“There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.”
–Ruth Hurmence Green
Ruth Hurmence Green was a popular atheist writer from the 20th century. Born in 1915 into a Missouri Methodist family, she lost her only sister to breast cancer, and was herself later diagnosed with skin and throat cancer. Though the cancer was treated and kept at bay, these experiences led her to reject the nominal faith of her youth, and she eventually began promoting the cause of “freedom from religion.” When her throat cancer came back a second time, she decided to end her life by taking a fatal dose of painkillers in 1981.
Green is perhaps best known for the above-mentioned quote, which is frequently used online by secularists who seek to ridicule the beliefs of Christians (and especially those Christians who attempt to bring their beliefs into the political sphere). Admittedly, such a statement carries significant rhetorical force. The “Dark Ages” call to mind a time of widespread ignorance, superstition, and disease. And so the reasoning goes that all of these social ills must be the consequence of giving political power to the church. Since we don’t want to turn back the clock to such dreadful times, we’d better not repeat the mistake of handing over the reins of the state to the clergy! Such reasoning inevitably leads to the privatization and relativization of all religious belief.
But is Mrs. Green’s quip justified? I, for one, see a number of problems with it:
- “Religion” is far too broad a category to be meaningful. It encompasses everything from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to tribal animism. That being the case, nearly every civilization in history until the eighteenth century has been ruled by “religion” in some sense. The Dark Ages are hardly exemplary.
- There have in fact been times when civilization thrived under the rule of religion. Take, for example, the Abbasid Caliphate in the medieval Islamic world (encompassing the Middle East and North Africa). They made tremendous advances in the fields of science and medicine.
- Correlation does not imply causation. Simply because the medieval Catholic church had political power (although, to be more precise, the apex of its political power was in the relatively more prosperous period of the High Middle Ages c. 1000-1300 than the Dark Ages c. 500-1000), that does not make it the reason for the decline of civilization at that time. A more significant cause was the political vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 and the subsequent barbarian invasions, and the church can hardly be blamed for that. In fact, the stability provided by the church may have been one of the main reasons why the Dark Ages did not become worse!
- The Middle Ages are often caricatured as a time of ignorance and superstition, but that is not really the case. Contrary to popular belief, most medieval thinkers rejected a flat earth and the use of magic.¹ Further, the church at this time encouraged critical thinking and empirical discovery; just consider the legacy of Occam’s Razor for scientific inquiry today.
- Green’s quote could just as easily be rephrased against secularists. Consider the following: “There was a time when secularism ruled the world. It is known as the Soviet gulags, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the Cambodian killing fields.” Now a secularist might complain that all of these examples come from communist regimes, and most secularists today would not identify as communist. Fair enough, but why don’t they grant Christians the same courtesy? Why lump all religions in one bag? Even if the medieval Catholic church was to blame for the ills of the Middle Ages (and I’m not saying that it was), is it fair to let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch?
I raise these considerations in order to counter the warnings of secularists that introducing religion (and particularly Christianity) into the political realm will lead to the downfall of our civilization. I simply don’t think that history supports such a claim. And I am becoming more and more skeptical of the value of a strict separation of faith and state (note: I didn’t say church and state!).
1 See Jake Akins, “C.S. Lewis, Science, and the Medieval Mind,” in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 59-68.