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). 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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’. 
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. 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.
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
 James Hannam God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon books, 2009) 2-3.
 Stillman Drake Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
 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.
 Regine Pernoud Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) 120.
 See Joseph Lecler Toleration and the Reformation trans. by TL Weslow (New York: Association Press, 1960).
 Eusebius Ecclesiastical History.
 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.
 Christopher Eberle and Terence Cuneo “Religion and Political Theory” (2008) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Pernoud, above n 4, 128-129.
 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).
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
Tags: Christian History · Dark Ages · David Lindberg · Enlightenment · Founding Fathers · James Hannam · James Valliant · Libertarianism · Liberty · Peter Cresswell · Regine Pernoud · Science and Religion · SOLO14 Comments