Thursday, August 11, 2016

Edward T. Babinski Objects

My interview with Thomas Smith on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast last week has stirred up an interest in the topics we covered among some of Thomas' audience.  Inevitably, given that I had to skate over some topics pretty quickly, not everything I was saying seems to have been grasped fully by some listeners.  The part of the conversation on Galileo was very rushed and that is a complex subject, since many New Atheists find it hard to get their head around how, if Galileo was persecuted for a scientific idea, this doesn't mean the Church was "anti-science".  But I will be writing some more detailed analysis of the Galileo Affair as part of my "The New Atheist Bad History Great Myths" series, so hopefully I can make the complexities of how science, theology and politics became entangled in that case a bit more clear.

But one (I assume) listener had far more to object to than that.  Edward T. Babinski is a former fundamentalist Christian who has made a long journey back from evangelical Biblical literalism and belief in Creationism to a kind of spiritual agnosticism.  He says he abandoned Christianity after "reading .... books on biblical criticism and the development of Christian doctrine, and after studying evolutionists' criticisms of "scientific creationist" arguments" and is the author of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (1995) and a contributor to John Loftus' collection of articles The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010).

But like many non-believers who have reacted vehemently against their former beliefs, Ed Babinski seems to have absorbed a very strange and strenuously anti-Christian version of western history and seems quite upset when someone (i.e. me) comes along and says key elements of it may not be entirely true.

He's posted some long comments on my blog post on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast, but because blog post comments don't lend themselves to a careful critique of what he's saying I'm going to publish his comments here and then go over what is wrong with them from a historical perspective.  I'm doing this for two reasons.  One, he argues positions which are taken as unalloyed truth by New Atheists and many former believers like Babinski (I used to accept some of them myself), so this is a good opportunity to dissect them and compare them to the evidence.  And two, Babinski himself seems like a very genuine guy and - possibly - open to adjusting his ideas.  Well, maybe.

So I'll begin with his first comment, which I published on my "Atheistically Speaking" post, in which Babinski quotes from a book he found:

"'The libraries [of Alexandria] were surely in decline under Christians who, following their triumph over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists, found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting. Their anger reached a fever pitch in the fourth century A.D.: Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis [a huge temple/library and part of the libraries of Alexandria] for a church; he set loose a mob of Christians, who destroyed the pagan temple, and perhaps, the books of its library as well …
The [rest of the] libraries of Alexandria probably shared a modest fate, moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents. Ancient Greek, never a linguistic monolith in any case, became incomprehensible to Alexandrians of the Christian era with their mixture of Coptic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Koine, or demotic Greek. Ignored by the generations to whom they were indecipherable, the scrolls would have been damaged … stolen, lost, and yes, burned. They were replaced by writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church and by the thinning literature of the declining Roman world.'
— Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p.24,32"

This is something New Atheist types do a lot - they try to support an historical position or claim by quoting or citing someone else making the same claim.  Except if that person isn't a specialist in the field of history who is backing that assertion up with footnotes and references to relevant supporting source material and scholarship, this is simply ... someone else making the claim.  Given that many of the ideas and assumptions that make up New Atheist Bad History are based on common popular misconceptions about history, it's not hard to find some non-specialist repeating them somewhere, but that doesn't actually support the claim being made; it's just evidence of it echoing around among non-historians.

And this is exactly what we have here.  Matthew Battles  - the writer Babinski quotes - is currently Associate Director at Harvard's metaLAB, which has the mission of "the incubation of trans-disciplinary projects that blend new media, data, and scholarship in critical and reflective ways".  He has a B.A. in Anthropology and a M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University.  So I imagine he's not a bad writer, but a historian specialising in the ancient world he is not.

And it shows.  He's essentially taken the Gibbonian myth of "Christians destroying the Great Library of Alexandria" and embroidered it a little.  He tells his readers that the libraries of Alexandria were "surely" in decline under Christians because they had triumphed "over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists" and so then "found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting."  There are multiple problems with just this first sentence.

His initial claim that libraries in Alexandria were in decline with the rise of Christianity is at least partially correct, but not for the reason he states.  As I noted in my podcast with Thomas Smith, many temples held libraries and as more people converted to Christianity funds to these temples from rich donors began to dry up.  Since the maintenance of libraries was expensive it is very likely that these temple-based libraries did indeed decline.  This doesn't mean the books they contained were therefore destroyed or lost, however.  On the contrary, books were valuable objects and it is far more likely that they were sold or, in the cases of temples that were ransacked by Christian zealots as their congregations dwindled, simply looted and stolen.  And we also know that Alexandria remained a centre of learning and study at least until the Muslim conquest and that many of its libraries  - the ones not held in pagan temples - continued to be maintained.

But the real problem here is the idea that Christians would find "the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting".  This is a mainstay of the New Atheist myth that Christianity hated all ancient pagan knowledge and sought to destroy it and that this large scale destruction and general antipathy "ushered in the Dark Ages".  This idea can be bolstered by the fact that at least some early Christian writers did regard the writings of "the Hellenes" distasteful and contrary to the Bible and did teach that pagan philosophy should be ignored.  The most famous statement in this regard that is usually cited is from Tertullian:

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart." Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!"(De praescriptione haereticorum, VII)

Actually, Tertullian himself was trained in dialectic and Greek philosophy and was happy to use that training in his own works.  And this quote, in context, is more about not mixing Greek philosophy in with Scriptural interpretation in disputations with Christian heretics, rather than a wholesale rejection of philosophy per se.  That aside, Tertullian did have a suspicion of any "mottled Christianity" that was a hybrid of pagan philosophy and the reported teachings of Jesus and this suspicion was reflected in or amplified by other Christian Patristic writers, some of whom rejected philosophy wholesale and taught Christians should reject it completely.

But by focusing only on these anti-philosophical stances those who claim Christianity destroyed ancient learning are only bothering to present one side of a vigorous debate within early Christian thought.  And, more importantly, they are emphasising the side that lost that debate.

Because at the same time that people like Tertullian were rejecting Greek learning, whether partially or wholly, other Christians were writing that it should be preserved and used as a gift from God.  Writing in Alexandria not long after Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253) argued to one of his pupils:

"I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity. Perhaps something of this kind is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbours, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God."(Letter to Gregory)
This idea, that Greek philosophy was a kind of precursor to Christianity and so should be studied for this reason, became known as the "Gold of the Egyptians" argument.  As Origen of Alexandria says above, just as the Israelites made use of the gold of Egypt, so Christians should carry off the best work of the pagan scholars.  Clement of Alexandria, writing a little earlier and again, it should be noted, writing in the scholarly centre of Alexandria, went further:

"We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them -- being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ"  (Stromata, VIII)

This idea also gained currency, with other writers noting that just as God had given the Jews a special gift for revelation and prophecy (which is why the Christian Bible contains the Torah and books of the Jewish prophets to this day), he also gave the Greeks a gift for logic and the rational analysis of ideas and the physical world.  John Damascene also noted Greek learning as a divine gift:

"I shall set forth the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks, because whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since 'every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights' "(Philosophical Chapters, Preface)

Not every Greek philosophical idea or school of thought lent itself to this attitude, which is why the writers noted above and the others who advocated the same approach (which includes such leading Christian Patristic writers as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, Justin Martyr and Augustine) speak of "extracting" Greek philosophy that represents "the best contributions of the philosophers".  But this rejection of the anti-philosophical Christian tradition won the day and this approach became the dominant attitude of Christian scholars from at least the late fourth century onward - which just happens to be exactly the time that Babinski's source is claiming that Christians in Alexandria, the home of both Origen and Clement quoted above, were supposedly finding Greek learning "discomforting".  So this Matthew Battles person clearly doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's also remarkable that he singles out "Neoplatonists" as the source of this imagined discomfiture.  Because of all the Greek philosophical schools, the Neo-Platonic school was actually the one Christianity embraced and absorbed with the most enthusiasm.  As Augustine noted in the early fifth century:

"If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.  
 .... In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. These are, as it were, their gold and silver"(On Christian Doctrine, XL.60)

So not only do we have here another statement of what had, by this time, become the standard attitude of Christian scholars to pagan learning as stated by the most influential writer on later medieval thought, but he actually singles out the Neo-Platonic school as being especially compatible with this approach.  He is hardly "discomfited" by Neo-Platonism and certainly isn't advocating destroying their works.  In fact, injunctions to destroy works of pagan learning can be found nowhere in any of the Christian writings of this time, even among those of the earlier sceptics who argued for a rejection of philosophy by Christians.

So Babinski's non-expert simply gets it all wrong.  Not only did the study of philosophy in Alexandria continue long after the demolition of the Serapeum - we find pagan philosophers like Aedisia, Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae and Hermias all flourishing there in the fifth century - but we also find pagans and Christians studying it alongside each other.  Hypatia had a number of Christian students, most famously Synesius who was later bishop of Ptolemais and his brother Euoptius.  So it's very difficult to reconcile any detailed grasp of the evidence with Battle's declarations above, including the weird stuff about literacy in Greek declining in Alexandria in this period; a claim that is simply bizarre.

Equally bizarre is his claim that the destruction of the Serapeum was motivated by the fact the bishop Theophilus "desired the site of the temple".  Exactly how Battle knows this I have no idea, since no such "desire" is mentioned anywhere in any of the sources.  When challenged on this point, Babinski commented again:

""Simply" over real estate? Sociologists of religion would point out that commanding more real estate for one's symbols and signs of worship is an essential part of the struggle of all religions to gain prominence, even predominance.  

On June 16, AD 391, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I reiterated from Milan his prohibition against pagan worship (a similar decree had been directed to the urban prefect in Rome four months earlier). In a rescript addressed to the prefect and military governor in Egypt, he commanded that no person perform sacrifices, go to the temples, or revere the shrines (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.11). Socrates Scholasticus further claims that, in response to the solicitation of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, the Emperor Theodosius issued an order that the temples themselves be destroyed (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). Riots were provoked by Bishop Theophilus after Christians began to desecrate and destroy a pagan temple and lampooned pagan holy idols in the streets. In those riots some Christians were killed, and probably some pagans as well, but the Christians called themselves martyrs. the Temple of Serapis was torn down by a Christian mob, to be replaced by a lofty martyr-ium (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVIII.42) and church (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15.10) beside the old temple enclosure. 

Theophilus the bishop then had the other pagan temples in the city razed to the ground, "almost column by column." The images of the gods, records Socrates, were melted down to be made into pots and other utensils for the church (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). "

The fact that "sociologists of religion" may well point out that gaining dominance in public spaces is important in the kind of struggle that was going on between Christianity and paganism in Alexandria in the late fourth century and the fact that it may well be that this was what was going on in this case are fine, but that doesn't justify attributing this motive to the bishop Theophilus when that is not supported by the evidence.  That's pure speculation, not historical analysis of the evidence we have.  Matthew Battles, Babinski's source, doesn't say that "perhaps" this was what was happening or that such a struggle for public space was "maybe" part of this episode, which would be valid.  He just states it as a fact: "Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis".  That's not historical analysis, that's fiction writing.

The rest of events listed in Babinski's comment above are all more or less true, though largely irrelevant.  That Christians tore down some pagan temples and melted down some pagan idols is about typical behaviour for the period, much like pagans feeding Christians to lions or burning them alive for the amusement of crowds was.  Babinski seems agitated by it for some reason, but I fail to see how it's relevant to the issue of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.

And, as I've shown above, the dominant attitude to pagan learning which had won out by this stage was one of general acceptance.  While Theophilus' mobs certainly destroyed some temples and idols, Christian scholars did not advocate the destruction of pagan books.  On the contrary, they advocated their preservation.  The idea that philosophy (which included logic, mathematics, astronomy and the beginnings of what we call "science") was the "handmaiden" to theology became commonplace.  In practice this meant not only that these things could be studied and preserved, but that they actively should.  As distinguished historian of science Edward Grant puts it:

"The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning.  .... With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive.  They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines.  But they did not."(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Agesp. 4)

"But they did not" suppress pagan learning.  They preserved it.  As a result, if anyone in our era has read any ancient work of logic, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy or, actually, any ancient work at all, they have a succession of ancient and medieval Christian scribes to thank for the privilege.

But this is precisely the opposite of the picture Babinski is determined to defend.  So he tried another quote:

"Institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed. The [Christian] emperorsʼ attacks had centered on the chief of them, Athens and Alexandria, in the late fourth century and were turned against them again toward the end of the fifth and in 529. [“529 A.D.” was the year that the School of Athens was closed by the decree of the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian, the same Justinian who also outlawed sodomy, because, “It is well known that buggery is a principal cause of earthquakes, and so must be prohibited.”—E.T.B.]. As to the initiators of the persecution, the [Christian] emperors themselves, a steady decline in their level of cultivation has been noticed. Thus books and philosophy were bound to fade from sight. 

After Constantine there existed an empire-wide instrument of education: the church. What bishops, even emperors, made plain, and what could be heard in broader terms from every pulpit, was an agreed upon teaching. Every witness, every listener should know the great danger to his soul in Platoʼs books, in Aristotleʼs, in any of the philosophical corpus handed down from the past. The same danger threatened anyone using his mind according to their manner, with analytical intent, ranging widely for the materials of understanding, and independent of divine imparted teachings. 

Another factor that arose specifically out of the ongoing conversion of the empire was the doctrine of demonic causation. The belief in the operation of maleficent forces on a large scale had to await Christianity; and it was of course Christianity that was to form the medieval and Byzantine world. 

Satanic agents were to be seen as the cause not only of wars and rebellions, persecution and heresy, storms at sea and earthquakes on land, but of a host of minor or major personal afflictions. So, in consequence, Christians were forever crossing themselves, whatever new action they set about, and painted crosses on their foreheads too, responding to their leadersʼ urging them to do so. It would protect them against all evil. 

— Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries"

At least MacMullen is an actual historian, being an eminent Classicist and emeritus professor of history at Yale.  But he has also been criticised for a degree of anti-Christian bias and for cherry-picking his evidence on the topic of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.  This can be demonstrated by comparing his examples in the quote Babinski gives to the multiple quotes from the Christian writers I give and cite above.  Again, he refers to some bishops etc. who made plain that Plato and Aristotle were a great danger to Christian souls, but fails to even mention that many others argued precisely the opposite, as we've seen.  Or that it was the latter who won the debate on this issue.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed", however, is not just referring to selective evidence, it's total nonsense.  There was no closure of schools in Alexandria and, as I've noted above by reference to the plethora of pagan philosophers who flourished there, philosophy and proto-science were studied there by both pagans and Christians right up until the Arab conquest in 641 AD.  For example, John Philoponus (490-570 AD) was writing numerous commentaries on Aristotle and Proclus and refuting Aristotle's claims about the speeds of falling bodies there in the later sixth century, well after Justinian's time.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning" in Athens were closed seems to refer to the closing of the Neo-Platonic academy of Porphyry - closed on order of the Emperor because it was vehemently anti-Christian, not because of any hatred of philosophy per se.  Other academies continued to flourish not just in Alexandria but also in Antioch, Ephesus and in Constantinople itself.  Plato, Aristotle and their many successors were taught in all of these schools, as they were in the great Nestorian Christian centres of learning outside of the Roman Empire.  Nestorian monks at the great academies of Nisibis and Jundishapur translated key works of Greek philosophy and proto-science into Syriac and it was from them that Muslim scholars got these works and translated them into Arabic.  This was the path - via Christian monks and Muslim falasifa - by which most of these works found their way back to Europe in the Middle Ages, sparking a revolution in thought that saw the rise of the medieval universities and the foundations of the later Scientific Revolution.

Babinski tried a few more comments but they generally drifted further and further from anything relevant to what I had said and so I didn't bother posting them to my "Atheistically Speaking" blog post.  One railed against:

"Christians seeking to persecute, outlaw, incite riots and violence against pagans, Jews and even fellow Christians; and also how Christian lambs, with the help of Christian Emperors, soon turned into lions, and how they eventually outlawed any Christian view other than the Trinity because all others are "insane" and must face the Emperor's wrath."

Exactly why Babinski is so upset by Christians persecuting fellow Christians many centuries ago I have no idea.  But incidents of actual violence against pagans were extremely rare.  The switching of Imperial patronage to Christianity meant that the pagan cults began to dwindle remarkably rapidly in the fourth century.  The old Imperial cults of the traditional Gero-Roman pantheon had been challenged by rival, foreign cults for centuries and Aurelian had recognised the need for a revitalised central religion when he made the cult of Sol Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun", the state religion in around 274 AD.  After Constantine's conversion to Christianity c. 312 AD the pagan sects declined still further as the big money flowed to the new faith; so much so that when Julian tried to reverse the trend during his short reign (361-363 AD) his attempts failed totally.  He himself writes ruefully of his visit to the famous grove of Apollo at Antioch in 362 AD and how he imagined the renowned pagan rites there:

" [I] imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment”

Instead the emperor was met by one old priest who came to the increasingly dilapidated temple with a single goose from his garden as a paltry sacrifice. Not much violence was needed - paganism was dying of natural causes as people turned to the newly favoured faith of Christianity.

And while some people try to claim that this decline was caused by active persecution by Christian emperors, this is not supported by the evidence.  Christian imperial edicts about paganism came to ban public worship and state sponsorship of pagan rites, but pagans themselves were allowed to worship privately and hold whatever beliefs they wanted.  And we know this because we have plenty of works by pagans in this period - they were hardly disguising their beliefs.  And while we have plenty of evidence of books by "heretical" Christians being burned and of "heretics" being actively persecuted, we have nothing of the sort for pagans.  On the contrary, Christian apologists used the fact that their faith didn't persecute pagans the way pagans had persecuted Christians as an argument for the superiority of their faith.  Gregory of Nazianus asked "Have the Christians ever inflicted on your people anything similar to what you have so often inflicted on us?"  And John Chrysostom declared "No Christian emperor could ever issue decrees against you such as the devil-worshippers issued against us." This is not because Christians in this period were nice people, but rather because paganism declined so greatly and so rapidly over the course of the fourth century that it simply wasn't worth the effort.

But Babinksi still struggles to maintain the fiction that Christianity tried to suppress pagan learning, philosophy and proto-science.  He claims:

"The early Christian fathers you mentioned did praise Hellenistic learning. That was early on. Things turned darker after that."

"Early on"?  I quoted and cited Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Origen (c. 184- c. 254 AD), Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD), Gregory Nazianzen (329-390 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and John of Damascus (675-749 AD).  Anyone looking at those date ranges can see that the people arguing for the preservation of Hellenic learning did not just do so "early on", and that this argument was made consistently across the centuries from the second to the eighth century and beyond.  In the western tradition this "Gold of the Egyptians" argument was taken up from Augustine and repeated by medieval scholars like Hugh of St Victor (1096-114), Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Bonaventure (1221-1274) until it was enshrined as a central principle of high medieval scholastic philosophy by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

But Babinksi has an alternative historical narrative whereby Augustine, who as we've seen was a key proponent of the idea of preserving pagan Hellenic learning, was somehow also the villain responsible for its suppression:

"Augustine taught that outside the church there was no salvation and even unbaptized babies were in Satan's thrall and damned if they died unbaptized. So naturally, church literature and church historians became the rule of the day with other types of learning being viewed as less necessary for one's salvation."

That's true, but it's quite a leap from "less necessary for one's salvation" to "not to be preserved or studied at all".  Augustine believed the former, without doubt, but he argued against the latter.  And in doing so he ensured that the fire of rational philosophy, logic and proto-science stayed alight in the centuries of invasion and chaos that then engulfed western Europe from soon after his time until at least the eleventh century.  It was Christian scholars like Cassiodorus and Boethius who preserved key works of logic and philosophy, including the logical works of Aristotle and Proclus, in the twilight of the sixth century before the real collapse of civilisation in the west descended.  And it was Christian monasteries and schools that kept these works as central texts in the period that followed until when things became less chaotic and later Christian scholars sought out the works that had been lost.  They went to Muslim Spain and Sicily and found them there - translated into Arabic from Greek editions preserved by Byzantine monks and the Syric editions preserved by the Nestorian monks mentioned above.  If Babinski can read these texts he has Christians to thank.

But he goes on to claim "in fact "curiosity" itself became a sin".  This is another misunderstanding of the evidence on his part.  Yes, there was a sin called curiositias.  But it was not what we would call "intellectual curiosity".  On the contrary, its opposing virtue was studiositas (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge.  The "curiosity" that was frowned on was idle speculation on trivial things, such as gossip, rumours and minding others' business - all things which probably happened a lot in enclosed monastic communities.

The rest of Babinski's comments are even less relevant to anything I said.  He wants me to mention that the cosmology of the ancient Jews clearly included a flat earth.  I have no idea what noting something that is historically true has to do with a blog about common ideas that are historically untrue.  Similarly he makes much of the Church crushing religious dissent.  Given that this happened and is undisputed I have no idea why he's raising it with me.  The fact remains that this didn't include suppressing science and neither the Bruno case nor the Galileo case are examples of the Church doing so.  Quite a bit of what seems to get Babinski agitated are actually just old time Protestant beefs with the Catholic Church, which seems to indicate that he hasn't moved as far from his Pentecostal evangelical days than perhaps he thinks.

But his confused comments show how entrenched many of these common misconceptions about Christianity and pagan learning are.  It requires a deeper knowledge of the source material and scholarship and - more critically - an objective and dispassionate view to get a clearer and more accurate picture.  Unfortunately some people are still too emotionally entangled in their former Christian beliefs and their ongoing reaction against them to be able to analyse these subjects clearly.


  1. Out of curiosity, why did they ban you at Quora? I was really enjoying reading your edits and I am now experiencing something of a withdrawal.

    1. I've been "edited blocked" for three months, not banned. So I can't post answers, comment or edit my stuff. It's because I told an American gun nut who claimed Australia's crime rate had gone out of control since we banned semi-automatics that this was wrong (correct) and that people like him were delusional (also correct). This violates Quora's rather prissy "be nice to everyone all the time" rules, apparently.

    2. Do you have at least some new books to review at Armarium Magnus? Do something, man :)

    3. LOL! I have a rather exacting job and a full and rich personal and social life. But I will be posting here more often, including some book reviews that I will cross-post to Armarium Magnum.

  2. If you have not already studied them, Edwards Watts' scholarship would be useful to bring to your audience's attention. He has made this sort of *his* area of study:

    - City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, University of California Press, 2006.

    - Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities, University of California Press, 2010.

    - The Final Pagan Generation, University of California Press, 2015.

    Also, it is RIDICULOUS for anyone to claim that early Christians were opposed to G-R philosophical thought or libraries. The key leaders of Christianity were suffused in ancient philosophical thinking (on "The Challenge of Homer: School, Pagan Poets and Early Christianity" by Karl Olav Sandnes is useful)

    1. My point about bringing up the flat earth view of the ancient Near East including the Israelites is that when you discuss the Columbus myth that he believed the earth was flat you ought to also bring up and emphasize that from Genesis to the Gospels and Revelation, the biblical authors never demonstrated any knowledge of a spherical earth, but their views fit perfectly well with that of a flat earth, a view certainly held in OT days, and even by NT writers since they never contradict it and even show evidence that their views were as flat earth oriented as those of the inter-testamental writer of the book of Enoch.

      I merely think those two discussions parallel each other and should be discussed together. One may discomfort some atheists who don't know better about the Columbus myth, and the other would discomfort conservative Christians.

    2. The persecution of Galileo is indeed a complex matter, but even some Catholic scholars who are experts on the Galileo incident have stated that it was a matter of the Church suppressing free thought as well as scientific progress and investigation. I presented the views of those Catholic scholars in my online piece. The Galileo incident was also part of a wider culture war, not just involving science, of which the Church played the part of the attempted suppressor:

      Also, Copernicus refused to published his manuscript on his heliocentric theory early on, but waited and waited, and would have waited till after he had died, but some brave Protestant urged him to get it published, which it was, just prior to Copernicus's death. If the Church was so neutral and even pro-science, then why wait? I am not saying the Church was against all science, and I have never said that, but I think Richard H. Jones's "control thesis" makes sense, i.e., whenever scientific questions began to intrude upon the territory of sacred astronomy or sacred beliefs in any way, the Church would attempt to control the situation, railing against such ideas as mere idle thoughts or worse, heretical and in need of repentance. Jones's two volume set is worth reading

      One might also mention the book Infinitesimal. Or the last chapter of The Clockwork Universe, to understand how threatened the Church felt, and how it reacted to scientific and mathematical questions that began to encroach upon more traditionally accepted "sacred" knowledge.

    3. Yes, I thank Christians for copying ancient texts. And I thank Muslims for preserving such texts as well in their fabulous library of Seville that seems to have featured more of them than any Christian library of that period, especially more scientific and mathematically oriented ancient texts. But I thank ancient Hellenistic thinkers and their studies of math, astronomy, biology (including atomists like Lucretius) for writing such texts in the first place, that re-ignited such flames in the western mind. And I think the lens grinders in Italy who perfected clear glass and then finely ground lenses made from clear glass, that enabled the telescope, the microscope, which ignited fires of observation and endless curiosity as to more and ever more things in nature than could be seen and studied for the first time. I also thank the cultural warriors of parts of Italy, aforementioned in my comment on Galileo, but I might have added Leonardo da Vinci and his ilk as well, before Galileo:

      I think you have done a fine job with some basic fallacies. But I can't help but disagree that Christianity was simply a positive or even purely neutral force when it came to the development of modern science. There were negative influences wrought by Christianity as well that should balance out your discussions and presentations.

  3. Tim, I agree with most every major point upon which you have based your website. I'm glad it exists. Thanks for the criticism. Yes, Ramsay McMullen is a real historian, and I hope you read more of his work, along with some of the other works I cited, along with my long blog pieces that cite many historians.

    Christians 0, Christians 0

    Christians 1, Pagans 0

    As for our differences of opinion, you can read in the above posts how Christianity introduced such ideas as the literal demonization of opponents, along with a demand for uniformity of beliefs/thought (which exceeded the Roman demand of mere external offerings of incense to the Emperor). Early Christian turned heavily toward the Bible for their "science" and "history" for centuries. And concentration on such things as salvation and arguing theology became far more important than addressing real world problems or dangers, because this world was merely passing away.

    Quotations from Augustine, including statments from the Church Fathers on the dangers of curiosity:

    And on the existence and location of hell (this and other theological questions obsessed the greatest thinkers of early Christianity, and the most influential Christian minds to a far greater extent than more than scientific studies and observations):

    So for the reasons put forth in the above posts, I suspect Christianity is the author of SOME negative influences (not merely neutral or positive ones) concerning the development of scientific thought, especially when it came to places where interpretations of the Christian holy books differed from scientific hypotheses. This is not to say Christianity wanted to directly and consciously stamp out all Hellenistic learning and science. I agree it did not. But early Christians did ban books that opened Christianity itself up to questioning, and that opened church council doctrinal decisions up to further questioning. See

    As well as two works I hope you will review in future:

  4. "...Babinski himself seems like a very genuine guy and - possibly - open to adjusting his ideas. Well, maybe."

    Prepare to be disappointed.

    1. Exactly who are you, Mr. Jamie Robertson? And in what ways have I disappointed you?

    2. Exactly who are you, Mr. Jamie Robertson?
      Someone who has read a variety of internet discussions, and has seen exactly what you're like when it comes to reasoned discussion.
      And in what ways have I disappointed you?
      You haven't disappointed me, exactly. I fear you have disappointed Tim O'Neill, and I suspected you would, hence my warning. And if you can't figure out in what way you've disappointed him based on what I typed on Aug 20th, then your reading comprehension is even worse than I thought.