Carl Sagan and the Myth of the Medieval Gap

(system) #1
How Carl Sagan misinformed millions with his anti-religious mythology.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dr. Ted Davis) #2

I hope you find this series helpful. Comments are always welcome.

(Chris Falter) #3

Thanks for setting the record straight on medieval scientific accomplishments, Ted.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4


Ted, are you familiar with the book, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, by Toby E. Huff, 1993, Cambridge U. Press. I found this book very helpful with a different point of view.

In a sense there are two different questions here. One is the nature of pre-modern science. The second is the relationship to Christianity and the emergence of modern science which happened in the West during the Middle Ages.

First of all let me make this observation, The Jewish People in the Bible were not interested in science. They were interested in their covenantal faith in YHWH. Faith and ethics was their thing, while the Greeks were into philosophy and knowledge (science.) Christianity brought the cultures of the Jews and Greeks together, which has been at odds and brought out the best in both.

Now those who do not value faith and ethics are not likely to appreciate the contribution of the Jews/Christians, but that is what happened.

The barbarian invasions in the West brought a decline in the level of education and “science” in the West. This did not take place in the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which was certainly just a Christian, if not more. So there is no justifiable reason to say that Christianity was a fault for this decline. The fault was with the “Barbarians” whose descendants are the scholars making this claim.

In my opinion the breakdown of the ancient culture in the West opened the door for a new synthesis of Christianity, ancient learning, and Germanic traditions of freedom. This produced modern science, commerce, and democracy.

Sadly many want to delete Christianity out of the equation and others want to equate ancient science to modern science. Ancient science is descriptive. Modern science is prescriptive. Some want to maker science only descriptive.

Modern science is experiential, rooted in the world of nature that can be verified by experiment and field observations. That is why Darwinian Natural Selection is not science, because it has not been verified. Karl Popper brought this up years ago, and the evidence is not there that proves him wrong.

During the Middle Ages the false traditional sciences of astrology and alchemy were going strong. They were not sponsored by Christianity, but were part of ancient learning. Augustine taught against astrology and also cyclical time which was supported by astrology.

However it has been noted that astrology and cyclical time lost much of their power after the Copernican revolution. This is because Copernicus demystified the heavens and the mystical philosophy of Aristotle.

Western civilization is based on Modern Science, Greek Philosophy, and Augustinian Christianity. Greek philosophy is under stress because it no longer works well with Science and Christianity. It needs a thorough revision.


Idea: redo the misleading diagram from Sagan’s cosmos, adding in the missing names in the dark ages: Philoponus, Venerable Bede, Robert Grosseteste, John of Sacrobosco, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme …

Also … where’s Aristotle!!!

(Jon Garvey) #6

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence - and if you simply choose, as Sagan did, to omit every name for a thousand years to fit an assertion, it isn’t evidence at all, but something less reputable. The phrase “Lying for Galileo” comes to mind for some reason!

Maybe Aristotle got left out because late mediaeval science was so thoroughly Aristotelian that somebody might have noticed. He’s a glaring omission from the Greek contingent, though, as you noticed.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #7

That’s a very appropriate question, Roger. Very appropriate to this specific column, which deals with a small piece of a huge historical question: why did modern science appear in Christian Europe during the Early Modern period, rather than somewhere else or at some other time?

Toby Huff ( isn’t someone I talk about very often, but I have some notes (many years old) on his book, The Rise of Early Modern Science. If they existed in electronic form I’d block and paste some of them here, but they don’t, and unfortunately I can’t manufacture enough time to type all of the relevant points here. As the wikipedia entry says, he was interested in the “Needham question,” something I have often thought about but never with enough precision and attention to detail to render an opinion with any confidence.

Partly, Huff agreed with Needham, if my notes are accurate. He said (a) “Theological assumptions have shaped conceptions of reason and rationality as attributes of man and nature.These metaphysical conceptions have been particularly fertile for encouraging scientific thought.” I entirely agree with that; see, e.g. this column: He also said (b): “The absence of theology in a strict sense in China is a matter of some importance, both for the history of thought in China and in terms of contemporary understandings of that civilization.” Given my almost total ignorance of Chinese intellectual history, evaluating that one is above my pay grade.

Overall, Huff argued that the Western legal notion of a corporation played a crucial role in the rise of science, b/c it helped created intellectual space–namely, those corporations called “universities”–in which scholars were free to inquire into nature without restraint. Of course he says many other things as well that can’t be summarized here.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #9


Thank you for sharing your notes with us and steering to the interesting saga of Joseph Needham. While I agree that China is beyond my ken, I find Islam and Eastern Christianity interesting comparisons.

Certainly ancient science and learning flourished in the Eastern Roman Empire and Islamic culture far longer than in the West, however modern science failed to develop there. In the Eastern Empire you had both Christianity and Greek learning. Under Islam you had no Christianity and Greek learning.

In the West you had the remarkable theologian Augustine who three great books which transformed his world, The Confessions (which defined world view of the West,) The Kingdom of God (defined the separation of Church and Sate in the West,) and The Trinity (which defined the theology of the West.) Most people overlook the third, but I see it as most important in the long run. Rodney Stark who has written a lot about this deems to pint to the important role of Augustine.

Huff and Needham both pointed out the importance of ideas and institutions in the development of modern science. To me that points the relational nature of knowledge. On my book The Complex One and The Simple One, Relational Christianity and Absolute Islam in Today’s World I did a point by point comparisons of these two great faiths to see how they differed and were similar, including in scientific endeavor. .

(George Brooks) #10

Even from me, @TedDavis ? I’m glad to hear it.

You and I have done a fine job of trimming the corners of this topic. And I think that we are virtually in agreement on many of the fine points!

But frankly, I think Stephen Snobelen would benefit by more closely reading your posts and discussions, Ted. You employ a precision that is to be respected. Some people, in the rush to join the bandwagon to bruise Carl Sagan’s contribution to the culture of the English speaking world, are not quite as precise as we would want them to be. And sometimes the same writer does both!

For example, in the current article, we read this stunning paragraph:

“Those who argue that Christian Europe suppressed science fail to ask just how Christian Europe actually was at various points in the Middle Ages. In fact, Europe wasn’t fully Christianised until the early modern period, when part of northern Scandinavia became Lutheran. Large parts of Europe, especially in the north, remained pagan.”

But who argues that “Christian Europe” suppressed science? Is this the text book example of “straw man” rhetoric? The argument is almost always that the Catholic Church suppressed science. And the Catholic Church certainly did its share of suppression here and there. Not universally so. And not consistently so. But anyone who would argue they didn’t obviously never had their book of science listed by the Catholic Church on the list of banned books. Folks, this is suppression.

But then the discussion broadens… and the writer wants to assure us that this is not something that has gone on for eons. But then we remember Socrates who was executed because the citizens of Athens thought he was causing their teens irreparable harm by suggesting that Zeus might not be a real god. Oh the shock!

I will say it: Snobelen was dramatically better just a month ago in his January article. It was a Great Article!!! I marveled at how well he carved into the heart of the “hot mess” that the “Conflict Thesis” can become. And he even offered an alternative to the Conflict Thesis – he proposed the “Complexity Thesis” !

He wrote:

“This is why historians prefer the Complexity Thesis, or something like it.” Beautiful. Perfect. And it fits in so well with the narrative surrounding it:

“It is true that the University of Wittenberg advocated using Copernicanism only as a calculating device (the so-called Wittenberg interpretation of Copernicanism), yet this got Lutheran astronomers talking about the theory and teaching it to students.”

" It is also true that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another Lutheran, believing the Bible to teach a stationary earth, felt able to come up with a version of geocentrism that incorporated only some of the mathematical advantages of heliocentrism without putting the earth in motion."

"Yet he also backed up his (correct) rejection of crystalline spheres with Rabbinic exegesis on the watery firmament of Genesis 1. Thus, the story of Lutheranism and Copernican was far from entirely conflictual. This is why historians prefer the Complexity Thesis, or something like it.

"The version of Bruno’s story in Cosmos is unfortunately a cartoon in both senses of that term. We have to conclude that the animation was animated by the Conflict Thesis, or something like it. "

"Not all non-believers embrace the Conflict Thesis and uniform hostility towards religion. Philosopher of science and atheist Michael Ruse has decried Dawkins’ efforts to label Darwinism atheistic, because in Ruse’s view this will only confirm creationists’ worst nightmare about evolution. "

See more at:

The author, in his own words, admits where Catholic and Lutheran dogma sometimes caused troubles for the advancement of science! Ladies and Gentlemen, “sometimes” counts! We don’t write apologia about grenades because they don’t always kill their intended target. And since when does any organization get “off the hook” about burning a man to death . . . because they were burning him for his religious not his scientific beliefs! Yes, yes… a technicality for sure. But does that mean there is nothing to fear? Nothing to criticize? So Westerners get a little emotional about their embrace of modern ideas … since some people with modern religious ideas were turned into a rotisserie ! Well, no kidding! Of course we are going to get emotional. But now doesn’t it seem that the emotions are running a little too hot in the other direction? What exactly are we trying to prove about religion?

Where exactly do we want to go with all this celebration of how wrong people were about science and religion. We’ve all been through this already. There is no monolithic thing called “religion” that opposes all “science”. Even the Catholic Church struggled to be monolithic about anything. A sincere reading of the old books shows a pretty zealous effort to paint the Catholic Church into a corner about how it treated some science and some scientists. But this is certainly not far from the mark, yes?

But now, in today’s world, the Catholic Church has become a bastion of scientific flexibility - - at least when it comes to the Cosmos and the role of Evolution.

But at the very same time we entreat writers to say what hogwash it all was about some denominations and some religious zealots abusing science… all in this same modern age when we are surrounded by Evangelicals who are fiercely pursuing this very stated course!

What good, exactly, are we accomplishing by persuading an ignorant public that religion is no threat on science? … when we have creationists in the Cabinet and climate scientists terrified for their careers as politicians request “lists” of those who actually adhere to their “science” and nefarious witches brews? Who is being irrational now? Who is being emotional in the defense of … ? Well, whom? In the “rave” we are throwing to render the Catholic Church white as snow, we turn around and there are the Evangelicals ready to de-fund whole governmental departments … and leave the posterity of the entire Earth at risk … because they don’t have much respect for Science.

Articles like this month’s offering just make things a little messier and a little more confusing. January’s article was wonderful. February’s article? A much clumsier effort in my view.

George Brooks
Tampa, Florida
Currently of Alpharetta, Georgia

(Dr. Ted Davis) #11


I’m sorry you don’t find this column up to standard; we differ on that.

As for the specific points you mention, again–I keep saying this, over and over–the view taken by Steve, me, and most historians of science today is that the whole history of science and “religion” (including Christianity) is simply not captured by any single conceptual box, neither harmony nor conflict nor anything else, except “complexity,” which means what it says. We do indeed find some individual instances of genuine conflict, including aspects of the Galileo affair (in which much of the conflict involved competing views of the Bible within the Catholic church, not conflict between science and religion per se). We also find (IMO) a lot more instances of genuine harmony. But, the overall picture is neither.

So, George, you’re right that there really is some conflict, sometimes. We aren’t denying or hiding that, so I’m puzzled why you keep insisting on it. Is the presence of some conflict essential to your worldview, or your particular religious stance? Is there some other reason? I’m scratching my head here, since you’ve said you are starting to see where we’re coming from.

As for “Christian Europe” and the Catholic Church, the significant points are: (1) for all of the medieval period, some parts of Europe weren’t actually Christian; (2) within those parts that were Christian, a lot of scientific and technological progress actually happened–i.e., it wasn’t a “Dark Age,” a term I hear so often that I could retire now if I had $10 for each occurrence. The first point isn’t important in evaluating Sagan, but (2) totally refutes Sagan’s famous medieval gap. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sagan needed to put a sock in it, and those many viewers who got their impressions of science & religion in that period from him need to start all over again.

Sagan pretty much equated “Christian Europe” with the Catholic Church. Except for (1), that’s actually right: if you lived in Germany in the 15th century, you were a Christian (or else a Jew facing much persecution). That period has justly been called “Christendom.” It had two big parts: the Latin West (where Latin was the universal language of the learned, used in all the university classrooms and even often in commerce), and the Byzantine empire elsewhere–except pagan parts of northern Europe and in Spain, much of which was ruled by the Muslims until 1492. The Byzantine encounter with science is still not very well studied, but the rest is heavily studied. And, as Snobelen has shown, in the Latin West lots of fundamental scientific stuff happened. So, Sagan’s picture is “not even wrong,” to borrow Pauli’s famous words in another context.

Informed people today don’t take their history of the Scopes trial from “Inherit the Wind” (a drama that never claimed to be historical), and they shouldn’t take their history of science from Sagan either. In that field, he was a rank amateur whose ideology so overran the truth that it’s utterly appalling. There’s no other way to say it.

(George Brooks) #12


Since the Catholic Church was global, this is quite the understatement, yes? I think the Vatican list of banned books, which wasn’t terminated until about World War II, can be definitively seen as Denominational Resistance to Science. I’m not suggesting that there was a science book on the list until World War II… but there were science books on the list for several centuries, yes?

If someone has specifics, I will be happy to use the specifics.

But let’s look at some of your thoughts here:

“As for “Christian Europe” and the Catholic Church, the significant points are: (1) for all of the medieval period, some parts of Europe weren’t actually Christian…” I know this point is featured in the article for this thread, but really, I don’t know anyone who really cares about whether all Europe was Christian or not. The Conflict Thesis, as abominable as it is, is not so abominable that it insists that the Catholic Church had reached every acre of European soil. This is a straw man argument … so I wont’ spend any more time on it.

"…(2) within those parts that were Christian, a lot of scientific and technological progress actually happened–i.e., it wasn’t a “Dark Age,” a term I hear so often that I could retire now if I had $10 for each occurrence. "

Yes, quite true. But, again, as abominable as the Conflict Thesis is, I don’t believe anyone thinks science came to a halt. If anything, one of the motivations for concern within the Church was that “modernization” was taking hold all over the world and in all fields. Protestants broke away in a heretical wave that made the gnostic Cathars look like a kids game. New technologies were giving people the ability to see or know things that the 12 Apostles could have never dreamed of. And so forth …

So… while science raged on … the Vatican continued to sustain the published list of banned books, which included books we would characterize as science.

“The first point isn’t important in evaluating Sagan, but (2) totally refutes Sagan’s famous medieval gap. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sagan needed to put a sock in it, and those many viewers who got their impressions of science & religion in that period from him need to start all over again.”

I have no idea where this aggravated fixation on Sagan comes from. Yes, Sagan got some things wrong. But the Scopes Monkey trial was not in the “dark ages” … it was in the 1920’s… and it wasn’t in Europe… it was in the American Bible Belt. Sagan could see a new aggregation of religious elements bubbling and fulminating against Western scientific conclusions and advances.

The Conflict Thesis is a hot mess of exaggeration and error. But the Complexity Thesis is hardly a romp in Disney World!

I still don’t quite understand the “animus” behind all this strife and stress over something that found its moment at the turn of the Victorian era. Yes… there are errors in perception that still pervade the ignorant and “low information” senses of Americans and the English speaking world.

One of these errors in perception is that the Earth was created in 6 days. When people stop trying to change the political equation in America based on this nonsense is the day that I will expend my heaping share of “Fret” and “Feck” on some of the less harmful ideas that the Conflict Thesis allows to persist.

There are Many things worse than the Conflict Thesis … especially since the main target of the Conflict Thesis is the Catholic Church. The Church, like some historians, can recant their positions. And both parties have.

Cavalierly saying Sagan should have “put a sock in it” is not the kind of language I would expect when trying to approach struggling Christians who, amazingly, still see Sagan as a kind of American icon to revere and honor.

Surely there is a better middle ground than “put a sock in it”.

(Casper Hesp) #13

Hi @TedDavis,
Would it be possible to include a “corrected” version of Carl Sagan’s timeline? That would go a long way in illustrating the difference between actual history and the myth of the medieval gap.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #14

An excellent suggestion, Casper. Would you like to give it a go yourself?

I’m afraid I can’t fit this into my schedule any time soon, unfortunately. There are only so many things that one can do.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #15

It’s certainly not the way I normally express myself, George, I’ll grant you that. I deliberately did so in this case, b/c it needs to be said in the strongest possible terms. And, it worked: I got your attention. Dr Snobelen concludes this column by saying, " this is myth-making, not history. The only real gap here is in Sagan’s knowledge of the history of science." That’s a much gentler way of saying pretty much what I said. It’s historian-speak for saying that Sagan’s take on medieval science (and the church) is worthless–no, much worse than worthless, b/c he warped the minds of a whole generation. He absolutely is an American icon, but for many of the wrong reasons. If struggling Christians “revere and honor” him, then they need a shot upside the head to wake them up, and maybe this series will provide such.

Sagan was historically incompetent, and his ideological bias encouraged him to say that nonsense anyway, since it suited his (anti-)religious purpose. Snobelen gives Sagan much praise for the positive aspects of his series, and I really do share his admiration for Sagan as a science popularizer: it’s a tough job, and no one has ever done it better. I’m older than Snobelen, old enough to remember just loving Cosmos when it debuted, but I hadn’t yet gotten an education in the history of science (I was just starting down that path). Quite literally, now I know better. Had he limited himself to a few offhand remarks about science and religion, fair enough–he’s personally entitled to have a point of view, and Cosmos was his series, after all. But, he was not intellectually entitled to devote significant time throughout his series to major myth-making in the name of ideology and pass it off as truth to countless millions of people (quite possibly more than a billion, considering that portions of his series are still viewed online). I’m sorry, he wasn’t. It’s a black mark on PBS that no one there vetoed that stuff, but they probably just didn’t know any better than I did at that time.

George, if this means that I have an “aggravated fixation on Sagan,” then so be it. I think my animus toward him is entirely justified. IMO, George, you’ve picked up on this particular theme b/c you admire Sagan, you think you learned a lot from him (and you probably did, but you need to clear your cache of anything related to history that came from him), and you resent the fact that I put him in the same category as Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne, namely, as a practitioner of ideologically-motivated folk science. I won’t comment again on anything else you say about Sagan, or how he’s been analyzed here. You know what I think, and I have nothing further to say that would be any different.

(Stephen Snobelen) #16

Hi Casper,
This is a good idea. I’m currently working with my programme colleagues to come up with just such a chart. I’ll try to post it tomorrow.
Best wishes,

(George Brooks) #17


I am not sure I would have made the realization on my own that you are putting Sagan in the same category as Richard Dawkins. That’s pretty harsh treatment!

You won’t further comment on anything that I might say about Sagan. Hmmm… so be it.

But the one thing you cannot change is that when people say the Catholic Church once attempted to suppress some areas of science, they would not be wrong. Because the list of banned books published by the Catholic Church included science books for generations.

And when people say that religion can lead people into anti-scientific stances, that would not be wrong either - - for we have in our midst today, various denominations of Evangelicals exerting zealous effort to ban books, fire teachers (pun intended) and even slash government budgets for some sciences.

These are incontrovertible facts.

And when peole say that Sagan made errors in his interpretation of denominational practices and philosophies regarding science, I would say that his sloppiness about religious history is also an incontrovertible fact.

But if I were to have a bias of sympathy, my bias would be in favor of sympathy for Sagan whose zeal was certainly no worse than the zeal of the Catholic Church. His words threw no person into a bon fire. His words caused no books to be burned. His interpretations caused no one to live under house arrest.

If we can forgive and forget about the Church’s treatment of humanity based purely upon their interpretation of the Bible, then I will certainly admire those who can forgive Sagan for all too easily accepting the views of those who wrote before him.

I don’t believe there is any evidence that Carl Sagan intentionally lied to his audiences. He believed what he was saying.

I think what falls to his favor is this:
The untruths he spoke and wrote about some Men of Religion did far less damage than what some Men of Religion have ordered society to do, for generations, to Men of Science!

Be well @TedDavis. I hope you have a blessed weekend.

George Brooks

(Stephen Snobelen) #18

Dear George,

Many thanks for your thoughts. I think of all this needs to be put into perspective. Sagan’s book and documentary Cosmos shouldn’t be compared to any physical persecution that religious institutions and political movements have engaged in. Any religious institution involved in suppressing science today will have to answer for itself. Examples of direct persecution of men (and women) of science are fewer than many believe (or wish). As we’ve already noted, none were put to death (again, I’m happy to be corrected on this).

My job as a historian is to strive to teach good history and write good history. So, although I love Sagan’s documentary Cosmos, along with the book of the same title (a first edition of which I have beside me as I write), and, what’s more, use in in a science and the media course I teach to humanities, science and journalism students as an example of a documentary done right (it compares favourably in my view with some much more recent science documentaries that overuse CGI and lean towards the aesthetics of MTV videos), he clearly committed some errors in his historical material. At one level, this is perhaps not surprising. Sagan was not a trained historian. If I wrote a book on the hard content of, say, planetary astronomy (Sagan’s field), and didn’t have it thoroughly vetted by a trained scientist, it would be filled with errors and misrepresentations. I should add that Sagan’s Cosmos has errors despite the fact that Harvard astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich was one of the consultants (see p. xv of the book). Gingerich, I know, would have given excellent advice and certainly wouldn’t have endorsed a 1000-year gap in the history of science.

My purpose in all this is a modest one: tracing the origin of historical myths about science and religion that have become embedded in popular culture. The Medieval Gap is a historical myth–or, to be more precise: it is largely a historical myth. But as I have shown, it is used by some of the New Atheists to criticise religion–and especially Christianity. My list of examples of New Atheist use of this myth was by no means exhaustive. One example I didn’t mention is in Richard Carrier’s essay “Christianity was not responsible for modern science”, published in The Christian delusion: why faith fails (2010). On p. 414 of his essay, he writes:

Had Christianity not interrupted the intellectual advance of mankind and put the progress of science on hold for a thousand years, the Scientific Revolution might have occurred a thousand years ago, and our science and technology today would be a thousand years more advanced.

I think Carrier could have meant to say that “the Scientific Revolution might have occurred a thousand years earlier”, but I could be wrong (we would generally say it began around the time of Copernicus, about five hundred years ago; although some question whether the Scientific Revolution is still a valid historiographical concept, I still believe it has some merit, with certain qualifications). Nevertheless, this sort of claim is based on a misunderstanding of the role of contingency in history allied with a notion that there is an essence called science that is just waiting to emerge so long as checks against its progress are removed. The Scientific Revolution happened when it did due to a series of historical contingencies that occurred mostly after the time of the Greeks, including innovations made in Indian mathematics, Chinese technology, Islamic science and synergies created by the interaction of Hellenic thought and the Hebraic thought world associated with Judaism and Christianity throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. (That is only a rough summary of course; entire volumes have been written about the details).

This meme of the Medieval Gap is bad history and historians of science can help correct it and in so doing reveal a much richer and more intriguing story of how science finally emerged in the early modern period. Everyone, believer or not, can benefit from these more nuanced accounts.

The other issue is Sagan’s intentions behind presenting the Medieval Gap. It’s hard to be a universal expert; no one should blame even a polymath like Carl Sagan for that. So some of this may be due to his lack of familiarity with the relevant history. But the historical sections of his documentary and book could have been more thoroughly vetted by historians of science. At the same time, if you read the text around the timeline on p. 335 it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sagan is in someway pinning the supposed millennium gap on the rise of Christianity. Perhaps if he had been more fully aware of the history of Medieval science, along with the history of science-religion relations, he might have seen things differently. Unfortunately, his son Dorian endorsed the book by David Mills, which has one of the most egregious examples of the Medieval Gap I have ever seen–an articulation so stunning in its falsehood that you almost have to admire the author for his hutzpah. But of course you can’t blame fathers for the sins of the sons.

The bottom line is that both (Carl) Sagan’s claim and implied blame is still there and it continues to inform, directly and indirectly.

Thanks again for your comments.

Best wishes,

(George Brooks) #19


Naturally, it is always gracious for a busy author to be willing to step out into the open air and discuss his ideas that inform his writing.

As I mentioned above, last month’s article was brilliant in tweezing out the threads of what was correct and what was incorrect. This month’s article seemed much more like a sledge hammer.

If you want to press the point that Bruno was burned alive for reasons other than science, I will defer to your sense of scuples. But the Catholic Church was still plenty active in oppressing this or that little area of science. A special list for banning books that operated for centuries is more than enough for the Catholic Church to earn some censure on its lack of respect for Scientific Inquiry. [And, obviously, the Church also earns plenty of additional censure for other reasons … like burning people alive for their opinion of the Bible.]

The implied blame for Bruno’s death can be shifted to a sense of shrill metaphysics . . . but the implied blame for a list of suppressed books is still there because that blame still stains the moral conscience of Western Civilization.

But seeing as how we are all mature and gracious men of charity and forebearance, the fact that the Catholic Church has turned from such things and endorses virtually all the sciences with great liberal enthusiasm, we can all turn our backs to the woes of the past.

Why should we? Because we are men of faith and because we have plenty of woes to turn to in the present . . . where several denominations of Evangelicals have pushed ahead to take the place of the Catholic Church - - with great gusto, but much less uniformity in their mandates, and a generally less effective way of pressing the point.

So, we can check off what we are all in agreement about:

A] The originators of the Conflict Thesis were wrong in much of their interpretation of the Catholic Church’s deeds.

B] Sagan was wrong in so easily succumbing to these ideas of the writers before him regarding the conclusions of the Conflict Thesis.

C] The Complexity Thesis is a more reasonable balancing of what the Catholic Church (and other religiously motivated groups, not all of them Christian) have done against those who studied the natural world.

D] The Catholic Church is not blameless against Science. And was certainly a frightening institution for corollary views (on metaphysics instead of on physics) regarding what could get you burned alive.

E] A New Thesis, that religious ideas can motivate people to shun, suppress and distress endeavors in science, is fully quickened in today’s world by select Creationist denominations, which will unforunately keep the broadest strokes of the Conflict Thesis alive in the minds of the Western World, despite being transplanted to a new wing/faction of the Christian community. While it may seem reasonable to blame people’s bias against religion on Carl Sagan and the writers of books that influenced him … it can still be convincingly argued that the biggest factor in today’s bias against religion (vis a vis Science) comes from the ever active attempts to stifle and muzzle science by certain Evangelicals alive and well in today’s world!

@Steve_Snobelen, which of the five alpha items ([A] thru [E}), do you find the least agreeable?

(Stephen Snobelen) #20

Those are all important and worthy issues. Certainly in another context or another forum it would be useful to discuss them in depth. For the record, I am not here to defend intolerance in the past or present.
My job here at this time is to engage in a more mundane and focused scholarly enterprise. In particular, I am interested in examining New Atheist rhetoric from the standpoint of history, philosophy and sociology of science–the fields in which I have training. I am not close to infallible even in my trained fields, however, and thus am happy to be corrected if my interpretations are in error. Learning is a lifelong experience, which is why I am mighty grateful for your comments and those of others in this discussion. That said, I do touch on some of the themes you raise in my next section in the series when I look at examples of intolerance among New Atheists (which is already in Ted’s able hands). In so doing, I suggest the value for the religious believer (and anyone else for that matter) to reflect on ways that they might be intolerant–before casting the first stone, as it were. Thanks again for your helpful thoughts.

(George Brooks) #21


Thank you. Your words are kind and and patient.

I am interested in the arc of this overall exploration. The topic was first introduced as an exploration of the Conflict Thesis… which pretty much had the viewpoint of Victorian era Protestantism lashing out at its perception of the role of the Catholic Church of centuries ago.

Then we moved from Conflict Thesis to Complexity Thesis, which I found most admirable. The intricacies of religious thought and behavior were explored. Then we explored Carl Sagan’s implicit endorsement of the histories portrayed in the Conflict Thesis. Carl Sagan seems to have avoided seeing himself as an Atheist, and more of an agnostic. His self-appointed disciple, Degrasse Tyson presents himself as an agnostic. While Sagan may have done so more out of a definitional technicality.

And now, you explain, you will be exploring the views of the New Atheists. Certainly Sagan’s views are more like those of the New Atheists than the originators of the Conflict Thesis. I don’t believe John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White would have qualified as atheists.

Isn’t the bandwidth for this exploration getting rather big for the nature of the discussion? Except for @Patrick, and one or two others, I don’t believe there are that many Atheists that support the work of BioLogos. If challenged, I believe the average BioLogos supporter (say me, for example), would oppose the views and logic of Atheists.

I’m starting to wonder if the tail is starting to wag the dog here.

In the posting above, I listed 5 items that may enjoy more or less agreement between you and I:

A] The originators of the Conflict Thesis were wrong in much of their interpretation of the Catholic Church’s deeds.

B] Sagan was wrong in so easily succumbing to these ideas of the writers before him regarding the conclusions of the Conflict Thesis.

C] The Complexity Thesis is a more reasonable balancing of what the Catholic Church (and other religiously motivated groups, not all of them Christian) have done against those who studied the natural world.

D] The Catholic Church is not blameless against Science. And was certainly a frightening institution for corollary views (on metaphysics instead of on physics) regarding what could get you burned alive.

E] A New Thesis, [edited/truncated] … can still be convincingly argued that the biggest factor in today’s bias against religion (vis a vis Science) comes from the ever active attempts to stifle and muzzle science by certain Evangelicals alive and well in today’s world!
Either you agreed with all the points, or you demurred. I really couldn’t tell which. You simply state that this is not the time to discuss them in greater detail. But you are now preparing a BioLogos exploration of the New Atheists. That strikes me as a topic even less relevant than my five items above!

In my personal view, YEC’s are the vivid, real-world embodiment of problems that some denominations have in engaging with the natural world. This problem is oftentimes compared to the problems the Catholic Church made for men of Science centuries before. But the encouraging thing about this comparison, even when erroneously drawn, is that there is a sense of optimism. Because the Catholic Church came to the position that Science and a true understanding of the Bible could never be in conflict.

The fact that New Atheists would criticize both Catholics and YEC’s doesn’t seem that interesting, or even surprising.

I will patiently wait to see where you are taking this discussion. Again, thank you, @Steve_Snobelen, for the rare opportunity to discuss complex issues with the author!

George Brooks