Saturday, November 19, 2016

"The Dark Ages" - Popery, Periodisation and Pejoratives




"When the Pope ruled England, them was called the Dark Ages!"
(East London street orator, reported by Herbert Butterfield, 1931)

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.

"Skep" and his Bungles

So a few months ago the (apparently) anonymous blogger who writes The Skeptic Zone ("Speaking out against bullshit", it declares with edgy bravery) was greatly displeased when he saw the Christian apologist Victor Reppert had noticed a review I wrote seven years ago of James Hannam's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009).  As I note in that review, Hannam's book does an excellent job of summarising modern scholarship's assessment of science (or, rather, natural philosophical proto-science) in the medieval period and making this technical material accessible to a popular audience, debunking many common myths along the way.  Nothing much in the book is very novel or even mildly surprising to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of early science, so it was well-received by experts in the field as a lively introduction to the subject for the general reader.  No less a figure than Edward Grant was forthright in his praise: 


"Hannam has written a splendid book and fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science. He has admirably met another of his goals, namely that of acquainting a large non-academic audience about the way science and various aspects of natural philosophy functioned in medieval society and laid the foundation for modern science. Readers will also learn much about medicine, magic, alchemy, astrology, and especially technology. And they will learn about these important matters in the history of science against the broad background of the life and times of medieval and early modern societies." (Metascience, September 2010)
Grant was far from alone in his esteem and the book was shortlisted for both the the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2010 and the British Society for the History of Science Dingle Prize in 2011- high accolades for any first time author.  

So you would think that a book that simply popularises the agreed consensus of the leading scholars in the field written by an eminently qualified author (Hannam holds both a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in the history of science from Cambridge), endorsed by leading historians and recognised and praised as an excellent piece of research and writing would be totally uncontroversial.  And, as it happens, it is.  At least for those who don't have a blunt ideological axe to grind, coupled with a profound ignorance of the subject in question.

Which brings us back to the author of The Skeptic Zone - let's call call him "Skep".  He was not at all happy that the apologist Reppert posted a link to my review; without comment, but in a post entitled "Some Lies Never Die: The Myth of the Dark Ages".  But, by Jove, our "Skep" was having none of this:


"If you're a Christian apologist, you'd rather believe that there was no such thing as the Dark Ages.  You'd rather believe that intellectual endeavors flourished under the benevolent leadership of the church, and life for the average citizen was just peachy.  There is no shortage of revisionist literature that supports this.  In his customary manner, Victor has uncritically latched onto a review of James Hannam's book God's Philosophers that supports this notion."

Of course, this simply assumes that the idea he so forcefully rejects actually is invalid, which makes his point about Reppert linking to my review "uncritically" somewhat ironic.  And exactly what makes Reppert's endorsement of my review and Hannam's book so wicked becomes blurred, since the sentences above drift from something to do with "intellectual endeavors" into something or other about "life for the average citizen" not being "peachy".  Whatever it is that "Skep" is disagreeing with, it's clear that the concept of a "dark age" is at the heart of it and denial of any aspect of this non-"peachy" era is, apparently, Christian apologism.

Which is where "Skep" turns both his great scorn and his mighty powers of investigation on me:


"This very favorable review comes from Tim O'Neill, who claims to be an atheist and skeptic, and that, I suppose, is the reason Victor chooses to call out this particular article as being worthy of notice.  If an atheist agrees with what the apologists say, then there must be something to it, right?"

Well, actually, yes.  At least potentially.  After all, if it was only Christian apologists who somehow criticise this concept of an alleged "dark age" and people unencumbered by their bias do not, then we have strong potential grounds to dismiss their claims on the subject.  If, however, they are supported on this point by people who are not Christians and are even atheists, no less, then these grounds to dismiss them fall away.  So our "Skep" has a point.  And, therefore, a distinct problem.  Because I am, as it happens, an atheist and so not a Christian, let alone a "Christian apologist".  How does he deal with this?  Well ... rather badly:


" I did a little research on Tim O'Neill, and could find no reason to think that he is anything other than a Christian who claims to be an atheist.  His articles are uniformly supportive of theists and their beliefs, and critical of atheists."

Hmmm, "a little research"?  Unfortunately for "Skep" his "little research" on me was rather too "little" for the task at hand and in his emotionally-charged eagerness to prove I was not an atheist he somehow managed to bungle things completely.  He has since partially edited out his mistake, but in his original post he triumphantly produced an article by me called "Why Miracles Are Not Incompatible with Science", which claims miracles do happen and presents the Christian apologist argument that they are merely suspensions of natural scientific laws, not violations of them.  Now, anyone who knows me or is familiar with anything I've ever written or said over the last 35 years or so would immediately be greatly startled and wonder how on earth an atheist and sceptic like me would write such a strange thing.  And the answer, gentle reader, is that ... I didn't.  

Our "Skep", in a remarkable display of utter incompetence, somehow managed to attribute an article by a Catholic apologist called Karlo Broussard to ... ummm, well, me.  Given that he kindly provided a link to that article and that it not only carried the clear by-line "by Karlo Broussard" at the top, but also a box entitled "Written by Karlo Broussard" at the bottom - complete with an author bio containing such helpful information as "Karlo works as a full time apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers giving lectures throughout the country on topics in Catholic apologetics, theology and philosophy" - exactly how our gormless "Skep" managed this bizarre bungle is a mystery.  Not surprisingly, he's now edited it out and with an awkward apology, which is nice of him I suppose.

"Straw Men" and More Bungles

But with a zeal that indicates more enthusiasm than sense, ol' "Skep" didn't let that flat-footed bumble slow him down and he went on to continue to insist that I am a Christian apologist after all.  Despite recent comments on his blog by me where I point out that I have an online record as an atheist which goes all the way back to posts on alt.atheism as early as 1992, that I have been a state president of the Australian Skeptics and that I have also been a paid up, subscribing member of the Australian Atheist Foundation for many years, he's still trying to argue I'm not really an atheist.  Given that anyone capable of typing "Tim O'Neill Australian Skeptics" into Google will bring up a PDF copy of The Skeptic, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1992 as its very first hit, which conclusively proves one of my claims on page 11, it's pretty clear that "Skep" doesn't have a leg to stand on here.  Poor "Skep".

But he pushes on regardless.  He quotes from my review of Hannam, where I note that, despite the myth about the Church persecuting scientists, not one natural philosopher was ever "burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages".  He responds:

"This is a straw man, of course.  Nobody makes the claim that scientists in the Middle ages were repressed by the church."

They don't?  Strange, because I come across precisely this claim all the time.  But if "Skep" doesn't believe me then perhaps he should consult ... himself.  In a post on his own blog from just a year ago he got himself into quite a lather over the medieval Church supposedly repressing the medieval proto-scientist Roger Bacon, allegedly over the University of Paris' 1210-1277 attempts at restricting discussion of Aristotle's works:


"While there is disagreement over just how much effect [the 1210-1277 Condemnations] had on the advancement of knowledge, there is no denying that the church stood in opposition to anything that opposed its own dogma.  The Franciscan monk (sic) Roger Bacon, often credited with advancing natural science and scientific method in the 13th century, was imprisoned for running afoul of the condemnations." ("Religious Interference with Scientific Progress", 1 Nov. 2015)

Perhaps not surprisingly the hapless "Skep" has bungled things once again: it's unclear if Bacon was ever actually imprisoned in the first place and there is nothing at all to indicate that any imprisonment, if it did happen, had anything to do with his natural philosophy, rather than the theological disputes over spiritual poverty raging in the Franciscan Order at the time.  But if my reference to the popular belief about the Church suppressing proto-scientists is "a straw man", poor ol' "Skep" needs to explain why he was fulminating about an imagined case of them doing precisely that in his November 2015 post.  He seems highly confused about a great many things.

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.  This is hardly surprising, since they arose out of an academic squabble between that university's Faculty of Theology and the upstarts in the Faculty of Arts, who the theologians thought were intruding on their hallowed turf.  Not only did they not apply to anyone outside of the Arts Faculty or the University of Paris, there is little evidence of them having much impact on anyone or any other institution at all.  On the contrary, in 1210 rival universities seized on them gleefully and tried to use them to lure students away from Paris, with the University of Toulouse advertising itself as a place to "hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris".  When it comes to student recruitment to universities, not much has changed.

But not only did these condemnations apply only to Paris' Arts Faculty and have no effect at all elsewhere, but they were also very specifically aimed at ideas found in the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle that were brought back to Catholic Europe from Islamic Spain and Sicily in the preceding century. The 1210 Condemnation was broad in its restriction, but still specific to particular works by Aristotle:


"Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication."


To be fair, in 1210 those "new" works by Aristotle and the mainly Muslim commentaries on them did represent a substantial portion of all "natural philosophy".  Which could explain why the 1210 Condemnation was ... almost completely ignored.  By 1255 all of Aristotle's works then available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty.  So much for the terrible restrictive power of the medieval Church.  With the total failure of the 1210 Condemnation in restricting those naughty Arts professors, in 1270 the Paris Faculty of Theology tried again.  

This time the attempted proscription was more focused, aiming squarely for the radical Aristotelianism or "Averroism" of Siger of Brabant and his followers.  The Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, laid out 13 propositions that the theologians said members of the Parisian Arts Faculty could not hold.  These were largely philosophical ideas seen as limitations on God's omnipotence (e.g. "That God does not know singulars") or the nature of souls (e.g. "That the soul ... cannot be destroyed by bodily fire").  It is very hard to see how these restrictions can be said to have hampered science.  The only two of the 1270 Condemnations that could be even remotely related to anything to do with natural philosophy are the one forbidding the teaching that the universe is eternal and the one stating that there was a first human being.  The former is a metaphysical rather than a scientific idea, since early cosmological science was well beyond anything other than pure speculation in 1270 and would remain so for several centuries to come.  And the latter is not incompatible with any materialist ideas of the origin of human life (such as that proposed, without censure, by William of Conches a century earlier), given that it is still a theological teaching of the modern Catholic Church, which also fully accepts evolutionary biology.

The 1270 Condemnations were followed by a longer list of attempted proscriptions in 1277, but again these mainly targeted a grab bag of "Averroist" metaphysical ideas.  Rather than restricting natural philosophy, Pierre Duhem went so far as to argue that the criticism of Aristotle in these proscriptions shattered the conception that "the Philosopher" was somehow omnicompetent and opened his work up to greater sceptical scrutiny and constructive criticism.  Modern historians of science agree that this goes too far, noting that Aristotle had not yet achieved that level of unquestioned reverence at that stage, but agree that later critical analysis of and adjustment of several of Aristotle's claims about the natural world do owe something to these checks on his full acceptance in the thirteenth century.

But the key point here is not so much what these attempted restrictions did try to proscribe, but rather what they did not.  The condemnations were restricted to metaphysical ideas and philosophical speculations.  Nowhere in these examples or in any others from the whole of the Middle Ages was there any tendency toward restricting rational analysis of the physical and natural world.  On the contrary, the natural cosmos was seen as the rational product of a rational God and so not only could but should be apprehended and understood rationally.  Medieval thinkers liked to refer to "the Book of Nature" that should be read and analysed for understanding of the physical world as a compliment to "the Book of God" (the Bible) which should be read to understand the theological:


"For this whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power .... But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book looks at the figures but does not recognise the letters: just so the foolish natural man who does not perceive the things of God outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvellous is the wisdom of the Creator."  (Hugh of St Victor, De Tribus Diebus, 4)

So the claim by this "Skep" that some fear of defying "the teachings of the Church" somehow stifled medieval proto-science is pseudo historical nonsense, largely because those teachings left analysis of the natural world wide open - the "Book of Nature" was there for the reading. 

Cartoon History and Reality

It's not surprising therefore that there was no shortage of medieval scholars who took advantage of the previously lost works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, Archimedes and their many Muslim and Jewish commentators and successors and used them to read "the Book of Nature".  Or that they did so without anyone batting an eyelid.  Thus we find new works not just on "optics or astronomy" being produced in western Europe from the eleventh century onwards, but also on mathematics, anatomy, medicine, physics, dynamics, biology and even the beginnings of chemistry.  So it was fairly easy for me to list just a sample of the many proto-scientific writers who flourished in this period and laid the foundations of the later Scientific Revolution, including "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".

Our "Skep" can't deny that these people existed, that they did genuine proto-scientific work in the Greek tradition and that they were unmolested by the Church.  So how does he deal with these awkward historical realities?  With characteristic incompetence, bias and ignorance:

"Again, there is no question that Aristotelian natural philosophy and scholasticism arose (or re-emerged) in the latter part of the middle ages.  The people listed here that O'Neill calls scientists are all from the 13th, and 14th, and 15th centuries, at the end of the middle ages.  They were clergy members or sponsored by the the church, and they didn't question church dogma.  It wasn't until the Renaissance that science began to break free from the yoke of the church and for the first time call religious beliefs and dogma into question.  In my opinion, that's when the Dark Ages ended."

This is a strange cluster of claims.  Firstly, why the fact that this all happened at the end of the Middle Ages is significant is unclear.  We will see why that was in a moment, but it's not like the Church was less powerful in these later medieval centuries: on the contrary, this was the very apogee of ecclesiastical power.  But the claim that because "they were clergy members or sponsored by the church" they were somehow under some "yoke of the church" and so unwilling or unable to "question church dogma" is bizarre.  What "church dogma" could they "question" by studying anatomy?  Or physics? Or dynamics?  Or ... well, anything about the natural world?  As detailed above, the scope for analysis of "the Book of Nature" was wide and the few metaphysical restrictions the theologians did place on natural philosophers were on things well beyond any pre-modern scientist anyway.  So the restrictive hand of "church dogma" that "Skep" imagines so feverishly simply was not there.

But his reference to "Renaissance" scholars beginning to "break free from the yoke of the church and for the first time call religious beliefs and dogma into question" seems to be to the cartoonish, popular conception of the Galileo Affair, which sees that dispute as one with science questioning dogma on one side and religion clinging to irrational superstition on the other.  Unfortunately for "Skep" it was nothing like that.  The Church had always accepted that the Bible could be interpreted in a non-literal manner and that it should be if Biblical exegesis and rational analysis of the world conflicted.  That's why all those Biblical references that talk about a flat earth had long since been regarded as poetic rather than literal.  So in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine made it clear in his letter to Paolo Foscarini that the same could potentially happen with passages that were traditionally interpreted as saying the earth was fixed and unmoving:


"[I]f there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown to me . . . . and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers."

The problem was that Bellarmine was correct: in 1615 there was no such demonstration and the overwhelming scientific consensus was that Galileo and the handful of other heliocentrists were wrong.  That consensus did not begin to change for another 90 years. So it was not a case of scientists challenging dogma and theologians ignoring science.  It was a case of one or two scientists championing a fringe theory that was still full of holes and using it to reinterpret the Bible and the Church pointing to the scientific consensus of the day and saying they could not do this.  The Church had science on its side.

The only other example that people who see medieval science as under the heel of massive theological restriction and "Renaissance" science freeing itself from this oppression is ... Giordano Bruno.  But as I've detailed elsewhere, his condemnation had nothing to do with science.  The idea that medieval natural philosophy was constrained by theology and that later science was not is a fantasy, based on ignorance of the subject and patent ideological bias.

The Middle Ages and the "Dark Ages" - History and Historiography

But our "Skep" does not want to let go of his fond idea of "the Dark Ages":


"This raises the question of we mean by the term Dark Ages.  It has been defined in various ways.  One common definition (and the one that O'Neill disputes) is that it coincides with the entire medieval period, beginning at the fall of the Roman empire around 476CE and ending at the start of the renaissance around 1500CE (in western Europe).  Another commonly used definition has it ending in 1000CE.  Even O'Neill agrees that this was a dark period in history.  Some may equate the start of the dark ages with the decline of the Roman empire that coincides with the adoption of Christianity during the rule of Constantine.  Some may equate the end of the dark ages with the rise of universities and scholastic philosophy in the 12th century.  It wasn't until the 14th century that anyone began to question the natural philosophy of Aristotle.  Regardless of how you define the term, it is clear that scientific and cultural progression was at a virtual standstill at least during the earlier centuries of the middle ages."

Wow.  Let's unpack this tangle of claims. The term "the Dark Ages" has its own varied history and it begins with Petrarch.  Prior to his time, medieval scholars had something of an inferiority complex.  Western culture had been looking back on earlier "golden ages" for centuries and as early as the late sixth century BC Hesiod laid out the idea that he lived in a debased and corrupted period and spoke of a χρύσεον γένος - an "Age of Gold"- as an ancient, idyllic era when "men lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief".  Christianity inherited this idea that things were in a long decline and coupled it with its own eschatology that talked of a period of debasement and chaos before the End Times and the Apocalypse.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, these ideas were supplemented by the very real fact that early medieval western European lived surrounded by reminders of a past that was grander and greater than the present.  Sometime in perhaps the eighth century an Anglo-Saxon monk wrote an elegy contemplating a Roman ruin:

"Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas."

(Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed. Often this wall outlasted,
hoary with lichen, red-stained, withstanding the storm,
one reign after another; the high arch has now fallen.
The Ruin, ll. 6-11)

The same monk was probably also acutely aware of literary references to ancient works that he could never read: Greek and Roman works that were now lost in the collapse of the Empire.  Even when western learning began to revive and many of those lost works came back to western Europe via Arabic and Hebrew translations from Sicily and Spain, western scholars still saw themselves as inferior to the ancients.  In 1159 John of Salisbury wrote:


"Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature." (Metalogicon)

But by the early fourteenth century this inferior attitude began to change.  After several centuries of the revival of Greek and Roman texts on logic, philosophy and proto-science, a new breed of scholar was turning their attention to ancient literary works.  Petrarch was one of the earliest who not only devoted himself to Greek and Latin poetry and histories, but set out to imitate it in his own works and to reject the living Latin of his own day in an attempt at restoring the language to what he saw as its earlier purity.

For Petrarch and the Classical revivalist Humanists who followed him, he was not a dwarf compared to the ancient giants, he was their peer and equal.  It was the lesser scholars of the period since the fall of Rome who were the midgets and that period between the end of the Empire and his own time that was an unfortunate interregnum.  He saw himself as at the beginning of a new, better age that would parallel that of the ancients and dispel "the darkness":

"[F]or you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance."(Africa, IX, 451-7)

Later Humanists continued this idea and the "dark" period in the middle  - between the "radiance" of Greece and Rome and its new revival - came to be called first the media tempestas (" the middle times") and later the medium aevum ("the middle ages").  "Medieval" was the English term derived from the latter and while it did not appear until the nineteenth century, the concepts of this period as "the Middle Ages" and its connections with ideas of it as a period of "darkness" were well and truly entrenched by then.  

The terms "Middle Ages" and "Medieval" have cognates across Europe; the period is the Mittelalter to German speakers and the Moyen Âge to the French.  But while these terms have all had some historiographical associations with "darkness", the term "the Dark Ages" is uniquely English in its usage, if not its origin.  The term was first used not as a way of denigrating the "middle times", but actually in a work that went some way to defending them.  Between 1588 and 1607 Cardinal Caesar Baronius published his multi-volume Church history, the Annales Ecclesiastici; which was in part a response to the Protestant version of history found in the Magdeburg Centuries (1559-74) produced by a group of Lutheran scholars.

Baronius found that the period between the end of the Carolingian dynasty in 888 and the church reforms of Pope Gregory VII was difficult to research because of a lack of source material:


"The new age which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers, dark." ( Annales Ecclesiastici, Vol. X. Roma, p. 647)

This concept of a period that lacked written sources as a saeculum obscurum - "a Dark Age" - struck other historians as useful and it began to be applied by them first to the specific 160 years identified by Baronius and then to other periods for which source material was scanty.  But it was in seventeenth century Protestant England that its English form began to be applied to the medieval period generally and to be given its pejorative overtones rather than its original technical meaning.

By the nineteenth century the terms "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages" had become synonymous in English usage and the clearly Protestant, post-Enlightenment and decidedly Whiggish historiography of English language history writing in that period did not have a problem with its pejorative implications.  Edward Gibbon, writing for a Protestant audience in the tradition of Voltaire and the French philosophes, had no qualms about scorning the "rubbish of the Dark Ages" and most popular history writing in this period usually maintained that scorn in both Britain and the U.S.

But the true academic study of the Medieval Period really only began in the twentieth century and by then the moralising, value judgements and biased sectarian polemic of eighteenth and nineteenth century historiography had been replaced by the far more objective, neutral and careful traditions that began with Leopold von Ranke and were developed by Marc Bloch and his successors.  Value-laden terms like "the Dark Ages" began to fall from favour and modern historians now tend to avoid them, even though they linger in common parlance.

This was partly due to their obvious negative bias, but also due to the fact that, as twentieth century study of the Medieval Period proceeded, many of the assumptions about it were shown to be false.  Far from being a period of technical stagnation, even the very early medieval period saw agrarian and technological innovation that transformed western and northern Europe economically and culturally.  Rather than being a period of total Popish theocracy, the near constant tension and regular open conflict between Church and State meant the Church actually spent most of the period trying to extract itself from secular domination.  It also became increasingly clear that the rise of universities, of communal republics and parliaments and of complex systems of law and governance meant that many institutions that are central to the modern world have their origins in the Medieval world rather than the more remote and rather alien Classical period.

And one of the key nineteenth century myths that the new medieval history specialists debunked was the idea that the Church suppressed or restricted inquiry into the natural and physical cosmos, stifling proto-science until the "yoke of the church" was thrown off in the "Renaissance".  Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) and Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965) both came to the conclusion that the idea of the Medieval Period as one of scientific stagnation until the "Renaissance" and the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was nonsense and that the revival of natural philosophy not only began as far back as the eleventh century, but the later medieval proto-scientific tradition laid the essential foundations of the later true revolution.  This is now totally accepted by all modern historians of science.

So while all this is not well known to the average person today (and actively resisted as "revisionism" by biased ideologues like our "Skep"), it's all standard, accepted stuff for anyone with even the slightest undergraduate grasp of medieval history.  As a result, the term "the Dark Ages" as applied to the whole Medieval Period is simply not used by modern historians at all.  Where the term is applied at all, it is to a very specific period of British history: the 200 or so years from the withdrawal of Roman troops in the fifth century to the end of the north-west Germanic invasions and settlements in Britain in the late seventh century.  This is a "dark age" in the technical sense of Baronius, because it is not well served by written sources (even though it continues to be increasingly illuminated by archaeology).

Periods,Terms and Value Judgements 

New Atheists like "Skep" are not only keen on the outdated idea of calling the whole of the Middle Ages a "dark age" but they are also very fond of the idea of "the Renaissance".  Unfortunately this is another nineteenth century concept that, as a period of history, really does not work at all.

The word was first used in English in 1830, though it has its origin in Vasari's use of "rinascita" in his 1550 Lives of the Artists to describe the revival of Classical styles of art and the rejection of the "gothic" or "barbaric" art of the Middle Ages.  The idea of "the Renaissance" as a glorious reawakening and the end of a "dark age" was first fully articulated by French historian Jules Michelet in 1855, characterising it as more than an art movement, but as a revival of the celebration of the individual, the rise of democratic values and the rejection of the "bizarre and monstrous" Middle Ages.

Of course, all of this simply assumed everything nineteenth century intellectuals thought about the Middle Ages as a "dark age" was correct.  Modern historians now see the elements that nineteenth century scholars like Michelet and Burkhardt thought of as some kind of clean break from the Middle Ages as beginning long before "the Renaissance".  Also contrary to the nineteenth century conception, modern historians have pointed out that many of the things that their predecessors held to be characteristic of the medieval "dark ages" - large scale warfare, political despotism, religious persecution and witchhunts - were actually far worse or more characteristic of the supposed "Renaissance" period.

"The Renaissance" is, in fact, such an ill-defined and rubbery concept that it does not work as periodisation term at all. Elements of it - a move to Classical art styles, individualism and humanism - can be found at least in some places (mainly Italy) as early as the late thirteenth century.  But we don't see many of these elements taking hold in northern Europe until much later  - thus the art history term "the Northern Renaissance", where we see the artistic and literary elements at least flourishing in the sixteenth century.  Then again, we don't see them appearing in more far off places, like Russia, until much later still.  For a term applied to a period of history, this ill-definition not only of what this thing was but when is a major problem.  

Some New Atheists have tried to use this to their advantage.  The inevitable Richard Carrier, for example, uses it as a kind of sleight of hand to help him dismiss the claim that the Medieval Period was a not a "dark age" by taking various elements from the later Middle Ages that belie the "dark age" myth and declaring them to part of the Renaissance instead. Et voilà! - with a wave of his semantic magic wand, the revival of Greek philosophy, the beginnings of anatomy based on dissection, the invention of clocks and eye-glasses and the revolution of printing are all transformed from medieval achievements into something from a period invented by Carrier called "the early Renaissance".  Of course, this leads to a curious situation where these (good) things belong to the "early Renaissance" but many other things from the same time somehow manage to stay "medieval".  So complex fourteenth century astronomical clocks are somehow "Renaissance", but the Black Death in the same period is "medieval".  Eye glasses are "Renaissance", but the One Hundred Years War is "medieval".  The Twelfth Century Revival is "Renaissance", but the Flagellant Movement is "medieval".  C.S. Lewis is said to have once quipped that "the Renaissance" is simply "the parts of the later Middle Ages that modern people happen to like".

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.

Of course "anyone with even a passing grasp of history" is a category that excludes our "Skep" and his ilk, mired as they are in a intellectually deadening and tone deaf combination of ideological bias and near total historical ignorance. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Atheistically Speaking Podcast on Jesus Mythicism



Thomas Smith was kind enough to have me back on his "Atheistically Speaking" podcast for a two part discussion on Jesus Mythicism and why it's rejected by the vast majority of scholars:

Did Jesus Exist? Part One

Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Needless to say, some of his audience are not pleased, though others seem more open-minded.  
 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Inciting Incident" Podcast on History for Atheists



Al Laiman from the "Inciting Incident" podcast enjoyed my chat with Thomas Smith a few weeks ago and decided to have me as a guest on his show.  Unfortunately our first conversation failed to record, so we tried again last weekend and the podcast is now up.  We cover some of the same ground as I did with Thomas, though I go into a little more detail on the myths around Galileo and the Great Library of Alexandria.  We also discuss the likely psychology of why pseudo history appeals to people more than real history and look at the Jesus Myth thesis as a largely online phenomenon related to conspiracy theories.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Edward T. Babinski Objects


My interview with Thomas Smith on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast last week has stirred up an interest in the topics we covered among some of Thomas' audience.  Inevitably, given that I had to skate over some topics pretty quickly, not everything I was saying seems to have been grasped fully by some listeners.  The part of the conversation on Galileo was very rushed and that is a complex subject, since many New Atheists find it hard to get their head around how, if Galileo was persecuted for a scientific idea, this doesn't mean the Church was "anti-science".  But I will be writing some more detailed analysis of the Galileo Affair as part of my "The New Atheist Bad History Great Myths" series, so hopefully I can make the complexities of how science, theology and politics became entangled in that case a bit more clear.

But one (I assume) listener had far more to object to than that.  Edward T. Babinski is a former fundamentalist Christian who has made a long journey back from evangelical Biblical literalism and belief in Creationism to a kind of spiritual agnosticism.  He says he abandoned Christianity after "reading .... books on biblical criticism and the development of Christian doctrine, and after studying evolutionists' criticisms of "scientific creationist" arguments" and is the author of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (1995) and a contributor to John Loftus' collection of articles The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010).

But like many non-believers who have reacted vehemently against their former beliefs, Ed Babinski seems to have absorbed a very strange and strenuously anti-Christian version of western history and seems quite upset when someone (i.e. me) comes along and says key elements of it may not be entirely true.

He's posted some long comments on my blog post on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast, but because blog post comments don't lend themselves to a careful critique of what he's saying I'm going to publish his comments here and then go over what is wrong with them from a historical perspective.  I'm doing this for two reasons.  One, he argues positions which are taken as unalloyed truth by New Atheists and many former believers like Babinski (I used to accept some of them myself), so this is a good opportunity to dissect them and compare them to the evidence.  And two, Babinski himself seems like a very genuine guy and - possibly - open to adjusting his ideas.  Well, maybe.

So I'll begin with his first comment, which I published on my "Atheistically Speaking" post, in which Babinski quotes from a book he found:

"'The libraries [of Alexandria] were surely in decline under Christians who, following their triumph over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists, found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting. Their anger reached a fever pitch in the fourth century A.D.: Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis [a huge temple/library and part of the libraries of Alexandria] for a church; he set loose a mob of Christians, who destroyed the pagan temple, and perhaps, the books of its library as well …
The [rest of the] libraries of Alexandria probably shared a modest fate, moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents. Ancient Greek, never a linguistic monolith in any case, became incomprehensible to Alexandrians of the Christian era with their mixture of Coptic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Koine, or demotic Greek. Ignored by the generations to whom they were indecipherable, the scrolls would have been damaged … stolen, lost, and yes, burned. They were replaced by writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church and by the thinning literature of the declining Roman world.'
— Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p.24,32"

This is something New Atheist types do a lot - they try to support an historical position or claim by quoting or citing someone else making the same claim.  Except if that person isn't a specialist in the field of history who is backing that assertion up with footnotes and references to relevant supporting source material and scholarship, this is simply ... someone else making the claim.  Given that many of the ideas and assumptions that make up New Atheist Bad History are based on common popular misconceptions about history, it's not hard to find some non-specialist repeating them somewhere, but that doesn't actually support the claim being made; it's just evidence of it echoing around among non-historians.

And this is exactly what we have here.  Matthew Battles  - the writer Babinski quotes - is currently Associate Director at Harvard's metaLAB, which has the mission of "the incubation of trans-disciplinary projects that blend new media, data, and scholarship in critical and reflective ways".  He has a B.A. in Anthropology and a M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University.  So I imagine he's not a bad writer, but a historian specialising in the ancient world he is not.

And it shows.  He's essentially taken the Gibbonian myth of "Christians destroying the Great Library of Alexandria" and embroidered it a little.  He tells his readers that the libraries of Alexandria were "surely" in decline under Christians because they had triumphed "over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists" and so then "found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting."  There are multiple problems with just this first sentence.

His initial claim that libraries in Alexandria were in decline with the rise of Christianity is at least partially correct, but not for the reason he states.  As I noted in my podcast with Thomas Smith, many temples held libraries and as more people converted to Christianity funds to these temples from rich donors began to dry up.  Since the maintenance of libraries was expensive it is very likely that these temple-based libraries did indeed decline.  This doesn't mean the books they contained were therefore destroyed or lost, however.  On the contrary, books were valuable objects and it is far more likely that they were sold or, in the cases of temples that were ransacked by Christian zealots as their congregations dwindled, simply looted and stolen.  And we also know that Alexandria remained a centre of learning and study at least until the Muslim conquest and that many of its libraries  - the ones not held in pagan temples - continued to be maintained.

But the real problem here is the idea that Christians would find "the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting".  This is a mainstay of the New Atheist myth that Christianity hated all ancient pagan knowledge and sought to destroy it and that this large scale destruction and general antipathy "ushered in the Dark Ages".  This idea can be bolstered by the fact that at least some early Christian writers did regard the writings of "the Hellenes" distasteful and contrary to the Bible and did teach that pagan philosophy should be ignored.  The most famous statement in this regard that is usually cited is from Tertullian:


"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart." Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!"(De praescriptione haereticorum, VII)

Actually, Tertullian himself was trained in dialectic and Greek philosophy and was happy to use that training in his own works.  And this quote, in context, is more about not mixing Greek philosophy in with Scriptural interpretation in disputations with Christian heretics, rather than a wholesale rejection of philosophy per se.  That aside, Tertullian did have a suspicion of any "mottled Christianity" that was a hybrid of pagan philosophy and the reported teachings of Jesus and this suspicion was reflected in or amplified by other Christian Patristic writers, some of whom rejected philosophy wholesale and taught Christians should reject it completely.

But by focusing only on these anti-philosophical stances those who claim Christianity destroyed ancient learning are only bothering to present one side of a vigorous debate within early Christian thought.  And, more importantly, they are emphasising the side that lost that debate.

Because at the same time that people like Tertullian were rejecting Greek learning, whether partially or wholly, other Christians were writing that it should be preserved and used as a gift from God.  Writing in Alexandria not long after Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253) argued to one of his pupils:

"I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity. Perhaps something of this kind is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbours, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God."(Letter to Gregory)
This idea, that Greek philosophy was a kind of precursor to Christianity and so should be studied for this reason, became known as the "Gold of the Egyptians" argument.  As Origen of Alexandria says above, just as the Israelites made use of the gold of Egypt, so Christians should carry off the best work of the pagan scholars.  Clement of Alexandria, writing a little earlier and again, it should be noted, writing in the scholarly centre of Alexandria, went further:


"We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them -- being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ"  (Stromata, VIII)

This idea also gained currency, with other writers noting that just as God had given the Jews a special gift for revelation and prophecy (which is why the Christian Bible contains the Torah and books of the Jewish prophets to this day), he also gave the Greeks a gift for logic and the rational analysis of ideas and the physical world.  John Damascene also noted Greek learning as a divine gift:


"I shall set forth the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks, because whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since 'every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights' "(Philosophical Chapters, Preface)

Not every Greek philosophical idea or school of thought lent itself to this attitude, which is why the writers noted above and the others who advocated the same approach (which includes such leading Christian Patristic writers as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, Justin Martyr and Augustine) speak of "extracting" Greek philosophy that represents "the best contributions of the philosophers".  But this rejection of the anti-philosophical Christian tradition won the day and this approach became the dominant attitude of Christian scholars from at least the late fourth century onward - which just happens to be exactly the time that Babinski's source is claiming that Christians in Alexandria, the home of both Origen and Clement quoted above, were supposedly finding Greek learning "discomforting".  So this Matthew Battles person clearly doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's also remarkable that he singles out "Neoplatonists" as the source of this imagined discomfiture.  Because of all the Greek philosophical schools, the Neo-Platonic school was actually the one Christianity embraced and absorbed with the most enthusiasm.  As Augustine noted in the early fifth century:

"If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.  
 .... In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. These are, as it were, their gold and silver"(On Christian Doctrine, XL.60)

So not only do we have here another statement of what had, by this time, become the standard attitude of Christian scholars to pagan learning as stated by the most influential writer on later medieval thought, but he actually singles out the Neo-Platonic school as being especially compatible with this approach.  He is hardly "discomfited" by Neo-Platonism and certainly isn't advocating destroying their works.  In fact, injunctions to destroy works of pagan learning can be found nowhere in any of the Christian writings of this time, even among those of the earlier sceptics who argued for a rejection of philosophy by Christians.

So Babinski's non-expert simply gets it all wrong.  Not only did the study of philosophy in Alexandria continue long after the demolition of the Serapeum - we find pagan philosophers like Aedisia, Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae and Hermias all flourishing there in the fifth century - but we also find pagans and Christians studying it alongside each other.  Hypatia had a number of Christian students, most famously Synesius who was later bishop of Ptolemais and his brother Euoptius.  So it's very difficult to reconcile any detailed grasp of the evidence with Battle's declarations above, including the weird stuff about literacy in Greek declining in Alexandria in this period; a claim that is simply bizarre.

Equally bizarre is his claim that the destruction of the Serapeum was motivated by the fact the bishop Theophilus "desired the site of the temple".  Exactly how Battle knows this I have no idea, since no such "desire" is mentioned anywhere in any of the sources.  When challenged on this point, Babinski commented again:


""Simply" over real estate? Sociologists of religion would point out that commanding more real estate for one's symbols and signs of worship is an essential part of the struggle of all religions to gain prominence, even predominance.  

On June 16, AD 391, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I reiterated from Milan his prohibition against pagan worship (a similar decree had been directed to the urban prefect in Rome four months earlier). In a rescript addressed to the prefect and military governor in Egypt, he commanded that no person perform sacrifices, go to the temples, or revere the shrines (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.11). Socrates Scholasticus further claims that, in response to the solicitation of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, the Emperor Theodosius issued an order that the temples themselves be destroyed (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). Riots were provoked by Bishop Theophilus after Christians began to desecrate and destroy a pagan temple and lampooned pagan holy idols in the streets. In those riots some Christians were killed, and probably some pagans as well, but the Christians called themselves martyrs. the Temple of Serapis was torn down by a Christian mob, to be replaced by a lofty martyr-ium (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVIII.42) and church (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15.10) beside the old temple enclosure. 

Theophilus the bishop then had the other pagan temples in the city razed to the ground, "almost column by column." The images of the gods, records Socrates, were melted down to be made into pots and other utensils for the church (Ecclesiastical History, V.16).  

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/serapeum.html 
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/daughter.html "

The fact that "sociologists of religion" may well point out that gaining dominance in public spaces is important in the kind of struggle that was going on between Christianity and paganism in Alexandria in the late fourth century and the fact that it may well be that this was what was going on in this case are fine, but that doesn't justify attributing this motive to the bishop Theophilus when that is not supported by the evidence.  That's pure speculation, not historical analysis of the evidence we have.  Matthew Battles, Babinski's source, doesn't say that "perhaps" this was what was happening or that such a struggle for public space was "maybe" part of this episode, which would be valid.  He just states it as a fact: "Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis".  That's not historical analysis, that's fiction writing.

The rest of events listed in Babinski's comment above are all more or less true, though largely irrelevant.  That Christians tore down some pagan temples and melted down some pagan idols is about typical behaviour for the period, much like pagans feeding Christians to lions or burning them alive for the amusement of crowds was.  Babinski seems agitated by it for some reason, but I fail to see how it's relevant to the issue of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.

And, as I've shown above, the dominant attitude to pagan learning which had won out by this stage was one of general acceptance.  While Theophilus' mobs certainly destroyed some temples and idols, Christian scholars did not advocate the destruction of pagan books.  On the contrary, they advocated their preservation.  The idea that philosophy (which included logic, mathematics, astronomy and the beginnings of what we call "science") was the "handmaiden" to theology became commonplace.  In practice this meant not only that these things could be studied and preserved, but that they actively should.  As distinguished historian of science Edward Grant puts it:

"The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning.  .... With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive.  They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines.  But they did not."(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Agesp. 4)

"But they did not" suppress pagan learning.  They preserved it.  As a result, if anyone in our era has read any ancient work of logic, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy or, actually, any ancient work at all, they have a succession of ancient and medieval Christian scribes to thank for the privilege.

But this is precisely the opposite of the picture Babinski is determined to defend.  So he tried another quote:

"Institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed. The [Christian] emperorsʼ attacks had centered on the chief of them, Athens and Alexandria, in the late fourth century and were turned against them again toward the end of the fifth and in 529. [“529 A.D.” was the year that the School of Athens was closed by the decree of the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian, the same Justinian who also outlawed sodomy, because, “It is well known that buggery is a principal cause of earthquakes, and so must be prohibited.”—E.T.B.]. As to the initiators of the persecution, the [Christian] emperors themselves, a steady decline in their level of cultivation has been noticed. Thus books and philosophy were bound to fade from sight. 

After Constantine there existed an empire-wide instrument of education: the church. What bishops, even emperors, made plain, and what could be heard in broader terms from every pulpit, was an agreed upon teaching. Every witness, every listener should know the great danger to his soul in Platoʼs books, in Aristotleʼs, in any of the philosophical corpus handed down from the past. The same danger threatened anyone using his mind according to their manner, with analytical intent, ranging widely for the materials of understanding, and independent of divine imparted teachings. 

Another factor that arose specifically out of the ongoing conversion of the empire was the doctrine of demonic causation. The belief in the operation of maleficent forces on a large scale had to await Christianity; and it was of course Christianity that was to form the medieval and Byzantine world. 

Satanic agents were to be seen as the cause not only of wars and rebellions, persecution and heresy, storms at sea and earthquakes on land, but of a host of minor or major personal afflictions. So, in consequence, Christians were forever crossing themselves, whatever new action they set about, and painted crosses on their foreheads too, responding to their leadersʼ urging them to do so. It would protect them against all evil. 

— Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries"

At least MacMullen is an actual historian, being an eminent Classicist and emeritus professor of history at Yale.  But he has also been criticised for a degree of anti-Christian bias and for cherry-picking his evidence on the topic of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.  This can be demonstrated by comparing his examples in the quote Babinski gives to the multiple quotes from the Christian writers I give and cite above.  Again, he refers to some bishops etc. who made plain that Plato and Aristotle were a great danger to Christian souls, but fails to even mention that many others argued precisely the opposite, as we've seen.  Or that it was the latter who won the debate on this issue.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed", however, is not just referring to selective evidence, it's total nonsense.  There was no closure of schools in Alexandria and, as I've noted above by reference to the plethora of pagan philosophers who flourished there, philosophy and proto-science were studied there by both pagans and Christians right up until the Arab conquest in 641 AD.  For example, John Philoponus (490-570 AD) was writing numerous commentaries on Aristotle and Proclus and refuting Aristotle's claims about the speeds of falling bodies there in the later sixth century, well after Justinian's time.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning" in Athens were closed seems to refer to the closing of the Neo-Platonic academy of Porphyry - closed on order of the Emperor because it was vehemently anti-Christian, not because of any hatred of philosophy per se.  Other academies continued to flourish not just in Alexandria but also in Antioch, Ephesus and in Constantinople itself.  Plato, Aristotle and their many successors were taught in all of these schools, as they were in the great Nestorian Christian centres of learning outside of the Roman Empire.  Nestorian monks at the great academies of Nisibis and Jundishapur translated key works of Greek philosophy and proto-science into Syriac and it was from them that Muslim scholars got these works and translated them into Arabic.  This was the path - via Christian monks and Muslim falasifa - by which most of these works found their way back to Europe in the Middle Ages, sparking a revolution in thought that saw the rise of the medieval universities and the foundations of the later Scientific Revolution.

Babinski tried a few more comments but they generally drifted further and further from anything relevant to what I had said and so I didn't bother posting them to my "Atheistically Speaking" blog post.  One railed against:

"Christians seeking to persecute, outlaw, incite riots and violence against pagans, Jews and even fellow Christians; and also how Christian lambs, with the help of Christian Emperors, soon turned into lions, and how they eventually outlawed any Christian view other than the Trinity because all others are "insane" and must face the Emperor's wrath."

Exactly why Babinski is so upset by Christians persecuting fellow Christians many centuries ago I have no idea.  But incidents of actual violence against pagans were extremely rare.  The switching of Imperial patronage to Christianity meant that the pagan cults began to dwindle remarkably rapidly in the fourth century.  The old Imperial cults of the traditional Gero-Roman pantheon had been challenged by rival, foreign cults for centuries and Aurelian had recognised the need for a revitalised central religion when he made the cult of Sol Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun", the state religion in around 274 AD.  After Constantine's conversion to Christianity c. 312 AD the pagan sects declined still further as the big money flowed to the new faith; so much so that when Julian tried to reverse the trend during his short reign (361-363 AD) his attempts failed totally.  He himself writes ruefully of his visit to the famous grove of Apollo at Antioch in 362 AD and how he imagined the renowned pagan rites there:

" [I] imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment”

Instead the emperor was met by one old priest who came to the increasingly dilapidated temple with a single goose from his garden as a paltry sacrifice. Not much violence was needed - paganism was dying of natural causes as people turned to the newly favoured faith of Christianity.

And while some people try to claim that this decline was caused by active persecution by Christian emperors, this is not supported by the evidence.  Christian imperial edicts about paganism came to ban public worship and state sponsorship of pagan rites, but pagans themselves were allowed to worship privately and hold whatever beliefs they wanted.  And we know this because we have plenty of works by pagans in this period - they were hardly disguising their beliefs.  And while we have plenty of evidence of books by "heretical" Christians being burned and of "heretics" being actively persecuted, we have nothing of the sort for pagans.  On the contrary, Christian apologists used the fact that their faith didn't persecute pagans the way pagans had persecuted Christians as an argument for the superiority of their faith.  Gregory of Nazianus asked "Have the Christians ever inflicted on your people anything similar to what you have so often inflicted on us?"  And John Chrysostom declared "No Christian emperor could ever issue decrees against you such as the devil-worshippers issued against us." This is not because Christians in this period were nice people, but rather because paganism declined so greatly and so rapidly over the course of the fourth century that it simply wasn't worth the effort.

But Babinksi still struggles to maintain the fiction that Christianity tried to suppress pagan learning, philosophy and proto-science.  He claims:

"The early Christian fathers you mentioned did praise Hellenistic learning. That was early on. Things turned darker after that."

"Early on"?  I quoted and cited Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Origen (c. 184- c. 254 AD), Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD), Gregory Nazianzen (329-390 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and John of Damascus (675-749 AD).  Anyone looking at those date ranges can see that the people arguing for the preservation of Hellenic learning did not just do so "early on", and that this argument was made consistently across the centuries from the second to the eighth century and beyond.  In the western tradition this "Gold of the Egyptians" argument was taken up from Augustine and repeated by medieval scholars like Hugh of St Victor (1096-114), Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Bonaventure (1221-1274) until it was enshrined as a central principle of high medieval scholastic philosophy by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

But Babinksi has an alternative historical narrative whereby Augustine, who as we've seen was a key proponent of the idea of preserving pagan Hellenic learning, was somehow also the villain responsible for its suppression:

"Augustine taught that outside the church there was no salvation and even unbaptized babies were in Satan's thrall and damned if they died unbaptized. So naturally, church literature and church historians became the rule of the day with other types of learning being viewed as less necessary for one's salvation."

That's true, but it's quite a leap from "less necessary for one's salvation" to "not to be preserved or studied at all".  Augustine believed the former, without doubt, but he argued against the latter.  And in doing so he ensured that the fire of rational philosophy, logic and proto-science stayed alight in the centuries of invasion and chaos that then engulfed western Europe from soon after his time until at least the eleventh century.  It was Christian scholars like Cassiodorus and Boethius who preserved key works of logic and philosophy, including the logical works of Aristotle and Proclus, in the twilight of the sixth century before the real collapse of civilisation in the west descended.  And it was Christian monasteries and schools that kept these works as central texts in the period that followed until when things became less chaotic and later Christian scholars sought out the works that had been lost.  They went to Muslim Spain and Sicily and found them there - translated into Arabic from Greek editions preserved by Byzantine monks and the Syric editions preserved by the Nestorian monks mentioned above.  If Babinski can read these texts he has Christians to thank.

But he goes on to claim "in fact "curiosity" itself became a sin".  This is another misunderstanding of the evidence on his part.  Yes, there was a sin called curiositias.  But it was not what we would call "intellectual curiosity".  On the contrary, its opposing virtue was studiositas (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge.  The "curiosity" that was frowned on was idle speculation on trivial things, such as gossip, rumours and minding others' business - all things which probably happened a lot in enclosed monastic communities.

The rest of Babinski's comments are even less relevant to anything I said.  He wants me to mention that the cosmology of the ancient Jews clearly included a flat earth.  I have no idea what noting something that is historically true has to do with a blog about common ideas that are historically untrue.  Similarly he makes much of the Church crushing religious dissent.  Given that this happened and is undisputed I have no idea why he's raising it with me.  The fact remains that this didn't include suppressing science and neither the Bruno case nor the Galileo case are examples of the Church doing so.  Quite a bit of what seems to get Babinski agitated are actually just old time Protestant beefs with the Catholic Church, which seems to indicate that he hasn't moved as far from his Pentecostal evangelical days than perhaps he thinks.

But his confused comments show how entrenched many of these common misconceptions about Christianity and pagan learning are.  It requires a deeper knowledge of the source material and scholarship and - more critically - an objective and dispassionate view to get a clearer and more accurate picture.  Unfortunately some people are still too emotionally entangled in their former Christian beliefs and their ongoing reaction against them to be able to analyse these subjects clearly.