Alright, I know that this might be a bit of a serious topic to discuss around the "water cooler", but bear with me. I'm a bit of a history nut, and a big pet peeve of mine are the pseudo-historical myths we think we all "know" about history but usually end up being totally wrong (like "People in the Middle Ages didn't wash" or "People used to not get older than 40 or 50."). There's a number of mechanisms that keep myths like these around in the public consciousness, but one of the most prominent tends to be Hollywood.
Now, we all love to pretend that we are far above getting much of our historical ideas from movies, but the fact is that we all do it sometimes. We all get pissed when we see Christians banging on about Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, but I challenge everyone of you to cast the first stone. When I ask you to imagine a Roman city or army, who doesn't visualize Gladiator or I, Claudius? Who wasn't at least slightly convinced that the movie King Arthur was based on actual research about a Roman general? And don't get me started on those of you who think crap like The Patriot presents historical merit.

Now why am I saying this? Because several days ago the film Agora was released in the States. For those of you who don't know, Agora tells the story about Hypatia: she lives in Alexandria in the Fourth Century AD; she is a female scientist, an atheist and a defender of reason. She protects the remnants of the Library of Alexandria, until they are destroyed by an angry Christian mob. Ultimately she doen't pander enough to the whims of the Christian leaders, and she gets lynched. The emphasis of the film is on Christianity's incompatibility with reason and its zeal to destroy knowledge, with Hypatia is one of the last and ultimately unsuccesful guardians of reason and science.
I can almost feel some of you getting excited at this great plot. But wait, doesn't it sound a little too black-and-white to be true? Well, that's because it is. Most of the story is based on absolutely nothing, and the movie (which is actually not a Hollywood production, by the way) is a fictional story set in an aesthetically accurate Alexandria even though it purports to be based on historical facts.

Despite this, I already hear friends from the US and elsewhere (who acquired the film by... ahem... other means) telling me that it's one of those film that "an atheist has to see!!". They swallowed everything hook, line and sinker.
We might laugh at the people who take Passion of the Christ as to be a beautiful and accurate representation of Christ's crucifixion, but somehow I get the feeling that many atheists (even here) will watch Hypatia and get out of the theatre strengthened in their convictions that religion and science were and are incompatible. 
And undoubtedly there will be atheist feminists who will come out feeling justified in the (remarkably common) idea that paganism was somehow kinder to women than Christianity. 
As it turns out, we're not all that different from Christians if we don't pay attention.

I think we should train ourselves to look at history sceptically and rationally, and accept its conclusions even if they're not always the way we'd like them to be. The truth is always far more complex than a cartoon version. That's why I present you with a review by an amateur historian of Agora, where he details the circumstances wherein Hypatia really died, what the motives were, what her science and her gender had to do with it (if anything), how the Library of Alexandria gradually decayed instead of being destroyed, etcetera.

So if you plan on seeing (or have seen) the movie, it's probably a good idea to read this review before you start internalising it as how you see the ancient world.
You can find the review here:
And for a more thorough discussion:
It's written by an atheist with a Masters in medieval history. Basically, he explains historical topics (usually relevant to either atheism, science, or Christianity) very accessibly, but he dispells plenty of myths on both sides as he goes along. He also has plenty of articles detailing how Early Christians (and Christians in the Middle Ages) viewed reason and knowledge. The results might not be what you expect, but you'll learn a lot. Highly recommended.

My rant ends here. Cheers ;)

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I think the author overlooks certain aspects of the time period. I could totally see the Christian patriarchs getting pissed because its a woman intellectual authority. Maybe he didnt find any documents but they could have added the realities of the time period into it. I'm sure he hasnt seen every single document concerning the issue either. I also think he nit picks a bit much. Overall not bad but it wasnt as eye opening as I thought it would be. I would also like his sources so that I could check it. I'm a feminist atheist and never thought that paganism was better for women. I think all religions crap for everyone (including pets, microorganisms, inanimate objects). If paganism was on the level of Christianity I'm sure that it would mirror it very similarly in regards to misogyny. I'm also a bit confused why he has an issue with them portraying Christians as bad. I think thats good. Imagine what would happen if that movie was made in America! I think its good for atheists to have something like that to get around. It also opens up others to a whole new perspective.
There is so much valid criticism of Christianity, why add to it with false claims.

Heh. At least, we now have evidence that confirmation bias is universal ;-)
I know Greeks and Romans were quite misogynistic (piles of infant girls-and deformed boys- used to be left out of the cities). I'm just adding that though the author couldnt find any sources to support it directly, I think that wouldve been an issue for them back then. I think Egyptian women actually had more freedoms than Romans and Greeks. In the book, "Misogyny: the worlds oldest prejudice" by Jack Holland, Holland says that Hypatia was held down, stripped naked, dragged and had her skin her scraped off with oyster shells before tossing her into flames. It also says that bribes blocked all attemts at prosecuting the murderers and that the man responsible for this, Cyril was canonized as a saint.

and FYI I have read Plato and I've also studied him in one of my poli sci courses. I know misogyny was rampant in history.
Sorry, but saying that "even if we can't find the documents, we should add the realities of the time period into it" is just a way of saying that we should read our prejudices and preconceptions of the time period into the source material, even if it is not there.

Also, I agree that the review in itself is not very eye-opening: it largely debunks what the film got wrong (i.e. projecting a feminist, atheist and anti-Christian bias on the past). For real eye-openers I'd recommend reading up on the relationship between religion and science in the Middle Ages:
http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/10/gods-philosophers-how-me...
How is it that one is 'reading our prejudices?' Misogyny was quite open and rampant back then and scapegoating women wasnt unheard of, especially if you could accuse her of bewitching people with her satanic wiles (chronicle of john, bishop of nikiu http://cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-john.html ). I think Cyril wouldve used anything to get a mob against her. According to Holland, Cyril wanted her killed because he wanted to use her as a scapegoat for his troubles with civil law. Theres also this quote:

"I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must a woman domineer
over man; she should be quiet. For Adam was created first, and Eve
afterwards; and it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who
yielding to deception, fell into sin. Yet she will be saved through
motherhood--if only women continue in faith, love, and holiness, with
a sober mind." --1 Timothy 2:12-15"

I'm sure if they were Christians they wouldve believed this. Again, I'm not going to spend all day researching on the internet (I mean, its Friday!) but precedents and times wouldve counted as a secondary resource. This also elaborates that the people may have perceived her as a witch.
http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Hypatia_of_Alexandria
"I think Cyril wouldve used anything to get a mob against her. According to Holland, Cyril wanted her killed because he wanted to use her as a scapegoat for his troubles with civil law."

Sort of. Cyril was in a political pissing contest with Alexandria's prefect Orestes, and when one of Cyril's supporters was killed by Orestes, he made the man into a martyr and demanded revenge: thus they sought an ally of Orestes to lynch. The well-known Hypatia was the first to come to mind, and she was killed.

"Misogyny was quite open and rampant back then and scapegoating women wasnt unheard of, especially if you could accuse her of bewitching people with her satanic wiles (chronicle of john, bishop of nikiu)"

There is zero evidence in the source material that she was regarded as a witch by anyone (so your passage from the chronicle of John is irrelevant): the Bishop of Nikiu did regard her as a witch, but it doesn't matter because he was writing hundreds of years after Hypatia died. At that time the idea of a female philosopher had become incomprehensible, and so the bishop's reflex was to think that she was a witch. I'm not defending that, but it has no bearing on whether or not people in Hypatia's time thought she was a witch.

And it's especially petty in the light of the evidence that we do have, which is that Hypatia was admired by most of the men (overwhelmingly Christian) in the town. In fact we have the historian Socrates Scholasticus explicitly telling us "For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more." And he also notes that the way she got killed because of this political conflict, was mourned by pagans and Christians alike.

So really, we can throw Bible quotes at each other all day long, about how women were not to be respected and how they weren't meant to be philosophers, etcetera etcetera. But the fact is that our source material tells us that none of this was true and that she was admired for her science and her knowledge, and that it was her (perceived) political allegiance to Orestes that got her killed.
I wondered when nikiu had written that? I just think that it wouldnt be something that they wouldnt use. I dont think accusations of witches was simply a Christian invention,though I think they made it into an art form later on. Much like Pat Robertson I wouldnt think he would be above using anything he could use to get the mob fired up. To me it seems more like a secondary source. Adding in how long that was and how infrequent anything tangible that lasts that long I wouldnt be surprised if anything that didnt explicitly say that didnt survive.
John of Nikiu was a bishop of Egypt (or at least part of it) at the end of the 7th Century; that's several centuries after Hypatia died. He lived in a totally different political context (for one, he lived in an Egypt that had just gone through several decades of political instability, and it had been conquered by Arab Muslim armies. Clearly this is a totally different context from Hypatia's time, which was the Late Roman Empire (not quite its glory time, but at least not far from it). That's probably why he found the concept of a female philosopher so completely incomprehensible.

Also, I'd have to research whether or not there was even a belief in witches in Fourth Century; for some reason I highly doubt it. Belief in witchcraft was by no means something all Christians believed in, let alone in all periods of history; it had its periods of popularity, but for the most part it was relatively obscure. In fact, for almost the entire Middle Ages, the Church maintained that it was those who believed in witchcraft that should be investigated for heresy. This attitude only changed in the Late Middle Ages and burning witches only became really popular in the 16-17th Century as a prominently protestant phenomenon.
My first impression upon reading and hearing bits and pieces about this movie before it was released, "Hypatia was an atheist?" and "She was around when there was a Christian raid on the library?" The end of the 4th century was eventful for Roman Christianity and other religious beliefs, but the old Gibbons conflation about the destruction of the library was something I could never find borne out in the histories of that era. I don't want to steer too far off the topic, but this is an interesting article about that time frame.
http://newhumanist.org.uk/1684/the-closing-of-the-christian-mind

I heard an interesting podcast interview of this author. Has anyone here read his book?
http://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Hypatia-Novel-Ancient-Egypt/dp/05...

Also, Richard Carrier wrote an interesting blog on the conflicts and harmonies between sceince and religion to medieval times.
http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2006-11-09T13...

Thanks for posting!
Thanks for the links!

I don't like Carrier though, and I would never recommend his works to anyone who wants a decent and objective view of the period. The problem with Carrier is that he's not just an amateur historian (and yes, he's an amateur: he's not associated with any university), he's also an atheist apologist who was written books on atheist ethics, arguments against God, etcetera. And he has trouble differentiating between those two personas: he seems unable to look at history objectively, because in the back of his mind he's thinking about how he's going to use everything he finds as arguments against Christianity in one of his books.
I'm not saying it's impossible to be an atheist apologist and an objective historical scholar, but Carrier does a very bad job at it.

Why do I think this? Well, because Carrier adheres to literally every anti-Christian historical theory there is. Every single one.
You mention the Library of Alexandria. Indeed, contrary to the myth that it was destroyed by a Christian mob, there's no evidence of that at all and so virtually all scholars have abandoned it. But guess who hasn't? Carrier.
In the same way, most scholars have long abandoned the simplistic representation of science and religion as incompatible and hostile to each other: they've stopped believing in that "Conflict Thesis" a long time ago. Guess who didn't? Carrier.
Ditto for the Jesus Myth hypothesis. Zero credibility amongst scholars (for very good reason), but who still cheerleads for it? Carrier.

From time to time, I read his blog, and I'm just flabbergasted at the amount of speculation and assumptions he makes. At one point he even said that it's quite possible that the Greeks had invented the concept of zero centuries before the Arabs did; it's just that when the Christians gained control of the Roman Empire, they thought it conflicted with their religion and so they erased all trace of this (in other words, "no evidence because it was all wiped in a GIANT CONSPIRACY!!"). And then he wonders why his books never get through academic peer review, and explains it by saying that academic peer review is pro-Christian.

The guy's not a reliable source.
The problem with Carrier is that he's not just an amateur historian...

I find such an argument to be an ad hominem. Amateur does not mean incompetent, and professional (e.g., associated with a university) does not mean rigorous. Amateurs can do great work just as professionals can do poor work.

This is, of course, my inference of what you have written, and may have inferred something you did not mean to imply.

I have no idea about the quality of Carrier's work, never having heard of him let alone being aware of his work, so have no interest in defence or critique of his work. Nevertheless, taking your assertion on the quality of Carrier's work, it may be poor, but to claim that it is poor simply or in part because he is an amateur is improper.
Your inference is entirely incorrect: I do not use the fact that he's an amateur historian as an ad hominem at all. Amateur historians can indeed do revolutionairy work. That's not my problem with Carrier: my problem with Carrier is that he's heavily biased towards anything anti-Christian and because he's an amateur he doesn't have to go through the peer-review of an academic press, which would shift these biases out and/or decline from publishing until he looked at history more objectively.

So yes, the fact that he is an amateur historian shouldn't matter, but it actually does in light of his heavy biases: these can and do intrude his works on a regular basis, and there is nobody reviewing the book to pick these things up.
Add to that the fact that the few times he has tried to get his books peer-reviewed, he was rejected by several academic presses, and I think I have a rather solid case that he's not a reliable source.

Personally I think my position was pretty clear, but maybe it wasn't.

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