October 28, 2014

In Their Own Words XIX: The Dark Ages Set Humanity Back Centuries

Okay, show of hands. How many have heard these statements before?

"The Dark Ages caused by Christianity set humanity back centuries!”

“Had the Church not suppressed knowledge and science we would be light-years ahead of where we are in terms of technology and medical science!”

Although I cannot produce an exact person that has made this statement, nearly every single Christian I know has heard a non-believer make this accusation at one time or another. Most often it comes from hardened anti-Christians or zealous militant atheists. I personally have heard this quite often not only from self-described atheists but also agnostics and even other supposedly educated Christians. Anyone with even a remote grasp of real documented history sees these as the absurdly ridiculous statements that they are. Those that do not realize it, well, that is why I type this post. Contrary to revisionist atheistic history, the Christian church was probably one of the biggest contributors to the advancement of knowledge and learning during the Dark Ages without exception.

I have actually found a quote specifically from an atheist historian that sheds some light on this erroneous fallacy about Christianity. It will be quite useful to use an atheist to defend the Christian position against accusations from the usual atheist suspects. It also shows that not all atheists are uneducated hacks and some atheists actually care about the truth, not spreading or reusing really bad fallacies to win arguments.

The atheist’s name is Tim O'Neill. Although I do not believe in O’Neill’s atheistic worldview nor his theological tendencies (or lack of them), I admire the fact that he does not get caught in the unintellectual arrogance trap elucidated above in my opening. I will provide numerous quotes from the man because he is a straight-shooting atheist. He may not be a Christian but he is intellectually honest. The brevity with which he dispatches fallacies and fables about Christians during the so-called Christian prompted Dark Ages is nearly clinical in its efficiency. If the man ever converts to Christianity and accepts Jesus, he will be a Christian apologist par excellence.

When confronting the typical militant atheist fallacy that the Church and religion in general impeded scientific discovery Tim O’ Neill stated the following.
“It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.” ~ Tim O’Neill [The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”] [3]
What I will personally add to Tim's argument is this. There wouldn’t even be the field of scholasticism, the scholastic method or rigorous academics if it had not been for Christianity. Why? Scholasticism was a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. Yes, you heard that correctly, medieval universities. How did scholasticism begin? It began with people like Johannes Scotus Eriugena,  Charlemagne, Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. What is the touchstone about every single one of these gentlemen? They were all theologians of the Christian persuasion. As a matter of fact, Aquinas's masterwork Summa Theologica is often considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic, medieval, and Christian philosophy.

So what about education? Did the mean old Christians prevent education of the masses? No more that it does today. If you had the money, you too could get an education. It is actually the Middle Ages from which universities as we understand them today would arise. You’ll never guess who initiated the idea of universities? Sorry atheists, it wasn’t you guys, it was Christians. The origin of higher education took place for hundreds of years in Christendom in Christian schools or monastic schools called Scholae monasticae. It was Christian monks and nuns that taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back as early as the 6th century AD. This of course is 100 years before Islam was even thought of. What is eventually used in these institutes to promulgate higher learning? You guessed it: Scholasticism [2].

As for learning and advancement in general in the West it is Christianity that contributed to the rise of the modern university system which propelled the scientific advancements of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. They created safe places for study and debate (Atheist Delusions, 71). In the Middle Ages, it is almost solely monks and monasteries that contributed to significant scientific and technological advances.

What is even more ironic is what we find in the field of medicine and nursing care. Was it the mean old church that prevented the advance of medical science? Eh, no. Although the idea of hospitality and caring for the sick and infirm has been around since the dawn of time, the revival and restoration of the practice after Christ was initiated by Christianity. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the modern concept of the hospital dates from the time of Constantine (the Great). At the time of Constantine, the declaration that Christianity was accepted as a religion in the Roman Empire (religio licita) drove an expansion of the provision of care in the Roman Empire. After the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. the construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. Up until that time there were Pagan hospitals which were subsequently abolished by Constantine in favor of Christian ones. Why? Was it because the Church was oppressive to non-believers? No. Actually, until that time, the diseased had been isolated from the community. The Christian tradition emphasized the close relationship of the sufferer to the members of the community (i.e.: proper bedside manner). Illness therefore became a matter for the Christian church. Among the earliest hospitals were those built by the physician Sampson the Hospitable in Constantinople and by Basil of Caesarea in what is now modern-day Turkey. [1]. 

I guess it should also be mentioned that the idea of the orphanage was pioneered by Christians also. Shucks, is there anything Christians didn't do that was good? Mean old stick-in-the-mud Christians.

Some of O’Neill’s other adroit quotes that merit a reprint? I have to admit, some of these comments from O’Neill are great. Great as in, biting wit and filled with insight.

The Myth of the Flat Earth?

This might be one of the most beloved and cherished atheist myths about Christianity. It is rehashed ad nauseum much to the amusement of the educated Christian and to the dismay of intelligent atheists. Sadly, there isn’t a shred of historical evidence to validate the Flat Earth Theory put forth to defame Christians and the Church. As O’Neill states:
The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America, is a great story.  Unfortunately, it’s also historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality.  It’s bad enough that I have had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true.  What’s worse is that I’ve also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round, and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong. ~ Tim O’Neill - Armarium Magnum [5]
Yes, that Washington Irving. The same guy that wrote Rip Van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). So far the only thing that seems flat here is the lackluster atheist delivery of myths.

When it comes to believing things on faith, O’Neill is clear that it is not just fundamentalist Christians that often cling tenaciously to ideas in faith. Atheists also cling to things in faith long after they have been exposed as lies.
Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables. Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo-historical fairy tales.  Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths. One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before.  But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used, and the relevant material our understanding should be based on.  It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively.  Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as misinformed or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists.  And that’s not a good look.
Although O’Neill could’ve gone a little bit easier on the Fundamentalists in Christianity, his point is valid and well made about the religious zeal with which atheists pursue their faith of no God. This is the case even when it means holding on to fallacies and lies that they know are lies. It is often the case that they do so in blind faith rarely validating their sources or the validity of their statements. As soon as I hear the uninformed attacks such as the "Church believed in a flat Earth", I tune out. When disinformation begins to spread I am already beginning to ignore the verbose atheistic rhetoric.

I know that as soon as these old worn-out arguments are brought up I am dealing with an atheist that is uninformed and the debate will quickly degenerate into a shouting match laced with intellectual snobbery. At that point I have learned that atheists that will spout this junk...only do it to undermine and defame Christianity whether it be Protestant or Catholic. The atheist is not interest in your opinion nor are they interested in allowing you to air the truth of your position. They usually either dredge up another inconstant fallacy or myth about Christianity or they devolve even farther and just begin shouting you down with irrelevancies. At that point you are just dealing with an unphilosophical thug. It is better to just avoid them at that point because they are too ignorant to realize they’re ignorant. As I once heard it said, “You can’t fix ignorant.”

[1]  Catholic Encyclopedia –  (2009)
[2] Marone, Steven, "Medieval philosophy in context" in A. S. McGrade, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 
[3] O'Neill, Tim. "The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”." Strange Notions RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <http://www.strangenotions.com/gods-philosophers/>.
[4] Hart, David Bentley. Atheist delusions: the Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
[5] O'Neill, Tim. "Armarium Magnum: Why History isn't Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past)." Armarium Magnum: Why History isn't Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past). N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2013/11/why-history-isnt-scientific-and-why-it.html>.

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