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Why Our Day Is Far More Religious Than The Middle Ages Was


The Middle Ages are often described as “the Age of Faith.” But surely, if any age deserves that epithet, it is ours.

True, the Middle Ages were the age of Christianity, but hardly the age of faith. If we take faith in the common, though oversimplified sense of blind belief in that which is not seen or understood, then the Middle Ages, with their worshipful admiration of Aristotle, fine definitions, and extremely precise use of language, and monasteries full of busy monks copying and commenting on scholarly texts, are the reverse of the age of faith.

An educated man in the Middle Ages might have believed in many things that we today would question, but he could tell us exactly why he believed them and cite both past scholarship and empirical observations in support of his ideas. An educated man of the postmodern age can only repeat what he’s been told must be true and assume you are in some manner a bad person if you question it.

For instance, take the famous case of Galileo. The contemporary man just knows, because he’s been told, that Galileo proved the Earth goes around the Sun and was persecuted for daring to disprove religious dogma. How he’s supposed to have done this, what arguments he and his opponents employed, why the Earth was believed to be the center of the solar system in the first place, and so on would hardly ever even occur to the contemporary man. For him, it’s simply a matter that Galileo was right, his opponents were wrong.

The educated man of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, by contrast, could tell you exactly why the Earth must be the center of the solar system based on empirical observations and sound reasoning. He could cite the arguments for and, what is more important, the arguments against his own position.

This Actually Happened in Those Days

For instance, about ten years after Galileo’s death, the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Batista Riccioli published a book in which he weighed the Copernican and Tychonic models of the universe. He presented 49 arguments in favor of Copernicus and 77 in favor of Tycho, with rebuttals to each, and finally concluded that Tycho’s was the stronger system based on then-current knowledge.

Leaving aside his conclusion, can you imagine someone doing that kind of thing today? When was the last time you saw someone lay out the arguments for and against a certain scientific or political theory, with each side’s answers to the other’s objections?

Rather than the heated rhetoric surrounding, say, climate change, picture someone releasing a book in which he clearly defined both positions then listed everything that could be said for either, without any kind of ad hominum attacks or speculations of motive. Wouldn’t that be worth reading? Wouldn’t that seem to be a proper way of getting to the truth?

By contrast the postmodern world, by and large, receives Galileo’s discoveries, or those of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, or any other scientist as articles of faith. They are true, and any doubts or questionings are not to be tolerated.

Try to explain to someone, for instance, the distinction between the Ptolemaic, Tychonic, Copernican, and Keplerian systems, or the major flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and you will meet a blank wall of resistance, often coupled with snide implications against religious dogma. You see, you are now an infidel for questioning the Faith, and thus must be considered as one of the indistinguishable “bad people.”

Our Brains Are Instead Full of Blind Allegiances

To be clear, this isn’t to deny either the truth of their conclusions or the great work they did. The point isn’t whether any of these men were right or wrong; the point is our approach to them and their discoveries.

The assumption is that the world is divided into two parts: let us call them the House of Progress and the House of Reaction. Anything that is not part of the House of Progress is, by definition, the House of Reaction and must be opposed. Anything part of the House of Progress must be defended at all costs.

Darwin, for instance, is part of the House of Progress, which is why so many people will accuse you of being a creationist if you offer any criticism of his theory of Natural Selection (amusingly, this happens even to atheists). He was “right,” you see, so any opposition to him or any doubts as to his theory must be mere unthinking reactions.

Likewise, look at the treatment of scientists who question the extent, cause, or proper response to climate change: they are simply labeled “deniers” and dismissed, rather than engaged. You see? In the Middle Ages, educated men disputed each other by putting their opponent’s case in the strongest possible light before answering it. In the postmodern age, we fortunate recipients of universal education and an expensive college degree can only paste “not to be listened to” labels on our opponents.

School Is Now a Place to Be Indoctrinated, Not Educated

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

People Need to Know Why

The trouble is, the same thing happens regarding racism. The evils of bigotry and the equality of man are received truths: we’ve never been expected to argue for or against them, or how we may safely conclude this.

It’s true that racism is wrong and evil, but there are reasons we know this to be so—reasons we’re never taught. If you’re told all your life that racism is wrong and that black people are just as good as white people, then you spend some time in East Detroit, or watch Black Lives Matter fanatics burn down a city, then you’ll start to question this faith. And since you’ve never been given any solid reasons for believing racism to be wrong, or even taught to think rationally in the first place, there’s nothing to stop you from believing otherwise.

My point isn’t just that this is wrong, my point is that, just like with the doubts over evolution, this is an entirely predictable result of how we approach these issues. We simply insist upon the wrongness of racism or the truth of evolution as a matter of faith: we don’t bother to reason out why. In fact, we actively discourage the kind of questioning that leads to reasoned discourse and just demand blind acceptance, while insulting anyone who doesn’t go with the program.

As with so much of the modern world, the question is what, exactly, did we think was going to happen as a result?