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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"And this is only going 3 posts back"

Before you get too worked up with your little lessons in politeness, Mark, how about you go all the way back to your first post.  You know, the one where you smeared my simple presentation of the accepted scholarship on these matters as me peddling some kind of "agenda".  And where you slandered me as having "an open hostility to atheists .... while at the same time claiming to be one".  I was supposed to respond to this ridiculous slander with, what, joy and scrupulous politeness?

That was how you started things.  Then as I demolished your silly caricature of history and exposed your lack of understanding of the period and relevant source material, all you could think of doing was responding with obstinate bluster and fatuous, blundering attempts at pretending you actually had a grasp of this subject.  Not exactly something that endears people who are clearly out of their depth to those who actually know their stuff.

So spare me the weak little whimpering sermons, sunshine.  I give back the level of respect that I get - you started off giving none and therefore you got none back. So don't whine to me if I gave you a lesson in real scholarship and didn't sprinkle you with flower petals and chocolates while I did so.  You got what you deserved.  Get a clue before trying to discuss history again.

even after I explained how you had mis-interpretted my meaning.

You mean even after you tried to wriggle away from your original claim that they "suppressed philosophy itself" and pretended you somehow meant "they suppressed some philosophy".  And most of my posts then went on to (i) show how you were deliberately doing everything you could to downplay the vast amount of philosophy they preserved, used and came to revere and (ii) challenge you to produce any evidence at all that they actively suppressed any philosophy.  You totally failed to do the latter - rather, that was when you began to rapidly retreat behind the smokescreen of "oh this person who knows far more than me and who I slandered is being so MEAN to me!  That must make everything he and the leading scholars he is citing says completely wrong - so I'm now going to flounce away claiming a moral victory!"

What's actually happened here, Mark, is you've started with a deep emotional belief in a pseudo historical fable, based on snippets of misinterpreted information you've picked up from around the internet and from non-specialist writers.  Unhappy that someone kicked the props out from underneath one of the key myths in that fable - the myth of Hypatia as a martyr for science - you decided to smear them as a fake atheist. 

And you probably did so not suspecting they'd come here and defend themselves against your weak smear as well as expose your ignorance on the relevant history and show your clutching at that fable to be emotional rather than rational.  So I can see how you've become upset.  But I can't say I sympathise.

In future (i) don't smear a fellow atheist just because they say things you don't like and (ii) don't get into debates with people who know what they're are talking about when you don't.

Very simple really.

"We would have never heard of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or the late great Hitch, and certainly not the ever gentle Daniel Dennet."

Hi Mark and thanks for the welcome

As you might know from my profile, I'm a recovering Christian and it took me a long time to work my way out of the religion of my parents. It was a combination of many things that finally made the difference, but I have to give a lot of credit to listening to Sam Harris and his calm, confident and relentlessly rational style and  I can't imagine that I would have continued listening to him for any time at all if he acted in the way you describe. We have a hard enough time getting over pre conceived ideas about us, we don't need to confirm them.

Well then Karen, you'll be very happy to learn that when writing articles on the origins of Christianity, especially ones aimed at recovering Christians or potential ones, I have a very "calm, confident and relentlessly rational style".  For example:

Quora - "What evidence exists for the Resurrection of Jesus?"

I adopt a similar "calm, confident and relentlessly rational style" in my book reviews on my blogs and on the occasions I've been invited to speak on ancient and medieval history and the history of early Christianity.

Where I will unabashedly adopt a rather more dismissive tone is when someone is telling lies about me, trying to dismiss what I say by slandering me as someone who only "claims to be an atheist" and caricatures positions I have held thanks to over a quarter of a century of careful study of the scholarship of the leading experts in the field as peddling "an agenda".  That kind of disrespect and those kinds of smear tactics get short shrift from me.

Maybe Daniel Dennett would be as gentle as a lamb if attacked and smeared in that way - each to their own.  But I don't think I'll be apologising for tackling that kind of slander with a suitably strong approach.  Or for countering obstinate, wilful, persistent ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence and clear indications of the consensus scholarly position on the matter with an appropriate level of scorn.  If you ever come across someone smearing you and then blurting nonsense despite you repeatedly demonstrating they are wrong, feel free to be relentlessly sweet and kind to them.  Personally, I consider life too short to waste much of it indulging doctrinaire idiots.

Have a nice day.

"Or for countering obstinate, wilful, persistent ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence"

I don't know, but this seems like kind of the point. Who else are the New Atheists involved with debating after all? The only thing I'm saying is that in my experience, it is never the right strategy, and can only succeed in making people shut you off, so if you are concerned with wasting time, I think this might be the best way to do it. But I'm sorry to have interrupted your conversation. I don't even know what it's about, so I'll let you get back to it. Just wanted to reply to Mark about Sam Harris.

"Who else are the New Atheists involved with debating after all?

I've had my share of debates with people who are simply persistently obstinate and wilfuly ignorant.  That describes most fundies after all (as you say).  How patient or otherwise I am with them depends on how they approach the discussion.  If they are civil, so am I.  If they start getting snotty or condescending or pretend they are the ones with the deep knowledge and understanding, the gloves tend to come off.

In this case Mark began by caricaturing my solidly based position supported by the consensus of scholarship as "an agenda" and slandering me as a someone who only "claims to be an atheist".  As I said, I make no apologies for treating someone like that with scorn.  His stumbling around the relevant historical material and weak attempts at redefining his position on the run as he was forced to retreat from previous points just made things worse.

Hi Mark,

I shudder to admit it now, but to be honest, the fear of hell was the hardest part. It's almost impossible to imagine now, but when it is burned into your neurons from an early age I guess we can be taught to believe most anything. The family angle is hard too, but I knew of others in my extended family who had left, and that was a help plus there were some others who, I could tell, were lukewarm to the whole thing, and just went along for the ride. Anyway sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt the thread, perhaps if you would like to talk more we could continue on my wall?

in Pakistan to this day they shoot girls that want to learn in school and be a professional something in life.. in the face or head shot. hello. and in the u.s. u have white or whatever homophobe woman's right phobe seperatist types.. ?

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