Christian Dark Ages —Then and Now

Christian Dark Ages —Then and Now January 7, 2019

Editor’s Note: Hopefully our current political dark ages won’t last so long or do so much damage. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By David Madison

The ongoing rampage of damage

The folks in the pews commonly assume that they have bragging rights about their religion. God is Their Mighty Fortress—we owe that image to Martin Luther—which itself a great good for humankind, but they assume that Christianity itself now stands as a fortress again the moral decay threatening our society. By the careful exercise of selective memory, they can list so many ways—thousands of ways, I’m sure—in which the church does good work. But this is a distortion of the truth. It would take a lot of good to compensate for the horrendous damage that Christianity has done, indeed that belief in God has done.

I could list the atrocities that are commonly recited, but here I want to focus on that five-hundred year period of suffering that Christians should acknowledge as one of the consequences of their faith. A recent article by Richard Carrier, “Ancient Industrial Machinery & Modern Christian Mythology,” prompted me to revisit his essay, “The Dark Ages,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails.

There was that famous Dark Age, long ago, but Christianity has by no means finished visiting terror on the world; many of the faithful remain in their own Dark Age even now, and they lash out, trying to draw the rest of us in. More about that later.At the outset of Carrier’s essay in the Loftus anthology, he provides this background:

• “Christianity did not cause the fall of the Roman Empire. Rather, that collapse allowed the rise of Christianity into total political and cultural power. The Dark Ages ensued, an era of widespread barbarity during which almost all the best values, technologies, knowledge, and achievements of the Greco-Roman era were forgotten or abandoned and had to be relearned and reinvented all over again many centuries later. (p. 209)

• “In this period Christianity neither corrected what had gone wrong nor reintroduced any striving for the dreams and aspirations of earlier Greek and Roman idealists, but to the contrary, Christianity embraced a partial and sometimes full retreat from them.” (p.209)
Carrier points out that the Dark Ages refers to

“… the cultural, political, intellectual, an economic deterioration (or indeed outright collapse) that occurred in Europe between the de facto fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE and the beginning of a slow rise in economic and cultural sophistication by the end of the tenth, a period of roughly five hundred years.” (p. 210)

What brought the deterioration and collapse? How is it that humans turned their backs on “the levels of knowledge and sophistication achieved in the High Roman Empire, from the first century BCE to the dawn of the third century CE…”?

A clue to the mindset can be seen in the fate of the Archimedes Codex, as Carrier describes it:

“…this contained many of the greatest scientific treatises of the pagan scientist Archimedes, but in the thirteenth century, within the Byzantine Empire, the ink on its pages was scraped off and the whole book reinscribed with hymns to God. That’s kind of what the Dark Ages were like in the West. Ditching science and knowledge and curiosity and achievement, and putting in its place constant mindless praying to a nonexistent deity.” (pp. 211-212)

Tragically, the ascendancy of Christianity meant the death of curiosity. Robert Ingersoll pointedly asked—as Christians never do—(in a classic essay included in the Loftus anthology):

“Did Christ or any of his apostles add the sum of useful knowledge? Did they say one word in favor of any science, of any art? Did they teach their fellow-men how do make a living, how to overcome the obstructions of nature, how to prevent sickness—how to protect themselves from pain, from famine, from misery and rags?” (p. 44)

The focus was quite the opposite. How can we calculate the damage done by a text like Matthew 6:25-33? In these verses—part of the overrated Sermon on the Mount—Jesus suggests that people not worry about what they’re going to eat, drink or wear. God will provide. And Jesus adds ridicule:

“For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (vv. 32-33)

“Strive first for the kingdom of God.” This is akin to the extremism that Jesus recommended elsewhere, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-3 All. All. All.Aside from those who have chosen a cloistered life, damn few Christians give much thought to this; it’s just one of those meaningless pieties that has a ring of holiness. It’s no surprise that the cult fanatics who wrote the New Testament had no interest whatever in art, literature, architecture; displayed no curiosity about how the world works and no interest in increasing the sum of human knowledge. “Strive first for the kingdom of God.”

Why bother with anything else, after all, since the Kingdom was just around the corner? Jesus promised that it would happen ‘before this generation passes away,’ and the apostle Paul was dead certain that Jesus would come on the clouds any day now. Getting ready for this was all that mattered. Why would there be any interest in “the levels of knowledge and sophistication achieved in the High Roman Empire”?

• “What is so devastatingly dark,” Carrier states, “is how much was lost, and how little got written (compared to the centuries just preceding and then following), and how vacuous almost everything written then was…the publishing and record keeping (documentary and literary) of the High Roman Empire was wildly more prodigious (including vast quantities of papyrological and epigraphical records as well as books and manuals and dictionaries and encyclopedias), but virtually none of it was preserved by the Christian stewards of the Dark Ages…” (p. 216)

• “…Christians weren’t responsible for the Dark Ages merely because they happened on their watch. Christianity itself is responsible for the Dark Ages—not just the causing of them (by failing to avert them) but the sustaining of them as well for five hundred years—by actually causing Christians to devalue and denigrate the values necessary for scientific, political, technological, and economic success…” (p. 220)
“Strive first for the kingdom of God.” And how did that work out?

• …Christianity dragged us down into the sewers of dystopia, and kept us there, and forced us to endure a long crawl back out, setting us back more than a thousand years on nearly every cultural and intellectual measure of human existence.” (p. 221)

In Carrier’s recent article that I mentioned above, he provides data on just how bad the Dark Ages were, from sources that probably don’t come to mind at the outset. For example, ice cores from Greenland, which “preserve the scale of industrial pollution caused by Roman commerce and industry,” show a dramatic drop during the Dark Ages. The same holds true for the number of shipwrecks, that is, the number declined as shipping itself went into steep decline. Population and urbanization provide another marker:

“The Dark Ages could support not even half the population of the ancient Roman Empire. That means tens of millions of people starved to death, and half of all cities fell into ruin or collapsed into mere villages. The horror of that should not escape your comprehension. The people who lived through this, lived through dark times indeed.”

“…tens of millions of people starved to death…” So much for Jesus’ daft suggestion that God will provide, so don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink. That’s not the way the world works.
Christians yearning for the good old Dark Ages

• Aggressive, arrogant endorsement of ignorance

Usually when Christians troll the Facebook page for my book, they tell me that I will end up in hell; they relish the thought of my final suffering. As one fellow put it, “…tell it all to Jesus on your death bed.” Occasionally I try to engage them on the issues, e.g., what do they think about some of the tough problems I discuss in my book? But they won’t have it; no one is interested. They’ve never thought about these problems, nor are they about to. Criticism of their faith—even curiosity about it—will not be tolerated.

This is but one symptom of much wider, deeper ignorance. These in-the-dark Christians, who have so little understanding of Christianity itself, distrust secular learning about nature and the Cosmos. With one foot in the modern world, they resist knowledge and inquiry, and rail against science and evolution. They have recently ascended to positions of power, which brings us closer to another Dark Age.

• In this Dark Age, we’re back to demons

Do you know that there is an official exorcist for Indianapolis? He is Father Vincent Lampert, and so far in 2018 he has received 1,700 requests for exorcisms. This according to an article in the December issue of The Atlantic:

“…belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.”

So, thank you Christianity, for embracing superstition and showing by example that science-based thinking about the world can be ignored. We can grieve even more that The Idiot-in-Chief is Pope Francis, who has recently blamed the church’s rampant sexual abuse scandal on the Satan.

• Keeping up the Dark Age for LGBT people

Where are we going to find moral leadership in the struggle against ignorance to protect the rights and health of gay, lesbian, and transgender people? It matters little if some Christians are on the side of justice when evangelical and Catholic zealots are among the foremost homophobes of the world, and aggressively pursue horrid policies of suppression and repression, conversion therapy being but one example. After winning marriage equality in the recent past, for example, we now hold our breath. The religious fanatics have friends in high places; will this progress be reversed?

The Dark Ages of ignorance about sexual orientation lasted until recent times, of course. It was only in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association finally conceded that homosexuality is not a disease or disorder. But the anti-LGBT crusaders have no interest in study and research—or listening with open minds and hearts to the experiences of gay and transgender people. A few barbaric Bible texts are all that matter.

• Misogyny and its many manifestations

On a par with demonology and hatred of gay people, however, is the ongoing religion-based subjugation of women. Subjugation of women, what are you talking about? God forbid that the guiltiest parties would ever admit that they are guilty. It will take a long time to climb out of the current Dark Age of Misogyny as long as the Catholic church remains officially, proudly, arrogantly, aggressively misogynistic.

No, fawning over Mary doesn’t get them off the hook. Patriarchal organizations are determined to keep women ‘in their place’—one obvious example, I suppose, being the denial of ordination to women. But the criminalization of abortion, either by church or civil law, is misogyny; condemnation and denial of contraception is misogyny—and these two brutal policies affect hundreds of millions of women. It remains a Dark Age for women when men dictate reproductive policy—and it is all the more odious when theology is offered as the justification (theology created by men, of course).

• Build, baby, build

How in the world can theologians, with a straight face, still claim that an all-powerful god, with enough gravitas to create the Cosmos, is narcissistic? That it demands worship and human groveling? Why would God require ongoing praise? How can that possibly make sense? Yet, under the pretext of ‘glorifying God,’ priests have been on a building binge for many hundreds of years. At last count (Sept 2018), the Catholic Church has 3,384 cathedral-level churches in the world—and that’s just the Catholics!

Is this really the best use of resources? It’s not hard at all to come up with a long list of other buildings that could be of greater benefit, serving human needs in much better ways. Make no mistake, however, ‘giving glory to God’ has been much less of factor in all this frenetic building than the endless fracturing of Christianity; every faction, for its prestige, has to have its own pile of masonry. At the outset I mentioned the horrendous damage that belief in God has done; this is but one example. But let’s not kid ourselves. Competition, vanity, and priestly egos have mattered far more than God’s glory.

One of the Christians who commented recently on my Facebook page gleefully mentioned Jesus’ promise of ‘war and rumors of war’ as a prelude to his return. He couldn’t wait for it all to come to pass. Indeed, the scariest contemporary Dark-Age-Christians are those who want to help the apocalypse along.
Moderate and liberal Christians, who take pride in their more reasonable faith, had better snap out of complacency and join forces with atheists to restrain their fanatic fellow Christians who remain on a rampage of damage.


Bio: David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.The above post is reposted with permission from the Debunking Christianity blog.

>>>> photo credits: By Carl Heinrich Bloch – and Carl Bloch, p. 313, ISBN 9788798746591, Public Domain, : By Geni – Photo by user:geni, Public Domain,

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  • Geoff Benson

    I see apologists have recently taken to try to justify the Dark Ages, making them out to be, not just not so bad as claimed, but even times of scientific, academic, and medical advances. What tosh, as you say in your article. From the barbarism of the Crusades, to the horrific exposure and treatment of women falsely accused of witchcraft, to the loss of life caused by outbreaks of ‘the plague’, all almost entirely attributable to the Church (in its various guises). I actually get seriously angry when I read accounts of the periods, not just with the undoubted benefit of hindsight, but also in the knowledge that so much acquired learning was deliberately and maliciously destroyed that could have advanced civilisation so much sooner.

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Nicely put, Geoff.

    • Dj C

      The primary period of witchhunts happened in the early modern/Renaissance era, starting about 500 years after the “Dark Ages” ended, finishing up during the Enlightenment. To a lesser extent and much more fuzziness, the patterns of the plague followed similar lines.

      • Geoff Benson

        You’re right, in the sense that the Dark Ages as we define them ended a few centuries before the main plague outbreaks and witch-hunts. The point is, however, that the lack of scientific progress during the Dark Ages, indeed regression to primitive superstition, allowed the two events to gain a much greater hold than may otherwise have been the case.

        • Dj C

          I dunno. There was far more scientific progress going on in the 350 years before the main black death outbreak than there was in pretty much the entirety of the Roman Empire. The stagnation of science and philosophy really began in the 200s, long before the dark ages took a foothold or Christianity took over.

  • carolyntclark

    Five Star article, David…. dismissing science/ climate change, anticipating the end times, denigrating equal rights, increased interest in exorcism, religious ignorance rolling downhill to the dark ages… fanatical efforts to establish a theocracy. Happy New Tear.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I’m guessing “Happy New Tear” was not a typo.

      • carolyntclark

        It was a typo. But I think I like it. 🙂

        • ElizabetB.

          Yes! It perfectly catches this year in politics!!!!!! Thank you! (But I did shed a good tear seeing all the diversity in the House at swearing-in)

    • Thank you, Carolyn, and my thanks to Linda for republishing it from the Debunking Christianity Blog!

  • Scott Stahlecker

    Having been in the church (like many of us) I can say that I had little appreciation for the role that religion has played in curtailing the advancement of our species. My thoughts at the time likely mirror those of believers today in that, “if Jesus is coming tomorrow, why bother making a better world?” We are still, very much, living in the dark ages. Take Heliocentrism. The scientific knowledge that the planets revolve around the sun was first theorized in the 3rd century BCE by Aristarchus, then popularized by Galileo in 1633. The church attempted to silence Galileo and bury the factual evidence, and not until 1992 in a NY Times article did it apologize for it’s actions. One can only imagine the degree to which many fields of science were stalled during the span of roughly 4000 years it took people to accept the simple fact of Heliocentrism. And yet… some people still believe the earth is flat.

  • Mark Rutledge

    All history is story, but not all story is history

  • See Noevo

    The Church caused the “Dark Ages”?
    Maybe it was just the opposite.
    Maybe it was the Church which largely saved the world from darkness…

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower


      Preserving knowledge is NOT the same as nurturing it so it grows.

      Doesn’t your ‘bible’ have something to say about the servant who hid/buried his ‘talents’ instead of investing them for growth?

    • Raging Bee

      Yeah, they were “saving the world from darkness” when they were supporting an unwinnable war against a far more advanced civilization who were actually USING ancient knowledge, not just hoarding it. Keep telling yourself that if it helps you feel better…

    • Geoff Benson

      Ah, if only it were true.

  • Jake Blair

    And now science has provided the tools to destroy civilization in a day…not to mention the ability to kill, torture, and brainwash millions in the meantime. Progress!

    • Maine_Skeptic

      “And now science has provided the tools to destroy civilization in a day…not to mention the ability to kill, torture, and brainwash millions in the meantime. Progress!”

      Science has identified and fixed more problems in the past 200 years than religion fixed in the ten thousand years before that. Our biggest problem today isn’t too much knowledge, but a lack of awareness about how easily human beings fool themselves and manipulate each other. These days, at least 35% of the population doesn’t believe in facts; what’s true is what they feel. It’s clear that they’d rather destroy all sources of objective information than face the facts that they themselves are the source of the stink they smell. There are always powerful sociopaths around who know how to use group delusion to their own advantage, and so it is now.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…Moderate and liberal Christians, who take pride in their more reasonable faith, had better snap out of complacency and join forces with atheists to restrain their fanatic fellow Christians who remain on a rampage of damage.”

    How we accomplish that restraint is the key to the future. There’s an especially sick human dynamic at work, and if we try to crush it from the outside, we’ll just get sucked into it ourselves. We can’t win by treating them like they treat everyone else, but that temptation is going to seem irresistible.