Note: Part of this post was pulled from my comments on this BioLogos discussion page
Though Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life continues dominating the bestselling lists on top, there is still another one jumping up and down the top 20 by one of the West’s most well-known intellectuals, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Though I have not read the book yet (though I intend to), I have recently watched one of Pinker’s recent lectures about the book delivered to the Cato Institute delivered on March 6th, 2018.
Essentially, Pinker demonstrates that since the Enlightenment, the world has gotten better in almost every way that we can use to measure the prospertiy of humans (with a few outliers, such as the increase of the opioid epidemic, climate change and AIDS, though I will qualify that at least the last two examples I named are also being reduced). Now, Pinker attributes a lot of this to humanism, i.e. not religion, and at one point in the lecture refers to the religious as believing in a “father in a sky”, the typical strawman version of religion (just as creationism is the strawman version of Christianity). He’s a secularist and likes to attribute the achievements of the Enlightenment to Enlightenment philosophy, including the moral philosophy that matched the rise of the Enlightenment. Now, I have two problems with this.
For one, Pinker seems to flatly not recognize just how enormously Enlightenment values are rooted in Judeo-Christian culture. Without it, it’s not clear whether or not an ‘Enlightenment’ would have taken place within a thousand years of when it did take place, or if ever (though he likes to use the Enlightenment as a direct alternative to Christianity and religion, and lets not forget one of the main men to bring about the Enlightenment, John Locke, wanted atheists jailed). Pinker tries to divorce Enlightenment values from religion (he manages to achieve this without even discussing the origins of the Enlightenment values), something that is historically invalid. Though, of course, this is not the first time that Pinker’s books have historically befuddled. To Pinker’s credit, this aspect of his discussion on Enlightenment values remains a minority portion of his book, thankfully enough. Pinker is not the only secular intellectual to have a surprising misunderstanding of ancient history. While reading Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene, I noticed a significant historical error in an admittedly very well written scientific treatise on pg. 190:
Admittedly the current burst of improvement dates back only to the Renaissance, which was preceded by a dismal period of stagnation, in which European scientific culture was frozen at the level achieved by the Greeks.
This is so mistaken that it is hard to overstate. There was so much advancement between the period of the Greeks to the end of the Middle Ages (the ‘Renaissance’ is also a term now abandoned by serious historians of the period) that a Greek living in the 2nd century, transported to the 15th, would have no clue where they’ve been taken to. The invention of the mechanical clock, printing press, windmill, compass, gunpowder, and countless scientific advancements that laid the foundations for the scientific revolution, revolutions in all sectors of society, marked the remarkable period of advancement in human history known as the Middle Ages. There is of course a ridiculous idea in popular culture that the Middle Ages, between the 5th to 15th century, was marked by a thousand year long stagnation where no progress was made under the overarching fist of an almighty Catholic Church, something that never occurred. The refutation of this Gibbonian thesis was long and arduous, and was completed by historians by the end of the 19th century. Now, books such as the 2009 God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, explaining and refuting this thesis, has been shortlisted for two highly prestigious awards for the history of science, as well as receiving many lavish endorsements by some of the worlds foremost historians of science, including none other than Edward Grant;
Hannam has written a splendid book and fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science. He has admirably met another of his goals, namely that of acquainting a large non-academic audience about the way science and various aspects of natural philosophy functioned in medieval society and laid the foundation for modern science. Readers will also learn much about medicine, magic, alchemy, astrology, and especially technology. And they will learn about these important matters in the history of science against the broad background of the life and times of medieval and early modern societies.
So, why does this thesis still exist, given that no credible historian believes in it? Why does it continue getting rehashed in boneheaded books by amateur historians like Closing of the Western Mind (2003) and The Darkening Age (2017)? How many more times does Cantare Amantis have to curbstomp this thesis on Twitter until the message gets across!? The answer is quite simple, dear reader. It is in order to maintain the fictitious idea, believed by secular culture, that Christians destroyed intellectual learning and advancement. It’s quite popular if you’ve not heard of the academic study of the history of science. Secular culture is the majority in the West, without doubt, and the dominant ideology generally likes to invent things in order to discredit its competitors. In this case, Christianity and Christians. This is not the only things happening to Christianity in secular culture, though, there are many other popular myths radiating out there (Constantine wrote the Bible, anything to do with the Council of Nicaea, almost anything to do with the Galileo trial, the mythicist thesis, etc). Now, it may be very difficult to be a Christian under a different, hostile dominant ideology. So how are we to be Christians? This not only has been answered, but the answer is almost two thousand years old. Christianity was in the world of the Roman Empire, a long-lasting and vast power that swarmed over a fraction of the known world, an empire that the late ancestors of Christianity had not known without.
Something that is not well known, or well understood at the very least, is that the influence of pagan religion on the early Christians was just as strong, if not stronger, than the secular influence and argumentation against Christianity in the modern day, and Christians won then. We can win again, but we must not be stupid. I recently finished reading Larry Hurtado’s (Emeritus Professor of Edinburgh University and world renowned scholar) At the Origins of Christian Worship. The first chapter is devoted to understanding and discussing the Roman (and to a lesser extent, Jewish) background to the early Christians. By no means for the Christians was it easy, and that is entirely besides the sporadic persecutions that eventually would have killed several tens of thousands of Christians (and oppress many more) until Constantine finally converted and legalized Christianity (though he did not make it the official religion of the empire, that did not happen until the end of the 4th century under Theodosius I).
In the ancient Roman world, every sector of society was inescapably linked to religion. Numerous deities permeated many societies, many imported over time through the newly conquered peoples of Rome, and almost all official offices had religious obligations. The emperor himself was no doubt excluded. Not only was he included, but he was often deified, where the Roman citizens were expected to worship the emperor directly. To an ancient Roman, even conceiving of some sector or norm of society not explicitly linked with religion would have been inconceivable. As Hurtado explains;
Perhaps the first thing to emphasise is the pervasiveness of religion in the Roman world. It is in fact difficult to point to any aspect of life in that period that was not explicitly connected with religion. Birth, death, marriage, the domestic sphere, civil and wider political life, work, the military, socialising, entertainment, arts, music – all were imbued with religious significance and associations. Any civic and public office also had religious connotations and often involved ex officio religious duties, such as public leadership in periodic ceremonies in honour of the city deities. Any association of tradesmen had its patron deity, and meetings included ritual gestures in honour of the deity. Practically any meal, and certainly any formal dinner, included ritual acknowledgement of deities, and might well be held in rooms that formed part of the temple of this or that deity. Each military unit had its patron deities and performed regular religious acts in honour of them. (pp. 8-9)
Hurtado simply goes on. Perhaps among the most literate philosophers (who were also all aristocratic), some skepticism arose, but this was by and large permeated to the fringes of intellectual society and the masses flauntingly conducted their religion with not only the acceptance, but endorsement of the the rare aristocratic skeptic. In every serious Roman city, there would be numerous temples devoted to the pagan gods, and almost without exception, they would constitute the largest, most lavish buildings in the Roman city. It was an inescapable part of Roman archictecture and life. Not only this, but these temples and religious buildings usually maintained many aspects of Roman life that were not available anywhere but inside of their services, including many cultural centers, zoological parks, museums, aviaries, concerts, art galleries, public lectures, offered nowhere else in the society. Thus, Hurtado points out;
This means that the sacred places of the gods were not only prominent but heavily frequented, both for what we would think of as obviously religious purposes and for wider social and cultural purposes as well. In particular, cult centres were places where groups of people could eat and drink together easily… At this point, however, I want to note that the temples of the pagan gods were also frequently used as convenient places for social dining and often had rooms attached to the central shrine that could be used (likely rented out) for such purposes. Thus, part of the reason that Roman-era temples are to be seen as so important a feature of city life is that people frequented them for a range of purposes and combined social and religious life and activities easily within their precincts. A great deal of financial outlay was involved in shrines and temples, and a great deal of life was related to them. (pp. 20-21)
With so many deities, there would be many holidays throughout the year devoted to the gods, many of which were attended by extraordinary pagan parades that could not escape one’s attraction and notice. I would certainly recommend reading the full chapter of Hurtado’s book, which is actually available freely online in PDF format here. The truth is, we need not lose hope over the secular state of society, this is not something that Christians haven’t dealt with before. Christians, by the way, won that one. We must be ready to defend the faith, and know the intricate, complex truths. This means, at least for me, immersing oneselves in scholarship and academia, since that is where the complex, profound truths of the world lie. I believe in defending the faith. I think we all should, indeed need, to do so if we want to see our friends and family, and wider culture, come to the truth.
We must continue worshipping, and worshipping together in gatherings, a highly important feature of early Christian society. We need our own culture. We have to hold to the truths of our predecessors. Christians, in the past, did not sit around doing nothing. They vigorously defended and proclaimed the faith all the time, converting the city dwellers and the aristocrats. A fantastic account of the rise of early Christianity is the one by the renowned sociologist Rodney Stark, one that I find quite profound in its truth. Though I was perhaps harsh in this article, it is to try to nail my point into your head. Hopefully I will be forgiven. Remember, as long as there is one of our fighters, there is a hope yet to come.
Watch oνer your life: do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming. 2 Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for a the time you haνe belieνed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time.
–The Didache (16.1-2) 100-200 AD