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The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman

16 October 2007

I have to admit, I picked up this book because of its title. It sounded oddly provocative, and I wanted to see if it would be a polemic thinly disgused as a historical study. (It happens far more often than you might think, believe me.)

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman

The basic premise of Charles Freeman’s book might not go over so well with those of the Christian faith. He claims that the early Christian church played a pivotal role in stifling many of the intellectual traditions that had developed over the centuries, beginning with the ancient Greeks. The Greek gods seemed to operate at a distance from humanity, allowing the separation of faith and belief from reason and the scientific method. This degree of separation, and the Greeks’ attempts to make sense of it, gave rise to many crucial developments in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and other rigorously intellectual disciplines. But as Christianity grew from a small cult following into a greater religious (and later political) movement, the early Christian leaders did their best to paper over the cracks in their doctrine by stifling dissent and debate, imposing a religious orthodoxy that helped to crush the practice of free and open philosophical debate that had been inherited from the Greek world. The attempt to hammer out a comprehensive religious doctrine from a mishmash of conflicting sources is the central narrative of Freeman’s book, and it’s fairly clear that while he understands why events happened as they did, he isn’t entirely happy about it.

Truthfully, I almost don’t feel qualified to pass judgement on this book. There is a lot of information here, covering nearly a millennia of history (and ancient history, at that). What is more, my knowledge of Christianity and basic Christian doctrine is general at best — and decidedly based in a nonreligious perspective. I feel as if I don’t have enough background knowledge to go through and challenge some of the points Freeman has made in his book even if I wanted to. But I did find his historical work fairly convincing, particularly with regard to the development of Christianity from its roots as an offshoot of the variations on Judaism found during the Second Temple period. I was also pleasantly surprised by his organisation and writing style, and then when I started getting into the meat of the book the sheer amount of information crammed into the pages caught me and held me fast. Fortunately for other less-informed readers such as myself, Freeman has given his audience a slew of excellent footnotes to go through and form their own conclusions. I think I may have to do some further digging on my own.

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One comment

  1. I just finished this book for a school project, and have unfortunate found a number of negative reviews. I agree with your thoughts about not being qualified to pass judgment. Charles Freeman is attempting to analyze and catalog a staggering amount of history,and much of what he attempts to analyze has been lost to the ages. I agree with his very general thesis: that Greeks philosophy was suppressed rather than obliterated. I also believe that Christianity has never been particularly conducive to scientific advances. That said, it was an enjoyable read, though somewhat daunting.



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