I recently watched Agora, the movie about Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th century Roman Egypt. In the film Hypatia struggles to save the Great Library of Alexandria from destruction and is finally murdered by Christian bigots. The film suggests what Stephen Greenblatt clearly states in his book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, that the murder of Hypatia “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life” and so paved the way for the Dark Ages. Both the film and the book are clear examples of what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig Interpretation of History, “studying the past for the sake of the present” as opposed to “trying to understand the past for the sake of the past”.
At the core of this interpretation is the view that what we have now is rational, democratic and wise and consequently, anything that moved us towards this point was a good thing and anything that hindered this progress was a bad thing. What was ‘good’ was freedom and science and what was ‘bad’ was religion and superstition. Consequently it was a good thing that the Greeks and Romans invented science and reason, a bad thing when the Roman Empire collapsed leading to the Dark Ages, when people became poor, dirty and ignorant, and a good thing that the Renaissance occurred leading to a rediscovery of reason and the inventions of the Greeks and Romans. However, virtually everything about this view is false starting with the very idea of progress.
The ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks had no concept of progress because history for them was cyclical. It was Christianity which created the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs through the idea of history as a story of redemption and salvation. In this way Christianity gifted the concept of progress to the modern world. Today modern secularists snigger at talk about religious salvation but they themselves adhere to the view that salvation is only possible through science and technology, failing to realize that this is also just another myth providing them with the illusion of significance.
Science did not develop out of classical learning but out of Christian theology. Since God was perfect he created the world according to immutable principles that could only be discovered through man’s God-given powers of reason and observation. As Alfred North Whitehead, the great philosopher and mathematician, co-author with Bertrand Russell of the landmark Principia Mathematica, wrote, science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science . . . derivative from medieval theology.” This explains why science only emerged in Christian Europe. Moreover, freed from the tax and regulatory burdens of an over-weaning Empire, European science and technology exploded during the so-called Dark Ages, rapidly overtaking the rest of the world in an extraordinary outburst of innovation. As Rodney Stark writes in his ground-breaking work, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success “If Western success rests upon victories of reason, then the rise of Christianity surely was the most important single event in European history.”
“the great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion