A couple years ago a movie called Agora came out of the imagination of Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar. I hadn’t seen it, but stumbled across some articles about it today, one claiming it to be one of the most intelligent movies about science and religion ever made. I was surprised the writer didn’t mention Inherit the Wind as another.
Movies, most people realize, are not sources of intelligence. One doesn’t look to Braveheart or The Patriot for accurate portrayals of historical events. And yet, many people do get their sensibilities and impressions from them. So it might prove to be for two or three people from Agora.
In it, Amenabar tells the tragic story of a 5th century Alexandrian scholar/philosopher named Hypatia, greatly admired by pagan and Christian alike, who was murdered by fanatical Christian mobs for political reasons. Unfortunately, the story Amenabar tells is the mythical version drawn from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, an Enlightenment hack job on Christianity.
Gibbon wants us to believe that Hypatia was a scientist who was murdered by Christians because of their opposition to science and learning.
It is important, I believe, for Christian thinkers to understand that this opposition between religion and science is an Enlightenment fabrication. Until the reductionists of the Enlightenment insisted that we can only know what the sciences tell us, it was the common understanding of western thought that there are different modes of knowing and that what the natural sciences had to tell us was quite valuable.
With the Enlightenment, however, it was not enough for the natural sciences to be valued. They had to be exalted to the only reliable source of knowing. The integration of knowledge achieved by the Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th and then 14th centuries was rejected. Inevitably, a radical skepticism has grown, flourished, and borne bitter fruit since then. The very possibility of a harmony of knowledge has been abandoned, and by 6th grade the average child is already uttering those despairing words: “It’s true for you.”
These reflections were triggered by an article I read at Armarium Magnum, the blog of an atheist who values reason, in which he reviews the true historical events of the murder of Hypatia. It cannot be a proud moment for Christians, but the problem is not their opposition to learning. It is their jealous involvement in power-politics that condemns them to folly.
We Christians are called upon to be, not to make martyrs. If you would like to learn more about this event, here is the link to the blog post. I also recommend David Bentley Hart’s detailed discussion of these tragic happenings in his book Atheist Delusions.