Movie Review: Agora

When I wrote my review of Creation last year, a commenter suggested I see Agora, the 2009 film by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia of Alexandria. It took me a long time to get around to doing that, but I’ve finally seen it, and it was worth the wait. It only had a very limited theatrical release in the U.S., but if you have Netflix or similar, I strongly encourage you to see it.

Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late fourth century CE. Egypt is a Roman province in this age, and Alexandria is one of its crown jewels: polyglot, multicultural, an important maritime port, and a center of pagan learning and philosophy. One of its foremost citizens is Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), a female philosopher who’s heir to the Greek intellectual tradition and renowned for her expertise in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Famous and influential men from throughout the province come to her academy to attend her lectures and demonstrations. As beautiful as she is brilliant, she also attracts her share of admirers, including her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and one of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes the provincial governor.

But in Hypatia’s time, the Roman Empire is changing rapidly. Christianity, once a despised and outlawed sect, has converted the emperor and is rapidly growing in numbers and power. Its preachers, especially the murderous fanatic Cyril (Sami Samir) aren’t shy about exerting their newfound authority: against the city’s Jews; against the philosophers, whom they view as idol-worshipping adherents of a degenerate pagan tradition; and especially against women who defy their biblically ordained role by speaking in public and teaching men. The confrontation between Hypatia and Orestes on one hand and Cyril on the other comes inevitably to a head, and though I won’t give any spoilers, if you know about the historical Hypatia, you probably have some idea of how it ends.

Although the script takes some liberties, which is only to be expected, I was surprised by how closely it sticks to historical fact: including Hypatia’s close relationship with the governor Orestes, the amazing-but-true fact that one of her pupils, Synesius, later became a Christian bishop, and the memorably revolting way she rejects a potential suitor. Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia’s time, and the movie accurately reflects this. (Hypatia and the other philosophers live and teach in another building, a pagan temple/academy called the Serapeum.)

The biggest departure from history is its depiction of Hypatia as on the verge of proving the heliocentric theory of the solar system. As Richard Carrier points out in his review (some spoilers), the real Hypatia wouldn’t have been as empirically minded as this – she belonged to a philosophical school that largely disdained experimentation, although there’s no doubt that she was a gifted mathematician and astronomer, and all the theoretical pieces were in place in the philosophies of the time for experiments like the ones she’s shown to perform.

The movie also hints that she was an atheist, which the real Hypatia wouldn’t have been. However, Agora isn’t by any means a black-and-white, Christianity-versus-science polemic. The pagan philosophers are depicted as just as vengeful, violent, and touchy about insults to their religion as the Christians were, and it’s clear that Cyril’s hatred of Hypatia used her science only as a pretext; the real reason for his antipathy is as a way to hurt his political rival, Orestes. And vicious as he is, he isn’t treated as representative of all of Christianity – other Christian characters, such as Synesius, are on Hypatia’s side.

Nevertheless, without treating all Christians as evil, the film subtly and powerfully conveys how the immoralities of Christian theology made this story and many others like it inevitable. There’s a brutally effective scene in which Cyril boxes in both Orestes and Synesius by reading from the Bible the verses forbidding a woman to teach or have authority over a man, and demanding that they kneel and swear faith in scripture (implicitly denouncing Hypatia).

Although my wife and I both loved this movie, the reviews were decidedly mixed, which I think is because it confused critics’ expectations by breaking with convention. In the beginning, it seems the script is setting up a love triangle between Hypatia, Davus and Orestes – but Hypatia herself never expresses any interest, and that aspect of the story is dropped when the political conflict begins. (Just think, a female character who’s not depicted as primarily interested in romance! That’s a daring departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, even if the film unfortunately doesn’t pass the Bechdel test due to its lack of any other women.)

All in all, this was a beautiful, tragic story that’s all the more powerful for being essentially true. Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it’s taken to regain it. More than that, it’s a tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, and a celebration of the rational principles that she defended and that have always stood for what’s best in humanity. If you have the chance to see it, you won’t be disappointed.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    I first saw it in December, and I love it. I have trouble watching the destruction of the Serapeum, though-it literally makes my heart hurt.

  • Mark

    Good movie. I saw it last October while on a long flight but I couldn’t remember the name. I’d recommend it to anyone.

  • L.Long

    Saw some time ago, and I agree the destruction of the scrolls and a brilliant woman is heart breaking.

  • Anna N.

    I saw the movie on my BA flight back from Europe. I liked it a lot as well! (I didn’t know she was not an Atheist..)

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia’s time, and the movie accurately reflects this.

    I’m currently reading a translation of Ammiannus Marcellinus, a pagan Roman who wrote about the history of the Empire in the late 4th century (Actually, he wrote his history from the beginning of the Empire, but the earlier chapters have apparently been lost).

    In a section on Alexandria, he writes:

    There are many temples with lofty roofs, chief among them the Temple of Serapis. Its splendour is such that mere words can only do it an injustice, but its great halls of columns and its wealth of lifelike statues and other works of art make it, next to the Capitol… the most magnificent building in the whole world. It contained two priceless libraries. Ancient records are unanimous in their evidence that 700,000 volumes, brought together by the sleepless energy of the Ptolemies, went up in flames under the dictator Caesar, when the city was sacked in the Alexandrine war.

  • Katie M

    @Tommykey-it’s rather funny to see a man writing in the late fourth century refer to something as “ancient” ;)

  • Patrick

    According to the following review the film is to a large extent based on a history myth.

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/05/agora-and-hypatia-hollywood-strikes.html

  • Radi

    Hypatia is one of my all-time favorite heroines, and when I found there was a movie about her, I brought it right up to the top of my queue and watched it. I was very pleasantly surprised by how faithfully the movie followed real history – I wasn’t expecting very much of it, really.

    The destruction of the library really hurt to watch. At every important moment, the ambivalence of the main characters as they chose between their available options, it was so clear (to us, in hindsight) where the inexorable march of events was taking them. The movie managed to sympathetically portray each (main) character as believably human – never depicted as all-bad or all-good, but with very believable motivations for their actions. Watching the fanatic manipulate Hypatia’s slave into converting was another hard part – I was quite literally screaming at my TV! “Can’t you see how he’s manipulating you? It isn’t his god that you are feeling – it is the spiritual satisfaction you get from helping your fellow man. You’d have it even if you didn’t convert to his religion!”

    If Netflix had more than a 5-star rating, I’d have used that!

  • Sarah Braasch

    I just loved it. I thought it was fantastic.

    My fav part:

    When she (Hypatia) is speaking with Orestes, and she reaches out to the Cosmos and says, “If I could just unravel this a little bit more, I will go to my grave a happy woman.”

    Or something very close to that.

    I love that she felt a “higher calling”, to pursue a life of the mind and ideas, which was so much more important to her than mere earthly and corporeal pursuits. But, of course, her pursuits were based upon science and math and logic and rationality and reasoning.

    And, I loved Rachel Weisz’s portrayal.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    You suggest the Occident would have been better off if it had somehow skipped its Christian phase.

    But it is wholly unjust to blame the Christians for the Dark Ages, brought on by centuries of barbarian invasion.

    And it is by no means clear that or how the West, never having been overwhelmed by Christianity, could have had an Enlightenment profoundly committed to the moral equality of mankind and to consent as the basis for political legitimacy, and thus driven toward the political and social achievements of liberalism not least of which was the eventual end of the slavery the ancient world lived by.

    The pagans did not tie these ideas of equality and consent, familiar as they were to some pagan philosophers, to their popular religions.

    But they were incorporated into learned Christianity and thus became inseparable from the dominant religion of the West when Christianity did.

    And that was how they got to be key ideas of the Enlightenment not only in the heads of a handful of philosophers but in the thought of an educated public to which the political and moral leadership of the time could appeal.

    Where would we be, morally and politically, if these ideas had never got taken out of the study by their adoption by the most potent revolutionary organization of late antiquity, the Catholic Church as it then existed, and incorporated into the universal culture of the West?

    Bear in mind that it is an atheist who asks this question.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    By the way, in the 1960s I studied an interesting development in German Protestant theology known at the time – at least to us English speakers – as “secularization theory.”

    The view developed included the claim that the triumph of Christianity in the West indispensably set the stage for the development of Western science as well as the broader eventual secularization of culture through the de-sacralization of nature – the expulsion of the gods from nature into the supernatural.

    You may recall that then as now some right wing critics of modern culture as well as some creators of hippie ideology have complained about the alleged resulting spiritual emptiness of mass society, consumer society, blah blah.

    But the Protestant partisans of secularization theory saw the de-sacralization of nature, the growth and power of Western science, and whole cultural heritage of the Enlightenment as valuable, though of course unintended, results of the triumph of Christianity in the West.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Patrick at 7, above, put this in the trail.

    Did you read it?

    Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again.

  • Jim Baerg

    GSG:
    Apparently in _The Christian Delusion_ ed. by John Loftus, there is a chapter by Richard Carrier devoted to demolishing the idea that Christianity was a help in developing modern science. I must find a copy & see how good the arguments are.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    But it is wholly unjust to blame the Christians for the Dark Ages, brought on by centuries of barbarian invasion.

    Gaius, writing also as an atheist, I think part of this can be chalked up to people admiring the ruins of the great structures built during the height of the Roman Empire and then very little of consequence being built for centuries afterward in Western Europe. Some people confuse big structures with enlightened civilization, overlooking the fact that these structures were built at the orders of emperors who had access to a vast treasury accumulated from taxing the inhabitants of a large empire.

    The western part of the Roman Empire tended to be less wealthy and less populous than the Eastern half. With the territory of the Western Empire disintegrating into various barbarian kingdoms, a single large political entity was replaced by smaller ones that each had less wealth and resources to build grand structures.

    That being said, Italy under the Ostrogoths was doing reasonably well into well into the mid-sixth century and it is doubtful a Roman who was 20 years old in 450 would have felt that his world had regressed in some way in the year 500 when he would have been 70. What went wrong with Italy was the decades long war and plagues that ensued from Justinian’s attempts to reincorporate the Italian peninsula into a Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople.

  • Sarah Braasch

    GSG,

    I would just like to point out, as a woman and an atheist, and in light of the movie being reviewed, about a woman, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that Christianity ushered in theretofore unheard of concepts of gender equality.

    I think just the opposite is true. While I’m not going to try to argue that the Greeks or Romans acknowledged the full humanity of women, but I do think that, in general, women were better off beforehand, in pagan societies, wherein divinity was not only masculine, but feminine as well. And, I do feel safe in saying that the path women were on towards gender equality and the full recognition of their humanity was derailed by millennia by the advent of the Abrahamic cults, which betray their Middle Eastern desert tribal roots so readily.

    As far as women are concerned, half of humanity, mind you, I can state without hesitation that the Occident would have been better off if it had never been afflicted with Christianity, or any of the other patriarchal Abrahamic cults.

    Just something to think about before making claims that Christianity is responsible for allegedly Western notions of equality.

    I find the idea of secularism not being possible without the Abrahamic religions interesting.

    If that is true, I might be inclined to think that this has more to do with secularism being a reaction to the oppressive and totalitarian nature of the Abrahamic religions, rather than being an issue of the divine having been excised from nature.

    If the nature religions had held sway until the present day, would we require the secular state now in the same way, to guard against the oppression of the Abrahamic cults?

    Just something to think about.

  • Rieux

    Just saw it on Netflix. Very, very nice—and appropriately tragic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I view the impact of Xtianity and the Abrahamic cults on the West in much the same way that I view the Bush presidency in the US.

    Sure, you can argue that they motivated progressive movements.

    But, that tends to happen once society hits rock bottom.

    There’s nowhere to go but up.

    But, that doesn’t mean that this is an exercise we would ever wish to repeat.

  • Patrick
  • Alex Weaver

    And it is by no means clear that or how the West, never having been overwhelmed by Christianity, could have had an Enlightenment profoundly committed to the moral equality of mankind and to consent as the basis for political legitimacy, and thus driven toward the political and social achievements of liberalism not least of which was the eventual end of the slavery the ancient world lived by.

    The pagans did not tie these ideas of equality and consent, familiar as they were to some pagan philosophers, to their popular religions.

    But they were incorporated into learned Christianity and thus became inseparable from the dominant religion of the West when Christianity did.

    …this would be the same Christianity that underlay and claimed to justify Medieval serfdom, that upheld the concept of “the divine right of kings” throughout and beyond the Medieval era, that upheld the notion that the subservience of women and non-whites was Biblically ordained, that was in large part constituted in the Catholic Church which was still issuing anti-democracy opinions in the previous century, that…

    …oh, enough beating around the bush.

    What the hell are you talking about?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Add me to the list of people who don’t agree that Xianity was the catalyst for Enlightenment values. The Enlightenment was a reactionary movement brought about because Xianity sucked, and the Xian churches fought tooth and nail against all progressive advancements during their reign as the moral arbiters and defacto rulers (and still do fight against moral advancement and equality).

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Patrick, I didn’t mean to suggest I doubted you had read the post to which you put up the link.

    Sorry about that.

    My poor writing.

    I repeat that the historic role of Christianity in preparing the way for modern science asserted by those Protestant theologians was an unintentional one.

    I don’t dispute for a minute that the rise of science was (and is) fought tooth and nail by the churches.

    Nor do I for a moment assert that intentional support for social and political equality, liberty, and democracy was unanimous or even widespread in the churches before or during or even (much) after the Enlightenment.

    Nor do I dispute the marked and very effective culturally and politically reactionary role intentionally played by the Church and the churches with regard to the Enlightenment, right through the 19th and 20th Centuries and even, though much less aggressively, into our own time.

    Christianity inadvertently prepared the way for those who would, if they couldn’t quite bury it, at least throw a lot of sand on it.

    What was that Marx wrote about the unintended consequences of intentional actions?

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Sarah,

    The pagans never had anything remotely resembling either a secular society or a secular state.

    Nor did anybody, even among the philosophers, think they should.

    The secularization of nature cleared the ground, so to speak, and concentrated the divine in a single object, the supernatural creator God of the Abrahamic religions.

    Science then emerged as the study of a nature for the first time fully and only natural, containing nothing supernatural.

    And a nature lawful in every respect, thanks to a lawgiving Creator.

    Too, as Christianity simplified and united the divine into one God it simplified and united the religious establishment into one Church.

    For the first time, all priests, all religious officials of any kind, were united in a single and vast institutional structure, servants of a single and united “spiritual power” – offering a single and simple target for unbelievers, Kings, and all other prospective opponents.

    Even after the Reformation, a crucial episode in the prehistory of freedom, Christianity presented itself as a collection of fragments of a broken unity.

    The vast grab-bag of institutionally and ideologically disunited priests, priestesses, and other religious figures associated with paganism were, in contrast, a plurality that had never been and never would be brought to unity – had never been and never would be a single target.

    It was because of this institutional and political as well as doctrinal unity of religion that laïcité, defined against it, became possible.

    And it was because of that unity of religion that the secularization of culture by its withdrawal from the influence of that religion was enabled.

    None of which is meant to deny the importance of the way Christianity was institutionalized from the very beginning as a separate organization, hierarchy, and even bureaucracy, set apart from the state.

    But that again is part of the contrast between Christianity and paganism: pagan religious officials were everywhere government officials, and vice versa.

    Interesting, isn’t it?

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    That’s “Gracchus,” by the way.

    My fault.

    Can’t type, can’t spell, can’t see.

  • Samuel

    That isn’t very accurate. The Romans already distinguished between religion and supersticion. While it wasn’t secular, you had definate streams on that path like the Epicureans (who held Gods existed, but they were irrelevant).

    In science, there was already the belief the universe followed rules, that reality was just a reflection of some more perfect ideal (platonism). Geocentrism is a good example of this.

    The idea that Christianity made nature pure natural is also wrong. Witches, demons, magic- these were all ideas endorsed by Christianity and all were very supernatural.

    As for being seperate from the state, that is just Catholicism. Orthodox Christianity (and Anglicanism and origionaly Calvanism) was run by government officials. It is also worth noting that pagan religious officials were only government officials for certain religions.

    Heck, even though they were a variety of seperate pieces, people were still able to attack them a a single whole. The elite already looked down on the religious practices of the majority as nonsense.

    Of course, the West didn’t become secular until the 19th century, 1500 years after Christianity gained political power. I think paganism could probably change in that length of time.

  • LindaJoy

    I must be reading the wrong set of history books (History of Civilization by Will Durant) because Christianity via the Catholic Church was no source of Enlightenment ideas and only promoted science when it suited their positions of power. Of course it’s easy to set the course of civilization when you have been allowed over hundreds of years to plunder everything in sight. Maybe we can ask the hundreds of thousands of Cathars about their view of who was the cause of the Dark Ages. Oh wait, they are ALL gone, courtesy of the Roman Catholic Church.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    If they didn’t mean to help science and supposedly only did so by opposing it, I don’t see how one can possibly claim that Xianity is owed any gratitude or recognition.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    “That isn’t very accurate. The Romans already distinguished between religion and supersticion.”

    True but not pertinent.

    “While it wasn’t secular, you had definate streams on that path like the Epicureans (who held Gods existed, but they were irrelevant).”

    Yes, you did. Again, irrelevant.

    “In science, there was already the belief the universe followed rules, that reality was just a reflection of some more perfect ideal (platonism). Geocentrism is a good example of this.”

    I didn’t think I had denied the ancients their achievements.

    Certainly didn’t mean to.

    “The idea that Christianity made nature pure natural is also wrong. Witches, demons, magic- these were all ideas endorsed by Christianity and all were very supernatural.”

    Indeed they were. And they were, just as you say, supernatural.

    “As for being seperate from the state, that is just Catholicism. Orthodox Christianity (and Anglicanism and origionaly Calvanism) was run by government officials. It is also worth noting that pagan religious officials were only government officials for certain religions.”

    Establishment amounted to state maintenance and sometimes control of the church (Anglicanism), or church control of the state (Calvin in Geneva).

    That did not make them the less separate institutions and bureaucracies, on the whole.

    Though the Calvinists in Europe and even in America certainly tried to abolish the distinction.

    In the 16th and 17th Centuries.

    As for Western science, it arose in the West, not the East.

    “Heck, even though they were a variety of seperate pieces, people were still able to attack them a a single whole. The elite already looked down on the religious practices of the majority as nonsense.”

    Some. Again, not much to the point, though, is it?

    “Of course, the West didn’t become secular until the 19th century, 1500 years after Christianity gained political power. I think paganism could probably change in that length of time.”

    But it didn’t, anywhere else.

    Nor did anything or anyone else.

    Ever.

  • Sarah Braasch

    GSG,

    What I find interesting is that you seem to agree with everything I said.

    I’m not quite sure the point you are trying to make anymore.

    You seem to be upset that us atheists are not giving Xtianity its due, even though you seem to agree with us that Xtianity is only responsible for motivating progressive societal movements by having sent humanity careening down to a nadir of human civilization.

    I guess, as an analogy, we could say that Bush II did such a stupendous job of nearly destroying the US that he is directly responsible for getting Obama elected.

    But, I’m not sure he deserves any accolades for his efforts.

  • Patrick

    Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    It is by no means the case that it was Protestant theologians who, intentionally or unintentionally, paved the way for modern science. There are older roots. The respective development is very well described in the following book:

    James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, Duxford 2009.

    A review can be read in the following link:

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/10/gods-philosophers-how-medieval-world.html

    A very informative contribution in this respect can also be found in the following link:

    http://www.telektronikk.com/volumes/pdf/2.2004/Page_005-025.pdf

    As for the role of Christianity with respect to the Enlightenment one shouldn’t forget that important figures who are numbered among the adherents of it there were devout Christians. These include René Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).

  • Samuel

    I think all the early scientists were devout Christians. Well, except the statisticians. You had to be motivated by a desire to understand the world which was generally tied to religious feelings.

    Er, Gracchus, I’m not seeing how that rebuts my rebutal. The only part I can grasp is regarding secularism:

    “But it didn’t, anywhere else.

    Nor did anything or anyone else.

    Ever.”

    The first secular state would be the United States, due to politcal compromise. It was an idea based upon the Enlightenment… and the fact there were several different religious groups who wanted a guarentee that the others wouldn’t kill them. And the thirty years war, which had left a concrete legacy about why religious wars were bad. In fact, I believe that is a bigger drive. The fact you didn’t have a clear majority religion which meant the different religions agreed not to prosecute each other and had it legally inshrined.

    This isn’t due to Christianiy gven it was an outgrowth of English ideals that occured in a newly formed state on the outskirts of Christiandom. Maybe you can count France, but that falls more under the “loot money from the church and destroy its supporters”.

    As for other cases of secularism, the closest I can think of would be China and Japan. In China the elite who ran the government looked down on religion as nonsense. In Japan the Shogun who ran the country was seperate from the Emperor who was the divine figurehead. In both countries there were strong independent religious movement, although the government frequently involved to crush their power.

  • LindaJoy

    “As for the role of Christianity with respect to the Enlightenment one shouldn’t forget that important figures who are numbered among the adherents of it there were devout Christians. These include René Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).”

    Where is the link between the essence of “Christianity” and the science/math/etc. contributions these people made? They may have been “devout Christians”, but that is a separate category. Newton did not theorize about gravity based upon anything “Christian” or even biblical. Lots of scientists and others seem to be perfectly able to separate their belief system from their approaches to reality. It’s called compartmentalization.

    The point is that the movement of Christianity in Europe as a whole was not beneficial or supportive of science/ math/ biology or free thought in general. In fact, quite the opposite. The body count alone should be enough to counter any benefits that one may conjure up with a couple of individual examples.

    In the new country of America, Roger Williams, a devout Christian, came up with his expressions of separation of church and state directly from experiencing the Puritan colony’s repression. His ideas later were fused into the Baptist movement as a method of self preservation, which is something quite different than the expressions of separation of church and state that came out of the Enlightenment figures. It is one thing to want separation of church and state because you are tired of being thrown in jail, and another thing to promote it because it is a political philosophy beneficial for society in general and essential to a democratic republic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah, I feel like there is a lot of revisionist history being thrown around in this thread.

    I have an ancestor who, almost 400 years ago, had his life and livelihood nearly destroyed by Governor Winthrop and his Puritan theocrats of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because my ancestor was advocating for a secular government.

    Would my ancestor have been advocating for a secular government if Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” had not been the oppressive, totalitarian theocracy, which it was?

    Maybe not, but that is hardly reason to praise Winthrop, because his theocratic dictatorship inspired the opposition to act.

    I also question the idea that the Abrahamic cults excised the divine from nature, which allowed for the promulgation of secularism, as well as science.

    They introduced monotheism, as opposed to the usual pantheism/animism of the pagan/nature religions, but I think it’s going too far to say that they excised the divine from nature.

    There are far too many arguments that biology should dictate the law as God’s natural law. There are far too many examples in scripture/doctrine of God suspending the laws of nature as the mood strikes him. Even prayer/exorcism/transubstantiation of Christ’s body and blood/demons/possession/guardian angels/dreams/prophetic visions.

    What is this if not the witchcraft of paganism? The working of magic spells and incantations? The manipulation of energies/spirits in the natural world?

    Consider the JWs. They believe that Satan and his demons walk the earth and can physically/sexually/psychologically attack whomever they please.

    On this plane. In this reality. On this planet. In the real world.

    Consider the fight against science, evolution, public education.

    Consider the incessant attacks on secularism in the present day and time in the US and by whom?

    By Christianists, intent on imposing Christian religious law upon all others and establishing the US as an American Christian Theocracy.

    Consider the incessant attacks on women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights? Abortion/IVF/contraception/condoms/etc. are wrong because they go against nature. Homosexuality is evidently wrong because it goes against our God-given natures. Women leading men is wrong because it goes against our God-given natures, God’s plan for his creation.

    And, why? With what justification? Because God’s laws are natural laws and man-made laws are contrary to our God-given natures.

    No. Sorry.

    I don’t buy the story about Xtianity being responsible for both secularism and science, because it excised the divine from nature.

    It’s a nice story, but it just doesn’t wash.

    Sort of like the Bible.

    Wait, no. The Bible isn’t even a nice story.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I was just thinking too about how miraculous it is that all of the Xtian holidays or holy days just happen to fall upon all of the traditional pagan festivals, most of which honor and celebrate the solstices and the equinoxes and the changing of the seasons and the harvests and the constellations in the sky and their corresponding gods and goddesses.

    So much for the idea that Xtianity excised the divine from nature.

  • Patrick

    LindaJoy

    Unlike what you write for early scientists religious convictions did play some role in their scientific pursuit, which is explained in the following link:

    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/12/breaking-free-of-indoctrinated-paradigm.html

    As for the separation of church and state, there is nothing in the New Testament that speaks against it, so it should be no problem for Christians to accept it. Your example of Roger Williams shows that it is indeed possible to accept this idea and be a devout Christian at the same time.

  • LindaJoy

    “As for the separation of church and state, there is nothing in the New Testament that speaks against it, so it should be no problem for Christians to accept it.”

    Patrick- the basic premise of Christianity is the acceptance of the concept of bowing down to a King, whether it be the King of the universe or the Savior-king. Christianity is a monarchy based religion. So Roger Williams coming up with the idea of separation of church and state did not derive from the foundation of Christianity, it was derived in spite of it. It came out of his desire for a state government that was so freed of theocracy that it would come to his rescue and keep him safe from the Puritans. If he had truly held to his bible teachings and the tradition of Christianity, he would have accepted the theocracy. The same can be said for Martin Luther King. He had to ignore or buck the traditions of the bible and Christianity in order to call for social justice. Slavery was not only condoned by the bible, man’s relationship to God was described as a slave/master relationship. Jesus’s social justice sayings were meant only for the Jews, as were the Ten Commandments.

  • Patrick

    LindaJoy

    It’s certainly true that a premise of Christianity is the concept of bowing to God as a king. But this doesn’t necessarily imply the acceptance of an earthly monarchy, as 1 Samuel 8 clearly shows. As for the Puritans, it was them who in 1649 put an end to a monarchy. They founded a republic that may be called a theocracy. But there is no passage in the Bible that asks of Christians to seek political power, so Roger Williams certainly was in agreement with the Bible when he established a political order based on the separation of church and state.

    Social justice is an issue that is an integral part of the Bible. So, Martin Luther King could legitimately refer to it in his fight for civil rights. As for slavery, one has to realize that slavery in the Bible is not necessarily what people nowadays in general understand by it. This can be seen from the following link:

    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/04/contra-mundum-slavery-and-the-old-testament.html

  • Patrick

    Sarah Braasch

    If there is revisionist history there also must be mainstream history from which it deviates. Hannam’s work clearly is in agreement with mainstream scholarship concerning the history of science.

    As for your idea that monotheism is not much different from witchcraft, magic spells and incantations the following scholarly contribution is very informative:

    http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/111.2/pdf/bailey_ahr111.2.pdf

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    As for Western science, it arose in the West, not the East.

    Really? Greeks and Romans were scientists, there were also scientists in the East that came up with things like gunpowder and fireworks, etc.

    Oh, and not to mention that the revival of science in the western world owes a lot to the Muslims that kept learning alive and brought it with them with their excursions into Europe that did quite a bit to pull the Europeans out of the dark ages. Xianity had very little to do with it.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    But there is no passage in the Bible that asks of Christians to seek political power, so Roger Williams certainly was in agreement with the Bible when he established a political order based on the separation of church and state.

    That’s a non sequitor.

    Social justice is an issue that is an integral part of the Bible.

    Only for the in-group of people who are properly following god’s commandments. Not for slaves, minorities, women, etc.

    As for slavery, one has to realize that slavery in the Bible is not necessarily what people nowadays in general understand by it.

    Not that tired apologetic again? Slavery is the owning of another person. The Bible made allowances for fellow Jews to get themselves out of slavery given strict conditions (like not falling in love and marrying another slave) but also left the door open for some vicious cruelties, like beating slaves until they die…so long as they don’t die directly during or after the beating.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    As for your idea that monotheism is not much different from witchcraft, magic spells and incantations the following scholarly contribution is very informative:

    No it’s not, it’s blather. It assumes that belief in gods, power of prayer, wearing crosses etc and hymn singing is qualitatitlvely different from belief in nature spirits, touching wood, or dancing naked around yew trees or wearing pentagrams. It isn’t; it’s still magical thinking and superstition.

  • Samuel

    “As for the Puritans, it was them who in 1649 put an end to a monarchy. They founded a republic that may be called a theocracy.”

    Cromwell established a military dictatorship.

    “But there is no passage in the Bible that asks of Christians to seek political power,”

    The Bible states that certain things are bad, abominations, things that must not be violated to maintain a covenant with God. How else do you enforce this rules? This requires political power or else they aren’t laws, simply moral guidelines.

    “Not that tired apologetic again? ”

    Actually he is saying the bible is refering to indentured servitude. This is an odd stance to take given none of the abolitionists took it. Care to clear up the discrepency Patrick?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah, the other thing I was just thinking about is how the many Xtian scientists/engineers whom I have known justified their science/engineering by saying that they are simply studying God’s creation. (I have a couple of engineering degrees and have worked in the engineering industry.)

    God created all of nature, and there can be no sin in studying God’s creation and applying that knowledge.

    So, they justify their study/work, not because Xtianity excised God from nature, but because God and nature are one.

    I’m not going to address the cognitive dissonance they must feel when they discover/learn science that directly contradicts Xtian/Biblical scripture/doctrine. (Which is, of course, why the Abrahamic religions have waged a war against science, as well as rationality.)

    But, the justification I have heard (and used) is that there can be no discrepancy between God’s creation (nature) and God’s laws.

    But, of course, there are. Plenty of discrepancies.

  • LindaJoy

    Patrick- you are cherry picking the bible to back up your statements. That usually ends badly, as one could easily find a passage to counter yours. Or how about just pointing out that the god of the bible favored people like David and Solomon and never bothered to tell them that being kings or having slaves was a problem.

    If you think that the Puritans ran a representative form of government, you need to do some more digging.

    “But there is no passage in the Bible that asks of Christians to seek political power, so Roger Williams certainly was in agreement with the Bible when he established a political order based on the separation of church and state.”

    If this is true then why is the whole history of Christianity a play by the Catholic Church for political power. It was so from its very inception. Guess they forgot to read the bible while they were busily writing, rewriting and cobbling it together.

    I’m sorry, but I find your apologetics for this book and for the history of Christianity a large stretch of the imagination.

  • Patrick

    “Cromwell established a military dictatorship.”

    You may be right. But the issue was whether or not a monarchy is the only form of government that Christians can accept.

    “The Bible states that certain things are bad, abominations, things that must not be violated to maintain a covenant with God. How else do you enforce this rules? This requires political power or else they aren’t laws, simply moral guidelines.”

    With respect to the Christian Church these rules are enforced by excommunicating transgressors of God’s commandments (Matthew 18:15-18).

    “Actually he is saying the bible is refering to indentured servitude. This is an odd stance to take given none of the abolitionists took it. Care to clear up the discrepency Patrick?”

    I must admit that I’m not familiar enough with the whole issue of abolitionism. But the exposition in the link seems to me to be theologically sound.

    “If you think that the Puritans ran a representative form of government, you need to do some more digging.”

    There was at least one group within Puritanism, called the Levellers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levellers), who indeed strove for a representative form of government. But in general it has to be said that Christianity is compatible with different forms of government. This has to do with the fact that the New Testament to a large extent is silent on the issue, which is no wonder, as Christians had no political power and could not expect to have such power before long. Apart from this Matthew 23:8-12 suggests that Jesus had an egalitarian community of followers in mind, which is certainly very well compatible with the concept of democracy.

    “If this is true then why is the whole history of Christianity a play by the Catholic Church for political power. It was so from its very inception. Guess they forgot to read the bible while they were busily writing, rewriting and cobbling it together.”

    If what you write is true one might argue that this was not the only instance when Christians ignored New Testament commandments. That Christians are not supposed to seek political power can be seen from John 18:36. Besides, the Catholic Church acknowledges that in history there have been acts committed by Catholics that are rightly regarded as morally wrong.

    “But, the justification I have heard (and used) is that there can be no discrepancy between God’s creation (nature) and God’s laws.

    But, of course, there are. Plenty of discrepancies.”

    With respect to the importance of Christianity concerning the rise of modern science it is rather irrelevant what we nowadays think about this issue. Looking at the pioneers of modern science like Kepler or Newton we simply have to accept that for them their scientific work was compatible with their faith.

  • Samuel

    “You may be right. But the issue was whether or not a monarchy is the only form of government that Christians can accept.”

    The government type people can accept is unrelated to religious convictions. What people are arguing about is which is supported by the religion. However, in order to have a state where everyone goes to church on Sunday, you need an autocratic state- otherwise they will play sports.

    “With respect to the Christian Church these rules are enforced by excommunicating transgressors of God’s commandments (Matthew 18:15-18).”

    “Hence-banished is banish’d from the world,
    And world’s exile is death: then banished,”
    -Romeo

    Seriously, kicking someone out of a community in a rural society is a death sentance.

    “There was at least one group within Puritanism, called the Levellers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levellers), who indeed strove for a representative form of government.”

    I believe similar movement popped amoung the Husserite and the Cathers. They generally went the same way as the Republicans in the Spainish Civil War.

    John 18:36 isn’t Jesus talking about policial power, but defending himself against charges of sedition.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Patrick,

    My point wasn’t whether or not Kepler and Newton felt that their scientific work was compatible with their faith (BTW, my understanding is that Newton considered himself a prophet and dabbled in the occult and eschatology.)

    My point is why they felt their work was compatible with Xtianity.

    The idea was floated that Xtianity paved the way for science and secularism by excising divinity from nature.

    I don’t believe that to be true.

    It is my understanding that Newton believed his study of the natural, physical world to be a revelation of the manifestation of God’s plan for his creation.

    Not exactly excision.

  • Sarah Braasch

    And, apparently, after a quick google search, Kepler also thought his scientific work was a revelation of God’s plan for his creation. He considered himself a mystic and an astrologer.

    So, it appears that the birth of modern science in Europe was motivated, at least in part, for some scientists, by a search for God in the natural, physical world, and not because God had been excised from the natural, physical world.

    And, it was a difficult birthing, branded as heresy and apostasy and blasphemy by the theocrats of the day.

  • Sarah Braasch

    So, my ultimate point is:

    What was Xtianity good for?

    I think the answer is pretty clear: nothing.

    So, yes, I do think, as Ebon suggests, that the Occident would have been far better off if we had skipped that whole Xtianity nonsense, which sent humanity into a death spiral from which it barely recovered.

    Damn Constantine and his deathbed conversion.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Patrick,

    I read the Bailey article. I found it very interesting.

    I’m at a bit of a loss as to why you referred me there though, because, as I see it, the Bailey article seems to back up my claims that Medieval European Christendom condemned pagan witchcraft not because they thought it was ineffective, but because they saw it as demonic and a usurpation of the divine authority of Jesus Christ. They didn’t want the people thinking that they could do it for themselves. They didn’t want people thinking that they could heal or save themselves. They wanted them to think that they had to rely upon the church/clergy institution/authority for salvation/healing. So, that sort of blows the whole “Xtianity ushered in concepts of democracy” theory out of the water.

    So, they still believed in the power of manipulating spirits/energies in the natural world, but they just thought the “witches” were worshipping the wrong gods.

    Being an atheist, I don’t see much difference in calling upon the elemental spirit of fire in the south corner, or the moon goddess, or Jesus Christ or angels or saints. Or Satan himself to do your bidding.

    It’s all ceremonial magick.

    And, the Bailey article also confirms that Medieval European Christendom shed their beliefs in magick, not because this was orthodox Xtian doctrine, but as the result of outside pressures from the growing movement of scientific rationalism. To be fair, the Bailey article does say that they were also trying to distance themselves from pagan witchcraft, which they had labeled as demonic. But, they were troubled by their own use of ceremonial magick, which they had condemned as demonic when performed by witches.

    So, the idea that Xtianity paved the way for science and secularism by excising divinity from nature is sort of silly.

    I don’t think it holds water.

  • Patrick

    “The idea was floated that Xtianity paved the way for science and secularism by excising divinity from nature.”

    It was not me who brought up this idea, but Gaius Sempronius Grachus. He wrote:

    “By the way, in the 1960s I studied an interesting development in German Protestant theology known at the time – at least to us English speakers – as “secularization theory.”

    The view developed included the claim that the triumph of Christianity in the West indispensably set the stage for the development of Western science as well as the broader eventual secularization of culture through the de-sacralization of nature – the expulsion of the gods from nature into the supernatural.

    [...]

    But the Protestant partisans of secularization theory saw the de-sacralization of nature, the growth and power of Western science, and whole cultural heritage of the Enlightenment as valuable, though of course unintended, results of the triumph of Christianity in the West.”

    The underlying concept of this idea seems to be “the disenchantment of the world”, as proposed by Max Weber, and I think it should at least be given some consideration. Maybe instead of “excising divinity from nature” one had better speak of “rejecting the idea that nature is animated and that occult forces work within it”.

    The latter idea was very popular among learned men in the late Middle Ages and up to the 17th century. The respective concept is usually called “natural magic”. Famous adherents of this concept were Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525), Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), Paracelsus (1493-1541), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) and Robert Fludd (1574-1637). Also influenced by it were Kepler and Newton.

    Very supportive of the case of natural magic was the discovery of the “Corpus Hermeticum”, a body of pagan writings from late Antiquity, in the second half of the 15th century. As can be seen from Kepler and Newton you could be a devout Christian and at the same time embrace natural magic. But there were Christians who totally rejected it due to its atheistic implications. For those interested in the respective debates the following book is very informative:

    Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450-1750, Atlantic Highlands 1980.

    This rejection of natural magic made many Christians receptive of the mechanical philosophy developed in the 17th century. This can be seen from the following quote from page 111 of Easlea’s book:

    “The mechanical philosophers of the seventeenth century took the audacious step of declaring matter to be totally inert, completely devoid of any interesting property. Thus René Descartes (1596-1650) spoke for all mechanical philosophers when he declared categorically that ‘there exist no occult forces in stones or plants, no amazing and marvellous sympathies and antipathies, in fact there exists nothing in the whole nature which cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes, totally devoid of mind and thought’. For Descartes all natural phenomena were explicable solely in terms of the sizes and shapes and velocities of particles, the latter solely by the property of extension. The consequences of such a viewpoint are dramatic.

    At a stroke the claims of natural magicians are demolished. Occult phenomena are either not real or they have mechanical explanations. The subversive connotations of natural magic therefore take, by association, a battering as well. The mechanical philosophy, however, does not have the atheistic implications of natural magic for the miracles described in the Bible can in no way be explained in mechanical terms. Moreover, since matter, according to the mechanical philosophers, is entirely devoid of sentience and consciousness, the reasoning powers of the human mind can likewise in no way be interpreted as a property of matter. Hence it follows that the mind must be immaterial, undoubtedly a gift from God, and is immortal. Certainly, orthodox theologians, still looking to Aristotle, would reject such a philosophy but less conservative Catholics would recognize these and, indeed, further advantages.”

    As mentioned above Descartes was a devout Christian, and his mechanical philosophy certainly contributed to “the disenchantment of the world”. What may be called the “scientific worldview” is certainly closer to Descartes’ mechanical philosophy than to the concept of natural magic.

    To better understand the concept of “the disenchantment of the world”, let’s look at the following stages from an “enchanted” to a totally “disenchanted” world.

    1) Natural magic: The universe is animated. It is like a huge living being. One can influence it by means of magic. Apart from it there can be supernatural beings intervening in it.
    2) Traditional Christian viewpoint: Except for living beings, the universe is inanimated. One cannot influence it by means of magic. Apart from it there are supernatural beings intervening in it.
    3) Deism: God created the universe, which is, except for living beings, inanimated. No supernatural being, not even God, intervenes in it.
    4) Naturalism: The universe came into being without being caused by a supernatural being. It is totally inanimated, even life can be reduced to mindless natural forces.

    From this one can see that the traditional Christian viewpoint is a step towards disenchantment. It might be argued that stage 2 provided better conditions for the rise of science than stage 1. It might moreover be argued that stage 2 provides better conditions for the rise of atheism, and it may not be a coincidence that atheism has especially well flourished in the Judeo-Christian culture.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    …and it may not be a coincidence that atheism has especially well flourished in the Judeo-Christian culture.

    You mean when Xians weren’t killing atheists for their heresies or because other cultures still engage in such practices now and the Xians have since been made to deal with our existence?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Patrick,

    Forgive me, but I have to say that I think this is simply playing with language and definitions to assuage consciences and serve political power plays, much as is described in the Bailey article.

    The Bailey article describes the protracted exercise of the Medieval European Xtian apologists who were trying to distance themselves from pagan witchcraft.

    So, they tried to say that the ceremonial magick employed by witches wasn’t effective in and of itself, because the Xtians were also employing ceremonial magick, and they didn’t want to “demonize” their own practices, as they were demonizing the witches’ practices in ceremonial magick.

    So, they said that the effectiveness of the ceremonial magick employed by witches was the result of their pact with the devil and demons, just as the ceremonial magick employed by Xtians was effective, because of the pact between Xtians and God.

    So, in effect, they were still saying that the ceremonial magick was effective and real and naturally occurring in the real world on this plane and planet in nature, in the material, physical world, but that it was animated by gods, and the witches and pagans were simply worshipping the wrong gods.

    So, forgive me, but removing the source of power one level to gods, is a mind trick.

    The Medieval European Xtians still believed that they could call upon their spirits to influence the natural, physical, material world.

    And, this is different from pagan witchcraft how exactly?

    Yeah, it isn’t.

    Unless you’ve convinced yourself that it is, because that serves your belief system.

    The fact that some scientists were Xtians is no more informative on the subject than the fact that Hypatia was a pagan.

    Obviously Descartes was able to ignore Xtian dogma in his scientific work, at least partially.

    Thank God he was able to do so.

    He was obviously not influenced in his scientific thinking by Xtian dogma.

    Kepler and Newton, as I mentioned, were actually looking for God in their scientific study, in nature.

    They also practiced and believed decidedly unorthodox beliefs, regardless of professing to be Xtians.

    And? So?

    I remain unconvinced that Xtianity paved the way for science and secularism because it disenchanted the natural world and that this wouldn’t have occurred without Xtianity.

    Saying goddidit and calling upon god to do your bidding is no different than calling upon the elemental spirit of fire in the south corner or the moon goddess to do your bidding.

    And, the larger point is that humanity was already on this path towards a human civilization based upon scientific rationalism, during Antiquity.

    And, that that path was set back by millennia by Xtianity.

    That we found that path again, through much struggle and toil, and despite the efforts of Xtianity to keep humanity blinded and groping in the dark with the rats, and to keep women in a perpetual state of sex slavery, is no commendation for Xtianity, of that I am convinced.

    In tort law, in negligence cases, there are two types of causation, and both are necessary to say that someone behaved negligently and can be held civilly, not criminally, responsible for someone else’s injury.

    Actual causation (but for causation) and proximate causation (reasonably foreseeable causation).

    Xtianity doesn’t meet either of these tests for having “caused” secularism and science.

    Do you really think you can say that but for Xtianity, humanity would never have achieved secularism and science?

    I think I can say that but for Xtianity, humanity would have achieved secularism and science centuries, if not millennia before it was able to do so, And, it is still struggling to establish scientific rationalism as the dominant worldview. This is by no means the case. Much of humanity would like to see us back in the Dark Ages with the rats. A lot of them are Xtians.

    Also, do you really think you can say that it was reasonably foreseeable that Xtianity’s alleged “disenchantment” of the natural world (even if I concede this point), done for anti-democratic political purposes, would result in establishing secularism and science?

    I think you have a tough row to hoe if you want to make either of those claims.

    So, sorry, but as a lawyer, I would say that you have met neither of these tests, and you cannot reasonably claim that Xtianity is “responsible” for secularism and science.

  • LindaJoy

    Patrick says “Besides, the Catholic Church acknowledges that in history there have been acts committed by Catholics that are rightly regarded as morally wrong.”

    The Catholic Church to my knowledge has NEVER admitted any wrong doing in terms of their history of politcal power grabbing. In fact they are still at it.. in the US they Catholic Bishops are whispering in the ears of the White House and Congress trying to influence legislation, most recently with the health care law.

    “It might moreover be argued that stage 2 provides better conditions for the rise of atheism, and it may not be a coincidence that atheism has especially well flourished in the Judeo-Christian culture.”

    So now besides giving Christianity the credit for the growth of science and democracy, you are saying that it should also get the credit for the rise of atheism? Have you not read any of the pagan atheists? Try Epicurus.

    So what will you suggest next that we bow down and thank Christianity for “giving us”????

    Really Patrick. Enough is enough.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Well said, OMGF and LindaJoy.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Patrick,

    This is how I see your argument:

    I broke something. Deliberately and purposefully and purposely, because I thought the tooth fairy told me to do so.

    Then, also because I thought I was serving the tooth fairy, I accidentally glued two pieces of the thing I had broken back together, while I was doing something else, in my efforts to serve the tooth fairy.

    And, now I want to claim that I deserve accolades, because I made possible the gluing back together of the two pieces of the thing that I had purposefully and purposely shattered into fragments to begin with.

    Sorry, but even my pet monkey knows that that is bogus.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    And, that that path was set back by millennia by Xtianity.

    That we found that path again, through much struggle and toil, and despite the efforts of Xtianity to keep humanity blinded and groping in the dark with the rats, and to keep women in a perpetual state of sex slavery, is no commendation for Xtianity, of that I am convinced.

    And a “Well said,” right back at ya, especially for the bit quoted above.

  • Patrick

    “That’s a non sequitor.”

    Why does from the fact that Christians are not supposed to seek political not follow that the separation of church and state is legitimate?

    “Only for the in-group of people who are properly following god’s commandments. Not for slaves, minorities, women, etc.”

    This is not correct. The Mosaic Law contains regulations protecting foreigners, women and slaves (Exodus 22:21-23, 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 23:15-16, 24:17-22, 27:19). As for the latter see also the link I referred to earlier.

    “So, it appears that the birth of modern science in Europe was motivated, at least in part, for some scientists, by a search for God in the natural, physical world, and not because God had been excised from the natural, physical world.”

    That’s exactly the point people like Hannam make.

    “And, it was a difficult birthing, branded as heresy and apostasy and blasphemy by the theocrats of the day.”

    From the review of Hannam’s book referred to above you may see that this is a myth.

    “Damn Constantine and his deathbed conversion.”

    I assume Christianity would have gained influence anyway, as it had been growing before Constantine’s conversion. It may well have been the fact that Christianity had grown so much that it could no longer be ignored.

    “The government type people can accept is unrelated to religious convictions. What people are arguing about is which is supported by the religion. However, in order to have a state where everyone goes to church on Sunday, you need an autocratic state- otherwise they will play sports.”

    Who says that everyone has to go to church? Is the USA an autocratic state? As far as I know almost half of the population go to church regularly instead of playing sports.

    “So, they still believed in the power of manipulating spirits/energies in the natural world, but they just thought the “witches” were worshipping the wrong gods.”

    That’s exactly what they did NOT believe. According to them it was not men who could manipulate spirits, but spirits deceived men by having them believe that they could manipulate spirits.

    “And, the Bailey article also confirms that Medieval European Christendom shed their beliefs in magick, not because this was orthodox Xtian doctrine, but as the result of outside pressures from the growing movement of scientific rationalism.”

    Nowhere does the article say this. The rejection of all magic as something demonic went back at least to St. Augustine (354-430) and was not caused by “scientific rationalism”, but was rooted in the Christian concept of God.

    “To be fair, the Bailey article does say that they were also trying to distance themselves from pagan witchcraft, which they had labeled as demonic. But, they were troubled by their own use of ceremonial magick, which they had condemned as demonic when performed by witches.”

    Bailey indeed points out that there was some inconsistency with respect to the theologians’ evaluation of magic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    From the Bailey article:

    It would be left to the Enlightenment to
    shift the terms of debate decidedly, reconfiguring superstition as an irrational rather
    than an improper act. “Magical” rites were no longer condemned because they represented
    a perverse redirecting of “religious” devotion toward demons rather than
    toward the deity. Instead they were derided, along with much formally “religious” ritual, as silly and nonsensical.91 Thus the elaborate parsing of proper and improper
    rites and the convoluted considerations of how they might or might not interact with
    supernatural entities that had plagued centuries past suddenly became unnecessary,
    at least for those who considered themselves enlightened.
    The fifteenth century was, then, neither an end nor a beginning in terms of “magical
    thought” or “disenchantment” in Europe. It was, instead, part of a profoundly
    gradual transition whereby foundational Christian beliefs about the functioning of
    religio-magical rites shifted ultimately to the enlightened rejection (never fully realized
    in the eighteenth or subsequent centuries) of all “magic” and much traditional
    “religion.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    Also from the Bailey article:

    Attempting to reinforce their construction of witchcraft as utterly and absolutely
    diabolical, late medieval witchcraft theorists emphasized traditional Christian doctrine
    that magic operated through demonic agency, not any inherent power in the
    spell or the human spell-caster.89 They thus reveal an element of “disenchantment”
    buried at the heart of medieval notions of “magic” itself. Yet they also reveal the
    dilemma that such disenchantment presented to Christian thinkers, since it impinged
    on “religious” as well as “magical” rites. For all that Protestantism constructed a new
    theology of religious ritual, still throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
    this tension endured. Indeed, while Protestant authorities regarded the medieval
    church as profoundly superstitious, their basic definition of superstition as deformed
    or misdirected worship was essentially medieval, and they remained deeply troubled
    by what R. W. Scribner so aptly termed the “twilight-zone” of spells, charms, and
    potential superstitions that lay between entirely legitimate ecclesiastical rite and
    wholly condemned demonic witchcraft.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Also from the Bailey article:

    Hell, just read it for yourselves.

    (Patrick, I suggest you reread it.)

    http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/111.2/pdf/bailey_ahr111.2.pdf

    I think I’ve made my points clear.

    So, I’ll bid everybody adieu.

    Good discussion.

    Really enjoyed it.

  • Patrick

    “So, they tried to say that the ceremonial magick employed by witches wasn’t effective in and of itself, because the Xtians were also employing ceremonial magick, and they didn’t want to “demonize” their own practices, as they were demonizing the witches’ practices in ceremonial magick.

    So, they said that the effectiveness of the ceremonial magick employed by witches was the result of their pact with the devil and demons, just as the ceremonial magick employed by Xtians was effective, because of the pact between Xtians and God.”

    The problem for the theologians was not so much the “black magic” employed by witches, as it was quite clear that it had nothing to do with the legitimate rituals of the church. Rather it was the “white magic” employed by the common folk that bothered them, as it was deemed illicit, but in practice often difficult to distinguish from the rituals of the church. It’s just this rejection of any kind of magic, whether benevolent or malevolent, which seems to be a unique feature of Christianity and which may be responsible for the fact that “the disenchantment of the world” has been particularly thorough in the Western world.

    “Unless you’ve convinced yourself that it is, because that serves your belief system.”

    It’s not the aim of historical inquiry to serve one’s belief or unbelief system, but rather to come as close as possible to historical truth. The review of Hannam’s book to which I referred earlier was written by an atheist, and he acknowledges the importance of Christianity with respect to the rise of modern science, simply because there is good evidence for this view.

    Even if Christianity contributed to the rise of modern science, this doesn’t prove that Christianity is true and that’s why the reviewer can still remain an atheist. In general the truth of a viewpoint does not depend on the effect the respective viewpoint has had. This also applies e.g. to Darwinism, which especially in the form of “Social Darwinism” had rather appalling effects.

    “I remain unconvinced that Xtianity paved the way for science and secularism because it disenchanted the natural world and that this wouldn’t have occurred without Xtianity.”

    But it is a fact that modern science and secularism are phenomena that exclusively arose in Christian Europe, and one has to account for this fact.

    “And, the larger point is that humanity was already on this path towards a human civilization based upon scientific rationalism, during Antiquity.

    And, that that path was set back by millennia by Xtianity.”

    The idea that in Antiquity the sciences flourished and that Christianity put an end to this development is without any foundation. As for the achievements of Greek science, James Hannam writes (http://newhumanist.org.uk/2441/in-defence-of-gods-philosophers):

    “Returning to ancient Greek science: while we can laud its achievements, we cannot escape the fact that modern science arose in Western Europe in the early modern era, not in Athens or Alexandria. A dispassionate look at Greek science finds no signs of it making the conceptual leap necessary to achieve a “scientific revolution”. The most inventive period was over by 200BC and much less progress was made after this date until the start of the Christian era in 500AD … . What is remarkable is that we find Hero of Alexandria (writing in about 50AD) parroting Aristotle’s assertion from 300BC that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Hero also took his explanation of the vacuum from Strato of Lampsacus who lived three hundred years previously. Ptolemy (fl. 150AD) was a fine mathematician, but made few original advances in astronomy. The title of his book Almagest means “The Great” in Arabic, but it was called simply Mathematical Synthesis in Greek. That is exactly what it was.

    Galen, a famous physician of the second century AD, wrote an enormous amount but it is hard to see how he advanced the clinical effectiveness of medicine one iota. The essential theory he adopted, on the balance of the humours, was six hundred years old and had not become any less wrong in the meantime. He was also unable to dissect humans and so made a serious of mistakes in anatomy that it would take 1,300 years to correct.”

    What Hannam writes is general consensus among classical scholars. In his book “The Ancient Greeks: An Introduction to Their Life and Thought” (London 1963) classical scholar M. I. Finley states that after some remarkable scientific achievements there was a lack of scientific progress in the Greek culture and that this stagnation set in at the end of the 3rd century BC. He puts it down to an “aristocratic” attitude among the intellectual elite, according to which dealing with practical matters was regarded as something inferior.

    The same reason for the lack of scientific progress in Antiquity is given in the following article, written by Bjørn Are Davidsen, to which I already referred earlier:

    http://www.telektronikk.com/volumes/pdf/2.2004/Page_005-025.pdf

    “Also, do you really think you can say that it was reasonably foreseeable that Xtianity’s alleged “disenchantment” of the natural world (even if I concede this point), done for anti-democratic political purposes, would result in establishing secularism and science?”

    It might at least have been helpful.

    “So now besides giving Christianity the credit for the growth of science and democracy, you are saying that it should also get the credit for the rise of atheism? Have you not read any of the pagan atheists? Try Epicurus.”

    The same pattern as with science applies here. I’m aware that there were atheists in Ancient Greece or in Ancient India. But it was only in Christian Europe that a considerable atheistic movement arose and not in Ancient Greece and not in Ancient India. Why is this the case? It might have to do something with the process of “the disenchantment of the world”, initiated by Christianity. But this is just a hypothesis. If anyone can present a more plausible reason for this development I’m eager to learn about it. But one explanation can definitely be ruled out, namely that in Antiquity science and secularism were very much advanced and that the victory of Christianity resulted in a setback with respect to it.

  • lpetrich

    On early modern scientists being “devout”, it often seems that they are only “devout” because propagandists like them — an inverse of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Some early modern scientists did have religious interests, as can be judged from their heretical opinions.

    Sir Isaac Newton denied the Trinity and wrote an enormous amount on interpretation of Biblical prophecies. He was also interested in Biblical chronology, hoping to correlate the Bible’s history with such events as the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.

    Blaise Pascal was interested in science, but mostly in his earlier years. After he narrowly survived a horse-and-carriage accident, he had an intense religious vision and he dumped his scientific work for his religious interests. He was a Jansenist, a sort-of-Calvinist Catholic; the Vatican decreed that Jansenism was heretical.

  • Patrick

    When atheists attack religion they apply two strategies: Either they warn against its apparent or actual dangers, or they make fun of it. As with the attitude towards charms and spells Christian theologians of the medieval and early modern period pointed to the dangers of such practices, which were an integral part of what might be called popular religion, whereas atheists and deists in the Enlightenment era derided them. Is it so far-fetched to assume that the attitude of Christian theologians could contribute at least as much to the decline of such practices and with it (unintentionally) to the rise of secularism as the attitude of the former?

  • Patrick

    “Seriously, kicking someone out of a community in a rural society is a death sentance.”

    At least until the 4th century I don’t think that excommunication had this effect. From later periods I know of no example when this happened. Had the Cathars, the Waldensians or the Anabaptists only been excommunicated and not in addition to this persecuted, I don’t think that this would have caused much harm for them.

    “I believe similar movement popped amoung the Husserite and the Cathers. They generally went the same way as the Republicans in the Spainish Civil War.”

    This is a good point. If a certain viewpoint turns out to be successful, this is not necessarily due to the persuasive force of it, but can also be the result of the fact that its supporters have the means to suppress opposing viewpoints. This, by the way, not only applies to religious viewpoints. Consequently, the fact that within Christianity a certain viewpoint failed to succeed does not necessarily mean that it was because it was incompatible with Christianity.

    “John 18:36 isn’t Jesus talking about policial power, but defending himself against charges of sedition.”

    This implies that Jesus was not honest, an idea that Christians certainly would never accept. That early Christians did not seek to gain political influence can be seen from Acts 13:4-12. This passage suggests that the apostle Paul didn’t make any use of his relationship with a political leader.

  • Patrick

    In his “Confessions” St. Augustine (354-430), who was a contemporary of Hypatia, wrote the following words, which let the idea that Christians in Late Antiquity rejected science appear questionable (source: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2006/11/science-and-medieval-christianity.html):

    “I had read a great many scientific books which were still alive in my memory. When I compared them with the tedious tales of the Manichees it seemed to me that, of the two, the theories of the scientists were the more likely to be true … The reason and understanding by which they investigate these things are gifts they have from you. By means of them they have discovered much and foretold eclipses of the sun and moon many years before they happened. These powers are a source of wonder and astonishment to men who do not know the secrets.”

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Why does from the fact that Christians are not supposed to seek political not follow that the separation of church and state is legitimate?

    I don’t concede that Xians are not supposed to seek political power, but either way it’s a non sequitor because not seeking political power doesn’t necessarily lead to a secular state that has a church/state separation. The Xian system is set up as a divine right with leaders selected by god to rule over their subjects using the Xian laws, as outlined throughout the OT. Nowhere does god endorse or set up a secular democracy.

    This is not correct. The Mosaic Law contains regulations protecting foreigners, women and slaves (Exodus 22:21-23, 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 23:15-16, 24:17-22, 27:19). As for the latter see also the link I referred to earlier.

    Actually, it is correct. The OT and NT clearly outline inferior roles for women and subjugation as one example. The slavery rules set up only applied to fellow Jews as well, meaning that only fellow Jews had to be released every seven years (and only if they didn’t do something like fall in love with a fellow slave). The rules are quite clearly meant to apply to the in-group, not all of humanity.

    That’s exactly what they did NOT believe. According to them it was not men who could manipulate spirits, but spirits deceived men by having them believe that they could manipulate spirits.

    As if that makes a difference? It’s still a natural magic/superstition event.

    Nowhere does the article say this. The rejection of all magic as something demonic went back at least to St. Augustine (354-430) and was not caused by “scientific rationalism”, but was rooted in the Christian concept of God.

    Because transubstantiation is not magical? C’mon.

    But it is a fact that modern science and secularism are phenomena that exclusively arose in Christian Europe, and one has to account for this fact.

    Only if you strictly define “modern science” to mean the science that was undertaken in the modern west after a certain period. Of course, this ignores all the scientific achievements of earlier periods, including the Muslims who brought their scientific achievements with them when they invaded Europe and actually pulled the Xian west out of the dark ages.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    The same pattern as with science applies here. I’m aware that there were atheists in Ancient Greece or in Ancient India. But it was only in Christian Europe that a considerable atheistic movement arose and not in Ancient Greece and not in Ancient India. Why is this the case?

    Numerous factors really. Part of it was the rise in wealth that afforded the opportunity for people to live in more comfortable surrounds and gain more education. Education is a huge factor in people shrugging off the shackles of superstitious myths as is wealth.

    But one explanation can definitely be ruled out, namely that in Antiquity science and secularism were very much advanced and that the victory of Christianity resulted in a setback with respect to it.

    No, that can’t be ruled out, because it’s pretty well true. Xianity did set things back and we only see a return to prominence of science and such after re-introduction from outside sources and the development of a middle class and education for more of the populace. These things were hampered by a Xian church that sought to keep their subjects ignorant and in obeisance.

    When atheists attack religion they apply two strategies: Either they warn against its apparent or actual dangers, or they make fun of it.

    We also point out the logical inconsistencies and contradictions, but OK.

    Is it so far-fetched to assume that the attitude of Christian theologians could contribute at least as much to the decline of such practices and with it (unintentionally) to the rise of secularism as the attitude of the former?

    You’re engaging in special pleading here. The magic practices of the competing religious ideas were derided by the Xians, so therefore they derided magic….except for the magic that they accepted and pushed for, which shouldn’t count for some reason because?

  • LindaJoy

    Patrick said, “That early Christians did not seek to gain political influence can be seen from Acts 13:4-12. This passage suggests that the apostle Paul didn’t make any use of his relationship with a political leader.”

    That’s because Paul knew he’d be thrown in jail if he tried to cultivate such a relationship. He was a terrible troublemaker and probably one of the main reasons the Roman government harshly suppressed the early Christians. At that point in time, the multitude of pagan religions generally got along fairly well. The pushy Christian cults, like the one Paul represented, caused civil strife by boldly condemning the pagan and other Jewish groups by basically telling them that Paul’s group had the ONLY true god and everyone else was condemned. When you hear that shouted on the street corners, you tend to get a bit annoyed.

    The only reason that Paul’s form of Christianity (there were many Christian cults, gnostics,etc.) won out was because they were highly agressive and willing eventually to not only kill and plunder pagans, but also the other Christian/Jewish groups. They were the loudest, and caught the attention of Constantine, who saw them as militaristic (up his alley) and a potentially powerful group to co-opt. So he did (while secretly continuing his allegiance to Mithra).

    So I don’t get all your ramblings, book based or not, about Christianity’s “contributions” to science, etc. Anyone who has studied the roots of this religion, the Catholic Church’s history, the Protestant movements, etc. etc. can plainly see that this religion worked to the detriment of the advancement and progress of mankind. It won out by sheer violence and persecution and most of all by alligning itself or puppeteering western governments. Europe is mostly secular now because of their reaction against Christianity. If you want to use that as a reason to say that Christianity can take credit for the rise of atheism, then go ahead. It’s a rather back door way of assigning credit though, as are all your other arguments.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it’s taken to regain it.

    Regardless as to whether Christianity played a role positive, negative or none at all with respect to the emergence of modern science, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to think that we would have sent astronauts into space centuries ago if it weren’t for the rise of Christianity. Sagan’s commentary aside, Hypatia’s brutal murder did not usher in a scientific dark age.

    H.G. Wells, in his work The Outline of History, offered these observations about Alexandria:

    [Alexandria's] Museum and Library were a centre of light, but it was a light in a dark lantern hidden from the general world. There were no means of carrying its results even to sympathetic men abroad except by tedious letter writing. Students had to come at great costs to themselves to this crowded centre because there was no other way of gathering even scraps of knowledge. At Athens and Alexandria there were bookstalls where manuscript note-books of variable quality could be bought at reasonable prices, but any extension of education to larger classes and other centres would have produced at once a restrictive shortage of papyrus. Education did not reach into the masses at all…

    As for the Roman attitude towards science, he noted:

    If, for instance, we compare the two centurise of Roman ascendancy and opportunity, the first and second centuries A.D., with the two centuries of Greek and Hellenic life beginning about 466 B.C….we are amazed by – we cannot call it an inferiority, it is a complete absence of science. The incuriousness of the Roman rich and the Roman rulers was more massive and monumental even than their architecture.

    Roman science was still-born into a suffocating atmosphere of wealth and military oppression. The true figure to represent the classical Roman attitude to science is not Lucretius, but that Roman soldier who hacked Archimedes to death at the storming of Syracuse.

    Four hundred years before the Antonines, Hero of Alexandria had made the first steam-engine. Beautiful records of such beginnings were among the neglected treasures of the rich men’s libraries throughout the imperial domains. They were seed lying on stony ground. The armies and couriers of Marcus Aurelius drudged along the roads exactly as the armies of Scipio Africanus had done three centuries before them.

    During the period referred to as the “Pax Romana,” there do not appear to have been any attempts by the Romans to circumnavigate Africa or to explore the Atlantic, for example. So, before Christianity had risen to dominance in Europe, the Roman Empire was already in a scientific Dark Ages. Any potential it might have had was lost in the third century, when the empire was wracked with endless civil wars and barbarian invasions.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Sure, we can argue about where we might or might not be by now, if Europe had never been afflicted with Xtianity. The point being — we’ll never know. We’re still fighting against the Xtians who would like nothing more than to see all of humanity groveling on its knees, in the putrefying, stupefying darkness, with the rats.

    (I do just want to say — that having just lived in Italy for half a year and having toured most of the amazing cities and architecture and civil engineering (aqueducts, roads, municipal plumbing systems and baths) marvels of the ancient Romans, I take some issue with the idea that the Romans were incurious and complacent. They also advanced human civilization in so many other fields, including law.)

    But, I think there can be little doubt that, on so many levels, human civilization (at least in the West) regressed back into its feudal, tribal infancy during the Dark Ages, and that this was directly attributable to the oppressive, totalitarian, misogynistic, authoritarian, patriarchal, superstitious, tribalistic, monotheistic Abrahamic cults, including Xtianity.

    The Abrahamic cults reduce humanity to its lowest common denominator. They exemplify humanity at its most venal, its most tribal, its most fear-based, its most ethnocentric, its most war-mongering, its most racist, and its most misogynistic self.

    Just look at the civilizations in China for an example of what could have been possible, if Europe had never been afflicted with Xtianity.

    As Christopher Hitchens likes to note, while backwards, misogynistic bronze age desert tribes in the Middle East were praying to burning bushes, the precursors to the modern day Chinese were making paper and writing tomes and making gun powder and could read.

    Even in the MidEast, the civilizations that preceded the Abrahamic cults were incredibly more advanced. The Sumerians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians.

    Sure, Islam did protect some of that knowledge, in ways that Xtianity did not, knowledge, some of which was later retrieved from Muslims during the Crusades. Xtianity seemed intent on razing the earth of all rational thought.

    As a woman, I can only dream of what might have been.

    I still have to fight against the Christianists in the US who would like to enshrine my sub-human status into US federal law and who would like to impose Christian Sharia upon all women living in the United States. (Don’t even get me started on the status of women in the Muslim majority parts of the globe.)

    No one is praising the irrational beliefs of the pagans/nature religions of Mediterranean and European Antiquity.

    But, the Abrahamic cults have been a pox on humanity. We’re still suffering their ill effects in the most horrendous ways.

    There is something particularly heinous about patriarchal tribal monotheism that has had and continues to have extremely deleterious effects on human civilization. (I think humanity would have been far better off if we had just stuck with the pantheism/animism of the pagan/nature religions. I think we were outgrowing them, and I think we would have outgrown them. And, they didn’t demonize women and stratify humanity into in group (humans) and out group (sub-humans) in the way that patriarchal, tribal monotheism did and does.)

    In fact, I think it is killing us and will succeed in killing us.

    And, no, I don’t think that is hyperbole.

    When I look around the globe, and I see what is happening, or when I am fighting in the US for fully human status, when I am fighting against Christianists who want to turn me into a sex slave and impose Christian Sharia upon me and deny me my sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights, and then someone tries to tell me that Xtianity is responsible and deserves praise for the tenuous and precarious existence of secularism and scientific rationalism, which it has never stopped trying to destroy, not to mention atheism and women’s rights, it makes me want to puke.

  • LindaJoy

    Tommykey- thanks for your interesting additions to the conversation.

    Sarah- excellent points. What is happening in America is simply abhorent. The lastest salvo against women bubbling up in Congress concerns rape. There is truly a horrible misogynistic movement in our government, and I think it’s time for Obama to get his head out of the faith based sand and pay attention. Maybe Michelle will do it for him???

  • Rollingforest

    I watched Agora and thought the movie was great! I submitted the following review to Netflix which should be posted on the Agora page there in a day or two. Hopefully my review can (honestly) suggest reasons why this movie should be viewed by the mainstream:

    “There are those who complain about this movie, but I think, first of all, it should be remembered that this is a movie, not a church. You shouldn’t expect everything to fit your views exactly. Second of all, if you have to find a message in this film, it would be the dangers of Fundamentalism. The Christians, the Pagans, and the Jews all have some members who are violent in this movie. Contrary to what other reviews said, there are Christians in this movie who are presented positively, including some of the slaves and some of the students who are Christian. This should be watched as a historical movie, not as an attempt to prove one religion or the other correct.

    Other than that, I loved the acting and I was amazed by the way the director was able to create scenery shots of the city that showed miles of city but only showed buildings from the time period. Contrary to what another reviewer said, I actually feel that this did a wonderful job creating a feeling of the viewer actually being part of this world. “

  • DocLJSS

    I had been looking forward to watching this film for several years and about halfway through I was sorely disappointed. The film is not well researched historically. It is also about as fundamentalistically tendentious in its presentation of the events and the characters as the fanatics it purports to be the majoritarian representational group of the time. The portrayal of Cyril of Alexandria is virtually reconstructed from a tedious lie reiterated ad nauseam in contemporary society, namely, that any and every Christian figure of authority was a power-hungry bastard for whom nothing was inconsistent which was expedient. As difficult as the critics may find it to believe, the scarcity of sources on Cyril’s life and actions make any kind of portrayal of his character and life largely fictitious. What we have left of him are his main treatises debating with certain minoritarian (and rather incoherent, for the most part) views about Christology and Trinitarian theology (i.e., On the Unity of Christ, and On the Holy Trinity). Given his rhetorical method in these two works, it is difficult to envision him being quite the tyrant as portrayed by those who have no evident knowledge of a remarkable bishop’s work.

    My other main issue with the film was its portrayal of the varying communities to be about as flat as some among them believed the world to be. It seemed to fit Jews, Pagans, and Christians into a very nice, neat, and painfully simplistic mold of mindlessness and fanatic aggression. The relations among Jews, Pagans, and Christians were actually rather decent after the Constantinian era and even when Julian the Apostate (361-363) took over, he didn’t impose any particularly harsh penalties on Christians or Jews. We have sufficient historical cases of such relative harmony, of which Dura Europos is one incontrovertible example.

    Furthermore, contemporary detractors of monotheistic religion (because yes, atheism is also its own religion and not without its rather large, superstitious, largely ignorant, and frequently fanatic, although utterly disorganized, isolated, and therefore inefficient base) people somehow conflate (without the slightest warrant) the rise of Christianity with the Dark Ages, which is about as narrow as it is wrong and certainly demonstrative of most people’s epistemic and intellectual dark ages today. While it is true that the Roman Empire in the West was not particularly in its heyday after the Goths conquered it in 476, there was still substantial intellectual growth afterward, in fact, significantly more than there had been under what was an admittedly stalwart and infertile pagan leadership during the pre-Constantinian era (just see E.R. Dodds “Pagan and Christian in the Age of Anxiety”). The West in general, though, was already on a strong decline that had little to do with Christianity. Between Marcus Aurelius’ death in 180 and Constantine’s consolidation of his power after Licinius’ death in 324, the Roman Empire suffered an epidemic of civil revolts, coups, and murderous praetorian guards (this is why Constantine disbanded the praetorians and instituted the scholae palatinae) that left the Empire in total bankruptcy after more than seventy emperors ruled in a period of about 150 years, with weakened defenses in the Western lands, and a frail infrastructure that could do little to rescue what had once been the glory of Rome. So many often fail to recognize the incontrovertible fact that Christianity in some very evident ways was exactly the vehicle that preserved culture and tradition, the great works of Homer, and Plato, and Plotinus, and many others, after the Western half of the Empire fell. It seems as if people didn’t know that there was such a thing as the Byzantine State up until 1453 and it is because of that (certainly Christian) empire that science, rationality, historiography, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and so many other legacies of the Aeolic and Attic periods were not only preserved but advanced in great proportion.

    Another major problem with the film, and consonant with its fundamentalist and myopic view of history, was the treatment of the Alexandrian Library. First of all, there were several non-adjacent buildings that constituted the Library and only one of the smaller ones was attached to the Serapeum. The alleged destruction of the Library in 391 by a Christian mob was a distortion and addition to the best accounts we have. The Serapeum itself did not fare well, of this we are sure, since a few historians comment on this. But the idea that the crowd would burn philosophical documents is certainly misplaced given that at the same time many Christian incipient monastic communities (right next door, as well as at the refectory of the Mausoleum of Constansa, as well as at Annesi in modern day Turkey, and a good number of other scriptoria) would be commissioned with the copying of such works, particularly the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and the other greats of the pre-Christian Greek world and, of course, the Scriptures, and the more valuable treatises penned by Christians. Rather, the early Christian and post-Apostolic age attitude toward pagan philosophy is probably gleaned best by actual Christians in Alexandria, like Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Cyril. All of these, among hundreds of other great early Christian teachers, were thoroughly versed in Platonic, Pythagorean, Cynic, Aristotelian, and Stoic philosophy. They often used their works to explain a point and employed their categories to elucidate problems. The portrayal of Cyril as a fanatic who would have instigated a crowd to the deeds portrayed in the film shows an impardonable neglect of primary sources of the era, utter ignorance of the few precious historical documents we do have concerning that specific time period. This film, ultimately, is every bit as fanatical and anti-intellectual as the mobs portrayed therein. If the mobs of fanatics are as compelling as they are it is because they were created by producers, directors, and script-writers as fundamentalist as the characters to which they gave life.

    If this had been one of my graduate students in a historiography course, I would not only have failed the assignment written, but I would have pursued dismissal from the institution on the charges of academic dishonesty. Perhaps that would put this in perspective.