When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got

When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got November 3, 2014

apologeticsThis summer I visited Hereford Cathedral in England and saw their mappa mundi (chart of the world). About 100 standalone mappae mundi remain, and this is the largest. It was made from a single calf skin, it’s a little over five feet tall, and it was made around 1300.

This is not the kind of map we’re used to. There is little attempt at accurate geography. This map wouldn’t serve an explorer or navigator, and its creators didn’t pretend that it would.

Using the theme of a world map, medieval cartographers embellished maps like this one to make them into something of an encyclopedia. Science was in its infancy, however, and the information can be bizarre.

Jabberwocky creatures?

Do you remember the “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass? It begins:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Humpty Dumpty explains what a tove is: “‘Toves’ are something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews. … Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese.”

Assuming our interest is the real world rather than Wonderland, the zoology we’re taught by the Mappa Mundi might as well have come from Humpty Dumpty. The drawing above shows monstrous people from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1544), and the Hereford Mappa Mundi includes some of these and more.

  • Sciapods had one large foot that they used to shield themselves from the sun.
  • The Blemmyes were warlike and had no head. Instead, their face was in their chest.
  • The dog-headed men were the Cynocephali.
  • Troglodites are “very swift; they live in caves, eat snakes and catch wild animals by jumping on them.”

The map also shows a number of mythical creatures, including a griffin and a salamander with wings. My favorite is the bonnacon, drawn looking back over its shoulder at its own explosion of scalding diarrhea, which covers three acres. Even actual animals are misunderstood. The map reports, “The Lynx sees through walls and urinates a black stone.”

As with all mappae mundi, this one puts Jerusalem in the center. It locates places of important biblical events such as the Tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden, the route of the Exodus, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

Mythology and history are mixed without distinction. We see Jason’s Golden Fleece and the Labyrinth where Theseus killed the Minotaur, but we also see the camp of Alexander the Great.

Christianity was in charge for a millennium, and all I got was this lousy map

Christianity has been given a chance at understanding reality, and this is what it gave us. When Christianity was in charge, the world was populated by mystical creatures, we had little besides superstition to explain the caprices of nature, and natural disasters were signs of God’s anger.

Christianity’s goal isn’t to create the internet, GPS, airplanes, or antibiotics. It isn’t to improve life with warm clothes or safe water. It isn’t to eliminate diseases like smallpox or polio. It’s to convince people to believe in a story that has no evidence.

Admittedly, it’s not like Europeans had a lot of options. Christianity was the opium of the masses—better than nothing and not exceeded by much of anything in the Europe of 1300. True, eyeglasses had recently been invented and a remarkable century of cathedral building had passed, but science didn’t yet offer much of an alternative way of seeing reality.

Today, we have had a couple of centuries to give modern science a test drive, and we know that it delivers. Nevertheless, we still see Mappa Mundi thinking today. There are still religious leaders who long for the good old days of 1300.

The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
— William Lane Craig

“Q. What is the chief end of man?”
“A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
— the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (written in 1647 but in use today)

According to the Bible, our purpose—the reason we are here—is for God’s glory. In other words, our purpose is to praise God, worship him, to proclaim his greatness, and to accomplish his will. This is what glorifies him.
— Matt Slick, CARM

There is no calling greater than praising God. This is true not only for us, but surprisingly also for God himself, he being the greatest, to glory in anything else would be idolatry. Therefore, if the greatest thing God can do is give himself glory, and no created thing can be greater than God, the greatest thing we can do (our purpose, you might say) is to glory him.
— John Piper, Desiring God

And Christians say that it’s the atheists who lead pointless lives!

Christianity is like an arch

But if Christianity is just what you do if there’s no science, why is it still here? It doesn’t win when compared against science. It doesn’t even win when compared against other religions—Christianity has one view of the supernatural, and other religions have other views. Christianity offers nothing but claims without evidence (more here and here).

The metaphor of an arch illustrates this. Imagine assembling an arch. First, build an arch-shaped scaffold. Next, lay the stones of the arch. Finally, remove the scaffold. Once the stones of the arch are in place, they support themselves and don’t need the scaffold.

That’s how religion works. Superstition in a world before science was the scaffold that supported the arch of religion. Science has now dismantled the scaffold of superstition, but it’s too late because the arch of religion has already calcified in place.

It’s the twenty-first century, and yet the guiding principles for Christians’ lives come from the fourteenth, back when the sun orbited the earth, disease had supernatural causes, and the world was populated by Sciapods, Blemmyes, and bonnacons.

So geographers, in Afric maps
With savage pictures fill their gaps
And o’er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
— Jonathan Swift (1733)

Photo credit: St. John’s College


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  • MNb

    To its defense christianity is not really to blame here. Aristoteles wrote silly things about the teeth of women. It didn’t occur to him that he could have asked Mrs. Aristoteles to open her mouth, so that he actually could check. This attitude was taken over by christianity (Plato was also full of it). Hence christianity was simply not capable of developing the scientific method without external incentives. There are two major historical data we can point at: the conquest of Toledo in 1085 CE started the university and scholastics; the fall of Constantinople in 1453 played a major role (there were other factors in play) in initiating the scientific revolution. The real scientific revolution did not consist of Copernicus formulating an alternative model for the Solar System, but of Tycho Brahe painstakingly collecting data to find out which one was actually right (he himself betted on a wrong one). Nobody before him had ever done that and obviously he didn’t get the idea from the Bible.

    “Christianity was in charge for a millennium, and all I got was this lousy map”
    Exactly my main point. Christianity was not capable of understanding the importance of empirical data, just like a toddler is not capable of understanding Relativity. When we read apologists we still easily can trace remnants of this badly outdated attitude. That includes prominent guys like Feser and WLC (plus of course my two favourite compatriots). That’s what keeps on baffling me.

    “It isn’t to improve life”
    Of course not. The focus is on afterlife.

    “the guiding principles for Christians’ lives come from the fourteenth”
    You’re too charitable. Christianity, from a philosophical point of view, only underwent one major change: replacing Platonic metaphysics by the Aristotelean version, thanks to Thomas of Aquino. Before 1500 CE all christians systematically have ignored the few Greeks who did understand the role of empiry.

    • GCBill

      You’re not being entirely fair to Aristotle, who did what he could with the limited methods and sources he had. There’s a reason why Islamic, pagan, Jewish, and Christian scholars alike all saw merit in his work. It was “the best game in town” at the time. That’s not to say I endorse his conclusions; I think his notions of motion (change) and teleology are fundamentally misleading. However, he was not some dogmatic hack who sought to derive everything about the natural world using reason alone. He was an exceptionally bright man who (for many reasons) got the world exceptionally wrong. History is full of those.

      • MNb

        No, Aristoteles did not what he could with the limited methods and sources he had, as I specifically addressed. He never asked Mrs. Aristoteles to open her mouth, so that he empirically could check his theory regarding female teeth. This is typical for his entire work.

        “all saw merit in his work”
        Strawman. I never denied his merit. Here though it’s his shortcomings that matter.

        “he was not some dogmatic hack”
        Another strawman. I never wrote that he was some dogmatic hack. His work became dogma though.

        “He was an exceptionally bright man who (for many reasons) got the world exceptionally wrong. History is full of those.”
        Third strawman. I never denied that he was exceptionally bright – in the case of Aristoteles I think that an understatement. History is not full at all of people as intelligent as he was, let alone of people that intelligent and that monumentally wrong. Only a genius like Aristoteles could become such an intellectual authority that he became instrumental in the stagnation of science (the other one is Plato, which you neglect).

        Obviously if there is a fault (which I doubt) it’s the fault of the bright people in the more than 1000 years after him that Aristoteles did not get questioned. Like Thomas of Aquino, not particularly dumb either (before you misinterpret me again: this is tongue in cheek).
        Anyhow all this is irrelevant for my main point. Christianity is not really to blame here. When it originated the development of science already had stagnated. It did not offer a remedy for this stagnation nor did it intend to. What’s more, nothing did, tried or could.

        • GCBill

          1) My suggestion was not that you denied others saw merit in his work (lol). I think there’s a reason everyone thought so, namely that there actually *was* some merit in his work.
          2) You never said he was a dogmatic hack, but you did say he neglected the importance of empirical enquiry (which, as my link suggests, isn’t true). What do we sometimes call those things that we take for granted as true without ever bothering to question them?
          3) Plato’s philosophy actually did encourage a hyperrationalistic approach that stifled empirical investigation. Of course, your comment mentioned Platonism once, so I thought I’d “neglect” it to keep my response more relevant.

          Do I get to accuse you of “strawmanning” me now because you didn’t get the point I was trying to make?

          In any case, I don’t think you even read the link which contested your single example of Aristotle’s supposedly antiscientific methodology. Ironically, you and he both make the same mistake of putting too much trust in secondary sources. I am responding to you only to clarify my initial comment to any third parties, not because I actually want to have a conversation with you.

        • MNb

          “he neglected the importance of empirical enquiry”
          He didn’t ask Mrs. Aristoteles to open her mouth, so that he could check his theory. You keep on neglecting this – and this is just one example. There are quite a few more. He didn’t design any experiment to test his mechanics either.

          “I thought I’d “neglect” it to keep my response more relevant.”
          You thought wrongly, because Plato was more important for christianity for many centuries than Aristoteles.
          You got accused of strawmanning because you contradicted points I never made – points that moreover were irrelevant for what I wrote.
          But you’re right on one point. I didn’t read that link and I won’t read it now. It’s my habit not to do so when someone grossly misrepresents what I write – something you continue to do. Moreover I actually have read a highly interesting translation of Aristotelean mechanics (probably written by one of his pupils):

          http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Aristotle/Mechanica*.html

          Even to modern standards it’s an excellent piece of work, highly admirable, showing that those guys understood even more than even many of his modern fans assume. It’s almost purely theoretical (and mathematical) though, there is no trace of experiment and hardly anything beyond superficial observation.
          You’re invited to give examples of Aristoteles designing experiments or making observations to back up his theories.

          “not because I actually want to have a conversation with you.”
          Then it’s silly and misleading to write your remarks in an answer to a comment of mine. If you mean what you write here you should not answer me at all.

    • TheNuszAbides

      “Plato was also full of it”

      but at least Aristotle fidgeted in slight rebellion against his mentor, or he might never have produced anything worth reading ever.

      it wasn’t until finally reading some N.N.Taleb a month ago that i’d thought of or seen it put this way: “Plato was exceptional in that he outwitted his successors for centuries.” but what can you expect when the ultimate message of your career is “the Powers That Be need Philosophers [like myself]”?

  • KarlUdy

    Today, we have had a couple of centuries to give modern science a test drive, and we know that it delivers. Nevertheless, we still see Mappa Mundi thinking today. There are still religious leaders who long for the good old days of 1300.

    Reading what you write here, one would think the 20th century never happened. And yet you are right that we still see Mappa Mundi thinking, just not where you think.

    Contrary to modern myth, science thrived during Medieval times, but it was not modern science – it was a much more pragmatic endeavour, underpinned by the dominant (but flawed) Aristotelian thinking of the time. The heliocentric revolution was important not because of what it said against Christianity, religion, and the Bible, but for what it said against Aristotle – after all, there were passages of the Bible that had been interpreted metaphorically throughout the history of Christianity, but Aristotle’s natural science had been accepted uncritically. The demonstration that a heliocentric model provided a more elegant and (most importantly) more accurate rendering of the movement of the planets (and even then it was not so much the heliocentric view, but the use of elliptical orbits instead of circles that was the most instrumental in providing that accuracy) was the test case that put all of Aristotle’s teaching on the natural world (such as that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones) up for grabs. The medieval world’s mistake was in uncritically accepting certain assumptions.

    The modern world’s mistake as evidenced by the upheaval of the 20th century was also in uncritically accepting certain assumptions, chief among which was that the scientific and technological advancement that was called progress was inexorable, and inexorably beneficial. An optimism that was tempered, if not outright destroyed by two world wars, countless genocides, and tyrannical oppression and great depression.

    And yet you still peddle the 19th century myth of science as the saviour of humanity?

    • You’re saying that the fruits of science can be applied in damaging ways? Yes, that’s true. I’m talking about understanding reality–science delivers.

      • Tommykey69

        Science gave us the polio vaccine!

        • I think Karl is confusing science’s ability to inform us about reality (which is amazing) and the uses to which this knowledge can be put (some good, some bad).

        • MNb

          Yeah. It’s rather unfortunate that Libby Ann, whom I respect very much otherwise, made the same mistake. It’s a very common one.
          It’s really sad that Karl doesn’t even realize that this position opens a way to acquit christianity of quite a few (atheist) charges. The two worldwars, the Holocaust and the nuclear bombs clearly have shown how mankind can corrupt and pervert literally everything. Then we should not be amazed that all religions got corrupted and perverted as well.

      • KarlUdy

        I’m not simply talking about scientific knowledge being used in damaging ways. I am talking about a fundamental attitude toward science and human progress.

        And when you talk about science giving us the ability to understand reality, you can only make such a claim by using a very narrow definition of reality (the physical universe), and a very stretched definition of science – science can only give descriptive models of the physical universe, and it is intellectual shorthand to say that science tells us what happens in the physical universe. After all, the geocentric model of the planets had enough accuracy to be accepted as true up to a certain point. It was certainly accurate enough for Columbus to predict a lunar eclipse in the New World.

        • a very narrow definition of reality (the physical universe)

          So “everything” is “a very narrow definition of reality”? All the other stuff must be right there under my nose and I’m just missing it. I’m eager to have you point it out to me.

          You’ve got a complaint in there that I’m not able to understand–some sort of limitation of what science can tell us? I agree that science has limitations; what do you propose instead?

        • KarlUdy

          Bob, I’m saying that the model of the physical universe according to the science we currently have makes better sense than other previous models. But then so did the geocentric model. It was superseded, and in all likelihood so will our current model.

          What I find puzzling is the attitude that we have it all together with our current model, and yet at the time people were making the developments that led to abandoning a previous model of the universe for a new one you consider them to be blinded by superstition.

        • Bob, I’m saying that the model of the physical universe according to the science we currently have makes better sense than other previous models. But then so did the geocentric model. It was superseded, and in all likelihood so will our current model.

          Nope. Consider Asimov:

          When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong.
          When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong.
          But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical
          is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat,
          then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

          What’s the punch line? What are you saying about science?

          And, more interesting: if you have some problem with science, what do you propose instead?

        • KarlUdy

          And is thinking the earth is the centre of the solar as wrong as thinking the earth is flat?

          The Copernican revolution is rightly called a revolution because it precipitated an incredibly disruptive change in the model of the universe. The best parallel I can think of is the effect of quantum science on more recent models.

          Which kind of proves one of my points – that the medieval era, which you speak so disparagingly of regarding science, was actually a time of rich scientific development.

        • The one jewel in that is that progress didn’t come to a halt during the medieval period. One good book on this subject was Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, which highlighted those inventions in particular. But there were others–Bacon’s eyeglasses being one that comes to mind. The stirrup, too. I’ve seen hay (storing food for the winter) as being a biggie.

          Still, “technology and science didn’t stop” isn’t much to write home about. My point remains: the church dominated during 1000+ years, and what do we have to show for it? Not complete stagnation … but pretty much so. You could find regions where the changes over a century would be undetectable. In the West, the technology change is so dramatic that even a decade or less would be easily detectable by a time traveler.

          To your first sentence, my point was that everything within science is tentative; nevertheless, things can coalesce, as the Asimov quote makes clear.

        • KarlUdy

          I’m trying to reconcile this:

          One good book on this subject was Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, which highlighted those inventions in particular. But there were others–Bacon’s eyeglasses being one that comes to mind. The stirrup, too. I’ve seen hay (storing food for the winter) as being a biggie.

          with this:

          My point remains: the church dominated during 1000+ years, and what do we have to show for it? Not complete stagnation … but pretty much so.

          I’m almost tempted to jump into the routine of “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

        • You’re determined to throw chum into the conversation, and I gotta admire the old kindergarten try, but it frankly isn’t that hard.

          Yes, science and technology advancements happened during the medieval period. No, they weren’t as pronounced and they didn’t happen as quickly as the last 200 years of modern science. Not. Even. Close.

          Christianity controlled Europe for 1000+ years. Compared to what might’ve happened, it has very little to show for it. But why should you care? You don’t care about science, health, technology, and all that, right? You only care about preaching the Word, and not a jot or tittle of that has changed since Christianity was in charge back before 1000 CE.

        • KarlUdy

          Yes, science and technology advancements happened during the medieval period. No, they weren’t as pronounced and they didn’t happen as quickly as the last 200 years of modern science. Not. Even. Close.

          Is it hubris to credit yourself for the momentum you enjoy due to the hard work of those who went before you to build up that momentum?

          You don’t care about science, health, technology, and all that, right?

          Actually, I do care about them. What I don’t care for is when people ret-con history to pretend that religion (and particularly Christianity) has been intractably antagonistic to them.

          It is like saying that Churchill’s Britain held back the development of computing because it has only been since Churchill that we have seen the explosive growth of computers in our world.

        • Is it hubris to credit yourself for the momentum you enjoy due to the hard work of those who went before you to build up that momentum?

          Since you’re just repeating yourself, imagine if I did the same thing.

          Actually, I do care about them.

          Great to hear. Me, too. Then the slow rate of change during the medieval period must frustrate you as well. Imagine where we might be today if the Roman empire’s appreciation for and encouragement of technology continued.

          What I don’t care for is when people ret-con history to pretend that religion (and particularly Christianity) has been intractably antagonistic to them.

          What is the case, then?

          It is like saying that Churchill’s Britain held back the development of computing because it has only been since Churchill that we have seen the explosive growth of computers in our world.

          So you’re saying that the glacially slow scientific progress in Europe from, say, 500 to 1800, was not because Christianity held it back. Indeed, Christianity was pushing it forward aggressively, but it was something else that made the progress so bad?

          Whatever spin you want to put on this, I don’t think Christianity comes out of this analysis looking especially good. At best, it was an expensive system sitting by the sidelines, consuming money and resources and contributing nothing to this project.

        • KarlUdy

          So you’re saying that the glacially slow scientific progress in Europe from, say, 500 to 1800, was not because Christianity held it back. Indeed, Christianity was pushing it forward aggressively, but it was something else that made the progress so bad?

          I would dispute that it was glacially slow. Was the scientific progress in that period so little compared to the previous 1000 years?

          But I agree that Christianity was not holding it back but was the best nursery for these developments.. And I would not be the first. After all, the lines “Thinking God’s thoughts after him”, and “Standing on the shoulders of giants” were not said for nothing.

        • Sounds like we need some sort of flow rate of inventions or impact of science or something over time.

          Christianity was not holding it back but was the best nursery for these developments..

          So you look at the scientific progress in Europe from 500-1800 and you say that that was actually the best it could be. Indeed, if Christianity hadn’t been nurturing and encouraging science, progress would’ve been far slower. Is that it?

        • Pofarmer

          Wikipedia has a page listing significant scientific advances.

        • I found the Wikipedia summary Medieval science, and foundations for scientific method. Much of what it talks about is outside of Europe.

        • Pofarmer
        • KarlUdy

          So you look at the scientific progress in Europe from 500-1800 and you say that that was actually the best it could be. Indeed, if Christianity hadn’t been nurturing and encouraging science, progress would’ve been far slower. Is that it?

          A few details I might dispute, but I agree with the general gist.

        • Explain. What great things did Christianity do that, if there were no religion or some other religion, we wouldn’t have?

          I plan a post on Christianity and science at some point, so I welcome your input.

        • MNb

          “Was the scientific progress in that period so little compared to the previous 1000 years?”
          Wrong timeframe. Stagnation began with the death of Archimedes and Euclides. But between Thales of Milete and those two guys progress went remarkably fast indeed.
          And yes, that means that christianity did not cause the stagnation. It did nothing to remedy it either. That’s all.

        • Pofarmer

          Well, look at all the knowledge that was lost, or effectively lost on fall of the Roman empire. Knowledge of concrete, calculating spring rates, antiseptics, and much more. There wasn’t just stagnation, there was backwardation.

        • “Backwardation”–good word.

          And that timeline of scientific discoveries underlines the problem. Yes, there was progress happening … from guys with names like Ibn Sahl, Ibn al-Haytham, Avicenna, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, Al-Khazini, Ibn Bajjah, and Hibat Allah Abu’l-Barakat al-Baghdaadi. Ouch.

        • Pofarmer

          Neil Degrasse Tyson Has a YouTube video on th list where he goes on to point out how religious fundamentalism destroyed scientific advancement in arabia.

        • MNb

          Oh, this really is a sad story.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Baghdad_(1258)

          Muslims of course wondered why Allah allowed this (do you recognize a pattern here?). The answer was that they had become too secular and so science was made insubordinate. The fall of the crusader states and the rise of the Ottoman Empire seemed to confirm this answer. Its decline in the 19th Century made muslims ask the same question again. The result is modern muslim antiscientific fundamentalism.

        • Heck–how much more clearly could Allah speak? Science must’ve been to blame.

        • MNb

          “religion (and particularly Christianity) has been intractably antagonistic to them.”
          A strawman. I never wrote that and neither did BobS. Stagnation does not imply antagonism. In fact I do have some praise for christianity here (for preventing irrepairable decline, like happened to Ireland between 800 – 1000 CE).

        • MNb

          I’ll have to check your specific examples, but most of them were not done by European scholars. They were either based on refound knowledge from Antiquity or were important from for instance China.

        • Yes, imported or rediscovered knowledge is important to dismiss from the ledger on the Christian/European side.

        • MNb

          How does the effect of quantum mechanics and the Copernican revolution (which was actually pulled off by Tycho Brahe, because Copernicus’ model was largely the same as the model of Aristarchus of Samos – but never mind) show that the Middle Ages were “a time of rich scientific development”? When they happened the Middle Ages were over. That’s the entire point. Nobody during the Middle Ages did what Tycho Brahe did.

        • KarlUdy

          So how are you defining the Middle Ages? Earlier you quoted the fall of Byzantium as a marker. Now you seem to be quoting the overturning of Aristotelian astronomy, or am I misunderstanding you?

        • MNb

          The simple definition of the Middle Ages is the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. But simplicity is usually largely wrong in science.

          1) The Roman Empire did not fall in 475 CE. That’s cheap eurocentrism. The Roman Empire continued in the east, with Constantinople with as the capital (which it had become long before in 475 CE).
          So the beginning of the Middle Ages depends on location. In England and The Netherlands it started in 400 CE, when the Romans lost control. In Spain in 418 CE, in France in 486 CE (the defeat of Syagrius) and in Italy only in 586 CE, when the Lombards took over and both the city of Rome and the Roman senate had become totally irrelevant.

          2) The amended dates above also are too simple and thus wrong, because it only looks at political authority. In reality the transition was gradual. People did not go asleep in Antiquity and wake up next day in The Middle Ages. So there is no marker. Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages coincide so much that the first is largely part of the second (Early Middle Ages usually are supposed to last until about 1000 CE, but that’s a random year as well).

          3) For the end of the Middle Ages things are even more complicated. We can’t use the Renaissance to mark it.
          a) The Italian Renaissance only had impact on the European elites.
          b) There have been two, possibly three independent Renaissances. Usually we think of the Italian one, which ended due to the Italian wars of Charles V. But subsequently a Flemish and Dutch Renaissance started, which included Luther, Calvin etc. Finally it may be meaningful to speak about a Polish Renaissance around the same time.

          4) In some respects the Middle Ages lasted well into the 16th Century. Me being Dutch I cannot do any better than give Dutch examples. Those who fought against the Habsburgs (notable leaders: Charles II, Duke of Gelre and of course William the Silent) fought for the privileges of nobility – ie for the medieval class-based society. Charles V and Philips II were the modernists. Still the outcome of the Dutch rebellion (within only 20 years! – after that it became just another war) is thoroughly pre-modern. So it’s impossible to give a marker here as well.

          So it depends on your angle. We probably agree that the foundation of European universities was a necessary condition for modernism. We probably also agree that the rise of an economical elite looking for political power was a necessary condition. That would mean that the Middle Ages ended around 1100 CE ….. But if we look at philosophy at the other hand the Middle Ages ended with Francis Bacon, ie around 1600 CE. Luther and Calvin fell back to Augustinus, so their thinking was thoroughly medieval.

          Maybe I have made one point not clear enough. I don’t look down on the Middle Ages, like many atheists do, just because science had stagnated. That stagnation began during Antiquity. The Romans contributed zilch either. The intellectuals around 400 CE did not have any more scientific knowledge than the Greek scholars 600 (!) years before. The first 500-600 years for Europe the Middle Ages were only about survival, due to the ongoing barbaric invasions. As soon as they stopped and as soon as Toledo was conquered an amazing intellectual jump was made. It was just not a scientific jump. Obviously scholasticism and art show there was a lot of intellectual and cultural activity during the second half of the Middle Ages, with or without markers.

        • KarlUdy

          I pretty much agree with your numbered points.

          Maybe I have made one point not clear enough. I don’t look down on the Middle Ages, like many atheists do, just because science had stagnated. That stagnation began during Antiquity. The Romans contributed zilch either. The intellectuals around 400 CE did not have any more scientific knowledge than the Greek scholars 600 (!) years before. The first 500-600 years for Europe the Middle Ages were only about survival, due to the ongoing barbaric invasions. As soon as they stopped and as soon as Toledo was conquered an amazing intellectual jump was made. It was just not a scientific jump. Obviously scholasticism and art show there was a lot of intellectual and cultural activity during the second half of the Middle Ages, with or without markers.

          This paragraph satisfies me that we don’t have a big disagreement over the main issues here. We may have come at the issue from different angles or stating points but based on what you write here I agree with you on almost every point.

        • MNb

          Thumbrule: I write about disagreements. I think it quite boring to point out what we agree on.

        • MNb

          “the attitude that we have it all together with our current model”
          That’s your interpretation, not mine and certainly not BobS’. How as a teacher physics I could forget the turnover of classical mechanics only 100 years ago?

        • KarlUdy

          That’s your interpretation, not mine and certainly not BobS’.

          Bob’s post is about (and I hope I’m summarising his idea accurately) how today we have a good model of the universe because science is in charge, but 600 years ago we had a bad model because Christianity was in charge.

          I don’t deny that our model now is improved on what went before. My contentions are threefold. 1) The model that existed in 1400 was an improvement on all that had gone beforehand. 2) Our model today could be discovered to be flawed in as fundamental a way as the model in 1400 was. 3) The inference that the deficiencies of the model of 1400 compared to the model of today is attributable to the powerful negative influence of Christianity on science at the time of the earlier model is wrongheaded.

        • 2) Reread Asimov’s quote above. You misunderstand how science works.

        • KarlUdy

          You misunderstand how science works.

          Based on what?

        • Pofarmer
        • Based on your idea that huge game-changing discoveries in a field happen as likely with a nascent field as with a mature field.

          Again: Asimov.

        • KarlUdy

          So you’re disagreeing with my point 2, right? Are you saying that game-changing discoveries are more likely in a nascent field? Or in a mature field? I’m just trying to understand what your disagreement actually is.

        • Is that a real question?

          In a mature field, game-changing discoveries are less likely.

        • KarlUdy

          It is a real question. Your answer is what my initial thoughts were, but your phrasing of it made me think you might mean the opposite, and I didn’t want to get the wrong end of the stick. Also I could see how someone could make the argument for both.

          Someone could argue that the game-changing discoveries come near the beginning because the basic “lay of the land” of that particular branch of science is being explored for the first time.

          Someone could also argue that the game-changing discoveries come after a period of sustained study and investigation, because time is needed for initially promising but false models to reach the point where they can be demonstrated to not capture the whole picture.

          Actually this is what happened with astronomy in the Middle Ages. There were two major assumptions in the models they used: firstly that the earth was at the centre, secondly that all heavenly motion consisted of perfect circles. It was only as the orbits needed to be adjusted ever more by adding more and more smaller circles to the model that alternatives began to be considered.

        • The point I was objecting to was the idea that the next physics paper could just as easily be a trivial discovery as one that overturned a major branch of physics.

          As MNb noted (and I should leave further discussion to him since he’s better able), future discoveries usually tweak an existing theory, if it’s well established.

        • MNb

          “1) The model that existed in 1400 was an improvement on all that had gone beforehand. ”
          Nope. It wasn’t. It basically hadn’t changed since 200 BCE. What’s more, Aristarchos of Samos

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristarchus_of_Samos

          already had developed a model better than anyone before Copernicus.
          More evidence at the end of this comment.

          “2) Our model today could be discovered to be flawed in as fundamental a way as the model in 1400 was.”
          Nope. Our model correctly describes innumeral more empirical data than the 1400 CE model. Moreover you forget

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_principle

          Physics – and that’s the branch of science put in charge with formulating models of the Universe – is not about totally replacing one model by another, but by expanding it. It’s totally possible to simplify both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to Classical Physics. I have done such calculation myself. A transformation the other way round is not possible.
          So yes, Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity will be replaced by something better in the future. That’s not a difficult prediction. But they still will be better than Classical Physics, which still is better than Aristotelean Physics as embraced around 1400 CE.

          “3)The inference that the deficiencies of the model of 1400 compared to the model of today is attributable to the powerful negative influence of Christianity on science at the time of the earlier model is wrongheaded.”
          No, it isn’t. Christianity had taken over from Plato and Aristoteles the neglect of experiment and observation. Moreover thanks to Thomas of Aquino Aristoteles in all respects – specifically including his wrong physics – had become the unquestionable authority.

          Sorry for you, these are just historical facts. Just like “the brightest minds of 1400 CE (and I don’t deny at all that those minds were bright) didn’t know and understand anymore than the brightest minds of Antiquity” is just a historical fact.

          This piece written by a pupil of Aristoteles (probably; it might have been the great man himself)

          http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Aristotle/Mechanica*.html

          comes closer to Newtonian mechanics (specifically from point 30 on) than anything the medieval scholars wrote.

        • MNb

          “using a very narrow definition of reality (the physical universe)”
          What you think narrow or wide is irrelevant. First show that there is actually something beyond the physical Universe indeed before you start investigating. Also provide us with a reliable method to investigate it. Finally show us if and how that something beyond the physical Universe can interact with our physical reality.
          Until then I maintain that you’re sucking things out of your thumb.

          “the geocentric model of the planets had enough accuracy to be accepted as true up to a certain point.”
          My friend, that’s exactly the crucial difference between science and religion. Science is about increasing accuracy. Religion is not. You have perfectly pointed out why science is a superior method to understand the physical Universe than religion. And during the Middle Ages the widely accepted claim was that religion was the only way to understand our physical reality. That resulted in that map BobS saw, which looks so silly in our modern eyes.

        • KarlUdy

          My friend, that’s exactly the crucial difference between science and religion. Science is about increasing accuracy. Religion is not.

          Read the writings of the early church fathers and see how they iteratively developed a more clearly defined theology as they considered new questions. Taking simply the example of the question of the humanity and deity of Jesus and you can see how a more clearly defined (accurate, if you will) definition emerged over time.

          And during the Middle Ages the widely accepted claim was that religion was the only way to understand our physical reality.

          How, then, was Columbus able to predict an lunar eclipse? If it was by religion alone, then it demonstrates the efficacy of religion in understanding the physical universe. If it was by science, then the Middle Ages were not as barren a time for science as you describe.

        • Greg G.

          How, then, was Columbus able to predict an lunar eclipse?

          The Ptolemaic model would have worked.

          In the early third century, Julius Africanus doubted Thallus about an eclipse happening during the Passover because he knew why an eclipse couldn’t happen during a full moon.

          If memory serves, Columbus fooled some natives on an island by giving them the impression that he was controlling the darkness. I have read that if he had tried that trick on the natives on the mainland, they would have laughed at him because they could predict eclipses, too.

        • KarlUdy

          The Ptolemaic model would have worked.

          Columbus’s model was Ptolemaic, but was a much more accurate and complicated model than that calculated by the Greeks. I don’t know how accurate eclipse prediction was in Ptolemy’s day, but I do know that improvement in calendar calculation was something that was given much attention in medieval times.

        • Greg G.

          But that amounted to reducing the number of leap years by 3 every four centuries. By the time they did it in the 16th century, the calendar was off by 10 days. The adjustments were apparently not done for any pragmatic reasons, like agriculture, but just to be able to celebrate Easter like they did in the fourth century.

        • KarlUdy

          The corrections to the calendar applied in the 16th century were proposed by Roger Bacon in the 13th. Another win for medieval science.

        • Greg G.

          That it took three hundred years to put medieval science to use is not a win for medieval science.

          Wikipedia says:

          The Council of Trent approved a plan in 1563 for correcting the calendrical errors, requiring that the date of the vernal equinox be restored to that which it held at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and that an alteration to the calendar be designed to prevent future drift. This would allow for a more consistent and accurate scheduling of the feast of Easter. In 1577, a Compendium was sent to expert mathematicians outside the reform commission for comments. Some of these experts, including Giambattista Benedetti and Giuseppe Moleto, believed Easter should be computed from the true motions of the sun and moon, rather than using a tabular method, but these recommendations were not adopted. The reform adopted was a modification of a proposal made by the Calabrian doctor Aloysius Lilius (or Lilio).

          [emphasis added by me]

          They still ignored the best science for something less accurate but easier.

        • Pofarmer

          Yeah, I don’t think folks like Karl understand the lengths of time involved.

        • What Greg G. said.

          You’re crowing, “Medieval science wasn’t stagnant!” Yeah, we agree. You’re (deliberately) missing the point.

        • MNb

          Medieval science was stagnant. The intellectuals of 1400 CE didn’t know any more about science than the ones of 400 CE.

        • I’m simply acknowledging that there was progress. The 1300s were a dramatic period of cathedral building. They invented eyeglasses in 1250. Alchemy taught them a bit about chemistry.

          Saying that they learned absolutely nothing opens you up to examples like this from Karl. I think the best response is to compare the rates of change.

        • MNb

          Eh no. It would have been a win if it were applied well before 1500 CE, because in the 16th Century the Middle Ages were over, as the revival of science shows. You again unwillingly confirm medieval stagnation (up to say 1400 CE).
          Moreover one swallow doesn’t make a summer, especially if the virtues of that swallow are only recognized after winter.

        • MNb

          Thanks for confirming that Columbus’ theory was not an innovation and hence confirms scientific stagnation.

        • Yes, the questions and definitions emerged over the early centuries of the church. Why was that? Looks for all the world like Christianity is just a human-defined philosophy, doesn’t it?

          If you went back in time to get Paul’s take on the Trinity, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The great heresies of the early church–Docetism, Arianism, and so on–were good questions that were unanswered. Tradition answered them over time, but that’s not a reliable source of knowledge.

        • KarlUdy

          If you went back in time to get Paul’s take on the Trinity, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

          Agreed, but that is not saying that he would disagree with the truths that a doctrine such as the Trinity affirms.

        • No, Paul would tell you that you were wrong about the Trinity.

        • MNb

          Nicely missing the point. According to what standard you consider one theology more accurate than another? Or, as Jerry Coyne rightly has asked, when two theologies contradict each other, what method do you use to decide which one is correct and which one is wrong? If you can’t answer these questions this

          ” a more clearly defined theology”
          is just an empty phrase.

          Your reference to Columbus is silly. First of all he was active after the fall of Byzantium and hence doesn’t belong to the Middle Ages anymore, but to a transitional period which exactly was characterized by the revival of science. In the second place his prediction of a lunar eclipse was nothing special. The ancient Greek could do it. Heck, it’s said that the very first Greek with a proto-scientific mind, Thales of Milete, pulled it off. So if this is your evidence again you only confirm stagnation.

          “not as barren a time for science”
          Stagnation is not synonymous with “barren a time”. You come close to strawmanning me. It means simply, as I have written before, that around say 1400 CE (ie well before Columbus was born) the brightest minds did not know more than the brightest minds of Antiquity.
          Your Columbus argument hence is also a non-sequitur. That’s the fun with this discussion. I am highly interested in the history of science, especially physics. Every single example people like you bring up actually confirms my stagnation hypothesis.

        • when two theologies contradict each other, what method do you use to decide which one is correct and which one is wrong?

          Excellent.

          I’m sure Karl could handwave about plenty of things in response, but the fact that evidence for the supernatural isn’t the deciding factor is damning.

        • smrnda

          Well, if we want to study people, we can study science. Psychology seems to be filling the void once left by religion.

    • MNb

      “science thrived during Medieval times, but it was not modern science – it was a much more pragmatic endeavour, underpinned by the dominant (but flawed) Aristotelian thinking of the time.”
      Nice contradiction, Karl. According to any useful definition Medieval “science” was not science. One important reason was indeed that it was underpinned by dominant Aristotelian thinking. Oh – and you conveniently forget that this only happened thanks to Thomas of Aquino, who lived in the 13th Century. You conveniently forget that scientifical development had stagnated the 900+ years before since christianity became the dominant religion.
      So call me unimpressed by Medieval “science”. What happened in India and China was far, far more interesting. But as a good prejudiced christian that’s something you don’t really want to know.

      “The medieval world’s mistake was in uncritically accepting certain assumptions.”
      A mistake christianity was extremely comfortable with – and many christians, including you, still are.

      • KarlUdy

        According to any useful definition Medieval “science” was not science.

        What do you attribute the advances in that time in architecture, agriculture, astronomy and warfare technology to?

        You conveniently forget that scientifical development had stagnated the 900+ years before since christianity became the dominant religion.

        You do realize where the idea that the medieval times were a period of stagnation for science originated, don’t you? I suggest you check your sources.

        • Modern science started roughly after the Industrial Revolution.

        • KarlUdy

          If modern science started roughly after the Industrial Revolution, then you cannot describe any period before that time as stagnation for modern science.

        • There was no modern science in 1300. Who’s to blame?

          Well, let’s look at who was in charge. That was the point of the post.

        • KarlUdy

          Under whose watch was modern science developed? So why not give them the credit?

        • MNb

          “Under whose watch was modern science developed?”
          Not the medieval folks. I already told you the main reason: they did not use observations and experiments to test theories. And Roger Bacon is the exception that confirms this rule.

          “So why not give them the credit?”
          Because they contributed zero to the development of modern science – even to science in every single proper meaning of the word (ie including empiry). In the technological department everything they did could have done by the Romans. Cathedrals? Impressive. The Romans build the Colosseum (50 m high – the Notre Dame is 35 m), warehouses and apartment buildings.

          What christianity deserves credit for is
          a) preserving the knowledge that could be preserved despite barbaric destructions (it’s telling though that Europe even in the 13th Century could not stop the Mongols and was saved by the timely death of the khan).
          b) maintaining an organizational structure that allowed to restart the development of science whenever external input was brought in (especially after 1085 CE, the fall of Toledo and 1453, the fall of Constantinople).

          Like I wrote before that’s quite an achievement. We only should look to Ireland to learn what else could have happened – intellectually the most developed country around 800 CE with Johannes Scotus Eriugena and intellectually totally barren indeed just 200 years later.
          But christianity never could have pulled off the scientific revolution of the 16th Century on its own. It simply did not intend to, because its focus on afterlife. Science demands a focus on here and now.

        • Niemand


          Because they contributed zero to the development of modern science

          Not to keep harping, but they did not contribute “zero”…the concept of the number zero was again an Arabic/Islamic contribution. European Christianity of the time did not even contribute zero. Sorry, I’ll stop now.

        • Yes, I give credit to Christianity for not completely (only partially) stamping out inquiry and delaying the Industrial Revolution by 1000 years.

        • Niemand

          Under whose watch was modern science developed?

          Largely under Islam. And indeed why not give them credit?

        • TheNuszAbides

          because it’s too easy (and bizarre) to defer to religious beliefs as some ‘root cause’ when there’s no definitive way to trace significant discoveries to anything beyond the mere desire to discover/explain something about the physical reality in which we coexist.
          [a scientist paying lip service to the dominant mythological narrative so that their pursuit of accuracy and explanatory power is relatively undisturbed]
          isn’t effectively set apart from
          [a rationalizing zealot whose deeds “in His name”, or what-have-you, happen to pursue accuracy and explanatory power within physical reality].

          a triumphant thinker can ‘attribute’ all they like to a Higher Power of their choice – that’s hardly as relevant as the discovery itself, and it’s no more ‘significant’ than a commercial advertisement.

        • MNb

          You forget China and India.

        • MNb

          “What do you attribute the advances in that time in architecture, agriculture, astronomy and warfare technology to?”
          Mainly a combination of trial and error (ie luck) and import from external sources.

          “the medieval times were a period of stagnation for science”
          I did not write that the Middle Ages were a period of stagnation. But yeah, they were a stagnation for science indeed. For your information: Copernicus started off where Aristarchos of Samos stopped some 17 centuries before. Understanding – which is not the same as usage – of architecture, agriculture, astronomy and warfare technology was around 1400 CE largly the same as in 400 CE or even 200 BCE. If that ain’t stagnation then I don’t know what is.
          A prime example is the usage of cannons, which decided the Hundred Years war (and you better check when that exactly ended). Obviously control of gunpowder was essential – something the Chinese had mastered around 1000 CE. The Europeans had to wait until someone imported it.
          The problem as I mentioned underneath was simple. Only in Europe during the 16th Century (Tycho Brahe and Francis Bacon are the important names here) scholars began to understand how to combine empiricism with theory building.
          And in some respects there was a serious decline. Pope Silvester II (around 1000 CE) was considered a genius, because he understood and could explain what happened to the volume of a building if you doubled its dimensions. There is a letter written by the Bishop of Utrecht about this.

          So if you can give me one name who made specific observations or designed experiments to decide theoretical questions you are invited. If you can give me one name who formulated a theory that went beyond widely accepted Aristotelianism you are invited as well. There is simply nobody. That’s why not even the best scholars until at least 1400 CE know any more about science than the best scholars (Archimedes etc.) of Antiquity.

        • It was amazing how long it took after the fall of Rome for the roads of Europe to get back to where they were during the heyday of Rome. I think it was around 1600 or so.

        • KarlUdy

          I did not write that the Middle Ages were a period of stagnation.

          I though that’s what you meant when you said:

          You conveniently forget that scientifical development had stagnated the 900+ years before since christianity became the dominant religion.

          Only in Europe during the 16th Century (Tycho Brahe and Francis Bacon are the important names here) scholars began to understand how to combine empiricism with theory building.

          The first Bacon who was instrumental in combining empiricism with theory building was the 13th century – Roger Bacon who we inherit the observation, hypothesis, experimentation cycle and the need for independent verification from.

          So if you can give me one name who made specific observations or designed experiments to decide theoretical questions you are invited. If you can give me one name who formulated a theory that went beyond widely accepted Aristotelianism you are invited as well. There is simply nobody.

          You have your name

        • MNb

          “I though that’s what you meant …..”
          Note the words “scientific development” in the quote that follows.

          “The first Bacon who …..”
          Yeah, he is always mentioned. Problem is that his influence during his life was exactly zero and that after his death he was forgotten for a long time.
          Roger Bacon was a philosopher. His observations were random, his experiments unsystemetical. If he’s the only one you got you only have confirmed what I wrote.

        • tatoo

          Actually, Science may have stagnated in Europe, but it was alive and well in the Muslim world.

        • Agreed. And that doesn’t support Karl’s position.

        • smrnda

          Advances can occur by accident. I mean, I know of many times when someone starts *using* knowledge that is not scientific (in terms of having been adequately tested) but it would be wrong to call that using science.

    • How about even more countless wars, genocides, and oppression before the 20th century? While it was no picnic, there has been no wars in most of Europe for over half a century. That is the first time for that in thousands of years. Events of wars, genocides and oppression were once even more common. Technology such as mass media gives us more knowledge of them, which paradoxically means their impact is greater, making it seem more prevalent. One need only study how common these things were in the past to be grateful for living in the present (at least in our part of the world). This does not mean that one should uncritically accept that this “progress” will always continue or always be beneficial. One should not dismiss it either, however.

    • Pofarmer

      “The modern world’s mistake as evidenced by the upheaval of the 20th
      century was also in uncritically accepting certain assumptions, chief
      among which was that the scientific and technological advancement that
      was called progress was inexorable, and inexorably beneficial. An
      optimism that was tempered, if not outright destroyed by two world wars,
      countless genocides, and tyrannical oppression and great depression.”

      Yeah, there was no tyrannical oppression before the twentieth century, there were no depressions, no Tulip Bulb Manias, etc, etc. Now, I’ll admit, nearly 50 million people died in WWII, a war that was fueled in part by the religious motivations of both the Japanese and the ideas of Luther in Germany. But, on a planet today consisting of over 6 billion, how many do antibiotics save? How much prosperity does mass transport give? Modern sewers? Your world view is sorely lacking.

    • smrnda

      I’m not sure to what extent we can link science and progress with 20th century totalitarians. They were mostly thugs reminiscent of earlier times. There was this joke by Mao “they have compared me to the first emperor with the burning of books and burying of scholars. I have burned more books and buries more scholars.”

      Science gave people tools that were better, but the people who used them appealed to time tested nationalism, xenophobia, and other nonsense.

      I would recommend a book like Grayzel’s “History of the Jews”. Violent antisemitism was going on in Europe during the entire time – the 20th century just gave the antisemites more tools. Mao wasn’t anything new, and China had previous violent uprisings . Christianity even played a role in the Taiping Rebellion, a very violent civil war most don’t know happened.

      • TheNuszAbides

        “They were mostly thugs reminiscent of earlier times.”

        indeed, only people wholly convinced of something like The Fall have any ‘reason’ to believe that there have ever NOT been “thugs reminiscent of earlier times.”

    • Niemand

      An optimism that was tempered, if not outright destroyed by two world
      wars, countless genocides, and tyrannical oppression and great
      depression.

      And what was the dominant religion in the time and place where these events occurred? Oh, right, Christianity.

      It’s true that science did continue in the Medieval period. Unfortunately for your argument, most of the scientific progress of the era happened in predominantly Islamic countries.

  • Rudy R

    The Dark Age…nuff said.

    • MNb

      Actually you have said nothing at all. The Dark Ages did not happen anywhere in the former Roman Empire but in England (from 400 – 550 CE) and The Netherlands (largely uninhabited in the same period). Only here and in these periods there are no written accounts. That map BobS saw is from several hundreds of years later.

      http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/medieval.html

      • Rudy R

        So you mined the Internet and found an Art professor at a Mormon College in Utah that paints a rosy picture of the Dark Ages, because the Christian Church flourished. No arguments from me there.

        • MNb

          Poisoning the well is a logical fallacy. Just because he’s a mormon it doesn’t follow he is wrong. So yeah, no arguments from you indeed.

          Alas for you the mormon reasoning this time is widely accepted by historians like

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Chester_Jordan
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denys_Hay

          More

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages_(historiography)#Modern_academic_use

          Especially notes 39 and 40. You especially confirm note 40 even with your reaction.
          “A mormon never can be right” is the equivalent of christian fundie bigotry. Congrats.

        • Rudy R

          My point is that it’s no wonder that a Christian would claim that Christianity flourished during the Dark Ages. It would be more constructive to show some type of meta-analysis to prove your point instead of giving me a few references of people who make a counterclaim that the Dark Ages weren’t “dark” and assert that’s the majority viewpoint,.

  • purr

    If god is a supremely perfect being, then why must we humans glorify him? A perfect being should not need such ego stroking…

    • That has also baffled me. Our purpose is to glorify God? This dude created the universe but he needs the constant praise of ants like us?

      • purr

        Because, in glorifying god you glorify his representatives on earth – which brings them more power, money and prestige?

        • TheNuszAbides

          oh, surely that’s pure coincidence! 😉

      • Kodie

        It’s just a desperate attempt made of human perception – their god is obviously wrathful at times, and they need to perform their rituals and superstitions to demonstrate humility. Now I never said I was more powerful than a hurricane or a fire or cancer, but together we take care of ourselves and do our best. We do not need to praise the animate/inanimate destructive power of fire, what we do is conduct fire drills and have smoke detectors and generally be careful around open flames, stoves, cigarettes, bonfires, and welding torches. And after all these precautions, if fire still “chooses” us, the best we can try to do is get out alive. These occurrences seem totally random, but there is always a cause of a fire. The “chance” factor is that this cause coincides with where you live. But we do not try to appease fire, we do what we can to prevent and minimize its destructive power.

        I was thinking about how weird religious people are, because most of us live in a democracy and yet regard life more like a tyranny. The structure of religion is like a tyranny, where the best you can do is beg for each day to remain overlooked for the whimsical punishments of an evil tyrant. And yet, for the most part, most of us expect most of our days to be rather free of “wrath”, and be more routine and relatively easy. Not all of us, but most of us, most of the time, and are rather surprised that anything devastating can happen to us like a hurricane, the sudden loss of a loved one, a flat tire on the way to a job interview – anything out of the ordinary. The danger they see is if they don’t keep up the ritual, the tyranny of life might strike somewhere below ordinary, and can’t understand how we atheists can get through life while being “proud” or “arrogant” to refuse god. Someday, they say, the hammer will fall, and we’ll be sorry, and it will be too late to come around. This totally comes from an ignorance of how things actually work, how statistics work, and treat all bad fortune as if it’s aiming for us personally, choosing us randomly yet for a specific cause, like thinking you’ll skip church this week, then lightning might strike you, so you dare not take that chance.

        It works exactly like any other superstition, but so many more people are convinced if they don’t carry their lucky clover, i.e. kneel and praise Jesus, then some bad fortune will befall them, and it was their own fault for not being humble enough.

        • MNb

          Indeed I never have succeeded in distinguishing any religion from superstition.

        • TheUnknownPundit

          Religion is organized superstition.

      • Without Malice

        Like I’ve always said – well, since I became an atheist anyway – any being that wants to be worshipped has shown itself to be unworthy of worship.

    • Tommykey69

      I always find it interesting that some Christians refer to their god in monarchical terms.

      • purr

        Yes, and the king is usually god’s representative on earth.

        • Greg G.

          “The Lord deserves a Mercedes… and he wants me to drive it for him.”

        • “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me
          a Mercedes Benz?
          My friends all drive Porsches;
          I must make amends.”

    • MNb

      No? Don’t you drool at the thought of millions of ants worshipping you at your feet? Well, neither do I.

      • Greg G.

        The worst part is that the ants that worship you the most are the ones you accidentally step on most often while the ants that ignore you thrive.

        • TheNuszAbides

          #problemsofthealmighty

  • Pofarmer

    Thank Goodness.

  • Mick

    But if Christianity is just what you do if there’s no science, why is it still here?

    It protects the fragile egos of its adherents. Whenever they make a life decision they pretend to themselves that they were actually praying to god for advice. Then they go ahead and do whatever it is they want to do.

    If it all goes well they are required to “give the glory to god”, but the payoff comes when they make the wrong decision and everything goes pear-shaped.

    When that happens they don’t have accept any responsibility for their actions. Instead they can excuse themselves with claims like:

    * It is all part of god’s master plan
    * It will all turn out for the greater good
    * God has other plans for me

    For an egotistical person that is a fantastic escape route. If they need to be a Christian in order to use it, then they will be a Christian (and fanatically so).

    • Christianity is easier than actually taking responsibility for stuff.

      • MNb

        Yeah, that’s an aspect I deeply dislike. Islam got it better – the believer may have been the most pious person in the world, if the balance of good and evil deeds is negative he/she still is f**ked.

    • Kodie

      Somehow they think that is any different from Magic 8-Ball or flipping a coin. Except for the fact that many believe prayer is real and true, while these other methods attract and invite occultish or satanic powers to lead them on the wrong path.

      • MNb

        Hmmmm ….. seems like I should give this method a try!

        • TheNuszAbides

          ‘the moment’ isn’t even necessarily when the coin is in the air. if you’re as indecisive as i am, you have to go through the trouble of catching, calling and looking, and then if you get a sense of disappointment from the result, you go the other way!

  • Science’s most wonderful addition to the modern discourse is the ability to admit failure.
    Science gets things wrong all the time. ALL THE TIME. And it’s very likely most of the stuff we think we know now we’re in some way wrong about.
    But Science is all about owning up to that and then figuring out what the right answer is (or at least the closer to right answer), and getting better and better.
    Religion starts with an answer and then it is done. And if that answer proves to be wrong then it is the evidence and not the answer that must be wrong.

    • Well, yeah. Religion admits when it’s wrong as well.

      (Oh … wait a minute.)

  • King Dave

    Not to worry.
    With educational tools at our fingertips and great leaps in Science
    “Finding Bigfoot” is one of the most popular shows in America.
    After Honey Boo Boo of course. Some say the two shows are related in more ways than one?

  • 90Lew90

    Great post! I’ve only just read this and had thought ‘Swift’ a couple of times while reading it, only to discover you were thinking the same at the end. Yahoos and Houyhnhnms and places called Brobdignag sit well with Sciapods, Blemmyes, and bonnacons. He was one of those intellectuals “raised for the church” who ended up a rebel cleric. His ‘Argument Against the Abolishment of Christianity’ is anything but. It’s a piss-take satire and clerics of lesser stature (most) were taken in by it. What I think is of note here is that part of the point of that essay was that in his time, the majority of the English population didn’t believe but just went through the motions, as he himself did. A large but unstated implication in that essay is an argument that the preservation of religion could help students sharpen their critical faculties on a fairly easy target. It’s an honour to stand on the shoulders of that giant.

    • Wait–Lilliput isn’t a real place??

      Sounds like Swift was the Stephen Colbert of his day.

      I hadn’t made the connection with Gulliver–nice.

  • TheNuszAbides

    i can’t get too exercised here, since one of my favorite games of all time is Ars Magica. still:

    “…our purpose is to … accomplish his will”

    when i was 11, this sort of phrase was profound and inspiring. now it’s nothing but authoritarian pablum. how dense does one’s conditioning have to be to not think this through? simultaneously, it’s the perfect cover for all the hypocrites we hate/love to skewer – since nobody can actually behave in an “anti-God’s-will” way (except perhaps if they’re in the occult league with spooky Lucifer), pastoral indiscretions and presumptuous pronouncements are just as forgivable as anything else…

    • Pofarmer

      And yet, thats exactly what theists that come here mean when they say the Universe “has a purpose”.

    • And apparently, according to John Piper, God himself gets in on the game.

      I can see God doddering around heaven muttering, “I’m so fabulous, I’m so great, may I be glorified forever and ever …”

      • TheNuszAbides

        ew. i can almost ‘forgive’ the half-baked rationalizations that are blatantly “getting inside Bog’s mind” – but when they can’t even acknowledge the pure projection of it…

      • TheNuszAbides

        it certainly works better for the mythology sans New Testament; JHVH-1 even admitting he’s jealous (cue context-war, that jealousy was pragmatic in immature cultures in punishing environments, etc.)…

      • Unthinking Apostasy

        Bob – The best analogy I’ve heard for this is to think of God as an insecure teenager:

        Us: “God you’re so awesome!”
        God: “Really?”
        Us: “Yeah God, you’re great!”
        God: “You’re not just saying that?”
        Us: “No! We think you’re glorious!”

        And continue that for eternity.

        • An insecure teenager who happens to be the quarterback of the undefeated football team, captain of the debate club (also undefeated), runway model, principle of the school and head of the school board, richer and more productive than Tony Stark, and president of the United States.

          Who still needs constant reassurance.

  • Shoebutton

    This reminds me of a book I found in the library “Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline”, 2010, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton
    It chronicles how historians put together the time line, full of interesting historical tidbits and wonderful graphs, charts , maps and illustrations.
    http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.ca/2010/04/time-after-time.html

  • Uncouth Angel

    What disingenuous rot. This is like quoting a single passage from Dante’s Inferno and concluding that his entire description of Hell was fluff.

    For an example of what Christianity did to help the Western mind evolve, you could have done a study of Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham or Pascal. Or you could have discussed some of the medieval intellectuals and scientists like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa, who were happily pursuing science during the Middle Ages without molestation from the church. Nicholas of Cusa freely speculated about heliocentrism nearly two centuries before Galileo. Likewise, William of Conches was able to take for granted that his audience understood the creation story in Genesis as symbolic and propose that life arose from primordial mud and developed from simpler forms some 700 years before Darwin.

    • Greg G.

      I see that same list all over the internet touting their accomplishments.

      Albertus Magnus, 1200-1280
      Robert Grosseteste, 1175-1253
      Roger Bacon, 1214-1292
      John Peckham, 1230-1292
      Duns Scotus, 1266-1308
      Thomas Bradwardine, 1300-1349
      Walter Burley, 1275-1344
      William Heytesbury, 1313-1372
      Richard Swineshead, died 1354
      John Dumbleton, 1310-1349
      Richard of Wallingford, 1292-1336
      Nicholas Oresme, 1320-1382
      Jean Buridan, 1300-1358
      Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464

      They all benefited from gaining access to Greek literature due to the Crusades. That means that Christian Europe had fallen so far behind that thousand year old literature was needed to jump start them. They were way behind where the Greeks had been a thousand years earlier. They had only been studying religion instead of science. Just think where humanity might be now if Christians had focused on saving those Greek writings instead of focusing on producing New Testament manuscripts.

      • Pofarmer

        Perhaps, if early copiests hadn’t scrubbed out science texts and overwrote them with religious texts………….

        • Uncouth Angel

          What science texts have we lost this way?

        • Pofarmer
        • Ignorant Amos

          Did ya not read that comment and ponder for a wee moment?

          We don’t know what science texts that have been lost this way….they are lost…duh!

          Is it your contention that this never happened?

          We know by what has been recovered by modern scientific technics that it definitely did happen…see Pofarmer’s example.

          Other examples include older religious texts being overwritten too.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palimpsest#Famous_examples

        • Uncouth Angel

          We’ve lost plenty of manuscripts throughout history, no doubt. Probably most of them. But it doesn’t help to opine that there were countless scientific documents being destroyed by the church for dogmatic reasons, when we have no evidence that this was the case. That would be tantamount to arguing that no evidence that the church persecuted scientists is evidence that the church persecuted scientists.

        • Ignorant Amos

          The reasons for doing it is academic to the fact that it happened. Writing material being scarce and expensive is as good a reason as any. Nevertheless, books were destroyed to facilitate the writing of holy texts. That is a fact, not an opinion. Just how many and how often, nobody knows. What impact over writing texts that we have no way of knowing were over written, no one knows. Palimpsest was the medieval practice of taking a text that was considered not worth retaining and over writing with other texts, quite often with scripture’s by religious scribes. What impact that practice had on progress is pure speculation.

          Let’s not pretend that religion hasn’t stuffed science when it came into conflict with theology. Kepler’s work was on the RCC’s naughty list of banned books for example. As was Copernicus and Galileo…and a host of philosophers.

          As for the Church persecution of scientists, I don’t know what you are talking about, there is evidence it did.

          http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1675/copernicus-galileo-and-the-church-science-in-a-religious-world

          Pope JPll even apologized for some of it.

      • Uncouth Angel

        I sincerely hope you aren’t one of those idiots who thinks that we’d be colonizing another planet right now were it not for the influence of Christianity. The entire notion that the middle ages were some ass-backwards theocratic dystopia of intellectual, cultural, and scientific stagnation has been thoroughly debunked by the real historians and scholars of the period. Christian monks were copying and building on the wisdom of the ancients as well as Islamic scholars (who acquired them by conquering formerly Christian lands in the first place). The oldest Universities were a medieval Catholic invention. There was a higher literacy rate in medieval Europe than there was in classical Greece, and functioning hospitals. Here are a few books on the subject I would recommend:

        “The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages” by Jean Gimpell

        http://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Machine-Industrial-Revolution-Middle/dp/0760735824/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1316229344&sr=8-2

        “Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages” by Joseph Gies

        http://www.amazon.com/Cathedral-Forge-Waterwheel-Technology-Invention/dp/0060925817/ref=pd_cp_b_4

        “Medieval Technology and Social Change” by Lynne White

        http://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Technology-Social-Change-White/dp/0195002660/ref=pd_sim_b6

        “The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450” by David C. Lindberg

        http://www.amazon.com/Beginnings-Western-Science-Philosophical-Institutional/dp/0226482057/ref=pd_sim_b2

        “Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages” by Richard E. Rubenstein

        http://www.amazon.com/Aristotles-Children-Christians-Rediscovered-Illuminated/dp/0156030098/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316229927&sr=1-1

        “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages” by Nancy Marie Brown

        http://www.amazon.com/Abacus-Cross-Story-Brought-Science/dp/0465009506/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316229976&sr=1-1

        “The Inheritence of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000” by Chris Wickham

        http://www.amazon.com/Inheritance-Rome-Illuminating-Dark-400-1000/dp/0143117424/ref=pd_sim_b10

        “Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization” by Lars Brownworth

        http://www.amazon.com/Lost-West-Forgotten-Byzantine-Civilization/dp/0307407969/ref=pd_sim_b17

        “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success” by Rodney Stark

        http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812972333/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_5?ie=UTF8&m=ATVPDKIKX0DER

        “How Christianity Changed the World” by Alvin J. Schmidt

        http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Changed-World-Alvin-Schmidt/dp/0310264499/ref=pd_sim_b4

        “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism lead to Reformation, Science, Witch Hunts, and the End of Slavery” by Rodney Stark

        http://www.amazon.com/Glory-God-Monotheism-Reformations-Witch-Hunts/dp/0691119503/ref=pd_sim_b6

        “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas E. Woods

        http://www.amazon.com/Catholic-Church-Built-Western-Civilization/dp/0895260387/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316230773&sr=1-1

        “The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts” by Edward Grant

        http://www.amazon.com/Foundations-Modern-Science-Middle-Ages/dp/0521567629/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316231264&sr=1-2

        “God and Reason in the Middle Ages” by Edward Grant

        http://www.amazon.com/Reason-Middle-Ages-Edward-Grant/dp/0521003377/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2

        “The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution” by James Hannan

        http://www.amazon.com/Genesis-Science-Christian-Scientific-Revolution/dp/1596981555/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316230912&sr=1-1

        • Ignorant Amos

          The oldest Universities were a medieval Catholic invention.

          Yeah…about that….NOPE!

          We’ve already been over this here…more than once.

          According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the earliest universities were founded in Asia and Africa, predating the first European medieval universities. The University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in Morocco by Fatima al-Fihri in 859, is considered by some to be the oldest degree-granting university.

          Opened and run by a woman.

          Some scholars, including Makdisi, have argued that early medieval universities were influenced by the madrasas in Al-Andalus, the Emirate of Sicily, and the Middle East during the Crusades. Norman Daniel, however, views this argument as overstated. Roy Lowe and Yoshihito Yasuhara have recently drawn on the well-documented influences of scholarship from the Islamic world on the universities of Western Europe to call for a reconsideration of the development of higher education, turning away from a concern with local institutional structures to a broader consideration within a global context.

          So you claim is not universally accepted…and based on definition, is tenuous at best.

          The oldest university in the world that is still open, predates the western Christian universities by a couple of centuries.

          The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The University of Bologna, Italy, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe.

          And the ancients were pumping out scholars from academic seats of learning too.

          The Sumerians had scribal schools or É-Dub-ba soon after 3500BC.

        • Greg G.

          Wow, all that and western Europe still didn’t reach the technological level the Romans had until about the 18th century. They didn’t have the exponential growth of science and technology that has occurred the last few centuries. What was holding them back?

          The Enlightenment and the Renaissance periods which happened when the Catholic Church lost its stranglehold.

          It seems that as soon as they stopped trying to explain everything in terms of God and God’s role in everything, that is, when they stopped trying to have a God factor in their equations, everything started falling together.

          The Christians thought the Greek learning they received would help them prove or understand God, so they developed it. It turned out that they still couldn’t prove or understand God but people did find that the Greek learning worked very will without God. So the great Christian contribution was serendipitous.

        • Uncouth Angel

          Medieval Europe was already ahead of ancient Rome. There was no way the Industrial Revolution was going to occur in the 4th or 5th century:

          https://www.quora.com/Why-didnt-the-industrial-revolution-occur-in-ancient-Rome-or-Greece

        • I think we’ve lost the point. The point is that a society with God at the helm (that is, Christian Europe in the waning years of the Roman empire) should’ve rocketed forward in progress. We can talk about why it didn’t, but then we’re stuck in the naturalistic world. That’s an interesting discussion, but (again) it misses the point.

        • There was a higher literacy rate in medieval Europe than there was in classical Greece, and functioning hospitals.

          Sure, let’s imagine that progress was about as good as it could have been and that no human society could’ve gone from the Roman Empire to modern Western technology in less time. It’s a fanciful notion, but let’s set that aside.

          Now imagine instead what a society could’ve done with God’s help–slavery banished in the 1st century, the printing press and the Industrial Revolution begun, and so on. You’re right–one does indeed wonder if, with 2000 years of that kind of progress, where we might be today.

        • Uncouth Angel

          I don’t claim that we’re living in the best possible world, but there are plenty of reasons why the Industrial Revolution was never going to occur in Greco-Roman antiquity. Some of them are explained succinctly here:

          https://www.quora.com/Why-didnt-the-industrial-revolution-occur-in-ancient-Rome-or-Greece

    • You’re saying that Europe progressed, despite Christianity? I agree, but imagine what we should have seen. A society with God nudging us in the right direction would’ve made a little more progress than we saw in the last 2000 years. More here:
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2016/04/how-christianity-retarded-modern-society-by-1500-years/

      • Uncouth Angel

        More because of Christianity than despite it. We didn’t suddenly ‘forget’ about science and philosophy only to ‘remember’ them in the 15th century. There were at least two other important periods of innovative breakthrough–the Carolingian and 12th century renaissances. Either of these periods is arguable more important than the Italian Renaissance that we usually associate with this term, and even this period was the fruit of the middle ages. And we’re supposed to think the church had nothing at all to do with it, despite it taking place in the very center of the church’s power, and during the heyday of said power?

        And I have no idea what hypothetical utopia you think should have existed otherwise. It doesn’t help to bring up some nebulous term like ‘progress’, as if history were an upward, inevitable slope toward a glorious climax. The human species is something like 300,000 years old, with recorded history stretching back only 5,000 years or so. That means that something like 98% of our own species’ history is virtually unknown to us. Clearly, if a certain way of life is working out for us, we aren’t naturally inclined to innovate at all.

        • Greg G.

          The Carolingian renaissance was when they emphasized 4th century Rome and the 12th century renaissance was when they got the ancient Greek literature from the Crusades. A “renaissance” is a reawakening or a rebirth, which acknowledges a downfall.

          Clearly, if a certain way of life is working out for us, we aren’t naturally inclined to innovate at all.

          When people’s minds are ruled by superstition and religion telling them that everything is working out for them, they are less inclined to innovate. They have no idea how much better everything could be. People don’t innovate when they are thinking about gods and superstition. It is difficult to innovate when innovation looks like witchcraft to your neighbor.

        • And how does science work when God is fiddling with nature? He keeps putting his thumb on the scale … or maybe not, since you wouldn’t know. When I can’t duplicate your experiment, is that because conditions are different where I am (and we’ve uncovered a new scientific clue), or is that because of God’s shenanigans?

        • And we’re supposed to think the church had nothing at all to do with it, despite it taking place in the very center of the church’s power, and during the heyday of said power?

          Uh, yeah. What I’m saying is that society’s evolution looks completely manmade. Yes, the church was there, doing some positive things and some negative things. But with God nudging us in the right directions, imagine what we could’ve accomplished in 2000 years.

          And I have no idea what hypothetical utopia you think should have existed otherwise.

          That doesn’t surprise me. It always seems to be the atheist who is explaining to the theist what “omnipotent” and “omniscient” actually mean.

          I expand on the idea of Christianity in society here:
          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2016/04/how-christianity-retarded-modern-society-by-1500-years/

        • epeeist

          More because of Christianity than despite it.

          That modern science developed in a Christian milieu one would be foolish to deny. However this is rather different to claiming that Christianity was causal in the development of modern science.

          There were at least two other important periods of innovative breakthrough–the Carolingian and 12th century renaissances.

          The first due as much as anything to the Edict of Charlemagne establishing abbey and monastery schools. The latter with the translations of material from the Arabic and Muslim world becoming available.

          And we’re supposed to think the church had nothing at all to do with it,despite it taking place in the very center of the church’s power, and during the heyday of said power?

          And we are supposed to think that it was solely down to the church and not other things such as exploration and the expansion of trade?

          One has to ask, if the development of science was due to Christianity and the church then why didn’t this happen until the 12th century, why didn’t it happen a millennium earlier?

        • Pofarmer

          It seems to me, and this is just my ignorant opinion, that at least some of the “scientific method” was an attempt to keep those doing the seeking safe from the Church zealots. They needed a method to prove their work that kept them safe if they became crossways with Church teachings.

        • al kimeea

          Sciencey things were being done by the Chinese, Indians, etc. before The Enlightenment. Their ideas would be rejected as pagan for some time, often wiped and recycled expensive paper was palimpsested. If VatiCorp held as much power as they did earlier, The Enlightenment may have happened much later or elsewhere.