Saturday, 5 February 2011

Irrational Atheists

Whilst I'm pleased that Philip Pullman is speaking up for the library service, I could have done without the glaring historical error in his first paragraph:

'others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship'.

Ok, I suppose what I really meant was I dislike the bigotry, but find it interesting that a myth from Georgian England, itself one of the most intolerant societies on earth, has resurfaced in a spokesman for rationality and liberalism.

Similarly the myth of Hypatia (pictured above in a Victorian artist's conception of her 65 year old birthday suit) was nurtured in a conservative era of British history. I've heard they've recently made a film about her about which I know little but I think I can guess if she is stripped of her clothes she won't be acted by a 65 year old*. Hypocrisy easily leaps from generation to generation.

Similarly the self-righteous bigoted pseudo-history of devout philistines destroying the priceless pagan heritage of southern Europe was inherited from Georgians and Victorians (whose own societies owed much of their learning and knowledge of the classical world from Byzantine exiles in Italy) by our modern atheists who are both theoretically and practically wrong about the relationship between early Christianity and the Classical world. Johann Hari similarly writes about the Christian destruction of the Alexandrian Library and the works of Sappho without seeming to realise the irony that someone who blabs cliches about free thought and empirical research is just going along with un-researched Victorian cliches which are wrong in theory and practice.

Theoretically they are wrong because they write as if the 1st Millenium Christians had the works of Darwin, Einstein and Bohrs at hand but decided that they'd have to burn all this stuff, and all that Aristotle and Plato rubbish as well. Or as St Andrew's History of Mathematics puts it:

'What certainly seems indisputable is that she was murdered by Christians who felt threatened by her scholarship, learning, and depth of scientific knowledge'

This definitely maybe certainly seems a load of rubbish from an entirely secular viewpoint. Both theoretically it is wrong and practically it is wrong. Not only did the Ancient Byzantines copy the works of the Ancients, but they also incorporated their style and ideas by osmosis because this was science at the time. Is this more similar to Protagoras or Genesis? And I don't think Apostolic Christians have ever feared science in its purest sense of empirical research. Drawing any very coherent philosophy or ethos from science is an entirely different issue.

And even then, do they know when and where the earliest parchments of the Ancient Texts originate? If they think that 2,500 year old manuscripts of these texts have been dug up by archaeologists then give me the comparatively modest claims of the 'new chronologists' any time.
Of course there is a great irony that that great pagan defense of savage censorship, The Republic, was copied by Christians.

And relatedly they are very wrong if they think that pagan Greece and Rome were paragons of any kind of virtue. Aesthetically I'm fairly pagan in my tastes, but orange vases and Corinthian architecture doth not an ideal society make. Yet I don't think that many of the 'new atheists' can escape from the solipsist worlds they inhabit to even imagine a perfect world.

*Quick check: Rachel Weisz, born 1970. Quarter of a century too young.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. History is a difficult subject for the New Atheists because it forces them to confront their prejudices as much as it does for religious fundamentalists.