The myth of the atheist martyr

Although the movie has apparently come and gone without so much as registering a blip with anyone, Armarium Magnum’s detailed demolition of the Hypatia legend is still worth reading.

While Sagan is the best known propagator of the idea that Hypatia was a martyr for science, he was simply following a venerable polemical tradition that has its origin in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.”

Like Gibbon, Sagan links the story of the murder of Hypatia with the idea that the Great Library of Alexandria was torched by another Christian mob. In fact, Sagan presents the two events as though they were subsequent, stating “[the Library’s] last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death” (p. 366) and that “when the mob came …. to burn the Library down there was nobody to stop them.” (p. 365)

In the hands of Sagan and others both the story of Hypatia’s murder and the Library’s destruction are a cautionary tale of what can happen if we let down our guards and allow mobs of fanatics to destroy the champions and repositories of reason.

This is certainly a powerful parable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t correspond very closely with actual history.

It is interesting how often atheists accuse Christians of believing fairy tales, considering how they are obviously prone to concocting their own. Is it projection or merely an ironic coincidence? And this is also a useful reminder that a lack of belief in God is not necessarily tantamount to believing unquestioningly in science while remaining completely innocent of history.