Archive for March, 2009

Faith and the Abdication of Reason

March 22, 2009

Wakefield has also pointed to an article by George M. Felis at the ‘Butterflies and Wheels’ site, at, entitled, ‘Faith is a Moral Failing’. Felis’ argument is essentially that people of faith believe in God because they choose to, despite the lack of good arguments for their beliefs and even in spite of evidence against them. Most religious believers, he claims, simply justify their faith on the grounds that God is beyond all argument and reason. However, beliefs are at the centre of one’s worldview, and so directly govern people’s actions and moral decisions. Faith is thus, according to Felis, a moral failing as it states that certain beliefs do not have to be justified. This problem is particularly acute when it involves difficult ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia, though part of his argument also involves criticising Christians for demanding money from him when they can provide no rational basis for their beliefs. Now there are real problems with his argument and his central position.

Firstly, it assumes that religious belief is essentially fideistic – that is, it depends on faith alone, while the atheist worldview is rational. He recognises that there are other definitions of religious faith, such as ‘hope’ and ‘confidence’, but states that as faith in its usual sense is always a part of religious belief, religious belief is therefore essentially fideistic, and so treats it as if it was entirely a matter of faith alone, without any consideration of the evidence or rational discussion or understanding. This isn’t the case.

Firstly, the term used for faith in the New Testament is pistis, which actually means ‘trust’. Christian faith in the New Testament is a trust in God and God’s work of salvation through Our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is also trust based on the evidence of God’s actions. This consists of the witness of Scripture as well as other evidence, such as the personal testimony of the people who witnessed God’s work and Christ’s ministry. St. Paul in his letters gives a list of people, who had witnessed Christ after His resurrection, and who his congregation could contact and personally hear their testimony for themselves. Furthermore, Christian theologians have pointed out that merely because God is transcendental does not mean that faith is irrational. Indeed, it has been pointed out that the experience of God’s presence and action has led Christian philosophers and theologians to ask questions in an attempt to discover more about the nature of God, morality, salvation and God’s relationship to humanity. Now this examination of the nature of religion, God and faith has tended to begin in Christianity with religious faith. St. Anselm expressed this in the statement ‘credo ut intelligam’ – ‘I believe, so that I may understand’. Nevertheless, from the Apologists of the Early Church to St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas and others in the Middle Ages, Christians have attempted to produce rational defences of their beliefs. Moreover, the emphasis amongst the mainstream Christian denominations has always been in developing a reasonable faith, and avoiding blind faith. So Felis’ statement that somehow faith is necessarily irrational, or opposed to reason, is not the case.

Now part of Felis’ argument relies upon an attempt to reject the statement by Alvin Plantinga and other Christian apologists that certain beliefs are properly basic. That is, that they are true independently of any justification. A person may be perfectly justified in believing in God, but be unable to provide any justification for this belief. Felis considers that this is wrong, because humans have no distinct faculty for discerning right or wrong, and so have to use reason, and if they can’t justify their beliefs using reason, then they’re wrong to hold them, both intellectually and morally. Now this statement itself can be attacked on several grounds, one of which is that atheists themselves accept as true certain beliefs, which are not rationally justified.

Now Christian theologians point out that belief in God is inherent in humanity through the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – an innate knowledge of the Divine. There is evidence from psychologists that children have an innate belief in a transcendental self not identical to the body, and many psychologists have thus considered that a belief in God is inherent in humanity, and not the product of their upbringing or education. Thus humans may well indeed possess an innate faculty that makes them aware of the existence of the Almighty, even though they may also lose this faith. This does not necessarily mean that all ideas about God are correct, but it does mean that if belief in God is innate, and, as nearly all human cultures have believed in gods, it is therefore up to the atheist to provide arguments against the existence of the Almighty, rather than the theist.

Felis appears to assume that reason alone is capable of answering the deep philosophical questions, such as those of the nature of morality and the existence of God. This is, however, highly questionable. Philosophers have pointed out that none of the various definitions of truth suggested by philosophers is entirely adequate for assessing whether a statement or a belief is actually true. For example, one definition of truth is the argument from consensus. If the majority of people believe that something is true, then it should be accepted as true. But this is clearly wrong, as, although a belief held by the majority of people may well be true, it may also be false. The other definitions of truth also have serious problems, to the point where some philosophers will defend fideism – the view that religious faith is justified entirely from belief – as being a reliable guide to truth.

Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga have also pointed out that the nineteenth century view, that there were certain viewpoints that were automatically and obviously true, and which needed no explanation, has collapsed. Many philosophers now consider that there are no statements that are automatically true in themselves and which do not require explanation according to another set of statements or views. Thus, the atheist worldview is no more obviously true or rational than that of religious believers. This has serious consequences for the establishment of a basis for morality in atheism. Many atheists consider that it is impossible to establish an objective morality from the atheist worldview. The then president of the British Humanist Association, for example, this point in a speech he made in 1973. Thus atheism, like religious belief, is not a completely rational worldview, and also has the problem of providing a rational basis for its moral conceptions.

Now Christians consider that religious belief is justified, because although God is beyond human understanding, nevertheless He has provided evidence for His existence, and is rational and moral. Humans, as rational, moral creatures, thus participate in these aspects of the divine nature, and so belief in Him is rational. Furthermore, one definitive aspect of religions generally, including Christianity, is the existence of a moral dimension. Religions consider some actions to be good and moral, while others are evil and immoral, and consider the system of morality within their religion to be obviously true and rational. While horrific acts have been performed by religions, it is not the case that religious belief allows any action, no matter how evil, to be committed and called good, as religions by their nature govern human moral behaviour. Christian philosophers and theologians have debated throughout the centuries the nature of morality and good and evil, and much of the moral improvements in western society are the product of traditional Christian morality as it has developed over the centuries.

Regarding Felis’ point that if Christians are going to ask people for money, they need better reasons than to appeal simply to faith and feeling. This is actually the point of view of most Christian apologists, such as J.P. Holding, who feel that Christians should be better able to explain and defend their faith. Nevertheless, this does not mean that religious belief is irrational and that religious believers are immoral because some of them may not be able to provide a rational basis for their belief. Christian philosophers and theologians have provided rational arguments for belief in God and Christian morality, and while atheism is limited by the boundaries of human reason, Christianity is based on the belief in a rational, good God, as revealed in Scripture and throughout history. Rather than being a moral failing, it has been belief in Christian values that has steadily improved and supported western morality.

Christianity and the Origins of the Dark Ages

March 21, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the great commentators on this blog, points to a series of articles attacking Christianity at the Butterflies and Wheels blog:

‘Christianity responsible for Dark Ages and lack of reason?

In another article not linked this same author details how while its true science
cannot answer everything, unlike faith, it IS self-correcting AND also uses real
experts, not people prone to “talk” with God, etc. Thus his mockery, but

Christianity as responsible for Fascism and horrific crimes against humanity?’

I know this is quite a bit. But fight it we must.’

As Wakefield has pointed out in another of his comments, there are many who claim that Christianity was responsible for the origins of the Dark Ages, and this point of view clearly needs to be critiqued and attacked. So, let’s analyse Christopher Orlet’s arguments that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages in his article ‘The Barbarians’ Raw Deal’.

Firstly, Orlet is quite correct that many of the barbarian peoples who overran the Roman Empire were Christians. These were the East Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, who had been converted to Arian Christianity by Bishop Ulfilas. Ulfilas was the descendent of Roman citizens who had been captured and taken into slavery by the Goths, and who had translated the Bible into Gothic. Some of the Gothic kings, such as Theodoric the Ostrogoth, were extremely cultured, able rulers. Theodoric’s ruled a Gothic kingdom in Italy with its capital at Ravenna. He had a splendid court, and one of the greatest works of late antique/ early medieval architecture is his basilica at Ravenna. This has a number of fine mosaics on its walls depicting Christ, Our Lady and the saints, and Theodoric and his court, including the leading Roman prelates. However, the Goths and other, East Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals, were Arians who believed that Christ, while divine, was not equal to God the Father, and was more like a creature than an equal person of the deity, because, although the Son of God had existed before the creation of the Universe, and it was through Him that the Universe had been created, nevertheless he had been created by God the Father and so was not eternal. The debate over the nature of Christ’s relationship to God the Father, and His divinity was one of the major doctrinal issues in ancient Roman Christianity, and resulted in bitter controversy and persecution between Catholics and Arians. Other Germanic peoples, such as the Franks in Gaul and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain, were pagans who later converted to Roman Catholicism. It’s also true that many of the barbarian peoples who entered the Roman Empire did so because they wanted to become Roman citizens, and enjoy the benefits of Roman civilisation rather than overthrow it. The great defender of Roman civilisation, Stilicho, was a Goth. After the Fall of Rome, the various barbarian states that succeeded it looked back on ancient Rome as the perfect state, a wealthy, powerful and highly cultured civilisation. They strongly associated Christianity with ‘Romanitas’ – Roman civilisation, and so converted to Christianity in order to participate in the great culture of ancient Rome.

The barbarian invasions were a major cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, but there were also number of others. Rome experienced a series of severe economic and social problems from the third century onwards, and the causes of some of these are unclear. Rome experienced massive inflation in the middle of the third century, which the Roman emperor Diocletian attempted to solve through legislating stipulating the prices for a number of staple commodities, such as bread, clothing and so on. There was also an increase in taxation as the imperial authorities attempted to find the finances to support the Roman state and defend it against barbarian attacks and attempted invasions, which had occurred before these peoples converted to Christianity. Urban life declined, as the aristocrats and wealthy individuals who formed the town councillors and were responsible for maintaining the basic services of the towns, such as building viaducts, sewers, baths and other public amenities, withdrew to their country estates. Other parts of the population, including artisans and professionals, also left the towns for the countryside to the point where some Roman emperors had attempted to maintain supplies of food and other vital commodities by making membership of certain professions, such as baking, hereditary and demanding that they remain in the towns. This legislation, however, had to be repealed because of considerable opposition. It has also been suggested that the Roman population itself had suffered considerable decline, particularly through outbreaks of plague, though this is the subject of considerable debate. Some of the towns in the eastern Roman Empire, for example, seemed to have not suffered any loss of population and were still extremely large, populous cities.

As for the barbarian invasions, Rome had had a policy of settling barbarian tribes within its borders as foederati, imperial allies. These peoples then provided military service as auxiliaries defending Rome against other, invading tribes. A number of military tombstones and monuments from Roman Britain record Germanic soldiers serving in the Roman army. The immediate cause of the Gothic invasion was their revolt against exploitation by Roman merchants. Barbarians had been attacking and raiding the Roman frontier territories for centuries before the invasions of the later Roman Empire. However, the attacks and invasions increased during the fifth century, and there appears to have been a general migration of peoples, which disrupted traditional tribal territories and alliances across Europe. This was partly caused by the migration of the Huns into central Europe from their original homeland in central Asia. The Goths attempted to flee from them, and took refuge in the Roman Empire. According to Roman historians, however, they were then ruthlessly exploited by Roman merchants, who reduced them to complete poverty. In response, the Goths revolted and began a series of campaigns against the Roman state. Other barbarian peoples, such as the Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Alans and Gepids joined them. These peoples attacked both the Romans and the other barbarian peoples as they attempted to establish their own barbarian states within the decaying Roman Empire. Climate change may have been a factor in these migrations. There is evidence that during the fourth century sea levels began to rise, threatening the coastal homelands of some of the Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who lived along the North Sea coast. In addition to attacks from the barbarians from outside the Empire, there were a series of peasant revolts, such as by the Bacaudae in Gaul, against the high levels of taxation levied by the Roman state.

Now while economic collapse, urban decline and barbarian invasion were the major causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, none of them were directly linked to Christianity. While Roman Catholic political theorists state that Christianity provides a basis for politics in providing a transcendental support for friendship and the belief in immortality, as well as other institution, which formed the basis for human society and politics, Christianity itself is not a political system. There were certain institutions the Church Fathers believed were fundamental to human society, such as private property and the duty to provide support to the poor, sick and incapacitated. The medieval church also discussed and passed legislation on a variety of social and economic issues in order to create a moral, Christian society. Nevertheless, apart from insisting on justice and concern for the poor and disadvantaged, Christianity did not produce a specific political programme. The early Church shared many of the cultural views of Roman society as a whole, and while the Church viewed itself as comprising a community beyond the limits of Roman world, its members in the Roman Empire also saw themselves as Roman citizens. Furthermore, the barbarians, who invaded the Roman Empire had a strongly warlike, military culture in which warfare and combat played a major role. As for the greed of the Roman merchants who caused the Goths to rebel by exploiting them, this was simply the product of fallen human nature. Finally, the Romans themselves had problems finding solutions to the economic and social problems affecting the state, regardless of their religious beliefs. So Christianity cannot be considered a cause of Rome’s decline and collapse.

Now let’s deal with some of the other points Orlet makes in his essay. Regarding Tertullian’s attack on Platonic philosophy, Tertullian himself was not attacking philosophy itself. Indeed, he was profoundly influenced by Stoicism. He was critical of Greek philosophy because of the way it had been used to form the basis of heresies such as Gnosticism, which attacked and rejected Biblical Christianity through philosophical speculation. The Gnostics considered that matter and the world was created by an evil god, and that humanity was ruled by a series of archons that attempted to keep it separate from its true home with the good God in heaven. The origins of Gnosticism are the subject of considerable debate. There were different Gnostic schools and even non-Christian, pagan Gnostic sects. However, much of Gnosticism was based in Platonic philosophy, and so Tertullian was attacking Platonism as the basis of Gnosticism, rather than philosophy as a whole.

Now let’s discuss the accusation that Christianity attacked ancient philosophy and culture, and so destroyed ancient science and learning. Now it’s true that ancient philosophers, such as Galen and Pliny, did consider Christianity to be a religion of the poor and uneducated, and much of the opposition to Christianity came from pagan philosophers such as Porphyry and Hierocles, a Roman philosopher who, after writing various books attacking Christianity, also used physical force and persecution. The early Church was initially critical of the Roman curriculum because of its basis in ancient paganism. This situation altered, however. The fourth century Church Father, Basil of Caesarea, defended pagan learning in his work Ad Iuvenes – ‘To Young People’, and many of the other Church Fathers were highly educated. Indeed, the sermons of some of the greatest of the ancient ecclesiastical writers included references to the great writers of antiquity. They maintained this highly educated style of writing not just in their sermons addressed to leading Roman citizens, such as the senators, officials, aristocrats, governors and members of the imperial family, but also to the ordinary people attending their churches. Many of the Church Fathers also wrote treatises, which attempted to reconcile the Church’s teachings with Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge. These writers included Lactantius in the fourth century, while a recent edition of the works of Epiphanius notes that his writing contain of wealth of Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge and ideas. Roman pagans considered Christianity to be a philosophical school. However, while pagan philosophy tended to be restricted to members of the aristocracy, who had the leisure time to study it and the wealth to afford the fees charged by pagan philosophers for attendance at their lectures, in Christianity an understanding of the Gospel was open to anyone who came to Church on Sunday to hear the bishop expounding it from the Bible.

Now Orlet seems to assume that Greek philosophy was a form of ancient science, and appears to view the brutal murder of the female philosopher, Hypatia, as a Christian attack on ancient science and learning. Now this was very much the view of the late Carl Sagan, who seems to have taken it from Bertrand Russell. It is not shared by contemporary historians and philosophers. The dominant philosophical school in the later Roman Empire, and one, which was to influence Christian learning in the Middle Ages after the Fall of Rome, was Neo-Platonism. This combined Aristotelian science with Platonic metaphysics. It has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, as its goal was to gain mystical union with God or ‘the One’, or ‘the Good’, through a system of intellectual ascent through the emanations produced by ‘the One’, Mind, and Spirit. The great Neoplatonic texts, such as the Enneads of Plotinus, are essentially religious in their discussion of the nature of morality and the One. While the murder of Hypatia was a truly horrific incident, it does not seem to have been part of a general attack on ancient culture or philosophy. She did not, for example, object to the closure by Christians of the pagan temples. Her attack by a mob, caused by the preaching of Cyril of Alexandria appears to have been part of a political rivalry between the bishop and the local Roman governor, with whom Hypatia appears to have sided. Cyril appears to have condemned the attack afterwards and done penance for it.

Sagan and Russell claimed that Hypatia’s murder marked the end of philosophy and science in Alexandria. It didn’t. It carried on in the city for at least two centuries afterwards. Indeed, it was the Christian, Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponous in the seventh century who contributed to the later collapse of Aristotelian philosophy and the triumph of the Copernican system by arguing that the heavens were not pure and unchanging, but were composed of the same matter as terrestrial objects. As for Justinian’s closure of the philosophical schools in 523, historians have suggested that this did not occur, and that Justinian merely redirected the funds the imperial government traditionally granted to it to the war effort to reconquer the lost territories. Certainly Graeco-Roman culture was very widespread in Byzantium, both amongst lay aristocrats and the Church, and there was certainly a university in Constantinople in the 12th century with a curriculum very much like that of the western universities. As for Neoplatonism, this was partly adopted into Christian theology, where it formed the basis of the mystical speculation of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and the scientific knowledge of the early medieval world before the discovery of the original Aristotelian and Platonic texts in the 12th and 15th centuries.

Now, in a previous essay discussing science and education in the Roman world, I pointed out that pagan, Roman authors had lamented in the early Empire that original scientific research had declined. While Roman writers such as Orbilian had established a curriculum, there was no system of state schools and indeed no Roman school building has yet been found. The usual system was for a group of parents to band together and hire a tutor to teach their children, with the schoolroom quite often being a stall in the market partitioned by screens from the rest of the area.

Thus, while Christianity attacked paganism, it did not universally reject Greek philosophy and indeed adopted and preserve much of it in the later Roman Empire, and preserved as the Empire was attacked and collapsed. Furthermore, while Rome fell due to the invasions of the barbarians, some of whom were certainly Christian while others, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, later converted, this was itself part of a number of severe economic, social and political crises that were not produced through Christianity but the part of the general conditions of the late ancient world. Thus, Christianity did not cause Rome to fall, and indeed preserved much of Roman culture and passed it on to the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded it.