In the course of obtaining the necessary information for a hyperlink to the Amazon (UK) page on Dr James Hannam‘s book ‘God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science‘ (in America entitled ‘The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution‘) it came to my attention that opinion on the book appears to be clearly divided into two major camps.
This is worthy of comment, because, where history books are concerned, opinions are normally only divided between those who find such books boring, tedious and hard-going (which some indeed are) and those who enjoy them. The only exceptions are generally those covering ‘controversial’ subjects or areas where people have certain political or other affiliations. Books on the Wars of the Roses which are critical of the Yorkists, or of Richard III are a good example.
Hannam’s book is neither, yet is has been subject to particularly fierce criticism and attack from some quarters. This is not from Historians, who are usually very quick to criticise something they do not agree with or believe, and find weaknesses in other people’s work. No, the book has in fact received much acclaim from the historical community.
The ones who hate all seem to be of a ‘secularist’ or atheistic scientific persuasion, those who are sometimes called the ‘New atheists’ or ‘militant secularists’. Where Hannam’s work is concerned, some do indeed display militant tendencies.
Why and how, it may be asked could a history book court so much controversy? What iswrong with it? Such questions may indeed be asked as people who belong to, or affiliate themselves with such generally do not pay much attention to history, generally speaking, scientific, social and political issues are more to their liking.
So what is the problem? The answer to this may be found in the book itself for the synopsis says (my italics):
“He (the author) debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth was flat, nor did Columbus ‘prove’ that it is a sphere. Contrary to common belief, the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science, nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution. No Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. On the contrary, as Hannam reveals, the Middle Ages gave rise to staggering achievements in both science and technology… Hannam argues that scientific progress was often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity…”God’s Philosophers” reveals the debt modern science and technology owe to the supposedly ‘dark’ ages of medieval Europe.”
It is this claim that the Medieval church did not, in fact stifle scientific inquiry, and was not solely responsible for the lack of progress in some areas of science that is the cause of the controversy. More importantly, Hannam demonstrates that most of the people behind these discoveries were religious, and in so doing casts doubt upon the claim that religion is (and always has been) the enemy of science and reason, and that the two are incompatible.
It is those who espouse and promote this idea today who are in turn the ones who seem to dislike Hannam’s work the most, perhaps because it threatens to undermine something that they stand for. In this regard in is intriguing that many of the criticisms they have levelled at Hannam’s work are ideological, instead of being historical in nature.
Some have claimed that Hannam is trying to ‘exonerate’ the Catholic church or religion because he himself comes from a religious background, and so has written the book with an ‘agenda’, which reviews like these show.
These claims have sparked some lively, and sometimes heated debate on the subject, in which some of the detractors seem to have acquired a previously unrevealed ‘expertise’ in the field of science history.
The most fascinating and revealing aspect of this debate, at least to me, is the extent to which it reveals that people’s views of history are coloured by their own preconceptions, something which is common to is all (if we are honest about it). We are none of us free of bias, but it seems that some of the reviewers on this page, whilst rallying against the bias of others, seem oblivious to their own.
As well as this it reveals the way some of us respond when our preconceived ideas are challenged and questioned, and the lengths that some people will go to defend these.
Perhaps then the controversy is a good thing, and, whilst any book that challenges preconceptions and misinformation about the Middle Ages is liable to get my seal of approval, a book that makes people think and perhaps review their assumptions also has its benefits.