I have another book to put on my Christmas list. I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work. Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer. The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology. He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity. (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history. In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)
One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.
Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing. I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no. Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.
It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.
In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.
Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .
Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.
Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.