The Christian Dark Ages—Then and Now

The ongoing rampage of damage
The folks in the pews commonly assume that they have bragging rights about their religion. God is Their Mighty Fortress—we owe that image Martin Luther—which itself a great good for humankind, but they assume that Christianity itself now stands as a fortress again the moral decay threatening our society. By the careful exercise of selective memory, they can list so many ways—thousands of ways, I’m sure—in which the church does good work. But this is a distortion of the truth. It would take a lot of good to compensate for the horrendous damage that Christianity has done, indeed that belief in God has done.

I could list the atrocities that are commonly recited, but here I want to focus on that five-hundred year period of suffering that Christians should acknowledge as one of the consequences of their faith. A recent article by Richard Carrier, “Ancient Industrial Machinery & Modern Christian Mythology,” prompted me to revisit his essay, “The Dark Ages,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails.

There was that famous Dark Age, long ago, but Christianity has by no means finished visiting terror on the world; many of the faithful remain in their own Dark Age even now, and they lash out, trying to draw the rest of us in. More about that later.

At the outset of Carrier’s essay in the Loftus anthology, he provides this background:

• “Christianity did not cause the fall of the Roman Empire. Rather, that collapse allowed the rise of Christianity into total political and cultural power. The Dark Ages ensued, an era of widespread barbarity during which almost all the best values, technologies, knowledge, and achievements of the Greco-Roman era were forgotten or abandoned and had to be relearned and reinvented all over again many centuries later. (p. 209)

• “In this period Christianity neither corrected what had gone wrong nor reintroduced any striving for the dreams and aspirations of earlier Greek and Roman idealists, but to the contrary, Christianity embraced a partial and sometimes full retreat from them.” (p.209)

Carrier points out that the Dark Ages refers to

“… the cultural, political, intellectual, an economic deterioration (or indeed outright collapse) that occurred in Europe between the de facto fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE and the beginning of a slow rise in economic and cultural sophistication by the end of the tenth, a period of roughly five hundred years.” (p. 210)

What brought the deterioration and collapse? How is it that humans turned their backs on “the levels of knowledge and sophistication achieved in the High Roman Empire, from the first century BCE to the dawn of the third century CE…”?

A clue to the mindset can be seen in the fate of the Archimedes Codex, as Carrier describes it:

“…this contained many of the greatest scientific treatises of the pagan scientist Archimedes, but in the thirteenth century, within the Byzantine Empire, the ink on its pages was scraped off and the whole book reinscribed with hymns to God. That’s kind of what the Dark Ages were like in the West. Ditching science and knowledge and curiosity and achievement, and putting in its place constant mindless praying to a nonexistent deity.” (pp. 211-212)

Tragically, the ascendancy of Christianity meant the death of curiosity. Robert Ingersoll pointedly asked—as Christian never do—(in a classic essay included in the Loftus anthology):

“Did Christ are any of his apostles add the sum of useful knowledge? Did they say one word in favor of any science, of any art? Did they teach their fellow-men how do make a living, how to overcome the obstructions of nature, how to prevent sickness—how to protect themselves from pain, from famine, from misery and rags?” (p. 44)

The focus was quite the opposite. How can we calculate the damage done by a text like Matthew 6:25-33? In these verses—part of the overrated Sermon on the Mount—Jesus suggests that people not worry about what they’re going to eat, drink or wear. God will provide. And Jesus adds ridicule: “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (vv. 32-33)

“Strive first for the kingdom of God.” This is akin to the extremism that Jesus recommended elsewhere, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-3 All. All. All. Aside from those who have chosen a cloistered life, damn few Christians give much thought to this; it’s just one of those meaningless pieties that has a ring of holiness. It’s no surprise that the cult fanatics who wrote the New Testament had no interest whatever in art, literature, architecture; displayed no curiosity about how the world works and no interest in increasing the sum of human knowledge. Strive first for the kingdom of God.”

Why bother with anything else, after all, since the Kingdom was just around the corner? Jesus promised that it would happen ‘before this generation passes away,’ and the apostle Paul was dead certain that Jesus would come on the clouds any day now. Getting ready for this was all that mattered. Why would there be any interest in “the levels of knowledge and sophistication achieved in the High Roman Empire”?

• “What is so devastatingly dark,” Carrier states, “is how much was lost, and how little got written (compared to the centuries just preceding and then following), and how vacuous almost everything written then was…the publishing and record keeping (documentary and literary) of the High Roman Empire was wildly more prodigious (including vast quantities of papyrological and epigraphical records as well as books and manuals and dictionaries and encyclopedias), but virtually none of it was preserved by the Christian stewards of the Dark Ages…” (p. 216)

• “…Christians weren’t responsible for the Dark Ages merely because they happened on their watch. Christianity itself is responsible for the Dark Ages—not just the causing of them (by failing to avert them) but the sustaining of them as well for five hundred years—by actually causing Christians to devalue and denigrate the values necessary for scientific, political, technological, and economic success…” (p. 220)

“Strive first for the kingdom of God.” And how did that work out?

• …Christianity dragged us down into the sewers of dystopia, and kept us there, and forced us to endure a long crawl back out, setting us back more than a thousand years on nearly every cultural and intellectual measure of human existence.” (p. 221)

In Carrier’s recent article that I mentioned above, he provides data on just how bad the Dark Ages were, from sources that probably don’t come to mind at the outset. For example, ice cores from Greenland, which “preserve the scale of industrial pollution caused by Roman commerce and industry,” show a dramatic drop during the Dark Ages. The same holds true for the number of shipwrecks, that is, the number declined as shipping itself went into steep decline. Population and urbanization provide another marker:

“The Dark Ages could support not even half the population of the ancient Roman Empire. That means tens of millions of people starved to death, and half of all cities fell into ruin or collapsed into mere villages. The horror of that should not escape your comprehension. The people who lived through this, lived through dark times indeed.”

“…tens of millions of people starved to death…” So much for Jesus’ daft suggestion that God will provide, so don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink. That’s not the way the world works.

Christians yearning for the good old Dark Ages

Aggressive, arrogant endorsement of ignorance

Usually when Christians troll the Facebook page for my book, they tell me that I will end up in hell; they relish the thought of my final suffering. As one fellow put it, “…tell it all to Jesus on your death bed.” Occasionally I try to engage them on the issues, e.g., what do they think about some of the tough problems I discuss in my book? But they won’t have it; no one is interested. They’ve never thought about these problems, nor are they about to. Criticism of their faith—even curiosity about it—will not be tolerated.

This is but one symptom of much wider, deeper ignorance. These in-the-dark Christians, who have so little understanding of Christianity itself, distrust secular learning about nature and the Cosmos. With one foot in the modern world, they resist knowledge and inquiry, and rail against science and evolution. They have recently ascended to positions of power, which brings us closer to another Dark Age.

In this Dark Age, we’re back to demons

Do you know that there is an official exorcist for Indianapolis? He is Father Vincent Lampert, and so far in 2018 he has received 1,700 requests for exorcisms. This according to an article in the December issue of The Atlantic:

“…belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.”

So, thank you Christianity, for embracing superstition and showing by example that science-based thinking about the world can be ignored. We can grieve even more that The Idiot-in-Chief is Pope Francis, who has recently blamed the church’s rampant sexual abuse scandal on the Satan.

Keeping up the Dark Age for LGBT people

Where are we going to find moral leadership in the struggle against ignorance to protect the rights and health of gay, lesbian, and transgender people? It matters little if some Christians are on the side of justice when evangelical and Catholic zealots are among the foremost homophobes of the world, and aggressively pursue horrid policies of suppression and repression, conversion therapy being but one example. After winning marriage equality in the recent past, for example, we now hold our breath. The religious fanatics have friends in high places; will this progress be reversed?

The Dark Ages of ignorance about sexual orientation lasted until recent times, of course. It was only in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association finally conceded that homosexuality is not a disease or disorder. But the anti-LGBT crusaders have no interest in study and research—or listening with open minds and hearts to the experiences of gay and transgender people. A few barbaric Bible texts are all that matter.

Misogyny and its many manifestations

On a par with demonology and hatred of gay people, however, is the ongoing religion-based subjugation of women. Subjugation of women, what are you talking about? God forbid that the guiltiest parties would ever admit that they are guilty. It will take a long time to climb out of the current Dark Age of Misogyny as long as the Catholic church remains officially, proudly, arrogantly, aggressively misogynistic.

No, fawning over Mary doesn’t get them off the hook. Patriarchal organizations are determined to keep women ‘in their place’—one obvious example, I suppose, being the denial of ordination to women. But the criminalization of abortion, either by church or civil law, is misogyny; condemnation and denial of contraception is misogyny—and these two brutal policies affect hundreds of millions of women. It remains a Dark Age for women when men dictate reproductive policy—and it is all the more odious when theology is offered as the justification (theology created by men, of course).

Build, baby, build

How in the world can theologians, with a straight face, still claim that an all-powerful god, with enough gravitas to create the Cosmos, is narcissistic? That it demands worship and human groveling? Why would God require ongoing praise? How can that possibly make sense? Yet, under the pretext of ‘glorifying God,’ priests have been on a building binge for many hundreds of years. At last count (Sept 2018), the Catholic Church has 3,384 cathedral-level churches in the world—and that’s just the Catholics!

Is this really the best use of resources? It’s not hard at all to come up with a long list of other buildings that could be of greater benefit, serving human needs in much better ways. Make no mistake, however, ‘giving glory to God’ has been much less of factor in all this frenetic building than the endless fracturing of Christianity; every faction, for its prestige, has to have its own pile of masonry. At the outset I mentioned the horrendous damage that belief in God has done; this is but one example. But let’s not kid ourselves. Competition, vanity, and priestly egos have mattered far more than God’s glory.

One of the Christians who commented recently on my Facebook page gleefully mentioned Jesus’ promise of ‘war and rumors of war’ as a prelude to his return. He couldn’t wait for it all to come to pass. Indeed, the scariest contemporary Dark-Age-Christians are those who want to help the apocalypse along.

Moderate and liberal Christians, who take pride in their more reasonable faith, had better snap out of complacency and join forces with atheists to restrain their fanatic fellow Christians who remain on a rampage of damage.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.