Richard Carrier on the Dark Ages

Below is an excerpt from Richard Carrier’s essay, “Yes, the Dark Ages Really Were a Thing.” It resonates with me because while teaching philosophy, especially at Catholic universities, I often encountered the (mistaken) view that the Dark Ages weren’t really that bad.

Dr. Carrier is a world-renowned author and speaker. As a professional historian, published philosopher, and prominent defender of the American freethought movement, Dr. Carrier has appeared across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and on American television and London radio, defending sound historical methods and the ethical worldview of secular naturalism. His books and articles have received international attention. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University in ancient history, he specializes in the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, particularly ancient philosophy, religion, and science, with emphasis on the origins of Christianity and the use and progress of science under the Roman empire. He is also a published expert in the modern philosophy of naturalism as a worldview.

He is the author of, among other works,

1) On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt
2) Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed About Christ
3) Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith
4) Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013
5) Not the Impossible Faith
6) Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
7) Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism
8) Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus
9) Science Education in the Early Roman Empire
10) Scientist in the Early Roman Empire

and a contributor to:

11) The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave
12) The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails
13) The End of Christianity
14) Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails

Here is the excerpt.


There is a trend to try and deny the Dark Ages ever existed; even to portray them as really lovely, light and wonderful ages of goodness and achievement. I’m exaggerating. But only a little. I’ve debunked this a lot. I have a whole category assigned to the subject. And I wrote a whole chapter on it, with scholarship and evidence cited, in Christianity Is Not Great. My book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire also has a pertinent section on the myth (Chapter 5.10). But here I’m going to take on a recent iteration of the idea.

I’ve written before on why the Dark Ages are in fact aptly so-called, despite all the additional myths still believed about them. Even the original coiners of the term did not mean by it “total darkness” or anything the like. They meant a substantial and catastrophic decline in civilization over a five hundred year period (from which we did not fully recover for yet another five hundred years), during which vast amounts of knowledge and information were lost, and had to be rediscovered or reinvented in the early Renaissance; allowing us to finally pick up where the West had left off in the 4th century, by the middle of the Renaissance in the 15th century. Which is approximately one thousand years after that decline began—which beginning was not in the Dark Ages, but Late Antiquity. As nearly all scientific and technological progress ceased after the 3rd century A.D. and everything spiraled out for a century or two more until it all fell apart. The resulting collapse of civilization in the West spanned centuries after that, and is what we call the Dark Ages.

That collapse was much slower in the East, owing to its absurd wealth; so the Dark Ages does not refer there, as McDaniel rightly points out. People often forget the Eastern Roman Empire hung on a bit longer and did a bit better. But it still stagnated and continually declined as a civilization. It made no significant advances in science or technology for a thousand years, and then was finally overrun and extinguished by Muslim nations, never to exist again—Muslims who had centuries before adopted the same abandonment of science that doomed Christian lands in both the East and the West for a thousand years. But unlike the West, the Islamic world experienced no Renaissance with which to rescue itself. It remained in stunted ignorance. And thereby surrendered all future world dominance to Western Imperialism.

My chapter on “The Dark Ages” in Christianity Is Not Great lays out the facts and scholarship demonstrating how catastrophic that period was for the West and why it took so long to recover from. And why, consequently, it held us back. We lacked the wealth even barely to survive much less continue the advances that ancient civilization had been steadily building on; we lost vast amounts of human and intellectual and technological resources (see below). And Christianity as an ideology was wholly ill-equipped to fix or prevent this, as it was hostile to the very values necessary to the task: curiosity, empiricism, and commitment to progress. Which is why civilization stalled even in the Eastern, Byzantine Empire.

I first demonstrated this point in my chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in The Christian Delusion. It was only the recovery of pagan ways of thinking, and some of their lost works, that brought us back to a real recovery—as in, a restoration of Western civilization to where it had left off: a scientifically and technologically inquisitive and progressive society with a potent base of accumulated knowledge and capabilities to build on. Had the abandonment of all that in the 4th and 5th centuries not occurred—had Roman civilization been allowed to continue thriving on the same intellectual and material basis as it ended the 2nd century with—we would be 1000 years more advanced today. But Late Antiquity and the Dark Ages combined into a total stall-out, experiencing almost nothing but decline, no significant advance.

Which is not to say Christianity caused that stall-out. It didn’t. It just guaranteed by its take-over of the Western mind that nothing that needed doing to reverse that downfall would be done for at least a thousand years. As I demonstrate in The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire (e.g. pp. 471-542), and with respect to education, in Science Education in the Early Roman Empire (e.g. pp. 137-66), Christian values were the opposite of scientific values, and kept humanity from returning to the latter for far too long. As to the catastrophies of the third century that actually started this downfall, which were not caused by Christianity but rather contributed to Christianity’s rise to dominance, see my discussion in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 435-40).

Yes, the Dark Ages happened. They occupied the period from the 5th to the 10th century. And they took five hundred more years to fully recover from, bringing Western civilization back by the 15th century to all the peak markers of accomplishment that it had achieved by the 2nd century. That’s a thousand years we were set back.

And yes, those ages were sufficiently dark in every measure to warrant the appellation. They dropped the Western world (and even, if less catastrophically, the Near Eastern world) to its lowest levels of decline by every measure not seen since before the rise of the Ancient Greeks who built up Western civilization on a foundation of democracy, technology, and science. The Dark Ages were an era we as human beings should look upon in shame, disappointment, and concern never to repeat what caused them or sustained them. They deserve the name. And only someone who would deny that can have any reason to avoid it.

Enter Rodney Stark, a typical example. He’s a Christian sociologist who often says completely false things about the history of science and Christianity’s relationship to it (he is one of the targets I debunk in my chapter on this in The Christian Delusion). He has this to say in his hopelessly unreliable book The Victory of Reason, subtitled “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success” (pro tip: it didn’t):

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery—from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescued, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world!

Literally every sentence of that paragraph is false. Except for “it didn’t happen that way,” but that accidentally obtains truth only by everything Stark saying around it being false!

  • No relevantly educated person for the last three hundred years has regarded the Dark Ages as extending “to about the fifteenth century.” Indeed, the Renaissance began in Italy in the 1200s and spread to the rest of Europe by the 1400s, the fifteenth century. Which follows on the High (or Late) Middle Ages. The Dark Ages only mark the first half of the Middle Ages, the Low (or Early) Middle Ages. So right out of the gate, Stark is fabricating a straw man, and on that basis declaring the Dark Ages don’t exist, merely because some (?) less informed people confuse which period they denote.
  • The Dark Ages were “centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery.” As I just showed you their misery is extensively documented in the archaeological and historical record. As is their ignorance and superstition. Even scholars of the period, far scarcer than in former times, were significantly backward in their comprehension and access to knowledge compared to their peers at the height of the Roman Empire.
  • The Renaissance took centuries to develop once society began its climb out of the Dark Ages around 1000 A.D. And it took centuries more for the Renaissance to evolve into The Enlightenment, which began in the 17th century. Altogether, from the end of the Dark Ages to the dawn of the Enlightenment, we find over 600 years. That is not “suddenly, almost miraculously.” It’s painfully, sloggishly, maddeningly slowly.
  • In absolutely no sense whatever did European technology and science overtake and surpass the rest of the world “during the so-called Dark Ages.” Or even in the High Middle Ages. It only did so during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Which we could have obtained one thousand years earlier, if the Dark Ages had not happened—if Christianity had brought a scientific spirit to Western civilization during an age of crisis instead of abandoning it. Which resulted in the Dark Ages causing a massive centuries-long decline in “European technology and science,” that we then had to take centuries yet more to crawl back out of—not a surpassing of prior glory; but a loss of nearly all of it.

It’s time to reject this new attempt to rewrite and whitewash history. Stand up to it. Not with false ideas about the Dark Ages, however, but correct ones. McDaniel’s article is worthwhile for learning what myths in the other direction to avoid. But his enthusiasm takes him too far. This present article, and the articles and resources it links to, aim to fill that gap. Between the two, you can crusade for what really happened in the Dark Ages.

Pun intended.

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5 thoughts on “Richard Carrier on the Dark Ages

  1. I’m really excited to see some of the titled works of Richard. He seems to take a clear and aggressive position on Christianity and hacks away at it’s argument as to it’s worthiness. I take pause and think where technology would be a thousand years in the future, and want to remove a shoe only to chunk it at a church house door—the one that is locked while the homeless flock the streets. I have many in my life who are spiritualist, and these I adore. I’m yet to see any of them who’s ideology is shaped in a manner that is founded on oppression and dissolution of anything good. Oppression costs us greatly. The Church held the minds of humanity hostage for one thousand years and continues to do so today—though they have made it much more palatable. Recently, during a hurricane I endured, I recall a local preacher of a mega church (Joel Osteen), deny entry when folks were drowning in the streets. And I suspect this will continue. Perhaps at some point the institution will fail and all will revert to some Pagan form—great, you want something bigger than you to give you a reason to be….sure….why not. But the institutions that suppressed humanity and is LITERALLY the reason why disease and pestilence abound, can fail. At least then the forty billion dollars of property—who are tax exempt mind you—will hopefully have their locks removed. I wonder how many homeless we could squeeze under those roofs?
    P.S. I’m still waiting for the Dark Ages to end….I digress
    Jason Abshire

  2. Your final sentence reminds me of a book I read about 10 years ago titled: “A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America: Essays on Religion, Science, Morality, and the Bush Administration.” Kant said of the Enlightenment, I’m paraphrasing “We may be living during the Enlightenment but it is not an enlightened age.”

    And people may call themselves Christians but that means nothing. You judge people by their actions. I’m sure the English thought they were good Christians when they hooked the Chinese on opium and destroyed and enslaved societies around the world. JGM

  3. No disagreement per the discrete topic of the Dark Ages. It is what was not written here:
    the Renaissance->Enlightenment led to Robespierre->Napoleonic wars->the secularized religion of Marxism->secularized religion of Leninism->Stalinism->Fascism->Nazism-> Maoism->LBJ->Vietnam War->Nixonism->Watergate->Putism, and now Trumpism. The outcome of the Renaissance/ Enlightenment is yet uncertain.

    So far we have replaced Religion-religion with secular religions as organizers of societies– and Religion-religion is included in the witch’s- (with apologies to witches)brew that is the modern mind.

    Thus though we reckon that science has done more positive than negative, we must recognize the negatives. If the Renaissance ->Enlightenment had never occurred, life would be nasty short brutish. But although human lives would have been expendable, the biosphere would not have been.

    Our gain is the biosphere’s loss and we ought to acknowledge such if we want to be realistic. Related to that (believe it or not) is the decline in sincerity. As things become more complicated, human minds become more complicated and therefore layers of obfuscation increase. Today we have devolved to having a congenital liar as president of the United States. Russia, the second-most powerful nation, also has a pathological liar as its president– and we are now in Cold War 2.0.

    Obviously, progress is not automatic, and it goes without saying that evolution can go backwards as well as forwards. Right at this moment we are in the midst– hopefully it is the midst and not the beginning– of a mini-dark ages. So let us not celebrate a New Renaissance/New Enlightenment until it actually does occur; perhaps a few decades hence. Don’t count your Renaissance/Enlightenments until they hatch.

    Addedum – Few Christians even believe in Christ anymore– they’ve sold out.

  4. I find a number of serious errors in Mr. Carrier’s material here. For example, consider this statement:
    “…Muslims who had centuries before adopted the same abandonment of science that doomed Christian lands in both the East and the West for a thousand years. But unlike the West, the Islamic world experienced no Renaissance with which to rescue itself. It remained in stunted ignorance.”
    It’s true that, after about 1200 CE, Islam stopped contributing to science. However, before that it made many great strides in a number of fields.

    Or this statement:
    “Had the abandonment of all that in the 4th and 5th centuries not occurred—had Roman civilization been allowed to continue thriving on the same intellectual and material basis as it ended the 2nd century with—we would be 1000 years more advanced today.”

    I suppose that it’s true that, if the Roman body politic had not descended into autocracy after, say, 100 BCE, it would have accomplished great things. But the political structure of the Roman Empire was corrupt and could not have maintained the economic strength necessary to sustain its brilliant civilization. The Church had nothing to do with Rome’s collapse.

    I think it’s worthwhile to speculate about how history would have developed had the Christian Church never existed. Rome would still have disintegrated, and the Volkerwanderung would still have taken place. The biggest differences I can see in terms of intellectual history is that 1) nobody would have preserved the classical knowledge, and so it would all have been lost; 2) we would not have seen Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, or the Oxford Calculators laying the foundations of science. There would have been no Copernicus, Kepler would never have anything to work with, and Galileo would have been a lonely old codger. Newton would have had nothing to work with. There would be no modern science at all.

    I’m ordering Mr. Carrier’s book to see for myself what he has to say.

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