Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.

If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)


Roger Bacon, 1220(?)-1290



Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?

This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen.  We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history, especially a history that suggests that Once upon a Time there was a lonely wood-cutter living good without God by the edge of a forest outside Düsseldorf who kept his opinions about God to himself and was never molested, his humble house never burnt down. You have to admit, that’s pretty dull reading.

The Church did not invent martyrdom, but it perfected it in the ancient world. Christians seemed to thrive on persecution, or at least stories about persecution.  The habit of naming churches after saints originates at the gravesites (real and legendary) of the sacrificed.

Every first year divinity student knows two things about the early Christian writer Tertullian: He said something like “I believe because it is absurd.” (Although he didn’t actually say it that way.)  And he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church…the more we are mown down by you [pagans] the more our numbers grow,”  which he did say.

Tertullian was an arrogant, heretic-bashing codpiece who was always unfair in rhetorical battle against his heretical opposites, most of whom were dead when he wrote about them.  He would feel right at home in today’s climate. He still has his admirers.

Because they were certain they were right about the religion thing, Christians developed “martyrologies”–stories about martyrs and their brutal torture and dismemberment and rape at the spearpoint of their pagan oppressors.  This no doubt helped fertilize the field of converts in the way Tertullian intended.  After all, what is a martyr but an imitator of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim?

Death of a martyr ca 203

To die like Christ was to be holy–a saint–so that the terms (martyr-saint) became virtully synonymous in the early church.  It was a short-cut, a virtual guaranteeing of heavenly bliss.  It could only be compared to patriotism–dying on the field of battle.  Furthermore, Christians thought it drove the Romans crazy, this immense bravery in the face of torture.  –Except in the little that’s survived by way of commentary, the Romans actually thought Christian bravery was a sham because they expected, like the martyrs in the Middle East today, to wake up in glory and bliss before God’s throne.  That was the payoff, to quote Marcus Aurelius, loosely.

It took until Gibbon’s day, in the eighteenth century,  to sort out the strew.  As the Catholic Church was fully in charge of its own story, he reckoned, the number of martyrs was far smaller–even during the reign of the most vicious of the so-called persecuting emperors, Diocletian (d. 311)–than the Church claimed.  Only when other measures at control failed–normal things like ridicule, calling their men yokels and their women prostitutes, did things turn ugly.  The result?  Less than two years after the death of Diocletian the first edict of toleration was passed and by the close of the fourth century the Church was everything Tertullian hoped it would be.  –Including powerful enough to initiate persecutions of its former oppressors.  What goes around.

But the tendency remained strong in Christianity to use martyrdom as a kind of proof of dues-paying authenticity. There were Protestant martyrs–the famous “Boke” by John Foxe (1563) repeats the early Christian stories and then tells the rest as the tale of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants down through the sixteenth century, creating the standard stereotype of the Catholic Church as the reincarnation of Old Rome. The competition to chalk up numbers continued:  Joan of Arc (French, Catholic, a witch to the English cause, a protectress to the French); Miguel Servetus (a rationalist, executed by Calvin’s order in 1533); Johan Hus (Czech, who condemned indulgences, the Crusades, and lobbied for the liberal ideas of another heretic)–namely John Wycliffe, who escaped execution by sleight and a loyal troupe of students and was dug up after his death and his bones burned for his views on the papacy, the nature of the universe (he admired the atomic theory of Democritus) and his ashes scattered in the river Swift.

Execution of William Tyndale, for translating the Bible into English

There are dozens and dozens of Wycliffes and Hus’s who were treated as badly by decress and councils and the Inquisition.  What the Church seems to have learned from its own exaggerated history of martyrs is that, for organizational reasons,  it paid to be more like the Roman persecutors than like the suffering saints.

But I stray.  Surely if Christians preyed on the doctrinal irregularities of their own, they must have sniffed out the most radical opinion of all and punished it? I mean, of course, the “God question.” As well they did.  But the most radical opinion of all as late as the seventeenth century was that God was not a trinity–Socinianism (early unitarianism) named after two Italian thinkers, the uncle-nephew team of Laelius and Fausto, who if they lived today would run a cake shop in Brooklyn.  Both thought the trinity was non-biblical.  Faustus, the nephew, escaped to (then) religiously liberal Poland to be out of the reach of church scrutiny and died there in 1604.  The theology of the Spanish physician Miguel Servetus (mentioned above) was less accommodating but equally severe: he called the trinity a three-headed dog.  Servetus was sentenced to death simultaneously in Geneva by the protestants and by the Catholic Inquisition at Lyons making him officially the first man without a country.

Not far away, or much removed in time, Giordano Bruno died in 1600, a Domincan priest and by all accounts a brilliant scientist.  Bruno taught a version of the Copernican theory and taught it well enough to find himself in exile all over Europe.


Hounded by a reputation for being sarcastic and unable to keep quiet about his unorthodox views, he did what Servetus did: went to Geneva thinking that the Protestant “capital” would be nore liberal than the largely autonomous cities of the Catholic world. Then to Paris, where he was spotted as an excommunicate; then to Oxford and London, where he may have worked as a spy for a very nervous Elizabeth’s secretary of State, Walsingham.  Then to Frankfurt and Padua, where he was denied a chair in mathematics (it went to Galileo) and finally to Venice, where the Church lost patience with his maneuvers and had him hauled back to Rome for trial.

Bruno’s scientific views were not as well devloped as Galileo’s: at his trials in Rome, he was accused of denying the trinity (by now a favourite charge against intellectuals), believing in metempsychosis (reincarnation), denying the virginity of Mary, and the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.  These were garden variety charges that could be trumped up against almost anyone who had become inconvenient to the Church, so the radical nature of his opinions is difficult to discover.  He was probably also a pantheist and almost certainly a mystic and magician.

From the Church’s point of view he was another heretic at a time when the Church was fighting both ends against the middle, fragmented in Europe, unable to exercise its will against major problems like Luther, and now a spawn of lesser opinions that might have been greater had they developed into full-fledged movements.  Bruno’s challenge like Wycliffe’s involved early scientific ideas that were echoed in the revolutions of Bacon and Newton, neither of whom, alas, had very revolutionary ideas about religion. Before Bruno was burned alive at the Camo di’Fiori, his tongue was nailed to the roof of his mouth “for all the wickedness he had spewed.” The Cardinal who tried Bruno, Bellarmino, was the same who summoned Galileo to the Inquisition sixteen years later.

Bellarmine, the face of Catholic tolerance

Bruno, like Servetus, and Wycliffe, and Hus, and later on the deist Thomas Aikenhead (d. 1696 in Edinburgh) should be commemorated as pioneers in the rationalist tradition that leads from faith and credulity to shades of unbelief and finally to outright atheism. It is a slow progression, and atheism is a consequence, not the match that starts the fire.

Philosophically, these thinkers (even in the case of Hus and Wycliffe) don’t constitute a single opinion but  grades of skepticism that move steadily from rejection of the core doctrine of the Christian faith for 1200 years–the trinity–to a much wider indictment of the Bible, superstition, the papacy, miracles, and the stranglehold of Aristotelian science.

Aikenhead at his trial was accused of all of this: “[He has taught] That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”

“No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January…before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, “with all the Marks of a true Penitent”.

So to the question: Have there been atheist martyrs.  I think the answer is a conditional rather than a resounding No.  Social marginalization and suspicion is not the same thing as martyrdom, not the same as systematic legal persecution.

I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.  But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.

Medieval (14th cent) illustration of a spherical earth

Yet this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded, “faithheads,” to use the aspersion, as though history begins with Hume (maybe a deist, fundamentally cagey), Voltaire (a deist), and Tom Paine (not just a deist but one who wanted to surgically remove Jesus from the atrocity of the gospels).  But none of these men died for their secular, anti- ecclesiastical and anti-Biblical ideas. They held a shred of faith disconnected from the realities of religion.

If we scour more thoroughly, we get Socrates and Jesus and maybe Anaxagoras.  All three were charged with impiety by the dominant religious power of their day.  If we believe Xenophon, Socrates took comfort in the fact that the gods would be pleased with his tranquility and that he was pious throughout his life.  Anaxagoras chose the option of exile to Lampsacus for teaching “odd things” about the nature of matter and mind, that the material world was composed of “a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same–a subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, especially seen ruling in all the forms of life” (Lucretius).  But in either case, “piety” and impiety were connected to performing acts of ritual devotion, not to an intellectual conclusion about the existence of “God.” A great many historians and psychologists have puzzled that it may not have been psychologically possible, prior to this long progression of ideas, to entertain the sorts of doubts about the gods’ existence that is possible in the modern era. ( I disagree with that, but it’s another topic.)

That leaves Jesus, before he became one–a god that is. Radical doubters and dissenters like Paine, Renan, Loisy recognized Jesus as one of their own. The eminently sensible Matthew Arnold, no friend to biblically-based dogmatism, praised his “sweet reasonableness.”

In so many words Jesus rejected much of the Torah and hardly mentions other sections of the Hebrew tradition at all–though he is accused of violating it.  He substitutes an ethic of love and forgiveness for one of pay-back and talion.  He excoriates wealth in a culture that saw material possessions as a mark of divine favour.  He mingles with women and “sinners” in a time when purity laws were scrupulously enforced and fear of contamination had reached superstitious highs.  He shows compassion for people at the margins of a society that disowned the sick as being stricken by God as punishment for unknown sin.   He, foolishly perhaps,  argues his case openly, even when (like Socrates) he is cautioned not to.

Even if only a shadow of a shade of this story is respected, Jesus is an historical event, at least as much of an event as the historical Socrates who also suffers from his own “biography.” Knowing that his words and deeds are going to get him killed, he presses on.  He’s only human after all. From the standpoint of first century Judaism–which is the only way history can fairly view this event–he dies a blasphemer and a heretic.

It seems to me that atheists should acknowledge that the private thoughts of a lonely woodcutter outside Düsseldorf do not form part of the progression of ideas that get us from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell.

When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has  been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides;  in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments;  in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.  In so much more.  Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks.  Atheism historically–where and through what means–the gods began to be disbelieved in–has not been a conversion-experience, a single moment, or a shuddering recognition on a Tuesday that everything you have been taught is wrong.  It’s also got to be about the freedom to reach that conclusion on the shoulders of the very bright people who suffered along the way, none of whom, as far as I can tell, would qualify as atheists today.

Bacon's illustration in his Optics, 1250

It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.

48 thoughts on “Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.

  1. How about adding Spinoza to the list of those heretics who stood up to established religious orthodoxy?

    Spinoza was a pantheist of course.

  2. I don’t understand in what respect Dawkins’ witty comment is wrong. He was addressing contemporary monotheists and I assume you agree that he made his point regarding that audience. The comment was not intended to explain the history of skepticism, but it does encompass those skeptics who have not cut all ties with supernaturalism. We, who are not in danger of being burned at the stake for our views, certainly owe a debt to those who did not go one god further, but paid with their lives for denying the orthodoxy of their day. I don’t think that Dawkins would deny the debt.

    If atheists want martyrs, all they have to do is go to some Moslem countries and loudly, or maybe not so loudly, proclaim their beliefs.

  3. Excellent post. I appreciate your incisive identification of what is really wrong with medieaval Christianity and the courage of those who questioned orthodox belief. You’ve given us a colourful historical analysis without any exaggeration of history at all, and as always, wittily writ. The gnus have got their Harrisy but no gnu martyrs. And I didn’t call anyone bull’s pizzle once. But Fabian said “A coward, a most devout coward; religious in it.” Maybe not religious in their cowardice but fungusmentalism is religious about their ‘belief’.


  4. “… processes that are rooted in religion”

    It seems a bit obvious to me.

    The strong philosophical tradition of the Greeks was overrun by the stifling orthodoxy of monotheism and for approx 1000 years innovation ceased.

    As intellectual enquiry in the West ever so slowly re-emerged it did so in a Christian environment and in centuries when not only could you be put to death for something a simple as denying “the ‘real presence’ of Jesus in the Eucharist”, but you could also be burnt as a witch.

    But more than this, the ancient Greeks had some great ‘scientific’ ideas which could have grown quickly in a couple of centuries, into something much more substantial.

    However by the 2nd millennium there really was no way to think of the existence of life and the planet as other than due to an act of creation. Thus the furthest it was sensible to go was to deism, and this far only perhaps in response to the problem of evil.

    So, since everybody believed in God (being the best explanation available) one would not expect there to be many atheists available for burning.

    • @Felix: History can’t be done as hypothesis contrary to fact. The idea that without Christianity the ideas of the Greeks would have risen like a comet into the night sky is widely discredited, just like the myth of the “dark ages.” To raise the point I raise in the essay: where do you think the ideas of the ancient writers were preserved? Why do you think they were preserved if no one understood them? I know this model, but almost no historian thinks this way about the last two millellenia any longer. It was developed in the 18th century by some very interesting fellows like Gibbon himself, but before the dawn of scientific historiography, and it’s a parody of historical process. Btw, the Romans and Greeks were quite capable of enforcing their own religious orthodoxies before Christianity cam onto the scene.

  5. Okay, so I should have stuck to my basic point, which was:

    “since everybody believed in God (being the best explanation available) one would not expect there to be many atheists available for burning.”

    On the other matter, if you will allow the digression, let me put a question instead. Would it be fair to say in the 500 years after Constantine there were far, far fewer philosophical developments than in the 500 or or before?

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  8. I think you’re right on characterizing atheist as a result rather than a force because that follows most of my experience of it, characterizing its negative stance this time with a historical experience. As a fan of gnu-atheism I root for some vague form of success but I’m really watching a phenomenon that I haven’t seen before. And that’s not a historical claim, I’m thirty two and there’s also a lot of other things I haven’t seen.

    (I love the expanding comment boxes on the website, by the way)

    I happily credit older believers with progressive thoughts and sometimes I catch modern day believers being progressive as well. I still think progress results in more and more secularism which weakens the dogmatic political positions of religions voting blocks. Atheism would be that tall tower in the distance getting closer as we advance that secularism even if the tower is still farther out. Belief in teapots in space don’t really concern me in the same way. Maybe I’m crazy for not having noticed culinary objects in orbit and I’m fine with that. I’m even fine crediting an imaginary Jesus with a rebellion against the orthodoxy at the time. After all, he’s an important literary figure and it’s nice to know he’s got his roots in rebellion same as I do.

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  10. Hi, there’s something I don’t understand. You said, “I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.”

    How exactly does suffering give you legitimacy?

    • I think the idea of suffering and dying for “what you believe” is not an exclusively religious emotion; the Romans were probably the source of the Christian attitude, based on the honor of dying for the “honor” of country on the battlefield, and before the Romans, the Greeks–nothing was more important than the tales of heroes–and a martyr is just a religious hero. We still use the language in modern warfare, don’t we; Lincoln talks about the field at Gettysburg being consecrated with blood. I suspect we are beyond thinking that way, but that does nothing to diminish the way in which historically dying and suffering were thought to confer honor and legitimacy to a cause. “Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed.” (Pericles, Funeral Oration.) I personally reject the idea, on average, of glorious suffering and death; it leads to all kinds of harm. But historically it’s got to be acknowledged as a great social fact.

      • Thanks for your response. If I understand well this time, it’s not that suffering actually confers legitimacy; it’s just that in ancient times, people used to think it did. Or maybe that it did in ancient times, but not anymore in the present day.

        However, if it doesn’t (or at least it no longer does), why do you understand that Gnu atheists crave it?

  11. Since the truth of ideas is unrelated to whether or not people have died for them, I have no idea what point you think you are trying to make. Also you begin by proposing that there is a “small and dwindling” new atheist community, a point not in evidence.

    • I don’t see Hoffman claiming that the truth of atheism hinges on claims of atheist martyrs. Rather, I see it as part of a general critique about the illiterate and ahistorical claims of a particular strain of atheism. In this case, Hoffman considers claims of down-trodden, martyr atheists to be an exaggeration.

      • @Neil: Thanks for actually reading the essay and not–as I have to think some are–just jumping into the fray.

  12. JH: “It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.”

    Perhaps the Gnu atheists are failing to acknowledge the heroes and martyrs of the past as their own because of that “faithhead” taint that many of them had. It seems that even the faintest whiff of faith will send the Gnu atheists into a tailspin…

    Putting aside the sad case of those who became martyrs in the long struggle for reason and intellectual freedom – it’s heroes of the past, whether martyred or not, that Gnu atheists need to welcome into their historical understanding of just where they have come from. But to do that, of course, means that perhaps there just might be some ‘faithheads” out there today that they might benefit from giving ear to..-.. or at least have to give modern day “faithheads” a little bit of consideration and respect…

    A quote I read many years ago has stayed with me: “The emphasis he projects is not, “What great values men are fighting for! But “What greatness men are capable of, when they fight for their values!”. “Man’s loyalty to values, whatever any man’s particular values might be”. That was Ayn Rand writing about her hero, “the greatest novelist in world literature”, Victor Hugo. A man who stood for everything that she rejected:”……..a professed mystic in his conscious convictions, ….a professed altruist,……a professed advocate of socialism,……a professed champion of the doctrine that emotions are superior to reason….” And yet; “Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral……”.

    (yep, great pity she failed in her own philosophy….)

    As to atheist martyrs……but don’t martyrs require a cause – and in and of itself, atheism is not a cause at all – so nothing there that would ignite the spark of heresy or betrayal that would bring the axe to their heads. Methinks it’s not being martyrs that the Gnu atheists are concerned about – it’s the question of legitimacy itself. Or perhaps more appropriately, in a world where suffering and notions of a glorious death are no longer highly valued as indicators of legitimacy, the question of validation is more relevant. Acceptance, a pat on the back, for their Gnu approach to a world without religion. “Imagine” a world without religion the battle cry. And yet it’s not imagination that is necessary here – it’s the cold hard facts of reality; religion is here to stay – thus – no validation can be given to any Gnu atheist challenge to this reality.

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  14. Theo Van Gogh. There you go, An atheist martyr. Learn about him before you assert that what you don’t understand. Or is valid history only that which has dust on it?

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  17. See, what you’re failing to understand is that atheists aren’t held together by one generalized, over-arching philosophy. They’re a collection of individuals, with numerous different viewpoints, moral foundations and belief systems. The only thing they all have in common is a failure to believe in a myth.

    That being said, “atheist martyrs” don’t need to be people nailed to the cross of disbelief (so to speak). In essence, any person killed by a believer and specifically due to that person’s religious mania) can be considered an “atheist martyr.” All the victims of the Son of Sam; Chester Badowski Jr., and his wife Christine; Joshua Hagerman; Michelle Cazan; anyone who died because “God” told the other guy to kill them.

    The difference is, we don’t venerate our martyrs because of their deaths. Not worshipping a death cult, it’s easier for an atheist to say that killing is wrong.

    • Do you mean refusal in “The only thing they all have in common is a failure to believe in a myth.” because presumably you think they shouldn’t believe in it, not that they lack capacity. -PS, a lot of people say killing is wrong, even the ancient Hebrews “got” that much. It just hasn’t been entirely effective, has it?

  18. Tl;dr,

    Atheists have no martyrs
    Deists made discoveries that they were persecuted for
    Atheism is wrong.

    A long, rambling, unfocused screed that leaned heavily on a moot point. Maybe the reason we don’t have martyrs is because we don’t celebrate death. We cherish life, and the things done with this short time we have, unlike the standard flavor of religious thought that focuses on a ‘hereafter’.

  19. I think you’re missing something vital in regard to today’s atheists. It’s not through an examination of the historical record of heretics and sceptics that atheists have arrived at their position, not that I want to diminish history of its value, but it is through their knowledge of science. It’s what science has demonstrated: evidence to support a claim, and its ability of self-correction in the face of new evidence, what is sorely missed in religion. It’s the dissonance and often the blatant hypocrisy in denying the contradictions, absurdities and the lies that underpin much of religious thinking that has driven away many among our young towards a healthier scepticism and atheism. In that worldview, the need of martyrs is anathema. It’s a reminder of what is worst in religion: people flying airplanes in buildings, or the old crusades of Christianity. It’s a deep desire not to repeat those mistakes.

    • This is an interesting response. But science qua science can only raise the question of God indirectly. It is not part of the subject matter of any purely naturalistic inquiry. History and to a lesser extent philosophy have a great deal to say about the inquiry.

      • Am I really undestanding you correctly? “Science qua science can only raise the question of God[‘s existence] indirectly, but History can address it DIRECTLY? Why do you denigrate science’s “indirect” approach to the question of God and then praise history for having “a great deal to say about it.” Science also has a great deal to say about it indirectly.

        Or directly, if we are pitting science against the literal truth of a particular holy book.

  20. That’s true. But then the question for many atheists becomes, can God be investigated through scientific inquiry? We’ve had 400 years of scientific inquiry which has produced no result. And then if God is outside our realm, beyond the physical world, an unknown quantity that is unknowable to us, then his existence becomes superfluous. All the attributes we assigned to god, the conventional all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, becomes wishful thinking, let alone that these attributes seem often contradictory in the epicurean sense.

    I need to add that among these atheists, there is a sense that philosophy hasn’t done its job, ie, the famous Hawking’s “philosophy is dead”. Mind you many of those accusations towards philosophy can be directed at science as it has delved in the last 30 years into the kind of speculative world that philosophy is often accused of, mainly, that of String Theory, Multiverse and Anthropic Principle. Ironically, this has given an opening for theists to indulge in their fantasy, often appropriating the science to justify their claims, needless to say to the detriment of those same science-oriented atheists.

    • > We’ve had 400 years of scientific inquiry which has produced no result.

      That’s incorrect. 400 years of scientific (and historical) inquiry have proved that many holy books are factually incorrect. Only in a philosopher’s sitting room could one say that this is “no result.” Culturally and historically speaking it is a tremendously important result. Fundamentalist Christians certainly think it is important: many of them discourage their children from researching dinosaurs, evolution, etc.

      • Not a philosopher–I’m an historian. I regard history as a direct claim against both the idea of God and most doctrines; what did you think I was arguing?

  21. “If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities. (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)”

    I just noticed this quote at the top of the article. It strikes me as a bit odd.

    Were the Greek philosophers part of “the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities”?

    • I don’t think that’s the point of the quote; obviously no one is denying the immense importance of Greek thought. The question which was answered badly for over a century, especially by early modern historians like Gibbon, was “How was it mediated”? There is no doubt among serious scholars of the Middle Ages these days about the mediating influence of scholasticism, the disputational method, the importance of monastic schools, and the emergence of universities and libraries which preferred learning against the odds of very rough politics.

  22. Felix, you bring out a good point. One cannot neglect the tremendous contribution of Islam during its golden age. In Cordoba during the tenth and eleventh centuries, one finds an immense intellectual centre, where Christians, Jews and Muslims interacted in an unprecedented level, making huge strides in the development of science and mathematics, and reviving the Ancient Greek philosophers which spurred later on the Renaissance. Ibn al-Haytham who discovered the law of inertia 600 years before Newton and the pioneer of the scientific method, is considered by many as the father of science.

  23. Pingback: [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #16: Blogosphere roundup, April 20, 2011

  24. Pingback: Dude – Title II of the Federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 | Butterflies and Wheels

  25. One note about one of the themes of this piece. Per Tertullian, Christians may have invented the concept of martyrdom as seed, but they also invented the idea of how much seed there actually was, per Candida Moss’ excellent new book of earlier this year about martyrdom in the Roman Christian era. They inflated the amount of seed, distorted the causes of formation of many individual seeds and more.

    And, the myth has become pernicious for nearly 2,000 years. And not just for Christianity, but for Islam as well.

    • It was Gibbon as far back as his famous inset on the Persecutions in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who alleged the Christians wildly exaggerated the numbers of their martyrs–one of the first pieces of scientific historiography. Tertullian loved to make things up.

  26. Atheists killed for being atheists? There’s Ahmed Rajib Haider, Sunnyur Rahaman, Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chatterjee, Faisal Arefin Dipan, Omar Bataweel, Kazimierz Łyszczyński, Turan Dursun, just to name a few.

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