History can sometimes be a battleground in the atheist-christian “wars”. Old Testament history, the life of Jesus, or the misdeeds of the church or individual christians can all become arguments that sceptics use to provide reasons to not believe.
But not all the arguments are based on good history, and one atheist feels strongly about this.
Tim O’Neill, Aussie atheist
Tim O’Neill is an Aussie from Sydney, the same city that I live in, though we have never met. He is a keen amateur (or maybe a little more than amateur) historian with a masters degree with a specialisation in “historicist analysis of medieval literature”.
He is critical of atheist apologists who use pseudo history or misinterpreted history to argue against christianity for the rather simple reason that he thinks we should base our ideas on whatever facts are available – and in a complex field like history where it’s easy to have an opinion but difficult to have a well-informed one, that generally means reading what the experts have found and generally agreed on.
Because he takes this honest approach, he is sometimes accused by fellow atheists of being a secret christian, an accusation I find somewhat amusing since I have discussed some New Testament issues with him and found, while we more or less agree on the basic historical facts, he is quite definitely opposed to many of my christian conclusions.
History for Atheists
In the last couple of years, Tim has written a number of well-researched posts on his History for Atheists blog. Both christians and unbelievers will find it worth reading, for you’ll find well-referenced facts and assessments about some issues that can be quite controversial (though generally shouldn’t be!).
Here’s a few examples you may find rewarding:
You can find this idea all over the web. The gospel stories of Jesus are not based on a real person, it is said, but on a myth, perhaps invented by Paul, perhaps developed out of pagan myths of dying and rising gods.
But as Tim points out, the evidence for any of these hypotheses doesn’t stack up, and the overwhelming consensus of historians, christian and otherwise, is that there is a historical basis to the stories of Jesus. Of course this doesn’t mean that Tim, or the historians, necessarily accept the historicity of all the contents of the gospels – scholars have a wide range of views on that.
You can read more of Tim’s outline of the evidence for the historicity of Jesus on his Armarium Magnum blog. I think Tim’s assessment of the conclusions of secular scholars is a little more sceptical than how I would see their conclusions, but there is little doubt about his general summary.
It is common to hear claims that the books now included in the New Testament (the “canon”) were chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who burnt other books he didn’t approve of and suppressed alternative views – charges which would discredit the New Testament as a historical or truthful set of books.
It is a surprising claim, because a quick look at any historical reference to the Council of Nicaea, where all this is supposed to have happened, shows that nothing like it took place. Tim’s post outlines what actually happened at Nicaea, and how the canon of the New Testament actually came about.
The pagan origin of christian practices
The pagan origin of some christian practices is another common claim by some atheists. Tim addresses a couple of these – the supposed pagan origin of Easter in Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs, and similar claims about Christmas in The Great Myths 2: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism.
The church behaving badly
Many accusations have been made about the church in the Middle Ages and earlier, and many of them are no doubt fair. But there are also some common myths which merit Tim’s analysis:
- The church is supposed to have opposed science and set the world’s progress back by hundreds of years. After Galileo, the story most often mentioned is the execution of Giordano Bruno, an episode that brings no credit to the church of the time, but, as Tim explains, was not a case of the church vs science.
- The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and all the learning contained in it, by a christian mob is a story which has been told many times, including in the 2009 film Agora. In a very thorough analysis, Tim shows that the library was not unique, it was probably not as large as often claimed, it specialised more in literature than science and technology, and the temple/library and its contents was destroyed by a series of calamities (including in a war conducted by Julius Caesar) after a long period of decline, and not by a christian mob.
- Another rather bizarre claim, addressed by O’Neill, is that plague in the Middle Ages was made much worse by a church order to kill cats, which of course meant rats became more prevalent.
Read all about it
Tim writes entertainingly and thoroughly, though sometimes a little more robust than I would prefer. There’s more information on the blog than I have briefly outlined here, and it is well worth following if you are interested in history, particularly christian history.