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Friday, 17 February 2017

New Atheism and the myth of the "Medieval Gap"

Even though the "conflict hypothesis" model of the relationship between science and Christianity has been discredited by historians of science, some anti-theists still assert that Christianity has been implacably opposed to science, going as far as to argue that during the approximately 1000 years between the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, scientific knowledge was lost, plunging Europe into a 'Dark Ages'. This 'Medieval Gap', to use the term employed by Carl Sagan in the companion book to his justly celebrated Cosmos television series, as anyone familiar with James Hannan's excellent God's Philosophers would realise exists only in the minds of anti-theists. Far from retarding or suppressing science, Christianity preserved and extended scientific knowledge.

Historian of science Stephen Snobelen in the latest two posts in his BioLogos series shows why anti-theists old (Carl Sagan) and new (Jerry Coyne, A.C. Grayling, Victor Stenger, and David Mills) are wrong in advancing the concept of the 'Medieval Gap'.






Figure 1. The 'Medieval Gap'. Source Sagan C Cosmos (1982) p 335. Photograph by Stephen Snobelen.

Sagan's line chart marks the beginning of this 'medieval gap' with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia. Both events have gained iconic status among some anti-theists as examples of Christian anti-intellectualism at its worst. However, as Snobelen notes, the reality is somewhat different.

In his book and television series, Sagan portrays the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia as a martyr of science who died at the hands of fanatical, anti-intellectualist Christians. The implication is that the violent death of this woman is a potent symbol of the anti-scientific ethos of Christianity. Yet, as a neo-Platonist, Hypatia was much more of a religious mystic and even a proto-monotheist than a proto-atheist or atheist—as she is incorrectly insinuated to be in the 2009 film, Agora. (For incisive commentary on the many major inaccuracies in this film by atheist blogger Tim O’Neill, see this and this.) The Library of Alexandria formed part of the Museum of Alexandria. It was founded as a temple to the Muses, was headed by a priest, and functioned as a religious shrine as well as a centre of learning (Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, p. 72 ). Sagan’s book implies that the library was destroyed by Christians after the death of Hypatia, but the original library (the Great Library) was in fact long since gone by this time—first devastated by a fire caused by Julius Caesar’s troops in 48 BC and thereafter through a gradual decline. Even the daughter library was likely no more at this point, since it had been housed in the Serapeum, which was destroyed in 391, and there is no evidence that the Serapeum held the library at this late date. And, Hypatia’s death had more to do with politics than religion.

Sagan’s
Cosmos reinforced both the Medieval Gap and the anti-Christian account of Hypatia’s death in popular culture. But this is myth-making, not history. The only real gap here is in Sagan’s knowledge of the history of science.
It's not just the scientists among the New Atheists who make such mistakes. As Snobelen notes, philosophers like A.C. Grayling also push the myth of the death of science during the "Christian Dark Ages":
In an opinion piece published in The Guardian, Grayling wrote:

“Seven centuries after the beginnings of classical civilisation in the Greece of Pericles and Socrates, an oriental superstition, consisting of an amalgam of dying and resurrecting god myths and myths about the impregnation of mortal maids by deities, captured the Roman Empire. Such was the beginning of Christianity. By the accident of its being the myth chosen by Constantine for his purposes, it plunged Europe into the dark ages for the next thousand years—scarcely any literature or philosophy, and the forgetting of the arts and crafts of classical civilisation (quite literally a return to daub and wattle because the engineering required for towers and domes was lost), before a struggle to escape the church’s narrow ignorance and oppression saw the rebirth of classical learning, and its ethos of inquiry and autonomy, in the Renaissance.”
Scarcely any literature or philosophy? Scholars of Medieval thought will protest this quick and easy dismissal of their fields. And what of science? Grayling appears unaware (or unable to acknowledge) that the fields of physics, cosmology, astronomy and optics (to name just a few) reached a higher level of development by the end of the Middle Ages than they ever did during Classical Antiquity, as great as the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks were.
Perhaps the most egregious example of New Atheist misrepresentation of the relationship between science and Christianity comes from science writer David Mills, who as Snobelen notes has advanced his claim that scientific progress and Christianity are mutually exclusive with not a few historical errors:
Mills also believes that Christianity is an inveterate opponent of scientific progress:
“Aside from the wholesale extermination of ‘witches,’ the Christian Church fought bitterly throughout its history—and is still fighting today—to impede scientific progress. Galileo, remember, was nearly put to death by the Church for constructing his telescope and discovering the moons of Jupiter. For centuries, moreover, the Church forbade the dissection of a human cadaver, calling it ‘a desecration of the temple of the Holy Ghost.’ Medical research was thereby stalled for almost a thousand years. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Christianity’s longest period of sustained growth and influence occurred during what historians refer to as the Dark Ages.” (pp. 48–9)
Every sentence in this passage contains at least one fundamental historical error, but here I note only that “Dark Ages” is not a term many professional historians would endorse.
As Snobelen notes, Mill's claims are even worse than this, with frankly ludicrous claims that without "Christian oppression", humans could have landed on the moon by AD 650, cancer eradicated by AD 800, and heart disease unknown. It is not hard to see why atheists such as Tim O'Neill regard the New Atheists as deeply embarrassing when they peddle risible nonsense such as this. I can do no better than end with Snobelen's closing words in his latest BioLogos post:
As a historian of science, I despair when I read such nonsense, which we frequently encounter amongst some undergraduates entering courses in our programme. It is depressing to see the promotion of such ignorance—and to see it endorsed by Richard Dawkins and the son of Carl Sagan. But one also worries about the effect this vitriol has on secular attitudes towards Christianity and Christians. This sort of rhetoric and misuse of history promotes intolerance and is simply inexcusable. It is the duty of historians to expose this for the mythology it is.
In his book and television series, Sagan portrays the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia as a martyr of science who died at the hands of fanatical, anti-intellectualist Christians. The implication is that the violent death of this woman is a potent symbol of the anti-scientific ethos of Christianity. Yet, as a neo-Platonist, Hypatia was much more of a religious mystic and even a proto-monotheist than a proto-atheist or atheist—as she is incorrectly insinuated to be in the 2009 film, Agora. (For incisive commentary on the many major inaccuracies in this film by atheist blogger Tim O’Neill, see this and this.) The Library of Alexandria formed part of the Museum of Alexandria. It was founded as a temple to the Muses, was headed by a priest, and functioned as a religious shrine as well as a centre of learning (Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, p. 72 ). Sagan’s book implies that the library was destroyed by Christians after the death of Hypatia, but the original library (the Great Library) was in fact long since gone by this time—first devastated by a fire caused by Julius Caesar’s troops in 48 BC and thereafter through a gradual decline. Even the daughter library was likely no more at this point, since it had been housed in the Serapeum, which was destroyed in 391, and there is no evidence that the Serapeum held the library at this late date. And, Hypatia’s death had more to do with politics than religion.
Sagan’s Cosmos reinforced both the Medieval Gap and the anti-Christian account of Hypatia’s death in popular culture. But this is myth-making, not history. The only real gap here is in Sagan’s knowledge of the history of science.
- See more at: http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/carl-sagan-and-the-myth-of-the-medieval-gap#sthash.UU2adgty.dpuf
RIGHT: This diagram, from p. 335 in the 1982 edition of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, depicts his historically impoverished understanding of the Middle Ages. Photograph by Stephen Snobelen. - See more at: http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/carl-sagan-and-the-myth-of-the-medieval-gap#sthash.UU2adgty.dpuf
RIGHT: This diagram, from p. 335 in the 1982 edition of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, depicts his historically impoverished understanding of the Middle Ages. Photograph by Stephen Snobelen. - See more at: http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/carl-sagan-and-the-myth-of-the-medieval-gap#sthash.UU2adgty.dpuf