Monthly Archives: August 2010

War. War Never Changes.

The Compression of Time

As events in the past become more remote and removed from the present, we have a tendency to compress them. The Roman Empire came about one weekend when Julius Caesar decided he should rule the world, and few can name his successors, save a few luminaries, and a several villains. After the fall of Rome, general knowledge of history becomes vague and obscure, lost in the mire of what is called the ‘Dark Ages’, an era promptly followed by knights in shining armour, King Arthur and other fictions. A series of wars were fought about religion, and someone invented science, an Italian in the employ of Spain found the New World, and before long the modern world was born with the industrial revolution. At this point most people can add more detail; two world wars were fought, one was caused by the folly of generals and empires, the other was a ‘good’ war to end tyranny. Then there was a Cold War, Vietnam, and now, the War on Terror. Wars are an interesting example of this trend. The Hundred Years War was a series of three separate wars between France and England between 1337 and 1453, which included several periods of peace, but are lumped together because they shared the common theme of Englishmen killing French. In a similar fashion some use the term the ‘2nd Hundred Years War’ to describe a series of wars between France and Great Britain from 1688 to 1815. It is easy for us to define the past, agglomerate vast periods of history into catchy titles, dilute the trials and tribulations of entire generations of people into pithy epithets, and categorise decades of suffering with bland appellations.

The First Classic Blunder

There have been many more ‘world wars’ other than the two most recent ones. The Mongols, you could say, tried to be the first to start a world war in the 1200’s by invading everywhere they could, but were mostly confined to Asia and Europe, mostly because the Old World had not found the New World, which was hiding in the middle of the ocean because Asians and Europeans seemed terribly fond of conquering things. Luckily for the Mongols they never went up against a Sicilian when death was on the line, only getting as far as Austria. The Mongolian Empire quickly fragmented, though the various bit and pieces survived for quite some time in many parts of the world.

In the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries the Dutch and the Portuguese went to war all over the world, fighting for the colonies they had been busy building in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This was also part of a larger war between the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic, known as the 80 Years War. But that wasn’t really a ‘world war’, it was just a war between several kingdoms, principalities, and empires that happened to take place everywhere from South America to the Philippines, and mostly at sea. The participants in that war also fought in the 30 Years War, one of the most destructive wars in European history, in which nearly a third of all Germans were killed. The first true world war began in 1688, not in 1914, which was when a world war which we call ‘First’ began.

Bella, horida bella!

There were several other global conflicts before the War to End All Wars didn’t. The Nine Years War (a.k.a. the War of English Succession), the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the North American Wars, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars all involved various world powers of the time and were fought on several continents. ‘Succession’ was clearly all the rage at the beginning, but soon went out of style as its market was limited to the nobility, and was replaced by a new brand called ‘Revolution’, something the common man and woman could rally behind. These wars were fought across the Americas, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia. You could say that they were all ‘world wars’ but, like the First and Second World Wars, they involved all the same protagonists fighting for the same goals and so could all be lumped together into one big war, the 2nd Hundred Years War (1688-1815). In theory, we might alternatively refer to this as the first world war.

The Name is the Thing

The First World War was not called that by the people who fought it, it was only called ‘First’ after the second one happened. At the time it was known as The Great War, or The War to End Wars. How would they have known it was first, that another would follow it, and so soon? No European war before it had been so destructive, or killed so many people, or been fought in so many places and involved so many nations. And then the second one happened, which was even worse. So it made sense to call them the First and Second World Wars. But now there is the idea that they were really one big war, so it could be called ‘The Great War’, or ‘The Second 30 Years War’. It began in 1914 when an Archduke took an ill-informed drive in Bosnia, and ended when the fury of the sun was unleashed on the land in which it rose. There was a bit of a pause in the middle, from 1918 to 1939, allowing everyone to take a little break and build more weapons and bombs, but the Spanish and Russians provided some interval entertainment in the form of civil wars in which many other European nations were involved, making them international events. The Japanese, feeling left out, went to war with China and Russia, and later joined in on the World War fun and games as an ally of the Axis powers. It can even be said that the resolution of the Great War was one of the causes of the Second World War. So, if these wars were really one big war, can refer to the whole episode as ‘the Great War’? Or the second world war. Might we include the Cold War in this period? In another few decades the compression of time will be so great that the entire 20th Century might be view as one continuous period of conflict, followed immediately by the Century of Terror. We can only hope for a future where we define eras by successive periods of peace.

Nine Years War
War of Spanish Succession*
War of Austrian Succession
French and Indian Wars The Second Hundred Years War 1689-1815
Seven Years War*
American Revolutionary Wars
French Revolutionary Wars*
Napoleonic Wars*
Russo-Japanese War
The First World War (The Great War)*
Spanish Civil War The Great War 1899-1945
Russian Civil War
2nd Sino-Japanese War
Chinese Civil War
The Second World War*
The Long War 1899-1990
First Indochina War
Korean War
Vietnam War Cold War 1945-1990
Cambodian Civil War
Afgan War
Angolan Civil War

*  ‘World wars’

Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense.

There has been, in recent years, a growing trend in ‘Celtic’ themed products and beliefs in this nation perpetuated by streams of American tourists whose dollars we so desperately want. There are shops specialising in Celtic jewellery, candles and books, Celtic rituals, new-age Celtic pagans, books of Celtic names, and other such fanciful re-imaginings of fact to be found in every town, city, culture centre and airport in this little island. Most of this might be dismissed as harmless nonsense, a mildly irksome trend designed to capture tourist wealth, the source of a raised eyebrow, dismissive glance, or exasperated sigh by people who know better. There is, however, a particular undercurrent of ignorance and lies propagated by such popular ideologies. While I had been aware of such a thing, it had never angered me, until ‘Celtic Christianity’ received its fifteen minutes of fame early one morning on RTÉ Radio 1 on the Pat Kenny Show.[1] A certain individual[2] had written a new book arguing that Catholicism was essentially the first multinational corporate body. It wasn’t, simply because ‘nations’ did not exist until the 17th or 18th centuries, and corporate bodies were recognised in the pagan Roman Republic before Jesus was even born. Latin writers of Antiquity and the Middle Ages did often use the word natio to describe peoples and communities, but they did not mean ‘nation’ as we understand it today. He also stated that Ireland was home to a more pure and spiritual form of the faith called Celtic Christianity. The show received several texts and e-mails from people expressing surprise in this ‘fact’, and many were intrigued and appalled at the suppression of ‘our native faith’.

Let me be absolutely clear: Celtic Christianity never existed. It is an entirely modern invention. How can I be so sure? Well, firstly, and most importantly, the Celts, as they are commonly conceived, never existed, and they certainly never came to Ireland, therefore there could never have had a version of Christianity on these islands in any way associated with the Celts. Secondly, there was no exceptionally unique version of Christianity, such as that which the guest suggests, on these islands for any imaginary Celts to have.

‘Celtic’ is a linguistic term, like ‘Latin’ or ‘Germanic’. ‘Celtic’ refers to a family of languages which a certain group of people spoke. The remains of these languages are found in Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Manx. ‘Celtic’ was attached to this linguistic group by 18th century scholars. This does not mean that the Irish, Welsh, etc., were Celtic people in a racial sense, or even in a cultural sense, but only in a linguistic sense. The English speak a Germanic language, yet they are not called German. France, Spain, Italy, Romania, parts of Africa, and all of South America speak languages descended from Latin. This does not make them ‘Roman’ or ‘Latin’ peoples. There were La Tène and Halstatt cultures in Central Europe, which may have been comprised of Celtic-speaking peoples, but they too were not ‘Celts’. Someone who knows their Caesar might then cry out that he refers to the Celts of Gaul, and that even the Ancient Greeks wrote of contact with a Celtic people. These ancient authorities were not even remotely concerned with historical, factual accuracy when writing about peoples outside their ‘civilisations’. They would have met a community and then named whole peoples or regions, and their culture, after that one community. The whole island of Britannia is named after one tribe which inhabited the south of the island, simply because they were Rome’s first contacts with the native population. ‘Africa’ referred roughly the lands encompassing Tunisia to Libya, and was named after the Afri tribe. Now it is the name given to an entire continent and people.[3] Demonstrably, names are not always accurate descriptions of reality. There was probably a tribe who may have called themselves something close to ‘Celts’ somewhere in Central Europe (their word was rendered into Greek, then Latin, so we don’t know exactly what they called themselves), and their name was applied to a whole culture which spread across continental Europe, but there were certainly no ethnic Celts in Ireland. What were the Irish then, if not Celtic? They called themselves ‘Gael’, or ‘Féne’, while in Latin they were called the ‘Scotti’.[4] They did not call themselves, or think of themselves belonging to a race of people called, ‘the Celts’. The native inhabitants of Ireland absorbed a Celtic language, and elements of the material culture most closely resembling that of La Tène, which possibly derived from Celtic-speaking peoples, but none of whom were necessarily ‘Celts’ themselves.

It might be argued then that I am simply being pedantic. While there were no Celts in Ireland that does not mean that there was no ‘Celtic Church’. The term ‘Celtic’ might be applied to distinguish the native Church from that of Roman Catholicism. It is true that the Irish Church had developed some interesting innovations which distinguished it from the continental Church, and in this sense could be referred to as ‘Celtic’ in the same fashion as the ‘British’, ‘Merovingian’ or ‘Visigothic’ Churches, which all fell under the umbrella of Rome. The problem is that ‘Celtic’ has become a loaded term. Scholars will refer to an Insular Church, but not to a Celtic one simply because ‘Celtic’ is not an accurate term when discussing the history of Ireland, outside of literature. Even if we were to be kind an accept that the terms ‘Celtic’ and ‘Insular’ might be synonymous, the Celtic Christianity espoused by Pat Kenny’s guest on the nation’s airwaves is a complete and utter fallacy which obscures historical truth.

Here follows several samples of his misrepresentation of fact:

Pat Kenny: “Would they [Celtic monks or priests] have been married?”

Guest: “I think they would certainly have had partners. They practiced concubinage…”

The Insular Church condemned concubinage among the laity in the De concubines non habendis cum legtima uxore (“On not have concubines as well as a legitimate wife”), found in the Collectio canonum Hibernensis. Celibate bishops had the highest honour-price of all clerics in Irish law.[5] On the other hand British bishops often took wives.[6] This simply due to the fact that the vow of celibacy was only made a mandatory feature of clerical orders at the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, and re-affirmed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, long after the more curious habits of the Insular Church ceased to be practiced, some time in the ninth century. Irish monks tended to take vows of celibacy, but priests often did not. This was an aspect of religious life common to all of Western Europe, yet the author portrays this as being a unique feature of the ‘Celtic Church’, a blatant misrepresentation of historical fact.

Guest: “… the Irish developed a form of Christianity quite independently of Rome…”

The first bishop of the Irish was Palladius, personally appointed and dispatched by Pope Celestine in AD429.[7] This is the first reliable date connected to Ireland, and is accepted as being the beginning of the history of Ireland. The first date in Irish history is a direct contact to Rome. Around AD633 the Irish cleric Cummian convened a synod to discuss the Easter Question. The synod could not come to agreement, so a delegation was sent to Rome to ask for the judgement of the papacy. This Irish bishop was following canon law to the letter, and shows that the Irish Church did see Rome as its superior and the ultimate court of arbitration, and that it was in contact with the See of Peter. In fact there are several letters of communication back and forth, from Rome to Ireland, which survive from the pre-Norman period, illustrating that the Irish Church was in sustained and frequent contact with its patriarch on issues of doctrine and canon law. This is hardly evidence of the type of ‘independence’ which the guest suggests.

Guest: “… [the Irish form of Christianity was] what we now call, in terms of heresy, (in inverted commas) Pelagian.”

The guest also informs listeners, at a later point, that Palladius had been sent to Ireland to confront the Pelagian heresy, which is true. However, Palladius seems to have been successful as the Pelagian heresy was suppressed by the late 5th century, before the growth of the Insular monasticism in the 7th and 8th centuries, which is evidently what the guest claims to be the shining example of the ‘Celtic Church’. He may be referring to a 7th century letter from Pope-elect John IV in which Rome mistakenly confuses the Eater controversy in Ireland with Pelagianism. The Irish were not Pelagian, at least not after AD500, long before the Golden Age of Irish monasticism, which is obviously the period which inspired the guest.

Guest: “The God we believe in is one of our own creation… …spirituality is what the spirit within you that makes you free”

Is he a closet atheist? He also states at various points that he does not submit to the judgment of the Church but instead relies on his own. This is a laudable principle, yet he fuses it, somehow, with spirituality, and with what he believes to be the true form Christianity. The ‘spirit within’ that makes individuals free is Reason. The guest has freed himself from the institutions of faith, but remains bound to their ideologies. He has questioned his faith, but only to a point. He has realised that the Catholic Church is not the vessel of God’s truth, but he still clings to the same ultimate fantasy as they do. It is almost as if he has seen through the illusion, but has decided, rather than turn from it entirely, to refashion it to suit his own purposes.

Also, contrary to what the guest and Pat Kenny say, modern scholars hold that the Jews were not slaves in Egypt but were employed as highly skilled labourers and courtiers.

In fairness to the guest he is correct on many of his views concerning the expansion of the Church of Rome, and its partnership with the Roman Empire, and I agree with many of his more philosophical views of how faith evolved, its perverse view of sexuality, and that Jesus would be horribly disappointed in how his teachings have been corrupted by institutionalised faith. The Insular Church did disagree with Rome on several issues of practice but never doctrine. They held the exact same religious views as Rome, but granted greater powers of administration to abbots, cut their hair a different way, and had a different day for Easter. The guest makes specific reference to the last point, as if it were something special. The great Christian cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, all had slightly different ways of calculating Easter, and so often celebrated it at different times. So did the Irish, but it happened that the Merovingian Church was attempting to standardise Easter in its lands at the same time that it was receiving an influx of Irish missionaries who celebrated the movable feast on a different day, causing some upset. Vast swathes of Christendom, and many of its most important cities, were conquered by Islam leaving Rome in the west and Constantinople in the east as the patriarchs of the Church. Merovingian France was the most powerful kingdom in the west, so Rome agreed with it. This is not evidence of a different, more spiritual religion, only of widespread differing religious practices.

At the end of the program a contribution from a listener was read out. In brief, it is said that the illustrious Columbanus did not accept the primacy of Rome, and specific mention is made of a letter he sent to Rome telling them to ‘look after their own business,’ and leave him alone. This is not exactly what happened. Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, an educated reformer whom the Irish monk saw as a like-minded individual, hoping to convince him that the Insular method of calculating Easter was far superior to the Gaulish method, and that the Merovingian bishops were exploiting the laity through practicing such contemptible acts as simony.[8] What also comes across in Columbanus’ letters is his acceptance of papal authority in such controversial matters, but with a certain caveat. The popes were, for Columbanus, the leaders of the Church as the rightful heirs of Peter, but they could only enforce the laws of the organisation, not change them; such a power could only rest in the hands of the Church as a whole, as decided upon by synods.[9]

There was no Celtic Church as defined by Pat Kenny’s guest. While older scholars have referred to a ‘Celtic Church’ modern scholars have replaced it with the more accurate term ‘Insular Church’. Neither of these names, which refer to one organisation, agree with the Celtic Christianity as espoused by the guest. This Celtic faith is based on assumption, and a misleading interpretation of the evidence. He also projects modern terms and concepts back on the past, which is anachronistic, and academically and intellectually reprehensible, if not irresponsible. There are many examples of the popular history of Ireland to be found on the bookshelves which are worthwhile to read, but this work is absurd in its portrayal of religion in Medieval Ireland. It would be laughable had it not been conferred a worrying level of legitimacy by appearing on the programme of a respected broadcaster such as Pat Kenny. Due to this, many of the opinions stated, however true or false they may be, and which were dressed up as historic fact, have passed into the popular domain. Misinformation and obfuscation have been granted a seal of approval. Lies and half-truths have been planted in the minds of listeners.

I would welcome the disintegration of organised religion, as would Pat Kenny’s guest, but not if it were to be replaced by local “bioregional spiritualities that go beyond both monotheism and polytheism.”[10] This is pure nonsense. ‘Bioregional’ has nothing to do with faith, it is an ecological term invented in the 1980’s. ‘Spirituality’ is a vague tapestry of lies. The only thing that goes beyond mono- and polytheism is atheism. Pat Kenny’s guest is using vague and pseudo-scientific language to grant himself an air of authority, and perverting history to ‘prove’ his theses. This acceptance of abject deceit, whether intentional or inadvertent, which has become pervasive in today’s society, has been long recognised as a threat to Science. It is also a menace to other forms of investigation. An attack on real History,[11] and the acceptance of pseudo-history, allows fanciful notions of ersatz nationalism to take root, and for the recognition of quasi-historical works, such as the Bible, as unadulterated fact. This must not be tolerated.

[1] Today with Pat Kenny, 07-01-2010, available for download from the RTÉ website, 1:39:10. The website promoting the book in question can be found at


[2] I am not entirely aware of the legalities of naming private individuals in an essay such as this, but he is named in the radio programme, and his website

[3] Think this is crazy? That this could only happen in ancient times and would never happen in the modern era? When explorers first arrived in what would be Canada they asked the Iroquois natives of a village what was the name of the place they were in. The Iroquois replied ‘Kanada’, and so the country was named. Later it was learned that ‘Kanada’ means ‘village’ in the Iroquois language.

[4] The Scots are descended from Irish populations which established themselves in the west of the county and intermarried with the native Picts. Both the inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland were recognised as having a common origin for most of the Middle Ages.

[5] Corpus iuris Hibernici, Miadsleachta.

[6] Gildas, De excidio Britanniae.

[7] Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle.

[8] Hughes, K., “The Celtic Church and the Papacy”, in Lawrence, C.H. (ed.), The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (Burns and Oates; London, 1965), p13. (Please note that ‘Celtic’ here refers to ‘Insular’; this article was written before the scholarly shift in terminology.)

[9] ibid¸ p16

[10] From his website

[11] Acceptable, and accessible, works on the history of Early and Medieval Ireland are available in bookstores, such as Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. There is also A New History of Ireland, Vol.1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, which contains various works by many eminent scholars in the field. This essay was written specifically with these works in mind (except for two explicit references to an article by Kathleen Hughes which will only be available to certain libraries) so that anyone who was curious could easily investigate my sources.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Creationism, Fuck Off?*

Creationism is stupid. Intelligent design is an imprudently oxymoronic term.jesusdinosaur While belief in a divine creator is, in my opinion, misguided at best, it is not necessarily stupid; many intelligent people believe in some kind of God. God should be a matter of opinion, but sadly it is an instrument of institution and oppression. I can allow for this latitude concerning divinity as, speaking scientifically, there is a possibility, an exceptionally remote possibility, that God is real. On the other hand, speaking philosophically, I can happily and unequivocally announce that there is no God. This is a debate that will never be resolved. Creationism, and its misshapen child, Intelligent Design, however, is indisputably without any intellectual or scientific merit. While those who believe in it may have been led astray or not truly understand the nature of the argument, those who advocate Creationism/ID are committing acts of a most profound and disturbing level of intellectual deceit and moral repugnance. Creationism is quite literally a preposterous proposition; it stupefies me that people believe in it.

In the last few days (May 26th) it came to light that a minister in the Northern Ireland parliament asked a museum to, among other things, to create exhibits which displayed alternative views of the creation of the universe in the name of equality. One might hope this to mean that he wanted competing versions of string theory, planetary accretion, and the provenance of certain species, but sadly this was not the case. He was seeking out a space for the fatuous fallacy of Creationism. It seems some people need reminding of some very basic principles; Facts don’t care about equality, the Truth is not often politically correct, and Reality doesn’t give a damn about your feelings and opinions. The Creationists and ID cretins of Europe are using this new tactic of demanding equality for their farcical notions because their attempts to be accepted on the merits of their arguments have failed. Sadly this is not true of parts of America, such as Texas. Sure, they can have their exhibits in museums, but only if there is a laughing-track playing at all times, or a large sign saying “We apologise for the obvious idiocy of the exhibit but the law demands equality, and those Creationists kicked up such a fuss… Next week Geocentrism Rediscovered!”

James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (4 January ...

Image via Wikipedia

Creationism and Ireland have an interesting connection.A man from Dublin by the name of James Ussher (sadly a bishop, but I forgive him for reasons which will become clear presently) decided that the world was created on the night preceding Sunday, October 23rd, 4004BC.You might at first think that this is a bizarrely accurate date, and then laugh at the preposterous proposition, but it is not as crazy as it first seems. First of all Ussher was writing in the early 17th century. The Enlightenment had not begun, the Scientific Revolution had barely begun to gain the momentum which would transform the following centuries; Ussher was operating under the accepted paradigm of the day. Hutton (father of modern geology) was over a hundred years away from proposing that the Earth was really, really, really old, and Darwin was over two hundred years away from pointing out the small fact of evolution. Ussher had no other option but the account found in the Bible. But even then Ussher, a great academic to whom historians and the Irish owe a great debt to for his exemplary work on our history, did his research. He didn’t just pull a number out of the air, he investigated many Christian and Jewish texts, he made exceptions for the inaccuracies of ancient dating systems, and he came up with the best answer for the data he had. You can’t blame him for making an omelette when all he had were eggs, even if what you really want is cake. Ussher’s academic achievement and impressive research might even lead one to think that he would dismiss his own theory, had he possessed all the facts.

Creationists who use this man’s work, or anyone’s work which came before the 18th century, are ignoring over two hundred years of scientific progress for no good reason. They are committing the crime of anachronism; they are taking the data out of context to suit their own personal beliefs. They then wish to impose their beliefs on others in a puzzling display of equality, a concept granted to them by the profoundly anti-clerical Enlightenment. Creationism was a perfectly reasonable idea before the Enlightenment, but to maintain a belief in it in the face of staggeringly overwhelming evidence from a variety of unconnected scientific fields is beyond ludicrous, somewhere in the region of the assuredly absurd. The desire to return to an age before science is utterly baffling, an era where most people died before the age of six, you were considered lucky if you reached your fifties, an era when a simple infection could kill you, and the diagnosis for epilepsy was demon possession.

In the modern, rational world we resolve conflicts with words. Creationism is the intellectual equivalent of anal leakage, a symptom of a serious issue that needs to be resolved promptly and most effectively with the aid of qualified experts. It is what toxic effluent is to a delicate eco-system; viciously corrosive, harmful to all forms of life, and it takes decades to repair the damage. Those who maintain their belief in Creationism, or its infectious offspring, must surrender all claim to the benefits the modern world has bestowed upon them; everything from antibiotics to the i-pod. Every scientific, medicinal, and industrial advance since the 18th century should no longer be available to them, as they are all founded on the very same principles from which we derive evolution, geological time, archaeology, and other such things with prove their crazy theories to be nothing but abject nonsense.

In this day and age, Creationism is a stupid idea which has no reason to be held by any individual. It was a valid notion at one point in time, like trepanning, and it did once fit within a paradigm which was widely accepted, but we have moved on. We found better, more elaborate and elegant ideas, and more interesting and stimulating answers for questions its proponents could never dream of. So, Creationism, and all your adherents in all their various guises, it’s time for you to join the absurd theories of the past, and become a historical oddity, a relic of ignorance. It’s time you left us alone. It’s time for you to just fuck off.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

*While some might find the use of such language offensive , I believe that it is the only language one can use when dealing with such an abhorrent and insidious ideology as Creationism and its spawn.

In Defence of the Middle Ages.

Atheists and secularists frequently use the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ as evidence of Christianity’s oppressive power,Knights that the ‘darkness’ of the age was due to the stifling effect of organised religion. They argue that from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance all scientific endeavour ground to a halt, that Europe (the region to which the followers of the carpenter were largely confined) existed in an appalling state of intellectual squalor, and that the cause of this was the oppressive teachings of men in pointy hats. Some atheists proclaim that Islam is in the midst of its own ‘Dark Age’ today, but, since it has the incomparable benefit of living next door to civilised people, it should shake off its shackles and join the modern world. My views on faith are no secret, summed up neatly by Émile Zola: “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone, from the last church, falls on the last priest.” I tolerate the faith of others (barely) only out of friendship and the belief that Reason will eventually win. Yet I do not agree with this attack on the Medieval Church, or the labelling of the Middle Ages as ‘Dark’. Sometimes atheists are similar to theists – they hear a truth they are comfortable with and they stop; no further investigation is necessary. The Catholic Church is guilty of innumerable crimes against humanity, and I wish it dissolved, preferably from acid derived from derisory glances distilled in scorn and mockery, but for the right reasons, not for misconceptions and propaganda of equal virulence to that espoused by the faithful. Here I write in defence of the Middle Ages, in defence of the Catholic Church, in defence of Skepticism.

The commonly held idea of the Middle Ages is vague at best, mostly cobbled together from random bits of information, popular conceptions, and bad movies. Images of knights in armour, extreme and random violence, endemic plague and pestilence, squalor and filth, and the ever-present hand of the Church haunt the ‘Dark Ages’. It is compared to that which came before, mighty Rome, with its great architecture, civilisation, and indoor plumbing, and that which came after, the Renaissance, the birth of age of Reason, with its art, culture, industry, and smog. The idea of a ‘Dark Age’ was invented during the Renaissance because the scholars and educated folk of the time believed that they were reinventing and rediscovering the glory that was Rome, hence ‘Renaissance’, a rebirth of the Classical era. This idea has endured to the modern-day, but is a blatant anachronism, the unfair definition of a past society by modern standards. The anti-theist voices of our age look back and see that pagan Rome and the quasi-secular Renaissance had one major feature in common, the lack of a domineering and oppressive organised faith, which was the presumed reality of the ‘Dark Age’.  Again, we face anachronism, fused with anti-clericalism and secularist propaganda.

Let’s begin with Rome. It was beautiful and brutal; they built aqueducts and fed Christians to lions, but they had a dark side too. Their entire society was built on conquest and slavery, their culture was largely borrowed from others, and their abuse of the dative case in vulgar Latin is unforgivable. The Empire did not collapse, as I have heard people pontificate several times, due to the influence of Christianity. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire survived for centuries, and was far more deeply Christianised at the time of the Western Empire’s collapse. It was more likely due to a combination of factors, including devaluation of currency, increasing levels of local loyalty over imperial, increasing burdens of bureaucracy, limited understanding of macro-economics, and the lack of an export market or affluent middle-class to purchase goods. And the fact that tens of thousands of Germans invaded, smashed the Roman army to bits, were inadequately assimilated, and eventually occupied every position in the Imperial Army leading to military dictatorship and the re-establishment of a kingdom in Italy.

All the endeavours of the Empire might have been lost in the West; all the literature, philosophy, mythology, and strange cookbooks might have gone the way of toilet paper were it not for the one organisation that revelled in arduous tasks. The Catholic Church preserved all the learning of Rome when all public institutions lost their funding; for the next thousand years generations of monks would diligently copy the speeches of Cicero, the philosophies of Plato, the Histories of Herodotus. Many of the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome survive today only in manuscripts from the 14th Century which were inscribed by monks. This alone is an astounding feat. But the monks, their abbots, and many bishops didn’t stop there; they desired to understand what these works were about, and that required education, a detailed understanding of the complexities of Latin, philosophy, and literature, the creation of vast libraries and the manufacture of books. One hundred years or so after the fall of Rome, Charles the Great built himself an empire with the aid of the Church, and provided the impetus for a veritable explosion of learning. Great monasteries produced scientific works to calculate the cycles of the moon decades, and sometimes centuries, in advance. Charles instituted a standardised script which was based on a combination of the Roman uncial and Irish monastic scripts, propagated by the monastic networks. Hundreds of years later when the learned men of the Renaissance examined ancient documents and marvelled at the clarity of the writing, the breadth of understanding, they assumed that what they read was written by Roman hands. They modelled their writing on what they found, which is the way we write today. But they were wrong, what they had presumed to be from the Classical Period was actually from the ‘Dark Ages’. Not only can we trace they way we write to the Carolingian renovatio (renewal), but also Western music, and it provided the groundwork for Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture.

The notion of the Middle Ages as being dominated by the Church is also a fallacy. Heresy was rife, superstitions and local cults were more popular than what was proclaimed from the pulpit, and kings frequently ignored popes. Sometimes, if a king or emperor were powerful enough they would appoint their own pope; from time to time Germany would have one pope, Italy another, and France, feeling left out, would also decide to have one. Papal power reached its dizzying heights of infallibility only in the late 19th Century, and some of its most infamous crimes against science occurred during the Renaissance, not the ‘Dark Ages’. The Catholic Church was far too weak to do much in the Middle Ages, and had to rely on foreign kings and mercenaries to defend it; the Pope was even run out of Rome more than once! The reality of the oppressive features of the Catholic Church has been transposed from the modern era, since we are all so learned and know better, to an earlier, more ‘primitive’ time, when people were actually less faithful and far more superstitious than the Church would have preferred. Even one of the Church’s most evil crimes, the unbelievable defence of paedophiles in its ranks, is a relatively recent occurrence; in the Middle Ages a cleric accused of such a deed would be confined to a cell and made to live on bread and water, and if found guilty was often excommunicated and banished, which was a serious threat in those days. More witches were burned by popular and civic authorities than the Church during the Inquisition, the Crusades were as much a secular military conquest as a theological exercise, and the Papacy even defended Jews from attack by Christians, under pain of excommunication, from the Middle Ages until the Renaissance.

Even Islam in the Middle Ages was not remotely as oppressive as we are often led to believe. The Muslims of Al-Andalus (Andalusia, Spain) built a kingdom which promoted philosophy, science, and religious tolerance, as did Baghdad at the other end of the Muslim world, often surpassing any endeavour of a similar kind in Christian Europe. Where the Christian faith preserved the legacy of Plato and Rome, Islam did the same for Aristotle and Persia. The Christian World learned of Aristotle through the medium of Islam, and they conquered architectural and engineering problems Rome never could because of the innovations of Arabic mathematics. In the Middle Ages these were not faiths of ignorance, but of learning. They became dogmatists of ignorance in the modern era when threatened with a better explanatory paradigm, science. Indeed the foundation of science, and many of its principles, can be found in either texts that the Church preserved and studied, or policies that it actively encouraged. Early scientists were often members of the clergy, such as the great astronomer Copernicus (who provided the first accurate description of the heliocentric theory), or believed that their advances only proved the majesty of God’s Creation, like another great astronomer Kepler (who developed the laws of planetary motion).

We cannot judge the past by the standards of today; we don’t look at Italians and Germans and think “once a fascist, always a fascist”; we don’t think that the founders of the U.S. were obese rednecks who loved guns and god, and we don’t deride ancient Jews for the settlement policies of modern Israel. I wish to be clear though; the Catholic Church and all organised religion should be abolished. My argument against anachronism is twofold; placing the standards of the present on the past is just wrong and intellectually deceitful, but equally, demanding that the present conform to the past is just outright stupidity. The Middle Ages were not ‘Dark’, and the Christian faith was the accepted paradigm of the time, but faith itself is now an anachronism, a failed paradigm since the beginning of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century. We must be skeptical about populist claims and propagandising public figures, even when they come from those who proclaim the virtues of science over faith, of atheism over theism. It is necessary to question those who lay claim to history to prove their point, it is in fact essential that we dispute all received wisdom until proven, lest we become slavering dogmatists ourselves. We must dissent, and we must be skeptical.

As a final note, this picture, while being rather popular on various atheist dark ageswebsite (search for “dark ages graph” or variations thereof), has been invented by an intellectual cretin. Firstly, there is no statistical data of any kind about the scientific advances of any era until the early modern, so everything before the ‘Enlightenment’ part of the graph is at best a lie. Secondly, they are extrapolating an idyllic future based on unsubstantiated data. Thirdly, this is borderline racist as it neglects the amazingly advanced culture and science found in China and Persia during “Christian Dark Ages”, the ancient Phoenicians (who taught the Greeks to write), and the Hindus of India who saw Europe as an intellectual backwater in the 14th Century, among others. Fourthly, “Just think… We could have been exploring the galaxy by now”? Seriously? Just think, the Romans with nuclear weapons, the Mongols with Predator Drones, Vikings with submarines, obese Incans… We could be dead by now. This kind of asinine fairytale delusion of what the future “may have been” serves no purpose in a serious argument. It posits the notion that somehow someone could have seen and understood all the intricacies of human society and conspired to oppress it over hundreds of years. In this respect the graph is a theist argument for the hand of god influencing human affairs. This is as stupid as creationism. History unfolded with no great design, no guiding hand. It happened. Deal with it. Live in the real world.

Of Steamworks and Magics Obscure.

The religious sometimes declare that atheism is just another new faith, which is completely illogical and wrong. There is, I would argue, wired_science_religiona new religion. If we examine the structures of religion we can find remarkable similarities between it and a thoroughly modern phenomenon which claims to be the alternative.
There are two kinds of faith in any religion; the faith of the internal elite, that is to say, the clergy and hierarchy, and the faith of the common people unto which the elite preach. The former, having invested wholly in the doctrines of their chosen brand of faith, would have a deeper and more complete understanding of the intricacies of their chosen dogma. The latter, who support the former economically by fulfilling the practical necessities of society, possess less comprehensive knowledge of their religion simply due to the fact that they have other things to do with their time. This is one of the reasons why a priesthood would have evolved in the first place; most people simply don’t have the time to appease the gods, so they employ someone else to do it for them. As time went by, the common people became increasingly removed from their gods, the actions and incantations of the priesthood became more arcane, preserving traditions and rites utter in strange, long dead languages that the hoi polloi rarely understood. These masters of the mysterious separated themselves from society, built large establishments to suit their own purposes, into which the public might only grudgingly be allowed, and dressed in strange clothes so the masses could better identify them as being in a position of authority. They continued their studies, becoming ever more obscure and remote from the comprehension of the public they served such that the common people had a very slim grasp of what their priesthood actually did.

Essentially the same is true of science.
Do I hear you scoff? Have you raised a contentious eyebrow? Let me explain.
Science fulfils the role of religion in the modern world in several respects. Science is undoubtedly superior to religion and faith in that it provides tangible, repeatable, comprehensible results and answers. This, sadly, does not matter. When science first came to prominence it was heresy, fundamentally because it was new and unproven to the common man, and due to the fact that it challenged the established order. It gained credence over time as it proved to be far more reliable in producing answers, healing the sick, improving lives, and, regrettably, killing. We have reached a point where children can conduct experiments and learn about rudimentary science in school. Most people never progress beyond these basics, simply because they do not need to. The vast majority of people will never use algebra ever again, they will never contemplate the consequences of special relativity, and they will never need to recall the atomic numbers of elements from the periodic table. This is not due to any inability or lack of intelligence on their part; it is simply not useful information. Science has moved beyond these easily demonstrated facts, and on to far more complicated things. Science has become the purview of an elite, a dedicated cabal of researchers who have become removed from society. This was not by design on behalf of either party, but rather a consequence of necessity. Everyone cannot know everything. Specialist fields grow from the mainstream into obscurity.

The average person may own one or all of the following; a mobile phone, portable electronic music device, personal computer, television, car, or games console. The combustion engine is a concept that is fairly easy to grasp; the quantum mechanics used in the memory of the other electronic devices listed is not. Does anyone really know how each element in a plasma screen TV actually works? No. Nor do they care. This information is not necessary to use the device. A person will flick a switch and simply assume that a light will erupt from the ceiling of a room, not because they grasp the intricacies of the electromagnetic force, but rather due to the fact that they have paid their bills on time. They could care less if incandescent light appeared due to a consequence of electromagnetic resistance, the will of God, or constructive gremlins. It simply works, that is sufficient. The extremes of physics are barely plausible to the uninitiated; quantum mechanics, which allows electrons to pass through solid objects, is often counter-intuitive, and string theory sounds like magic. Religion ‘worked’ for a time where people’s needs were more simple, science works now. Most people don’t care why.

You might think I am being too broad or extreme in my comparison of science with religion. However, this lack of comprehension is increasingly visible. Alternative medicines and pseudo-religious lifestyles frequently claim to work on quantum principles or electromagnetism. Someone who has read and researched physics would sneer at such preposterous nonsense, and the cretins who peddle such wares. But people are convinced, and there seem to be more of them every day. The terminology of science has been set free in the world, and it is used by fraudsters to convince the credulous, who accept what they are told because the required knowledge is unavailable to them, is too complex to be understood without serious research, or is inconvenient. People place their faith in science to answer questions, just as they have in religion. They see scientists either as cartoon villains bent on destroying the world and God, or as disengaged academics who don’t know how the real world actually works. The backlash against of the ever-increasing complexity of science has led people either back into the arms of organised religion, or pseudo-scientific, naturalistic mumbo-jumbo.

We live in a world of escalating complexity. Science will become more and more removed from the understanding of the public at large. This would not really be an issue if we lived in world inhabited solely by rational people. The religious elite will argue with the educated echelons of the scientific community hoping to win over the masses to their respective cause. Science will argue accuracy, results, and material products, while religion will proclaim truth, revelation, and spiritual salvation. Most people will not care so long as their cars keep working, the lights remain on, and daemons do not walk the Earth. They expect science to find cures for diseases, reverse global warming, and make their lives more comfortable. They do not care how, they simply have faith that it will. If anyone believed that religion could achieve any of these goals better than science they would defend it. If magic did the trick, if it cured cancer, most people would be happy at that, and not require any further explanation. Science has become a new faith, an ill understood and obscure branch of learning with its own highly educated, and often detached, adherents who exist in a world not readily accessible to a confused and easily misled public. They ponder the meaning of life and the complexities of reality, the question the nature of the universe and our position in it. Which is not unlike what theologians have done for centuries, it’s just that scientists are better at it. Not that anyone really cares, they are too busy celebrating the cults of film and pop idols, joining fashionable sects of sports or online communities, and stimulating the economy by purchasing every spiritual or material fad that is revealed to us by the market as if it were the next messiah. Science makes no claim to be a faith, it does not desire to be bound by the dogma of religion, yet the reality is that, in the minds of masses, it may have essentially become tantamount to that which it opposes.