Learned scholars shout into the wind frequently re science writer myths about how stupid people were in the Middle Ages, etc. Such myths would include the odd claim that mediaeval Europeans believed that Earth is flat. Hint: They could not have believed that, due to other things they believed.
Tales of an ignorant past give people today, who pay billions for bunk nutrition science and whole foods, several free virtue points for “science”without any need to think clearly. It’s no help but they feel much better.
Just recently, I (O’Leary for News) dredged up something I’d written (2007) on a different myth, worth recapping in the religion story deck: Your local new atheist Twitter feed may tell you that traditional theologians opposed anaesthesia because they thought women should suffer in childbirth This is not online so far as I know, so here:
Most clergy, theologians, and religious physicians approved the painkiller pioneered by Edinburgh professor of midwifery James Young Simpson in 1847. A few clergy feared that Satan was behind pain relief, but a key theologian (Chalmers) dubbed these dissenters as “small theologians” and advised ignoring them. Religious objections seldom turned up anywhere in Farr’s systematic search of the literature of the day.
Actually, lay women were more likely than clergymen to oppose anesthetics. Some unhappy women saw labor as the price girls ought to pay for the “joys of marriage.” But when Queen Victoria—the legendary soul of propriety—accepted anesthesia for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853, such objections came to sound unfashionable, and perhaps uncouth. Farr also suggests that the pioneer anesthetists unintentionally created the impression of a religious debate by writing tracts supporting anesthesia—though few actually opposed it.
How then did the idea that religious objections hindered the spread of anesthesia in childbirth become so widely believed that it became a staple of twentieth century accounts of the history of obstetrics? Mainly through unsupported statements.
First, a Simpson biographer referenced “religious objections” in 1873, without quoting evidence. Twenty-three years later, Simpson’s daughter Eve made the same claim, but she did not cite any new evidence. In fact, as Farr notes, she was only 14 when her father died. Thus she was unlikely to be his confidante, hearing sensitive information that he withheld from others.
In 1896 American diplomat A.D. White claimed in History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom: “From pulpit after pulpit Simpson’s use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abdundantly [sic], the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was ‘to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.’”
Of course, these events had not occurred. But in the right environment, unsupported statements mushroomed into indisputable factoids.
An antireligious factoid of more recent vintage held that the turn of the year 1000 A.D. was “a time of apocalyptic panic, fevered preaching, penitential excesses and, for the Christian faithful, ominous signs and wonders. Daily work was set aside and property, even family, abandoned as Christian Europe waited on both dread and hope for the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Call it the Y1K problem.”
Really? As Peter Steinfels—whose mocking purple prose is quoted in the preceding paragraph— reports (July 17, 1999, New York Times), there was no universal calendar back then, hence no general agreement about when midnight 1000 A.D. would occur. Many cultures did not begin their day at midnight. In any event, many parts of Eastern Europe were not Christian yet. No mass panic was even possible, let alone documented. The mass panic thesis entered popular imagination via anti-religious literature of the 19th century, written by people who probably knew little and cared less about the history of our current calendar, which dates only from 1582 and was not universally accepted until the 18th century.
Why raise these matters? Because I sometimes hear well-meaning Christians make excuses for “the ignorance of the Christian past” when in fact, the main problem is the ignorance of the Christian present So many of the anti-religious claims turn out to be myth that it is wise to disbelieve them all, until independently verified. Knowing the facts is always empowering, and it can even be reassuring.
*Farr, Senior Chief Scientific Officer for the North East of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service in Aberdeen, Scotland, published his paper in Annals of Science, 40 (1983), 159-177). More.
These days, facts don’t beat a slick public relations machine, but they are more nutritious for the life of the mind.
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