Posts Tagged ‘Science’

New Book on History of Science: John Freely, Before Galileo

May 12, 2013

Looking through Waterstone’s yesterday I found a new book on the history of science, John Freely’s Before Galileo. I didn’t buy it, and so can’t really comment on its quality. It did, however, appear to be a straightforward history of science from ancient Greece to the early modern period. Hopefully it marks a renewed interest in the history of science, following James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers.

J.B.S. Haldane: Atheism, Communism and the Anti-Reductionist Case for God

May 12, 2013

One of the major figures in British biology in the 20th century was J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane was not only a distinguished physiologist, but a Communist who wrote articles for their newspaper, the Daily Worker. Some of these were determinedly anti-theist. One, ‘The Godmakers’, was a polemic against the belief in God and particularly Christianity, urging his fellow atheists and Communists to be on the guard against the theistic impulse and further attempts to create new deities. Yet Haldane himself was certainly not immune from this impulse to seek the existence of the divine.

At the end of his career Haldane wrote The Philosophy of a Biologist. This argued for the existence of the Almighty based on a consideration of the limitation of a purely scientific view of the world. If the world is examined purely from the point of view of physics, then only physico-chemical answers are produced due to the nature of the questions asked. The world, however, is not limited only to the realm of physics. To form a more complete picture of the cosmos, biology must be added. Haldane, a biologist, naturally considered that biology gave a truer picture of the universe than physics. Biology, however, is also incomplete, as it does not include the personality. So psychology must also be included as the scientific discipline that best approaches reality. Psychology, however, is also incomplete as the cosmos includes universal principles of goodness, truth and beauty. These elements in the constitution of the universe mean that the cosmos is also personal, and that individual human personalities exist in a relationship with the universal personality, God. Although it is not always clear whether Haldane believed that God was either the same as the biological universe, or transcended it, nevertheless he appears to have believed in God as the basic fact of creation and that the various physical laws were partial revelations of His nature. It’s a fascinating argument, which is similar to others advanced by contemporary theologians. It also shows that however exciting and tempting atheism appears when one is young, healthy with an exuberance for life, for many it becomes bleak and comfortless in old age, when one naturally thinks of one’s mortality. It is ironic that in this instance the ardent anti-theist became a God-maker himself.

It’s The Reason for the Season

April 25, 2013

This follows on from my last post about Isaac Newton and his belief that the structure of the universe and its creatures revealed the existence of God. You may remember that a few years ago a number of atheist organisations started sporting a T-Shirt that lampooned the Christian motto, ‘Tis the Reason for the Season’. The slogan was meant to remind people that Christmas was a celebrations of the Lord’s birth. The atheist T-Shirts simply showed the Earth tilted on its axis, with an arrow, to show that Earth’s seasons were caused by its axial tilt. While it accurately describes the origin of the physical seasons, it misses the point that it’s the metaphysical season that’s being discussed. A number of prominent atheists actually came out against the design on the grounds that instead of making atheism attractive, it actually presented them as rather pretentious and intellectually condescending.

Some of Newton’s contemporaries however, wouldn’t have been fazed by the T-Shirts at all, but would probably have used it as a counterargument to demonstrate God’s existence. While Newton was sceptical of such arguments, Dr. Bentley, a leading mathematician, believed that the Earth’s axial tilt and its effects were another proof of God’s existence. Contemporary astronomy has explained much that was mysterious in Newton’s time, and I doubt many astronomers would be impressed by the argument for a deity from the Earth’s axial tilt. Nevertheless, it shows that the leading scientists of Newton’s time probably wouldn’t have been impressed by the glib arguments on atheist merchandising.


Burtt, in Russell, Science and Religious Belief (London: University of London Press 1973).

The Faith of Isaac Newton

April 25, 2013

As well as discovering the Law of Gravity, the author of the Principia Mathematica and one of the great founders of Enlightenment science was a man of profound religious faith. A Unitarian with a profound belief in God’s miracles, Newton wrote:

‘We are, therefore, to acknowledge one God, iinfinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of all things, most wise, most just, most good, most holy. We must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments, and set times apart for his service, as we are directed in the third and fourth Commandments, for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not grievous. 2 John, v. 3. And these things we must do not to any mediators between him and us, but to him and alone, that he may give his angels charge over us, who, being our fellow-servants, are pleased with the worship we4 give to their God. And this is the first and the principal par of religion. This always was, and always will be the religion of God’s people, from the beginning to the end of the world.’

He believed very strongly that God’s works – His creation – pointed to the Almighty’s existence, and believed that science could correctly demonstrate the Lord’s existence. In his Opticks he wrote:

‘The main business of natural philosophy is to argue from phenomena without feighning hypotheses, and to deduce causes from effects, till we come ot the very first cause, which certainly i snot mechanical; and not only to unfold the mechanism of the world, but chiefl to resolve these and such like questions… And these things being rightly dispatched, does it not appear from phenomena that there is a being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who, in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them; and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself?’


E.A Burtt, The Mataphysics of Newton, in C.A. Russell, (ed.), Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London Press 1973) 131-146.

Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (London: Icon Books 2009)

April 8, 2013

Bede's Book Cover

I received a copy of this book about four or so years ago when it was first published for review on my blog. Unfortunately, I was buy with other things at the time, and increasingly frustrated with arguing with some of the commenters. So the review has been delayed until now.

Subtitled ‘How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science’, the book is the result of James’ research for his doctorate into the history of medieval science. James’ is a Roman Catholic with a background in physics. He is also ‘Bede’, who runs the Bede’s Library website, and the Quodlibitum blog. These are Christian apologetics websites discussing science, philosophy and history. James is a Roman Catholic, but his website deals with issues that affect all Christians, and specifically those with an interest in science and its history regardless of their particular denomination. He states on his website that he initially found it difficult to get the book published. One publisher explicitly told him they rejected it because they were atheists, which should show that atheists are as capable of intellectual bigotry and censorship as their religious opponents.

The books’ chapters discuss technological innovation and advancement during the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of Rome, the beginning of medieval academic science with with the career of Pope Gerbert of Aurillac, the rise of rationalism and the intellectual prestige of theology, and the controversies of St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Roscelin and Berenger. It also covers the twelfth renaissance, including William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, as well as the translation of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Arabic, and the foundation of the first universities. It discusses the Church’s attempts to combat heresy during the thirteenth century, which included the University of Paris’ ban on Aristotle, the establishment of Inquisition and the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars. He also discusses the Christianisation of pagan Graeco-Roman science and philosophy by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and the controversies with the Latin Averroeists, such as Siger of Brabant. These followed Aristotle in believing in the eternity of the world, and that humans possessed a single, collective mind rather than individual souls. That chapter also describes the architectural innovations that led to the construction of the great cathedrals. There are other chapters on magic and medieval medicine, alchemy and astrology, including the philosophers stone and the elixir of life, and the occult forces which the medievals believed permeated the cosmos; Roger Bacon is also discussed along with medieval war machines such as the trebuchet and medieval optics, which had its background in the theological view that light illuminated not just the physical world, but also the mind and soul. There are further chapters on the great medieval clockmaker Richard of Wallinford, the Merton Calculators, and the culmination of medieval science in the great scholars and clergymen of the later Middle Ages, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and its decline following the Black Death. The book also discusses fifteenth century scholars and developments such as Nicholas of Cusa, medieval geography and the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World the Fall of Constantinople and the invention of printing. It also covers Humanism and the Reformation, the great polymaths of the sixteenth century, medicine and surgery in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Humanist Astronomy, as well as the further, radical developments in astronomy introduced by Clavius and Kepler. The last three chapters are on the career of Galileo, which also include a section on the execution of the renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno.

Throughout the book, James criticises and attacks many of the myths that have grown up about medieval science, particularly that the medieval church was hostile to it and that the Middle Ages was a period of scientific ignorance until the Renaissance and the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 17th century. In his introduction, James traces the origin of this idea from Petrarch and the Renaissance Humanists, through Enlightenment anticlerical and atheist writers such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, through to 19th century scholars such as Andrew Dickson Wright and Thomas Huxley. Popular science presenters such as Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski further promoted this myth in the 20th century. The book’s conclusion ‘A Scientific Revolution?’ further criticises this idea, and argues that there was never a scientific revolution in the sense that science somehow appeared only in the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the great advances of the seventeenth century were built on the considerable foundations of medieval science and its scholars. One of the most astonishing pieces in the book is the fact that in some respects Renaissance Humanism was actually a step backwards from the great advances of the Middle Ages. The popular view of Humanism, that generations of schoolchildren and adults have been taught, is that the revival of classical learning at the end of the Middle Ages led people out of the ignorance of the Middle Ages and into a new age of learning and discovery. The medieval scholars and natural philosophers were aware of some of the flaws in Aristotelian science. While they remained impressed with the Aristotelian system, they sought to refine and modify it so that it conformed to observed reality. The renaissance Humanists, by contrast, wished to purge natural philosophy of these accretions and so return to the original scientific views of Aristotle himself. This was the background to Galileo’s own attack on Aristotelianism in the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. This includes a passage where a natural philosopher attempts to show an Aristotelian that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of intelligence through dissection. The philosopher shows the myriad nerves running to the brain, compared with only a single, thin nerve leading to the heart. The Aristotelian agrees that he would be convinced that the brain is indeed the seat of thought, if Aristotle had not declared otherwise. Such scepticism towards Aristotle did not just come from developments in anatomy, but also from medieval revisions of Aristotle, such as Jean Buridan’s theories of motion. James also points out that the Reformation did not lead to advances in science, as has been argued in the past. He also shows that the medieval resistance to the Copernican sun-centred model of the universe were scientific, not theological in basis. One Spanish theologian wrote a book stating that the revolution of the Earth was perfectly acceptable theologically, as the Bible was written to express the view of the cosmos as it was seen from Earth, rather than from space. His next book attacked the idea that the Earth moved purely because it was believed to be scientifically nonsensical.

The book has numerous illustrations and a useful section for further reading. Its written for the popular, lay audience and provides a comprehensive overview of the development of medieval and sixteenth century science. This is much needed, as many of the classic treatments of medieval science and its advances, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine and A.C. Crombie’s Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages were published decades ago – Gimpel in the 1970s, while Crombie’s as long ago as 1952. Both of these are still well worth reading. Several of the recent books on medieval science are written for a university readership and can be very expensive. One encyclopedia of medieval science and technology costs about £300, which is beyond the pocket of most people. Despite books like the above, the image of the Middle Ages as an age of scientific ignorance is still extremely strong. One popular history of science for children I found in my local library went straight from the ancient Greeks to the renaissance. If it did have a section on the Middle Ages, it was so short that I missed it. Modern historians of science have rejected the view that religion and science are somehow at war and incompatible. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamental part of the New Atheism, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As for Sagan, Bronowski and Burke, they were brilliant broadcasters and science journalists who did much to popularise it. Like Bede, I can remember being enthralled by Sagan’s Cosmos when it was broadcast on the Beeb back in the 80s, along with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. As good as they were, however, their view of the Middle Ages and its achievements was partisan and extremely flawed. For a much better view, I recommend people read this book.

Spinal Tap and Science on BBC Radio

June 18, 2009

This is just a couple of notices about a few items on the radio next week that people might find interesting.

Firstly, 80s rockers Spinal Tap are on BBC Radio 2 at 10.00 pm Saturday night, 20th June 2009, on the programme Back from the Dead: the Retu of 187 ap. The real-life documentary-maker, writer, and failed drummer, Peter Curran, is interviewing the three mock Rock legends, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) about the launch of their new album, Back from the Dead, which really is being launched, and the accompanying tour. The BBC Radio Times for next week also includes a piece of mock, Rock journalist interviews with them. The mock rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap is one of the classic rock films, so the programme this Saturday could be fun.

Also, next week from Monday to Friday on BBC 3 at 11.00 pm, there’s a series on great scientific experiments, The Essay: Strange Encounters. Tuesday’s programme is on the great solar storm of 1859, which produced spectacular displays of aurora and knocked out the emerging telegraph service all over the world. Wednesday’s programme is on Peyton Rous’ experiments that demonstrated that cancer can be caused by viruses. Thursday is about the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz. Friday is on the great ‘flu pandemic of 1918. The first programme, on Monday, is particularly interesting as it’s on the search for spontaneously generated life in 17th century Tuscany.

Stem Cells and Pseudoscience

May 24, 2009

One of the major ethical controversies in science at the moment has been about the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Stem cells have become immensely valuable because of their unique ability to be ‘reprogrammed’ and change into various other types of cell. These new cells may in turn, it is considered, be used to repair damaged or malfunctioning tissues and organs. Thus, supporters of stem cell research have argued that stem cells are immensely important as potential cures for a number of serious diseases. Much of the research has concentrated on stem cells taken from human embryos, which are believed to have the best potential for medical use as it has been argued that they have the greatest ability to change into the type of cells desired by researchers. This is ethically controversial, as opponents of embryonic stem cell research have objected to the use of such embryos for medical research on the grounds that they are nevertheless human, and so deserve and require the same respect and ethical treatment as fully formed people. Experiments on human embryos, it is argued, automatically imply that there are certain types of people on whom it is legitimate to experiment without their consent, and so constitutes a fundamental attack on human integrity. The debate about embryonic stem cell research is part of the wider controversy over abortion, and reflects the same concerns over the nature and value of human life and the ethical treatment of the unborn.

Many, if not the majority, of the opponents of embryonic stem cell research tend to be religious. However, while many of them are motivated by their religious concerns, this does not mean that opposition to their use is irrational or necessarily confined to those with strong, usually Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Many of the arguments advanced against their use are rational, philosophical moral arguments, based on the belief in transcendental moral values and the innate moral worth of human beings. It’s therefore possible for a secular individual to accept and support these arguments and oppose such research without believing in God like many of the other critics of this research.

Due to the suggested immense potential of stem cell research to provide cures for a wide range of truly horrific diseases and conditions, governments have increasingly been called upon to fund it, while the ethical problems raised by such experimentation have meant that they have also been required to create guidelines and regulations to ensure its moral conduct. Opponents of such research have objected to the use of public finances to support what they regard as a fundamentally immoral attack on human integrity and value. Supporters of stem cell research have, in their turn, strongly attacked opposition to it, viewing this as an attempt by religion to suppress scientific progress. In Britain, despite opposition from a number of clergy and laymen, premier Gordon Brown passed legislation permitting and regulating embryonic stem cell research, while issuing a statement declaring that he also fully understood those who opposed and appreciated their reasons for doing so. In America, George Bush’s administration passed legislation prohibiting the use of government funds for stem cell research, but did not outlaw private industry from engaging in it. Bush’s policy was widely attacked by supporters of stem cell research, and I’ve got a feeling that it has now been repealed by Barack Obama’s administration, which I believe has now allowed government financial support for it.

Just as the moral objections to embryonic stem cell research are not necessarily entirely religious in nature, so there are also scientific objections to stem cell research. It has, for example, been found to be possible to extract stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta, and these cells are also able to be turned into various different cell types. Indeed, some scientists consider that these cells are far easier to manipulate and turn into the desired cells and tissues than embryonic stem cells, and so represent a far more promising field of research. The Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, in his discussion of embryonic stem cells research and the considerable moral and scientific objections to it, has stated that so far researchers have found 80 practical applications and uses for stem cells taken from the umbilical cord and placenta, as opposed to zero for embryonic stem cells. Despite this, it appears to be widely assumed that embryonic stem cells present better opportunities for research and cures. When the BBC covered the debate over stem cell research on its six O’clock news programme when it was being debated in parliament, criticism of their use was largely confined to the moral dimension, and featured a Roman Catholic figure stating the Church’s objections to it. It is possible, however, that this attitude, that objections to embryonic stem cell research are primarily religious, may change.

Last Monday,18th May 2009, the BBC’s current affairs and documentary programme, Panorama, covered the journey of one British family to China seeking a cure for a disease. The programme questioned the treatment offered to them by the doctors and scientists involved in such dubious treatment, and there was the suggestion that it was pseudoscience, rather than true science and reliable, ethical medical research. Now, I didn’t see the programme, and so really don’t know whether the stem cell research the programme was criticising was based on those from embryos, or from the placenta and umbilical cord, nor how, or indeed whether this was related to stem cell research by Western scientists. Nevertheless, it does suggest that journalists and the public are becoming more critical of some of the claims made for stem cell research. If the programme was about the spurious use of embryonic stem cells in cures and treatment that had no proper scientific basis, then it would seem that, at least in this instance, the supporters of embryonic stem cells research, far from defending science from attack by religion, have actually promoted pseudoscience against proper scientific research that may be performed without violating religious and ethical principles.

P.Z. Myers on Religion and Hats

April 6, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, commenting on my post, ‘Faith and the Abdication of Reason’, notes how some atheists attempt to argue against religion by stating that although one cannot prove a negative, and so disprove God’s existence, the evidence for the Almighty is insufficient to support a rational belief in God. Indeed, some of the atheists, who adopt this argument, then argue further that the belief in God is no more vital to society than other, transient social phenomena, such as the fashion for hats. P.Z. Myers, who runs the Pharyngula blog attacking Creationism and religion, in particular has argued that the belief in God is like this, and that even if belief in God disappeared, there would be no ill effects.

Quoting part of my argument, Wakefield states
‘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.
I think when pressed on the topic, most atheists, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presence, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.
They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.
So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affable chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.
Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”
Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.
Yes. Hats.
As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.
Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fashion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.
We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?
Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.’
Firstly, many religions and philosophers of religion have developed criteria to distinguish genuine religious experiences and phenomena from false, such as those produced through hallucinations resulting from madness or disease, such as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a satire on the Argument from Design. However, to be effective it has to contradict the other theistic arguments about the nature and existence of God and revelation. Belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is therefore rejected, not just because there isn’t enough evidence for its existence, but because it also contradicts these other arguments and claims.
Now let’s deal with the comparison between God and other paranormal or supernatural entities. These suffer from the same flaws as Myers’ arguments about hats, or Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. They assume that God is like any other object in the universe, and that His existence does not otherwise alter its nature. However, God is not just another object in the universe: He is its author, who is present and active in the cosmos and in the objects and creatures within it, who has created humans for communion with Him. Moreover, as God is perfectly good and just, there exists a transcendent realm of moral values, which profoundly affect the nature of human actions. An action is not just moral or immoral because of its consequences, but because the act itself is, by its nature, good or evil. Moreover, it is considered that there is a divine purpose working through the cosmos itself, which affects both its nature and its fate, and those of the creatures within it, particularly humans. The existence of Bigfoot and real, nuts and bolts flying saucers would not affect the nature of the universe as a whole, although they would cause the reconsideration of certain aspects of primate evolution and extraterrestrial life. However, the existence of God profoundly affects the nature of the universe. Without God, there is no transcendent meaning and morality.
As for the comparison between God and the fashion for wearing hats, this assumes that the existence of God is merely an intellectual fashion, and does not affect human behaviour, morality and society. But western society is based on and has been formed by the Christian worldview and morality, although this influence is not always obvious. For example, the assumption that all humans are equal is derived from the Biblical view that everyone is equal in the sight of the Lord. Some Christian and religious philosophers, such as Roger Trigg, in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?, have noted that although this idea is central to democracy, generally most people assume that it is true and there is little rational argument for it. He considers that if Christianity is rejected, then the philosophical argument for human equality and democracy is also seriously weakened. In that instance, there is a profound consequence both for morality and western society. Moreover, it can be argued that although religion has considerably declined in Scandinavian society, those societies continue to function successfully because they have largely retained their basis in Christian values and worldview, while rejecting some elements of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, such as the prohibition on certain forms of sexual activity.
Now Myers’ also assumes that even if religion disappeared, science would still continue to enrich humanity. Now this assumes the existence of transcendent moral values, and that science constitutes an intrinsic good in itself. But if God does not exist, then the case for transcendent moral values is considerably weakened. If transcendent moral values do not exist, then science cannot be said to enrich people’s lives. All that can be said is that science becomes a pursuit that most people and society value highly, but the pursuit of science and its benefits cannot be considered to be more moral or more enriching than other activities and worldviews which people may pursue or create. Indeed, science itself is based on the assumption that the universe is ordered and can be rationally understood, concepts taken from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. If this is removed, then the rational basis for scientific investigation is further weakened, and is based simple belief that the universe is intelligible with little supporting philosophical argument. Even Myers’ belief that science will continue to progress may be unfounded. The science writer, John Horgan, for example, in his book, The End of Science, suggested that scientific discovery may be near its end as all the resent scientific discoveries are based on those of the last century or so, and that completely new scientific discoveries that have revolutionised their respects fields have become significantly rarer.
Thus, belief in God is therefore not like belief in Bigfoot, UFOs or wearing hats, and far from not affecting the nature of the cosmos, God’s existence profoundly affects the nature of morality, society and even reality itself, including the scientific enterprise.

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.

Answering Dr. Logic

January 12, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the many great regularly commentators on this blog, has asked the following question:

1) What is your take on the following from Doctor Logic, who asserts that religion is bad due to not being self corrective, and having only dogma as a backup. Now by his definition, fundamenalist paints a wide brush, being about all who seriously persue faith based Christianity:

“What Is Fundamentalism?

According to my definition, a fundamentalist is someone who prefers to take
knowledge from authority rather than from experience.

Creationists are the textbook case of fundamentalism. They’ll spare no effort to
discredit the science that falsifies literal biblical claims, but spend no effort
justifying their belief in the authority of the Bible. If they were as skeptical of
the Bible as they were of radiological dating, they would quickly denounce the Bible as a work of fiction.

Fundamentalism is not just another form of irrationality. It’s irrationality with
conviction. Fundamentalism has no corrective mechanism. How does the fundamentalist know that his authority is, well, authoritative? Apparently, not by experience. Without correction, we cannot claim commitment to the truth because we reject a priori any possibility that we could be wrong.

The Christian fundamentalist cannot complain that Osama bin Laden is using the wrong epistemology. bin Laden is using the very same epistemology as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reason and experience are equally unimportant to all three of these clowns because each will carefully fold his experience to fit into his holy box.

The problem with every fundamentalism is that it results in unnecessary conflict. Instead of reaching consensus based on shared experience, the fundamentalist regards shared experience as either threatening or subservient to his unchangeable prior beliefs. “

2) His insistence in some war between science and religion, relying mostly on
Richard Carrier and Andrew Dickson White. You’ve mentioned this before in some posts but did not directly address the claim that “superstition” resulted in the SUPPRESSION of budding science and/or science that had been around but stymied by the fall of Rome and the resultant takeover of E
urope by Christianity.

3) The associated of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and other with atheism is unfair, as opposed to Christiandom’s association with the horrors of the medieval purges, because what we have in the former is a personality cult–and not the proceedings and results of ideology per se.

IE–socialism turned into something more peaceful in other places in Europe,
apparently inidicating the ground some seeds fall on is more important than the seed of ideology themselves.

Moreover, in advanced western democracies, the cult of personality is tempered via the voting box, and religion is suppressed. Thus atheist (or tending that way) Sweden is very peaceful internally and in international relations, as is ofr the most part Britain and France and numerous others who long ago gave up blookthirst and imperialism and internal conflict.

The noted exception being the IRA–but that was a religious conflict, as DL points out, protostants agaisnt catholics raging over influence and terriroty. NO?

Thus, to sum up, Religion creates most internal strife and even most imperialist ambition.

Let’s critique Dr. Logic’s argument and its basic assumptions. Firstly, he states that

According to my definition, a fundamentalist is someone who prefers to take
knowledge from authority rather than from experience.

There’s immediately a problem of definition here. Dr. Logic has offered us his definition, but recognises that there others. This immediately raises the question of whether Dr. Logic’s definition is correct. Now one other definition is that fundamentalist movements are simply attempts to return to the original basis of a religion or ideology, which is felt to have been attacked or distorted by more recent developments. Now fundamentalists are usually considered to be individuals who stress the absolute, literal truth of a religious text, such as the Bible or Qu’ran, and for many people Creationists are the most obvious examples of fundamentalists because of their profound belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis.

However, Dr. Logic’s definition of fundamentalism also includes less literal forms of religious faith and denominations, such as Roman Catholics, who stress the authority of the church’s teaching as well as the Bible but who generally have an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. Indeed, Dr. Logic himself considers that Creationists are the classic example of fundamentalists: ‘Creationists are the textbook case of fundamentalism.’ However, there are major problems with his position.

Firstly, he contrasts authority with experience. Yet the authority of a religious text, such as those of the Bible, is based on experience, that of the presence and activity of God in human history. The Gospels, for example, are based on the experiences of the apostles and the first people to witness Christ’s ministry and teaching, while St. Paul’s own ministry and theology are based on his own, profound experience of Christ and the Gospel. Indeed, the list of witnesses St. Paul supplies in his epistles, and the names of particular individuals mentioned in the Gospels, are given to demonstrate the truth of the narratives as accounts of events witnessed and experienced by real people, who would vouch for their truth. Thus the authority of the Gospels and the New Testament epistles, for example, are based very much on personal experience, so that there is no basic division between authority and experience. Thus authority and experience are not necessarily contrasting and distinct.

Another problem is that Dr. Logic appears to have an empiricist attitude to knowledge. Something can only be considered true if it accessible to human experience, which he appears to identify with the scientific method. However, empiricism is no longer accepted by most scientists and philosophers of science because many of the objects and entities investigated by science are not accessible to human experience but are the products of human reason. For example, it is impossible to see a single electron. Scientists nevertheless are confident that electrons and other subatomic particles exist, because the scientific models that suggest their existence are the best explanation for the results of certain experiments and natural phenomena, such as electromagnetism, and have not been falsified. Thus in science, direct experience of an object or entity is not necessarily a criterion for its existence.

Another problem for Dr. Logic’s argument is that there appears to be an underlying assumption that the scientific method is the only true form of knowledge. Yet philosophers such as Mary Midgeley and Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that there are other forms of knowledge that are equally valid in providing true information of the world, apart from science. Indeed, there are areas in which the scientific method simply cannot be used to assess the truth of a particular claim or provide information. For example, it may be difficult or impossible to verify scientifically the existence of a historical individual, such as, for example, Julius Caesar. Nevertheless, the existence of authoritative written texts and biographies documenting his life and career make it certain that he existed.

Also, Dr. Logic seems to consider that a theory or model of reality is valid only if it can be altered and refined over time. Yet if a theory or model is fundamentally sound, such alterations don’t correct any flaws, but add to them. Moreover, there may be genuine limits on human knowledge and scientific investigation, where theories and scientific models effectively remain conjecture and their truth or otherwise cannot be demonstrated. In which case, their refinement and alteration also may not constitute correction, as these refinements in turn may also not make the theory closer to the truth.

Now let’s deal with Dr. Logic’s comments about fundamentalists:

They’ll spare no effort to discredit the science that falsifies literal biblical claims, but spend no effort justifying their belief in the authority of the Bible.’

This clearly isn’t true of many people of faith who could be described as fundamentalists, who do present arguments for the authority of the Bible and scripture based on philosophy and reason. The awesome J.P. Holding, for example, has a literal view of the Creation account in Genesis, yet his web site is devoted to demonstrating the historical truth and authority of scripture.

Now let’s deal with Dr. Logic’s comments that:

Fundamentalism is not just another form of irrationality. It’s irrationality with
conviction. Fundamentalism has no corrective mechanism. How does the fundamentalist know that his authority is, well, authoritative? Apparently, not by experience. Without correction, we cannot claim commitment to the truth because we reject a priori any possibility that we could be wrong.

There are a number of flaws with this argument. Firstly, there’s the statement that ‘Fundamentalism has no corrective mechanism’. This is problematic because fundamentalist movements consider they are correcting ideological trends that have no validity and are themselves a danger to the truth.

How does the fundamentalist know that his authority is, well, authoritative? Apparently, not by experience.

This assumes that Fundamentalists are fideists, and that they believe something is true solely through faith. But throughout history people of faith have attempted to use reason to demonstrate the truth of their beliefs, and this has included personal experience and observation of the world.

Without correction, we cannot claim commitment to the truth because we reject a priori any possibility that we could be wrong.

This statement is problematic because it assumes, in turn, that the fundamentalist must be wrong, and so could itself be seen as a rejection of the truth.

‘The Christian fundamentalist cannot complain that Osama bin Laden is using the wrong epistemology. bin Laden is using the very same epistemology as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reason and experience are equally unimportant to all three of these clowns because each will carefully fold his experience to fit into his holy box.’

Again, this is questionable as it assumes that religious fundamentalists may not be able to support their ideas through reason. Furthermore, merely because religions are based on revelation does not mean that they are equally valid or invalid, as much philosophy of religion concerns the question of distinguishing whether a religious experience is true. Furthermore, even from within a particular religious tradition it is possible to criticise a particular fundamentalist interpretation of it. For example, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have targeted and murdered civilians and non-combatants, yet the Qu’ran expressly forbids this. Despite their Muslim fundamentalist views, therefore, al-Qaeda have directly acted against a literal interpretation of the Islamic law.

Furthermore, it could be argued that fundamentalists may well be acting according to experience when they adopt their fundamentalist views. Many Muslims in the Middle East turned to fundamentalism because the programmes of modernisation and westernisation adopted by their governments did not provide their societies with greater prosperity or freedom, and the rapid changes associated with these modernisation programmes created massive social problems and disruption. In this instance, modernisation had created problems, which, they believed, could only be solved through the creation of a fundamentalist state and the strict application of Sharia law.

The problem with every fundamentalism is that it results in unnecessary conflict. Instead of reaching consensus based on shared experience, the fundamentalist regards shared experience as either threatening or subservient to his unchangeable prior beliefs. “

Again, this is extremely problematic. Firstly, this seems to equate fundamentalism with violence and the attempt to impose a set of religious laws by force. While this is true of certain forms of militant fundamentalism, it may not be true of others. For example, many Christians are profoundly concerned at certain secular trends that they feel threaten the sanctity of human life, such as abortion and stem cell research. However, opposition to them in the West largely consists of the lobbying of politicians, and letters and articles in the press and other media to argue and explain their position in the hope of changing or influencing legislation in those areas, rather than use force and violence.

Instead of reaching consensus based on shared experience, the fundamentalist regards shared experience as either threatening or subservient to his unchangeable prior beliefs.

There are, again, profound problems with this statement. Firstly, it seems to regard shared experience as a criterion of the truth and morally binding, and that it is, indeed, possible to discover a common rationality. Yet the Enlightenment project ended in the 19th century because philosophers found it impossible to decide upon just such a shared rationality. Additionally, the fact that something is considered to be true by the majority does not mean that it actually is. In the ancient world, for example, infanticide was morally acceptable, but the vast majority of people in the West today, regardless of their particular religious views, regard this with horror and consider it objectively wrong. Thus, something like infanticide is still objectively wrong, even if it is, or has been, considered as morally acceptable by the majority.

Furthermore, merely because a particular moral view held by a majority of citizens does not have a basis in a religious doctrine or belief, does not necessarily make it rational or correct. Many philosophers consider the basic assumptions made by atheists to be similar to religious views in that they are not necessarily self-evidently true, but require explanation and support from another set of beliefs in their turn, which may similarly also not be self-evidently true, and so require support from other beliefs. In the case of Muslim fundamentalists, to them their view of reality makes more sense, and is more self-evidently true, than that of the contemporary, secular West. On the other, some religious beliefs may also be supported by rational argument, such as those offered by some religious groups against abortion, or at least, certain types of it. Furthermore, even if a fundamentalist or person of faith rejects the validity of a certain political decision, this does not necessarily mean that they will use force to overturn it. Again, in the west those who object to certain political decisions on moral grounds general do so through the democratic process and by attempting to change the attitude of the majority, rather than impose their view by force.

Now let’s deal with his claim

that “superstition” resulted in the SUPPRESSION of budding science and/or science that had been around but stymied by the fall of Rome and the resultant takeover of Europe by Christianity.

Now ancient societies were profoundly conservative and it is true that in ancient Rome science and technology were not developed or adopted, for reasons, which are unclear. Indeed, Roman authors like Pliny complained that there was less scientific research after the world had been united under the Roman Empire, than when Greece and the world was divided into separate states. Scholars have suggested a number of reasons why the Romans failed to make much progress scientifically, all of which have been criticised. One suggestion is that the availability of slave labour meant that mechanisation was not competitive in reducing the costs of production. Others have suggested that emperors deliberately rejected technology in favour of providing employment to the vast number of unemployed free citizens in ancient Rome as a way of creating both jobs and internal peace and security. There is a story that when one engineer presented one of the emperors with a design for a machine for raising pillars, the emperor rejected it as he had to provide work to feed the plebs, the Roman free poor. Some classicists reject this story, however, as legend. A

Another explanation for the failure of the ancient world to develop science is the aristocratic nature of the society and the low status of the teknon, or artisan. In the ancient world, philosophical speculation about the nature of reality was generally the province of the aristocratic elite, who looked down on manual work. Thus, while ancient engineers were capable of producing highly sophisticated machines, such as the Antikythera mechanism, which modelled the movements of the planets, the development of such devices may have been seen as below that of true, aristocratic philosophers and so they were not generally adopted or applied.

Also, the ancient philosophers generally worked from a process of logical deduction from first principles, rather than scientific induction, as they distrusted sense experience, which they felt could be deceptive. These are sociological and philosophical explanations for the lack of technological and scientific development in ancient Rome. In fact the British classicist E.R. Dodds, in his essay ‘The Ancient Concept of Progress’ notes that the concept of progress appears to have been only ever accepted by a large number of the public in the 5th century BC, and though throughout antiquity most of those who believed in progress tended to be scientists, after the 5th century all of the major philosophical schools either denied the existence of progress, or restricted it. Thus it could be considered that it was philosophy, rather than religion, that prevented the ancient world developing a concept of progress.

Now let’s examine his comment

3) The associated of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and other with atheism is unfair, as opposed to Christiandom’s association with the horrors of the medieval purges, because what we have in the former is a personality cult–and not the proceedings and results of ideology per se.

Firstly, the personal dictatorships of Stalin, Mao and Hitler were based on the view contained within Communist and Nazi ideology that contemporary, bourgeois democracy prevented societal or racial progress or development. Both Nazism and Communism developed personal dictatorships from an ideological rejection of individual freedom. In the case of Communism, it was felt that democracy was only a stage that humanity would pass through before it was replaced by socialism and then world Communism. Indeed, democracy was rejected by Communist leaders like Lenin, because it was felt to act against the interests of the working class as expressed and directed by the Communist party.

European Fascists similarly rejected democracy as it was felt to act against the true interests of the nation or race as a whole by allowing individuals to pursue their own interests rather than those of the nation. In Communism, Lenin in particular stressed the importance of a highly centralised, authoritarian party in order to enforce party unity and prevent the emergence of different factions, as had occurred with the Populists and Socialist Revolutionaries. Now it is true that one of the reasons for the emergence of these anti-democratic philosophies is the lack of democratic tradition in both Germany and Russia. However, this does not mean that the authoritarian regimes and the dictatorships that emerged in Russia and Germany did not claim an ideological basis. Also, the Communist regimes considered that they had discovered the objective, materialist basis of history and society, and that religious belief was a threat to the proper development of society according to the materialist dialectic process, and so had to be suppressed. While the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were indeed personality cults, the violent rejection of democracy and attempted destruction of religion were based very much on Marxist ideology.

Regarding Christianity’s association with the horrors of medieval persecution, it’s true that Christians have committed horrific atrocities in the name of their religion. However, this does not mean that Christian belief necessarily requires and demands the use of force to enforce religious adherence, and throughout history there have been Christian groups that have strongly objected to the use of force by Christians.

Then there’s Dr. Logic’s comments:

IE–socialism turned into something more peaceful in other places in Europe,
apparently inidicating the ground some seeds fall on is more important than the seed of ideology themselves.

Moreover, in advanced western democracies, the cult of personality is tempered via the voting box, and religion is suppressed. Thus atheist (or tending that way) Sweden is very peaceful internally and in international relations, as is ofr the most part Britain and France and numerous others who long ago gave up blookthirst and imperialism and internal conflict.

Firstly, it is indeed true that the Nazi and Communist dictatorships arose in countries that had no tradition of democracy. However, it could be argued that Sweden has been successful in securing peace and prosperity because it’s form of Socialism is reformist, rather than Communist, and so gradually sought to replace capitalist society through the electoral process rather than through revolution. Lenin violently denounced reformism as he felt that reformist socialists were supporting bourgeois class interests rather than those of the working class. Furthermore, it could be argued that Sweden, and other European nations like England and France, have succeeded because it has retained many of the forms and values of Judeo-Christian society, rather than attempt to replace them outright, as was the case with the Communist and Nazi dictatorships.

As for the statement that religion creates war and imperialism, this is extremely problematic. Clearly religion has formed a component of imperial expansion, but in many cases this was secondary to secular, national, military and commercial interests. The European empires were founded largely through the desire to gain territory and commercial prosperity for the European imperial nations themselves as much as to promote Christianity. In the case of the British Empire, many Christians were firmly opposed to imperial expansion because of the consequent maltreatment and exploitation of the indigenous peoples. The Evangelical Anglicans and other Protestants in particular strongly believed that Britain also had a duty to the indigenous peoples in Britain’s colonies, and that they should be protected from abuse.

In the case of the sectarian violence between Roman Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, this strongly influenced by conceptions of national identity and the history of British imperialism, rather than based purely on religion. Henry II, the king of England who first conquered Ireland in c. 1145, did so primarily in order to control one of his barons, Strongbow, who had already conquered part of Ireland for himself.

Thus religion does not necessarily lead to irrationality, conflict and violence, and Fundamentalism does not necessarily reject reason, experience and the peaceful democratic process.