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Christianity and the Suppression of Greek Rationalism

Armed with the words of Jesus and Paul condemning reason and philosophy, the early church fathers, with more than a little help from the Christian Roman emperors, were to carry on this disparagement of secular thought until it was completely extinguished in the sixth century.

  • It must be remembered that Greek science was alive and well during the beginning of the Christian era.

  • From its very earliest days however Christian theologians elevated faith over reason and did everything they could to discourage the use of rational thinking among their flock.

  • The result of this concerted attack was predictable, when Christianity gained ascendancy, rationalism was suppressed and unreasoned reigned for close to a thousand years. Knowledge that was "christianized" became ossified and became almost as sacred as the scriptures themselves.

  • As an epilogue we must remember that although we have "recovered" somewhat from the dark ages - helped along by the enlightenment, the age of reason and the advent of modern science - Christian anti-rationalism has never been completely eradicated and indeed continues to grow in the present day.

Greek Science Between 250 BCE and 250 CE

Greek science and philosophy was alive and well in the couple of centuries before and after the birth of the Christian era. Archimedes (c287-212 BCE) laid down the foundation of hydrostatics (remember Archimedes' principle?) and some areas of mathematics. Eratosthenes (297-196 BCE) calculated the size of the earth's global diameter to a figure very close to the modern calculated one. Hipparchus of Nicaea (c190-120 BCE) measured the distance of the moon from the earth and came up with a figure comparable to modern ones. Aristarchus of Samothrace (fl. c156 BCE), postulated that it was the sun and not the earth that was the center of the universe. Galen (129-199 CE) made some far reaching discoveries in the field of medicine including the function of the arteries and the workings of the nervous system. Although his fundamental geocentric assumption was wrong, Ptolemy (fl. 2nd century CE) improved on earlier astronomical observations and was able to predict the movements of the sun, moon and the planets with some accuracy. Ptolemy was also the person who established the use of coordinates on maps. [1]

More important than the discoveries and hypothesis of the Greek intellection tradition was the underlying paradigm of rationality. Knowledge was empirical and cumulative. Theories and hypothesis were accepted only as far as it could be supported by empirical observation and were not based on blind acceptance of past authorities.

For example, Aristotle (c384-322 BCE) in his Historia Animalium, an introduction to biology, carefully laid out his observations of how to differentiate an animal from a plant. He discussed the difficulty in classifying living things such as sponges which reacted like animals when they are pulled from a rock by clinging onto it. In that sense it was like an animal. Yet it cannot live "free" detached from the rock, which makes it like a plant. He did not dogmatically laid down categories which he then try to pigeonhole all living things into.

Aristotle, of course, was an imposing figure in Greek science and philosophy. Yet his findings were not accepted as sacrosanct and were continuously questioned by later Greek thinkers. Theophrastus (c370-285 BCE), the successor of Aristotle continued the work Aristotle did in the life sciences but he did not simply take what his predecessor taught as the gospel truth.

One such example was the idea of spontaneous generation. Unable to find out how eels spawned, Aristotle has suggested the that they could have been spontaneously generated from mud. Theophrastus examined many claimed cases of spontaneous generation and found that in many cases (especially in plants) living things grew from seeds that were initially too small to be noticeable to the naked eye. His suggestion as to the validity of spontaneous generation as a possible explanation for the origin of some animals is to call for more investigation of the empirical evidence. Note that he was not prepared to accept Aristotle's suggestion but made his own independent investigation as far as his observational methods would allow. [2]

As Charles Freeman summarizes in his recent book The Closing of the Western Mind: This Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason:

Anyone, even an Aristotle, could be challenged by what comes after...There can be certainty, in mathematics for instance...[but] for the most part...knowledge is always provisional, not restricted to an elite...This was the mainstream of Greek intellectual tradition. One had to distinguish between what could be known for certain and what could not be and develop tests and methods or argument that could be universally accepted.[3]

Indeed this Greek intellectual paradigm is not far from the scientific paradigm we have today. Why did it take almost two millennia to go from Greek philosophy to modern science? Well something got in the way. That something was the reason-devouring, faith-spouting, monster called Christianity.

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The Elevation of Faith and the Disparagement of Reason

We have seen earlier how the New Testament was fundamentally anti-intellectual. The church fathers and Christian theologians were to take this particular aspect to the New Testament teaching to heart.

Tertullian (c160-230) denounced philosophy as the demon inspired mother of all heresies. He asserted, quite correctly, that it was through thinking and reasoning that heretical ideas are born. He advised Christians not to think critically about one's belief and to take the path of blind acceptance. To him all kinds of rational thinking becomes superfluous after the revelation of the gospels. Tertullian's contempt for philosophy and learning can clearly be seen in this rhetorical outburst from his work Prescription Against Heresies: "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy?" In the same work he called Aristotle wretched and disparaged the tentative investigative nature of Greek science as "self-stultifying...ever handling questions but never settling them." In place of this he suggested blind faith: "The Son of God died; it must be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible." [4]

Origen (c185-254) continued along this line. In his polemical work Contra Celsum this is what he had to say about reason, faith and the multitude of ordinary Christians:

As this matter of faith...we accept it as useful for the multitude, and that we admittedly teach those who cannot abandon everything and pursue a study of rational argument to believe without thinking out their arguments. [5]

In other words, since the multitudes do not have the time, the inclination nor the aptitude to understand, Origen recommended that they simply believe what is being fed to them from the pulpit!

Lactantius (c240-c320 CE), a Christian apologist and tutor to one of Constantine's sons, condemned all forms of secular knowledge and pure science:

What purpose does knowledge serve-for as to natural causes, what blessing is there for me to know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the "scientists" rave about? [6]

St. Basil "the Great" (c330-379 CE) called on Christians to "prefer the simplicity of faith to the demonstrations of reason." He argued that time spent "on the research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the Church." His brother St. Gregory of Nyssa (c330-c395 CE) argued that coherent, reasoned argument is not necessary because "The human voice was fashioned for one reason alone-to be the threshold through which the sentiments of the heart...might be translated clearly into the Word itself." [7]

Another fourth century theologian, John Chyrsostom (c347-407 CE) called on all Christians to:

Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words. [8]

Thus according to John Chyrsostom, an unreasoning ("restrain our reasoning") and ignorant ("empty our minds of secular learning") mind is the perfect vehicle for receiving the word of God.

St. Philaster (d. c397 CE), bishop of Brescia, whose work on the refutation of heresies was used by St. Augustine, denounced all attempts at empirical knowledge as heresy. Ascribing the occurrence of all natural phenomena to the power of God, he called philosophers "foolish" for trying to discover the natural causes of events such as earthquakes. [9]

St. Augustine (354-430) fitted into this anti-rationalistic tradition. Although early in his career he seem to have held that reason was an important element in the search for truth, things soon changed. Upon becoming bishop of Hippo, he started to deride all forms of secular learning and education. He abused Greek philosophy and called Plato "a fool". He labeled philosophers as "arrogant" and, in line with the New Testament, he taught that "it is the ignorant who enter heaven." Augustine believed that the Fall (of Adam and Eve) corrupted humankind to the extend where they are incapable of using their independent reason to discover the truth. To Augustine, if God wanted to let humankind know something about the world he would have revealed it unambiguously through his word; if God has chosen not to reveal something, then it means that he does not intend humankind to know. [10]

Later on we find Pope Gregory the Great (c540-604) making this shuddering pronouncement: "The wise should be advised to cease from their knowledge." A chilling call to end all rational thought. Thinking about "cause and effect", according to Gregory, blinds one to the ultimate cause, which is God. [11]

Thus secular, scientific, knowledge becamed labelled as, at best, irrelevant-since it does not teach one the "really important things" about God- and, at worst, heretical-since it could lead one to the wrong set of beliefs. The net effect of all these was simple and devastating: independent thought and skepticism became entrenched in the western psyche as sins. Right beliefs defined by the ecclesiastical authorities, rather than the methods by which these beliefs were arrived at, became the sole arbiter of virtue.

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The Suppression of Rational Thought

Of course, encouraging their ever growing flock to eschew rational thinking and disparaging reason and pagan philosophers were not the only things the early Christians did. Once Christianity attained political power in the fourth century, they actively sought to suppress Greek philosophy and learning.

Christians took every opportunity to attack educated pagans, in some cases even murdering them. The most famous case is that of Hypathia of Alexandria. Hypathia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon. She was certainly one of the most learned individual of her time. She taught and elucidated Greek mathematics and philosophy. She lectured widely in Athens and Alexandria. But her popularity and her intelligence, coupled with her lack of interest in Christianity, irritated the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril (d.444). Acting in the interest of their patriarch, the Alexandrian monks murdered Hypathia in the year 415. [12] The cruelty of the method of her murder can be seen by the description of it by Gibbon:

On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypathia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics; her flesh was scrapped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypathia has imprinted an indelible strain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria. [13]

It should be mentioned that, for his relentless defense of orthodoxy and, as an obvious corollary, his zealous destruction of heretics and infidels (such as Hypathia), Cyril is considered a saint by the Christian church.

As we have shown elsewhere, Christians, wherever and whenever they were in a position to do so, attacked and destroyed the repositories of knowledge, namely books and libraries. In 363-364, the Christian emperor Jovian, ordered the pagan library in Antioch to be burnt. Around the year 372, the Christian emperor Valens (d.378), as part of his persecution of pagans, ordered the burning of non-Christian books in Antioch. Then in 391, perhaps the greatest intellectual tragedy of all, the great library of Alexandria (which was reputed to house 700,000 books on all subjects) was destroyed by a group of monks led by Theophilus (d.412), bishop of Alexandria. Pope Gregory The Great (c.540-604) was the person responsible for destroying the last collection of older Roman works in the city. Up to the fifth century many Greco Roman cities had libraries which housed more than 100,000 books. These were all destroyed by the Christians. [14]

The results of these concerted actions were predictable: secular learning and the sciences declined drastically. The last recorded observation in astronomy by the ancient Greek world was in 475 CE. It was made by the Athenian philosopher, Proclus. [It would be another one thousand years, with the publication of Copernicus'(1473-1543) On the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies in 1543, before astronomy was to advance again.] [15]

In the sixth century, the Christian emperor Justinian (483-565), brought the full weight of Roman law against paganism and all things pagan. The death penalty was imposed on those who practiced paganism. Pagan philosophers were banned and their license to teach were withdrawn. Justinian also aimed at specific pagan centers of learning. In 529, he closed Plato's Academy in Athens, a center of learning with a 900 year history. With its closing, the last remaining voice of Greek learning was silenced. With its closing, the dark ages began-plunging the western world into [almost] a thousand years of intellectual wilderness. [16]

Knowledge that was deemed "acceptable" or could be "Christianized", such as the works of Plato, Galen and Ptolemy were absorbed into a restrictive intellectual culture and became ossified. Questioning of these works, like questioning the scriptures were no longer allowed. Skepticism and independent thinking became too risky, for the punishments in this world and the next were simply too great for the average person to bear. [17]

As Charles Freeman asserted in his recent book The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason:

So one finds a combination of factors behind "the closing of the western mind": the attack on Greek philosophy by Paul, the adoption of Platonism by Christian theologians and the enforcement of orthodoxy by emperors desperate to keep good orders... [T]he Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed rather than simply faded away. [18]

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Of course the forces of unreason within Christianity did not die out with the rediscovery of Greek works in the twelfth century or with the Renaissance in the fifteenth. The anti-rationalistic spirit lives on in Christian tradition.

The most well known middle age devotional classic also exhibited this anti-intellectual inclination. The book called The Imitation of Christ (1418), and written by the German mystic, Thomas A. Kempis (c1380-1471), advises the reader against acquiring too much knowledge:

Restrain an inordinate desire for knowledge, in which is found much anxiety and deception ... a man is unwise if he occupies himself with anything save those that further his salvation ... The more complete and excellent knowledge, the more severe will be God's judgment on you...[19]

Like Paul, Kempis taught that knowledge is useless as it does not help one achieve salvation:

At the day of judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; ... Tell me, where are now all those masters and Doctors whom you knew so well in their lifetime in the full flower of their learning? ... they are hardly ever called to mind. In their lifetime they seem of great account, but now no one speaks of them. [20]

The protestant reformers did not attempt to reform this attitude; they fitted into the same mould. Martin Luther (1483-1546) called reason "the devil's whore." To him the doctrine taught in the Bible are not to be questioned for he believed that reason can corrupt the Christian faith. He once mentioned that if God commanded him to go to the field to eat an ear of corn, he would do it no matter how ludicrous it seemed. [21] Luther obviously meant that to be a positive statement of his complete faith in God. To the skeptic, however, it is such thinking that causes much harm and misery in the world. For if one can be asked to act, and at the same time suspend his moral and rational judgment, the situation is ripe for atrocities to occur. And, as we have seen, it did occur, countless of times throughout history: in the crusades, the witch hunts, the Inquisition, and the wars of religion.

Luther's Catholic counterpart, St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, in his book Rules For Thinking Within The Church taught a simple rule for believers to follow when their reason contradicts their faith: "If the church should have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appear white, we ought in like manner pronounce it black." [22]

This anti-intellectual, anti rational attitude of Christians (especially among fundamentalists) extends to this day. Given below is a statement by an American politician in the 1930's:

Read the Bible. It teaches you how to act. Read the hymn book. It contains the finest poetry ever written. Read the almanac. It shows you how to figure out what the weather will be. There isn't another book that is necessary for anyone to read, and therefore I am opposed to all libraries. [23]

With the rise of modern creationism, the oxy-moronic intelligent-design creationism and the election of a fundamentalist [24] to the U.S. presidency, it is not at all improbable that we may be staring at the abyss, the beginning of a new dark age.

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1.Asimov, Asimov's Chronology of the World: p75-76, 81 & 97
Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: p43, 61 & 66
2.Freeman, op.cit: p20-22
3.ibid: p22
4.Beckmann, History of Pi: p80
Freeman, op.cit: p272-273
Miller, God and Reason: p119
5.Macmullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: p32
6.Freeman, op.cit: p316
7.ibid: p315-316
8.ibid: p316
9.ibid: p316
10.ibid: p283-288
McCabe, Social Record of Christianity: p31
11.Freeman, op.cit: p302-303
12.Robertson, History of Christianity: p116
13.Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: p601
14.Beckmann, History of Pi: p80
Forbes, C. "Books for the Burning"Transactions of the American Philological Society 67 (1936): p114-25
McCabe, Social Record of Christianity: p29,32
15.Freeman, op.cit: p322
16.Asimov, op. cit.: p113
Freeman, op.cit: p268-269
17.ibid: p317-319
18.ibid: pxviii, p340
19.Kempis, The Imitation of Christ: p28-29
20.Ibid: p31
21.Montgomery, Damned Through The Church: p60-61
22.Ward, Dictionary of Common Fallacies II: p87
23.Godfrey, Scientists Confront Creationism: p30
24.Edmund Cohen, "The Religiosity of George W. Bush", Free Inquiry Vol 24 No. 4 June/July 2004 p38-40

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