Clarifying some myths in the history of science

By Ken Perrott 15/06/2011

I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

Richard Carrier’s helpful analysis

Carrier attributes the retreat from science and the launch of the dark ages to the collapse of the Roman Empire “under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy”. The negative role of Christianity is that it was a one of the mystical worldviews. It did not cause the “dark ages” but did benefit from them. Consequently, when in came to power it did not restore scientific values. This took a millennium.

These scientific values were only reintroduced into the Christianised culture after several centuries of disinterest.  One must look outside religion to find reasons for their restoration.

Carrier’s critics

Richard Carrier covers these topics in the videos I embedded in my last post Early history of science. However, I thought it worth quoting an extract from his writings on these topics because I feel two of the critics of that post, and of Carrier, have misrepresented them. On Twitter, Rebekah Higgett (beckyfh) accused Carrier of being “ideologically-driven” (who isn’t?), that  “he works from particular agenda rather than evidence” and that he “misuses history.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t give any specific examples.

Thony Christie claimed on Twitter: “Richard Carrier has an agenda he claims that Christianity is responsible for the decline of culture in antiquity! It’s crap!” and commented on the post “what Carrier is selling is not history of science but warped propaganda for his own twisted prejudices.” He adds, “Carrier implies more that once in his statements that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century was responsible for the decline in scientific thought in antiquity.” He did not give any evidence for this claim despite my requesting it.

These claims conflict with my reading of Carrier. it’s probably just an example of the irrational hostility that sometimes develops between professionals. However, I have asked for evidence backing up these claims because I could well be wrong in my understanding. And also because if the claims are wrong they should be challenged. These sort of claims can lead to new myths – like the claim that an expert is peddling a myth when they aren’t.

So here is an extract from the Conclusion of Richard Carriers chapter in the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The title of the chapter is ’Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.’ I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

What does Carrier actually say?

See what you think. After conceding these myths “are built on kernels of truth” he writes:

“Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science–just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy; and in the third century BCE that’s exactly what it did – society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders. Christianity was already one such worldview, and thus became increasingly popular at just that time. But as one could predict, when Christianity came to power it did not restore those scientific values, but instead sealed the fate of science by putting an end to all significant scientific progress for almost a thousand years. It did not do this by oppressing, or persecuting science, but simply by not promoting its progress and by promoting instead a deep and enduring suspicion against the very values necessary to produce it.
Likewise, modern science did develop in a Christian milieu, in the hands of scientists who were indeed Christians, and Christianity can be made compatible with science and scientific values. Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress. And it was Christians who adapted it, craftily inventing Christian arguments in favor of the change because only arguments in accord with Christian theology and the Bible would have succeeded in persuading their peers. But this was a development in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals, returning the world back to where pagans, not Christians, had left it a thousand years before at the dawn of the third century. Only then did the Christian world take up that old pagan science and its core values once again. And only then did further progress ensue.”

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0 Responses to “Clarifying some myths in the history of science”

  • As the author of an historical novel “THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History”, available at Amazon in paperback & Kindle ebook, I must correct the (hopefully?) unintended typo in the fourth line of the Richard Carrier excerpt. BCE (before the common era) should read CE (common era), today’s academic substitutes for BC (before Christ) & AD (Anno Domini).

    This adjustment of six centuries places the decline of Rome beyond the height of its imperial power under the first dozen emperors, Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. It also places the decline into the period beyond Constantine’s shifting of the seat of power from Rome to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), which shifted the entire Roman economy eastwards.

  • Thanks for the post and particularly the plug for Selene of Alexandria. I’m glad you enjoyed the book! I’ll have to give Richard Carrier a look.