‘Light’ of the Enlightenment

In a previous column I puzzled at the intense effort — far more emotional than intellectual — some atheists put into denouncing God. Allow me to now marvel, so to speak, at how little effort many skeptics put into their urgent quest to disprove, supposedly by factual evidence, the notion that anything good has come from Christianity.

Specifically, what of the tired mantra that the Catholic Church kept humanity confined in 1,000 years of darkness until the bright light of reason, freed from religious oppression, broke through? For example, a recent column in England’s The Guardian by A.C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, dispatched with all nuance in depicting Christianity as the scourge of the enlightened, cultured man. Grayling described Christianity as “an oriental superstition” that “captured the Roman Empire” when Constantine chose “the myth” for his own political ends.

Christianity, he declared, “plunged Europe into the dark ages for the next thousand years — scarcely any literature or philosophy, and the forgetting of the arts and crafts of classical civilization … before a struggle to escape the Church’s narrow ignorance and oppression saw the rebirth of classical learning, and its ethos of inquiry and autonomy, in the Renaissance.”

Synopsis: Christianity has done nothing good for humanity.

Grayling describes himself as a “humanist” and an adherent of what he calls “secular, free-thinking, classically rooted inheritance.” As an heir to the 18th-century Enlightenment, he thrives on anti-Christian polemics and dubious historical assertions. He enjoys indulging these so much so that he unwittingly entombs himself in a dusty, antiquated and simplistic form of skepticism that was de rigeur in secular intellectual circles many decades ago.

Compare Grayling’s shallow, biased thinking with the probing, balanced ruminations of Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), America’s first great medieval historian. “Both continuity and change are characteristic of the Middle Ages,” Haskins wrote in 1927. “This conception runs counter to ideas widely prevalent not only among the unlearned but among many who ought to know better. To these the Middle Ages are synonymous with all that is uniform, static, and unprogressive.”

Haskins also documented how the Middle Ages were “less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed.” That view is accepted by most medieval scholars today.

Just as many radical feminists construct an ancient, mythical age dominated by peaceful goddess worship, many secularists create a more recent but equally mythical age dominated by reason and tolerance. Never mind that most women enjoyed more rights during the medieval era than during the Enlightenment. Never mind that slavery nearly ceased during the Middle Ages but returned in full force during the Age of Reason. Never mind that reason and learning flourished long before the Enlightenment, but that the unique fruits of the Enlightenment — reason divorced from faith and morality, and learning severed from responsibility and charity — ultimately led man into the depths of the bloodiest century history has yet witnessed: the 20th.

Yet the mythology of a monolithic “Dark Ages” lives on in ways big and small. It’s a hoax fervently promoted by anti-Catholic skeptics who make no apologies for being chronological snobs. And they continue the hoax for good reason: It sells.

To verify, simply ask a handful of people about the “Dark Ages.” But don’t expect a historically enlightened answer — just an Enlightenment-era myth that distorts the past while turning hearts and minds against Christ and his Church today.

Carl E. Olson is editor of


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