Popular culture (Hollywood, Netflix, popular personalities, the media — you name it!) often trots out narratives and claims such as the Church being hostile to science in the Middle Ages, the medieval period being a period of backwardness and ignorance, the Crusades being driven by power and greed, Christmas hijacking Saturnalia, a pagan winter festival, etc. How accurate are these though? What is true and what is false?
In this post, I will list several articles by acclaimed history writer Tim O’Neill to “set the record straight” on these subjects. Although O’Neill is an atheist, he puts good history first. He is frustrated by the amount of bad history that gets promoted in atheist and skeptical circles as well as in popular culture in general. His blog, History for Atheists, communicates the findings of contemporary secular scholarship (which unfortunately, have not sufficiently penetrated popular culture) on different historical events related to Christianity. His blog has also been highly praised by scholars, with historian Tom Holland for example, calling his blog “brilliantly erudite”.
Personally, I am a big fan of O’Neill. His write-ups are very educational and a pleasure to read. I strongly recommend checking out his work!
Feel free to check out the following articles by O’Neill below.
- The Church and Science
- The Church and Science (review of God’s Philosophers)
- The Galileo Affair
- Giordano Bruno
- The Crusades 
- The Inquisition
- Christianity and Constantine
- Biblical Literalism
- Christmas and Saturnalia (O’Neill also endorses this great article by Spencer Alexander McDaniel in his blog post)
- Easter and paganism
- Is Halloween Pagan?
- Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria
- Flat earth belief in the Middle Ages
- Pope Pius XII’s response to Nazism
- See the sidebar of O’Neill’s blog for Holland’s endorsement. Retrieved from: https://historyforatheists.com/
- I took a picture of the relevant portion of the article because it is located deep within O’Neill’s article, which is long. If you want to access the article in full you may do so here.
7 thoughts on “Correcting Historical Misconceptions Against Christianity”
“Although O’Neill is an atheist, he puts good history first.”
Historical research is a branch of science and hence uses methodological naturalism. So this quote contains a false opposition; compare the article at TalkOrigins on evolution theory vs. religion. There is no first and second as science and hence history isn’t about the god-question.
“’Although O’Neill is an atheist, he puts good history first.’ Historical research is a branch of science and hence uses methodological naturalism.’”
Hey there! When I said “Although O’Neill is an atheist, he puts good history first” I was merely saying that O’Neill does not let his atheism lead him to embrace historical myths that are appealing to atheists or hinder him from giving credit where credit is due history-wise.
Many skeptics are too biased against religion to the point that they cling to long-debunked Enlightenment myths (e.g. the Church was hostile to science in the Middle Ages) despite being shown clear evidence to the contrary. Many also refuse to credit Christianity for any positive contributions it has given the world, or at least, strongly downplay and minimize them. O’Neill isn’t like this and that’s admirable.
“’Historical research is a branch of science and hence uses methodological naturalism.’”
We are entering the area of philosophy of history but I partly disagree (though I am assuming your view at the moment, correct me if I’m wrong — maybe we agree with each other).
I agree that historians cannot conclude that God was the cause of a miraculous event (an occurrence that defies scientific explanation and occurs in a context charged with religious significance) because the historian simply has no tools to conclude God was the cause of such an event. If a historian says that God was the cause of a miraculous event, then this is a personal conclusion arrived at apart from his assessment of the event as a historian.
However, I disagree that historians cannot conclude that a miraculous event occurred, they can. They just have to leave the cause undetermined.
For example, let’s say a man born blind went to Lourdes praying and hoping for a miracle and was healed instantaneously upon bathing in the waters. We have ample documents and testimony (from family, friends, doctors and witnesses at place of healing) to support the claim that the man was born blind and cured instantaneously at Lourdes. Of course, the historian can conclude that a miraculous event occurred but in his capacity as a historian, he cannot conclude that God was the cause of that event.
If a claimed miraculous event enjoys a preponderance of evidence in its favor, then a historian is warranted in awarding historicity while leaving the cause of the event undetermined.
“When I said ….”
You used the word “although”. That usually suggests an opposition – a false one. That’s all.
“embrace historical myths that are appealing to atheists”
Some (still too many) atheists, not exactly all. I loathe atheist quackery like Jesusmythicism.
“the historian can conclude that a miraculous event occurred”
The historian can conclude that, just like the physicist can conclude that superconductivity at relatively high temperatures (for which at the moment their is no natural explanation either, while there is a “preponderance of evidence”) is a hobby of some god. Just like the physicist ceases to do physics in the second example the historian ceases to do history in yours.
“a claimed miraculous event enjoys a preponderance of evidence”
Miracles by definition are supernatural (whatever the cause), evidence by definition is taken from our natural reality. This statement is incoherent. The conclusion is merely “we don’t know”. All the evidence as mentioned by you allows is “people involved believed that a miracle happened”, which is hardly the same.
Indeed this is philosophy of science, but so was your “Although X is an atheist …..”.
PS: as I focus on the points on which we disagree it follows that I agree with you on all other points.
– “That usually suggests an opposition – a false one. That’s all.”
How would you suggest I re-write the part? I’m open to suggestions but I do think we’re getting a bit nit-picky here because there is general opposition. The average atheist on the internet holds to a lot of “bad history” against Christianity. They have an emotional attachment to these views of theirs (as O’Neill even notes in his articles), exhibit resistance when shown clear historical evidence to contrary and try to downplay or minimize Christianity’s contributions in history. That’s why I wanted to highlight O’Neill’s atheism, because it makes what he writes about Christianity more impressive and credible to readers. To the average reader who is not as well-versed in history either, they would be like: “Whoa, an atheist says that about Christianity? It’s probably true then”.
– “The historian can conclude that, just like the physicist can conclude that superconductivity at relatively high temperatures (for which at the moment their is no natural explanation either, while there is a “preponderance of evidence”) is a hobby of some god. Just like the physicist ceases to do physics in the second example the historian ceases to do history in yours”.
I thought I said a historian couldn’t determine the cause behind a miracle (which is defined as an occurence that defies scientific explanation and takes place in a context charged with religious significance)?
All a historian can conclude is that an occurrence that defies scientific explanation took place in a context charged with religious significance. If he comes to the conclusion that the agent behind the event is God then that’s a personal conclusion he arrived at apart from his capacity as a historian – because a historian has no tools to verify agency in this case.
– “Miracles by definition are supernatural (whatever the cause), evidence by definition is taken from our natural reality. This statement is incoherent. The conclusion is merely “we don’t know”.
1. Just reminding you, when I say miracle here, I mean an occurrence that defies scientific explanation and takes place in a context charged with religious significance. It is not necessarily supernatural because there are different possibilities one can think of (it could have been aliens or maybe we’re in a matrix and being toyed with).
2. I agree we cannot know for sure using historical tools. However, a person can examine the event, assess what happened and come to a personal conclusion that the miracle was caused by God.
I think, we agree on this issue after all. Going back to this statement of yours…
“physicist can conclude that superconductivity at relatively high temperatures (for which at the moment their is no natural explanation either, while there is a “preponderance of evidence”) is a hobby of some god.”
It seems we agree about what we can establish through the tools of history but I just want to point out that the case of superconductivity you bring up here does not qualify as a miracle based on the definition I gave because it does not occur in a context charged with religious significance.
Also, ever since the Middle Ages (particularly, the cathedral school of Chartres), the universe was seen as natural and not divine. As a Christian, I believe God works miracles in salvation history but these are occasional interventions in Nature. These occasional interventions aside, the universe is not divine and operates under fixed laws.
Thanks for the resources. You’re correct, misconceptions about Christianity are peddled in western media. Sadly, people absorb them.
No prob! And yep, that’s why it’s our duty to promote good history. 😉
And I loathe bad history promoted by atheists (I’m one myself) exactly because they usually claim that they follow the evidence wherever it leads.