Archive for June, 2013

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: Part 1 – Introduction

June 21, 2013

I’ve blogged a bit before on the great Christian civilisation of medieval Nubia in what is now the Sudan. This civilisation consisted of the three kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa. Nobatia was situated in the area between the Nile’s first and second cataracts, with its capital at Faras or Pachoras. Makuria stretched from the third cataract to the Butana. Its capital was Old Dongola. It was amalgamated with Nobatia in the seventh century. Alwa was centred on its capital of soba far to the south. Alwa is its Arabic name. The Greeks called it alodia. The remains of extremely small churches and a limited number of burials suggest that there may have been a settled Christian presence in Nobatia in the early sixth century before the possible conversion of the pagan temple of Dendur into a church by the king Eirpanome in 550 AD. The Nobatian church was monophysite, like the modern Egyptian Coptic Church, which believes that Christ only had a single, divine nature. The Makurian church, however, was dyophysite. Like the modern Greek and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and European Protestant churches, it believed that Christ had two natures. He was both human and divine. Nubia boasted numerous churches. Little is known about Alwa, but the Armenian traveller Abu Salih described it as possessing 400 churches. Archaeological excavations in Soba have uncovered very few buildings that may have been churches, and it is possible that Abu Salih had overestimated their number. One of the very earliest churches in Nubia was in Qasr Ibrim, which was created by the local Christian community in the fifth century through the conversion of the Meroetic temple of King Taharqa, dating from the seventh century B.C.

European and International Exploration and Archaeological Investigation

After its conquest by Islam in the 16th century, medieval Nubia was largely unknown in the West until a series of European explorers and archaeologists visited the area from the early 19th century onwards. One of the first was the great Swiss explorer Jacob Burckhardt, who made two expeditions to Nubia and travelled as far as the third cataract from 1813 to 1815. Burckhardt was the first to describe the Nubians’ way of life, and their faded memories of their ancient Christian past. Two tribes even then still claimed to be descended from the ancient Christian inhabitants. He saqw the remains of two public buildings, which were probably churches at Qasr Ibrim, and came across the remains of a chapel in one of the islands of the Batn el Hajar, lying between the second and third cataract. Later explorers included Count Vidua, Richard Lepsius, the archaeologist, Somers Clarke, and many others. Most of what is known about medieval Nubia comes from the great rescue operations to investigate its archaeology during the construction of the Aswan dam. The first of these was 1899,led by Clarke, and the second, much greater series of excavations in the ‘Save Nubia’ UNESCO campaign from 1960s onwards, caused by the construction of the High Dam and formation of Lake Nasser. These were done by teams of British, American, Polish and Dutch archaeologists.

Nubian Courts and Kings Styled on Byzantine Empire

Archaeological finds and inscriptions, including evidence from churches, indicate that Nubia had strong connections with the Byzantine Empire. Often these were stronger than its relationship with the Egyptian Coptic church to the north. Inscriptions found by J.W. Crowfoot in the region of ancient Mekuria in 1927 indicates that the Nubians used Greek and followed the Byzantine liturgy in their worship. Documents discovered and published the following year by F.Ll. Griffiths showed that the Mekurian court was also modelled on that of the Byzantine Empire. There were courtiers and officials with the Byzantine titles of meizoteros (mayor of the palace?), proto-meizoteros (premier super-mayor), domesticus, primacerius and eparchos. A graffito in mangled Greek at St. Simeon’s monastery, dating from 7th April 1322, records that the last Christian king of that part of Nubia, Kudanbes, styled himself ‘president of the Caesars’.

Construction of Nubian Churches

Nubian churches were mostly built of mud brick, which does not survive very well in the archaeological record. Otherwise churches were composed of fired, red brick on stone foundations. These were either of sandstone, or granite from the marginal areas near the desert. The roof, which could be either flat or vaulted, were supported by granite pillars. These were painted or plastered, and occasionally were covered with frescoes. Stone capitals, doorjambs and lintels were carved with a wide variety of motifs and designs which reached their zenith in the eighth century. These included fish, crosses, vine and palm leaves. Granite capitals have been found in Upper Nubia, but they are rare, and were probably robbed out for reuse after the buildings were abandoned. William Adams identified four phases in the evolution of Nubian church architecture from his work in Lower Nubia. In the first, earliest phase churches probably consisted of the Byzantine basilica type. These were rectangular buildings comprising a nave flanked by two aisles. The Byzantine influence on these churches suggest that the dyophysite Christian communities in Nubia were earlier than indicated by the historical sources. The next phase, termed Early Nubian by Adams, lasted from about 650-800. This still roughly followed the form of the classical basilica, but with some slight differences. These may have been the result of changes in the Nubian liturgy, or the deliberate creation of a separate architectural style by the churches’ builders.

The zenith of Nubian church architecture was reached in the next phase, the Classical Nubian, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1150. This was defined through the addition of a passage running across the east side of the church, leading from the baptistry in the south to the vestry on the north side of the church. These were probably constructed to allow the clergy to pass from one side of the church to the other without going through the sanctuary or heikal. In some churches of this type there was a brick wall between the sanctuary and the nave. This indicates that the ceremonies in the sanctuary was becoming more secret and spiritual, and so concealed from the view of the laity.

According to the Polish archaeologist, Wlodiemiercz Godlewski, who excavated Old Dongola, the first three phases also saw changes in the construction of the baptistry. These were usually located south-east of the nave or narthex. These originally possessed large, circular tanks into which the candidates for baptism could walk. These were gradually replaced by square fonts, which were placed on a pedestal or base, similar to those in modern western churches from the eleventh centuries onwards. It appears that there was thus a move away from large, public baptisms towards a smaller, more intimate ceremony.

During the last phase of church construction from around 1150 to 1400, churches became smaller. The earlier large tanks for baptism were not generally built in churches of this period, and the emphasis was now on the sanctuary. This suggests that the church interior was exclusively reserved for the clergy, and that the congregation were deliberately kept outside. It also indicates that baptisms were being conducted in the Nile, rather than in a special space within the architecture of the church. This may well have been produced by changes in the liturgy, or as a result of the position of Christianity in Nubia becoming increasingly endangered from Muslim and desert raider incursions from the north. It is possible that the Nubian church became increasingly orientated towards Byzantium after Muslim raiding and conquest made contact with the Egyptian Coptic church increasingly difficult.

Among the churches that have been excavated are those of West Arminna and the cruciform and granite column churches of Old Dongola. The monasteries that have also been revealed and investigated by archaeologists include those of Ghazali and Qasr el Wizz. I will talk about these in parts two and three of this essay.


William H.C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1996)

Niall Finneran, The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 2002)

Six Arguments for the Existence of God

June 20, 2013

I’ve posted below six arguments classic and interesting arguments for the existence of the Almighty. The list isn’t exhaustive by any means. Thomas Aquinas produced five arguments, of which the Prime Mover, taken from aristotle, and the Uncaused Cause are only two. They don’t prove that God exists, as there are objections to them, and objections to the objections. Most philosophers consider that the arguments for and against God’s existence are very finely balanced. For a good historical overview of the debate on the existence of God from ancient Rome to the present day, with extracts from the original works, see Paul Helm’s Faith and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999). What these arguments do is demonstrate that it is rational to believe in the Lord. It is not simply a case of blind faith, as is frequently alleged by atheist polemicists such as Richard Dawkins. I’ve kept the description of the arguments simple, htough many of them are already quite straightforward, so that they can be printed out on a single sheet of paper for use in a service or meeting, and can be easily used and memorised.

6 Basic Arguments for the Existence of God

1. God is ‘Prime Mover’ – first put forward by Aristotle.

Everything in the universe is in motion. Something must have originally set this all in motion. This must originally have been God.

2. God as ‘First Cause’ or ‘the Uncaused Cause’.

Everything in the universe has been caused. Therefore there must originally have been a first cause, which itself was not caused by anything else before it. This cause is God.

3. Kalam Cosmological Argument – First put forward by Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi, revived by William Craig Lane

Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe has a beginning, because it would be impossible to traverse the infinite amount of time to get to the present if it had no beginning. This cause must be immaterial and outside the universe, as it created the universe. This cause is therefore the Lord.

4. Ontological Argument for the Existence of God – by St. Anselm of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury under William Rufus.

God is the most perfect being. Anything that is the most perfect cannot not exist, as non-existence is imperfect. Therefore, God exists.

5. The ‘Sensus Divinitatis – ultimately from St. Paul, revived by Reformed philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga

The human race has an intuitive sense that God exists, implanted by God himself in the human race. For Alvin Plantinga, this sense of the existence of God comes from one’s own knowledge of one’s own existence. It is properly basic, which means that it is automatically correct knowledge.

6. Every Culture that has Existed has had Gods – first put forward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, 17th century.

Every people throughout history and around the world has believed in gods. Therefore, belief in God is rational and natural.

Albrecht von Haller: 18th Century Scientist, Poet, Novelist and Church Planter

June 11, 2013

I’ve mentioned the great s18th century Swiss scientist and anatomist, Albrech von Haller, several times on this blog. Von Haller came from Berne in Switzerland, and was a pupil of the great Dutch scientist and doctor, Boerhaave. He was a student at the universities of Tubingen and Leyden. After graduating, he moved to London and Paris before finally accepting a post of Gottingen University, which had only recently been founded. He simulataneously occupied the chairs of anatomy, botany and medicine there for 17 years. It was under his management that Gottingen university managed to become one of the leading centres for medical research and teaching in Germany, so that it was compared to Leyden in the Netherlands. While at Gottingen he wrote 13,000 scientific papers. He also established botanical gardens, wrote a flora of Switzerland, and the first textbook solely devoted to physiology. This was in turn greatly expanded into the eight-volume edition published in 1757. This has led some historians of medicine to see von Haller as the founder of modern physiology. He also wrote novels and poetry. He was a man of deep religious faith. He founded churches, and his best-known poem, Die Alpen (The Alps) of 1729, considers God’s glory in the grandeur of the Swiss mountains. He was an evangelical Protestant with inclinations towards Pietism, but could also be strongly rationalist, so that he has been described as ‘thinking like a rationalist, and believing like a sincere Christian’. Clearly von Haller was a man of deep faith and a scientific and literary genius, who managed to combine literature, science and a deep commitment to Christianity in his career.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

June 9, 2013

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.


John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 2 – Atheist Materialism

June 8, 2013

In the first part of this essay, I examined how most of the arguments against Christianity and revealed religion used by the Deists were philosophical, rather than scientific. Science did play a part in their attacks on Christianity, but it was a subordinate role. The same is true of 18th century atheism. Most of the arguments used by Jean Meslier in his Testament, for example are again, moral, philosophical and political, rather than scientific. Meslier was a former Roman Catholic priest, who attacked Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism for its supposed immorality. He considered that religions were artificial creations of ruling elites, intended to justify and further their own power. He attacked Christian morality for supposedly preaching an acquiescent attitude towards tyranny, like monarchist rule in contemporary France. Like many later atheists, he also attacked the idea of an immortal soul and rewards in the hereafter for discouraging people from social reform here on Earth.

The Three Scientific Developments Used to Argue for Atheism in the 18th Century

Like some of the Deists, he also believed that matter had self-organising properties. The evidence for this came from three sources. These were John Turbeville Needham’s experiments into spontaneous generation, Haller’s discovery that muscles from recently deceased animals contracted when pricked, and the hydra’s ability to regenerate when cut. Needham was an English Roman Catholic priest. In his experiments he noted the appearance of microscopic organisms from the remains of vegetable matter and even the gravy from roast meat. Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss naturalist, who believed that there was an unknown force present in the heart. This indicated that matter had its was able to move itself independently of the soul. La Mettrie, the author of the materialist, L’homme machine (Man a Machine) of 1747 incorporated it into his own arguments against the existence of the soul. The dissection of polyps showed that this creature would become two or more when cut into pieces, and so apparently disproved the idea of indivisible animals. Finally, the great 18th century atheist, Denis Diderot argued living creatures may have evolved over millions of years to produce their present forms. He suggested a kind of natural selection, in which useless or defective physiological features had died out. This gave living creatures the appearance of design, even though they were simply the products of chance evolution.

These Experiments Do Not Necessarily Lead to Atheism

In fact all three of these scientific discoveries could be interpreted in other ways that did not support materialist atheism. Needham himself did not see any danger to religion in his results. Indeed, he was attacked by Voltaire as an Irish Jesuit monger of fraudulent miracles, despite the fact that he was English, not Irish, and not a Jesuit. As for the new force of motion supposedly inherent in muscle tissue, Haller believed it was similar to gravity. Both forces were known through their effects, but were ultimately instruments of a Creator God. He considered the presence of this so-called “irritability” in muscle tissue was much less important than contemporary debates in embryology in supporting or leading to atheism. At the time Haller was engaged in an argument with C.F. Wolff over the nature of the development of the embryo. The debate centred around two rival concepts, epigenesis and pre-formation. Epigenesis was the view that the embryo developed from the less organised material of the egg. Pref-formation, by contrast, was the view that creature already existed, pre-formed in the egg or sperm of the animal. Haller strongly supported pre-formation. He considered that the development of living beings from unorganised matter would indicate that similarly life itself had originated through these forces without the action of a creator God. Wolff believed that his observation of chick embryos had indeed shown that individual organisms develop from the primordial, undifferentiated matter of the egg. Unlike Haller, he did not see any theological difference whether one believed in either theory. He stated that ‘Nothing is demonstrated against the existence of divine power, even if bodies are produced by natural forces and causes, for these very forces and causes … claim an author for themselves just as much as organic bodies do.’ Thus immaterial forces and the matter they shaped were both grounded in God.

AS for Abraham Trembley’s experiments with the polyp, this was only felt to show that polyps did not have indivisible souls. It was not believed to be relevant to other animals and humans. Indeed, more conservative naturalists believed that the polyp was actually a missing link in God’s great chain of being between plants and animals.

Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Revolutionary and Unitarian, Rational Christianity

Some Unitarians, such as the Dissenting Minister Joseph Priestly, also managed to combine materialism with a form of Christianity. Priestly was an active scientific research. His experiments on the various gases included the production of what he termed ‘dephlogisticated air’, which was later called ‘oxygen’ by Lavoisier. Priestly attempted to show that materialist science would serve to purify Christianity of what he considered to be superstitious features derived from ancient Platonism, such as, he believed, the doctrine of the Trinity. Priestly was a philosophical monist, who believed that God worked through forces that were neither physical or immaterial as commonly understood. They could be identified with matter, but this was a matter that possessed active powers of motion and organisation. He did not believe in an immaterial soul, but did look forward to the Resurrection. He also accepted miracles, and argued as proof that without them, Christianity could not possibly have spread. He was also an egalitarian, who supported first the French, and then the American Revolutions. He finally moved to America after the War of Independence. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Priestly described how he was looking forward to living under the protection of the American Constitution. He praised this as ‘the most favourable to political liberty, and private happiness, of any in the world’. Despite his scientific scepticism of orthodox Christianity, he always denied that he was an atheist. When one of his French materialist friends at a dinner stated that he no more believed in Christianity than they did, he replied that he was indeed a Christian believer.

Science as Means for Purifying Christianity, Unitarians Active in Scientific Advances of Industrial Revolution

For Priestly, scientific progress was ‘the means under God of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped ahtority in the business of religion as well as science’. These views were shared by other Unitarians in the main British manufacturing towns. These Unitarians were active in scientific research and their practical application in industry. They were particularly prominent in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but were also strongly present in most of scientific societies outside London. William Turner, another Unitarian, was the dominant figure behind the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Turner has been described as believing that the Industrial Revolution was not happening behind God’s back, but at His express command.

Conclusion: 18th Century Science Not Necessarily atheist, Could Lead instead to Rational, Unitarian Christianity

Thus, scientific developments also played only a small role in the atheist arguments that arose during the 18th century. Like the arguments of the Deists, these were also primarily moral, philosophical and political. The three major scientific observations that did seem to argue for atheism and materialism – Needham’s observation of spontaneous generation, the response of dissected muscle tissue to stimulation and the polyp were largely seen as having no relevance to the wider debate about the Almighty. In the case of the continued activity in muscle tissue, this was seen as like Newton’s force of gravity in being based in God, and as a force through which the Lord worked.
Finally, Joseph Priestly and his fellow Unitarian scientists showed how some Dissenters combined a belief in science to produce an unorthodox form of rational Christianity.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 1 – The Deists

June 7, 2013

Atheists and other critics of religion frequently state that their beliefs are scientific. The examination of religious scepticism in the 18th century actually reveals that most of the religious scepticism then was based on philosophical, political and moral objections to Christianity, rather than science. When science was used as part of their arguments, it was either a particular interpretation of a scientific fact or the science was altered in order to fit the point the religious sceptic was trying to make.

The Deist John Toland, for example, in his Christianity Not Mysterious of 1696 argued that Christianity should be reformed to reject everything that was paradoxical or miraculous. It was to become simply a set of rationalistic moral teachings. He believed that nature was self-sufficient and self-organising. He did so using the concepts of animist forces inherent in nature that permeated the work of Giordano Bruno. He explicitly rejected Newton’s interpretation of his physical laws, stating that they were instead ‘capable of r4eceiving an interpretation favourable to my opinion’.

Matthew Tindal, in his 1730 Christianity as Old as the Creation argued for a natural religion and the existence of a set of ancient moral obligations to which the Christian revelation could add nothing. The morality he advanced consisted in the citizen’s duty to obey society’s laws. He believed that God had placed the light of nature within humans to guide them. Happiness could be obtained by following this inner light, implanted by a benevolent deity. Tindal did base some of his arguments on science. He used the discovery of the Copernican system to argue that science and faith were rarely in agreement. Elsewhere he attacked Christ and St. Paul for stating that a seed died in the earth before it bore fruit. He also argued that the success of the sciences showed that people could have confidence in the ability of human reason to discover truth, and that the god of infinite wisdom and benevolence he advanced could be deduced from the laws of nature. Tindal mostly used science to try to make common religious practices appear superstitious and unreasonable. Science was not, however, his main line of argument. Instead Tindal argued from the existence of other cultures. The Chinese had a high civilisation despite knowing nothing of Christ. Most of his arguments were intended to show that reason, rather than scripture, was the only sure basis for religious faith. In fact the prospect of scientific argument was turned against Tindal by Christianity’s defenders. Joseph Butler in his The Analogy of Religion of 1736 argued that what was presently obscure in scripture might eventually be cleared up, in the way that science was gradually making clear everything that had previously been unknown about the natural world.

Thus science played only a subordinate role in 18th century Deist arguments against Christianity and revealed religion. Most of the arguments they used were moral, philosophical and political to establish the primacy of reason, and truth of a ‘religion of nature’, which they felt Christianity had obscured or perverted.

The Secularist Persecution of Christianity in French Colonial Madagascar

June 7, 2013

The spread of Christianity in Africa is usually associated with European imperialism. Although Christian missionaries were often separate from the European colonial administrations, they usually expected the state to aid them in their evangelisation of indigenous Africans. The colonial authorities could also occasionally obstruct missionary activities, particularly of Christian denominations that were not the official or national church in the colonising nation. Thus the French colonial authorities attempted to block Protestant denominations from evangelising in their parts of Africa. There were also periods when official French culture was militantly secular. Under these regimes the authorities also tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel and actively persecuted the churches. This occurred during the French colonial administration of Madagascar from 1895 to the end of the Second World War.

Anglican missionaries from the London Missionary Society first reached Madagascar in 1818. They translated the Bible into the indigenous language, Malagasy, and established the foundations of a church. Christianity was persecuted under the brutal reign of Queen Ranavalona. Thnis particular monarch was so paranoid that she made dreaming about her carry the death penalty. She built a number of roads on the island, whose workers she then massacred in order to prevent her enemies knowing where they were. After her death it was found that the numbers of Christians in Madagascar had actually increased. The first Anglican bishop of Madagascar was consecrated in 1874. The Anglican Church is very much in a minority in Madagascar. In 1965 it only comprised 5 per cent of the non-Roman Catholic Christian population. The majority denominations are the Lutherans in the south, and the Congregationalists and Quakers in the centre and north. The Church did have good relations with these denominations, but the French Jesuits have been much more hostile. Madagascar’s status as an independent nation was recognised in a treaty signed between Britain and France in 1865. Thirty years later, however, French troops took Tananarive, the nation’s capital, overthrowing its monarchy. The French administration at this time was extremely anti-Christian and anti-clerical. Hundreds of Christian schools were closed, as were also a number of churches. At the end of the war there were plans for an indegenous uprising that would have resulted in the massacre of all the foreign, non-Malagasy people on the island.

Clearly the history of Malagasy Christianity shows that Christian mission in Africa has been dependent on the attitudes of the colonial administration. While the European colonial regimes have been eager to promote their own particular, national denominations – Anglican and Protestant in the British colonies, Roman Catholic in the French – it also shows that aggressively secular, anti-Christian administrations have also actively wished to end Christian evangelisation and persecute the church. Thus anti-Christian administrations can be as active in implementing their views with force and violence as administrations more favourable to Christianity have actively supported it. Atheists and secularists can therefore not claim that their ideologies have not also persecuted Christians for their faith when they wielded power.

The Contribution of Roman Catholic Medical Missions to Health Care in the Developing World

June 6, 2013

The Roman Catholic Church has come in for a great deal of criticism recently for the apparent impact of its doctrines on the health of the peoples of the developing world. The Church’s prohibition on contraception and its doctrine of sexual abstinence except within marriage have been attacked by its secular opponents. They have accused the policy of allowing the spread of STDs and AIDS, and for contributing to these nations’ problems of overpopulation. In fact several non-Roman Catholic researchers have pointed out that the Church’s doctrines in these areas are not to blame for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Traditional African culture is strongly opposed to contraception, to the point where one joke states that they are the only things you can send through the post in West Africa that won’t be interfered with.

Irish Roman Catholic Opposition to President Reagan for his Support of Contras

It also needs to be pointed out that Roman Catholic charities are amongst the most active organisations working to combat disease and poverty in the Third World. Their members and supporters in the Developed World have criticised and denounced their leaders, when it has seemed that their policies have worked to harm and brutalise the very peoples for whom the charities work. When Ronald Reagan paid a state visit to Dublin in the 1980s, and went to speak at the University, many of the students at the great centre of learning boycotted the event, or led protests against him. The Irish were particularly involved with the Roman Catholic charities in the Third World, and particularly in South America. They were outraged at Reagan’s support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The Sandanista government was an undemocratic dictatorship, and its supporters also committed atrocities. However, most of the atrocities in that terrible conflict were committed by the Contras. They were responsible for massacres and mutilation on a truly horrific scale. Reagan’s administration not only supported the Contras, the president himself went as far as to call them the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers. The result was widespread anger, and the boycott and protests by Irish Roman Catholics.

Two Examples of Roman Catholic Medical Missions: The Order of the Sisters of Mary and the Medical Mission Sisters

Some idea of the size of the Roman Catholic contribution to medical care in the Third World can be gained from the statistics for the Order of the Sisters of Mary in 1967. This order was founded in Drogheda in 1939. By 1967 the Order had sent 41 doctors, two dentists, 15 sister-tutors and 159 nurses to the Developing World. The Order had treated 946,647 patients. 131,647 of these were maternity patients. A further 13,909 people were treated for leprosy. Fourteen years later in 1981 the Medical Mission Sisters, otherwise knkown as Anna Dergel’s Foundation, based in Rome had 697 doctors working in the Third World. The Church and its charities have clearly made an immense contribution to medical care in teh Developing World, a fact deliberately overlooked by its fashionable secular opponents.

Ronald Ross: Christian Doctor who Discovered that Mosquitoes caused Malaria

June 6, 2013

One of the great medical discoveries has been that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, and specifically the microscopic parasite they carry. Before this discovery in the 19th century, it was believed that malaria was caused by bad air caused by rotting or filthy material. Hence the name of the disease, mala aria. The doctor who finally discovered that malaria was spread by mosquitoes was Ronald Ross, who was also a man of devout Christian faith. He went out as a young doctor in the Indian Army to find the parasite’s vector – the disease’s carrier – in the late 19th century. He worked, examining samples of mosquitoes for the parasite. Finally, on 2oth August 1897 he found the parasite in the stomach tissues of the anopheles mosquito. He had in fact nearly finished his research for the evening, and had frustrated by his apparent lack of success. His identification of the parasite in that mosquito made its identification as the disease’s vector certain. Ross was keenly aware how much this would improve the lives of millions of people in the future. He therefore wrote a series of verses praising the Lord for the discovery in a letter home to his wife.

Sadly, malaria is still responsible for millions of deaths throughout the world, and there are real concerns about the emergence of strains that are resistant to the current drugs. Nevertheless, it is doctors and researchers like Dr. Ross, whether they are Christians are not, who have saved many lives that would otherwise have been lost to the disease, and who are our best hope for combating it in the future.

The Strange World of Clockwork Robots

June 6, 2013

I find most of the material on TV now remarkable only for how uninteresting I find it. But occasionally on eof the TV companies puts on a little gem. One of these was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4 last Monday night at 9 pm. Presented by Professor Simon Schaffer, it was a history of European automato in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schaffer’s an historian of science, who has appeared on a number of other shows on the history of science. In this programme he discussed the way the development of clockwork in the Middle Ages had produced automata, little robots that were used in the most magnificent clocks. He showed the vast medieval clock in Berne in Switzerland with its numerous figurines. He then went to the palace of one the Austrian bishops, who had a Protestant clockmaker construct an entire clockwork town, complete with animals being slaughtered, artisans busy at their trades and all overseen by aristocrats, who themselves scarcely seemed to move. Schaffer noted this represented the ideal social hierarchy of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop was supported in his wealthy by profits from the salt mines. The miners themselves were radical, and mostly Protestants. This had resulted in a crackdown by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Protestant mineworkers were banished. The clockmaker himself was forced to work under armed guard because of his sympathies.

Vaucanson’s Replicant Fluteplayer

The programme then moved on Jacques Vaucanson, whose works were surely more like clockwork replicants than simple authomata. Vaucanson was deeply impressed with the technology that lay behind these great robotic marvels. He believed that it would be possible to use it to create an artificial human being. So he spent his evenings studying human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in order to replicate them more accurately in his art. His greatest creation was a mechanical flute player, which actually player the flute. A set of bellows acted as lungs, to blow air into the instrument, while the figure’s hands moved to cover and uncover the holes. It was even covered with real skin. This mechanical marvel disappeared sometime in the 19th century in eastern Europe, and no-one knows where it is, or even if it still exists.

The Writing Boy of Jacquet Droz

Then there was Jacquet Droz, one of whose automata was a little boy that actually wrote. Schaffer explained that the key technological component of these automata was the cam, a wheel that moved the other pins and lever in the machines. The shape of the wheel governed the movement of the other levers, working the machines’ limbs. They thus acted as a kind of mechanical memory, storing the instructions for the automata’s movements. The great complicated automata, such as Vaucanson’s flute player and Droz’s writer, had a number of them stacked one on top the other within the machines in a column. This column rose and fell as each camn was selected in turn to govern its part of the machine’s complex movements. The writing boy was particularly impressive as it physically wrote out on paper, ‘I am Jacquet Droz’ in French. It also drew a dog, and indeed, by changing the letters arranged in a wheel at the base of the figure, you could programme it to write anything you chose. Schaffer concluded that it was the distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

Poor Watchmakers and the Automaton as Revolutionary Symbol of Aristocratic Class Oppression

These marvels were able to be produced through the intensive labour of poorly paid watchsmiths. These occupied particular areas of towns, such as Clerkenwell in London. There would be six or seven of them gathered around a table, working by candlelight to make a single component, such as an arm for the escapement mechanism. Schaffer noted that the technology began to acquire revolutionary implications. In the decades before the French Revolution, artisans and the working class began to claim equality with their lords and masters. These mechanical marvels were made for an exclusive audience of aristocrats. Jacquet Droz charged deliberately high prices so that only the upper crust could view them, and put up notices stating that servants would not be allowed in. The French Revolutionaries in their turn claimed that the king and the aristocracy were simply automata themselves, dressed in expensively lace. It was a dehumanising description that allowed them to send their monarch to the guillotine.

Automata, the Eccentric Monsieur Merlin, and the Export Trade with China

Over the Channel in England, automata were seen as a way of winning the export battle with China. Europeans craved expensive Chinese goods, such as porcelaine and tea. Frustratingly, the Chinese were completely uninterested with anything Europe had to offer, with the exception of automata. The British entrepreneur James Cox thus set to work making them for export to China. His greatest employee was a Belgian emigre called Merlin. Merlin was highly eccentric. When he appeared in public, it was dressed as a bar maid, serving drinks, while playing the violin rolling around on roller skates, which he had also invented. He wasn’t always able to stop. In one incident, recorded in the papers, he collided with a £40,000 mirror, which he smashed to ribbons. Merlin’s greatest creation was a mechanical swan. Glass rods mimicked the actions of water. Between them sawm little mechanical fish. When activated, the swan moved its head, bent down, and took and ate one of the fish.

Schaffer concluded the programme by comparing the storage of information on the automata’s cam systems, with the reproduction of speech on vinyl records, playing the programme out to a suitable piece of music.

Contemporary Automata, Musical Robots, and Automata as Inspiration for Dr. Who Monsters.

It was a fascinating programme. There have been a number of exhibitions of automata in recent years. You can find footage of them, including Jacquet Droz’s writing boy and Merlin’s swan on Youtube. The tradition of musical robots has also been taken up by Compressorhead. This is a genuinely all robot band, which I believe come from Germany. As robots, they naturally play Heavy Metal. You can find footage of them playing Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Several of the automata clearly inspired some of the monsters in Dr. Who. Clockwork androids featured in a David Tennant episode, where the good doctor had to defend Madame Pompadour from being turned into spare parts for a stranded spaceship far in the future. The programme also featured the chess-playing Turk. This was an elaborate hoax. It was supposedly a mechanical figure of a Turk that played chess. It toured Europe, beating just about all the chess masters it played against. That was until its secret was revealed. The cabinet beneath the figure was actually large enough to hold a full-sized man, who moved the arms of the figure above him. He could even follow the game by looking upwards. There was a nod to this in a recent Dr. Who episode. Penned by the mighty Neil Gaiman, this had a hollowed-out cyberman that played chess, secretly worked by a dwarf. The dwarf was played by Warwick Davis, now showing that you can have a career after appearing as an Ewok.

Automata and the Industrial Revolution

Schaffer also noted that the automata may also have served as inspiration for the mechanised looms of the industrial revolution. In a meeting with his fellow factory masters, Joseph Arkwright had wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to produce mechanical arms to work the looms similar to the mechanical arms of the automata. Surveying the merchanical arms on the industrial looms, Schaffer wondered if it wasn’t too far-fetched to see the similarity between them and those of the automata.

M. Merlin and the Artist as Eccentric, Then and Now

The programme also showed how old the relationship between art and personal eccentricity had been. Since Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and the Surrealists artists have been linked to outrageous behaviour. So outrageous at times, that George Orwell felt compelled to attack the special treatment with which artists are indulged for attitudes and behaviour that would be condemned as completely unacceptable amongst Joe Public in his article, ‘Benefit of Clergy’. M. Merlin’s bizarre appearance and behaviour clearly qualifies him for inclusion with the other, contemporary masters of the bizarre and shocking, such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the Chapman Brothers, and some of the other winners of the Turner Prize. One of these also dresses in female attire. This part of the programme shows that art has always contained more than element of showmanship, and that artists have been shocking, scandalising and entertaining the public with bizarre displays of personal behaviour since the 18th century, if not long before. It didn’t just emerge with the Surrealists and the Situationists in the ’20s and 60’s.

Schaffer did get something wrong, however. He seemed to suggest that clockwork first emerged in order to regulate town life. They didn’t. They emerged to regulate the times of prayer of the church, so that even villages had clocks. These also could possess automata. One of the devices portrayed in the notebook of the great thirteenth century architect and engineer, Villard de Honnecourt, is for a clockwork angel that revolved to face the sun. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the prehistory of modern robotics. Unfortunately it was placed on BBC 4, which the Beeb seems to see as dumping ground for all the intellectual stuff it should produce as a publicly funded broadcaster, but which don’t actually bring the ratings its bosses crave. It should, however, be available on BBC iplayer. Some of the programmes first shown on BBC 4 are repeated on BBC 2. I hope that’s the case, as this fine programme deserves a wider audience.

See below for a piece from Youtube of Jacquet Droz’s automata, including the writing boy.

And here’s the awesome Compressorhead. Is it just me, or do they really look like the robots Art Robot Kevin O’Neill used to draw in the Robusters and ABC Warriors strips in 2000 AD.