The Loftrino: New Meme Isolated
Fort Wayne, Indiana: Scientists here have isolated a new fundamental memetic particle with a remarkable set of properties. Called the loftrino, after atheist writer John Loftus, the particle has a large negative probative mass, (it can prove some 46 times the opposite of whatever it claims), seems to always be in motion, was produced in an imaginary epoch called the Enlightenment, and can never be destroyed by outside action, no matter how long or fiercely you bombard it with facts. The loftrino has been observed traveling through two thousand years of Christian history, without being swayed by the gravitational pull of facts, the informed opinion of historians, or even the evident sequence of events.
The particle was isolated last week when, in a demonstration, John Loftus posted a graph of the purported baneful influence of Christianity on science. This graph shows seven distinct eras in the history of science: (1) Egyptian, (2) Greek, (3) Roman, (4) "Christian Dark Ages," (5) Renaissance, (6) Age of "Enlightenment," and (7) Modern Science. The graph shows scientific knowledge and understanding increasing in each of these eras, except for the "Christian Dark Ages," when it drops off like a rock about 420 AD, then flatlines until 1300 AD. After the "Enlightenment," it picks up at an accelerated rate.
If that isn't clear enough, in large black letters the words "The Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages" fill an empty space in the graph, like a dragon on the edge of an old map.
The graph did not originate with Loftus. It appears to have been produced by an anti-Christian blogger named Jim Walker, at nobeliefs.com. (If someone knows of an earlier use of this graphic, please let me know!) Here's a sample of the history prose on offer in Walker's accompanying essay:
"The Christian Dark Ages represents a time in the history of Europe where scientific advancement not only halted but went backwards. The hole left by the Dark Ages bears the imprint of scientific ignorance that lasted longer than the Roman Empire. Imagine where scientific advancement would stand today if not for the scars left by Christianity.
"During the Renaissance, and especially the Age of Enlightenment, people began to wake up. Many freethinkers and scientists rejected orthodox religion and replaced it with unitarianism, deism, or non-theistic philosophy. During the 1800s and after, scientists no longer had to fear religious persecution in any form. As never before in the history of mankind, scientists began to reject theocracy entirely. And what happened as a result of the freedom from religious influence? Science literally exploded with new ideas and discoveries!"
Scientists are allowed an element of whimsy in named elementary particles (quark, charm quark, gluon). Also, perhaps because of all the scientific explosions going on there, the meme was not originally isolated on Walker's blog. (Though it was devastatingly debunked, to the extent that a loftrino can be debunked, by Mike Flynn here. Flynn appears to operate with the unfair advantage of having studied history.) But rather than calling it the "Walker," the new particle was named after the site at which it was first isolated and described, John Loftus' Debunking Christianity site.
The peculiar character of the loftrino has to do with its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Carl Sagan has also made similiar claims about how Christianity ruined ancient science. But Sagan was an astronomer, and no one expects him to know much about the history of Christianity. Loftus, by contrast, used to be an evangelist, and certainly knows a lot of facts about Christianity.
Furthermore, Loftus edited a book just last year that gives the lie to some of the claims on which this view of history are based, in a chapter written by Walker's favorite historian, Richard Carrier. If one can edit a book that debunks one's pet theory, yet still hold fast to that theory, loftrinos are likely to be on the loose.
Let's look more closely at the development of science during the historical periods covered by this graph:
# 2 + #3 Was Greek science on the steady upswing until about the time of Christ, as the Walker / Loftus graph shows? Did Roman science continue to progress for the next 400 years?
Here's Richard Carrier, in The Christian Delusion:
"Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science -- just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economic policy; and in the third century BCE that's exactly what it did. Pagan society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders." (my emphasis)
Indeed, none of the 16 leading ancient scientists Carrier named on pages 401-2 worked within a century of the legalization of Christianity. (One list of the 100 most important scientists names seven before about 200 BC, but only Galen after that date.)
So according to Loftus' own book, not to mention historical reality, the second and third periods of the graph should show a declining, not a rising, slope.
In addition, Carrier credits theism in part for the rise of ancient science:
"Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as (Rodney) Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons." (407)
Carrier describes Christianity as one of the "mystical and fantastic" worldviews into which Roman society fled while (supposedly) abandoning science. Yet he also admits that one key element in Christianity, faith in a good and rational Creator God, was in fact intimately associated with the rise of science BOTH in ancient Greece AND in modern Europe. The loftrino passes through these facts, not swerving one micron to right or left.
#4 What about the "Christian Dark Ages?" Historians recognize that science was not, in fact, abandoned by ancient Christians. In the 6th Century, for example, John Philoponus (who does not appear on Carrier's list) applied the idea of impetus to the planets, "the first attempt at a unified theory of dynamics." Listen to my interview of Oxford historian of science Dr. Alan Chapman for a more judicious and genteel view of this relationship.
Why did Christians fail to revive the full-scale era of scientific inquiry that occurred in Greece some 800 years before Christianity was legalized, but that had badly faded in the interum? Put that way, the question seems rather weak, like asking why matches don't spontaneously combust after they've been dropped in a creek and then covered in a mudslide.
Even so, for anyone with some acquaintance with history, or should I say some vulnerability to it, ought to know the answer: invasions. "Christendom" was on the defensive from 400 AD for most of the next millennia. Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Arabs, Vikings, Moors, Turks, wave after wave came crashing against European civilization. Whenever the tide slowed for a few years, civilizations popped up like crocuses in the spring. These civilizations and new institutions -- Irish monasteries, universities, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great -- had four things in common: Christian origins, unbounded curiosity, a fundamental sense of human equality that allowed social mobility, and a creativity that met and far surpassed even that of those few ancient Greeks who dabbled in science.
(5) The Renaissance. Walker shows science beginning a steep climb again from 1300. He actually credits the rise of science to a backlash against priestcraft failed to stem the tide of bubonic plague, or "Black Death." Actually the science of the Middle Ages was developed in the 13th and early 14th Century by people like Roger Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Pierre de Maricourt, William of Occam, and Jean Buridan, mostly friars and priests. (Bacon was especially concerned for missions.) This was all DECADES before the bubonic plague even arrived in Crimea, in 1346! Those little rats, and the fleas that rode them, would have had to travel backwards in time to help inspire Medieval science! Perhaps that science was more advanced than we thought!
(6) The Enlightenment. Like many skeptics, Walker (and Loftus through him) credits the Enlightenment for increasing the pace of scientific discovery. He therefore sets the next slope increase at 1700 -- AFTER Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Hooke, Newton, the Royal Academy, and all the great bible-thumper scientists who founded most of the modern scientific disciplines.
The Enlightenment was a movement in mostly bad philosophy and bad history. It's leaders, like Hobbes and Voltaire, were often also bad at science. Many skeptics fervently wish Enlightenment figures had inspired the birth of science; but until we find their time machines, we will have to reject that theory, too.
Other ancient civilizations developed the beginnings of what might be called science: Sumer, India, China, even MesoAmerica. Why did those civilizations get no further? Was Christianity somehow to blame for their failure, too?
But the thesis, "The Christian Dark Ages killed science" will, like most "New Atheist" claims, travel to the edge of the known universe, without being moved one micron up or down, left or right, by any of these facts, or those Flynn mentions.
Other skeptics may dispute credit with Loftus for discovery of the loftrino. Richard Dawkins, for example, has ardently held to the belief that Christian theology recommends "blind faith" from 1976 to the present, a long career even for a loftrino. (They cannot be influenced by outside realities, but their half-life is one lunar year, after which they degrade into back issues of the Huffington Post.)
If another claimant is produced, though, and is able to make a strong historical claim, and come up with a pithy alternative name for the loftrino, speak now, or forever hold your whirled peas!