The story of Hypatia – philosopher and skeptic – is one that is dare to my heart. It is a tragic story of the triumph of human ignorance and hatred over reason and free inquiry. It sets the tone for how an overconfident early Christianity would emerge and dominate through fear and intimidation over the next 1000 years or more.
When I first heard the story of how Hypatia was brutally murdered by an angry Christian mob, I had since shrugged off the Catholicism of my upbringing and had many questions that religion just simply could not answer (or at least not answer satisfactorily). My religious teaching had never covered the inconvenient parts of Catholicism and seemingly glossed over the history of the religion. Reading the history of how early Christians acted following the official endorsement of Christianity by the Roman State began to confirm my suspicions that what I was being taught at Catholic School wasn’t the whole story.
The movie Agora portrayed Hypatia in a way that breathed life into the oft forgotten story. The movie was always sure to inflame apologetic responses. The focus of Agora’s critics was predictably directed away from the main point of the story – that non-belief, or rival beliefs to those of religious hegemony were systematically snuffed out. Hypatia’s only crime, despite being a woman, was that she chose not to submit her mind to the curiosity killing stories that the faithful believed. Instead, she chose to focus her efforts on free thought and discovery unfettered by the chains of “authorised truths”.
The glee with which the Christian mobs delighted in, as they destroyed centuries of human thought and progress by burning the scrolls in the Great Library of Alexandria, is revealing. Religion has never had a good relationship with free inquiry and inquirers. That is the main takeaway point from the Hypatia debacle.
Few epochs of human history have been conducive to free thought. Belief and deference to unanswerable authorities has long been the social glue of choice for most civilisations. The death of Hypatia and the burning of the library was the beginning of more than a 1000 years of supression of ideas and the demonising of free inquiry.
I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.
— Richard Dawkins
It took a long time for humanity to awaken from the ignorance-induced slumber that prevailed throughout the dark ages. It wasn’t until the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment that intellectuals were safe to come out of the closet and even then it was not without harrassment.
Our species is young and still dealing with the fact that the faculty of reason is a relatively new development in the evolutionary scheme of things. By necessity, humans have had to grow up – beyond the baggage of our superstition, xenophobia, tribalism and irrationality. We still have some way to go, and at times it seems many in this world cannot see beyond bronze age beliefs and morals. The lessons learned during the enlightenment need to be heeded now more than ever. Stuck in the 21st century with 21st century technology and problems means the road is paved with land mines that will blow up in our faces unless we use our highest faculty of mind – reason.
The lesson from Hypatia, aside from maintain an open mind and hitch your wagon to the evidence, is one of free thought.
Specifically, one ought guard against the meme that – God said this, therefore:
- we’re justified in persecuting others who appear “against” God
- they’re wrong and morally bankrupt because they don’t believe as I do (after all, God thinks like me)
- my beliefs are off the table from discussion – no questioning permitted (how dare you question God!)
The last point reveals why the first points are able to thrive – the double standard of applying skepticism to the claims of others and not to one’s own beliefs provides permission for squashing alternative views. All this is undertaken without regard to the strength of the evidence for competing ideas.
Above all, Hypatia’s story provides a snapshot of what otherwise reasonable will do when their beliefs are endorsed by the state. Roman history shows us clearly that separation of church and state is absolutely essential for a tolerant, reasonable and progressive society.