One of the great cultural achievements of the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century was the recognition that the christian Bible was just another piece of ancient literature like any other, full of myths and legends that should not be treated as scientific truths. Liberating science from the shackles of a religious world view, with its creation myths, its ridiculously short chronology and its distortions of ancient history was to have a profoundly positive effect on just about every aspect of life.
Early scientific discoveries
As European intellectuals moved away from the medieval belief system, in which the Bible remained the ultimate source of knowledge for any question, new systems of learning began to develop. Unchanging authority was replaced by enquiry and experiment, faith by reason. The history of science shows how astronomy developed from astrology, chemistry from alchemy and so on. Here we see a shift in the belief system from essentially metaphysical constructs within a fixed and eternal body of knowledge to those that are naturalistic and subject to revision as information and understanding increase. Changes to the way in which history was written were slightly different: other than in Biblical history (especially of the Old Testament) or in hagiography – the Lives of the Saints – where the miraculous was a prerequisite of sanctity, metaphysical explanations had rarely been part of history, so this ‘paradigm shift’ was unnecessary.
However, there were areas in which a Biblical model continued to dominate historical interpretation. For a start, if Genesis were a true account of human origins (as most, if not all European scholars believed in the fifteenth century), then the population of the world must have migrated from the landing place of Noah’s Ark some time after the end of the universal flood. Secondly, the world was to be analysed in terms of distinct ‘peoples’, with their own beliefs, languages and so on, each descended from a defining partiarch (Abraham in the case of the Jews, Brutus in the case of the Britons). Thirdly, god’s creation had been perfect, so all the problems of the world, whether emanating from nature or from human beings, must be the result of a ‘decline’ or ‘fall’ in standards, especially moral ones. Thus, history was the story of humanity‘s slide from an original state of perfection, just as it had been for Hesiod.
Knowledge kicks against dogma
In other areas of knowledge, though, people felt weighed down by what was perceived to be the evident superiority of the Classical world. The supposed eternal perfection of Graeco-Roman architecture, of the Latin language and of the political systems of the Roman world were felt to be clear for all to see. Not only had there been a fall since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, but also things had continued to decline since the collapse of the Roman Empire. As scholars began to rediscover Classical civilisation, they came to regard the period between the end of Antiquity and what they hoped would be its revival in the European Renaissance as a Dark Age, so they labelled the intervening centuries the Middle Ages. The term medieval even remains an insult to this day, especially in American English. Philosophy – other than theological speculation – had been more advanced in the Greek world and provided the model for contemporary scholars to follow. With the Christian reconquista of Moslem Spain in the fourteenth century and the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 and the dispersal of the Christian libraries of Constantinople, long forgotten Greek texts were available to scholars in the West once again. Adherence to the principles enunciated by these rediscovered Classical philosophers increasingly demonstrated the poverty and limitations of the religious worldview, but it was the cumulative effect of new discoveries that finally undermined the edifice of medieval belief.
The account of the creation of the world and of life as given (somewhat inconsistently) in the first two chapters of Genesis remained the only available account of origins outside pagan Classical texts until the late eighteenth century. It was accepted without question that the god of the Bible had created the world – indeed, the entire universe – not many millennia ago. Even if new-fangled inventions such as the telescope were showing that planets were not just points of light but showed discs, some with moons, indicating that they were spheres, just like the earth, such new discoveries simply helped to reveal further wonders of god’s creation. Some speculated that these worlds might be like the earth, inhabited by creatures more or less like ourselves. The first ideas about extraterrestrial life assumed that it would need to receive divine grace, so there were unanswered questions about whether this had been achieved through revelation and the incarnation of a divine son, as Christian scholars believed had happened on earth. The development of astronomy following the invention of the telescope was rapid. Early astronomers seem to have assumed that the planets they now realised were other worlds would be very similar to the earth. To populate them with human beings (or, at least, human-like beings) was a natural assumption. As early as 1698, the astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) discussed the features a planet requires to allow it to support life and even speculated about extraterrestrial intelligence in his book Cosmotheros. That the sun, rather than the earth, appeared to be at the centre of the universe after Nikolaus Copernicus’s (Mikolaj Koppernigk, 1473-1543) revolutionary model of the solar system had been accepted might be troubling to human pride, but it was hardly a body blow to belief in divine creation. What was more troubling was a series of discoveries that could not easily be squeezed into the biblical version of earth’s history.
Three strikes and the Bible’s out
Firstly, there was the discovery of two vast continents on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean that were populated by people whose relationships to Adam and Eve were difficult to establish and which were evidently unknown to the supposedly divinely-inspired writers of the Bible. Secondly, as the development a mineral-hungry technology in Europe led to the growth of geology as a scientific discipline, some scholars concluded that the earth had to be much older than the six or seven thousand years that the biblical scholars had calculated. Thirdly, the rocks they were quarrying contained the bones of unknown monsters. Some resembled animals alive today, while others were completely different. The way in which these remains were arranged in the ground in layers that always followed the same sequence was worrying for those who confidently explained that these bones must be the remains of unfortunate creatures downed by Noah’s flood.