Religious doubt is far older than even antiquity’s doomed Hypatia

Religious doubt is far older than even antiquity’s doomed Hypatia November 22, 2019

“To teach superstitions is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them …”

hypatia religious doubt atheism aristotleThis wise sensibility was not uttered by Richard Dawkins or any of the so-named New Atheists who emerged brightly early this millennia to loudly question the veracity of religious beliefs and the dangers posed to societies by supernatural faiths.

No. It has been attributed to (likely apocryphally) by one of my favorite heroines of history, Hypatia of Alexandria, a world-renowned academic philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who died 16 centuries ago. I was reminded of her when I ran across this embedded illustration online.

“She is the earliest female mathematician of whose life and work reasonably detailed knowledge exists,” the Encylopaedia Britannica says of Hypatia, who with her father did an authoritative update of Euclid’s legendary mathematics text.

Hypatia is important because many people erroneously think religious doubt, skepticism and atheism are a mostly modern phenomena, starting perhaps in the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment, when elite thinkers began to vigorously reconsider all of the “received wisdom” of the past. During that heady epoch, the probing religious doubt of ancient Greek sages, such as Aristotle, began to influence new academic theorizing about the nature of reality. Hypatia came much later than Aristotle, but she was part of a classical continuance of Greek/Roman intellectual tradition that thrived in Alexandria in the 5th century AD.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, who in her book “Doubt: A History” (2004) referenced Hypatia as the “last secular philosopher of antiquity” and a martyr, in part, of reason at the hands of religious zealotry.

Unfortunately, a violent emergence of radical Catholicism against Roman paganism wracked Alexandria in Hypatia’s time, and she was ultimately dragged from her carriage one day and beat to death by religious thugs and zealots unleashed by church leaders.

Her body was later dismembered in a pagan temple and its battered, shredded remains burned unceremoniously outside the city.

This same virulent fear and hatred of secular doubt remains with us still in America, even if people are not being dragged from their cars for heresy. That is why surveys show Americans in general are more suspicious and wary of atheists than members of almost any other demographic, including Muslims and — surprising in the moment — politicians.

But we should remind ourselves or learn if we never knew before that a lot of human beings have been enormously doubtful about supernatural religion for millennia, many hung, drawn-and-quartered, and burned at the stake for their unbelief.

In the meantime in the 21st century, American evangelical Christians continue relentlessly laboring to insert more religious iconography and ideology into the minds of young children and students, and to turn the entire U.S. culture sharply toward God.

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies,” is another quote that has been widely, if unverifiedly, attributed to Hypatia, who died not long before the Roman Empire imploded and Christianity began to clamp Europe in a stranglehold that would last more than a thousand years. The tenor of the quote, however, is true whatever it’s source.

The rational doubt of Aristotle and Hypatia and many other ancient unbelievers and skeptics has, in many respects, yet to fully recover.

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