AS262: History for Atheists

Joining me today is Tim O’Neil. Tim has a website called History for Atheists (find it here

But I thought religious people had a monopoly on biased and revisionist history? Well, if Tim is right, and he makes some pretty compelling arguments, then atheists are doing their share as well. Was Giordano Bruno really killed for his scientific curiosity? Was the library of Alexandria destroyed by Christians? Did those same Christians launch us into a Dark Age? Maybe not!

8 thoughts on “AS262: History for Atheists”

  1. This episode was great. I really enjoyed it and learned new things. The manner of Tim O’Neil rubbed me the wrong way. He wants to talk about the nuance of history, but fails to provide nuance about anything he criticizes. He sort of lumps it all together. That gives me an emotional knee-jerk reaction against him. But I refuse to hold that against him. That said, there were two specific facts I have questions about. I’m not saying he is wrong. I’m saying I wonder how my interpretation of these facts could be misleading me.

    There are facts for both Galileo and Bruno that seem to go against the specific claims he makes. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. Tim O’Neil brought up one of these fact, but glossed over the other.


    I agree that Cosmos simplified the Bruno story. As a result, some things are wrong. And those things weren’t important to the message! But, I think it’s a simplification to say that Bruno wasn’t killed because of his cosmological beliefs. Tim O’Neil mentioned several charges against him. But he missed this one: “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.”

    Other charges were offending the church’s beliefs in magic. Tim O’Neil’s position may be that those were enough to get him killed, so we should ignore this other charge. But the fact is that it was a charge brought against him.

    Otherwise, I learned a lot more about this. And while Tim O’Neil was nuanced and thoughtful on all the other issues, I find that he didn’t even mention this to be odd. Though there may be a good reason for why I’m confused about this. Maybe the source Wikipedia used is wrong. I hope he will get back to me about this. I will leave a comment on his blog asking him.


    Likewise, on June 22 of 1611 the Inquisition found Galileo “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his belief that the solar system was sun centered. Even if it wasn’t the ‘science of the day.’ Again, maybe that wouldn’t have mattered if he didn’t annoy the Catholics. But it was the actual charge the Catholic Church found him guilty of.

    More nuance?

    In both cases I understand he is arguing against a false narrative. However, it seems he is pushing a different false narrative. The true narrative may be that these men pissed off the wrong people. Charges were laid over charges unnecessarily. And that those beliefs themselves wouldn’t have resulted in death or arrest. But if that’s the more accurate and nuanced position, I’d accept that. And that seems to be almost what he is saying. But it’s not what he actually said.


    He spoke about Hypatia myth. In my own reading I’ve come to the conclusion that the Hypatia myth is wrong. But I was unclear what the truth was, or how it was wrong. I’m glad to have a great picture painted for me. I noticed his blog is actually fairly empty. (Only 5 posts.) I look forward to see these posts in the future.

    I’ve very open to hear Tim O’Neil’s response to these questions. I will post here if he responds to the post I’m about to leave on his blog.

    I enjoyed this episode. I learned a lot. I look forward to learning more. I think I have a better understanding of some of my misconceptions as well. I’m sure Tim O’Neil can respond clearly to what I have said and set me straight.

  2. Thanks to Tim !!!
    I’m 60 yrs old, became atheist at 28 after several overseas tours with US Airforce. I became aware of different history’s and interpretation of those history’s in the cultures I was visiting. Having been shaken, I began some deep studied into religious and politically movements through out history. I then, as i am now, always amazed at how people can take the same reference data and twist and turn to mislead others for a movement gain. Much of what you spoke of here is true to my finding as well. Yes… there were people of science mind within religious arenas….. my difficulty in finding was when push came to shove …. which did the religious choose as the truth, religious dogma or science? How often was science truth stifled because of religious or political interference? My two cents. Again thanks … keep getting the data supported history out.

    1. Hello Danny,

      I’m glad my interview was of interest. Regarding your question: “how often was science truth stifled because of religious or political interference?” The idea that the answer is “often” or even “all the time” is a common one and is referred to as the “Conflict Thesis” or the “Draper-White Thesis” in the field of the history of science. It was most prominently argued by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the late nineteenth century, both of whom argued that there has been a war between “science and theology” down the centuries, with religion consistently trying to limit or stifle science by any means possible. White and Draper were both Americans (and neither were historians) writing in the context of the rise of fundamentalist Biblical literalist Christianity and its reaction against Darwinism and “modernism”. Their books were very popular in less conservative circles and have actually shaped a lot of common popular conceptions of the history of science.

      Unfortunately their books were also pretty bad as far as historical analysis goes and they actually perpetuated a lot of myths and created a few new ones. Modern historians of science have long since rejected the Conflict Thesis and instead opt for a more nuanced view wherein science and (some forms of) religion sometimes have conflicts (eg over evolution) and sometimes interact with and inform each other (eg Newton and Kepler’s religious views driving their scientific ideas).

      So the answer to your question is actually “not as often as many people think”. Creationism is one clear example of one form of religion trying to stifle accepted science. But contrary to the popular conception of it, the Galileo case is actually a much less clear example, given that the Church had the science of the day firmly on its side. There actually aren’t very many genuine examples of religious opposition to scientific ideas at all (religious opposition to *applications* of science, such as stem cell research, is another matter entirely).

      And religion is hardly alone in occasionally being anti-science or pseudo-scientific. The anti-vax movement, climate change denial, and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union are all examples of vested commercial interests or fixed ideologies trying to deny established science. Religion has no historical monopoly on this by any means.


      1. Hello again Tim.

        You reply was very welcome and kicked a few memories in.

        I’m familiar with Draper-White Thesis, read many years ago, some good points as I remember. Felt they were too purist and excessive about the conflict, not intending to be dismissive. Found it to be a thoughtful grain of salt.

        Most of this responce is anidotal and from several personal interactions with my fellow religious humans through the years. So bear with me if I seem to go off in the weeds.

        I will start with… no I don’t believe there is a cross the board religious stifle in the study of the sciences. However, I very much have observed the “application ” of science being stifled.

        Here we go into weed… on several occasion I’ve run into religious people that have said “Philosophy is a waste of time” or “philosophy is ignorant ” . Others include “science of philosophy or science of literature is not science”. Every time if heard this i couldn’t step away, I had to confront the speaker.

        In one such case, the speaker stated “Philosophy required to much thinking and didn’t really apply to the real world”. As we spoke on the subject and related how his religion need philosophy to survive, I as always hammered philosophy of ethics as it applied to his god.

        He, as so many have, a total misconceptions about the subject at hand. When the science was brought to life in his real world and applied properly he became aware for first time he had been applying philosophical ethics the whole of his life and didn’t know it. It was the word or term he was scared of and didn’t want nothing to do with it.

        I guess my point here is that religious people don’t stifle or stop science directly or overtly, they do it by ignorance. (Ignorance maybe a strong word)

        You made reference to such in your reply i.e. climate science, stem cell research on and on. It’s not the study that scares the shit out of them, it’s the application of it. As one wonderful human being said to me just a short while back about robotic technologies, ” Fuck the philosophy about the issue, it’s just not in God’s plan”.

        Geeze, , long winded. My apologies for the rambles. Thanks again for your reply.

        P.S. The person in the story,,,, is an atheist now for over 10 years. One victory in 30 years… lol.

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