When religion ruled the world, it was called the dark ages, or was it?
I’ve often seen the atheist meme which has the line, ‘When religion ruled the world, it was called the dark ages’. The quote is usually attributed to Ruth Hurmence Green.
The quote is a clever sound bite, witty, memorable and seems to be fairly popularly popularly believed. But is it true?
The other day I was reading an interesting and influential article by historian Lynn White called ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’. It was a fascinating article where White effectively laid the blame for modern ecological problems on Christian theology. The issues White raises are interesting in their own right (and worthy of another blog post), but it was White’s analysis of history, most notably that of history during the ‘Dark Ages’ that piqued my interest.
I was intrigued to read his historical analysis of scientific and technological advances throughout the Middle Ages, part of the period claimed to be the “Dark Ages”. Now it is a little unclear when the Dark Ages ‘officially’ end, some place it at the 10th Century and others claim it to be the 15th Century. Nevertheless, the claim is that after the collapse of the Roman Empire at the end of the 5th Century, Christianity dominated the world, which led to intellectual stagnation, barbarism and technological decline.
Yet White’s analysis reveals that many important technological advances were made throughout these ‘dark ages’. In fact he claims that the midst of the ‘Dark Ages’ provided the seeds for leadership science and technology in the West (well before both the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century or the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century).
By A.D. 1000 at the latest–and perhaps, […] as much as 200 years earlier–the West began to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation. Those who doubt should contemplate that most monumental achievement in the history of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which appeared in two forms in the early 14th century. Not in craftsmanship but in basic technological capacity, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages far outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister cultures, Byzantium and Islam.
White also outlines major advances made in ‘exploitative’ agricultural techniques from as early as the 7th Century. He says that
Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?
Effectively the change in agricultural practice (which led to the technological progress and ‘scientific revolution) was based on larger ‘intellectual patterns’, which during these ‘Dark Ages’ were profoundly and uniquely influenced by Christian theology.
White concludes that at the end of the so called ‘Dark Ages’ in the 15th Century, ‘the technological superiority of Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing.’
White then claims that we owe the ‘scientific revolution’ to the foundation laid during the ‘Dark Ages’.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages
Hence we can draw a fairly direct link between Christianity and science.
The consistency with which scientists during the long formative centuries of Western science said that the task and the reward of the scientist was “to think God’s thoughts after him” leads one to believe that this was their real motivation. If so, then modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus.
Interestingly the end result of the long gestation period of Christian ‘dominance’ during the Dark Ages was the birth of science.
Therefore the ‘Dark Ages’ were not really that dark after all. Rather than religion being the cause of stagnation, barbarism and regress, it was Christianity throughout these ‘Dark Ages’ which gave the intellectual impetus and foundation to enormously successful progress, technological advance and modern science.