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When religion ruled the world, it was called the dark ages, or was it?

November 18, 2014

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.

From → Comment, History

  1. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.


  2. I read in an interesting biography of Augustine recently, which was set in the context of how philosophy and academics has changed from Socrates through twelve figures to Nietzsche. The part on Augustine was fascinating and disturbing. I’ll see if I can find the time tonight to quote what I thought were some particularly powerful closing paragraphs as it seems particularly relevant to this topic.

    • Thanks Witty. Would be keen to hear those thoughts. I have also read Rodney Stark on this topic and he makes some very powerful comments. I was thinking of incorporating them into my post, but thought best to leave them for another one.

  3. James Garth permalink

    A particularly profitable resource on this topic is James Hannam’s book “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science”. The book, which was widely acclaimed and shortlisted by the Royal Society for Science Book of the Year, subjects the many pervasive myths regarding the “Dark-Ages” to careful, sober historical scrutiny:

    “This is a powerful and a thrilling narrative history revealing the roots of modern science in the medieval world. The adjective ‘medieval’ has become a synonym for brutality and uncivilized behavior. Yet without the work of medieval scholars there could have been no Galileo, no Newton and no Scientific Revolution. In “God’s Philosophers”, James Hannam debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth is flat, nor did Columbus ‘prove’ that it is a sphere; the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution; no Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. “God’s Philosophers” is a celebration of the forgotten scientific achievements of the Middle Ages – advances which were often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity and Islam. Decisive progress was also made in technology: spectacles and the mechanical clock, for instance, were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, “God’s Philosophers” brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine, as well as putting into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

  4. Ed Atkinson permalink

    The influence of Islam was vital too. The ancient Greek texts came to us via Islam. For a while the Islamic world was well ahead of the West in civilization and learned culture.

  5. “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.”

    The leap to causation is a logical fallacy. Religion during the Dark Ages … and following … allowed for immense brutality to “non-Christians” and supported theft through imperialism and colonialism. Da Vinci, for example, was highly political in his process to avoid sanction … Galileo was less successful, but also had to work to avoid sanctions.

    If you’ve forgotten, the European religious TORTURED the leaders of technological advancement far into the 18th century … and bypassed contributions from Asians and Africans who had greatly influenced the Greeks and Romans in what was then not far off ancient times.

    I would posit that Henry VIII’s break from Rome without a subsequent cataclysmic direct intervention by G-d was a key turning point. In fact, Elizabeth I’s subsequent stable rule (giving evidence to extraordinary leadership from a feminist perspective, I might add), could be considered an essential building block to the Enlightenment because it destabilized Catholicism … as could be the successful colonial rebellion leading to the creation of the United States where technology for “good” versus exploitation later took hold.

    Early European technology was used primarily to advance exploitation. Period. Most if not all of European growth and current wealth can be traced back to imperialism and colonialism — and their patented disdain for enlightenment outside of wealth-building, with some notable power players struggling to keep education from the many in the US.

    Bret Weinstein does a great job of identifying landmass, technological and transfer frontiers, which are pertinent generalizations to employ when considering the role of religion in technological enlightenment and advancement.

  6. John Tye. permalink

    Your just picking out the small tivial things the only decent things that happened over the whole reign of the church ..the dark ages .. sence then our world has exploded . How many scientist that could have made our world better 2 ..3 hundred years ago without religion died for mentioning or even letting someone know they had a thought that somting other then God moved the air so many example but you’ll throw so many excuse this is just my OWN thoughts made on my own Looking through history which would have had me hung for blasphemy in those cruel ages

    • John Tye. permalink

      Remove the top post lol this is going to be like Riding a dead donkey over tacks

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