Saturday, January 29, 2005

Everyone talks about the Dark Ages. By that we usually mean the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (say 450AD) to the High Middle Ages (1066 if you are English). But professional historians never use this term and haven't done so for years. To them, the Dark Ages are called the Early Middle Ages precisely because they were not very dark.

The term 'dark' originates from the comparative lack of the written sources in the period. Actually, it depends where you are and what sort of stuff you are interested in. In France we have Geoffrey of Tours' History of the Franks and in England there is my own History of the English Church. A good deal of the Dark Ages is much better documented than the second and third centuries AD about which we know absolutely bugger all. Nowadays laypeople tend to see the Dark Ages as dark in the sense of benighted and superstituous, for which we usually blame the church. I've dealt with that particular libel often enough but have been reading Lynn White's Medeival Technology and Social Change and found that the early Middle Ages, especially from 700AD onwards, were actually a period of rapid change.

In war, the stirrup revolutionised the horse in battle and the need for these mounted knights ushered in the feudal system. Meanwhile agriculture became at least twice as productive as it had been under the Romans as the heavy plough, horse collar, horse shoe and three field rotation each improved yield. The result was a population explosion and the bringing in of most European wilderness under the plough. To process all this extra grain technology again came in to play with a rapid spread of the watermill, tidal mill and finally windmill. In terms of development, Europe in 1000AD was streets ahead of ancient Rome. If William the Conqueror had found himself fighting a Roman legion instead of Saxon housecarls, the result would have been no different.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

One of the most common distortions you get in popular histories of religion is in the use of the term 'Roman Catholic Church'. We all think we know that this means. Coupled with the term 'Vatican' it means an ancient and all powerful organistation responsible for the corruption of Christianity, usually hand in hand with the Emperor Constantine.

It is true that the Nicene Creed refers to the 'Holy, catholic and apostolic church' but given both Protestants and Greek orthodox say the same words, we can be sure this does not mean the Roman Catholic Church. German Lutherans seem to be the one exception. I once attended evening song with a German at King's College Chapel in Cambridge where the Church of England service was according to Archbishop Cramner's words. The German was a Lutheran and rather surprised me by saying that at home, her church used the words 'Holy, Christian and Apostolic Church'. I don't know if it is true, but I do know that if it is, Luther will be rolling in his grave as he was quite certain that he was a true catholic even after the break from Rome.

So, 'Catholic' does not necessarily mean the Roman Catholic Church. By the later, we must mean the organisation of which the pope is the leader and which is based where the pope makes his court (usually in Rome but it has moved to Avignon in France). If you were reading the Da Vinci Code or many other popular books, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed its power in the third and fourth centuries when Rome first converted to Christianity. Indeed, the Church itself likes us to believe this (I'm a Catholic too, but know better). In fact, the Popes have never had any authority over the Eastern Church and even though they declared themselves first among equals over the other patriarchs, this was a dead letter. But when the barbarians invaded the Western Roman Empire after 400AD, the Emperor, in Constantinople, found his writ no longer ran in the old western provinces and the Pope was left with a free hand. It was only in 496AD, when Clovis converted to Rome with his Franks, that the Pope's flock began to be significant.

All that stuff you hear about Constantine being in cahoots with the Roman Catholics and how the Council of Nicea was a Vatican plot are a load of rubbish. The Roman Catholics didn't even exist as a recognised group. 'Catholic' meant everybody who was an orthodox Christian, very few of whom looked to Rome. So, if you hear someone talking about the power of the Roman Catholics, the Pope or the Vatican before the late fifth century, you can be pretty sure they don't know what they are talking about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A new page is up in Bede's Library containing several book reviews by Chris Price (and one by me) on the Jesus Myth. The highlight is Chris's review of Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle. It is an odd fact that very few critical reviews of this book exist so a new one is always a good idea. One book we will not be reviewing, on a ccount of it being just too loopy to bother with, is Acharya S's The Christ Conspiracy. Luckily though, Dr Robert Price, late of Duke University and the closest you will find to a Jesus Myther with a relevant PhD, has written an entertaining article on this book. It was published a few years back and Dr Price has now kindly put it on his own website.

Speaking of Dr Robert Price, he has been in correspondence with our own Chris Price (no relation) over one of Chris's blog entries. It was entertaining a few weeks ago when the Internet Infidels found that their hero (that's Dr Price rather than Chris Price) voted Republican. It would appear that as far as the Infidels are concerned, supporting George Bush is even more insane than believing in God.

I agree with the commentators to my last post about the 'multiple universes' hypothesis. While many atheists try to simply deny that fine tuning exists, those who know their stuff, like Martin Rees, have to think up another explanation. The 'multiple universes' hypothesis does seem to be appallingly ad hoc however. Surely it is more rational to believe in one God with whom we feel we have a personal relationship than to believe in an infinite array of universes for which we have no evidence at all and furthermore, for which such evidence will almost certainly never be forthcoming. It was also useful that Gardner differentiated between the quantum mechanical 'many worlds' hypothesis as this is frequently confused with the 'multiple universes' postulated to explain fine tuning.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Elliott who comments here from time to time has suggested this link to an article by famous sceptic Martin Gardiner. It is a review of some of the sillier ideas to come out of physics and one gets the impression that Gardiner thinks that theism is a rather more sensible explanation for the universe. Nice to see Gardiner is a sceptic to all sides.

I have been very busy on school work so haven't had too much time to post here. However, I do have plenty of things lined up for as soon as I have a moment, so watch this space.

Monday, January 03, 2005

I come back from a few days away for New Year and find that, as usual, the blog has been well trolled by Mr Carr. Oh well, at least he has yet to say anything worth replying to and continues to make atheism look bad. The point about my alleged lack of compassion may or may not have come from Carr and is a typical example of nasty point scoring. I would only reply that I am indeed not the sort of person who never puts his heart on his sleeve. On the other hand, my final paragraph urged giving money as well as prayer and I stand by that.

Moebelwagon is way ahead of me as I was unaware that there were any other planets known to support [b]intelligent life[/b] (without which the concept of evil is meaningless). If we do find them, I'll bet my bottom dollar that they will have molten cores that produce a magnetic field to deflect cosmic rays as well. Moebelwagon also appears to believe the fact that the laws of physics are fine tuned to produce intelligent life is just chance. This may be the case but the odds seem to me to be astronomically against and I just don't have the kind of faith necessary to cling to the random-chance hypothesis.