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Atheist historian combats claim that the Church persecuted classical learning

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File:Atheism.svg A historian draws our attention this post from late 2016, a reflection on the survival of classical learning during the Christian era, in response to “Skep,” an energetic atheist blogger:

But the usual way that those who are forced to admit that there were, in fact, many medieval natural philosophers studying all kinds of proto-scientific ideas, and doing so in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans and their Islamic successors, deal with this awkward fact is to claim that these poor scholars were cowed by the terrible restrictions of the Church and tightly constrained in what they could explore. Which, right on cue, “Skep” proceeds to do:

“The fact is there weren’t a lot of scientists around for the church to oppress during the middle ages, and those who did study things like optics or astronomy in those days didn’t dare defy the teachings of the church. The burning, persecution, and oppression came later, when real science began to flourish and the dogmas of the church were challenged.”

Except the fact is that there were few such restrictions and the medieval scope for inquiry was actually extremely wide. The Condemnations of 1210-1277 that he refers to in his mangled reference to Roger Bacon above actually illustrate this point quite neatly. If, as “Skep” claims, the medieval Church stifled proto-scientific inquiry so completely we should have no trouble finding this reflected in clear statements by the Church delineating what was off limits for inquiry. After all, it’s not like the medieval Church was shy about making its position on what could or could not be believed or questioned clear. And it seems “Skep” thinks the Condemnations of 1210-1277 represent just such statements.

But do they? To begin with, if they do we would expect these statements to be made in some kind of proclamation that applied to the whole of Christendom: in, say, a canon of an ecumenical council or at least a Papal bull. But no such statements exist. The 1210-1277 Condemnations, on the contrary, are very specific and highly local in their application: they apply only to the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris and nowhere else… Tim O’Neill, ““The Dark Ages” – Popery, Periodisation and Pejoratives” at History for Atheists

It’s a good thing Dr. O’Neill is clarifying matters. But one suspects his main audience will be Christians and other theists who want to know our own history. The sort of atheist who blogs up a storm about how the Dark Ages Are Back!! won’t be interested in the specifics of the survival of classical learning in Christian Europe. Classical learning might not hold his interest for long anyway.

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See also: Naturalist atheists rewrite history, scholar admits, due to bias against religion ((re Tim O’Neill))

4 Replies to “Atheist historian combats claim that the Church persecuted classical learning

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Another ancient historian, through his studies of ancient history, finds that the belief that the ‘enlightenement’ saved western civilization from the ‘dark ages’ of Christianity is a false revisionist history. The truth is that Christianity saved western civilization from the ‘dark ages’ of the Greeks and the Romans.

    Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity – 2016
    It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.
    Excerpt: The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

    “Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and ­oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.

    “We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

    Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
    https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity?fbclid=IwAR0QqBmBxdpkHh_iiXlJX-UbwShtej-wnB721Z1eULApM6fuxSUzSjnBJA8

    Of related note:

    Why Are the Middle Ages Often Characterized as Dark or Less Civilized? – Tim O’Neill, M.A. in medieval literature and has studied most aspects of the medieval period for many years:
    Excerpt: The idea of the whole Middle Ages as a “dark age” therefore actually comes from the early modern Renaissance and humanist movements and their denigration of their immediate forebears and idolization and idealization of the Greeks and Romans. Thus, the period between the Romans and this idealization in the early modern era became called the medium aevum—the “ages in the middle,” or the Middle Ages. They became traditionally characterized as a backward step, where art became “primitive” (because only realistic art could be “good” art), architecture was “barbaric” or “gothic,” and innovation was stagnant.

    These false ideas are still current partly because historians have only begun to revise our understanding of the Middle Ages quite recently and this is taking some time to seep into popular consciousness. But the prejudice against the Middle Ages is also driven by some strong cultural currents in our own time. Those with an animus against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular like to cling to the old idea of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” because it suits their preconceptions about religion and forms a neat little fable where modernity is “good” and the medieval period is “bad.” Historians avoid these simplistic value judgments and reject the assumptions on which they are made, but simple pseudo historical fairy tales are hard to budge.
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/quo....._less.html

    “THE DARK AGES” – POPERY, PERIODISATION AND PEJORATIVES – Tim O’Neill – 2016
    Excerpt: The concept of “the Dark Ages” is central to several key elements in New Atheist Bad History. One of the primary myths most beloved by many New Atheists is the one whereby Christianity violently suppressed ancient Greco-Roman learning, destroyed an ancient intellectual culture based on pure reason and retarded a nascent scientific and technological revolution, thus plunging Europe into a one thousand year “dark age” which was only relieved by the glorious dawn of “the Renaissance”. Like most New Atheist Bad History, it’s a commonly held and popularly believed set of ideas that has its origin in polemicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which has been rejected by more recent historians. But its New Atheist adherents don’t like to hear that last part and get very agitated when they do.,,,,,

    Concluding paragraph

    It should be clear by now that value-laden terms like “dark ages” and “Renaissance” belong to a period of dusty historiography that modern scholarship has long since outgrown. The very early medieval centuries certainly did see fragmentation, technology loss and the break down of long distance trade and an acceleration of the ongoing collapse of learning in western Europe. But to characterise the entire medieval period as a “dark age” because of this is clearly absurd. And while the nineteenth century idolisation of Classical art meant that they were inevitably going to see the art and architecture movement we call “the Renaissance” as “superior” to more stylised and native medieval forms, for anyone post-Picasso or Le Corbusier to do so is fairly philistinic. Anyone with even a passing grasp of history now understands that the Medieval Period was a long and diverse one thousand year span of remarkable change and development, in which Europe went from being a backwater that suffered most from the collapse of the Western Empire, to an economic, technical and military powerhouse that was on the brink of a global expansion.
    https://historyforatheists.com/2016/11/the-dark-ages-popery-periodisation-and-pejoratives/

  2. 2
    Tom Robbins says:

    The Church established classical learning, they approved the first classical curriculums! Complete denile or ignorance to think otherwise. Materialist and ultra liberals/aka thought police and fascistshave almost destroyed western classical learning in my opinion; including critical/individualist thinking.

  3. 3
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Excellent references, BA.

    It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.

    Often, even Christians are too modest and in the interest of giving credit elsewhere will argue as if the pagan philosophers had an entirely complete moral system, compatible with our understanding today. But Christianity overturned much of, even the best of classical thought – transforming it for the better.

    For 2,000 years, millions of people have sought to live by the Epistles of St. Paul. Those words teach society and individuals as if they were written yesterday.

    In contrast, only a handful of people (basically a few scholars and neo-Stoics) even read the writings of Seneca, for example. He is unknown and irrelevant by comparison.

  4. 4
    EricMH says:

    The Church Fathers draw a whole lot from classical authors, e.g. Justin Martyr and Augustine from Plato and Aquinas from Aristotle. Justin Martyr went so far as to claim Plato borrowed ideas from Moses. One of the main early Christian arguments was Jesus as the solution to Plato’s cave analogy problem. Additionally, the early Christians saw Jesus prefigured in pagan mythology, such as Plato’s claim that the truly just man would be hung on a tree and Virgil’s apparent prophecy regarding the Christ child. In more modern times, this correlation between the gospel and pagan myths is one of the reasons that compelled CS Lewis to become Christian. We even see this in our movies, where Hollywood draws a lot on Christian symbolism because of its mythic resonance.

    Another interesting thing is the deuterocanonical books such as the book of Wisdom are heavily influenced by Hellenic thought, but these were rejected by Luther because they supported Catholic teachings.

    The relationship between classical literature and Christianity is a bit more complex than Christianity swept the slate clean. Especially the parallels between Socrates’ fight against the sophists and the modern fight between ID and materialism.

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