Addressing Atheist Narratives about the Dark Ages

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by Patrick Bernas, Saint Louis University

In recent years the Christian church has fallen prey to misinformed and damaging narratives about it’s history: narratives that emphasize the moments when the church has suppressed knowledge and started war. In their books Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies and The Territories of Science and Religion, David Bentley Hart and Peter Harrison, respectively, take a historical look at the church and counter these harmful claims.

Hart first addresses the popular belief that there was an age of reason which was killed by Christians in the Dark Ages before being revived by the Enlightenment. Hart breaks down this narrative writing “Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state,” (33). After this dark age, so the story goes, the Enlightenment arose and brought back “the full flowering …reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new revolutionary sense of human dignity,” (33). Although this narrative is not taken seriously anymore by historians, it is often believed by less-informed lay people.

Hart attacks the narrative that all the knowledge that was gained in the West by the Greek philosophers was completely lost during the “Dark Ages.” He admits that although there was a late introduction of classical Greek texts into the Latin language, “Before the rise of Islam, Syrian Christians had carried Greek philosophical, medical, and scientific wisdom far eastward and had already begun to translate the Greek texts into a Semitic tounge,” (50). Hart then says that “it was Syriac-speaking Christians who provided an invaluable caste of scholars and physicians, and through them the achievements of Greek and Roman antiquity passed into Islamic culture,” (50-51). It is true that for a long time much of the Christian West did not have access to these texts, but as Hart shows, this was not because of Christianity, but rather “the collapse of the empire of the West—which was induced by centuries of internal wasting and external pressure…[and] it was the Church’s monasteries alone that saved classical civilization from the total eclipse it would otherwise have suffered,” (55). 

Next, Hart deals with another one of Atheism’s favorite claims about religion, that Christianity has a long history of violence and war in the name of God, particularly after the introduction of Protestantism. Hart, however, writes that these conflicts in the medieval period “ought really to be remembered as the first wars of the modern nation-state,” (88). Although religion is often cited as the cause of these wars, they also occurred around the same time that the modern notion of a state was formed out of the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire. Hart writes that “They [these wars] inaugurated a new age of nationalist strife and state violence, prosecuted on a scale and with a degree of ferocity without any precedent in medieval history,” (89). He claims that these wars should fall under the category of the modern state trying to assert itself through conflict with its neighbors, not religion. Hart further writes that “no matter how shameful it may have been, all the religious hatred, fear, or resentment of the period taken together was impotent to move battalions or rouse nations to arms, and no prince of the time waged war against another simply on account of his faith,” (91). Hart effectively argues that differences between Protestantism and Catholicism were not their driving causes. He cites Prince Philip as the only royal figure during this time known to have had a strong religious conviction. He shows that these wars were not the result of religion, but rather of a generally secular state trying to establish itself (Hart, 94). 

Let us now turn to Peter Harrison’s accounts of religious and scientific conflicts and discuss the most persuasive arguments and evidence that Harrison brings to light involving the etymology of science, itself. Harrison writes that “for much of the nineteenth century ‘science’ was used in a wide variety of ways. Only four years before Ward offered his stipulation definition [expressing physical and experimental science, to the exclusion of theological and metaphysical] … the term ‘has been so indiscriminately applied to very diverse departments of our intellectual domain,” (Harrison, 147). Harrison cites various accounts of the usage of the word “science” to show that its definition has never been static. The definition of science provided by William George Ward, which excluded Theology and Metaphysics, implies that at one point they were considered integrated into scientific practice.  

Harrison also writes about how certain activities or lessons that we associate with their respective disciplines have also changed over time. For example, Harrison writes that “the task of ancient philosophy had been to assist the individual in the cultivation of those habits that would help them achieve their true end. With the inception of Christianity the moral cultivation that had formed the central focus of philosophy was moved into the religious domain,” (Harrison, 85). What interests me most about this argument is that it shows how the concept of philosophy has changed and shifted throughout the ages, at one point even encompassing all the hard sciences. Harrison demonstrates that the activities of science, religion, and philosophy have shuffled around throughout history, effectively countering the narrative that there is a longstanding war between them. Eventually, the methods and practices of science and religion became increasingly specialized, and fewer scholars were able to stay well versed in both disciplines, thus creating the illusion of exclusivity between them. Thus, David Bentley Hart and Peter Harrison effectively combat the false narratives of Christianity’s regressive behavior throughout the so-called “Dark Ages” and Middle Ages.

One Response

  1. “another one of Atheism’s favorite claims about religion”
    You like your generalizations as much as those atheists. To get cured you might want to visit History fo Atheists.

    “Hart effectively argues that differences between Protestantism and Catholicism were not their driving causes.”
    Well, no. From the French-Italian wars to the end of the Thirty Years War a main enemy of catholic Habsburg was equally catholic France. However that doesn’t justify

    “ought really to be remembered as the first wars of the modern nation-state”
    because those modern nation-states (actually pre modern nation-states, but whatever) were completely 100% christian. And “christianity justified the wars waged by nation-states” is hardly an improvement over “christianity was not a driving cause”, is it? Replace nation-states with kingdoms, empires etc. and this is something that did not change at all after the Middle Ages ended.
    Not to mention that another point is ignored: organized religion is by definition political, so it can only be expected that any dominant religion plays an important role in politics – like when kings, emperors and presidents decide to wage wars. Like in 1914 in protestant Germany, catholic Austria and orthodox Russia.

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