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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Hi Paul,

 

I should have been clearer: I think religion and science are based on different views of the world as well, and so in that sense I think they are in conflict too.

However, the "Conflict Thesis" as it is talked about in the discipline of history, has a more specific meaning: it refers to the idea that when you look throughout history, religion has always (or almost always) been in direct opposition to science and has tried to sabotage its progress for as long as it could. This is still quite popular in the public consciousness with phrases like "The Church burned lots of scientists in the Middle Ages" and the anecdotes of Galileo and Copernicus.

That's the historical version of the conflict thesis that historical scholars have pretty much unanimously abandoned. The relationship has been a complex one, and certainly not one of constant conflict: often science and a rational view of the world was supported (and in fact argued for) by the Church.

 

So when I say that the Conflict Thesis has been abandoned, I don't mean the idea that science and religion are not in what you might call a metaphysical conflict, but rather to the idea that they have always been hostile towards each other over the course of human history.

 

That's what I meant.

 

Kind regards,

 

Matt

Yeah thats how I see it. It seems a bit overly nit picky to fixate on every facet that wasnt accurate or supposedly accurate. The author linked above certaintly isnt any sort of grand hsitorian or anything and I'm sure he didnt go through every source with a historians eye. When I watched "300" I didnt really care that it wasnt to the "T" about everything. Unless its a Discovery special (and even then its not 100%) I dont really go in there expecting a 100% clear story thats 100% based on accurate data. Especially back then they had alot of conflicting accounts and accounts had gone through different eras (for example some were changed to fit with Christian/anti-Christian ideals and propoganda). I do like how it comes out before Christmas. I also dont care a whit if its portrays Christians as bad. Christians always try and paint themselves as great, caring and good when in fact much of their history has proven otherwise. If it wasnt for secularism now I'm sure you'd have the Christian reconstructionalists taking overt control and we'd look something more like Afghanistan than modern day America.They also take every opportunity to try and paint atheists as bad and heartless. Perhaps this will awaken America to a bigger criticism of religion?
That's fine. Don't think I can't read or watch a fictional portrait history. In fact, I greatly enjoy "what-if" scenarios and exaggerated accounts of history (like 300, which I thought was awesome).

But I am realistic enough to know that when a movie is marketed as being based on "true events" then people can and do take it much more seriously than they should. It's what we saw happening with the Da Vinci Code (some polls showed 33% of people believing the film to have a kernel of truth). And the same will happen and is happening (judging from the various reviews I've read so far): people will come out of the theatre believing that Early Christianity looked down on science and did its best to destroy knowledge wherever it could.

And it's going to be wrong.

The author linked above certaintly isnt any sort of grand hsitorian or anything

I don't think I ever claimed to be a "grand historian or anything", not that I know what that is.

I'm sure he didnt go through every source with a historians eye.

And you're "sure" of this because ... ?  I went over all the of the sources, looking at them objectively, taking into account their date, authorship, context and biases.  If that isn't going through them "with a historians eye", what is?

When I watched "300" I didnt really care that it wasnt to the "T" about everything.

 

Neither did I.  Then again, I also didn't come across reviews of 300 claiming it was an accurate depiction of history that has lessons to teach us.  I've come across many of those for Agora.  I also never heard of the director of 300 solemnly pronouncing about the things his movie can teach us about history.  Amenabar did that.  He even claimed that if the library depicted in the movie (the one that didn't actually exist) hadn't been destroyed (despite not existing) we'd now have colonies on Mars.  In Germany Agora was publicised via a video of a guy asking people in the street who discovered heliocentrism and then "revealing" to them that it was Hypatia.  Despite this being fantasy nonsense.  Seeing the difference between Agora and 300 yet?

I also dont care a whit if its portrays Christians as bad.

I don't care who its warped depiction of history portrays as bad, but I do care very much about its warped depiction of history.  That Christianity has done bad things is not an excuse for a movie that perpetuates myths - we wouldn't let theists get away with that and we shouldn't let others do so just because we happen to like the sentiments involved.  That's not rational. 

 

Crap is crap, even if it's our crap.  Especially so, in fact.

 

 

Yeah I think it's quite obvious that I wasn't proclaiming Tim's blog to be gospel: the reason I linked to it was because it was an accessible summary of what's historically wrong with the film, why it's biased and why and how it seeks to perpetuate specific myths. After doing my own research, I found the summary to be fair and accurate.

And because it's written by an atheist who, like me, is worried that the myths perpetuated by this movie are going to find their way into the historic 'knowledge' (the things everyone KNOWS to be true about the past, but are usually false) of the general public. Particularly the atheist general public.

 

Anyway, nice to see you around here Tim. Hope you're not going to wind up like Freeman and reply to every thread on the internets that links to your blog though :P

 

Cheers,

 

Matt

A very interesting discussion. The Christian response to the movie has been a bit hyperbolic, since Amenabar with his choice of costume and casting, is saying "black-shirted, bearded, middle-eastern fanatics are destroying civilization." He also distorted some history in service to his art, but that's what artists do. Don't go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com) - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.
I have to differ a bit, I watched the movie and didnt feel it was anti christian, more anti racist and anti violence. The point seemed to be that it was arrogance by the "intellectual elite" in combination with the anger of the great unwashed public that destroyed the library (not the main library). Technically, in the film the order was given by the Roman emperor to destroy that particular library.

Anyway, to those who actually viewed the film...it was quite literally Alexandria's father's original unwillingness to stop a violent act of the pagans against the Christians in the first place that set the events in motion. Christianity spread quickly because the elite were too busy walling themselves up in halls of science to bother reaching out to the public and trying to communicate with them. I think that is the lesson we should take from it. If we dont bother to reach out to our fellow humans with love and respect regardless of their world view, we'll face the same fate of Hypatia and her ilk.
Fair points, I can't of course argue with your interpretation of the film, but a couple of side-remarks.

"The point seemed to be that it was arrogance by the "intellectual elite" in combination with the anger of the great unwashed public that destroyed the library (not the main library)."

Which would still be wrong. We have no evidence of there being a library in the Serapeum when it was destroyed by a Christian mob in 392 CE. In fact, Ammianus Marcellinus visited the place in the 360's and refers to the Serapeum as having once housed a library, indicating that it was gone by that time already.

All the scenes with the library are fictional.
(And this is, by the way, what I mean when I say that people get their history from movies.)

"Christianity spread quickly because the elite were too busy walling themselves up in halls of science to bother reaching out to the public and trying to communicate with them."

Christianity spread for a variety of reasons (most of them having to do - in my opinion - with arriving at the right place at the right time, and appealing to a curiosity for eastern religions while at the same time maintaining a social message) but the elite walling themselves up doing science would not have been too much of a factor, considering (i) despite what everyone seems to think, the Romans were no great scientists and no great innovators, and the last centuries of the Roman Empire are conspicuously absent of much technological innovation and (ii) the elite and nobles were too busy maintaining their own pagan cults, which they maintained well into the Seventh Century CE... and fighting various brutal civil wars and power struggles of course - in one of which Hypatia was killed.

"People used to not get older than 40 or 50."

 

That concept has been a major sticking point in many of my debates, that and the infamous "everyone used to die of toe infections". I have not studied much on the longevity of Europeans back then but I have read a fair bit about the longevity of pre-colonial North Americans. Unfortunately this was years ago and I no longer have access to them, and they seem non-existent on the internet. So if you could provide any references on pre-colonial North America longevity, I would be much obliged. If I remember correctly, it was the first European explorers to North America who noticed and reported on how healthy and tall and older people here got compared to those days in Europe. Thanks

If Agora is a 'myth', I can easily say the same about the bible and the stories within. So what if the movie Agora is not literally what happened, it is a historical drama not documentary or docudrama. It's amusing how older fictions with more followers and 'true believers' seem to somehow be more legitimate. Fiction is still fiction. History depends on written records, ideally as many as possible from divergent backgrounds describing the same thing. The truth is we really know very little about history especially when you go back more than 1000 years.

 

*cough cough* My head hurts so BLAH

If Agora is a 'myth', I can easily say the same about the bible and the stories within.

 

Yes.  And?  So?  Does that make rationalists believing in myths okay for some strange reason?

 

So what if the movie Agora is not literally what happened, it is a historical drama not documentary or docudrama.

 

And if the director and promoters weren't selling it at factual and people weren't solemnly proclaiming it to be historically accurate and thus a cautionary tale from history there would be no problem.  But they are.

 

The truth is we really know very little about history especially when you go back more than 1000 years.

 

So we can, therefore, make up any stories we like and believe anything we want?  We can, within the limits of our sources, know quite a bit about the past actually.  And we can certainly look at this movie, compare it to careful analysis of our sources on the subject and see that the movie distorts history.

What's amusing me is how many supposed "rationalists" are desperately trying to defend this silly movie.  They sound more like emotionalists to me.

 

taxes from reality...

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