In discussing feminism these past couple days, I have encountered a general idea time and again: the historical narrative.
I believe this to be an important concept to grasp. In order to deal with bias among ideologies, one must first be able to spot bias. This is, I believe, what historical narratives are all about.
Human beings are complex creatures, though I believe we are not too complex to be understood. One problem we face, however, is that our means of acquiring knowledge really relies on simple comparisons. To put it plainly, many factors affect human behavior, and yet it is only easy for us to analyze one factor at a time.
This is a basic problem faced in all of science. There can only be one variable in an experiment, otherwise there is no way of knowing which variable being tested for was the cause of a different result.
Just to use the familiar feminist example, there may be a tendency among feminists to over-emphasize gender when analyzing historical events, because they are looking specifically at gender from the very outset.
In reality, Sociology has moved well beyond this. In many ways, Sociology is the most complex science. The complexity of science as derived from the simplicity of math can be seen to go from math to physics, from physics to chemistry, from chemistry to biology, and from biology to sociology. At each jump, the order of complexity increases, and so does our uncertainty.
Sociology, then, can be seen as not only one of the most complex of the sciences, but also as one of the least suited to produce concrete and broad-sweeping theories. How an atom behaves is regular enough to have near certainty in theoretical description and evaluation. How an animal behaves may be a bit erratic, though is largely formulaic. Human beings, while we wish to imagine ourselves as unique and irreplaceable little snowflakes, are actually very predictable.
Still, sociologists are careful to point out that unlike a chemist, who can tell you precisely how a particular substance will act when mixed with another, sociologists can only provide the data which demonstrates how frequently something will happen under certain conditions.
It should be noted that in actuality, atoms are a lot like people. They are not as predictable as elementary physics and chemistry would have the student believe. Solutions are not static, as molecules constantly combine and separate at the atomic level, even when the solution is said to be, for all intents and purposes, at equilibrium. Chemical reactions (particularly those involving combustion) do not only create the products that it appears they should on paper.
While I’m no feminist history buff, I am an atheist history buff. However, I rarely see much talk of the atheist historical narrative, even though there clearly is one.
In fact, Sociologists and Anthropologists have a name to it: conflict theory. The idea became particularly popular during the Darwinian revolution, when atheists and agnostics sought to paint a picture of religion as standing in the way of science at every turn throughout history, a claim which is not true, and a claim which motivated some to lie.
Take, for example, the Flat Earth myth. No, not the myth that the Earth is flat, but rather the myth that Medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat.
There is a slight problem in analyzing this, because we have no way of knowing what the common person knew on the matter. However, what we do know for certain is what scholars left for us to read, and it clearly paints the picture of a continent of intellectuals within the Church that not only understood that the Earth was round, but who had fairly accurate calculations of its circumference.
Examples like this abound, which is a shame. Misinformed grade-school teachers to this day unwittingly spread the lie that Columbus was warned he would sail off the edge of the globe, thanks to atheist/agnostic propagandists of the 19th century.
This is such a shame, because there is more than enough real history of the Church suppressing science, but it is also a shame for another reason. Namely: it is thanks to religion that we have science as we know it today.
In fact, science takes an interesting journey through the annals of religious history…
There was a great deal of development before him, but Aristotle should be credited with being the most influential scientist of the ancient world. A student of Plato, the teacher of Alexander the Great, and a man who is renowned for being a genius, despite never bothering to open a woman’s mouth and bother to actually count how many teeth she had. Had he, he might not have asserted that woman had fewer teeth than men.
You can see one of the main problems with ancient science: a severe lack of rigorous empiricism. However, there was still some. The Ancients did not generally dissect human cadavers (it happened for a brief time in Egypt), but Aristotle himself worked from Barbary ape anatomy. What’s more, thanks to the conquests of Alexander, Aristotle was given access to many plants and animals from far flung regions of Asia and Africa.
But what Aristotle did that was so important, in my view, was to create the Lyceum, a school that he and his later students would maintain, in parallel with Plato’s Academy and other various schools that formed around pagan philosophers. This all ended under the Christian emperors, who shuttered the schools, as well as gladiatorial matches and the public baths. Well, one out of the three wasn’t a bad idea, I give them that. After this, only monks and other church officials tended to receive formal education.
Oddly enough, pagan science might have been largely lost forever, had Greek culture not spread to the Middle East. While the early Christians fought amongst themselves in Europe and burned the heretical scrolls of the pre-Christian philosophers/scientists, the Byzantine Empire continued to flourish well into the rise of Islam.
While it may be hard to imagine, Islam was an important liberalizing force in the region. Muslim caliphates supported science and the arts (though not those depicting people, so primarily architecture). Pre-Muslim writings were not destroyed outright under the Muslims… unless they were blatantly anti-Muslim. This is why most of works of skeptics (like Epicurus or Diogenes of Sinope) are gone: they were destroyed in both Europe and the Middle East and survived only in fragments quoted by others.
Still, Muslims ought to be credited with preserving much of what we know of Western Civilization’s history after Europe had thrown the baby out with the bathwater with the rise of the Jesus cult, and Muslims were the last culture with access to the Library of Alexandria before its destruction.
Muslims not only preserved the science of the ancient world, they also developed it further. Thanks in no small part to their contact with the Far East, Muslim alchemists (or al-chemists) were some of the top minds of their time, rivaled only perhaps by Taoist monk/scientists. Taoists in China developed gunpowder before the 10th century and had begun using it in the form of rockets, bombs, flamethrowers, and even medicine, before developing the first guns.
Meanwhile, in what is modern day Iran, a Persian called Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin) was developing and refining what would become modern chemistry, as well as writing treatises on physics, astronomy, math, logic, poetry, psychology, and Islamic theology. He even found time to teach in Muslims schools, which flourished throughout the Middle East.
It was exposure to the Muslim world that brought Europe back in touch with much of its own rich scientific heritage. Late medieval Europe (especially from the 12th century until the Renaissance) became a hotbed of “new” ideas rediscovered, thanks to the Crusades and Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily.
From here, it’s just a matter of time before gunpowder technology diffuses to the Middle East, where Muslims acquire it and begin implementing it against Europeans, who in turn acquire and adopt the technology. Oddly, here is another real case where Christianity stood in the way of technology.
Along with the crossbow, gunpowder was shunned by many Church officials, who said it was cowardly. To understand the argument, one had to imagine a gallant knight, decked out in full armor, trained since birth… cut down by a peasant with a crossbow or gun. This was a severe threat to the established methods of war in Europe, and there was a push to ban the weapons as “un-Christian” for some time before pragmatism took over.
The Church also suppressed Copernicus for the blasphemy of placing the Earth anywhere but at the center of the universe. However, science was more or less encouraged by the church. By now, the search for the philosopher’s stone, a mythical substance that could turn something worthless like lead into gold and a common obsession among Muslim alchemists, had put into the minds of many the idea that something good might come from all this study and experimentation.
Newton was an avid alchemist. He kept the papacy updated on his developments that would come to form the classical mechanics of physics, and he dedicated many of his discoveries to the church. He also sought hidden messages in the Bible, and had some very unusual views on Christianity.
In many ways, religion and science have had a rocky relationship, but it has primarily been one of mutual support. It was not truly until the 19th century (with some hints of it in the 1700s) that science ceased to be subservient to religion. It was at this time that science truly expressed itself as an independent authority, no longer needing to take its cues from religion.
It was at this point that the atheist narrative came about, in a climate of religious fervor over Darwin’s theory of evolution, and then over the “Big Bang” theory. In an ardent search for historical examples where religion stifled science, atheists and agnostics painted religion as categorically opposed to scientific research… despite the facts.
It didn’t end there, either. While I respect George Carlin, he is arguably the source for one of the most persistent atheist fallacies: the idea that religion is the cause of all or most wars. Religion is sometimes even blamed for most of the suffering and problems in the world.
These claims simply aren’t true. Nationalism, greed, political rhetoric, social movements, charismatic leaders… these all cause wars and atrocities throughout history, with sometimes little or no religious factor involved. What causes wars and mass-scale suffering is not religion, but obedience, regardless of whether it’s to a Pope or the leader of the Party.
Ultimately, I value truth more than I value atheism, and I despise lies more than I despise religion. And that’s that.