Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Four

Chapter four is entitled “The Night of Reason.” Here Hart gives another example of the mythology of modernity, specifically addressing a major theme that runs through the whole story and purports to show how modern “reason” replaced “irrational” faith. And, further, as the story goes, not only was this faith “hostile” to the appeal of rationality, it nose-dived Western culture into a “Dark Age” by burning books, tossing out science, and basically crashing the achievements of the classical world straight into the ground. But, as Hart comments in reference to this major thread of the modern story,

Here the ghastly light of a thousand inane legends burns with an almost inextinguishable incandescence.

Hart then references for example a common story throw up by those who have drank deeply from modern wells, which has to do with Christians supposedly attacking and pillaging the ancient library of Alexandria. Hart references the book God against the gods, by Jonathan Kirsch. Hart recounts Kirsch’s retelling of the event, this horrible destruction of classical learning, which he lays clearly at the feet of “Christian zealots.” Hart writes in response,

Kirsch is not a historian and so can perhaps be forgiven for relying on popular rather than original sources; and obviously he is repeating in good faith a tale he has heard so often that he cannot distinguish it from fact. But it is quite absurd for all that.

Hart also notes the ever referenced Edward Gibbon and his account of the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Hart points out that the only source Gibbon cites is a “cursory remark made by the Christian historian Paul Orosius (fl. A.D. 414-417).” He goes on to point out that the actual cite does little to bolster Gibbon’s claims, if at all.

After unpacking the writings from which, it appears, we get what history is available to us of the events surrounding the destruction of the Alexandrian library, Hart concludes,

Whatever the case, and though it may seem shameful that temples were despoiled of their riches, including their books, either by Christians or others of the time, the lurid, tragic, scandalous story that one sees repeated again and again—that Christian hordes took seven hundred thousand scrolls from the Great Library of Alexandria and, intoxicated by their fanatical and brutish detestation of profane learning and heathen science, burned them in open fires in the streets, setting back the advance of Western Civilization by centuries in the process—is pure fiction.

Hart then goes on to lay waste several other modern mythic accounts of historical events that lend support to this story called modernity—this tale of an awakening to “rationalism” from the dark night of ignorant “faith.” Simply put, those who believe such simplistic and self-serving tales are believers, not in historical “facts,” but in something more akin to urban legends.

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4 Responses to Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Four

  1. Burk Braun says:

    There is a deeper story here, which is the general intolerance of Christianity, early, middle, and late. The fate of the library of Alexandria is indeed < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria#Decree_of_Theodosius.2C_destruction_by_Theophilus_in_391" REL="nofollow">mysterious<>, but the fate of the larger Egyptian civilization in which it was set is not. The Ptolomies of Macedon encouraged Egyptian culture and augmented it with Hellenistic learning and other cultural influences, due in part to immigration, and this policy was continued by the Romans in turn.

    The Roman empire was full of different religions small and large, and serious problems only arose from those that were intolerant- Judaism and its descendent Christianity. Those were the only religions that took on a tribal aspect, degrading non-adherents in cosmic, metaphysical terms and renouncing the mutual respect of other gods, such as those of Rome (and sometimes explicitly the political sovereignty of Rome), thus constituting a danger to the general peace. This was later repeated in even more dramatic fashion by Islam, which learned well the lessons of total intolerance, where high costs and high commitment are matched by high gains, by the sword if need be.

    As you note, and as noted in other histories, Christians enthusiastically destroyed other religions- destroying temples, debilitating adherents, and taking the goods for their own use. This happened in Egypt, finally killing the classical culture, and elsewhere, when Christians had the power of the state on their side. Justinian closed and disbanded the < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy#The_Neoplatonic_Academy_of_Late_Antiquity" REL="nofollow">Academy<> of < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_of_Hellenic_Religion" REL="nofollow">Greece<>. It is a pattern that continued up into the 20th century in the aspect of wide-spread antisemitism. Whether other religions were intellectually advanced or not made little difference. If Christians later gathered up some of the shards of what they had destroyed in the form of Aristotelian and Platonic appreciation, it was a bit like our celebration of Native American culture- done at a safe remove once the originating culture had been eviscerated.

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  2. Darrell says:

    This “deeper” story sounds like the one better scholars have concluded is “pure fiction.” And Rome was not tolerant of any faith or religion that challenged its own power; the lions and Coliseum are nice reminders of that fact. Rome was tolerant to a point. Further, both pagans and Christians were guilty of destroying the places of worship and works of the other; it is simple prejudice that believes Christians are somehow particularly guilty here. More importantly, as Hart discusses in the next chapter of his book, it was the Church who preserved and passed on the works of the classical world once Rome fell.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Even if one were to grant for the sake of argument that each side in late antiquity was as bad as the other, where does that leave the putatively special moral stature of Christianity?

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  4. Darrell says:

    It leaves it exactly where it always was, which is not a “special moral stature,” but a sensibility of repentance—the realization that one’s “morality” is far from special. But you miss the point entirely. Hart wasn’t saying that Christians in antiquity were perfect. Are you saying because Christians weren’t perfect in living up to a morality you think no different than pagan morality, it justifies an inaccurate and prejudicial re-telling of history? By the way, when you say as “bad” as the other, whose morality are you using to judge what is “bad?” When pagans were responsible for the same sorts of acts, did they also speak of them later as “bad”? If not, why? Is it possible you are using a standard to judge such acts as “bad” because you are looking back after 2000 years of Christian moral influence and not a pagan influence?

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