Beyond Binary Thinking. Atheist & Christian Hypocrisy and History

September 11, 2018

 

The stories of Christians being fed to the lions come largely from the morality plays of the Middle ages. Though there are examples of Christians (along with every other minority outgroup) being persecuted, few historians have found reliable sources depicting such barbarism. Indeed the Roman Empire (originally Polytheistic) was more tolerant than many empires with regards to religious freedom.

The United States also has many creation myths that those who've passed through their school system can probably remember. One is that pilgrims, fled religious persecution in Europe, to be free in the New World.

A more precise description would be that the Puritans fell out of power, and were unable to persecute everyone else. At their zenith, they tried to ban Shakespeare’s plays, and smash stained glass windows in churches. They fled to America to be free to persecute each other, and would go on to make their own society miserable (see prohibition and the Westboro Baptist Church).


r/badhistory is filled with atheist creation myths. Although religious people have well documented and dubious parables, it’s fascinating to observe that the same thing has happened in self-proclaimed “rational” atheist groups. The mechanisms warrant further study, but it’s fairly straightforward to understand how group identity, retelling of stories, and self serving biases lead to people remembering and repeating the versions that paint their ingroup in a positive light.

 

The intention of our discussion was never to score a point for the religious, but merely to highlight that many of those that claim rational superiority, have adopted the same tribalistic biases as many of their religious brothers and sisters (who oft claim the moral high ground).
 

Once we understand that Christians were neither persecuted martyrs, nor destroyers of scientific advancement, the history of religion can be understood with much more nuance.

A creationist with a literal reading of the King James version of the Bible is an easy straw man to ridicule. That’s why it’s so fascinating to find atheists claiming to be enlightened and rational, falling into the same self serving biases and believing (without fact checking) their own revisionist history.


A most fascinating history of Christianity, occurs when the declining Roman Empire, rebrands itself as the Holy Roman Empire. With its promise of economic growth (and threat of military power) strangled by a corrupt and bureaucratic empire, it pivoted to claim dominion of the gates to the afterlife.


The Atheist creation myth, popularised by Carl Sagan (and more recently Neil de Grasse Tyson in the series Cosmos) just doesn’t fit into how modern historians discuss the period.

 

During the Crusades (In the 12th Century) the Muslims were blamed for burning the Great Library of Alexandria (500 years prior). During the Protestant Reformation, it was popular to blame the Catholic church for it.

 

The resulting myth is that Christianity intentionally burned heretical and scientific knowledge, plunging the world into the dark ages, and setting back the progress of society by thousands of years with inquisitions and crusades.

 

Were we all rescued by the enlightening age of the reformation, where we were freed from the shackles of organised religion to live in a world run by reason and scientists?


How inaccurate. Monks were the only printing presses Europe had at the time. The so called dark ages saw the invention of the novel, wind and watermills, modern universities, clocks, and logarithms. They combined mathematics and physics for the first time, during a period where many lived longer in less repressive empires.

Thomas Aquinas finally freed philosophy from an obsession with Aristotle. Italian historians and Classics teachers probably mourn the loss of the Roman Empire more than the conquered peasants (forcibly subjugated under massive empires) ever did. Europe entered a period of relative peace and prosperity, fragmented, but more recognisable to today.

There have been multiples renaissances, depending on your cultural perspective. In the 12th century, Christian clerics reached out to their Muslim and Jewish counterparts in Spain to translate texts. The merging of Greek, Christian, and Muslim ideas has happened many times. Our high school history education celebrates when it happened amongst the rich merchants classes in Venice, and that has stuck with us. Probably because those people feel closer to modern society than the monks that were doing the same thing 500 years before.

 

It's somewhat inaccurate to portray the Crusades as entirely religious, or in the light of modern colonialism. The fourth Crusade saw the crusaders excommunicated after attacking the Christian city of Zara on behalf of the Venetians. They then sacked Christian Constantinople, in order to refill their empty coffers. I’m not claiming religions are blameless, but the motives seem more to do with power and finance than the opponents of religion like to suggest.

 

 

Likewise the myth that Galileo was arrested by a science disabling church for claiming the sun was at the centre of the solar system is an over-simplistic misrepresentation.

 

I’m not about to defend the excesses of the Inquisition, but let’s be fair here. Galileo was busy refuting Kepler’s claim that the moon caused the tides, that orbits were elliptical, and that comets could be further away than the moon.

 

At the same time, he dedicated his writings to the pope, while getting involved in religious political squabbles and writing snide derisions of the Jesuits.


Yes, Galileo was a victim of house arrest, but this was the height of the inquisition, and so tensions were understandably high in the power struggle with Protestantism. To portray Galileo's story as science versus religion is somewhat disingenuous.

For decades, he was invited by subsequent popes to discuss the differing models of the solar system. Galileo wrote a book called ‘The Simpleton’, where he quoted the geocentric pope as the titular character.

 

The fact that Galileo's sentence was house arrest, is not the narrative of a persecuted martyr, but more that of a scientist lacking any diplomacy and social nuance. He criticised The Pope from within the inner circle, during extreme political tensions, and yet was allowed to continue to write and share scientific theories.

Indeed, Einstein referred Galileo’s later works as the foundation of modern physics. Considering how outspoken he was of the Pope and senior religio-political factions at the time, his light sentence says more about the leniency of the inquisition than the suppressive nature of the church.


There’s a more interesting discussion to have than:
Are Christians or Atheists smarter, which group is more moral?

To understand people's religious beliefs, requires thinking on more than one dimension.

 

Are you spiritual?

 

Are you opposed to organised religion?

 

Do you think organised religions should have any power, and if so, should that be separated from the state?

 

How about your feelings towards members of religious organisations?

 

What’s your take on the history of the Catholic Church?

Are you more sympathetic to the Protestant churches, or do you think all religions have the same key flaw?

 

Do you consider religions fundamentally the same, or quite different?

 

Are some religions superior to others?

 

How tolerant are you to other people's differing beliefs?


Each of these questions provides a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the different dimensions that are necessary to consider people’s beliefs when discussing atheists, agnostics, and believers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please, let’s take the topic of religion beyond binary thinking.

 

 

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