The Ignorant Atheist

Richard Dawkins, never one to be pleasant, made some remarks that hold some truth value and also showcased his inability to research his historical claims. He is criticizing certain Muslim claims about the relationship of their faith to science. 

“Islamic science deserves enormous respect.” There are two versions of this second claim, ranging from the pathetic desperation of “the Qu’ran anticipated modern science” (the embryo develops from a blob, mountains have roots that hold the earth in place, salt and fresh water don’t mix) to what is arguably quite a good historical point: “Muslim scholars kept the flame of Greek learning alight while Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages.”

Dawkins mentions the Dark Ages as a period in which Christendom wallowed in stupidity, all the while the consensus among medievalists is that the “Dark Ages” were non-existent. Also, Dawkins is probably wrong about the golden age.  In 1929 the Encyclopedia Britannica we read:

[T]he contrast, once so fashionable, between the ages of darkness and the ages of light have no more truth in it than have the idealistic fancies which underlie attempts at mediaeval revivalism.

Or from Rodney Stark:

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century that Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages” -centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery-from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescues, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world! –Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, 35

Stark goes on to document the use of the waterwheel an other sources of non-human power because of the Christian belief that slavery was the result of the fall and therefore that it was virtuous to end it. The Greeks and Romans saw it as the necessary condition of lesser humans.  

Just because somebody is a scientist (and Dawkins is one that happens to be fairly smart) does not mean they know what they are talking about. Never forget, E.O. Wilson claims that good scientists don’t even need to understand mathematics, and therefore requiring hard math of science students “has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.” In other words, “Requiring scientists to think hard has made more people want to quit science.”

Anyhow, Dawkins, like Wilson has trouble with things beyond cataloging bats (or ants). One is bad at math, the other is bad at reading history.

The Middle Ages, Theology, and Science.

Several months ago I wrote a review of the book Superstition. Thinking back to numerous of its claims one in particular came back to mind. Park stated often that when Christians believe in God in prevents them from doing science because they already know that God made it, therefore nobody has to ask any questions. I rarely make claims to know what people believe without asking them, I also rarely make attempts to clarify physics for physicists (though I’ve discovered that with a bit of reading I can do a lot of physics). But I am trained to study ancient texts and history, something Park couldn’t do. 
Christians today may really think that science is dangerous to Christianity. But in the medieval era (an era you’ll recall was not really the Dark Ages) science was considered a gold mine of important data about the world. Etienne Gilson note in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy:

In every one of his actions man is a living witness to finality in the universe, and if it would be a very naive piece of anthropomorphism to regard all natural events as the work of a hidden supermen, it would be no less naive to hold itself to take no notice of it [finality] even where it exists. The discovery of the why does not absolve us from looking for the how, but, if anyone looks only for the how can he be surprised if he fails to find the why?…on this point Christian thought has never wavered [during the Medieval era]. pp 105

In other word, man makes decisions with goals in mind. The universe seems to have an aim too. It was this aim-ed-ness that led the Medievals to pursue questions of about “how things came to be in the first place.” They did this because, believing God made it for a purpose, the steps backward and forward, in fits and starts, could be discerned. The universe, ultimately, was a communication of God’s “beatitude along with His intelligibility.” 

Because humans were a part of nature and they had aims and experienced causality, the rest of nature could be perceived the same way. This Greco-Roman belief along with the belief in God’s intelligibility impelled people to pursue scientific questions. Modern Christians may not see it that way and that is sad, but it is wrong to say that Christianity, in general, makes people averse to science. In my experience university politics sometimes makes scientists averse to science but few scientists call for an exodus from the universities. 

Anyhow, in the medieval era theology and science were, at least conceptually, sort of like a joint endeavor not a battle. How this worked in practice varied as other medievalists will tell you, but the general stance of the day was that studying the physical world for answers to how questions was a good thing.