As most of you who know me have found out, I spend a fair amount of time on this site not just making friends and having conversations, but also have debates which usually center around history. I am not a professional historian, but I am pretty well-read on the subject and consider it one of my hobbies, so I usually find myself debating with people not very familiar with the issues.

What I've noticed is that many atheists are not as historically literate as they think (I've come to blame this on the fact that for many people, science is what drives them away for religion, so most people on this site come from a scientific background rather than a historical one), and so they've usually accepted some historical myths which may or may not include:

- the New Testament canon was chosen by Constantine based on which ideas were most likely to help him as an Emperor

- Jesus never existed as a historical figure and is a construction of Messianic ideals/conglomeration of multiple preachers/alien

- the Roman Empire fell because it incorporated Christianity

- "the Vatican" suppressed science during the "Dark Ages" and basically whenever it could, burning many scientists in the process

- the Vatican actively helped National Socialism before, during and after the Second World War

- the Vatican blew up the Crab Nebula

- etcetera...

As it turns out these ideas are at the core of many people's atheism and their arguments against Christianity, which I believe to be a bad thing since (a) much of it is wrong bordering on the conspiratorial and (b) any half-informed Christian debater is going to kick your ass on this issue.

I'm not very fond of either result, but since these myths just refuse to die (and I get tired of refuting them sometimes) I thought I'd create a series of blog posts on these subjects to give you an idea of what we do and do not know about these subjects and what arguments (against Christianity) are sound and which are not.

I'll also probably tackle other issues from time to time and give you some arguments against Christianity from an atheist historical perspective (debunk the resurrection argument, expose the Turin Shroud as a fake, etcetera).

The first series is probably going to be about Jesus Mythicism. CP Hold is actually doing a series on his blog trying to refute the arguments against Jesus Mythicism (and doing a fantastically poor job). But he's chosen not to allow my comments, for reasons best known to him. So I guess I'll just address his arguments on my own blog and debunk some other stuff while I'm at it ;)

Stay tuned and kind regards,

Mathieu

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Comment by Matt VDB on January 12, 2012 at 9:35am

Matt, Gallileo was forced to recant. The inquisition was prepared to "correct" him. It was only in the last twenty or thirty years that they admitted he was correct. Hardly an indication of tolerance for science.

Err, nope. The realisation that Galileo had been right came much later. Galileo died in 1642, the year Isaac Newton was born. It was he who would eventually vindicate Galileo's theory by properly explaing inertia.

But as you could see from Copernicus, the Church did not have a problem with heliocentrism in se. They just didn't want Galileo to teach it as fact while there were still major objections; the view of the Church was that unless these were resolved, he couldn't teach it as a fact. But he still did: that's when he got in trouble with the Church as well as many of his fellow scientists.

Bibles in different languages to accomodate theologians not the flock. In fact the lack of access and interpretation was one of the main points of protestantism.

That's another myth. The idea that the common folk was restricted access to the Bible stems from the misconception that most editions of the Bible were in Latin. But this ignores the fact that Latin was the literary language of the time, and so most of the people who could read, read Latin.

But whenever sufficient literacy in the vernacular arose, Bible translations in the native language were commonly distributed among merchants and the like. As the many translations of the Bible in Middle or even Old English we have, testifies.

This was their holy book, Glen. They weren't exactly shy about that fact.

It is not what I have read about Vesalius and the other pioneers.

Vesalius ran into some trouble with the authorities in his early years due to his methods, but then I guess that would happen to anyone who was going to the cemetery to investigate dead bodies.

But his work was very quickly accepted and was soon gifted bodies by the authorities to investigate, and he produced many articles of his findings.

And I am saying that the notion science in general was not oppressed is a red herring because there was not much to oppress.

Tell that to Copernicus and Vesalius laying the foundations of their respective disciplines!

But yes, the first few centuries in Europe were rough to the political instability of the time (a collapsing Empire and half a dozen migrations will do that). But when things started to pick back up, some very important scientific discoveries were made by the likes of 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, etcetera...

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 12, 2012 at 8:58am

Matt, Gallileo was forced to recant. The inquisition was prepared to "correct" him. It was only in the last twenty or thirty years that they admitted he was correct. Hardly an indication of tolerance for science.

Bibles in different languages to accomodate theologians not the flock. In fact the lack of access and interpretation was one of the main points of protestantism.

I always assumed Copernicus published posthumously because of fear. Maybe you are correct on this point. I do not know.

I mention the Albigensian heresy because it supports my point about the authority of the church.

It is not what I have read about Vesalius and the other pioneers.

And I am saying that the notion science in general was not oppressed is a red herring because there was not much to oppress. Any tolerance was incidental and based upon ignorance, strangely.

Comment by Matt VDB on January 12, 2012 at 7:12am

Hitchens, eloquent as always, makes a great argument for the historicity of Jesus right there: the fact that Jesus is consistently depicted as coming from Nazareth, while a prophecy existed that the Messiah had to be from Bethlehem, makes the gospel writers divulge into fantastical birth narratives -completely contradictory.

But as Hitchens rightly asks, why is the bit about Nazareth in the story at all if this is all a huge fabrication? This is actually a loose application of the historical "Principle of Embarassment", which says that a claim is more likely the more embarassing it is for the claimant. The Nazareth element fits this bill, as does the crucifixion bit, as does the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. That's why these elements are probably historical.

I'll explain in more detail why these aspects are embarassing in my later posts, but Hitchens puts the Nazarene business very well. 

And dammit I get tears in my eyes every time someone links me to a Hitchens lecture before he got sick. God knows what that man would have accomplished with a decade or two more on this planet.

Comment by Russell20 on January 12, 2012 at 5:22am

Matt I would like to know your opinion of Chistopher Hitchens speech at freedomfest 2008 as follows

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMo5R5pLPBE&feature=related

Comment by Matt VDB on January 12, 2012 at 3:22am

Matt, I see heresy as a threat to the authority of the church. I do not question the communal aspect of christian culture. It was not permissible to contradict any aspect of the churche's authority.

It was if you had scientific evidence on your side.

Even in the trial versus Galileo (which isn't actually the Middle Ages anymore and comes after the Reformation at a time when the Church became more repressive), the main objection was not that he had violated Church doctrine, but that he didn't have enough scientific evidence on his side to violate Church doctrine.

The conclusion of the trial quite tellingly noted that if the scientific objections against heliocentrism were solved, the Church would revise its doctrine. And when Newton's theory of inertia did that, that's exactly what happened.

The Medieval Church was much less literal than modern-day protestants.

Why else would they restrict access to bibles?

They didn't, as the plethora of Bibles we find in various languages (as far back as Old English) attest to.

Why did Copernicus publish his book posthumously?

Because... he died of a stroke. Considering Copernicus was praised by various cardinals of his time and had given a lecture on heliocentrism to the Pope in Vatican Gardens, I'm not sure how far you're going to get with the argument that he didn't publish for fear or reprisal. Several cardinals urged him to publish.

Why did the inquisition start with the so called Albigensian heresy?

That has nothing to do with this subject of science. The Albigensian heresy was a heresy and was treated for harshly.

Did not Vesalius have to creep around to do his research?

He did so openly (and was helped by many officials of his time).

Just dont think there was much in the way of science that would call into question church doctrine for pre renaissance church to condemn.


"Science that calls into question Church doctrine" is a very specific subset of science. I'm not denying that that was a very touchy subject, all I'm saying is that the notion that science in general was oppressed is nonsense.

Comment by mistercliff on January 11, 2012 at 11:23pm

The more I learn about history, the less I trust my knowledge of the subject!

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 11, 2012 at 11:07pm

Matt, I see heresy as a threat to the authority of the church. I do not question the communal aspect of christian culture. It was not permissible to contradict any aspect of the churche's authority. Why else would they restrict access to bibles? Why did Copernicus publish his book posthumously? Why did the inquisition start with the so called Albigensian heresy? Did not Vesalius have to creep around to do his research?

I have seen that idea about universe created by a rational god. I dont believe it was a pervasive notion.

Just dont think there was much in the way of science that would call into question church doctrine for pre renaissance church to condemn.

The churche's nature is to augment its power. While it had the power it stymied opposition in any manner necessary.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 11, 2012 at 10:56pm

Rob, only the shadow expects the spanish inquisition. I was only reporting what I had read in numerous books as the total of women burned for sorcery. Obviously the spanish inquisition is a small percentage of the horror. Some sentenced by ecclesiastical courts, some relaxed to the secular arm, some burned by christian mobs, and ending some time in the 19th century.

I agree that science during the so called dark ages was largely pragmatic. How could science flourish there. When a medieval christian world view is so all-encompassing other influences are absent which would foster enquiry and science. You are about to tell me about the free thinking at the universities. Dont buy it.  That is part of what I am questioning in Matt's assertion.

I agree that the designation dark ages as a clear demarcation and description is artificial and misleading. However  I suspect that the two of you have come to an understanding which is also artificial and misleading.

I wish there was comprehensive scholarship in the history of the church. Unfortunately it is an area which is so charged that objectivity is compromised.

Comment by Matt VDB on January 11, 2012 at 7:03pm

Hey, CP actually made a frothing-at-the-mouth comment here but then chose to delete. Good call, buddy.

Glen, that's a lot of questions and I won't try to answer all of them right now. In short, heresy is something different from science. People in the Middle Ages saw religion as a very communal affair, and so heresy was considered something that endangered the whole village. That's why it was acted very harshly upon. So denying Jesus' divinity or the Trinity did get you investigated by the Inquisition pretty quickly.

Science is something different though, and the evidence shows that the Medieval Church had a strong conviction that the universe had been created by a rational God, and so through rationality his creation could be understood. This is the reason why Greek philosophy was studied by Medieval universities: it was believed that just as God had given the Jews a better understanding of religion (monotheism), he had given the Greeks a gift to pursue rational inquiry.

And not surprisingly, when it was found out that the Arabs had Greek philosophy in their possession, it were Churchmen who went out to bring this knowledge back to the west and expand on it in the universities of their day (particularly Oxford).

So people projecting modern protestant anti-science sentiments onto the Middle Ages are largely mistaken. 

Unless what I have learned is false then I wonder if you are doing more of a disservice in correcting factual errors (at least withou giving context) which detract from an understanding of the milieu.


I'll let everyone decide for themselves whether my posts will be added value or not ;)

Comment by Rob van Senten on January 11, 2012 at 6:51pm

Glen,

I think you would find that these numbers are a bit high as far as I know. The Spanish Inquisition (you didn't expect it, did you?) for instance probably killed thousands of people. Many scientists were religious at the time and those that had theories that went against church doctrine where sometimes prosecuted. However, most science at the days of the Early Middle Ages was very much practical applied science such as engineering.

I too was convinced that the story of the Dark Ages was a tale of destruction and death, yet it seems that it wasn't actually that bad. Mind you, you didn't live as long as you would nowadays, infant mortality was still pretty high, but you'd be surprised at how much people knew from practical knowledge that you and I know from theory.

People practically applied hygienic rules, without knowing the Germ Theory, but understanding that keeping things "clean" helped to produce food that lasted longer. Dairy farmers learned such tricks, for instance. People didn't understand what anti-oxidants were, but understood that by putting certain berries in a dish they could keep it fresh and eatable much longer.

Generations of practical knowledge were preserved in rural societies that were mostly quite capable of sustaining themselves reasonably well. Civilized society did not start or end with the Roman culture, this is one of the most proliferated misunderstanding of history. The Celts were highly advanced and so were the Chinese and many civilizations in the Middle East, long before Rome existed. 

It is from this misunderstanding it seems that the myth of the Dark Ages has arisen. If you look around in Europe however, you'll see plenty of infrastructure and architecture from this period. Canals were dug in cities to improve the ease of trading, whole cities were devoted to trade.

At times there were so many bored noblemen with too much time and wine on their hands that some people planned a military excursion for them in a Mediterranean environment, commonly known as the crusades. The amount of organization and resources to plan and execute an invasion on such a scale was quite a feat of civilization. Being able to kill each other by squandering huge amounts of resources is the true mark of civilization.

Dark Ages? Not really that dark or bleak really. 

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