The "Light Ages" and the "Endarkenment"

A new breed of militant, antagonistic atheists has gained a voice recently. These "anti-theists," as some of them prefer to be called, think that belief in any religion (especially Christianity) is at the root of all that's wrong with the world. Thus, if we can just convince people to give up religion (which is nonsense anyway) the human race will finally be able to achieve great progress.

To be fair, modern "anti-theists" didn't come up with that idea on their own. In fact, they're just taking the latest step in what has been a centuries-long pattern (especially among academic elites) of seeing Christianity as a dead weight that holds humanity back.

For example, most historians refer to the 1,200 or so years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Enlightenment as "the Dark Ages." They believe that the Greeks and Romans achieved very advanced cultures, but that after these empires fell Europe regressed into a crude, barbaric existence that was largely unchanged for centuries. What prevented progress during these "Dark Ages?" It was Christianity, with its superstitious belief in God. In fact, as the thinking goes, it wasn’t until Christianity was abandoned by cultural elites in favor of atheistic reason ("the Enlightenment") that Europe was "freed" from the barbaric "prison" of primitivism known as the Dark Ages. In other words, most academics believe that getting rid of Christianity results in cultural progress.

But not all. A sociologist named Rodney Stark recently wrote a book called The Victory of Reason, in which he shows that in fact, Christianity is directly responsible for the vast successes of the West including the rise of science, technology, capitalism, and human rights.

In fact, Stark shows that the whole idea of the "Dark Ages" is a myth: "…during the so-called Dark Ages, European science and technology overtook and surpassed the rest of the world!" His book details several key advances in science, art, economics, and human rights which took place at this time. Far from being held back by Christianity, Stark shows how these advances were actually caused by Christianity.

So where did the "Dark Ages myth" come from? Stark says, "The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time…" In other words, people just like today's "anti-theists" were eager to justify their own anti-Christian worldview. In the process they claimed Western successes were the result of their own atheistic worldview, when in fact they arose because of the Christian worldview. It's a textbook example of revisionist history -- and this revision has been repeated so often in the past 300 years that most people still believe it despite strong evidence to the contrary.

I'm thoroughly enjoying my read of The Victory of Reason, and I encourage you to read it too. That way, the next time you hear someone claim that religious belief holds back progress in science, human rights, or anything else, you'll be prepared to shed some light. The same light, as it turns out, that brightly illuminated the terribly-named "Dark Ages."


Ken said...

I'll have to pick the book up. It sounds like an interesting premise. I got sick and tired of listening to people blame Christianity and religion for all of the world's woes.

In the intermingling period between the fall of the Roman Empire and Renaissance, people had more important things to worry about, like making sure they had food on the table and didn't catch things like the plague. Also, let's not forget that during this period the problem wasn't necessary religion, but rather the feudal system that emerged. Landowners wanted to protect their fiefdoms and that drove their actions and decision.

Matt Guerino said...


right you are. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say that belief on God will kill the spirit of inquiry that drives modern science, I'd be a rich man. How stunned some of those folks would be to learn that belief in God LED TO modern science!

We've really gotten our history wrong since the Enlightenment, And those comments prove that most scientists are probably better at science than they are at history.

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