By now, those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have probably figured-out that I consider myself to be a rationalist. I assume that nearly everybody, if pressed, would consider themselves to be a ‘rational person’ (even if they might jokingly suggest otherwise or, indeed, are not), but what I mean when I say that I am a “rationalist” is that, ideologically, I believe that only information gathered by the senses (or extrapolated logically therefrom) should go in to informing ones beliefs, with sufficient safeguards in check (the scientific method) to prevent the formation of false certainties. As, I think, a natural consequence of this ideology, I tend to view organized religion with a suspicious eye.
That said, there’s really no way around the fact that this poster, which has been making its way through skeptical/atheist communities, is pretty stupid.
Where do I begin with this?
First of all, what it reflects is a very old-fashioned (“Enlightenment”-era, in fact) view of history as being a linear sort of progression from the golden age of Ancient Egypt, through to the soaring glories of Ancient Greece and Rome, with the “dark ages” emerging out of nowhere as a regressive, thousand-year abberation, only to be wiped-away immediately after Columbus reached the New World, when everyone spontaneously decided to start reading old manuscripts and painting really good pictures of naked people. When Sid Meier’s Civilization series uses this model of history as a game-play mechanic, I am forgiving; when people try to use it as the basis of a rational argument* I am less so. The fact of the matter is that the dark ages** were not an abberation. The (Western) Roman Empire did not just magically fall; everyone in Europe did not go to bed with centurions and aqueducts one day and wake-up with knights and castles the next morning. Rather, the Roman Empire spent centuries rotting from the inside out***, and while Christianity was gaining in influence during this period, it was not the cause; rather, it was an effect; it gained in popularity with the masses primarily because it’s charitable institutions and doctrine of a paradisical afterlife filled a wide societal need among the enormous Roman underclass. Now, one could make an argument that, once established, the Christian church helped to make a bad situation worse (one could point, for example, to the Christian persecution of Hypatia of Alexandria, or Justinian shutting down the last of the philosophical academies) but you could also make an opposing argument that the Church was–by far–the largest single patron of Natural Philosophy in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Now, it was an imperfect sort of Natural Philosophy, one which insisted on interpreting everything through a doctrinal lens****, but the point that I must stress is that, if the Church hadn’t been sponsoring it, than no one in Europe would have been.
What’s more, this graph is unpardonably Eurocentric; during the so-called “Christian Dark Ages,” Islamic Civilization was having its golden age of science and literature–scholarship, incidentally, which did an awful lot to provoke the Renaissance in Europe. Surely if Christianity is bad for “scientific progress,” then Islam (another doctrinal, faith-based, monotheistic religion) should be just as bad.
I could go on, but I can only flog this point so hard. I will say only that I am annoyed when my fellow Rationalists make completely irrational arguments in the name of rationalism.
*Or, in this case, a jingoistic mnemonic to be used as a short-hand for a rational argument.
**a term, incidentally, which refers not to the social conditions, but to the relative lack of written records from the period between the Visogothic sack of Rome and the crowing of Charlemagne three hundred years later, and which no serious historian actually uses anymore.
***There is, in fact, a rather famous series of books on the subject.
****I can barely think of a single scholar who didn’t have to defend himself against charges of heresy at some point.