Here is an excerpt from a rather longer email that he sent me:
The Christian devout try very hard to rescue their religion from the bitter reproach that its advent caused the eclipse of learning and science in the West for many centuries. They claim Christianity preserved the remnants of classical learning during the barbarian era, so far from being guilty of destroying it.
I think this is a rather desperate apologia. It seems unconvincing to hold the barbarians responsible for so many centuries of darkness in terms of learning and science. It requires us to believe that the classical world, so sophisticated in its intellectual culture, with such vast intellectual and cultural resources, was largely wiped out by barbarian invasions, and took many many centuries to recover.
It is much more likely that, absent some other deculturising factor, the unsettlement caused by the barbarians would have been relatively brief, the barbarians would have been absorbed by the superior civilisation, and the process of intellectual development would have resumed. But of course there was another factor present, and that was the takeover of Western society by the Church. There is no doubt that the Church was bitterly hostile to the intellectual and cultural presence and challenge posed by Graeco-Roman polytheism. To conquer the populace securely for the new faith, it would have had to resort to vast and sustained destruction of the classical heritage. That was the only way in which it could have prevented itself from being absorbed by the old culture. We know from the historical record that Christian destruction of the classical temples and texts was on a huge scale. This is surely not contested by yourself. We know that the destruction was on such a vast scale that in the end it took the transmission by the Arabs of the classical texts, many centuries later, for sustained learning to resumed in the West in a big way.
Far from being an non-believer, my correspondent is a Hindu and sees parallels between his own religion and ancient paganism. I don't know enough about the Hindu pantheon to comment on this, but it may account for some of the evident sympathy that he feels for paganism. It may also account for the fact that he makes a fundamental mistake about Christianity's role in late antiquity. Despite the fact that Tim O'Neill has corrected this misapprehension many times, I want to note the error again because it is so widespread. Indeed, Freeman himself wrote an entire book, The Closing of the Western Mind, which is simply the age old mistake in extra-long format.
Christianity did destroy ancient paganism. It caused enormous damage to many wonderful works of art and fine buildings. Even the art and architecture produced in the name of Christianity can scarcely hide the fact that if you happen to prefer classicism to gothic, the end of paganism was an aesthetic set back. It also seems likely that many pagan religious texts have been lost, although judging by the survivals, such as the Hermetic corpus, this is rather less of a misfortune. And it is false to say that Christians targeted pagan literature. Indeed, they preserved some of the best of it including Homer and Virgil, despite these epic's explicitly polytheistic subject matter.
The central confusion of my correspondent, of Charles Freeman and of so many others is to imagine that a campaign against pagan religion should have caused a decline in science. It is just assumed that ancient paganism and ancient science were one and the same. But they had almost nothing to do with each other. O'Neill puts it better than anyone:
As a humanist with a fondness for most aspects of the ancient and Medieval past, I'd certainly lament the destruction of pretty buildings. And the oppression of pagans by Christians is about the same as the oppression of Christians by pagans to me, since (i) I'm a non-believer and (ii) I avoid value judgements about the supposed sins of the distant past. But how "mounting evidence" that Christians closed down the irrational, superstituous cults of their religious rivals and no longer allowed painted priests to shake rattles and intone chants at incense-wreathed statues of Olympian gods somehow supports your thesis I really can't fathom. The fact that the Flamen Dialis in Rome could no longer wear his magical hat, no longer observed his strange taboos against touching raw meat or beans and no longer had to carefully guard against sleeping in a bed whose legs were smeared with clay (?!) may be sad if you're into that kind of thing, but I can't see what the death of such weird superstitions have to do with any argument about rationality.
I would add that the similar level of cultural vandalism that accompanied the Reformation in England, when a large chunk of the country's medieval heritage was trashed, appears in no way to have set back the development of science. And why should it? Knocking down temples does not cause men to stop studying mathematics. Melting down reliquaries does not impact the advance of physics. And banning ancient rituals does not encompass holding back scientific advance.
Finally, my correspondent suggests that a pagan Roman Empire would have been better able to absorb the barbarian invasions than the Christian one could. This is an interesting reversal of the historical orthodoxy that Christianity helped produce a united polity that allowed the Empire to survive another thousand years in the East. But that is for another post.
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