141a An Alternative View of Heresy by David Ford

This is a personal view by David Ford (though spoken by me), prompted by the episode on Heresy. David talks about some of the impacts the church had in the medieval world, why heresy arose, and some of the myths that appeared over the church's response. 


141a An Alternative View of Heresy by David Ford



17 thoughts on “141a An Alternative View of Heresy by David Ford

  1. Now that this is up I can just paste what I posted on the previous entry (as I had no place else to put it at the time:
    “[after complimenting the Japanese history post] Sadly I can’t say the same about the revisionist apologetic tract that was posted today. I thought this was a history podcast. You always can tell what the agenda is when someone puts “materialism” after “scientific” and uses it as an epithet, more so when they call science a “faith”.
    That author should start his own podcast: “Feeling better about Christianity thru Revisionism, an Alternate History Podcast”. Nothing against people of faith, just disappointed that inaccuracies were quoted here.
    Seriously, though that Japanese history was fascinating.”

  2. I certainly agree this piece is revisionist, for the simple reason that revision is needed. I would have thought that simple fairness would require that Christianity’s enemies didn’t get to say what they want to unchallenged.
    As for calling science a faith, if I did so I apologize. What I meant to say was that belief that science can provide every answer about the universe is a faith, and an ill founded one. There are huge chunks of the world we inhabit that no competent scientist would ever claim are in science’s remit. And even when science is at its purest it bases its work on assumptions, which is really just another name for statements of faith. I suppose the most basic of these is that the material universe is intelligible to us. There is no reason why it should be, you know.
    David Ford

  3. “belief that science can provide every answer about the universe is a faith, and an ill founded one”
    Not one I think is broadly held!
    Now, if I were a medical professional providing free abortion services in this state, it wouldn’t be Extremist Scientists I run from, rather those mellow and caring Christians.

  4. I agree that belief that science can provide every answer is widespread, but there have been noted dissedents:
    “It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”
    This is from a rather well known scientist of the previous century, chap called Einstein.
    As for the abortion fanatics, you will not find any disagreement from me. But then again, I am not sure I would really like to be friends with the scientists who developed Serin and Napalm…
    We can trade examples like this indefinitely, but I think you must agree that the extremes shouldn’t be allowed to represent the mean. People’s interpretation of Christianity has caused great harm to innocent people, no doubt.
    But then again, so has atheism. One thinks of Josef Stalin and Mao Tze Tung.
    David Ford

  5. When Ford described Science as the new religion and academics as wanting to attack religion to appease this new master, I had a hunch that the episode was going to go off the rails. Honestly, academics have never, as a whole, been anti-Christianity. Even today, this isn’t the case. Any Christians who tell you otherwise are looking desperately seeking persecutions to feel better. For most of the history of science, academics were assumed to be good Christian men. So that whole thing immediately fell apart.
    But let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on his understanding of religions of Antiquity and why Christianity ran afoul of the Romans, shall we?
    The Romans state cult did not really have “CEO” mentality, not really. Yes, there was a chief god (Jupiter, Best and Greatest). But I think it may be a mistake to think that he was the main god people interacted with/worshiped. (Although it’s perhaps a bit difficult to talk about since Roman religion was an evolving thing throughout Roman history.) The biggest thing for the average Roman was the household gods and the ancestors. To a fairly large extent, the Roman religion mirrored Roman social structure: a patriarchy. The household gods and ancestors were respected as the father of the family. Similarly, Jupiter got the same respect as head of his household. It’s not about command and control, it’s about family. But that’s also not the point, because that isn’t how the Romans saw other religions, either.
    When the Romans encountered other religions, they basically assumed, for the most part, that everyone else was essentially worshipping the same gods as they were. You can find this in a lot of their writings back home. Caesar describes some of the Germanic gods in Roman terms exactly this way, as I recall. The Romans were fairly indifferent to who you worshipped.
    There were a few exceptions. If you were disturbing the peace, the Romans cared. There were a few loud, disruptive cults that were basically like the hare krishnas or the Jehovah’s Witnesses of their day that the Romans kind of came down on for public order reasons. And then there were the Jews and Christians, of course. That takes a short digression to faith.
    The problem we now run into is that “religion” isn’t just one thing. In our modern, Western sense, we think we know what a religion should be, but ours is just one type. There are Eastern religions, which are really quite a different way of getting at the divine if you think about. And there are the religions of Antiquity, which are different again. In Rome or Greece or Persia or most anywhere before the rise of the Abrahamic faiths, religion wasn’t about personal faith or a one-on-one relationship with God, it was about doing certain actions (and perhaps being a good person) and then expecting a quid pro quo return from the gods. You sacrificed right and the gods gave you a good harvest or sent boils to that annoying neighbor or whatever. But you didn’t have to *believe* in the gods in any sense. (There were some little exceptions with the Mystery Cults, to which Christianity arguably owes some antecedents.)
    So what? Well, let’s get back to the Roman state cult. The Romans had state festivals when various state ceremonies were held for this god or that. A lot of them, in fact. Literally, half of the calendar. (Gods, I do love the Romans.) People were expected to show up to at least some of these and show their civic support to earn the gods’ favors for their cities and for the empire. Entire the Jews and, later, the Christians. They won’t join the sacrifices because they say their god forbids it. But the Romans feel that not to show up means that the state risks losing the gods’ favor. It’s not a religious issue, per se, it’s a civic/law and order issue.
    With the Jews, the Romans gave them at least a partial pass because the religion was so old the Romans respected anything old. But Christianity was new-fangled and smacked of silliness in that respect. (A lot like how many people look at Wicca or New-Paganism today.) Plus, the Christian had tight-knit groups with communal property and secret meetings and gods-know-what going on. Basically, to a twitchy Roman, it looked pretty seditious. From our historical lens, the Romans look like a bunch of oppressive a-holes, but yeah, in context, you can kind of see their side, too.
    Long story short (too late), Christianity was suppressed and there were persecution (although those are also generally over-blown in Christian writings, not that any persecutions aren’t too much) not because the Romans didn’t tolerate their religion because they didn’t trust their politics. In the end, that’s almost always why the Romans came down on anyway: politics. There were nothing if not pragmatic, the Romans.

  6. GREATLY relieved that its read by you !! Its just not the same at all when you have guests come in.
    Now enough of this holiday nonsense. Cant you just continue to sacrifice your personal life to keep us entertained?
    We miss you terribly !!

  7. Not wild about David Fords writing, construction or content. It felt like a poorly thought out opinion piece,full of broad assertions and no sourcing.
    I’m aware that citing sources can sometimes break the flow of podcast but really – its not that difficult to weave some of them in.
    I would actually have balked at reading the script for fear that anyone thought I endorsed it.

  8. Hi Niall, thanks for the kind words; I have written a couple of episodes already…though there is now a MASS of stuff I have to read about Agincourt.
    As regards David’s podcast, I can say that I wouldn’t have had it on the series if I didn’t think it was a perfectly reasonable point of view from a perfectly reasonable person, whether or not I agree with the conclusions.

  9. Well, gentlemen, I really do value your feedback, negative though it certainly has been. You have caused me to think more deeply about what I presented, and to seek to clarify some of my assertions.
    I will take up the easiest criticism first. I did not cite sources for my statements of facts, because I didn’t understand this was compatible with David’s podcast style. However, knowing that much of what I had to say would rub certain people raw, I did endeavor to do the next best thing, which was to ask the listener to verify what I was saying for themselves, just by spending some time on Wikipedia. It would appear that none of you have taken up this suggestion. A pity, because I can’t help thinking that this would have improved the validity of your criticisms.
    I want to thank John for his lengthy exposition of Roman religion, particularly because what he had to say rather more reinforced than contradicted what I had to say. The Roman father had the right of life or death over his children. If this is not a CEO type model, I am at a loss to think of what is. So suggesting that Jupiter wasn’t as important as family gods is not helpful in a case against my view.
    Also the point that the Romans thought of other religions as much like theirs ties in very well with my point that all paganism, from Ireland to India, was basically similar. Again I refer to Wikipedia; on, say, Celtic religion for support for this point. Scholars believe that the root religion was proto Indo European, from the same group as gave much of the world the root of its language. They thought they were similar because they were!
    Finally, for Niall’s observation that he is “Not wild about David Ford’s writing, construction, or content”. Well, what can I say? Criticisms of this sort are certainly hurtful, but hardly answerable.
    Let me assure you all, though, that unpalatable what I had to say clearly is to you, it is backed by first class scholarship. I am left wondering why you feel so hostile.

  10. I am going to add to the criticism of David Ford’s episode. I was excited to hear an alternative view of heresy, but was disappointed by the what was offered. Here are some reasons:
    1) Most importantly, a significant portion of this episode on heresy was about the view he calls scientific materialism and not about historical heresies at all. The only way that scientific materialism is relevant to heresy is if its proponent are misinterpreting the history of heresy. Ford doesn’t really show that this is true. If anything, people seem to be agreed about the basic facts of which heresies arose when and where. After all, the church itself documents them. This episode just isn’t about what it says it’s about.
    2) The episode runs roughshod over important facts that are essential to understanding various heresies. He suggests that debates about Christ’s nature were resolved after the various ecumenical counsels. That’s just not true. A brief foray into the history of the church in the centuries after the fall of the Western Empire and including the split of the Orthodox and Catholic churches shows that there were significant disagreements and that those disagreements were serious enough to affect imperial action and policy at the highest level. (Listen to the History of Byzantium podcast or Yale’s open course on the Early Middle Ages, both on iTunes, for good discussions.)
    3) I don’t expect a podcast to have sources cited internally. That would be annoying. However, Ford did say that he has sources to offer. There have been a number of people who have questioned the scholarship behind his episode, but he has not offered any actual sources other than Wikipedia, which is not a scholarly source. I use Wikipedia all the time to learn about the world, but if I’m offering an alternative view of a pretty well-documented phenomenon, I should offer something more than Wikipedia. This criticism can be met by Ford, simply by supplying the academic sources he used for his account.
    4) I have already said that the episode wasn’t mostly about heresy at all. Moreover, the parts that were about heresy, focused quite a bit on the heresy of Christianity itself, as a break with Judaism or as an alternative to paganism. But this isn’t what most people mean by heresy. I think the break with Judaism is very interesting, but not really the subject that David had discussed in the earlier episode on heresy. And Christianity was not a heretical alternative to paganism in any sense. To pagans, it was just another religion with other gods than the pantheon they cared about. This is nothing new in the Roman Empire.
    5) Just a pet peeve, but I can’t believe that an episode purportedly on Catholic heresy didn’t mention Church Fathers like Augustine at all. He and his views are essential to such a discussion. David mentioned Augustine in the context of the Donatist heresy. Augustine wrote explicitly on heresies and against heretics. This seems especially relevant for a more pro-church view of heresy.
    Anyway, I hate to complain this whole time. I really like that David lets people guest on his show. And I’ve enjoyed some of those episodes. I just thought that this sounded more like a polemic and less like a story based on historical and historigraphical sources. I also don’t want to discourage well-researched revisions of traditional history. I think that type of project is great if done well.

  11. I want to agree with the previous poster in two ways. First, broadly, I do disagree with David F’s approach to this subject, broadly speaking for the reasons highlighted.
    Second, I want to expand on the last paragraph. It is very cool that David C makes space in his podcast for audience participation, even if it is just so that he can sip Mai Tais on a sunny beach in Leicestershire. More broadly it takes some guts to put something like this out there and I hope we are all coming at this from a constructive criticism angle. David F made some valid points about the impact of secular power on religious institutions and the role that protestant propaganda has played in the way we view these historic events.
    I happen to be throat-deep in the beginnings of the Reformation at the moment. There is a case to be made that, in the unfortunate track record of religion’s involvement with the state, it is the state that bears the lion share of responsability. I don’t agree necesserily, but more importantly I don’t think David F made that case. I think he has many of the bricks in front of him, he just needs to get rid of some of the unnecessary peices and try a different build.
    A place he might want to start is the Oxford History of Early Modern Europe. Norman F Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages also contains some good sections. The ongoing History of Philosophy podcast by Peter Adamson is a really amazing source for the way ancient and midieval thought worked.
    We all have to start somewhere and, more importantly, we are never done.

  12. Not sure Leicestershire even know what a mai Tai is actually…and beach tends to mean getting blown to buggery on the Norfolk coast or Skeggie.
    Anyway, I enjoyed having a bit of controversy and a different view, and I know the History of England listeners are a reasonable, if slightly argumentative, lot

  13. A nice piece David. The punishments for heresy were all about temporal power and politics.
    I will have to disagree on the conclusions you make however.
    * Science doesn’t claim that it will have an eventual understanding of everything. In fact, science says ‘I don’t know, but lets try to find out.” This is vastly more honest and vastly less arrogant than the alternative argument which is “I already know the answer, its written in this ancient test’.
    * Re: the statements about science only examining what can be seen, felt, heard, smelt or tasted – do you have any evidence that anything exists beyond that and a means for examining it to determine if any of the claims about it are true.
    * Re: bleak. How so? I really don’t understand this at all. The very idea that this world is just a placeholder that must be endured as some kind of test (for which there is no reason to hold as a belief) is to me incredibly bleak.

  14. Well I thought that it was a great episode. I think that the vitriolic response highlights the need for an alternative view. As a physics teacher I come across lots of people who think of science as a religion. It gives them their worldview and security. Challenging it can cause a reaction nearly as strong as medieval person encountering a heretic.
    Thank you David for your interesting and well researched episode!

  15. I just came to this episode after binge listening. I hope there are no more like it. He infers that science is just another faith system and thus religion is on a par with science. This is ludicrous. Science involves putting forward an idea (called a hypothesis) which postulates a cause with an effect. It then amasses evidence and objectively assesses that evidence to see whether it supports the hypothesis or not. If it does, the hypothesis is used to make a prediction which can be further tested. If not, the hypothesis is either rejected or amended for further testing. The key word in all of this is objective. Science does not pretend to have answers for everything. It is an evolving, learning and adaptable way of looking at the universe. That is why it has been so successful over the last three hundred years. Religion asks us to accept teaching on faith just because an authority says it is so.

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