A few days ago a friend of mine introduced me to a film he cleverly describes as “the atheist’s Passion of the Christ” – Agora. This Spanish-made 2009 film tells the story of Hypatia, the great philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who researched and taught in Alexandria, and the film deals with the relationship between religion and science/learning.
The year is 391 A.D., and the Christians of Alexandria are causing unrest by defiling the gods of the ruling pagans. The pagans, against Hypatia’s urgings, attack the Christians but then find themselves outnumbered and are beaten back. They take refuge in the Serapeum, the temple to the Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis, which also housed an offshoot collection of the great Library of Alexandria (which was destroyed before this time, although the date of its destruction is unknown). The pagans, Hypatia among them, are besieged in the temple for a time. All the while, Hypatia is looking at the sky, trying to figure out the mysteries of the heavens, namely why the “wanderers” – the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – move as they do; as one of her students suggests, the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which places the wanderers on epicycles moving around the Earth, seems too “whimsical”, and there must be a simpler answer.
Eventually the Roman prefect arrives with a message from the Roman emperor that the pagans are to be pardoned for their attack but that the Christians are to be allowed to enter the Serapeum and, essentially, do whatever they want with it. Hypatia and her fellows, knowing the Christians will destroy the precious knowledge housed in the library, frantically gather all the scrolls they can and escape before the Christians break in and lay waste to the library and the pagan statues.
Some years later, Hypatia continues her studies alone, with the scrolls she was able to save from the library, struggling with the problem of the wanderers. In accordance with the decrees of the Bible on women, and because of her questioning of geocentrism, the Christians forbid Hypatia from teaching. Meanwhile, Orestes, Hypatia’s former student, is now the prefect of Alexandria and has converted to Christianity, but the violence in the city continues. Christians and Jews kill each other and the streets of Alexandria are in chaos, inflamed by the extremist remarks of Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria and leader of the Christians. The Christians, radicalized by Cyril, vilify Hypatia because of her “ungodly” ways, and Orestes loses his grip on the city because of his friendship with Hypatia.
Scenes of the increasing violence in Alexandria are alternated with scenes of Hypatia working at home with her slave, Aspasius, trying to solve the mystery of the wanderers. Hypatia realizes that the reason none of the previous models of the universe have worked is because previous philosophers tried to force the universe to conform to a model with circular orbits, as they considered the circle to be the most perfect shape. She realizes that the wanderers, and the Earth, move in ellipses, not circles, a truth that would not come to light until its discovery by Johannes Kepler in the 17th century (this is one of the most severe historical inaccuracies; while it is perfectly possible that the elliptical nature of orbits was discovered by classical scholars and then rediscovered by Kepler, as was the case with many other discoveries of the early modern Europeans, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Hypatia made such a discovery; nevertheless it makes for a good story). At this point, Hypatia delivers one of the most memorable quotes of the movie: “What if we dared to look at the world just as it is? Let us shed for a moment every preconceived idea. What shape would it show us?”
Meanwhile, a group of Christians conspires to kill Hypatia, referring to her as a “whore”. Later, at Orestes’ palace, Orestes and another of Hypatia’s former students, Synesius, now the Bishop of Cyrene, urge her to convert to Christianity because it is the only way they will be able to protect her, but Hypatia refuses. Shortly after she leaves the palace, she is captured by the mob of Christians who drag her to the temple, calling her a “whore”, “witch”, and “heathen filth” among other things, where they rip off her clothes and stone her to death.
Agora has been criticized again and again and again by Christians and others for many reasons, such as its numerous historical inaccuracies, its (admittedly) overly-simplistic depiction of Christianity as categorically maniacal and the sole culprit behind the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and of the glory of classical civilization, and its portrayal of Hypatia as a completely innocent, almost Christ-like figure unostentatiously concerned solely with philosophy and victimized by the onslaught of religious extremism, when the truth is that she was embroiled in the politics of the time and some of her actions probably exacerbated the political situation in Alexandria that led to her death. On the other hand, some have responded to such criticisms by pointing out that regardless of the skewed nature of the story presented in Agora, Christianity was generally antagonistic toward classical knowledge (except for the views of philosophers that were compatible with Christianity) and that the effect of Christianity on intellectualism and the knowledge built up by the ancients was ultimately a negative one.
I am not particularly interested in arguing for the thesis that the destruction of the Library of Alexandria or the murder of Hypatia were solely or primarily caused by religion, nor am I interested in singling out Christianity as particularly harmful. What I appreciated about this movie was not any perceived agreement with the actual historical events it represents, but instead, what it has to say about the human experience as a whole; the story of Hypatia, as dramatized in Agora, is not a terribly accurate depiction of why the real Hypatia was killed, but I submit that it is an accurate and interesting allegory for the relationship between religion and science, intellectualism, and the seeking of knowledge in general.
For one thing, it is well known that countless instances of book-burning and destruction of libraries, often motivated by religion, have occurred throughout human history, and that ideology has repeatedly set humanity back. But the theme goes deeper than that; it’s partly about the fact that religion is largely opposed to open inquiry and the seeking of knowledge. This is because religion claims to provide ultimate knowledge of the world and thus halts inquiry about important matters because they are considered to be already solved. This is displayed in Agora in the contrast between Hypatia, the honest, inquisitive philosopher, and the Christians, who in one scene are seen arguing for a flat earth on the basis of scripture. It also appears in a scene where Synesius ridicules Hypatia’s belief in heliocentrism, the complete opposite of what any intellectually honest person would do, namely, consider Hypatia’s position honestly and try to find out the true nature of the cosmos. Hypatia is a symbol of honest inquiry while the Christians represent self-interested ideology. And sure enough, we see this kind of conflict all the time in real life when it comes to religiously-motivated opposition to truth, such as denial of evolution.
It’s also partly about the the fact that religion causes people to have distorted priorities; religion causes people to value their religion over everything else, at the expense of things like learning. A common theme in many world religions is that the knowledge that comes from reading scripture is more useful and more necessary than knowledge that comes from academic work, i.e. actively interrogating the world around you through science and philosophy. This is the reason why the Christians in the film have absolutely no qualms about trashing all the scrolls in the library of the Serapeum; they honestly believe that the things written in their holy book are not just true, but more valuable than everything in the library. They have no problem destroying the knowledge of humanity because they associate it with the pagans and believe that their holy book is all that matters. This is also exhibited when one of the Christian dignitaries at Orestes’ palace asks Hypatia, “Why should this assembly accept the counsel of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?” (Incidentally, this is another historical inaccuracy; the real Hypatia was not an atheist and held religious views that were Neoplatonist in nature). Hypatia replies, “I believe in philosophy,” to which the dignitary scoffs, “Philosophy. Just what we need in times like these.” Replace “philosophy” with its etymological meaning, “love of wisdom” or something roughly equivalent like “learning” or “knowledge”, and you can see the absurdity of the dignitary’s remarks.
Related to this is the fact that religion causes people to place paramount importance on other people’s religious beliefs as opposed to everything else, and that it causes them to use labels like “heathen” and “infidel” to dehumanize them. In the film, when Orestes refuses to accept the Bible’s discriminatory remarks on women, the Christians jeer at him and call him a “heathen”. It doesn’t make a lick of difference that he’s probably a nice guy, that he’s looking out for the city, and that he’s a benevolent prefect who just wants peace and happiness for the citizens of Alexandria. He’s a heathen, which means he’s worthless to God and he’s going to Hell, which means we can throw stones at him (and sure enough, the Christians do throw stones). Here, Agora also criticizes the fact that religion, when it becomes politically powerful, is inherently authoritarian; since religions claim to possess absolute, inerrant truth delivered from on high, anyone who questions any of its claims is automatically demonized. We see this in the fact that Orestes’ acceptance of Christ does not save him from the vitriol of the Christians; it doesn’t make a lick of difference to them that he has long since publicly accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. He questioned a verse in the Bible, so he’s no better than a heathen, so we can stone him.
We see this happening in real life all the time. For example, all an Islamic extremist needs to know before he pulls the trigger on you is whether or not you are an “infidel”. Even if you tell him that you are a Muslim, if you disagree with him on any of his interpretations of the Quran he will almost certainly label you an “infidel” and shoot you anyway. And even here in our nominally secular American republic, where we generally don’t kill each other over our beliefs, religion still plays a painfully huge role in what people think of others, as evidenced by the fact that evangelical Protestants are far more likely to be elected to public office (and trusted by the public in general) than, say, Muslims, Mormons, or atheists, regardless of their actual policy stances.
On a more artistic note, the fact that religion divides us, while reason and intellectual inquiry unite us, is also emphasized in Agora, and it is done in a creative yet classic way. At well-placed points in the film, we look down on Alexandria and the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere from space, where we see a serene but lonely blue Earth against the backdrop of the stars, a single cradle of life alone in the dark vastness. But then we are thrust back into the city of Alexandria, where people hate and slaughter each other because of their beliefs, and where people arrogantly destroy knowledge that belongs to the human species as a whole. We are reminded that the story is not just about Hypatia and Alexandria, it is about all of humanity. One of the most moving shots in the whole film is one where we see the Earth and moon together in space, from a distance of a few lunar orbit radii, and we hear the terrified screams of the Jews and Christians killing each other and being killed.
There’s probably a lot more meaning to dig up out of this film than what I’ve mentioned here. I’d love to hear any other thoughts, and I highly recommend watching Agora if you haven’t! Regardless of its historicity, it is literarily and cinematographically a quality film, though I must warn you that it is pretty disheartening, especially considering anyone who knows the story of Hypatia already knows it ends badly.