The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: Biologist Jerry Coyne is just one of several New Atheist authors who tend to ignore the many scientific achievements of Medieval and Early Modern Christians. He dismisses those (numerous) historians who believe that Christianity contributed significantly to the rise of modern science as “accommodationists,” a term he has also hurled pejoratively at many secular scholars who do not share his very low view of religion—including such luminaries as Ronald Numbers, Michael Ruse, and Elliot Sober, none of whom believe in God. Sadly, many people unthinkingly accept the baseless historical opinions of anti-religious scientists like Coyne (or Steven Weinberg), rather than those of historians and other scholars who have actually published peer-reviewed research on the topic. 

Introduction by Ted Davis

In the previous installment of this series, historian Stephen Snobelen examined “the Myth of the Medieval Gap,” the baseless idea that science suffered severely under church domination during the Middle Ages.  There he gave particular attention to the manner in which the late Carl Sagan promulgated that myth in his gloriously successful television series, Cosmos. This time, Dr. Snobelen examines how anti-religious authors in our own day continue to propagate the same bogus history. His narrative begins after the next heading.

The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today (by Stephen Snobelen)

Carl Sagan was hardly the only modern author to promote the Myth of the Medieval Gap as a way to advance an anti-religious agenda. In 2013, biologist Jerry Coyne did likewise, in response to the claim that Christianity helped encourage the rise of modern science—a point made by many respected historians, including Stephen Gaukroger, whom he quotes. Coyne lists a series of objections, including the following: “Christianity was around for a millennium without much science being done; ‘modern’ science really started as a going concern in the 17th century. Why did it take so long if Christianity was so important in fostering science?” Then, in his conclusion, Coyne speculates, “I maintain, though I can’t prove this, that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.” In his 2015 book Faith vs. Fact, Coyne concedes that religion and Christianity have made contributions to science, but he embraces aspects of the Medieval Gap when he criticises the argument that Christianity gave birth to science (see pp. 211-17, with concession on p. 217).

The late Victor Stenger, too, has a mixed record on the Medieval Gap. In a podcast debate with philosopher of science Steve Fuller, towards the end Stenger made some rash claims about the history of science, including the claim that atheism “has helped a lot of scientists from being burned at the stake,” when in fact none ever were. As he goes on to say, “we had science 2500 years ago ... we went through a period of Dark Ages where we lost it. And what was the cause of the Dark Ages? Christianity. And then when Christianity finally began to be chipped away at in the Enlightenment, we got science back!”

At this point, Steve Fuller interjected and correctly pointed out that the Scientific Revolution happened one hundred years prior to the Enlightenment and noted the preponderance of Protestants involved in it. However, Stenger offers a more measured account of Medieval science in his book God and the Folly of Faith (2012). His account of this period in the third chapter contains much that is historically accurate, and he concedes that the “Dark Ages” were not entirely dark, although the tone is still set by the chapter’s title, “The rebirth and triumph of science,” which alludes to the idea that the Greeks had science, but that it was lost during the “Dark Ages.”

Another prominent advocate of this myth is British philosopher A. C. Grayling. 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.


Ted notes: Popular atheist writer David Mills offers an honorary “Doctor of Atheism” title that can be downloaded at his website (image source).


But even Grayling’s claims seem moderate and temperate compared to those of David Mills, author of Atheist Universe (2004), a bestseller on Amazon. Mills’s passionate enthusiasm for the Medieval Gap appears to get the better of him, starting with this claim (p. 48): “For 1500 years, the Christian Church systematically operated torture chambers throughout Europe. Torture was the rule, not the exception. ... Each year, the Christian Church in Europe tortured to death tens of thousands of people, including children as young as two years of age.”

Certainly many people were “tortured to death” by Medieval Christians, but this is a wildly exaggerated statement. Twenty thousand deaths per annum (to take his number at face value) makes a total of 30,000,000 deaths for the stated period of 1500 years. Scholarly estimates for the number of witches put to death range from 7000 to 100,000 deaths for the entire Middle Ages and Early Modern Period combined. The number of people executed for heresy during the same periods is much lower. The fact that there were political, social and cultural dynamics (as well as religious motivations) behind such deaths helps explain, but does not justify, these actions. Nevertheless, the number of deaths is far, far lower than Mills’ gratuitous, reckless and undocumented estimates—which promote misinformation and (ironically) intolerance. The moral: when one is on the side of the angels, one does not need to check facts. Mills conveniently ignores the suffering of Christians at the hands of imperial Rome and, more recently, the officially atheist communist countries. His book includes a foreword by Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins’ endorsement on the front cover of the current paperback edition reads, “An admirable work,” an assessment first offered in The God Delusion (p. 44). But Dawkins is not a historian.

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.

Now, I want to be fair here. It is not all as bad as this. Some of it is a lot worse. Mills goes on wistfully to imagine the achievements science could have made early on, had it not been for the stifling effects of Christianity:

“Fifteen-hundred years of progress were therefore stifled by the Christian Church. Were it not for religious persecution and oppression of science, mankind might have landed on the moon in the year A.D. 650. Cancer may have been eradicated forever by the year A.D. 800. And heart disease may, today, be unknown. But Christianity put into deep hibernation Greek and Egyptian scientific gains of the past.” (p. 49)

Mills displays a blithe disregard for historical contingency and seems to think that scientific ideas are objects merely waiting to be discovered and that they develop simply according to their own internal logic—provided that there are no checks in place to hold them back. Similar thinking appears to be behind the 2009 film Agora, which portrays the early fifth-century mathematician Hypatia as discovering the elliptical orbits of planets, which were not actually discovered until the early seventeenth century by Johannes Kepler. The idea seems to be that, except for the one-thousand years or more of the Christian non-scientific interregnum, the Greeks would have quickly progressed to elliptical orbits and Newton’s Inverse-Square Law.

Something like Mills’ argument for a gap in scientific progress is seen in a chart (below) of “Scientific Achievement,” from a 2007 article by an atheist known as Jim Walker. The chart shows a hopeful, extrapolated curve travelling upwards from around the time of Hypatia that is contrasted with a sudden drop-off followed by a centuries-long scientific “flat-line”. The chart quickly became a visual meme online (one version has the caption: “CHRISTIANITY: Just think, we could have been exploring the galaxy by now”), but it received so much ridicule that Jim Walker felt compelled to issue a response entitled “About that Damned Graph.” (See especially the criticisms of Walker’s chart by atheist historian Tim O’Neill, embedded in his review of James Hannam’s book, God’s Philosophers.) Undaunted, Walker stuck to the core idea embedded in the chart.


(image source)


As for Mills, he is either unaware of, or he deliberately neglects, the important role that Christians and Christian institutions played in the innovation and safe-keeping of science during the Middle Ages. (Islam also played both a preservationist and innovatory role in this period; see Syed Nomanul Haq’s chapter in Galileo Goes to Jail.) All of this is airbrushed out of his account: I do not call it history. Nor does Mills shy away from uttering blatant lies about the past:

“... pre-Renaissance man lived during a period when superstition overshadowed rational thought, and when those who proposed scientific explanations were often tortured to death by religious authorities. Galileo narrowly escaped a death sentence imposed by the Catholic Church for his telescopic observation that Jupiter’s moons orbited Jupiter instead of Earth, birthplace of Jesus and presumed orbital hub of the universe.” (p. 85)

It is instructive that Mills does not provide the names of anyone “tortured to death by religious authorities” for proposing “scientific explanations.” There is a simple reason for this. The number of people in Europe put to death by “religious authorities” for science over the many centuries of the entire Medieval and Early Modern periods is precisely zero. A “death sentence” was never imposed on Galileo at any point, and thus it is gratuitous to say that he “narrowly escaped” one. He was never tortured (although he was shown the instruments of torture), but he was placed under house arrest for the last decade of his life (during which time he produced his greatest work of physics, despite having gone blind).

This is not to say that Galileo did not suffer in any way, and it is worth noting that Galileo would sign some of his letters during his house arrest: “from my prison of Arcetri.” Nor is this to deny that Galileo’s enemies in the Church hierarchy were intolerant. As for the question of whether Galileo might have in extremis faced burning at the stake, this is tricky. The Inquisitor’s Manual called for the burning of obstinate heretics, but Galileo recanted and thus it never went that far. If he had not recanted, the legal option was there for the death penalty. Catholic historian James Hannam has argued that this result may eventually have transpired, but only after many years of trying to persuade Galileo to recant. My own view is that this was only a remote possibility, as the Church hierarchy would have worked hard to avoid this outcome. Whatever the case, it did not happen and thus the number of people that Church put to death for “science” remains zero.

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.

Looking Ahead

In the next installment, Dr. Snobelen shows that while certain New Atheists decry intolerance in religion, they are by no means immune from displaying intolerance themselves. Be sure not to miss that!


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 21 October 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, February 16). The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today
Retrieved October 21, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-medieval-gap-and-new-atheists-today

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44. BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated version online.

For a very accessible, short, but authoritative account on the Galileo Affair, see the chapter by Maurice A. Finocchiaro in Galileo Goes to Jail.

About the Authors

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

More posts by Stephen Snobelen

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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