by Ferdinand Bardamu
Christianity: bringer of ignorance
Christianity is dangerous because it elevates ignorance and stupidity over reason. In the gospel, Jesus encourages his followers to be like “sheep,” the stupidest and most docile of animals. Here, the ideal Christian is a character of low intelligence and little education. Jesus said that unless one becomes a child again one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. In response to doubting Thomas, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The apostle Paul echoed this point of view when he wrote “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of god.” Through a program of religious indoctrination from cradle to grave, the church forced Europeans to accept these beliefs as so many divinely revealed truths from heaven. Widespread acceptance of these beliefs helped retard scientific and technological progress in Europe for over a thousand years.
The fathers of the church promoted “holy ignorance” as an ideal to be emulated. Tertullian is noted among patristic writers for his militant anti-intellectualism. Although one of the most prominent despisers of classical philosophy and science, he was by no means in the minority. His attitude is typical of ecclesiastical officials during the patristic and medieval periods. This long list of Christian bigots includes Tatian, a noted apologist who regarded all pagan scientific and philosophical achievement as worthless, even harmful to the Christian faithful. Clement of Alexandria, another prominent ante-Nicene writer, argued that education was not necessary for salvation. Origen donated his extensive collection of pagan literature because of the fundamental incompatibility between secular learning and Bible study. The 4th century Apostolic Constitutions, an early work of canon law considered authoritative in the east, commands the Christian believer to shun all pagan learning as “strange” and “diabolical.”
Basil of Caesarea advised the faithful: “Let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason… For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the Church.” Ironically, Basil is considered an example of moderation by apologists for Christianity. He believed that the usefulness of pagan literature should depend on level of scriptural agreement, making philosophy and science a kind of second- or third-rate handmaiden of theology. Writings least in accord with the Bible, almost all secular philosophy and science, were to be consigned to the trash bin.
Athanasius of Alexandria scorned all secular wisdom as blasphemy against the crucified god. In his famous hagiography of St. Antony, the illiterate monk is portrayed as a wise man. Despite his illiteracy, Antony’s hermit-like existence is considered the “perfect pattern of anchoretic life.” Antony even asks visiting pagan philosophers to become just like him in his “wisdom,” even though he is ignorant of all worldly learning.
The homilies of John Chrysostom, a noted anti-intellectual of the 4th century, are filled with vile denunciations of philosophy and science. He even periodically exhorted the Christian faithful to empty their minds of all secular wisdom. John routinely spewed vitriol against the classical heritage, advocating its systematic eradication, but only to magnify the power and influence of the gospel in daily life. Preaching before an elite audience in Constantinople, John’s vision was of a radically pure and ascetic Christianity, one stripped of all pagan influence. Given his oratorical ability and considerable powers of invective, as well as high standing in the patristic canon, there can be no doubt that John’s great hatred of secular knowledge played an influential role in the church’s decision to censor and suppress the writings of classical antiquity.
John Cassian, the great spiritual guide of Latin Christendom, advised the monk to seek out the company of uneducated peasants for his own personal edification. The abbot Arsenius, a former imperial tutor, regarded his education in classical Greek and Latin as inferior to the “wisdom” of illiterate Egyptian monks. The 4th century Christian ascetic and theologian Evagrius Ponticus declared: “Blessed is the man who has attained infinite ignorance.” The 5th century Statuta Ecclesia Antiqua banned the clergy from reading pagan books, unless their anti-Christian and heretical opinions needed to be refuted. This was incorporated into the 12th century Decretum Gratiani, a source of canon law for the Roman church until 1918.
Although considered a text-based religion, Christian teachings were orally transmitted until Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. Patristic and medieval Christianity viewed literacy in a negative light. Church tradition had always maintained that the first apostles lived in a state of “blessed ignorance.” In imitation of these men, Christians refused to teach their congregations how to read and write, especially during the first three centuries of the church’s existence.
The ante-Nicene church produced no translations of the bible for the indigenous populations of the provinces and frontiers, even though these populations were in regular contact with itinerant missionaries since the earliest days of primitive Christianity. The few patristic exhortations to Bible reading were aimed at a small minority of educated Christians. Centuries of theological controversy contributed to a view of Bible reading as a subversive undertaking. It was actively discouraged by the clergy, who ensured that the common people under their pastoral care would remain illiterate for generations. During the Middle Ages, church councils were convened to forbid the laity from having in their possession the Bible in Latin or any of the Romance languages. The penalty was burning at the stake for anyone caught translating the Bible into the vernacular.
Paideia suffered under the new ecclesiastical and Christian imperial bureaucracy. Officials of church and state had more important things to do then educate little children in the rudiments of Latin grammar and arithmetic. Illiteracy deepened and became more widespread under Christian influence. The anti-educational priorities of the church, increasing in virulence with the passage of time, discouraged more and more people from getting an education. This continued until literacy vanished from entire regions of post-Roman Europe. The Christian church’s deep-seated hostility to learning and scholarship, besides its positive estimation of ignorance and illiteracy, maintained western Europe at a prehistoric level of development for centuries.
The 4th century, which saw the triumph of Christianity, was a period of significant intellectual decline. There were no great figures in science, architecture or medicine. The 4th century could boast of no philosophers of the same caliber as Plotinus; there were no great writers or dramatists. Schools were closed, higher studies were abandoned, and the pagan libraries were sealed shut. The intellectual and artistic productions of the age were of little depth and substance. The all-pervasive Christian hostility to the life of the mind brought about this age of sterility.