Vitrail in Paris

Vitrail is stained glass, and it’s amply on display in Paris, but nowhere more beautifully than in Sainte-Chapelle, a 13th century chapel reserved for French royalty. As Wikipedia notes,

Construction begun some time after 1238 and consecrated on 26 April 1248,the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of Passion relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom, now hosted in Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Along with the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité. Although damaged during the French Revolution, and restored in the 19th century, it has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world.

. . . The most famous features of the chapel, among the finest of their type in the world, are the great stained glass windows, for whose benefit the stone wall surface is reduced to little more than a delicate framework. Fifteen huge mid-13th-century windows fill the nave and apse, while a large rose window with Flamboyant tracery (added to the upper chapel c. 1490) dominates the western wall.

Sainte-Chapelle is enclosed by what was the Royal Palace, but is now largely government offices, including the Palais de Justice. Here’s a view of the very small chapel from the outside:

Okay, forget the crown of thorns (there must be dozens throughout the world), and ignore the fact that much of the upper chapel (the good part) was reconstructed after extensive damage during the French Revolution. The stained-glass windows are almost all original, and, like all stained glass windows of that age, tell Biblical stories in a coherent sequence, meant to inculcate religion (and fear) in a largely illiterate populace.

The next two photos show the same wall, the eastern edge of the chapel. The changing light emphasizes different colors

I’m astounded that the chapel could be supported when most of it is stained glass. Those architects knew what they were doing!

Closer views of the stained glass. The windows were taken down, cleaned, and fixed between 2008 and 2015, an immense job. Then clear windows were placed on the outside to protect the stained glass and prevent it from getting dirty.

Perhaps Biblically-informed readers can identify the panels in the two pictures below.

The rose window on the western wall, taken with an iPhone:

And the lower chapel, now the entry and a shop, with PCC(E) on view (another iPhone photo):

Of course Notre Dame has stained glass windows as well, though they take second place to those of Sainte-Chapelle. Here’s the obligatory vanity photo of me standing by “Point Zéro“, 50 m from the entrance to Notre Dame. This point, marked with a brass plaque, is the place in Paris from which all distances to other French cities are measured. That is, if you’re on a road and it says “Paris, 65 km”, that 65 km ends at Point Zéro.

Here’s the plaque (photo from Wikipedia):

And one of the great rose windows of Notre Dame:

When an atheist like me contemplates, admires, and is stirred by this kind of stuff, I always wonder, “Well, I guess religion did do some good stuff. What about all that religious music, art, and architecture?” I think that had humans not had religion, the artistic impulse for music and painting would have found some other representational outlet, as with the nonreligious Dutch paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, and there wouldn’t have been so many paintings about Jesus. We’ll never know.

But I’m pretty sure that humanism wouldn’t move people to spend centuries building structures like Notre Dame. What you’d get is stuff like this “humanist temple” in the Marais: the Chapelle de l’Humanité, Built in the 17th century, the building was converted to a “positivist” humanist chapel in the earl 20th century. It’s not often open, and I didn’t go in.

The inscription, which reads “Love as a principle and order as a basis, progress as a goal.” This is okay, but it ain’t no Notre Dame.

One would be foolish to claim that religion didn’t inspire great works of art and great buildings. But one would be equally foolish to claim that because of things like Bach’s great religious music, the Sistine Chapel, and Notre Dame, religion must have been a net good for a humanity.

Enough lucubration. On Sunday it’s a trip to the Cathedral of Chartres, home of the best stained glass in France.


  1. Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Re “When an atheist like me contemplates, admires, and is stirred by this kind of stuff, I always wonder, ‘Well, I guess religion did do some good stuff. What about all that religious music, art, and architecture?'”

    So, you support a religion spending several fortunes on self-aggrandizement rather than on helping the poor, indigent, and ill?

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Ummm. . . . are you implying that I support religion? I didn’t say that; I said that religion did some good stuff. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done better stuff if it changed its priorities.

      This is a rather snide comment, no?

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I think you can admire the artistry and engineering of a great church without necessarily approving of the fact that it cost a huge fortune all those centuries ago.

      Plus, given that the church existed and was hoovering up money at an astounding rate, you can argue that building a cathedral was better than keeping it in a heavily guarded chest somewhere. It put money back into the economy.

      • clarkia
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        That may be.
        A question is where do the priorities lie for those not interested in building magnificent churches. Personally, I see natural areas as churches of a sort, so put some resources into preserving those. No idea if this is a common sentiment among atheists.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          There are lovely library, theatre, and university buildings.

          • Cicely Berglund
            Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            To Jerry,
            Are you going to visit Saint Sulpice?
            It has a built in sundial which allows the tracking of the angle of the sun at noon thruout the year. At a time when the church was involved in the increasingly sophisticated study of Astronomy

    • Paul S
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      …spending several fortunes on self-aggrandizement rather than on helping the poor, indigent, and ill?

      I’m no fan of religion, but this fits the bill of nearly every great structure, and some lesser ones as well.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        In medieval times, Christianity was better at charity than now – they took that part of the Bible far more seriously than aSShole$ like Tony Perkins, who always has excuses for not doing it despite what the Bible says. (I just heard him making more on ‘Amanpour’ yesterday, so he’s got me riled up once again.)

        All the hospitals back then were built and staffed by religion. They took in and fed the poor. They were also the only source of education, and educated poor boys as well as those who could pay. (Girls were educated too, but in things that would help them make a living like sewing, cooking, etc.) It was far from ideal by today’s standards, and as always, there were bad as well as good people. But I think people would be surprised by how much they did do.

        • rickflick
          Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          I think, then, you’d have to say the Church encompassed what we call government. Since at the time secular government probably consisted of nobles building their castles holding wars with each other, church activity was probably a natural consequence of the lack of social services.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted November 7, 2018 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

            That’s pretty much it. The church had a much bigger role in government then also. The idea of separation of Church and State was all but inconceivable. It’s what made what the founders of the US did such a special thing at the time.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 7, 2018 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

              You could argue that similar institutions provided healthcare and education in the ancient world as well.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted November 9, 2018 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                Yes. I know little about those times so cannot speak to them with any authority. I know you do though.

        • Posted November 7, 2018 at 3:36 am | Permalink

          In those times there was nobody else to do it. Nowadays the secular government provides for healthcare and education and support for the poor, albeit sometimes not very well.

        • David Coxill
          Posted November 7, 2018 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          Didn’t cities such as the city states in Italy have a lot to do with building a lot of the Cathedrals and churches ?

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted November 7, 2018 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

            Churches ruled a lot of the city states. The wealthy families were in charge in government as well as the church on the Italian peninsula. For a while the roles of cardinals, archbishops, and even the pope was all but hereditary in the Italian city states. The Borgias in particular were the Mafia on steroids, but they were far from the only ones.

            • rickflick
              Posted November 7, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

              It was the wealthy as well as the Church that supported and maintained the arts. So, they weren’t all bad. 😎

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted November 9, 2018 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

                You’re right. But then there’s side effects like a lot of da Vinci’s inventions were because he was trying to come up with better weapons for his patron. War has always been a creator of technological advances of course.

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I think Steven Pinker’s distinction between religion and religious institutions is helpful. The former is manacled by dogma whilst the latter are, or can be, havens that inspire, empathise and care. And being alive to the latter in no way compromises distaste for scripture.

    • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      It is surely a statement of objective fact that religious belief has inspired an enormous amount of what is widely recognised and admired as great art? To acknowledge this say’s nothing about whether or not religious beliefs are true or whether or not religion is, in net terms, a ‘good thing’ or not. As PCC notes, in the absence of religion the artistic impulse would have found(and does find) expression in startling and beautiful creations inspired by other ideas, attitudes or feelings, but the fact is that for much of human history most artists have had a belief in the supernatural and for many of them this has been a powerful source of inspiration. Acknowledging this does not make you a bad atheist!

      It is also incorrect to suggest that religiously inspired art (in the broad sense including all artistic endeavour such as music, literature, painting etc) amounts to no more than self-aggrandisement. No doubt some works were commissioned with more than half an eye on enhancing the prestige of the commissioner but much was certainly produced and executed by people who sincerely believed they were expressing their devotion to the god or gods they worshipped.

    • Posted November 13, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      I think this is whataboutery. In a similar tune, you could ask Prof. Coyne why he has studied fruit flies for years supported by public money instead of leaving this money to the poor.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    All that engineering progress started with the arch.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I meant “prowess” but “progress” works too.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      I know that you’ve read ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follet too, as we’ve discussed it elsewhere. That’s mostly where I learnt the stuff about how the weight is spread to the columns/pillars in medieval architecture. Amazing.

      I absolutely adore stained glass. I knew about Chatres, but I didn’t know Sainte-Chapelle was this stunning. It just moved on to my bucket list!

      My dream home has a stained glass window.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Yes I read Follet’s book but I was too young to remember those details and only really understood it once I took Classics courses and an introductory Art History course.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted November 6, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          We’re roughly the same age, but I didn’t read it until I was in my 30s.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 6, 2018 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

            I was around 19. I think I read it when it first came out and I bought it from the local bookstore.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    War and nationalism makes some nice buildings too – like the many roman arches & columns. Also bread and circuses.

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      +1 🙂

    • Kevin
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Where the Normans went, they seem to have established political control and then built a stone cathedral to make a visible declaration of such. I think they probably did not make much distiction between temporal power and religion: one would have justified the other.
      The previous “Celtic” version of Christianity in Britain, I am told, favoured wooden buildings that made less of a “statement” of authority and reflected an attitude that was possibly still part of the pre schism tradition (having some traits in common with Eastern Orthodoxy), which was, from Rome’s point of view, to be brought in to line.

      The concentration and channeling of creative energy that this unleashes is amazing and has brought to existence some of the most stunning human constructions, every element made by hand.

      The Acropolis as now an amazing structure but in its day it was also a statement: “I am Athens, the head of all the city states, Athena is my goddess, and this is what I have created”.

      I think war, nationalism and religion are hand in hand.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        It’s complicated because ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t separate religion and civic life. Even some theatres were for healing and that was mixed up with religion (Asklepios). But I think you can say that ancient arches and columns were to venerate Rome and propagandize their might not worship a diety and Romans didn’t make their emperors into gods either as that was really frowned upon (Augustus walked a fine line often invoking imagery to suggest his divine heritage but that was more of a legitimacy plea to associate him with a founding myth). I can say that wealthy Romans were expected to donate public buildings and when they did so they typically promoted themselves not gods.

  4. Steve Pollard
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Mrs P and I were in Paris 10 days ago, visiting our son, and Notre Dame was the backdrop to an excellent son-et-lumiere display, based on a (fictionalised) conversation between a French nurse and a dying GI in a military hospital 100 years ago. We could only pick up parts of the dialogue; but the lumiere bit was stunning, and the music included a surprising number of English composers.

    And we were in Chartres in June: internal access was a bit curtailed because they were doing some restoration work. Let’s hope they’ve finished by the time PCC(E) gets there: it’s a truly remarkable place.

  5. Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Given all the harm religion has done throughout the ages, it is only fair that we get to enjoy its cultural masterpieces.

  6. Cicely Berglund
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Are you intending to visit St. Sulpice which has an internal sundial built in. When the church had some meaningful relationship with the developing sophistication of astronomy. Tracking the position of the sun at noon over the course of the year.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    For me, the humanist equivalent of these awesome stained glass windows is great nature photographs and great nature poetry such as that of Wordsworth or Whitman (the latter of whom JAC is not so fond of).

    I don’t think there is anyway to quantify the net good or harm of religion in general. I simply know certain styles of religion are relatively beneficial and others are not.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Beautiful libraries. And I agree about Whitman.

    • John Dentinger
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      PCC, you lucky guy–will you be going on to Le-Mont-Saint-Michel? I lost my camera on the way back (TGV!), and so lost all my pics. A lot were of messages that folks had stomped in the mud (low tide). Sigh.

      • Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        Lost your camera! Argh! One of my recurring nightmares! I get that one more frequently than the “I missed my final!” university nightmare.

        My condolences!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:27 am | Permalink

          I lost a SD card on one trip. And yes, it’s agonisingly painful.

          These days, on a long trip, if I’m taking a laptop with me, I make a point of copying each video card to the hard drive as soon as it’s full. Because they’re so tiny and easy to mislay. And it did save my bacon, I had lost one card and fortunately I had a copy on my hard drive.


  8. KD33
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I love Sainte Chapelle as well. That and Chartes are my favorite sites for stained glass.

    If you’re a cathedral enthusiast, be sure to visit Salisbury and take the tour that climbs up into the roof and balustrades. An amazing and vertigo-inducing look at how these places are constructed.

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      We visited Canterbury Cathedral in 2015 and found it absolutely wonderful. I’d previously visited in 1991 and wasn’t so impressed then. Not sure why.

  9. Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    It’s true that religion has given us some sublime architecture and magnificent music, but I imagine humans would have come up with something equally grand without it. As Madalyn Murray O’Hair is reputed to have said, “had it not been for Christianity, Christopher Columbus wouldn’t have landed on a Caribbean island; he would have landed on the moon!”

    [That’s a quote attributed to her although I haven’t been able to find the source — if anybody knows better, please chime in!]

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      The quote doesn’t appear to exist – why put quote marks around something if you are paraphrasing? In one hundred years it will be O’Hair canon.

      The religitards are noted for their ability to invent quotes at the drop of a hat – let’s not go that way. The concept of religion holding back science is a familiar one, I think there are alternate history SciFi novels with centurions in space etc.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t PCC(E) just tell everyone to spew vitrail elsewhere?… I… um…

    I mean … vitriol works pretty good here, I must say…

    Sorry I couldn’t help the joke. Seriously the vitrail is a new word to me and it’s gorgeous.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Vitrail is the French equvalent of “stained glass”.

      (Oil of) vitriol (literally glass oil, sulphuric acid) is called that because it is oily and its cristalised metal salts (sulphates) resemble glass (vitre).
      These salts can be made using oxides of various metals which give more or less same colours to the sulphates as they do by fusing them with sand (metal silicates). Hence the glass is “stained” or dyed with metal oxides (or other metal compounds).

      When I was about twelve I used to make crystals of iron and copper sulphate, and alum and crystal gardens in jamjars with sodium silicate (water glass which was used for preserving eggs before we had fridges) and metal salts. That’s how I got into chemistry.

      P.S. “verderame” (copper sulphate) in current Italian means “green copper” which is odd because it is bright blue! I think this can be explained as a confused corruption of “vetrorame” which would have meant copper vitriol or copper glass/sulphate.
      Or it may come from French to Italian as “verdegris”, from vert de Grece (Greek green), which is actually a different substance (copper carbonate) but which actually is green at least.

      I shall stop here.

      The story of colour is fascinating and I only know a tiny part of it.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

        …. oh, THAT Kevin! Hey!

        Seriously I love this reply – thanks!

        • Kevin
          Posted November 7, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          From where I stand, I am always THIS Kevin!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:22 am | Permalink

        I’d always taken ‘verdigris’ as meaning ‘grey-green’ which it sort of is.


  11. Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if radioisotope analysis might be done on the crown of thorns relic, to determine its approximate age.

    • Paul S
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I doubt it, testing hasn’t helped with any of their other relics. Best to make a claim and let the believers believe.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I take bets that it dates to some time in the mediaeval period. There were charlatans selling that crap all the time back then – even Chaucer put it into the Canterbury Tales.

      • Kevin
        Posted November 6, 2018 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        There are apparently 30 candidate nails for Jesus’ crucifiction. That indicates that 27 must be false unless it was a case of stitch stapling.
        St Helen (Constantine’s mother) apparently brought nails back from Palestine and had them welded into her son’s battle helmet (hopefully with the pointy bit sticking outwards).
        This is also a fairly early record of a belief by Christians that such items have magical or miraculous power to protect.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

          If I was in battle and I came across some crazy guy with nails sticking out of his helmet (or inwards, come to think of it) I’d certainly give him a lot of room…


  12. Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I do love Gothic cathedrals. Chartres, where I have never been, is sort of the holy of holies. In Salisbury they let you tour the innards of the roof, and you can see a working piece of timber over 600 years old.

  13. Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Sainte-Chapelle is my favorite church in Paris. Small but stunning.

    I find it a bit jarring that it’s inside the Palais de la Cité and you have to pass all the security to enter. But worth it of course.

    We were in France this past summer and noticed a significant uptick in security since our last visit in 2010. (And a huge difference since the 1990s, of course.)

  14. Christopher
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Fifth photo from the top, center window scene is where Jesus asks his disciples for beer money. Not sure what chapter or verse though…

    • Doug
      Posted November 6, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      Fourth photo from the top, about halfway down on the right-hand window, I spotted Red Riding Hood.

  15. Joe Bussen
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t that zero point for the post revolution survey of the entire world? Why would the French cede the prime meridian to Greenwich and the Brits?
    I believe they also draw a line through it from the pole to the equator and divide by 90 million which was intended to be the definition of the meter, or should I say, metre.

  16. ladyatheist
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I love the bust on the humanist building. It’s so humble compared to the full-length statues of saints on the gothic cathedrals.

  17. Posted November 6, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    There are two books written by D. James Kennedy, a theologian,an intellectual and former pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church that cover the topic of Christianity’s contributions to civilization quite nicely.

    What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?
    What If The Bible Had Never Been Written?

    Born of humble origins, the Church has made more changes on earth for the good than any other movement or force in history. Some highlights, which I take from Kennedy’s book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?:

    * Hospitals, which essentially began during the Middle Ages.
    * Universities, which also began during the Middle Ages. In addition, most of the world’s greatest universities were started by Christians for Christian purposes.
    * Literacy and education for the masses.
    * Capitalism and free-enterprise.
    * Representative government, particularly as it has been seen in the American experiment.
    The separation of political powers.
    * Civil liberties.
    * The abolition of slavery, both in antiquity and in more modern times.
    * Modern science.
    * The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.
    * The elevation of women.
    * Benevolence and charity; the good Samaritan ethic.
    * Higher standards of justice.
    * The elevation of the common man.
    * The condemnation of adultery, homosexuality, and other sexual perversions. This has helped to preserve the human race, and has spared many from heartache.
    * High regard for human life.
    * The civilization of many barbarian and primitive cultures.
    * The codifying and setting to writing of many of the world’s languages.
    * Greater development of art and music. The inspiration for the greatest works of art.
    * The countless changed lives transformed from liabilities into assets to society because of the gospel.
    * The eternal salvation of countless souls.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      Unless you’re suggesting a supernatural intervention causing all this, it’s clear these cultural discoveries would have come about anyway. Perhaps much sooner. Humans are social animals endowed with empathy and compassion, and from prehistory have taken care of the injured and fed the hungry. Otherwise we would have died out long ago. Human nature demands that we make moral progress simply because of who we are. Alexandrian, and Hellenistic culture for example had the precursors of many of these advances. A very good argument can be made that the Church held back social progress far more than it advanced it. It’s clear to me that for most of it’s history, the church has been a hindrance, blocking the independence of mind required for discovery and innovation. Most often the Church was probably along for the ride, willing to take credit for any advancement.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Jesus! (That was a exclamation of disgust, not approbation).

      I don’t think I’ve heard such a load of tendentious steaming bollocks since the last tRump speech.


  18. Posted November 6, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    And from Kennedy’s book “What If The Bible Had Never Been Written?”

    What if the Bible had never been written? Consider the implications of such a scenario. There would be no salvation, no Salvation Army, no YMCA, virtually no charity, no modern science, no Red Cross. There would likely be no hospitals, for hospitals as we know them were born in the Christian era, and Christians have build hundreds of hospitals all over the globe. There would probably be no universities; they were created in the Middle Ages in order to reconcile Christian theology with the writings of Aristotle. There would probably be no capitalism, no accounting, no free enterprise. Millions of people would have been killed off by STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) – without any kind of inhibition against sexual promiscuity. Literacy and education might well have been the exclusive domain of the elite. Many of the languages around the world would never have been written down because there would have been no motive to do so. Many of the barbarians of the world over would never have been civilized. Cannibalism and human sacrifice and the abandonment of children would still be widespread, even as abortion and infanticide plague us as we continue to move away from the Bible. Slavery might still be practiced, as it is in pockets of the world where the Bible is forbidden. And we might not even be in the New World – as Columbus clearly stated it was the Lord who inspired him to make his historic voyage. If the Bible had never been written, there would be no Mother Teresas, no David Livingstones, no Isaac Newtons, no William Wilberforces, no George Washingtons, no Lincolns, no Dantes, no Miltons, no Shakespears, no Dickensons. Above all, if the Bible had never been written, we would be cut off from God, groping in darkness without hope

    • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Counter-factual history is always problematic but the idea that we would have none of those things had we not had the Bible is absurd! We can be sure that without the Bible the tape would have played out differently (just as if any other significant event had not happened or had happened differently) but there is no reason to suppose that we would not have arrived at most of the things you list by different routes in the absence of the Bible or of Christianity. As the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and many of the things that you list (education, writing, medicine, hospitals, etc would surely have arisen simply as the result of the combination of need and human ingenuity).
      For some of the things you list we do not even need to perform the ‘what if’ thought experiment: for example capitalism and accounting were practised in various early civilisations, as evidenced by various artefacts in the British Museum and similar institutions around the world.
      With respect to the number of people killed by STDs it is of course the case that millions of people HAVE been killed off by them in spite of the exhortations of the church and there is plenty of evidence that modern church resistance to contraception and sexual education causes many people nowadays to die of STDs when access to these products of science and humanism could prevent this.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      And that is pure, unadulterated, 99% bullshit. (Why not 100%? – because nothing is ever 100%. There might be one factoid in there somewhere that is partially correct.).

      To take just ONE example – “we might not even be in the New World – as Columbus clearly stated it was the Lord who inspired him to make his historic voyage.” Glaringly obviously, if Columbus didn’t someone else would have. It’s not as if there was a crippling shortage of explorers.

      That’s so breathtakingly bad it’s almost in ‘not ever wrong’ territory. Are we sure it isn’t a poe?


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 7, 2018 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        ‘not even wrong’, of course



  19. BJ
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    How utterly breathtaking!

  20. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    The metre as one ten millionth of a quadrant from the Equator to the North Pole passing through Paris is a matter of record.
    The French started their comprehensive trigonometric survey of France in about 1680. (Louis the Somethingth (14 ± ?) commented on the first draft that he had “lost more territory to science than he had to war”, because previous estimates had been some 20% too large. Before worrying about that, ask how good your own mapmaking is, given the need to design and build your own instruments. Tricorne hats off to Cassini pere et fils !)
    The French had their Parisian Meridian. The Germans had one passing through Berlin. And Britain had one passing through Greenwich. The effort to observe the transit of Venus in 1874 involved observers from all of those countries, and others. One of the British expeditions, for example, combined the astronomical work with a batch of surveying of their route to and from Mauritius, with work ad nauseam to check the longitudes of intervening stops on the expedition. (Digging that out of the archives took a while – and I knew it was there!) Having to deal with the multiple, often differing (or contradictory) longitudes for the same places (or were they? always a question!) IT was a tedious, confusing mess. In 1884 the International Meridian Conference took an Alexandrian approach to that Gordian knot. At that time, something like 70% of the nautical charts in the world were made to the Greenwich Meridian. The conference voted for Greenwich. (22 ayes, Dominican Republic “no”, France & Brazil abstained). Despite their snittishness (the French used a longitude based on “Paris mean time, retarded by 9 minutes and 21 seconds” until 1978. That equates to Greenwich.), the French swallowed it. Probably with garlic, cream and butter to mask the taste, but hey, c’est la vie!

  21. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    My favourite Paris church is Saint-Martin-des-Champs.

    In spite of the fact that it held me up for 15 minutes trying to find the entrance to the Musee des Arts et Metiers because I was looking for a museum, not a church!

    (Yes that is a Foucault pendulum in the crossing. There are aeroplanes in the nave).


  22. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    “I’m astounded that the chapel could be supported when most of it is stained glass.”

    Appearances are deceptive. Looking at the external view, those columns have a lot more meat on them outside the windows, not visible from inside. Looked at that way, the structure is quite solid.


    • rickflick
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Looking at the outside view, the buttressing looks substantial, but not of the “flying buttress” variety you see in Reims or Chartres. The heavy columns between I windows are embedded in the wall not separated from the wall by an arch. The flying buttress was well known at the time of construction but it looks like they went for simplicity.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 7, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        It’s flamboyant gothic so they concentrated more on the interior than trying to make it super high. So, the engineering was already solid – they even put extra ribs in the vaults (which are just variations on arches). The vaults are the main support for these structures.

  23. Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Stainglass windows in churches – the original graphic novels? 🙂

    As for whether other ideals can inspire art, well, I’ve been told that the Moscow Metro was built with that in mind, as was the Montreal Metro (which has religious as well as secular art).

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Graphic novels, Chick tracts, whatever… 😉

      The Moscow metro stations are indeed beautifully decorated and often ornate, each one in a different style. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but Novoslobodskaya would be one of mine

      Novoslobodskaya Metro Station - Moscow, Russia


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 7, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and talking of Metro stations but coming back to Paris, the Arts et Metiers station on Ligne 11 is worth seeing; the entire station is lined with copper sheets in steampunk style, with a giant gearwheel poking out of the ceiling.

        While the Louvre station on Ligne 1 has classical statues adorning its walls.


        • Posted November 8, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          I have some memories of the Paris Metro, but very little – I was there 25 years ago!

          I seem to remember dullness; maybe I was at the equivalent of Montreal’s Guy-Concordia. 😉

          (The again we did go to the Louvre, but I don’t remember how.)

  24. Beau Quilter
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Sainte-Chapelle is one of my favorite spots in Paris. And I learned on my last visit that the acoustics are amazing. They host occasional concerts inside at very reasonable ticket prices.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 7, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I went to a lute recital there about 20 years ago. I was learning to build and play lutes at the time. Very nice.

  25. Posted November 13, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    In a society that was not only religious but also scientifically and technologically backward, the creative human spirit was channeled in a small number of open venues. An artist living then could decorate a beautiful building; today, he could make an educational video.
    I understand, however, Prof. Coyne’s uneasiness. I have myself an uneasy feeling about the Phoenicians. I acknowledge their script, commerce, navigation. Without them, I cannot imagine how our world could come to be. At the same time, I am disgusted by their child-sacrificing culture, and I am thankful that it did not survive.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 15, 2018 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen some of the recent claims about Phoenician child sacrifice: I find some of the arguments a bit debatable.
      Drawing conclusions from presumed average death rates in neo or prenatal infants is questionable. There might be epidemics affecting children heavily etc which skew the data. If they had the apparent practice of burying young children separately from adults, it is hard to draw statistical conclusions.

      Carthage was one of the most robust and competitive cultures in the Mediterranean world. It seems strange that it would sacrifice its healthiest offspring as claimed.

      In any case the Roman culture that substituted it did so by commiting one of the most efficient genocides in history. Bearing in mind that our own European/American culture developed largely from the Roman one, we also have some skeletons in the closet.

      It seems that Romans and Greeks also killed some of their offspring for various motives. Weak children were killed in many cultures.

      It may well be that Phoenician practices and motives were not understood by others.
      Cremating a child and dedicating it to deity is not child sacrifice, even though it might look like it to another culture.

      Not much of their culture has survived, since the Romans did an efficient propaganda job on them. The Jews were often at war with them (as Canaanites) and may not have had a very accurate view either.

      • Posted November 15, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Archaeologists think that they have evidence for Carthaginan child sacrifice:

        I agree that both the Romans who said that about Carthaginans and the Jews who testified against the related Canaanites were biased. However, it seems unlikely to me that two groups hostile to each other, as the Jews and the Romans were, would decide to spin a completely fabricated allegation against an innocent nation.
        It is true that the Romans also killed many infants, often just for being female. (This facilitated the Christian takeover of Rome.) I have read somewhere that the Romans objected not against the killing of the babies per se but because of its religious motivation. I think that they were on to something.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 15, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s difficult to look at a culture as one continuous one. In other words, what many people call Ancient Romans, changed drastically in it’s history that spanned, in the west at least, for hundreds of years. It would be tantamount to referring to Americans as one set culture starting in the 1700s and going beyond.

          Also, it’s important to note that the Ancient cultures were nothing like ours. They didn’t have the same outlook when it came to compassion for others, human rights, or ethnicities that differed from their own.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted November 15, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

            Very good points. [that said – I betcha Canadians will still be polite in 300 years & Americans will still not know where Saskatchewan is.]

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 15, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

              Ha ha, if we aren’t careful, in 300 years, people, or alien visitors, will be marvelling at the layer of ash still giving off harmful levels of radiation.

        • Kevin
          Posted November 15, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

          Even if any of those cultures were killing children, there is likely to be a religious element because this would provide th ethical justification.

          In a culture, with limited medical skills, where a weak child is likely to die, possibly painfully over a length of time, it might have been considered compassionate to shorten its suffering and dedicate it to a deity in the hope of a better afterlife. This might have been seen as the lesser of two evils, there being no better option. If this is done in a religious context it might be seen and described as child sacrifice.

          It seems that both the Romans and Jews had had a history of the same practices. It just seems ironic to me that the Romans could not see that genocide was hardly a more commendable practice.

          I had read that link already. As I commented, it would be hard to prove the argument by statistics, since prenatal and postnatal death statistics are questionable if the cause of death is unknown and the remains of young children are kept separate from adults. You can invent any interpretation you want to that kind of data.

          The children may have come from the whole city if the cemetery was specifically for children, whereas the adult cemeteries may have been scattered across the city.

          The culture may have had particular attitudes concerning the very young which required specific ritual practices which we do not understand.

          The natural death rate would be expected to vary with prosperity, epidemics etc. The cemeteries may have held bodies from extended periods of time.

          If you don’t know what the NATURAL death rate was for young children (which we don’t), how can you estimate what an UNNATURAL death rate is. There is no knowledge of CAUSE of death either.

          If there are any prenatal/stillborn children in the cemetery, that would tend to argue against the child sacrifice argument. The sacrifice of animals might have had some other interpretation: the sacrifice of an animal on behalf of a child for example.

          I have not read the original papers and the Guardian argument is little more than a journalistic summary. However from the claims made, I doubt that the evidence is very clearcut, since I suspect that we lack the information necessary for the reasons that I stated.

          • Posted November 15, 2018 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

            There can be different opinions about scaling of crimes, but to me, killing one’s own children is worse than killing other people’s.

            • Kevin
              Posted November 17, 2018 at 3:28 am | Permalink

              It depends on what you mean by “killing one’s own children”.

              Staunch Catholics. Pro-Lifers and other groups would consider abortion a form of child killing. Birth control by many is seen as against God’s will and a breach of “natural law” and therefore morally wrong. Ironically, some groups that think this way, for example ISIS don’t seem to have any moral difficulty with rape, murder or forced concubinage. These groups can see “Western” practices such as abortion as “child killing”. Similarly they will associate such Western practices with Christianity, so the next generalisation is to believe that “Christians are child killers”.

              The point at which a child is considered to have “rights” is not clear even in “Western Christian” society: at conception, 11 weeks birth?

              Catholics who claim that conception is the moment at which the individual is created and receives a soul are somewhat in self-contradiction because they do not have funerals for the stillborn, but only for the post-natal.

              It is very possible that, in societies in which many children died within the first 3 months (as is claimed in the research paper on the Phoenecians that you quoted). This may have been valid for Phoenecian, Jewish, Roman, Greek and many other groups especially in their early periods. Such societies may not have considered a child to be a “viable individual with rights” until some months after birth: “if the gods can kill the newborn, then so can I” would make some sense in such a society, though we might see it as wrong.

              • rickflick
                Posted November 17, 2018 at 8:17 am | Permalink

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