Honest Atheist Tim O’Neill on Bad Atheist History

Honest Atheist Tim O’Neill on Bad Atheist History April 21, 2014


The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America, is a great story.  Unfortunately, it’s also historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality.  It’s bad enough that I have had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true.  What’s worse is that I’ve also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round, and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong.

Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables. Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo historical fairy tales.  Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths.

One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before.  But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used, and the relevant material our understanding should be based on.  It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively.  Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as misinformed or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists.  And that’s not a good look.

The enormous popularity among atheists of the massively historically illiterate thesis that Jesus never existed is such a gigantic howler that any atheist who asserts it instantly renders himself absurd to me, like a high school sophomore who sneeringly announces, “If evolution is true and clams are older than dinosaurs then how come there are still clams but no dinosaurs?  Huh?  Huh?  How come?  See!  You can’t even answer me!”  It’s so ignorant of so many elementary things and so cocksure that you don’t even know where to start.  O’Neill is a better man than I am in treating this stuff patiently.

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  • kirthigdon

    I think a lot of this atheist history started out as Protestant history. Because of their radical break with the Church, the Protestants had to put down anything which had gone before which was Church related, in other words the entire Middle Ages in Europe. Over the years and centuries, this led almost complete ignorance of the Middle Ages among Protestants.

    Kirt Higdon

    • JM1001

      You see the same thing in a lot of warfare propaganda.

      First, you have the self-glorifying myth, in which one is portrayed as the just and virtuous hero who rises despite a seemingly implacable enemy and his pervasive oppression. (The atheist/Protestant views himself as the former, while Christianity/The Catholic Church are the latter.)

      Second, you have the demonization of the enemy as the embodiment of all that is heinous, dark, and evil. This helps to increase the urgency with which the enemy must be vanquished. Even if some of the “hero’s” critiques of the “enemy” are legitimate (as was admittedly the case with certain Protestant critiques of the Church), that is not enough: the enemy is to be cast as evil itself, and any positive or redeeming qualities the enemy possesses must be ignored and hidden.

      Warfare propaganda therefore necessarily destroys any knowledge of history (at least those parts of history that do not serve the two objectives above: self-glorification and demonization of the enemy). Hence the ignorance among atheists and Protestants about the Middle Ages.

      • Or the so-called Dark Ages. When I started studying THEM from the point of view of the Church, I’m amazed at how much went on as the empire was falling.

        • jaybird1951

          I highly recommend the books of Rodney Stark about the so called dark Ages and the Middle Ages. He expertly debunks all the myths about the period concocted by Protestant and atheist polemicists.

      • In that light, perhaps you might care to re-read the books of Joshua and Judges….

    • DKeane123

      I know if I built a time machine, the first spot I would like to vacation is in Europe during the middle ages. Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature makes it sound ab. fab.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Unless you are a statistician, then Pinker’s book is just another example of myth-making.

        • Alexander S Anderson

          But Pinker is a man of SCIENCE!!(tm) Surely his careful, SCIENTIFIC(tm) analysis of human behavior cannot be wrong!

  • Alma Peregrina

    Link not working 😛

  • DKeane123

    I’m not going to argue about whether Jesus was 100% real or based on a real person or whatever. We should let actual historians argue the evidence.

    On the idea of limiting scientific progress – all you need to do is exile or burn a scientist or two and they get the hint and start self censoring. Add on top of that the fact that the Church was the source of funding, and scientists will make sure to avoid experiments (dissection of the human body) or results that could upset church doctrine. Especially since many of them were actually monks at the time.

    • JM1001

      On the idea of limiting scientific progress – all you need to do is
      exile or burn a scientist or two and they get the hint and start self

      Please name one scientist who was burned by the Church.

    • Michael Lynch

      So your argument is that the Catholic Church could stifle science all the more effectively because it was the only institution that was funding and employing scientists? I don’t think you really thought that one through before you posted it.

      • DKeane123

        I did think it through. You can fund certain “types” of science.

        • Mariana Baca

          But why does nobody else fund science? You make it sound like the Catholic Church is the only one even interested in science, which would be rather interesting, in itself. Not to mention it is false — lots of kings funded scientists too, thus the “royal academy of something or the other” existed as well. E.g. Kepler and Tycho Brahe were protestants funded by a Catholic king, not by the Church.

        • Michael Lynch

          Who were all these Dark Age scientists whose work was stifled by the Catholic Church? What did their research consist of? What types of science were banned by Rome? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Except for the only scientist that was ever burnt at the stake, was burnt for encouraging a return to the worship of Ra, the Sun God.

      Nobody was ever exiled or burnt for dissecting a human body. A couple were jailed for grave robbing but that wasn’t by the church, that was by secular authorities.

      • DKeane123

        “xcept for the only scientist that was ever burnt at the stake, was burnt for encouraging a return to the worship of Ra, the Sun God.” I love this sentence, the fact that he was burnt at a stake for some other type of heresy (I’m not going to argue if your point is actually factual) makes the church look so much better in my eyes.

        • jaybird1951

          I assume you are referring to Giordano Bruno. He was not a scientist.

          • I was. DKean123 was apparently entirely unaware to whom he was referring- thus kind of proving the point.

        • Mariana Baca

          You can hardly accuse the Church of preventing science if it kills those teaching obviously false science. It is like arguing we are preventing science is we go and kill a vaccine-denying homeopathic practitioner. It might be *wrong* but it hardly prevents science (dunno, if his medical opinions infected infants and refused to treat infants under his care which died of preventable diseases, he could be hit with several charges of criminal neglect, but neither here nor there). Bruno lived in an age where many more crimes merited the sentence of death, and things like blasphemy, slander, and the like were not taken lightly, even by secular authorities. The fact that we can’t name one man killed in the name of science, yet can name thousands killed for spurious reasons in atheistic regimes means this is an exception rather than a rule.

        • chezami

          The question is not whether medieval jurisprudence was brutal. The is question is “Is there a basis for the claim that the Church hates the sciences and persecutes scientists qua scientists”. The answer is no. Your ignorant refusal to get that fact through your allegedly rational head is proof positive of O’Neill’s point. Stop worshiping your intellect and try using it for once.

    • JM1001

      Another thing:

      ..and scientists will make sure to avoid experiments (dissection of the human body) or results that could upset church doctrine.

      It almost seems like you’re trying to prove Tim O’Neill’s point about how a lot of critiques of the Church are grounded in myth and historical illiteracy. This particular myth has been dealt with as well:


      EDIT: For those who are interested, Katharine Park also had a good essay on the same subject in this book:


      • DKeane123

        Excellent reference, thank you. I actually wonder how many Catholics might make the same point (I believe I was told/taught this when I was a young Catholic). First rule, make sure to get your facts straight as we all have built in confirmation bias.

        Any thoughts on the banning of natural law by Pope John XXI?

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          The existence of the natural law was denied by the Enlightenment, who preferred an entirely empirico-positive approach, even though it was thoroughly undermined by Hume long before Popper.

          I recollect that one of the criticisms levelled against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was that he, a Catholic, believed in the “outdated” natural law theory.

          • I think “natural law” in the sense applied to Justice Thomas is the moral sense of natural law, not the physical sense which is the scientist’s stock in trade.

            • Dan F.

              I think the separation of the two a tragedy…

              • I’m very sympathetic to that idea. Do you have a good source that argues that case?

                • Dan F.

                  None whatsoever I’m afraid, just a sense that the physical embodies morality and the regularity (i.e. intelligibility) of the physical gives substance and context to morality.

                  I have yet to meet an amoral (meaning without morals as opposed to immoral) rational being. Thus my supposition that to be and think is to inherently be moral.

                  It’s late and I’m not sure that I’m making sense so take my ramblings with a significant grain of salt.

                  • Dan F.

                    Cool! My midnight ramblings got upvoted. I geel so affirmed. 😉

          • antigon

            YOS – That’s correct, tho Thomas wasn’t a Catholic then.

        • wineinthewater

          He did not ban natural law. He instructed a French bishop, Bishop Tempier, to look into complaints of Peripatetic doctrines among Parisian theologians. Bishop Tempier than drew up a list of condemnations that included several Aristotelian doctrines, but did not include Natural Law as a whole. And while the propositions condemned did not include Natural Law in general, it is unclear from history whether the Pope supported them. Considering they included some teachings of Aquinas, it is unlikely.

          This all occurred about 60 years after a small French provincial synod tried to ban the reading of Aristotle. But that was not a papal action, only applied to Paris, and was evidently barely enforced.

          By bringing this up, you again reinforce the point made in the post. The history is readily accessible, yet the myth persists.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Ah. The term at the time was “the common course of nature,” rather than “natural laws.” The existence of natural laws was the starting point for Thomas Aquinas’ “Fifth Way” of proving the existence of God.

          How and when was this banned? Cite actual statements.

          If, as another response indicates, this refers to the Condemnation of 1277, the propositions condemned were those like “There cannot be multiple worlds” and “There cannot be a vacuum.” The Aristotelian physicists held them to be impossible a priori while the Bishop held that God’s omnipotence meant he could will anything short of a logical contradiction: there could be multiples worlds, there could be a vacuum, if God willed it. The upshot was that one had to determine empirically whether there was a vacuum or not, whether there were multiple worlds [recte: multiple universes] or not.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Church was the source of funding,

      Funding? This was not the Modern Age of super-expensive, government regulated science. Theodoric of Freiburg did not need much “funding” to make glass spheres and fill them with water so as to measure the rainbow.

      scientists will make sure to avoid experiments (dissection of the human body) or results that could upset church doctrine.

      This seems to be another myth, implicitly believed by credulous “skeptics.” Human dissection for anatomical instruction was done for the first time ever only in Catholic Europe toward the close of the 13th cent. The pagan Romans had had a superstitious horror of touching dead bodies, and had maintained a priesthood whose sole task was to do so and remove the curse.* The medical schools in Catholic Europe made attendance at dissections mandatory.

      There were two philosophers in Hellenistic Egypt who had performed vivisections on prisoners, but the Roman authorities banned the practice. This is the only Greco-Egyptian exception to the complete lack of dissections prior to the middle ages.

      Autopsies were sometimes performed in China, under the direction of a judge, but only for legal, not anatomical purposes. (Chinese anatomical drawings will bear this out.)

      The House of Submission never permitted human dissection.



    • Faithr

      How did it ever get started that the Church didn’t like dissecting bodies??? I mean have you ever heard of a relic? Take for example St. Anthony’s relics – his vocal cords and tongue. They are actually in a beautiful reliquary in his church in Padua. Catholic churches have all kinds of bones, etc. of saints in their churches. In Rome there is a famous church that is decorated entirely with skulls and bones. People who say stuff like this don’t know jack about Catholics at all. They just prove they absolutely have no integrity when it comes to trying to find/know the truth about anything! Get a brain and then try to use it! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_della_Concezione_dei_Cappuccini

    • chezami

      As each of your legends gets blown to bit by fact, I hope you will contemplate the fact that the “War Against Science by the Church” is in fact a creation myth concocted by atheist materialists as a rationalization for their revolt against the Church. It is, in fact, padding the case for atheism, and is wholly and entirely baseless (what in English is called a “lie”). The main difference between this creation myth and the one in Gen 1-2 is that Catholics believe the truths in Gen 1-2 are spiritual, while the Fundamentalists both atheist and Christian believe Gen 1-2 *and* the “War between Science and Faith” stories are literal. The only difference between Christian and Atheist fundamentalists is their disagreement about which side is the good guys and which the bad.

      • Psycho Gecko

        It would be easier to take this statement of yours seriously if we didn’t have so many examples of religious people, including Catholics, opposing science. Like the case with Sanal Edamaruku. He was going to be put on trial for showing that a miraculous weeping crucifix was actually caused by a clogged drain. The Archbishop wanted an apology from him to drop the charges. He fled the country and decided not to go back when another rationalist was assassinated in India in 2013. In a much more obscure exchange, I once had a Catholic try to prove evolution was wrong because his religion was correct because of the “miracle” at Fatima and the Saints that supposedly didn’t rot after they died (you know, like St. Claire the incorrupt wax figurine). I think that’s what happens when a few apologists doing acrobatics don’t represent the thinking of 99% of your flock.

        That’s not even going too far back. If we did that, we might come to St. Augustine. Regarded as a bit of a thinker by the Catholic church. Didn’t believe in a 6 day creation because he instead believed in a 1 day creation. So he probably would be considered a heretic by Creationists for having a slightly different view of YHWH creating everything on earth.

        However, thanks for admitting that the contradictory stories of Genesis aren’t true.

  • David Charlton

    Any familiarity with Aquinas or Dante ought to be enough to dispel the notion that educated Christians thought the world was flat. “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools.”

    • No public school student, and no student in a Common Core school, is ever going to be introduced to those gentlemen.

    • Barbara

      I was just going to say that. Haven’t any of these people ever read Dante? It’s right there in the Divine Comedy, Dante enters hell at one end of the world and comes out at the other. Flat earth my flat arse.

  • Dave G.

    I guess I’m a little taken aback by this. We learned that people knew the world was round well before the time of Columbus when I was in elementary school (before Disco, it’s worth mentioning). So who could possibly be running around saying this today?

    • Before Disco is the real point. Before Disco, they actually bothered to teach history to Americans.

      • Dave G.

        Once you have Disco, is there any hope? (But let’s face it, we all have a secret Disco song or two we enjoy)

        • *cough cough* I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • Rosemarie


      You must have gone to an exceptional elementary school. I’ll never forget the illustration in my textbook of a ship falling off the “edge” of the world into the mouth of a waiting sea monster. The teacher explained that that was what everyone believed would happen to Columbus if he sailed too far. This was in the mid-70s.

      • Dave G.

        We were told people used to think that (that they were afraid of falling off the world), but most learned folks knew better. Third grade. 1975 (technically Disco was starting, I should correct myself).

        • I actually suspect that education in this area is regressing. When I tell high school students nowadays what the real deal was with Columbus, they seem more surprised than their antecessors.

          • Dave G.

            That could be true. I find that history today is far less accurate than before. Part of it is that many get their history from increasingly unreliable sources. Not just ‘unreliable because of bias’, but unreliable because of whatever reason. History from TV? Forget it. History Channel? I’d rather listen to Glenn Beck. And yet there are many who think these are reliable sources (including the source of Beck). Part of that is the fault of historical studies. Having concluded that ‘history is written by the winners’, many historians use that as an excuse to take any alternate historical narrative and run with it. After all, since the official view must be wrong (written by winners), any other view can potentially be right. I fear that’s opened up a can of worms. And when you filter it through even less reliable sources like TV or, yes, the Internet, expect things to be far worse than even twenty years ago when it comes to approaching history with a care for what may have actually happened..

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Actually, they were afraid of the edge of the world: to wit, the continental shelf. There was something terrifying about an abyss which apparently had no bottom, and so a drowning sailor would never come to rest. That’s one of the two reasons why navigators in any of the seas of the world seldom ventured beyond them. Sailors in the South China Sea seldom went to Micronesia or Polynesia, or even into the Bay of Bengal. Polynesians crossed the Pacific, but never visited Indo-China or Java. Lands with narrow continental shelves did not develop a “high seas” tradition at all.

  • Sharon

    DKene123 you haven’t answered either of the questions you have
    been asked. To wit:

    “Who were all these Dark Age scientists whose work was
    stifled by the Catholic Church? What did their research consist of? What types
    of science were banned by Rome?

    And “Please name one scientist who was burned by the

    Are you able to give us links containing information
    which may support your claims?

    I recommend reading Those Terrible Middle Ages: debunking
    the myths by Regine Pernoud


  • Lebez

    “The enormous popularity among atheists of the massively historically illiterate thesis that Jesus never existed is such a gigantic howler that any atheist who asserts it instantly renders himself absurd to me”
    Could someone enlighten me where the hard evidence lies that the biblical concept of the god Jesus existed?

    • Ian

      If you would care to actually read some scholarship on the Historical Jesus you will find that they make no such claim as the “biblical concept of the god Jesus existed”.
      The investigation into the Historical Jesus is not a search for the metaphysical Christ of faith, but the historical person of Jesus that lies beneath the theology of the New Testament.