The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”

“The most wrong thing on the internet”, as loved by many cyber-atheists.

by Tim O’Neill

God’s Philosophers. My interest in Medieval science was substantially sparked by one book. Way back in 1991, when I was an impoverished and often starving post-graduate student at the University of Tasmania, I found a copy of Robert T. Gunther’s Astrolabes of the World – 598 folio pages of meticulously catalogued Islamic, Medieval and Renaissance astrolabes with photos, diagrams, star lists and a wealth of other information. I found it, appropriately and not coincidentally, in Michael Sprod’s Astrolabe Books – up the stairs in one of the beautiful old sandstone warehouses that line Salamanca Place on Hobart’s waterfront. Unfortunately the book cost $200, which at that stage was the equivalent to what I lived on for a month. But Michael was used to selling books to poverty-stricken students, so I went without lunch, put down a deposit of $10 and came back weekly for several months to pay off as much as I could afford and eventually got to take it home, wrapped in brown paper in a way that only Hobart bookshops seem to bother with anymore. There are few pleasures greater than finally getting your hands on a book you’ve been wanting to own and read for a long time.

I had another experience of that particular pleasure when I received my copy of James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science a couple of weeks ago. For years I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a website on Medieval science and technology to bring the recent research on the subject to a more general audience and to counter the biased myths about it being a Dark Age of irrational superstition. Thankfully I can now cross that off my to do list, because Hannam’s superb book has done the job for me and in fine style.

The Christian Dark Age and Other Hysterical Myths

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

So, alongside the regular airings of the hoary old myth that the Bible was collated at the Council of Nicea, the tedious internet-based “Jesus never existed!” nonsense, or otherwise intelligent people spouting pseudo historical claims that would make even Dan Brown snort in derision, the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena.

The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvelous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along. Christianity then banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness.

Read the rest of this excellent article here.

H/T to @thirstygargoyle

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6 Responses to The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    An excellent article indeed. The author mentions the real dark ages:

    “Far from being a stagnant dark age, as the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was, the period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks…”

    But even then, the Church, and more specifically, the monastic saints and scholars of the Emerald Isle faithfully preserved the treasures bequeathed to us by the ancients until the rule of the barbarians on the continent came to a close.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Irish-Saved-Civilization-Irelands/dp/0340637870/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416159339&sr=1-1&keywords=how+the+irish+saved+civilization

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  2. annem040359 says:

    Also, did not also the Byzantine empire themselves preserved a lot of the stuff left from the ancient Greeks and Romans?

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  3. johnhenrycn says:

    Anne, if your question is addressed to me, I’m sorry that I don’t know the answer.

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  4. Ant says:

    Now read Rodney Stark ” How the West Won” by Rodney Stark. As enlightening as ” Gods Philosophers”. Best wishes

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  5. GC says:

    Australian historian and mathematician, Professor James Franklin, has prepared a good summary of the medieval scholastic foundations of and contributions to the natural and social sciences here.

    And American historian, Dr Donald Prudlo, has worked on the contributions of the medieval Dominican friars:

    There needs to be a renewed focus of the significance of the order in the life of the world post-1200. Dominican thought and preaching reached to the far corners of Latin Christendom. Their teaching and practices profoundly affected not only the Church, but society at large. It was their molding of devotional practices, their preaching to the laity, their influence on the development of spirituality (especially female spiritualty), their innovative blending of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, that left a profound stamp on western society. In a preeminent manner, the intellectual life of the Dominican order continues to echo today, not only in the monumental theology of Thomas, but in the defense of Aristotle and the possibilities of reason, in their rejection of Latin Averroism, in their nascent steps in the direction of the scientific method, in Dominican language study,in canon and civil law, and in their groundbreaking works on economic and monetary theory (providing the basis for ideas of capitalism and international law).

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  6. GC says:

    The main elements of the Renaissance myth are familiar enough: the sudden dawning of a new outlook on the world after a thousand years of darkness, the rediscovery of ancient learning, the spread of new ideas of intellectual inquiry and freedom, investigation of the real world replacing the sterile disputes of the scholastics, the widening of the world through the discovery of America and the advance of science, the reform of religion. Apart from a few quibbles about the supposed suddenness of the change, and that more on the grounds of a general belief in the gradualness of historical change than because of any evidence, this paradigm seems to be as firmly in place now as it ever was.

    In fact there is no truth in any of this. On the contrary, as we will see, the “Renaissance” was a period when thought declined significantly, bringing to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages.

    From an article by Professor James Franklin (mentioned above). Full text at:

    The Renaissance Myth

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