Reimagining the ‘Dark Ages’ for the 21st Century

By Harlan Garbell

You remember the “Dark Ages,” don’t you? Not personally, of course, but from that World History course you took in high school, or perhaps college. In case you slept through that class, the Dark Ages was that period in European history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, generally between the 5th and 14th centuries.

When I went to school, the typical historical treatment of the Dark Ages was that these were “lost” centuries when there was little scientific, economic, or cultural advancement. Although modern historical scholarship has rejected this characterization to a large degree, there is little doubt that for the average person during this time life was, as Thomas Hobbes would put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Although literacy was certainly not widespread throughout the Roman Empire, the ability to read and write was indeed valued among the upper classes and the nobility. Rome and many other cities in the Empire had schools and libraries. Ancient Greek culture was greatly admired and classical Greek poets, philosophers, and dramatists were widely read, discussed, or heard by the privileged classes. Greek art and architecture were also widely emulated. The knowledge of science was highly valued in Rome and served as the basis for great feats of engineering, including sophisticated networks of roads and aqueducts.

When the Roman Empire disintegrated, mainly from internal social and political rot, the Romans were too weak to effectively resist the invading Germanic tribes. In 476 C.E., the order that Rome had brought to western Europe for 1,000 years came to an end. Europe became fractured politically, economically, and culturally. Ancient Greek, for the most part, became a forgotten language. Latin, the language of Rome, came into disuse and the only people who still used it were the priests and monks of the Church.

The average peasant or small craftsman was not only illiterate, but information from the outside world was limited and filtered through the local priest. The average person lived in a confined informational ecosystem – a “bubble,” if you will, of ignorance and mass delusion. The eternal reality for this European peasant or craftsman was that if they worked hard, obeyed the priest (and the nobleman who owned the land), at the end of their difficult lives they would be admitted to heaven, where they would experience everlasting bliss in the bosom of their savior.

Fast forward to 2020 in the United States. The teaching of reading, writing, and math are universal. Spaceships go to Mars and beyond. It is not uncommon for people to live to be 90 years old or older. The majority of people live in urban areas with clean water, electricity, cell phones, and cable. We have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and 24/7 news coverage. You would think the twin scourges of ignorance and magical thinking would have been completely eradicated, right? Not so fast.

There is not time or space to list all of the outrageous conspiracy theories that people have created since the end of the Dark Ages. They would probably fill volumes. Unfortunately, the human species often exhibits a capacity to readily disregard accumulated knowledge and science in order to believe narratives that fit their existing biases. Moreover, it appears that the pace that these theories get traction with the public may be accelerating. The ability of the internet and its progeny, social media, may be the reason. The internet is now able to reach millions of people almost instantaneously – truly one of the most astonishing developments in recent human history.

It seems that the intelligence of the individual, their level of education, or even how advanced the society may be is irrelevant against the siren song of delusional conspiracy theories. Of course, this is not new. The upper classes in Rome were just as superstitious and prone to conspiracy theories as the lower classes, if not more so.

In today’s America, ignorance, magical thinking, and mass delusions are alive and well. One of the more dangerous recent iterations of these traits is the group QAnon, which initially spread through the internet in 2017. This group claims that President Trump is a messianic figure who is in a deadly war with an international cabal of satanic cannibalistic pedophiles. It is estimated that they have tens of thousands of followers. One of them has already won the Republican nomination in her congressional district in Georgia. Others are running for public office as well.

One actually wonders if a historical era such as the “Dark Ages” will return in a different iteration. Except the actors in this version will not be knights and jesters, with the Catholic Church promoting a magical story of suffering, redemption, and an afterlife to a society of superstitious illiterates. Instead, the new Dark Ages may involve autonomous internet posters, perhaps even bots, that utilize artificial intelligence to create delusional stories that appeal to the deepest recesses of anxiety and fear in millions of educated human brains – instantly.

However, looking on the brighter side, there will always be “job security” for us humanists. I am wagering that reason, science, and compassion will always be valued, and in demand, whenever our species periodically devolves into a dark age of ignorance, delusion, and magical thinking. Struggling against these forces is part of our mission as humanists. Think of it as our job description.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.

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