The Real Reason For The Dark Ages
Blaming religion for the “Dark Ages” is a combination of either deliberate dishonesty or ignorance, and laziness, because the real causes were so simple, and obvious, that it really is difficult to see how one could stumble into making that particular claim.
Imagine for a moment, that we took Stephen Hawking, and dropped him in the middle of woods and left him to survive. Assuming that he could manage it, how much research would he be doing? None is the correct answer, because a great deal of scientific knowledge is completely useless in such circumstances. It’s wonderful to know the inner workings of the sun or to ponder gravity and the laws by which it operates, but not terribly useful when you need to find dinner or face hunger.
We should answer the question of why that is so, because that question holds the answer of why Europe suffered a technological slide backwards in the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Stunningly, the answer is… the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In similar fashion to taking a random scientist and dropping them out away from society, expunging the civil, martial and, for lack of a better term, scientific organs that make up any society is bound to have the same result as simply cutting off a persons access to them. When all those organs cease functioning the freedom of occupation and endeavor they underwrote also ceases.
If we look slightly forward to the places where scientific research and the documentation and preservation of knowledge continued and expanded, we find that monasteries were for all practical purposes were the places that this all went on, but why? Is it that religion, in this case Christianity, somehow encouraged this? Not at all. Religion of any kind could conceivably do so, but that isn’t what was happening. What was happening is that monasteries housed groups of people who had the resources and time to devote to things that were not required for their survival.
When the empire collapsed, people who might have worked investigating better ways to supply water (for example) to a city or village, and used their wages to buy what they needed, now have to make and produce many of those things, leaving precious little time for trivial matters like adding a thousand gallons of water to the water systems capacity. Likewise, people who might have worked doing maintenance on the water system also need to grow and harvest their own food.
Skipping back to our monks, they owned land and either rented it to tenants, or assigned some of their number to work it to provide for the monastery at large. They also received tithes and other such sources of revenue. Though a sort of comparative advantage these things left some monks free to do other stuff, copying books, praying on behalf of the population at large, and investigating “Gods creation” (or science you might say).
Again, it isn’t the fact that monks are churchmen, a secular community with the same or similar structure might have very likely done the same sort of things. If we look back at the first recognizable “scientists”, they are almost universally clerics (from which we get the term clerical work, the gathering and maintenance of data), including Copernicus who first proposed the Earth revolves around the sun, something which didn’t seem to bother the church at the time. Putting the same church in the hands of different men 60 years later and the church fights Galileo. Why you ask? Because the church is run by men, and men have agendas and biases. Same church, different men, different levels of vindictiveness.
The Catholic Church itself is no more responsible for suppressing science as guns are for killing people or spoons are for making people fat. People, not organizations do these things, people. Once again, most people were working too hard to survive to give a damn about who orbits who, the sun or or the earth.
In the “Dark Ages” there was lots of science going on, lots of progress made and lots of things invented, what was lacking is a cohesive state to provide stability, structure and encourage trade. Which is another reason why clerics were many times scientists, the church was the only institution tying people together in a useful way, and it did so, just as a government or trade guild might have done. The Dark Ages were dark, not because the church was up to no good, but because the continent was so baldy fractured that society couldn’t perform it’s most important function, to tie people together in groups and facilitate the exchange of goods and information. It was dark because there were no checks on the power of anyone who had an army or the support of an allies army, he with the biggest stick became ruler.
Not only is this chart idiotic, but it lacks any kind of scale showing the measure of scientific advancement.
So once again, it isn’t fair to say that we were held back by Christianity. Mostly because Christianity was the force that kept science chugging along, not a force holding science back. But, it had nothing to do with the church itself, or religion in general, it merely provided a common political and social framework which had previously been filled by a secular entity, the Roman Empire. So lets be thankful the church did survive the imperial fall, we can’t know what it would have been like without it, maybe better, maybe worse, but it didn’t turn out too badly.
Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought the sun was circling the earth. … -Wittgenstein is said to have replied “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth.”