Response to Tim O’Neill As Regards A Twitter Conversation concerning the Oppressive Influence of the Church in the Middle Ages

I recently commented on a Twitter thread on my concern over rising Christian Nationalism, and pointed out that the time that the Church ruled Europe was the darkest period of Western History. That thread is found here:

The thread’s originator pointed to the article linked below which he believed refuted the claim of Church oppression and terror:

That took me to a unique blog by a person named Tim O’Neill, who seems to pass himself off on Twitter as a historian, although in the Q&A section of his blog he admits he is not. The title of the blog, “History for Atheists”, is curious as the target audience appears to be Christians looking for support in their online arguments. O’Neill’s brand appeal is as an atheist who is a bit embarrassed by other atheists and busies himself with correcting their historical ignorance. He often carries on about claims from atheists that he is really a theist posing as an atheist – probably more than he should. I want to be clear that for me the question of whether he is an atheist targeting a theist market or a theist in disguise makes no difference at all. I wish only to focus on the quality of his arguments and manner of presentation.

After reading the above article on that blog, I responded on the Twitter thread that O’Neill was not a credible source and made another reading suggestion, which I will comment on at the end. This brought Mr. O’Neill into the thread where he demonstrated remarkable bluster but little, if any substance – a characteristic I found to permeate the blog article. After a pointless exchange I said I would write a more considered explanation of why O’Neil is not a credible source. What follows is that explanation.

We can judge a great deal of Mr. O’Neill’s substance and intellectual honesty from just the opening paragraph:

The concept of “the Dark Ages” is central to several key elements in New Atheist Bad History.  One of the primary myths most beloved by many New Atheists is the one whereby Christianity violently suppressed ancient Greco-Roman learning, destroyed an ancient intellectual culture based on pure reason and retarded a nascent scientific and technological revolution, thus plunging Europe into a one thousand year “dark age” which was only relieved by the glorious dawn of “the Renaissance”.  Like most New Atheist Bad History, it’s a commonly held and popularly believed set of ideas that has its origin in polemicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which has been rejected by more recent historians.  But its New Atheist adherents don’t like to hear that last part and get very agitated when they do.

This paragraphs portends the key defects we find throughout O’Neill’s presentation: Bluster, overstatement, strawmanning, and insult. To start, he insinuates that the idea of an oppressive Church rule during the medieval era is wrong by association with New Atheism and their “bad history”. Very few familiar with my thinking would ascribe the reductionism of New Atheism to me, but I would also hold that Church Rule was oppressive, corrupt, and retarded the growth of intellectual progress. In other words, he starts with poisoning the well and bluster.

O’Neill then claims the support of authority by appealing to “more recent historians”, which he opposes to “polemicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”. This is the worst sort of appeal to authority. He implies there is a consensus among recent historians where no such consensus exists. Nor were most eighteenth and nineteenth century historians polemicists. In fact, polemicists are more likely to found in the revisionist, often Roman Catholic, commentators, who work today to cleanse the reputation of the Church. The most that we can say is what he claims as consensus remains a matter of dispute among historians, but that more accurate depiction would deflect his thrust.

Even more telling is the way he framed the alleged atheist error.

The first element of his characterization of the atheist “myth” is the claim that Christianity violently suppressed ancient Greco-Roman learning. While there were things the Church violently suppressed, I know of no serious claim it was Greco-Roman learning. To the contrary, Christianity was constructed on the framework of Greek metaphysics, with the Neo-Platonism of Augustine and the Aristotelian metaphysics of Aquinas and the Scholastics. If anything, the early church took the narrative of a primitive Near East religion and created a uniquely European metaphysical structure. There is no biblical correlate to the elaborate cosmological constructions and deductive arguments – these are European features.

The second element is claiming the atheist position to be that Christianity destroyed an ancient intellectual culture based on “pure reason”. First, it would be interesting to know what O’Neill meant by “pure” reason. It sounds impressive, with echoes of Kant which the naive might credit with erudition, but it is a term with a specific meaning that in no way applies to this context. But that is a mere quibble next to the important matter of blurring a more nuanced issue. I know of no serious atheist who denies the use of deductive Aristotelian logic; especially among the hyper-rational Scholastics. O’Neill obscures, or perhaps is ignorant of, the real matter at hand – the metaphysical basis of such logic, where proofs are deduced from metaphysical ideas. This is in stark contrast to the later scientific method, which removed the metaphysical premises in favor of induction from empirical observations – a critical adjustment that apologists yet today bemoan.

The serious atheist claim is usually not that Christianity destroyed a culture of reason, but rather that it imposed certain metaphysical assumptions as starting premises to arrive at deductions that accord with Christian dogma. Any logical deductions that offended such dogma, no matter the validity, were quickly condemned. Even clerics found themselves on the wrong side of the auto de fe when logic defied obligatory beliefs.

The third element of O’Neil’ls framing is that atheists claim the Church retarded a nascent scientific and technological revolution. O’Neil relies on a somewhat revisionist account of the Middle Ages as the foundation for modern science encouraged by the Church. It wasn’t. There was a degree of scientific inquiry of a sort, but what was at the time called Natural Philosophy wasn’t quite what we would recognize as science. It was more metaphysically derived and included alchemy and magic, for example. Some early empirical attempts were indeed accepted by the Church if they could be interpreted as proclaiming the glory of god and his creation. Of course, any scientific inquiry that contradicted Church dogma was quickly condemned, and at times with grievous consequence.

O’Neill’s support for his demonstration that the Church nurtured science and formed the foundation for its further development was a book by James Hannam: God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Groundwork of Modern Science, and an approving comment by Edward Grant. My intention is not demean Hannam – he is a legitimate scholar who advocates well for his position, but his position has supporters and detractors among historians. Edward Grant was a historian of much greater renown whose main scholarly thesis was that the Middle Ages did lay the groundwork of modern science, so we would expect to see his approval. But again, that is one school of thought and not received truth. In fact there is no received truth in history, which is an endless series of re-interpretation of past events and facts, partly out of ideology; partly out of the need to introduce novelty.

I believe the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that, on the whole, the Church oppressed science as it did freedom of thought in general. Through oppressive threat and more than occasional torture and burnings at the stake, few dared to voice findings or opinions in contradiction to Church dogma. The Church jealously guarded its authority at all costs. Countless lesser-known scholars and clergy, as well as the less educated, experienced the terror of the Church, but the more respected were not immune. Galileo was accused of heresy in the Inquisition for advocating the Copernican idea of a sun-centered system and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Those like O’Neill can try to minimize the number of occurrences or try to tangle us into minutia such as no published boundaries for permissible scientific inquiry, but that misses the point as badly as the attempts of some to minimize the number of deaths in the Inquisitions. The point is the terror and oppression such occurrences spread regardless of frequency. The threat demonstrated by such occurrences worked contrary to the claim of Christianity nurturing scientific progress.

Science as we know it did not exist until the relaxing of the Church’s grip in the seventeenth century. It was not the sudden rebirth of reason, as O’Neill tries to have us say, but the removal of metaphysical speculation and ideas from science; i.e. the institution of empiricism and inductive reasoning – not possible under Church rule.

In the Twitter thread that initiated this response, I suggested to the originator that he read Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages as an introduction to credible historical works, not because it presented the absolute truth about that time, but because it offered a much more nuanced and holistic rendering. Unlike those such as O’Neill, who can obscure the terror by reducing things to numbers and facts, Huizinga introduced an immersive approach into the culture itself though exploration of the art, philosophy, and other texts of that time. It supplanted the cold numbers and disembodied facts with the atmosphere. We could sense what it was like at that time. From that we can interpret as we see fit. I do not mean to imply that Huizinga was the last word on the subject. In fact I suggested to the originator that he read as much of the primary sources as he could as well as different perspectives of respected historians. There is no other way to come to grips with the past.

There are no easy or final historical answers, and most assuredly there is no internet site that can furnish the ultimate truth of the past.

I didn’t find it worth my time to belabor this response with a detailed critique of every point O’Neil attempts in the essay, but he is, of course, invited to expand or otherwise respond below in the comments; or discuss with me on my YouTube channel.

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