as-it-was with better ways of thinking. They were both arguing, in effect, that Christianity had to change, and change fundamentally, to allow improvement, and yet neither of them understood science anywhere near as well as the ancients did, nor did either have any idea what the results would be of what they were asking for--had they known, they might both have changed their minds about their respective projects.

Even so, it is still wrong to say, as a friend of mine did, that "Christianity has spent the majority of its 2000-plus years opposing science with theology, with the most brutal means at its disposal." As someone else said, that’s a gross oversimplification, exaggerated and excessive. But so is the claim that Christianity never presented any obstacles to science, or that it only occasionally did so. The reality is that it constantly presented obstacles, usually indirectly (but just as potently), and sometimes directly, but rarely "with the most brutal means at its disposal." In effect, using a whole arsenal of tactics, early (and especially early medieval) Christianity bitch-slapped all thinking that could have any tendency to support and inspire an embrace and pursuit of scientific values. This hostility and effort wasn't aimed at science directly, but at liberality of thought, and most of all, at the notion that evidence available to everyone is the only supreme authority in all debates of substance. The Church very definitely and actively opposed that idea. And even before the consolidation of the Church, as I show in my dissertation, most Christians were uniformly hostile to the whole system of scientific values, condemning them as vain, idolatrous, arrogant, and unnecessary, if not outright dangerous. It took a long, gradual process to finally change minds on that score.

From Aquinas and Bacon (and their peers) to the dawn of the scientific revolution spans a period of roughly 300 years, and it took over a thousand years for Christianity to finally produce an Aquinas or a Bacon--at least in terms of actual intellectual authority and influence. In some respects, Origen and Philopon were perhaps comparable, but both were branded heretics and their scientific values rejected by their Christian peers. And even in the 13th and later centuries opposition remained, despite a growing tide against it. And though that opposition to scientific values has gradually dwindled ever since, it remains large and powerful enough to elect the presidents of a world superpower. This is not a problem to be regarded flippantly. This is the bugbear in Christianity's closet, and Christianity has failed to kill it for two thousand years. Christianity must be judged by that very failure.

It has also been noted that "sure there have been conflicts, but many (if not most) of the great scientists of history have also been religious," like Newton and Galileo. Indeed. Most of the greatest scientists in antiquity were also religious. Galen and Ptolemy were pagans, even creationists. All that proves is that people can manipulate their religions to be compatible with a scientific mindset--often by compartmentalizing, which means only embracing scientific epistemic values when answering questions that don't challenge precious religious dogmas, which is really the issue. A religion will be capable of being made compatible with science only insofar as it restrains its dogmatic commitments far enough that science is unlikely to encroach upon them. The problem is that science always will encroach upon them eventually, and when that happens there will be only two responses to choose from: give up precious dogmas (in other words, change your religion to be compatible again with science) or stand your ground and oppose science (which is how the Intelligent Design movement has responded to evolution, for example, and soon will respond, I suspect, to advances in neuroscience).

It is certainly true that Christianity, like all religions, can be "retooled" to go either way, but not everyone will go the same way, hence there are Christians who are okay with science, and Christians who fight it tooth and nail. The problem with religion is exactly this: it keeps around this tendency to push a segment of the population against science, even as other segments find ways to make religion and science compatible. This tension is inherent in religious thinking and will never go away until religion goes away altogether. To be clear, by "religion" here (since I use that word in a different sense in other contexts) I mean any belief system that places faith above evidence and reason, accepting evidence and reason only when they do not conflict with an accepted set of faith-claims. Hence those two options for a religious person faced with scientific facts that contradict her faith: she can change her faith (and thus place science, and hence evidence, first in authority when choosing what to believe) or oppose science. Religion always produces the latter sort of person, even when it also produces the former, and that's what's wrong with it.

Hence the problem I am pointing to is not unique to Christianity. It existed even in the pagan world before Christianity. Anaxagoras was (at least allegedly) prosecuted by the Athenians for blasphemy simply for theorizing the sun is a hot stone. Other pagans tried to launch a blasphemy prosecution against Aristarchus when he claimed the earth revolves around the sun. Lucian had a contract put out on his head for claiming the miracles of a certain cult had natural explanations in ordinary fraud. Likewise, Neoplatonism sometimes resembled medieval Christianity in its disinterest in empirical studies and obsession with mystical approaches to science, often through armchair reasoning and "inspired intuition." But there was one enormous difference: science-hating pagans never had the institutional power and clout to enforce their views on the general society (all Anaxagoras and Aristarchus had to do to avoid their influence was leave town), but the Christians achieved and maintained precisely that power for many centuries, and so pervasively there was no way to escape their influence. What they did with that power was sufficiently scary that we should never want that to happen again.

Yet for all that, what I am asserting here is not that Christianity alone is responsible for the Dark Ages. I find Christianity to be a symptom, not a cause, of the fall of the Roman Empire and the ideals it founded or fought over (see my discussion The Rise of World Christianity). What I am saying, however, is that Christianity didn't do any good. It neither corrected what had gone wrong nor reintroduced any striving for the dreams and aspirations of earlier Greek and Roman idealists, but to the contrary, Christianity embraced a partial and sometimes full retreat from them. Hence Christianity did not kill science. But it made no effort to rescue and revive its ideals, and instead let them drown, with little sign of regret, and in some cases even to praises of its demise. Thus, Christianity was bad for science. It put a stop to scientific progress for a thousand years, and even after that it made science's recovery difficult, painful, and slow.

I am also not saying Christianity "necessarily and uniformly" stomps out science, only that we cannot claim Christianity "encouraged" science during its first thousand years, even if some significant Christian factions did later or now do. Christianity threw up a great many obstacles to the recovery of pagan scientific values during and after its first thousand years, and to a lesser extent is still doing this today.
But again I am not saying all Christianity does this now. Rather, I am saying Christianity will always generate factions that do, as it always has. And the last thing we want is to allow one such faction back in power, as had been the case during Christianity's first thousand years in the saddle. We must not go back to the Dark Ages.

People still raise objections to various points above.

One might object and say, "Historians no longer believe there were any 'Dark Ages'!" That depends on what you mean by Dark Age. What I mean by that term here is any era in which a considerable amount of knowledge is lost, especially scientific and technical knowledge, while the ruling zeitgeist looks backwards to a time before more enlightened ways of doing things were embraced. The loss of over 90% of all literature, and the corresponding historical and scientific knowledge it contained, is a fact. The abandonment of the highest civilized, technological, historical, and scientific ideals of the early Roman elite, in exchange for more barbarian ways of thinking and doing things, is a fact. And that is, by my definition, a Dark Age.

Far less was recorded during the middle ages, and far less accurately, than had been the case in classical times, and only a small fraction of what was recorded before was preserved, and even what survived remained known to astonishingly few, and put to good use by even fewer. Again, by my definition, that's a Dark Age. At the same time, the greatest aspirations of the pagans, with their struggling ideals of democracy and human rights, just like their empirical ideals and the scientific spirit they inspired, were chucked out the window in favor of more primitive ideas of "god-given" kings constantly at war over a
feudal society, pontificating popes and pulpit-thumping preachers, burning witches and the widespread embrace of hocus pocus, even by the educated elite. That's a Dark Age. And however much one might not like it, we had one.

One might object and say, "Well, it wasn't totally dark, some improvements in technology were made, some history was recorded, a lot of ancient knowledge preserved." But that would only be a valid point if I were claiming a Pitch Black Age. Even with a little light, it was plenty dark. Moreover, by far most of what was invented, improved, or preserved came after the 12th century. The Dark Ages preceded that. Even what was preserved through to the 12th century was only barely so, much of it only in a few isolated places, sometimes only in a single manuscript, perhaps two or three, scattered across the world and collecting dust on forgotten shelves, often damaged or surviving only in translation. And by far most of what survived was preserved only in the comparably wealthier Middle East, where times were never as dark as they definitely became in Europe. Hence the Dark Ages more aptly describes the history of Europe than of the medieval Middle East, although even the latter experienced a notable decline from pre-fall Rome in every aspect of civilization and culture.

One might object and say, "Well, even you admit Christians produced one real scientist, John Philopon, so clearly Christianity was doing something to encourage science!" That's hardly sound reasoning. When the controlling religion generates only one significant scientist (and he was barely even that) in a thousand years spanning hundreds of millions of adherents, you cannot claim it "encouraged" science. That's like finding a single poodle-juggler in a thousand years of Christian history and claiming Christianity encouraged poodle-juggling. For a thousand years Christianity failed to inspire society to take up the values, especially the scientific values, that many pre-fall Romans had embraced, and this had the effect of stalling scientific progress for a thousand years. One might quibble over the causes of that fact, but it's still a fact.

One might object and say, "You are much too vague about what these mysterious 'scientific values' are that Christianity abandoned and came to accept only with difficulty and never universally." Well, then let it be known what I mean. By phrases like "scientific ideals," "scientific values," "scientific mindset," I do not mean potentially dogmatic activities like observing the movement of the stars or performing textbook surgery, but a system of beliefs that produces advances in knowledge, including a belief that public evidence and verifiable reason trump all authority in explaining what is and can be, that persuasion by appeal to observable evidence and sound logic is the only valid means of gaining consensus about the truths of this world, that this requires embracing everyone's intellectual freedom to accept, reject, or propose any idea they please, and that it is valuable and good to devote your life in this way to the pursuit of progress in understanding any aspect of nature or existence. Those are the scientific values of which I speak.

One might object and say "Christianity never had such a swift and overwhelming cultural influence in the middle ages as to blot out a 900 year course of scientific progress by itself!" Yes, it did. The Church owned all scriptoria and chose which books to copy and which to toss in the dustbin. The Church controlled all schools and chose what would and would not be taught in them. All Europeans that lived in those thousand years were under the thumb of priests who quickly opposed any freedom of thought that they imagined could ever pose a threat, and to that end had the full force and power of government and social influence at their command. The Church decided what values would be preached every week to all the masses, and which values would be derided. As I said, that is precisely the power even the antiscientific few among the pagans never had. The effect is undeniable: the abandonment of a shocking amount of scientific knowledge and, far more than that, the abandonment of the scientific values that had until then produced and improved that knowledge, and could have continued doing so.

One might object and say, "Characterizing classical antiquity as encouraging a general 'liberality of thought' is at best simplistic, and in many cases false." Not so. The reality is, freedom of thought not only existed, but was widely practiced and embraced, across the whole of the Roman world before Christianity came to power. Although things did start to roll toward fascism during the chaos of the 3rd century (as I explain in that linked discussion above), before then the vast diversity of philosophical and scientific sects and schools is evidence enough. Such open diversity could not have been the case had freethought been effectively opposed, and would not have been the case had it not been widely enough encouraged. Political freedom of speech was limited. But science was apolitical. Indeed, the phenomenon of "eclecticism," a widespread independence of thought whereby scientists and philosophers could pick and choose principles and theories from among all sects and schools as they themselves saw fit (rather than aligning themselves with only one) was the dominant intellectual fashion under the Hellenistic Greeks and especially the Romans. This is a fact of the times, a social and intellectual phenomenon that Christianity often attacked and then effectively eliminated.

In contrast, the groups that opposed science in classical antiquity were small, few, rare, and ultimately powerless. That is exactly the opposite of what happened under Christianity. Even if Athens was occasionally inhospitable, there was always Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, Samos, Antioch, Ephesus, Pergamum, London, Marseilles, and countless other cities to retreat to in freedom--where, in fact, most science in antiquity was actually done. Hardly any science was done at Athens, in the whole history of antiquity--even much of Aristotle's scientific work was conducted on Lesbos. And under the Romans, what the Athenians had rarely attempted would have been outright illegal--which is why Lucian had to be dispatched clandestinely by assassination: his religious foes could no longer use the government to suppress his intellectual freedoms, exactly the opposite of the way things were under the thumb of the Church.

Yet even before the Roman Empire, neither Aristarchus nor Anaxagoras (nor any other scientist in the whole of antiquity) were killed or jailed or fined or affected in any significant way at all, beyond not being welcome in one city for a brief time. Hence their work continued uninterrupted, and their books were faithfully preserved and disseminated--until Christians (yes, Christians) decided they weren't worth copying anymore. Hence their books are lost to us. We have a hundred volumes of Jerome's inordinately boring letters, but not a single volume on Aristarchan heliocentric theory. Yes, heliocentric theory--over a thousand years before Copernicus. That is the measure of medieval Christian values.

Perhaps, indeed, had Christianity collapsed and a fanatically religious Neoplatonism produced a universal Church in the 4th century and thereafter for a thousand years, it, too, would have failed to encourage any significant scientific thinking. In which case I would be saying the same thing I am now: religion, whether Neoplatonic or Christian or Spaghettimonsterish, is bad for science and always will be, so long as it has any power to undermine or impede freethought, and insofar as it will (and it will) always generate antiscientific enclaves whom we will forever have to battle just to maintain the status of scientific knowledge and values. This is how it was. This is how it is. And until religion is gone, this is how it will always be.


Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Back on the secular web you told me you were a classical historian. That should let you out of science. History of science is modern history. Ancient world and mdern historians are like night and day.

My Ph.D. field was rise of modern science and religion. Your view is totally backward. You are about 40 years behind the times on that trend. One major source you have left out (or I didn't see it) Margaret Jacob The Newtonians Jacob says if not for the Latitundinarians Newton would have been seen as a crack pot about 50 years beyond his period of enthronement. The Brits dieifed him largley becasue Lats pushed his cause and popularitzed from the pulpit. You should also Leviathan and the Air Pump. This is a major ground breaking work from the 90s as it demonstrates the political background of the rise of modern science and the political agenda of Boyle and the Lats in pushing Newton

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Ps here is a link to my paper on science in middle ages. This is a paper I did in graduate school.

Scinece in Middle ages

Richard Carrier said...

Walters, I have read Stark and Jaki, very carefully. Both make egregious errors, which I refute in detail in my dissertation. Indeed, almost every claim on Stark's scant few pages on ancient science is false, and he fares only marginally better on the early medieval period. Jaki is worse. None of the other authors you cite actually argue what you seem to think they do.

I have also read Galileo, Bacon, Newton, et al. These all long post-date 1200 AD, so these examples hardly relate to my point. If you would bother to read what I wrote, you would know I was talking about the period before 1200 AD, that I referred to obstacles that were not limited to persecution and censorhip, that I said all the obstacles Christianity created gradually diminished after 1200 AD, and that many Christians then started finding ways to make science and their faith compatible. From reading your remarks, I would have to conclude you didn't even read my post beyond skimming it, poorly.

You have failed to identify any single statement in my post that is false. Rather than talking about who I supposedly didn't read, please try showing me which actual sentences I wrote are incorrect. Stop playing "name the book" and start talking about evidence and fact.

Metacrock, I could not find anything in your paper that contradicts anything I wrote. Likewise, the contexts of Leviathan, the Newtonians, and the other sources you refer to are all post-1200 AD and agree with exactly what I was saying about post-1200 developments. So if you were intending a criticism, I don't see what it is.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Your post significantly raised the signal-to-noise ratio in the blogosphere. Great stuff.

As for post-1200 relations between science and the church: when did it become permissible to speak openly against church doctrine without fear of losing one's life/career? Did certain countries undergo a more accelerated relaxation of the Christian stranglehold on intellectual freedom? For instance, Sweden as opposed to Italy?

As a scientist, I have found it strange in academia the past 15 years or so that it seems almost out of fashion to discuss how oppressive and stifling the church was to science. When I have brought it up it is always met with hemming, hawing, and claims to the effect that "We have moved past Anrew White's books on the topic." While I don't necessarily endorse his warfare metaphor, historians who won't squarely at the astonishing stranglehold Christianity held on the intellect are risking that we lose sight of how hard fought are the intellectual freedoms we have. Ignorance of this chapter in our history also lets the evango-pop thinkers get away with saying that naturalism in science is merely a dogma. To the contrary, I look at naturalism as something that was hard fought in the fields of academic struggle, only won after centuries of taking the alternative in science seriously (namely, nonnaturalism). Naturalism and enlightenment thinking was born in this struggle, and in every case where we have learned enough to understand something, it is clear that the naturalists were right about how science should proceed. A priori, it could have turned out differently.

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD: Breaking free of the need to honor God or religious texts in science was a milestone in human intellectual history. Without that transition, hard-won, science would still be in the backwater. As we saw with Lysenkoism in Stalinist Russua, the hoisting of stifling intellectual dead weight onto natural philosophers/scientists is not unique to Christianity. And just like Russians did a little good biology in that period, I'm sure there was some good science in the Dark Ages. But to ignore the suppression is to produce myopic history. The study of how the Church stifled and manhandled science is certainly a worthy target of study, and will reveal factors at work that have relevance for today's fear-driven political climate.

The transition from authority-based to evidence-and-reason based systems of knowing was the most important transition in the history of science. More than any particular scientific theory, it established (empirically, not a priori) the tenor of all future scientific research.

I have yet to see any historical analysis that convinces me that this view is wrong as a large-scale trend. Clearly there are local fluctuations in the intellectual atmosphere, but if you step back and just look at the history of science, I don't think few trends would stick out more. Perhaps the resurgence of the Pythagorean/Cartesian mathematization of nature?

James said...


When will your diss be ready? Knowing what I do about PhD theses, I'd rather wait for the book (which I assume will be forthcoming). Any ideas about how long. Research in progress can change markedly before it sees the light of day.

Best wishes

James Hannam

Richard Carrier said...

Hello, James! In answer to your question, I expect to complete my dissertation before summer. Technically, it will be completed well before that, but it must endure the usual process of critiques and revisions before its "official" completion.

Richard Carrier said...

Walters, whether I am biased is not relevant to whether I am right. In an obvious sense, I am biased--by my conclusions (and not just on this issue). But as even Christian philosophers rightly point out, an accusation of bias is not an argument. Anyone who has any convictions at all is biased. What we must do is not allow that bias to replace or modify the evidence. Then we can come to valid conclusions regardless of our biases. So let's stick to actual evidence.

But you offer no relevant evidence at all. Hence when you say I "consistently minimize any evidence that might contradict" my thesis, please tell me what evidence I am excluding. Remember, if it comes after 1200 AD it's irrelevant, and if it doesn't contradict anything I said, it is even more irrelevant.


I never denied "the original Christian mindset was apocalyptic" or that it became less so before the 4th century. That's irrelevant. My dissertation (which will become my next published book) contains a chapter demonstrating exhaustively from primary evidence that all Christian writers before Constantine were hostile, not always to science directly, but always to the underlying values necessary to science, except a very small cadre of heretics, and even they were not overly positive in their attitude.

Augustine comes later, but even he did not advocate the pursuit of science or the underlying values necessary to the pursuit of science. Nor did he do science or suggest that anyone should. Indeed, what he meant by "science" is something somewhat different than what I am talking about. To him, science was a kind of logically demonstrated gospel of nature that had been passed on by the ancients and was not likely to be improved. Moreover, he was not representative of his times, or of medieval thought generally, but in fact quite exceptional. Thus, he does not provide a relevant counter-example to anything I said, so I had no reason to discuss him.

In fact, Augustine ultimately corroborates my point: as I said of many other Christians of the time, Augustine did not oppose science directly. He just didn't do anything to promote it or to restore the underlying values that made it possible. He never even argued against the attacks against it by Tertullian or Lactantius or Marius Victorinus. Even if in actual practice he was often hostile to those values (such as in his subordination of science to theology and revelation, and in his conclusion that torture and murder were appropriate responses to enforce dogma and silence heretics), even were that not so, he fits exactly into my account as someone who failed to even try restoring the underlying values that were essential to progress in the sciences, and hence he is part of the story of why there was no scientific progress under Christian tenure for a thousand years.

Of course, to claim that "what troubles Augustine is not their use of the scientific method and mathematics, but that they do not honor God in their investigations" is a bit misleading, since in actual fact almost all ancient scientists did honor God in their investigations--just not his God. Moreover, Augustine was certainly hostile to some essential scientific values (e.g. the virtue of curiosity), not just to scientists neglecting to thank God (e.g. Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 9 and Confessions 10.35).

Other Causes?

You then ask me to "consider" not just this irrelevant evidence, but alternative hypotheses as well, but I find none of them convincing, nor have you supported any with evidence. There were still engineers and doctors all but blindly reading and following what science books were kept around, to declining degrees of competence over the centuries. There were still thousands upon thousands of books being manufactured. There were dozens of intellectuals writing volumes upon volumes on other subjects. So the mere collapse of Rome or the introduction of German blood cannot explain why all these resources were spent thus, rather than on progress in science. The East, in fact, never collapsed (until the Renaissance), and was never very poor, nor conquered by "migrating Germans," so these explanations simply fail. The Eastern Empire spent lavishly on fantastic churches and cathedrals and other projects, and had some of the only truly significant libraries, even the first and for a while the only true university in history, yet still a thousand years and no progress in science. Hence, in case you didn't notice (and apparently you didn't), I did not leave the Byzantine empire out of account, but positioned it correctly in history. It does not challenge my hypothesis, but confirms it, against exactly your attempt to blame "other" causes.

You then say, "If you argue that the rise of Christianity was a symptom of the collapse then it cannot be held responsible anyway." You cannot really think that's a valid point. If the rise of the Nazi party was a symptom of the Great Depression and of the relative neglect of the welfare of Germany by the post WW-I allied nations (and it was), would you say the Nazis cannot be held responsible for what they said, promoted, and did? No. So please spare us the fallacious arguments. And please don't be a goof and assume I'm comparing Christians to Nazis. My analogy holds for the comparable phenomena of cause and effect, not in whether or how evil the effect was.

Ultimately, I do not "refuse to acknowledge" other factors in what caused Christians to embrace and maintain certain attitudes, since I am not discussing those other things. For example, obviously other historical factors play in determining how large, numerous, and powerful the anti-scientific factions of Christians will be in any given place and age. What has that to do with what I chose to discuss? Nothing, really. It neither qualifies nor alters the truth of anything I said. I was talking about the historical fact of the actual faction in dominant power for a thousand years before 1200 AD. Why that faction came to power is a wholly different question whose answer won't change my thesis.


As to whether "Christian theology did not need ancient philosophy to rediscover science," you can present the evidence for that on your own blog. It isn't relevant to what I said, which was about what did happen, not what would have happened had there been no recovery of pagan science. Likewise, pointing to how Christians tried to persuade the Church and fellow Christians that these pagan values really did follow from and agree with Christian dogmas has no bearing on what their actual impetus was to attempt such arguments in the first place. The only detectable impetus was the recovery of pagan science. Otherwise, again, all the "justification for reviving the empirical method" that you claim was "found in several distinctly Christian concepts" had been there for a thousand years. Yet they were only "noticed" once works of pagan science and philosophy started cropping up on people's desks and freethinking Christians needed ways to persuade the authorities to follow along. Again, a proposed cause in place for a thousand years without an effect, cannot in fact be the cause. So stop using that dead argument.

Likewise, I never said there weren't "many ancient Greek thinkers who loved to engage in a priori reasoning without bothering to actually compare and measure their findings with the natural world." That is also irrelevant to my argument. I only challenged the attempt to use Bacon and Aquinas as evidence of support for science, because that would be as illegitimate as offering Diogenes or Plotinus as evidence of support for science. The significant difference is that the ancients had, besides the likes of them, also a slew of actual scientists, from Aristotle to Galen, that have no relevant parallels at any time between 300 and 1200 AD (and few matches for a century or two even beyond that).

Then you state the irrelevant fact that "Aquinas produced a philosophical system which is still studied, admired and drawn from to this day." What has that to do with anything I was talking about? I could say the same of Plotinus or Confucius. Then you go and play "name the book" again and stop citing evidence. Do you only cite evidence when it is irrelevant, and then when you claim to have caught me saying something false, you can't actually offer any examples but merely allude vaguely to some authors?

False Claims

It is then false to claim that "the scholastic method...did encourage active investigation of the world, culminating in Francis Bacon and the Scientific Revolution." The Scientific Revolution was a rebellion against scholasticism. Bacon spends hundreds of words lambasting it in his treatises. So if this was an inspiration, it was inspiration in reverse: outrage at scholasticism propelled more sensible intellectuals into the stark reaction that is called the Scientific Revolution. This is in fact quite evident from the diatribes against scholasticism in nearly all early scientific writers, from Gilbert to Galileo.

I also never said or even implied that "any theological innovation is illegitimate in the Christian tradition" (I don't even know what one would take as criteria of "legitimacy" in such a case). In terms of actual facts, I said that theology changed over time--and that it had to do so to readmit scientific values. So your complaint on that score is another example of attributing to me arguments I never made. It is even stranger that you then say I seem "to deny that free inquiry could ever find sanction in a tradition like Christianity without massive twisting or distortion," when I never said anything like that, and indeed here you seem to do what you just falsely accused me of doing: of somehow deciding what counts as "twisting and distortion" rather than "development and change." I never made such a distinction, nor credited any development or change in Christianity as a "twisting or distortion" of anything, Christianity or otherwise.

Next, I see no evidence in Acts of any conspicuous support for freedom of thought of the sort necessary for science, much less for the other essential values I listed, and what Acts says is irrelevant compared to what ancient Christians actually took it to mean. And they didn't take it as supporting freethought or the values of science.

Perhaps "Christianity inherited its authoritarian structure from the ancient Greeks," but since I never said it didn't, so that is again wholly irrelevant. Although, to the contrary, I specifically did say (and again you ignored) that in the Hellenistic and Roman periods philosophy was not "centered around great masters whose pupils worshipped them and followed what they had to say almost without question." To the exact contrary, I said that was the age of eclecticism, when such behavior was widely rejected, especially by scientists. Did you again not read what I actually wrote?

You then claim history "should" prove to me "that Christianity...encouraged science on its own steam." Where did that happen? You can't find an isolated Christian faction, uninfluenced by pagan thought and pagan science, even to test such a claim, so what value does such a contrafactual speculation have? You claim you don't draw your own inspiration from "the secular values around" you but that is impossible. You grew up in a society seeped with and heavily constructed on the basis of those pagan values (secular or religious, however you see them). You are entirely a child of that culture--the values that you learned to embrace that inspire you to value the pursuit of science came ultimately from pagans, and even though through Christian intermediaries, these were always (as history shows) intermediaries heavily influenced by the pagans who got this ball started. This is as true in democracy (a pagan idea filtered through Christian intellectuals heavily influenced and inspired by the pagan democratic thinkers and pagan democratic ideals) as in science. It is silly to claim you have some how grown up in this world untouched and unmolded by any of that.

Astonishing Questions

Then you amaze me. First, you ask, "So is your accusation only directed towards the first thousand years?" Seeing that someone would ask this question of an essay that says exactly that multiple times, I can only express astonishment. Then you ask, "Is your complaint that there will always be anti-science factions in Christianity?" Once again, since I said exactly that, I don't see why someone who actually read my essay would ask if I did.

We Actually Agree

My essay says essentially what you now concede, "that Christianity...presented many obstacles to the advance of science and learning," and in fact did nothing to 'encourage' it for a thousand years, and that it "has much to atone for, in the Inquisition, Crusades, etc." Just as you say now that "all the authors I cited in my first post do not argue either that Christianity uniformly opposed science or that it uniformly encouraged it," since that's also what I said, can you now see the inanity of citing them "against" what I said?

I will side with you on another point. I found Freeman's book to be simply awful. Even if he gets a few things right, it's often impossible for a laymen to know when he has or hasn't, hence as history his book isn't worth reading. In some ways, it reminds me of what I have said against the unrelated work of Kersey Graves.

Everyone Pay Attention Now

I am going to inaugurate a rule from here on out: if you post anything here that does not contain any relevant facts, but only irrelevant facts, or arguments against things I didn't say, or mere citations of authors in place of facts, I shall have to delete it. I'm not going to waste bandwidth on anything else. Surely you can understand.

Richard Carrier said...

Loren Petrich, just FYI, although in a full analysis you are right that the so-called "scientific" literature and beliefs among the educated in the middle ages became, overall, increasingly absurd and less connected to a properly critical or accurate mindset, this cannot be demonstrated with a single quote. I can find similarly absurd things asserted by Aristotle, Pliny, even Galen and Ptolemy (indeed, I can find it even among scientists of the 17th century). The presence of invalid conclusions and unwarranted credulity is not the distinction, but its extent, degree, and scope of influence. There are other things you've said that I worry might go too far in their scope of assertion or could be questionable on the evidence. All I recommend is due caution.

Richard Carrier said...

JD Walters, just because I find something you said here irrelevant to what I said on my blog doesn't mean I think what you said is false. A true fact can be as irrelevant as a false one. Please don't confuse the two. If I thought something you said was false, I said so. Otherwise, I probably agree with you.

Hence I don't need to "rationalize" anything about Augustine because I never said in my blog that all medieval Christians opposed science, only that many created obstacles for it and none supported it. Augustine does not present a counter-example to that fact. My thesis was clearly stated: "in all this the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity 'encouraged' science." Augustine did not encourage science. Hence he is irrelevant.

But please don't try to bootstrap this with a resort to false analogies. You ask if "we should judge Plato a flat failure because he was a philosopher and not a scientist." Perhaps you were unaware of the fact that many historians of science have argued exactly that, claiming Plato was actually hostile to genuine scientific values and that Platonism was a surefire science-killer--had it been the only option for intellectuals of the time, though fortunately it wasn't.

I would say that is true for certain Platonic factions, and might have become true for a comparable Neoplatonist faction, had it assumed the social role the Church actually did, exactly as I suggested in my blog. However, I don't agree with the sweeping generalization that is commonly met with in the literature. Plato was not an ideal supporter of science, since he embraced some hostility to the underlying empirical values necessary for its success, while Aristotle did much better on this score. However, many Platonists adopted Aristotelian innovations, hence not all Platonism could be called anti-scientific.

But even Plato wasn't all that anti-scientific. In fact, he advocated the advancement of science: he insisted on an education in, a deep study of, and actual progress in the mathematical sciences (particularly harmonics and astronomy) and he himself attempted to further work in those fields with his own advice and direct support of scientists in his school. Augustine did nothing of the kind. Hence the analogy fails. If anything, this confirms my point regarding the difference in attitudes towards science among major intellectuals of the different periods. However, what really proves my point is that regardless of what Plato said or did or how we interpret it, he wasn't the only show in town. The ancients had liberty to accept or reject his school or any part thereof. In contrast, Augustine called for the violent suppression of heretics, and actually had the vehicle of the state backing him in that ambition.

Again, I am not saying Augustine persecuted or censored scientists, but that he was an active participant in a social system that discouraged the very liberty of thought that was essential to scientific progress, and that he advocated the pursuit of theology and an abstinence from the vices of curiosity and preoccupations of the world, rather than advocating anything like what Plato did with regard to the sciences. Augustine was at best a passive participant in a Church that would not encourage science. That is my thesis, and you haven't presented any evidence against it.

Is my thesis falsifiable? Yes. Had science made significant progress under the tenure of the Church in its first thousand years, my thesis would be refuted. If we could point to any non-marginalized Christian thinker in that period who actually and openly advocated making progress in the sciences through empirical and logically sound means, my thesis would certainly be challenged--and if we found several such persons, it would be refuted. Such Christians only started appearing after those first thousand years when they started taking up again the literature and ideals of the pagans--in other words, despite Christianity, not because of it. Had it been because of Christianity, we would not have had to wait a thousand years for it to inspire Christians to do such a thing.

Finally, you continue to make false claims about what I said:

I never said Christianity didn't have to compromise to accept and promote science--that's not the same thing as claiming it had to be twisted or distorted, as you originally imputed to me. To the contrary, that it had to make compromises with its previous mindset is simply another way of saying it had to change. And it did.

I also never said "all credit for Christian scientists' inspiration has to go to the ancients." All I've argued is that their embrace of pagan ideals was necessary to accepting any further inspiration toward genuine scientific progress. Perhaps you are neglecting the difference between necessary, sufficient, and contingent causes, but in no way does stating that a cause is required entail that that is the only cause that matters.

I also never said being an "atheist" had anything to do with the underlying scientific values I defined. Indeed, none of those values require one to be an atheist to embrace them, nor do any of them entail a conclusion of atheism. Whether they result in atheism when applied to the facts of the world is a completely separate matter that actually depends on what the facts turn out to be, the bulk of which could not have been adequately foreseen until modern times anyway. Hence most of the greatest scientists of antiquity were, exactly as I originally said, not atheists.

And I never said Christianity didn't "play an important part in the rise of science in the modern period" (I didn't discuss the modern period) or that it didn't "draw upon resources within the Christian tradition itself" when finding ways to admit scientific values. I never said anything against that in my blog. What I did say is that the same thing could be said of paganism, and in both cases, the religious inspirations were never sufficient in themselves, and in the right circumstances could sometimes be sufficient to stifle progress in science instead.

By the way, since you seem not to have heard, Stark himself is no longer an agnostic. He declared himself a born again Christian several years ago (before he wrote his books on science) and now teaches at Baylor, an Evangelical university. Likewise, I didn't find anything in Bede's review of Stark that contradicts anything I said. Indeed, he supports in outline my conclusions regarding Stark's competence in this matter.

On all your other points, you have descended into ignoring what I said in my original blog entry, which already provides a sufficient response, so there is no need to continue. But I would very much like to read your paper on NT epistemology, and if you feel it is appropriate, I would be delighted if you emailed me the completed paper when you are done.

Edwardtbabinski said...

I heard one Christian apologist admit that even if what was to grow up to become "modern science" was born in the nest of "Christian civilization," the egg of science hatched and has begun its own independant existence since then. In fact, the hatchling, "science," is now so robust that anyone of any beliefs in religion (or none at all in religion) can practice science the world round.

The same goes not just for science but for literature and all the arts as well. People of all religious beliefs or none are writing songs and novels and inventing new architectural achievements among others.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Metacrock, I could not find anything in your paper that contradicts anything I wrote.

>>>Metacrock here. I go by my real Name now. The "Metacrock" thing is worn thin. My name is Joe Hinman. As a publisher I went by J.L.Hinman.

I think in a large sense we ar talking about spin. we agree on the basic facts, although I don't think you push the trenendous boost to modern science given by places like Chartre and St. Victor. That was the major thing I wanted you to get out of my paper.

Your general attitude is that Chrisians in the midde ages didn't help science all that much, but even though they weren't building nuclear power plants or anything, they helped it a lot thorug the attitudes toward learning.

Likewise, the contexts of Leviathan, the Newtonians, and the other sources you refer to are all post-1200 AD and agree with exactly what I was saying about post-1200 developments. So if you were intending a criticism, I don't see what it is.

>>Now would I criticize you? Only in the most constructive way. But, I think if you are gonig to create the impression that Christiantiy wasn't such a great help to scinece in one period, you should at least admit that it was in the next.

Roger Pearse said...

You probably should also address the Syriac scientific writers such as Severus Sebokht also (whose work on the Constellations I am currently translating, and whose work on the Astrolabe is online). I have not read late Greek scientific writers, but in Severus Sebokht at least I do not find the attitude to which you refer. On the contrary, his attacks on the superstition of astrology that was endemic in Greek thought are a real advance over pagan thinking in this area, and point to the way in which the disappearance of paganism freed thinkers to stop thinking of the planets as people and the constellations as animals in the sky. He relies heavily on earlier work by people like Ptolemy, and he also makes use of Hindu astronomers, so sees himself in a developing tradition, I think. It is difficult to see in all this the picture of decline that is given above, except that of course the whole world was in decline.

Richard Carrier said...

Bilbo Bloggins: I have deleted only a very few posts throughout my blog. Posters themselves can delete them, too. But if anyone posted here and their post disappeared without explanation, please let me know. Otherwise, whenever I have removed comments because they were not thread-relevant, I'm pretty sure I informed the authors.

As far as deletions go, my rules are these: comments must be on-topic, must argue against things I actually said, and must contain relevant facts (merely naming authors doesn't count). Obviously, gratuitous obscenity and other blatant violations of ettiquette also warrant deletion, but merely disagreeing with me is not a condition for deletion. However, relevance is. This isn't an unmoderated forum. If you want to debate issues unrelated to my blog entry, please use a public forum somewhere else online.

Richard Carrier said...

JD Walters, you're now saying if I "pretty much accept that Christianity has had a complex relationship to science over the centuries," I do, "and that it did play a part in the rise of science in the modern period," just as paganism played a part in the ancient period, and I do, then you "don't see what else to object to." I'm a bit perplexed. My blog entry was not about the modern period, and never argued Christianity played no part in the development of modern science. So why are you asking me to give "a much more positive story for the involvement of Christianity in the rise of science" in an article that wasn't even about "the rise of science"? It was about the decline of science, during the early middle ages. It was about what happened before the rise of modern science.

Imagine I wrote an article about President Jackson's culpability in the violation of treaties with the Indian Nations. Would it be appropriate to then complain that I didn't mention his positive contributions to American industry? Here my very thesis was, in plain words, "the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity 'encouraged' science," and I even specifically restricted this thesis to the period before 1250 A.D. Why should my article have been about anything other than what it was about?

Now, you "don't see how" my actual "thesis is all that distinctive or interesting," but it's interesting to a lot of people, even if not to you. Otherwise, I don't expect it to be distinctive. It was only aimed at correcting the excesses of the likes of Stark, and if all I said are, among experts, already well known facts, in order to debunk Starkian claims, then what's the problem?

Likewise, you might get from Grant "a much more positive representation of Christianity's contribution to the preservation of classical learning and the age of reason." But I never discussed the Age of Reason (that is well after 1250 A.D.). And I'm not sure "the preservation of classical learning" really warrants a description as "positive." Preserving 10% is better than none, but do we really praise mediocrity? If your bank told you they'd saved 10% of your money but lost the rest, would you speak positively of your bank?

Otherwise, it's not clear to me what Christianity contributed to the Age of Reason that wasn't already available in antiquity, either directly or in equivalent form. Hence I believe "Christianity was necessary for the Age of Reason" is an indefensible thesis, though not one my blog addressed, pro or con. But "Christianity contained elements that made the Age of Reason possible" is still true, just as "Paganism contained elements that, in comparable circumstances, could have made the Age of Reason possible" is true.

Of course, apart from the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions (the products of freethought and capitalism, two ideas one won't find very much support for in the Bible), a lot that was good about the Age of Reason was already present in antiquity, even if only in nascent form. But however that may be, my article wasn't about that period of history.

Richard Carrier said...

Loren Petrich: I agree militant Neoplatonism taking over was historically unlikely. Hence my counterfactual was if it became a mass movement comparable to the Church, not that it would have become such had Christianity failed to dominate. I've also pointed out why Mithraism was unlikely to do so. Isidism certainly looked to be going that way, but it too experienced significant structural decline in the 3rd century and was uninfluential by the 4th, and ended up far outgunned in influence, at least among the pagan elite, by Neoplatonism (a reversal one could not have predicted in the 2nd century). But a merging of the two, as you suggest, is one conceivable path they could have taken to socio-political dominance, in the right conditions.

When you note how Apuleius refers to Isis as "worshipped under numerous names by many different people" you are referring to what is called henotheism, one god over many (or one god in many aspects), which was actually a growing trend under the Romans, around the very time of the origin of Christianity. It wasn't just the Isis cult. Later the same ideology became prominent in a variety of popular sun cults, and earlier it had already become common among philosophers. It has roots as far back as Classical Athens, when the henotheistic trend is already nascently visible in Herodotus. But you are right, pagans rarely had that "One True Religion zeal" and while Christians "perpetually quarreled among themselves about what the One True Religion really was" that was, by and large, "something that pagans found very odd."

Richard Carrier said...

Roger Pearse: Severus Sebokht, besides being a Nestorian, is another non-relevant example. Obviously there were still astronomers and doctors continuing to practice and transmit elements of what had been passed on (as I said in my original article, that falls under "dogmatic activities like observing the movement of the stars or performing textbook surgery"), but they weren't advancing science or promoting its progress in any significant sense. They were simply treating it as gospel or a craft. That's not science. Indeed, just compare what Sebokht actually contributed (next to nothing) with what the Muslim scientists of the 10th and 11th centuries contributed, and Sebokht looks a lot more medieval than modern.

Attacks on astrology, often very sophisticated and bold, were already a staple in pagan antiquity, and there is nothing original about Sebokht's. Astrology's popularity among many ancient scientists was already more comparable to the medical obsession with humoral theory, which also had its attackers in antiquity, yet remained the dominant belief even under Christian tenure, right into the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. In contrast, Christians had religious reasons to oppose astrology, so I don't consider attacking astrology a sign of the promotion of science. It wasn't that even in antiquity. And since some of the greatest astronomers in antiquity were astrologers, embracing astrology was apparently no barrier to promoting and advancing real science anyway, any more than Newton's obsession with alchemy was.

Otherwise, no actual astronomer after the 3rd century B.C. thought of "planets as people and the constellations as animals in the sky," so abandoning that nonsense had taken place long before Christianity even existed. Your attempt to attribute this development to Christianity is exactly the kind of fudging of the medieval evidence I am talking about.

Unknown said...

Carrier wrote:
"By the way, since you seem not to have heard, Stark himself is no longer an agnostic. He declared himself a born again Christian several years ago (before he wrote his books on science) and now teaches at Baylor, an Evangelical university."

I really wonder how you found this information; I can not find any information on the web to support the born-again claim. Indeed, the following New York Times article seems to suggest quite the contrary:

However, I DO find it odd that, according to the same article, Stark claims that the waterwheel, eyeglasses, horseshoes and three-field system of agriculture were innovations of Christian monks. (But again, the journalist might have misquoted him, as journalists often do...)

Richard Carrier said...

Odd, on Stark's conversion, read Big Idea, Baylor Magazine 2.5 (March/April 2004).

Odd: However, I DO find it odd that, according to the same article, Stark claims that the waterwheel, eyeglasses, horseshoes and three-field system of agriculture were innovations of Christian monks.

I'm not sure why you think this would be odd, since this has nothing to do with science (all nonscientific cultures invent things). But Stark repeats a lot of this nonsense in his books. He is a poor historian and has been taken in by other hacks whom he trusts too blindly.

The facts are these:

1. The waterwheel was invented by Greek scientists and perfected by Roman engineers, who widely employed the technology (including the overshot variety, despite Stark's bogus claim to the contrary). Christians simply borrowed it (though it took them centuries to figure out how to do it right again).

2. The origin of eyeglasses is actually unknown, but they appeared in China a century before they appeared in Italy, a telling coicidence with Marco Polo's return from the East. Romans had already been experimenting with lenses, and this work was continued by Muslim scientists, and through these sources Bacon revived this interest after 1250 A.D. Spectacles appeared in Europe during the 1280's, and though various monks are conjectured to have introduced them, this does not mean they invented them. At any rate, spectacles did not exist in Europe before 1250 A.D. and thus are not relevant to my blog entry, as I've explained more than once already (incidentally, I don't consider anything after 1250 A.D. to be medieval but early Renaissance, although different historians periodize differently, so this is little more than semantics).

3. Horseshoes are actually not necessary for well-trained and well-fed horses (their utility is greatly exaggerated by Stark, who gets a lot else wrong about horses), but at any rate nailed metal horseshoes were invented by the Romans. Neither Christians nor monks had anything to do with this.

4. The three-field system of crop rotation was not a scientific development (it was not the product of scientists nor of scientific theory) and therefore is irrelevant to my blog entry (as I said before, all nonscientific societies invent things). But the concept of crop rotation itself was a Roman invention (starting the two-field system), and so the three-field system (like the four-field system developed in the 16th century) is just a refinement of an already-existing technology. This improvement was made in the 10th century. No one knows who came up with it. Given the religious atmosophere of Europe at the time, they were almost certainly Christians, but there is no telling whether they were monks.

Unknown said...

I am just trying to see through the fog of rhetoric from all sides.

During this age of information deluge, it is as important as ever to know the background of the author(s) of a text. Now, if you are really right in what you write about Stark's religious view, that is serious. Serious because he is presenting himself as an agnostic practically everywhere, including the New York Times article I posted. If that is incorrect, it shows that he is hiding his true standpoint, which in my opinion is extremely damaging to his trustworthiness.

Concerning the technologies he mentioned, you did not have to disprove them in your last post. I was quite surprised to see him using examples like this, as a quick internet check was enough to prove him wrong on each and every one of them. Unfortunately, I think a lot of very bright people just swallow his claims raw, if it corresponds with their views.

Richard Carrier said...

Loren Petrich: Thanks for that link. I've ordered the article. I'll see what I think.

But from what I can see it looks like Bernstein is overstating the dichotomy between Christian and Pagan thought--both had strong elements of irrationalism and rationalism. Moreover, even that dichotomy is not identical to the more important distinction between mysticism and empiricism, since mystics can be quite rational, just unempirical and thus often wrong, while empiricists can still be annoyingly irrational (like, say, the early alchemists, and just about anything that genuinely falls under the heading of "traditional medicine").

Of course, this exaggerating of the facts (with an occasional dose of correlation and other fallacies) is exactly what Stark does, too, as you show with your quotations.

Odd: I don't entirely agree with your assessment of Stark's behavior. Although his religious affiliations are certainly relevant and should be more publicly known and discussed than they have been, I don't perceive him as actively trying to hide his beliefs. And just as for any other academic or professional, it is acceptable for him to ask that his work be judged on its independent merits regardless of his personal opinions and beliefs. In other words, I think it's possible that he honestly does not think his religious beliefs have affected his objectivity. It's even possible that they haven't. It's possible, instead, that he's just a lousy historian.

Unknown said...

OK. I see what you mean, and I will moderate what I wrote. I would like to replace the "representing himself" part with "is presented as". I do not know whether he is actually posing as an agnostic, but I have come across a lot of citations from his works on the net, where those citing him are triumphantly stressing that this citation is made by an _agnostic_.

Richard Carrier said...

Odd: I do not know whether he is actually posing as an agnostic, but I have come across a lot of citations from his works on the net, where those citing him are triumphantly stressing that this citation is made by an agnostic

True, but to be fair, most of these are basing this assertion on his previous work and earlier material about him, which does suggest or say he is an agnostic (I can think of at least one commonly cited, but now old, article where he states this, for example). They are simply neglecting to check more recent data to find out if he's changed his mind (although again I agree with you this data should be easier to find, and therefore I can't hold too much against those who don't find it).

Moreover, sometimes this assertion is true, e.g. he was (as far as I can tell) an agnostic when he wrote The Rise of Christianity and therefore regardless of his current beliefs, it would be correct to say an agnostic wrote that book.

Yewtree said...

A fascinating blogpost, but I must take issue with your definition of religion:

'To be clear, by "religion" here (since I use that word in a different sense in other contexts) I mean any belief system that places faith above evidence and reason, accepting evidence and reason only when they do not conflict with an accepted set of faith-claims. Hence those two options for a religious person faced with scientific facts that contradict her faith: she can change her faith (and thus place science, and hence evidence, first in authority when choosing what to believe) or oppose science. Religion always produces the latter sort of person, even when it also produces the former, and that's what's wrong with it.'

That's kind of a circular argument. The word religion means "reconnection" (from religare). What you are referring to here is a creedal religion. Both ancient and modern Paganisms were and are non-creedal (i.e. there is no standard set of beliefs to which Pagans must adhere). Many Pagans employ something like the scientific method in trying to understand our spiritual experiences - i.e. we have a working hypothesis to interpret them, test it against others' experiences and hypotheses, and so on.

Similarly, many Buddhists (including the Dalai Lama) place reason and evidence above faith. For example, the Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if it was scientifically proved that reincarnation doesn't happen; he said that he would advise his followers to stop believing in it.

Similarly, Unitarians have three main values: freedom, reason, and tolerance, and do not impose a creed (and many of them are atheists).

The difference is, that these people feel the need to follow a spiritual path of some kind, which is focussed on values and not beliefs. Also many of us would admit mystical feelings and experiences as quasi-evidence (not the same as observable material evidence, but enough to base a working hypothesis on).

Yewtree said...

St. Genevieve was described as calming storms by praying; she was not described as learning how to predict the weather.

Yup - predicting the weather (using for example cloud patterns, the flight of birds, the habits of trees, pine cones and bits of seaweed) is an activity practiced by "pagan" folk magicians and wise people.

Yewtree said...

One more thing: you also say that the contribution of Hindus and Muslims to science were relatively minor. Really? Then how come we're using a Hindu numerical system? (0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9) Hindu mathematics was very advanced - they even had quadratic equations. Whereas the Christians had a superstitious fear of zero. (See The Nothing That Is: A natural history of zero by Robert Kaplan.) The Hindus also had advanced metallurgy. What about algebra (and algorithms, from Al Khwarizmi, the bloke who invented algebra)? And the many other Muslim inventions, in fields as diverse as Agricultural sciences, Applied sciences, Astrology, Astronomy, Chemistry (from al kimia, the black art), Earth sciences, Mathematics, Mechanics, Medicine, Optics, Psychology, Social sciences, and Zoology?

Richard Carrier said...

I've responded to Yvonne on her own blog (see the first two comments after her post), where she repeats these and other points.

Although I have to add that folk techniques of weather prediction are also practiced within creedal religions. There is a difference between craft and science, and there is nothing inherently at odds between creedal religion (as you put it) and craft, but there will often be some level of conflict between creedal religion and science (such that reaching an accommodation between them, though obviously possible, is readily difficult or problematic).

Yewtree said...

there is nothing inherently at odds between creedal religion (as you put it) and craft

Unless the craft happens to be witchcraft, or freemasonry, or some other rival system of belief. But I know what you mean. Folk weather prediction is not the same as full-on science; but it's not the same as the St Genevieve example either.

The folk practitioner might even realise, in a quasi-Taoist (or perhaps quasi-chaos-science) sort of way, that somebody else might need the storm.

The difference between religion of the St Genevieve variety, and religion of the folk variety, is that the first sort is about overcoming the world, and the second sort is generally about rubbing along within it.

Gabriel Rice said...

This is in regards to what JD Walters suggested about Rome's fall at the hands of German invaders, how this was a possible cause of the dark ages: There was no Roman Empire when Greek philosophy and science first flourished. The conquest of Greece by the Macedonians and Rome did not halt scientific advancement, so why would the German conquest of Rome do so? History suggests the Germans would have adapted to the pagan sciences of the Mediterranean world had it still flourished, just as the Assyrians and Babylonians adapted to the Sumerian civilization they conquered. The Germans adapted to Roman civilization, which also meant adapting to their religious institution, Christianity.

quedula said...

Just wanted to say thanks Richard for the original post.
Fascinating kick-off point for a beginner in this subject.

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Carrier, I just wanted to let you know that I've chosen this post of yours to be a part of this week's Carnival of the Godless. I thought it was so good I thought it should be added.

Yewtree said...

Glad to hear it, Arizona Atheist - it is indeed excellent.

Richard Carrier said...

Thanks, Arizona!

Bob said...

We live in a universe ruled by probability. If Christianity had collapsed in the fourth Century, then maybe the Muslims or Genghis Khan would have conquered the whole of Europe and the components necessary for the development of capitalism may not have been there. If that was to happen, then we would not have the internet right now and you'd be eating dirt cookies bro.

Just saying you can't look at things as "Good" or "Bad", maybe things have a complex relationship, maybe something we humans define as horrible, like a genocide or plague sets up for something we define as good to happen, and if that something bad did not happen, then maybe something worse may have happened at a later date.

History is a chain of events with one event leading to another event. It just is what it is. It is not good or bad.

Richard Carrier said...

Bob said... If Christianity had collapsed in the fourth Century, then maybe the Muslims or Genghis Khan would have conquered the whole of Europe and the components necessary for the development of capitalism may not have been there.

False contrafactual. There is no evidence Islam or the worldview of Genghis Khan lacked the components necessary for the development of capitalism, or that even if they did that they would not have picked them up from the pagan Romans exactly as the Christians did (the Christians began, remember, as hard core anti-capitalistic Communists: Mark 10:21-30, Acts 4:34-5:11).

The one test case we have, Islam (Khan's worldview was eclipsed and thus never tested), shows a complete embrace of capitalist principles (early Muslims were among the greatest capitalists, investors, and tradesmen: see Islamic Economic Jurisprudence and Capitalist Traditions in Early Arab-Islamic Civilization).

So clearly you are wrong. See my discussion of this same fallacy in The Christian Delusion, pp. 398-99.