The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

Christianity and Education

With such a long track record of anti-intellectualism it is no accident that education, whether mass education or higher level university education, had never been a high priority for the Christian church. In fact, in some cases, the churches actually suppressed any attempts to set up secular schools.

It is a well known historical fact that the last schools of Greek philosophy was suppressed and finally closed by the Christian emperor Justinian (483-563). The reason, of course, was that the Greek schools taught pagan, and secular ideas. [1] It is also well known that when a certain French bishop wanted to set up a school for secular learning, his intention was immediately denounced by Pope Gregory the Great (c540-604) who called it "horrible" and "execrable." [2]

The ascent of Christianity into temporal power was accompanied in parallel by the decline in secular education. The claim that the church kept education alive is true only in a very limited sense; the monks were taught to read and write in the monasteries, mainly for transcribing the Bible and the writings of the church fathers. [a][3] Outside the monasteries, learning was nonexistent. By the mid fifth century secular learning was completely extinguished. Even schools that give religious instructions, for monks and priests, were few and far between. Moreover, the sizes of these schools, were no match for the great centers of pagan learning in the pre-Christian era.

Any attempt to establish secular learning was short lived. When Charlemagne (743-814) set up a school at Aachen in 789, he also forced the bishops and monks open other schools. But as soon as he died, the bishops and monks closed the schools again. As a result of this, by the year 1100, 99 percent of Christian Europe was illiterate. [4]

It was secular developments, such as the Renaissance in the fourteenth to sixteenth century, and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth, that rejuvenated the education system in Europe. The Renaissance, in part, was an attempt to revive the great pagan works which Christianity had successfully suppressed until then. [5]

But where possible the churches still continued to suppress education. By any count they were pretty successful; for up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, fully 90 percent of Christian Europe was illiterate. [6] As recently as 1846, we find the English statesman, Richard Cobden (1804-1865) complaining, in a letter to a friend, that he faced extreme resistance from clergymen of all denominations in his quest for mass education. [7] Indeed the attitude of the Catholic Church was no different from the English Protestant ones. The historian Thomas MacCaulay (1800-1859), in his book History of England (1845) has this to say about the Catholic Church's attitude towards education and intellectualism:

during the last three centuries to stunt the growth of the human mind was her chief object. Throughout Christendom, whatever advance had been made in knowledge, in freedom, in wealth, and in the arts of life, had been made in spite of her, and has everywhere been in inverse proportions to her power. The loveliest and most fertile provinces of Europe have, under her rule, been sunk in poverty, in political servitude and in intellectual torpor. [8]

[1] Back to the top


a.The writings of the Greek philosophers were preserved by the Arab Muslims and only reentered Europe through Muslim Spain


1.McCabe, Social Record of Christianity: p29-30
2.Ibid: p32
3.Johnson, History of Christianity: p157
4.McCabe, Social Record of Christianity: p31
Knight, Honest to Man: p176-177
5.Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia: p820-821
6.Knight, Honest to Man: p178
7.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p196
8.Ibid: p197

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin