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Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part I

February 12th, 2010 by Matt

Recently Peter Cresswell published a guest post by James Valliant, which originally appeared on SOLO. The following series is a critique of this piece.

Valliant’s basic thesis is that,

Both science and freedom came about among European Christians despite the best efforts of pious Christians to prevent their development, and only on a foundation of pagan, pre-Christian ideas, and with conservative Christians fighting each and every step of the way.

Like other Randian’s he erroneously thinks of Aristotle’s philosophy as a paradigm of the pagan ideas in question. Valliant’s post contains numerous errors. His uncritical acceptance of literal reading of Genocide passages, his claim that the Bible teaches sex is bad, his assertion that it teaches people will be tortured forever for not believing in Christ and numerous other things means there are far to many errors for me to address in a short post and this one is long enough as it is! Here I will focus on those errors most relevant to his main thesis. [I have inserted hyperlinks on the less relevant errors where I have previously blogged on the issue - also see the related posts at the end.]

1. Valliant appears to accept the now discredited conflict thesis. He states that the Church “imprisoned scientists” for challenging its authority and that that “Western science only got going again following the rediscovery of pre-Christian Greek ideas, starting with Aristotle’s.” Valliant cites Copernicus as an example, claiming that he “got his ideas about the earth and the sun from an ancient, pagan source, one that he suppressed upon publication.” This is all questionable at best, as James Hannam’s recent study shows, “During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science.” Hannam goes on to document that, contrary to popular belief, the Church, “never supported the idea that the earth was flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas.” The one exception to this, he notes, is the case of Galileo in the 17th century, who was placed under house arrest for teaching Copernican cosmology as true (as opposed to a hypothesis).[1] The Catholic Church’s opposition to Copernicus, of course, is the sole case Valliant alludes to but a single case does not substantiate a trend.

Valliant’s allusion to the views of Copernicus is similarly questionable. Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology constituted a rejection of the standard Aristotelian cosmology accepted by the ancient Greeks. Stillman Drake notes that Galileo’s strongest opponents were supporters of Aristotle and it was more his calling into question Aristotle and the pressure by Aristotelians to silence him, that lead to his condemnation from the church than merely interpreting a psalm figuratively.[2] Nor is it correct to suggest that Copernicus got his “ideas about the earth” from suppressed Greek scientists. In fact, the thesis that the earth moves had already been suggested by 14th century theologians   Jean Buridan and Nicole d’Oresme and had been openly discussed in medieval universities for centuries prior to Copernicus. Edward Grant notes the positions of Buridan and d’Oresme were based in part on Theological condemnations of Aristotelian Philosophy that had occurred in the 13 century.[3] The Copernican position then was already being debated openly in theological circles before Copernicus and was a repudiation of Greek cosmology motivated, in part, by theological concerns about God’s sovereignty.

2. Valliant makes the historical claim that “The burning of thousands and thousands at the stake for no reason other than their heretical faith, the torturing of thousands and thousands more in order to get them to confess to any deviation from the Bible … is all a matter of historical record.” He asks,

If Christians, in the name of their faith, did horrible things in the more remote past, had they simply misunderstood the Bible that they were poring over in such detail and with such devotion? Did they finally get clear on the meaning of their true doctrine only after the better part of two millennia?. No, it was the horrible institution of Christian persecution, century after century, which inspired sensitive minds to first consider the idea of freedom of conscience, and, again, only with a good deal of philosophical help from those ancient, pagan sources, from Aristotle to Cicero.” [Emphasis added]

Valliant appears to think that religious persecution as existed in the Inquisition was due to Christian theology and that the notion of freedom of conscience was the result of pagan ideas.  The facts, however, are not so simple. Valliant’s argument contains several false assumptions.

First, Valliant is mistaken that Christians for the better part of two millennia both engaged in and supported the activities he refers too. In fact, for the first four hundred years of Christian history, the Church fathers supported and defended a right to freedom of conscience; it was only in the 5th century, due to the influence of Augustine, that suppression of heresy was supported. Even in this instance there was not unanimity. Many theologians such as Ambrose and Pope Siricius protested heresy executions in the late Roman Empire.  Forced baptisms did occur under Charlemagne in the 8th century but were criticised by leading theologians of the time such as Alcurin.  From Charlemagne till the 12th century, some 400 years, there were no inquisitions.[4] The Inquisition arose in Western Europe in the 12th century in response to a particular political crisis.

Interestingly both Canon Law and Medieval Theology developed a notion of freedom of conscience in the Middle Ages, drawing from earlier patristic sources and exegesis of Paul’s comments on freedom of conscience in Romans 14.[5] In fact, the defences of religious tolerance, proposed by enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Pierre Bayle and James Madison are often simply repetitions of the arguments of early Christian theologians such as Lactantius and Tertullian, which had been known to Christian theologians for over a thousand years.  These facts also show that is mistaken to suggest defences of freedom of conscience were only developed after hundreds of years of Christian persecution.

Second, Valliant’s attempt to equate religious tolerance with pagan antiquity is equally dubious. The pre-Christian Athenian democracy Valliant champions executed Socrates for heresy, around 400 years before Christ. Plato and Aristotle also experienced periods of exile from Athens – Aristotle fled precisely to avoid sharing Socrates fate. Greek Philosophers, including Plato, defended censorship of religious books and execution of those who denied the existence of the gods. For 300 years prior to the Christianisation of Europe the roman state persecuted and executed Christian believers. Eusebius records that thousands of men, women and children – sometimes whole towns – were martyred by Rome for their beliefs.[6] David Lindberg sums the evidence up,

Intolerance is and was (and is) a widely cultivated trait, shared about equally by pagans and Christians. Moreover, each party was capable of employing coercive measures when it gained the political power to do so; Christians, in fact appear to have done so less often than Pagans.[7]

Valliant’s contention that “freedom” was based on “pre-Christian” Aristotelian ideas “with conservative Christians fighting each and every step of the way” also ignores the obvious fact that the Inquisition came into Europe around the same time as the rise of Aristotelianism and was in fact defended and carried out by the Dominican order – the very same order that promoted and defended Aristotle in European universities. The facts, therefore, do not fit the generalised picture Valliant paints.

Third, Valliant’s comments appear to assume that the torture and execution of heretics was justified solely by an appeal to the Bible. However, nowhere does the Bible mention executing or torturing heretics nor was it typically taken to teach this. Christopher Eberle and Terence Cuneo note that suppression of heresy was frequently punished, not on religious grounds per se, but on broader secular grounds,

Religious believers have employed coercive power to violate the right to religious freedom, they themselves rarely have done so in a way that violates the [Doctrine of Religious Restraint] … when such rights have been violated, the justifications offered, even by religious believers, appeal to alleged requirements for social order, such as the need for uniformity of belief on basic normative issues. One theological apologist for religious repression, for example, writes this: ‘The king punishes heretics as enemies, as extremely wicked rebels, who endanger the peace of the kingdom, which cannot be maintained without the unity of the faith. That is why they are burnt in Spain’. [8]

Régine Pernoud points out that reason heretics were burnt or tortured is because the 12th century saw the revival of Roman law which allowed torture to gain a confession and punish treason with burning.[9] Hence contrary to Valliant, the torture and burning of heretics had as much to do with ancient pagan roman legal customs as it did with biblical exegesis.  In fact, the evidence suggests that unlike secular courts, the Inquisition used torture sparingly, more moderately and rarely executed those who came before it, suggesting that it in fact moderated and softened the harshness of roman practice.[10]

In my next post in this series, Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part II, I address Valliant’s claims that the writers of the Declaration of Independence were not influenced by Christianity and his claims around freedom and slavery.

In the meantime see this update: The Theological Foundations of the Enlightenment Philosophers


[1] James Hannam God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon books, 2009) 2-3.
[2] Stillman Drake Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
[3] Edward Grant “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages” in David C Linberg and Ronald L Numbers eds God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Religion and Science (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986) 49-75.
[4]
Regine Pernoud Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2000) 120.
[5]
See Joseph Lecler Toleration and the Reformation trans. by TL Weslow (New York: Association Press, 1960).
[6] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History.
[7] David Lindberg “Science and the Early Church” in David C Linberg and Ronald L Numbers eds God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Religion and Science (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986) 22.
[8]
Christopher Eberle and Terence Cuneo “Religion and Political Theory” (2008) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[9]
Pernoud, above n 4, 128-129.
[10] See, for example, Edward Peters Inquisition (London: Collier Macmillan, 1981); also Henry Kamen The Spanish Inquisition: A Revisionist History (New Haven Conn: Yale University Press, 1998).

RELATED POSTS:
Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part II
The Theological Foundations of the Enlightenment Philosophers
The “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II
William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell. Part Two
Guest Post: James Hannam on Dan Brown’s History of Science

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14 responses so far ↓

  • Gimme That Old Time Religion!…

    James’ Historical Claims Critiqued. … 1. James’ piece is loaded with historical and theological errors. 2. Too many people on SOLO and Not PC seem to be equally historically and theologically ignorant. 3. Many Christians themselves also suffer from…

  • Honestly I had no idea that the Rand cult was still so vibrant. The comments in the threads are comical (but in a sad way). They call this revisionist history, but from their poor work thus far in presenting their version, it’s clear that the revision is only against that which Valliant wishes to be historical and not a revision of actual history. It’s amusing that your diligence in study and truth-seeking gets you labelled a “dirty nutjob.” Oh, the life of an objectivist.

  • Great stuff Matt…thanks for taking the trouble to challenge Valiant. Have you read ‘The roots Of Science’ by Kiwi Harold Turner? If not you should get it because it really slices and dices atheist rubbish like Rand, Valiant and Dawkins etc.
    It clearly shows Christian cosmology was essential for the birth of science proper. (A rationally created universe in linier time as opposed to a static cyclic universe)
    I have already done a ruff draft on the history of freedom and human rights based upon the doctrines of grace as taught by st Paul that lead up to the American declaration of independence and would be happy to email you a copy for your perusal if you would like it. Also Schaeffer’s ‘a Christian Manifesto’ is based upon the same premises. (You can find some great Schaeffer vids on this subject on u tube too!
    Cheers Tim W

  • Fascinating post. I agree with Tim – Harold Turner’s book is worth a read. Perhaps he overstates the case, but certainly the thesis that the Christian separation of the creator from the created was necessary for science to flourish has a lot going for it.

    I find surprising the idea that someone using Galileo as an example is also portraying Aristotle as a scientists. I understand Galileo was quite dismissive of Aristotle because of his lack of empiricism. For me science requires experiment as well as faith in immutable physical laws. I don’t believe Aristotle had either.

  • [...] Reading: M and M: Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Werewolf.co.nz: The Jesus Cringe Categories: rant Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a [...]

  • Excellent! Just loved it!
    .-= My last blog-post ..Consider Islam TV Series 3 Programs =-.

  • Responses to James Valliant on Christianity…

    Matthew Flannagan has written a very good two part counter of Valliant’s post … Though, apparently, according to Lindsay Perigo, “The Flannagans should pause to consider that James has forgotten more about The Religion of Fagot-Lighting than they w…

  • Solo truly is a wallow, full of filth loving godless pigs.
    Valiant himself is a typical objectivist Pharisee…Ie a religious authority who claims mastery of the scriptures when in fact he is a blind leader of the blind and both shall fall in the ditch.
    Of course that is the chief reason he is an honored self worshipping deity at Solo.
    I will not grace their sty with my presence there as I don’t believe it is right to enter such dives with the intent of slinging mud about, (I don’t visit Green party or Maori Party blogs for the same reasons),yet because in their vile hatred they sling mud Christ and his followers, I reserve the right to make some criticisms from the outside…here at M and M who are participants on Solo and on their blog where this issue is also being discussed, yet without so great a stench. I hope my comments here may help these brave Christians and others (like Rosie) who do have the fortitude to go to Solo and face the slings and arrows…the bigoted vanity of these absurd egoists (Like Olivia).

    The first point I wish to make is how foolish is the favorite modus opperandi at solo to do ‘Tit for Tat’ by comparing the giants of the past, one with another…ie comparing an atheist or Pagan philosopher with a Christian one…Like Aristotle with Locke.
    Matt exposed the hypocrisy of Perigo and Valiant in white washing the sins of the likes of their favorites like Aristotle yet holding Locke or St Paul fully accountable for what they consider unforgivable sins…simply because they spring from their definitive ‘original sin’ ie…the sin of belief in God!
    Yes the Objectivists Balk at the Bible for saying that unbelief is a sin, yet they themselves say ‘Belief’ is an unforgivable evil!

    That the futility of comparing atheists and Christians in such a biased way is legal tender there, instead of reaching the most obvious conclusion…ie that just as the Bible states…that in all men whether great or small, exists both Good and evil…ie that there is none righteous…that we all fall short of the glory of God. This being the most rational conclusion to reach is proof of their unwillingness to be reasonable or to let reality be the judge!
    Why is this universal corrupted nature truly true is the real question.
    It has to do with being born kind after our own kind.
    It has to do with the consequences of historic events
    It has to do with the Human heart, and its ability to accept the truth…its ability or disability to self delusion…its capacity for fanaticism…and its capacity to compromise with evil for selfish ends…All traits of a fallen species…not at all compatible with Objectivist Egoism and their delusions of being the highest of evolved mortals…the priests guided by pure reason alone!
    Objectivism is a mysticism!
    I could say more yet this will suffice for now.

    More on the fact that Objectivists Balk at the Bible because it says that unbelief is a sin, yet hypocritically they themselves say Belief is an unforgivable evil…
    This brings me to answer these God haters on this point…The type of unbelief that bible says is damnable is not mere ignorance but willful rejection of God and his divine right to judge them as he sees as just…not as they say he ought.
    Objectivist unbelief is a heart condition…of absolute rebellion to God.
    Who does Valiant and Olivia think they are fooling when they pretend that they are saints who simply don’t believe in God?
    They are Haters! They are Antichrist’s! They are hypocrites who deny sin is real with one breath then pour out hatred upon God for creating a world full of sinners!
    They do not grasp that even though Adam saw God face to face and walked with him in the garden that he still had to have belief/faith in Gods goodness, and that Satan was able to get Adam to sin simply by getting Adam to doubt the good intensions of God when he commanded him not to eat the forbidden fruit.
    They do not apprehend that when we get to heaven, and see God, that we will still not know everything about God and will still need to trust God by faith in his goodness for the rest of eternity…believing he always has our best interests at heart. That is how we will be able to forever exist in his presence and voluntarily refrain from sin that is born from an untrusting/ distrusting soul…in the goodness of God.
    This is why belief is key to pleasing God.

    My final point on this debate I want to make today is how badly Valiant…Like all his fellow Objectivists (eg…Rand and her John Galt speech) bastardize the bible.
    I have already said they despise God because he stands in judgment over them and mankind. It is from this hatred that they with one breath accuse Old Testament Jehovah of being a Genocidal Megalomaniac…and yet with their next breath condemn God for not being a Genocidal Megalomaniac …ie for failing to pour fire down from heaven upon the likes of Hitler and his Fascist legions…thus They damn God whether he acts or tarries!
    In all this they deny there is any objective morality worthy of the judgment of hell…because they deny God has any such right to be God…to be Holy…to make men with freewill. To hold men accountable for their actions. Ie they deny God the very things …ie moral judgment…but that they as humans are made to do…ie the right even to pass judgment upon God Almighty! Talk about vanity! Talk about hypocrisy! Talk about foolishness!

    Objectivists mostly fixate on the Old Testament.
    To Vailiant I say Saul lost his Kingdom because he put plunder ahead of obedience to Gods divine command…not as you say…because he was not brutal enough.
    Valiant says Jesus and Paul were into celibacy…this is proof not only of his malicious heart but also his poor understanding of the bible!
    Christ was celibate because he was born to be the Lamb of God, not because he was opposed to sex. The first miracle Christ performed was an endorsement and celebration of Marriage…he turned water into wine…after all the other wine was drunk!
    St Paul only suggested to the stronger Christians that in that present distress, they should put the gospel ahead of their personal pleasures so that way more good could be achieved…but only if they had the strength to do so without falling into fornication.
    Of course this idea is anathema to objectivists because they utterly hate the idea of any Ideal that would expect any selflessness on their part!
    This is the primary reason objectivism is an impotent belief system in comparison to Christianity…as in the word of Martin Luther King jr

    …”Freedom has always been an expensive thing. History is fit testimony to the fact that freedom is rarely gained without sacrifice and self denial…”

    St Paul actually said in his later letters to Timothy that forbidding to marry is a doctrine of devils and that deacons should be married…thus bible believing Protestants condemn the Catholic Idea of priestly celibacy.
    I will finish this criticism on Valiant and co with a note that Valiant does not accept the book of Ephesians as being truly Pauline…what a moron!
    This is doctrinally the most Pauline of all the books! It clearly lays out the dispensational plan of God and Paul’s unique gospel of the grace of God without works! What more even if Valiant does not accept this epistle…his statement reveals that he acknowledges the other epistles to be the very words of this historic person! Ie this attempt at denying the historicity of the bible actually endorses the greater portions of it.
    So according to Valiant most of the epistles attributed to St Paul are in fact the true words of one of Histories most important figures…The great St Paul…Apostle of the gospel of grace to us gentiles.

  • Nice TIm.

    Wasn’t it Aristotle who thought that homosexuals should be put to death? I’m fairly sure it was one of the famous Greeks, but my memory is fuzzy.

  • Thanks Jason,
    You should ask Matt about that Aristotle thing…I would say that you must be mistaken as Aristotle was ‘Greek’ if you know what I mean!
    Tim W

  • Friday morning ramble: The desperately sorry edition [updated]…

    And while we’re mentioning religion, James Valliant is still taking on (and overcoming) all-comers over at SOLO following his recent flaying of the historical record and morals of religion and its practitioners … Recent combatants include Dr and Mrs …

  • [...] my previous post, Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part I, I criticised a recent post by James Valliant. I plan to put Part II of this critique online later [...]

  • [...] Peter Cresswell published a guest post by James Valliant, which originally appeared on SOLO. In Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part I, I addressed Valliant’s claims that science and freedom of religion were unanimously opposed [...]